Small Game and Varminting - A Primer
I enjoy my time on the firing line at nearby Tri-County Gun Club in Sherwood, Oregon, and I’m occasionally approached by other shooters who want to discuss equipment or accessories. When asked, I usually describe myself a technical shooter or a “varminter” instead of classifying myself as a hunter. I’m also asked what’s necessary to be a varmint hunter, since some of my shooting equipment is set up for small game.
For years, much of my time afield has been focused on pest control. Any creature that is destructive to crops or livestock and difficult to control classifies as “vermin” or, more colloquially, as a varmint. The creatures vary with the area, but ground squirrels, jackrabbits, foxes, prairie dogs, woodchuck (marmots), weasels, coyotes, bobcats and badgers are but a small part of the list.
Simply stated, in the practical view of many farmers and rancher, “If it’s taking money out of your pocket, it’s a varmint.” If you are raising chickens, anything that preys upon them is unacceptable. If you’re a farmer, any herbivore that devours or damages your crop is a problem you’d prefer to eliminate. If you’re a sheep rancher in southwestern Colorado, coyotes are your enemy. A Northeastern dairy rancher will regard woodchucks (groundhogs) as a nuisance and a threat. If one of his productive milkers steps into a ‘chuck hole and injures a leg, the veterinary bills are expensive if the cow is to be saved. If you have an alfalfa farm in southern Oregon, the problem may be ground squirrels and jackrabbits. Coyotes don’t eat alfalfa but they prey upon the ground squirrels and jackrabbits, so the coyotes in this situation are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
The environment dictates what creatures may or may not be a legitimate detriment. The way wildlife interacts with us, impacts our interests, defines whether or not they’re problems, so that will vary with the environment, and there are game laws to further define these issues. Varmints of one sort or another thrive in all corners of the nation. They are usually small, alert distant targets made wary by predators, so they can be a challenge for marksmanship.
I want to dispel the notion that a varmint rifle must be a heavy-barreled bolt action or single-shot rifle with a massive telescopic sight, a flat trajectory, a light trigger and a heavy price tag. Any accurate rifle is suitable as a varmint rifle, whether it’s a single-shot .22 rimfire or the .30-’06 you normally rely on for deer. You need only be familiar with your rifle’s capabilities and operate within them.
A thirty caliber rifle is certainly overkill for a marmot or ground squirrel, but using it provides excellent off-season practice and many shooters use their deer rifles for varmints, allowing them to maintain year-round familiarity with their rifles, which optimizes trigger control and increases confidence levels for what may be one fleeting opportunity the shooter gets for a shot at whitetail deer in Upstate NY or Pennsylvania, or that pronghorn antelope in western Wyoming.
As a young fellow living in the Northeast, my first pest rifles were .22 rimfire rifles, a Remington 580 single-shot and a Ruger 10/22 semiauto. Fifty years later, I still have and use these rifles, which underscores that they were (and remain) useful in that capacity. Other than the addition of telescopic sights and slings or carrying straps, these were brought afield and perform (within their limits) much as the day I purchased them. Over time, they’ve accounted for a number of rats, squirrels, woodchucks and crows (in season). If the only rifle in your closet or case is an accurate .22 rimfire, be assured you are adequately equipped for pest control.
When the distances at which varmints appeared proved too great for my .22 rimfires, I wanted to reach a bit further and more accurately with centerfire rifles; however, if pest control in your area does not require longer distance shooting, the .22 rimfire is still a good choice.
In 1967-68, I purchased two varmint rifles, a Remington 788 in .22-250 and a Sako L461 “Vixen” chambered for the .222 Remington cartridge. The Rem 788 was very accurate, more accurate than rifles costing much more, and it was reasonably priced. Topped with a Weaver K10 (10X) scope, this sporterweight .22-250 was a solid performer. The heavy-barreled Sako was a beautifully made rifle, handsomely stocked and finished, with a crisp trigger. I initially topped it with a Redfield 12X scope but replaced that with a Leupold 7.5X, and I relied on the Sako frequently because it was a favorite.
In the '70s, I owned a .30-’06 rifle, and the spectrum of available bullet weights and shapes available to the handloader seemed to provide amazing versatility for the thirty caliber rifle, though it was “overkill” for woodchuck and the ammunition and components were comparatively expensive. The .222 Rem was the first rifle for which I handloaded ammunition. As new firearms purchases were made, I handloaded for those rifles and sidearms as well, and I’ve been reloading my brass since 1968. I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of varminting and my interest led me to winter league benchrest competition and improvements in my handloading technique.
My deer hunting was shared with a close circle of friends, with time spent in cabins or clustered about campfires, and those are good memories. Though I prepared well, I usually made one annual autumn or early winter trip for whitetail deer. Varminting permitted me to make several trips per year without the constraints of a season or competition from other members of a hunting party. These days, my varmint trips are normally planned for 2-3 days, though I still make an occasional day-trip.
When I relocated to southern California in early 1972, I had to adapt to a different shooting environment. My varminting was pursued in the Cleveland National Forest or on private properties in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Though I still had access to a variety of small game, it was my introduction to coyotes, and my next purchase in 1975 was a Remington Model 700BDL-V in .22-250. I still have that rifle, though it has been rebarreled, and it continues to perform with sub-MOA accuracy
Anyone selecting a dedicated varmint rifle is faced with a confusing variety of choices. There are models to fit every checkbook, and a spectrum of chamberings to boggle the mind. The most deservedly popular varmint cartridges on the market at this writing are the .223 Rem and the .22-250. Either of these will serve >95% of your varminting requirements. The .22-250 is faster, shoots, flatter, and burns more powder to accomplish that, but factory ammunition for the .22-250 is more expensive than the .223 Rem.
Those considering the purchase of a varmint rifle often ask if expensive, heavy-barreled, custom-stocked, tack-driving rifles are required. No, not at all. On recent trips to an alfalfa ranch in southern Oregon, my friends and I typically bring a few rifles, much as a golfer will rely on different clubs, to accommodate the distances and terrain features we encounter. We’re well aware these rifles are preferences that have developed over time; if limited to one (1) rifle, I suspect we’d be hard-pressed to make a choice.
No matter what .22 centerfire rifles we bring, we can normally be relied upon to bring a .22 rimfire rifle as well, and I still use a Remington Model 580 that I purchased in the early ‘70s or a Ruger 10/22 autoloader. Among my colleagues, there are Marlin Model 60s, Henry lever-actions, other Ruger 10/22s, and you may be assured the .22 rimfire is not overlooked as an option. At least once in the course of the weekend, we’ll go afield with rifles chambered for the .22LR, .22 Magnum and .17HMR to tag the Belding’s ground squirrels and jackrabbits that abound on this property, feasting on our friend’s alfalfa.
I still enjoy a Ruger 10/22 autoloader, though I’ve modified one of mine as an expression of personal taste, but I often reach for a Ruger stainless M77/22M in .22 WRM with Tasco 3-9x scope. Our opportunities for shots on this property frequently develop at 20-50 yards, and a few may present at approximately much farther away, so the versatility of a 3-9x optic is appreciated, but there's a time to admit the shot is too far, beyond the distance for which I've practiced and can expect good shot placement. The mild report of our rimfire rifles is not alarming or unpleasant for our hosts, and that exercise of judgment is one of the reasons we are invited to return. On nearby BLM acreage in “Oregon’s Outback”, larger calibers or case capacities don’t disturb anyone.
Varminting does not require a rifle chambered for a high-velocity cartridge with a laser-flat trajectory, topped with a high-magnification scope, and with a barrel the diameter of a culvert pipe. If many of your opportunities develop at close range, you don’t need a 10X or 12X scope. One of my centerfire carbines, a Ruger #3 single-shot in .22 Hornet, has a compact Leupold 4X scope on the receiver, another of my .22 rimfire rifles has a dot sight on it. Let the terrain and the situation(s) that are typical of your shooting environment dictate your equipment needs. If your conditions vary, you can still operate effectively with one well-chosen, versatile rifle.
Your varminting environment will suggest what equipment will serve you best. If you are in a heavily wooded area, a heavy-barreled rifle, best suited to firing from a relatively stationary position and difficult to hold steadily in the standing offhand position, will not serve you as well as a carbine or lightweight sporter that points easily or naturally for you.
Dedicated varmint rifles are normally expected to deliver minute-of-angle (MOA) accuracy or less. A minute of angle (1/60th of a degree of angle) subtends 1.047 inch at 100 yards, usually rounded to one inch, two inches at 200 yards, three inches at 300 yards, and so on, so a rifle capable of minute-of-accuracy performance will place 3 or 5 bullets center-to-center within a one-inch radius. Today’s varmint rifles, thanks to modern production methods and the consistency of computer numerically controlled machining, can yield sub-MOA performance off the dealer’s shelf, which is impressive! I can remember years ago when that sort of accuracy usually required an expensive custom rifle or aftermarket acessorization.
Whatever firearm you use, the key to varminting success is practice, which will determine your baseline abilities and the inherent accuracy of your firearm at a given distance. The price tag doesn’t matter and the sophistication of the equipment is not a major consideration.
A friend uses a heavy-barreled Savage Model 12 in .223 topped with a 3-9X scope, which is very accurate, while another shooting companion favors a Weatherby Vanguard Series 2 Varmint in .223, topped by a Steiner 3x12 scope with a 56mm objective lens. I jokingly refer to his Steiner, a fine optical instrument, as the Hubble telescope.
My heavy-barreled .223 is a Howa 1500 topped by a Bushnell 10X Mil-Dot scope, a combination that consistently groups sub-MOA 5-shot groups at 100 yards with my carefully assembled handloads. We are compatibly equipped when we set up in the field and take turns as opportunities develop. I haven’t bench-tested both of my friends’ rifles, but (judging from results in the field) each of us enjoy all the accuracy a varminter could reasonably require.
I can assure you that a varmint struck by any one these rifles will not be able to tell the difference. The owner of the Savage is a pragmatic shooter who wants excellent accuracy at a reasonable price; the gentleman who owns the Weatherby is less concerned about budget constraints; he chooses and accessorizes his equipment tastefully. I purchased my Howa because I’d worked with others that were gratifyingly accurate, and this .223 was on sale at an irresistible price.
Varminting is a relatively relaxed exercise; if you miss one critter, another will probably appear. Whatever shooting equipment we carry afield, you may be certain that we are all equipped with a sense of humor. If one of us shoots and misses, there’ll usually be some good-natured ribbing as a reaction, but we glass the area with binoculars to find opportunities for each other and take turns firing at the varmints.
Briefly, if you choose carefully, you do not need to spend a small fortune. On the other hand, a rifle reputed to be accurate at more than 300 yards goes to waste in sagebrush that will not provide shots at more than 20 to 50 yards.
As a youngster, my practice sessions were conducted on beverage cans that I’d accumulated over time. When my practice session ended (or when I was out of ammunition), I picked up those cans and placed them in trashbags. These days, I still rely on index cards, balloons, paper plates, clay targets and small game silhouette targets for my field practice sessions, and we still pick up our trash. My continued practice on these targets guides my choices on what shots are beyond my capability, and ethics dictate what shots I will take or perhaps if I’ll defer to a colleague who is better equipped or prepared to take the shot.
At his point in life, at age 70, my lights appear to be dimming a bit and my prescription lenses are getting thicker. As a result of my practice sessions, I’ve learned I need to focus more attention on gauging crosswinds and estimating distances. Modern technology (laser rangefinders) may cover my shortcomings on range estimation, but brisk crosswinds still frustrate me occasionally for shots at longer distances. A ground squirrel is smaller than a dollar bill, so the margin of error is narrow.
While varmints are a nuisance and a problem for ranchers and farmers, who are often too busy working to engage in recreational shooting, they’re a gift to those of us who delight in testing our marksmanship on these targets. For the varmint shooters who have the rancher’s permission to access the land and conduct themselves safely and responsibly, these are great opportunities for time afield. We conduct ourselves carefully. Often (not always) there is time to aim carefully. We do not shoot to wound game; we’re responsible to deliver one accurately placed bullet to humanely eliminate the creature without permitting it to suffer.
If you have an accurate rifle or intend to purchase one, consider varminting as a shooting exercise or challenge. I think you’ll find it’s more fun than the solitary or limited exercise of some aspects of hunting. It doesn’t require a major expense, though it is easy to generate enthusiasm for it and one rifle may lead to another.
Shooting practice for varmints is not a chore. On the contrary, I find it very relaxing. If you fire 20-50 rounds with a rifle suited to bear, elk or moose, you’ve done a punishing day’s work. In contrast, varminting usually involves rifles of light recoil, suited to small game, and the effort to shoot tight groups on paper to prepare for time afield is a satisfying exercise in itself. Come join us.