Varminting for Small Game
Edward J. Palumbo
If you live in or near a farming or ranching community, crops and livestock are among the foundations of your area’s livelihood, local economy and a part of life, but there are other elements of nature that oppose your efforts, devour your profits, waste your labor, threaten your livestock or damage your equipment. We call these “vermin” or, more colloquially, “varmints”, and they came in various sizes and appetites.
A varmint may be a rat, mouse, fox, coyote, snake, wolf, weasel or other pest or predator, that eat the crops or infest or affect the livestock; however, for our purpose, we will discuss those creatures that we can class as “small game animals” that can be dispatched with a firearm.
Wherever agribusiness and nature come in close contact, we can expect some issues of habitat encroachment. The wildlife may have gotten there first, and may grudgingly give way in time, but predators and livestock do not coexist well, nor do herbivores and crops. The urban thought process may support coexistence or suggest the rancher be patient with the wildlife, perhaps allowing for a percentage of crop loss or predation, but we’re not discussing a rental agreement. If you have a sheep ranch and coyotes are killing lambs, you cannot tolerate that. Aside from the waste, you are a steward of that livestock and have a moral obligation to protect them. From a purely financial perspective, you’ve invested your time, efforts and resources into your livestock and crop, and must control or minimize your losses.
An urbanite sees a grasshopper and finds it a curious example of insect life. Multiply that grasshopper by many thousands, and they are a plague. Priorities change when you’re responsible for farm loans, equipment maintenance, veterinary bills and wages. I won’t reduce it to purely financial terms, but I understand the ranchers’ angst when a cluster of legislators wearing three-piece suits makes laws that directly affect farms and ranches. However well-intended, the legislators apparently do not have to suffer the consequences of many of the laws and regulations they promote.
Whenever wildlife impacts agricultural interests, that problem must be addressed. Cougars, wolves, coyotes and other predators may be protected by seasons or Federal law, but they will not limit their appetites to elk calves or fawns when there is no more formidable barrier between them and beef or dairy cattle than a triple-strand barbed wire fence. Livestock and crops are a tempting, irresistible feast for predators and vermin. If the rancher was paid to provide this sustenance to wildlife, he could earn a livelihood, paying his expenses and feeding his family in the process. In reality, any predator or pest erodes profit and undermines effort.
I am not a rancher or farmer; I live in a northern Oregon community of 26,000 people with farms and ranches nearby. I recognize hunting as a tool of game management, though I no longer hunt medium game, but I’ve been a shooter for more than 50 years and, over time, have focused my efforts, preferences and resources on targets and pest control. In my opinion, it’s a productive exercise of basic marksmanship principles and serves a beneficial purpose.
I will discuss preparation for varminting with an emphasis on high-velocity, .22 caliber centerfire rifles and, to a subordinate extent, .22 rimfire rifles (.22LR and .22 WRM). I'll tell you how I prepare for my time afield. I don’t regard varminting as “hunting”. In practice, it’s a different exercise. Many are targets of opportunity, taken from a well chosen position and there's very little stalking involved. In truth, modern bullet technology is very efficient and there's very little left of the squirrels and jackrabbits we eliminate.
Most (>95%) of my shooting is done on the firing lines at a nearby rifle range. Another 3% is done in the field under realistic conditions on life-sized targets, duplicating or simulating the situations I typically encounter with vermin as targets. The remaining 2% of my shooting is conducted in the field, eliminating ground squirrels, jackrabbits, coyotes and whatever the farmer, rancher or property owner defines as a problem. Since 2010, my favorite area to conduct this pest control is in Lake County, south central Oregon, but there are many other counties and areas that offer varminting opportunities.
When I was a lad, a .22 rimfire rifle was all I needed for small game, and I was assured a good day afield with a box of .22LR ammo in my pocket and a .22 rifle in my hands. Other than a significant passing of time, little of that has changed. I’ve accumulated an assortment of firearms over time, but I occasionally get back to basics, and I still eliminate pests with my Remington Model 580, a single-shot .22 bolt action rifle, or my Ruger 10/22 autoloader.
Whenever we plan a varmint trip, I usually bring two to five rifles with me and reach for the one that suits the situation best, much as a golfer will choose the best club for situation. If I was limited by resource or choice to one rifle, I’d probably choose a light .222 Rem or .223 bolt action, but colleagues may disagree and it is that exercise of choice that adds to the interest, social dynamic and humor on a weekend in the field.
What you select as a varmint rifle depends on the distances at which you take your shots, your preferences as a shooter, the type of rifle you prefer and (to some extent) your budget. I seem to rely primarily on bolt action and single-shot centerfire rifles because they demonstrate the highest accuracy potentials. A good bolt action locks up like a bank vault when a round is chambered, the brass is easily controllable (and retrievable) when I eject a spent case, and I need only neck-size my brass when I handload because the case is fire-formed for that specific chamber. I’ll discuss that at greater length later.
Since varminting often involves some hiking to a good position or favorable location, I would recommend a sling or carrying strap so the shooter’s hands can be free to carry other items or to maintain balance in rugged terrain. I would also suggest binoculars of 7X to 10X magnification to find small game when you’ve reached a good shooting position. Properly used to scan the field, a pair of binoculars will clearly improve your results.
Don’t think you need an expensive or highly specialized rifle for varmints. The bolt action, single-shot .22 rimfire rifle you received as a youngster for your birthday or Christmas present will serve you well, but you must accept the limits imposed the .22 rimfire cartridge. You may need nothing more for the pasture or land where you customarily shoot at pests. If your targets present at greater distances, you may opt for something a bit more powerful. My bolt action Ruger M77/22M is a .22 Magnum that extends my limit, compared to .22 Long Rifle ammunition.
Despite recent problems with ammunition availability and a noticeable increase in the price of ammo and reloading components, any accurate rifle that reliably eliminates squirrels can be a basic choice, or it could be the very accurate, well-crafted and expensive custom rifle with heavy barrel and a high-magnification telescopic sight for long-distance shooting, chambered for one of today’s high-velocity .22 centerfire cartridges. The latter may extend the distances at which you shoot accurately, but you can still enjoy that .22 rimfire rifle. After decades of use, I still take my .22 rimfire rifles afield occasionally, and they still provide me with a day’s shooting satisfaction. It may be a nostalgic exercise, but I will always value my time with those .22 rimfire rifles.
The terrain in which we shoot or hunt is as varied as the nation in which we live. It could be dense woodlands or endless plains, desert or pasture, sagebrush or swampland. The environment in which we do our varminting will dictate, to some extent, the choices we make for cartridges and optics. If the terrain and distances vary, choose a variable power scope for its versatility. If your favorite area is characterized by heavy, dense vegetation and most of your shots are taken at relatively close range from the standing position, choose an optic with lower magnification or rely on a receiver sight.
Any accurate rifle/cartridge combination can be used as a varminter. Years ago, when I lived in the Northeast, I occasionally used a scoped .30-’06 bolt action rifle for woodchuck in Upstate New York, because the cartridge is versatile and served well as my whitetail deer rifle, so I used it for varmints in the off-season. Admittedly, it was an impractical choice (overkill – my lovely wife would describe this as the equivalent of striking a fly with a sledgehammer) and it proved too loud and concussive for many of the dairy farms where we often found our woodchuck or groundhog population.
My first dedicated varmint rifle was a Remington Model 788 bolt action rifle, chambered for the .22-250 and purchased in late 1967. Despite being a plain (one might say “homely”) rifle, it was affordably priced and every bit as accurate as rifles costing much more. I topped it with a Weaver K10 scope (10X) and a good number of woodchuck fell to that rifle.
The whitetail deer season was relatively short, but the varmints provided a three-season challenge for marksmanship. After dropping woodchuck (groundhogs, marmots) with the .22-250, I was “hooked” and enjoyed the challenge of small game at distances previously undreamed of with my .22 rimfire rifles.
Within a year, my .22-250 was followed by the purchase of a Sako L461 “Vixen” with heavy barrel, chambered for the .222 Remington cartridge, purchased in late 1968. I initially topped it with a Redfield 12X scope. It was a well-crafted, impressively accurate rifle, and it was the first for which I handloaded ammunition. Other varmint rifles followed in what now seems a rapid succession.
In the past five decades, I’ve cycled through a great many rifles and sidearms. I relocated to southern California in 1972, purchased and regularly visited a small property in southwestern Colorado in 1980, and 18-19 years ago my family and I moved to the Pacific Northwest. Throughout, I’ve taken particular delight in assembling my own ammunition and testing it for accuracy in an ongoing process of load development.
There are rifles you swear by and others you swear at, but varmint cartridges that have performed well for me over time include the .22 Hornet, .221, Fireball, .222 Remington, .223 Remington, .22-250 Rem., and others. I won’t dwell on cartridges like the .219 Donaldson Wasp, the .218 Bee or .225 Winchester because I no longer own those rifles and the current generation of shooters hasn’t voiced an interest in them.
I do not overlook smaller or larger bullet diameters as good choices, such as the .204 Ruger, .243 Winchester, 6mmBR, .250-3000, .257 Roberts or .25-’06, but I hope to limit this discussion to .22 centerfire and rimfire cartridges because they provide efficient performance at acceptable noise levels, and centerfire components are more affordable for this bullet diameter. The shooter gets “more bang for the buck” with .22 varmint cartridges and many of the rifles chambered for them.
If you usually fire from the prone position, which is a very stable position if the vegetation growth before you permits it, I’d recommend a bipod that attaches to your front sling swivel, such as a Harris bipod or Caldwell XLA bipod. Sometimes a terrain feature or vegetation will obstruct your view through the scope when you’re that low to the ground. I’ve used a backpack, sleeping bag, accessory box or tripod for a forend rest to facilitate the shot. If I need better clearance, I go to the sitting position. Admittedly, I lack the physical flexibility at this point in life (age 70) to optimize the kneeling position. I won’t take a shot from the standing offhand position unless the rifle and distance make that a reasonable choice. Under ideal circumstances, you can fire from a elevated position, from the bed of your pickup truck (if legally permitted) or a raised platform that will permit a better view of your field of fire and a stable rest for your rifle.
You should seriously consider hearing protection. If you and a colleague are working together, do not stand or sit where muzzle blast may damage your hearing. Hearing damage may be a singular event or a cumulative effect but, speaking as one who wears bilateral hearing aids, I suggest you take every precaution and protect your hearing.
I would recommend a compact digital camera, a point-and-shoot, because every trip afield is fuel for good memories and the photo images are a great source of enjoyment when we review the trip. The photo illustration for this article was captured with Canon, Nikon and Olympus cameras. I wouldn’t recommend one brand over another; I’ve had entirely satisfactory results with all the cameras I’ve used.
For predators, such as coyotes, a hand-held or electronic call is an asset. You can rely on chance encounter, but a predator is a hunter; if the predator is drawn by the sound of its quarry, it will approach warily or aggressively (depending on its hunger or desperation) and the likelihood of drawing that predator close enough to present a shot is noticeably improved. A hand-held call, with practice, will mimic the squeal of injured small game or the howl of a competing predator. That said, I use a hand-held, mouth-operated call that sounds like a wounded or distressed small game animal. They cost $10 to 20 and fit in the pocket of a game vest or parka.
Electronic calls are a more sophisticated approach. I have not purchased an electronic call (yet) because much of my activity is focused on the foundation of the food chain, the creatures that predators hunt, though I’ve dropped predators as targets of opportunity. Of what I’ve seen or researched, these electronic calls are priced between $35 and $700, weigh between 2 and 13 lbs, can be powered by batteries or battery packs, and can offer a spectrum of 40 to 1,000 sounds projected from two or more speakers. They offer the predator (coyote, fox and others) a promise of an apparently easy dinner. The best of these electronic calls are programmable and surprisingly sophisticated in design.
Optics or Scopes for Varminting
Generally speaking, a scoped rifle used for small game has to have the magnification and the clarity to visualize the target. That wasn’t a major consideration when I was younger, but it seems my lights are dimming a bit and I purchase scopes with much the same discernment that I choose prescription eyeglasses; I want a rugged scope with edge-to-edge clarity and light transmission when I look through the eyepiece. Quality is understandably expensive.
You must consider the distance and terrain, the accuracy potential of your rifle and your own ability with it when choosing a scope. I candidly suggest buying a quality optic, the best you can afford or one for which you are willing to stretch your budget. If your scope can do no better that provide a blurry blob or shapeless dot when you aim at a distant ground squirrel or prairie dog, then you are too far away, must adjust for parallax (in scopes with that capability) or focus an eyepiece for your vision.
Much the same is true if the crosshairs of your scope completely subtend or cover the creature’s body. You need to get closer, opt for fine(r) crosshairs or greater magnification. Your experiences in the field will better define your needs. Not only must you clearly see the small creature, you should be able to choose the part of the body as a point of impact for optimum bullet placement. We do not fire to wound the creature. Many varmints cling tenaciously to life and, if merely wounded, they may escape to a burrow or nearby dense brush to die a lingering death. My intent, when I fire, is to instantly and humanely eliminate the varmint. If you, as a shooter, cannot obtain those results, then you are ethically required to operate within distances that will permit you to shoot accurately or to practice until you are capable of it.
Three of my rifles are equipped with 3-9X variable power scopes because I appreciate the versatility of this magnification range. A colleague prefers his versatile 4-12X variable on his .223 for the same reasons. Another of my rifles, a heavy-barreled Howa 1500 in .223, is equipped with a Bushnell 10X Mil-Dot scope, and that combination has been a fine performer at 200+ yards. My .22-250 wears a Weaver 16X Micro-Trac scope that allows me to visualize a ground squirrel at 200-300 yards. My Remington Model 600 in .222 Rem wears a Burris 6X Compact scope and has a crisp Timney trigger; it’s pleasure to work with that bolt action carbine, though I usually rely on it up to 125 yards.
There is no formula or standard profile among my varmint rifles; my basic requirement is reliable accuracy and the optical equipment that provides the sight picture I need. If I intend to fire my rifle in the standing offhand position, a scope magnification greater than 6X will not be an asset. High magnification exaggerates every movement and sighting error. I candidly cannot hold steadily enough to exploit high magnification in the unsupported standing position, though I practice regularly.
High magnification in a telescopic sight is not a necessity. That’s why my .22 Hornet, a Ruger #3 single shot (falling block) carbine, wears a Leupold 4X Compact scope on the receiver, and it has proven one of my best choices for jackrabbits in the high desert sagebrush. My Remington Model 580, a .22 rimfire, the simplest or least sophisticated of my rifles, wears a Weaver 3X scope on the receiver and it has dropped a great many varmints over the years.
I occasionally use a Marlin Model 1894 lever action carbine in .357 Magnum because it's a companion piece to one of my revolvers. The Marlin is equipped with an aperture rear sight and a Brockman front sight, and it does a fine job on jackrabbits with 125 grain bullets. For a heavy-barreled rifle that will be fired from the prone position or benchrest, higher magnification is definitely an advantage, but the terrain and the dense vegetation do not always favor that equipment choice, so I encourage practice in the standing offhand position.
One of my .22 rimfire rifles, a Ruger 10/22 autoloader, is equipped with a Tasco ProPoint dot sight that does not magnify but superimposes a red dot on the target. Initially intended as an exercise of curiosity, this is one of the fastest sight arrangements I’ve used! Once adjusted for windage and elevation, the shooter superimposes the dot on the target and fires. My eyeglass prescription is getting stronger at this point in life, but this dot sight is remarkably fast and efficient. Lacking magnification, I use it in sagebrush for closer distances of 15 to 50 yards, when jackrabbits break from cover.
Companions have borrowed this rifle and enjoyed unexpectedly good results. This is a battery-operated sight, so the dot must be switched on before we stroll afield and switched off as our session ends. As long as I remember to do that, the wafer-thin #2032 lithium battery lasts a great while, and I carry a spare battery in my kit. An assortment of batteries have become a routine in my life – hearing aid, camera, dot sight, small flashlight, etc.
I recently fired at a distant jackrabbit with .223 handloads and my bullet went just over its head, but the mild recoil of the .223 was just enough to lose the target from my scope’s narrow field of view, so I didn’t see the strike of the bullet. I wasn’t certain how high, and didn’t adjust my point of aim sufficiently for the next shot. The jackrabbit continued to feast on the alfalfa. My friend observed and commented, “Your shot was a little high.” I held lower and made solid contact on the next shot. When we paced it out, the jackrabbit was much further than I originally guessed, so I must improve my ability to estimate range. A colleague purchased a quality rangefinder and removed the guesswork of estimating distance. I’ve been doing this for years and still learn something whenever we go afield.
Today's most popular cartridges for varminting are the .223 and the .22-250, but many cartridge options exist. In 1980, I purchased a Ruger #3 single-shot carbine chambered for the .22 Hornet. This falling block, single-shot carbine was very solidly built and it carried well; however, despite my best efforts on the reloading bench, the Hornet provided lackluster accuracy, so I but traded it four years later for a sidearm. Years passed and I found and inspected another (lightly used) Ruger #3 in .22 Hornet at an irresistibly low price. Production of the #3 falling block was discontinued in 1986, and I wanted another. I expected the same results I’d gotten in the past, but we now have a new generation of bullet technology.
I assembled a series of handloaded .22 Hornet cartridges with the Hornady 40 gr. V-Max and 35 gr. V-Max bullets. Results at 50 yards were much better than I’d observed in the past, before these and other polymer-tipped bullets were available. The Ruger #3 now wears a Leupold 4X Compact scope and it’s one of my favorite “walking varminters”, a rifle I can carry easily and fire with acceptable accuracy and efficiency from the standing offhand position.
This Hornet has consistently done very well on jackrabbits, Belding ground squirrels and Columbia ground squirrels in the sagebrush and high desert areas where I’ve carried it. Briefly, it hits harder and more accurately than one would expect, using modern bullets and the older factory ammunition as a basis for comparison. I shared my loading data with a friend who owns a CZ 527 bolt action rifle in .22 Hornet, and he is very pleased with his results.
There are excellent rifles available for a spectrum of small game cartridges. The popularity of the .223 Rem can be attributed to its adoption and longevity as a military cartridge. I appreciate these and other .22 centerfire cartridges, some of which are on the verge of obsolescence, as long as brass remains available, and I still handload for all my rifles. Gunsmiths occasionally rebarrel rifles for the .225 Winchester, .221 Fireball, .222 Remington, .222 Remington Magnum, .218 Bee and others, though demand may be withering. A friend cherishes a single-shot .219 Donaldson Wasp, his first "custom" rifle, but he hasn't fired it in years.
Though fine choices in the past, some cartridges are now circling the drain of obsolescence; used rifles in these and other chamberings are increasingly difficult to find and, despite good performance and established reputation among experienced shooters, some cartridges may not be good choices now simply because factory ammunition (and brass) is scarce and expected to remain so. With the exception of limited production, custom or semi-custom rifles like Cooper Rifles of Montana, I don’t believe factory rifles are currently chambered for some of these reliable performers.
For long distances and flat trajectories, the .22-250, the .220 Swift and .225 Winchester were good choices for me. These are fine performers, but the .22-250 is clearly the most popular of this trio. The .220 Swift still has its loyal following. Though a fine cartridge, the .225 Winchester is barely clinging to existence, and brass or factory ammunition for it is increasingly difficult to find. If I had to choose one (1) cartridge in this class, I’d embrace the .22-250 and be done with it.
If you handload (and I recommend it), you’re aware there are 7,000 grains of powder to the pound, and one pound of smokeless powder goes much further for these .22 centerfire cartridges than in cartridges of greater powder volume or larger bullet diameters, better suited to deer. The primary benefit of handloading is the uniformity and flexibility that can provide the best results in your particular rifle, and that’s is largely a result of individual preference and attention to detail. You are producing ammunition custom-made for your rifle. Accuracy testing and experience in load development will demonstrate what works best for you.
Bullet choices of .224” diameter on my workbench vary in weight from 35 to 80 grains, which is a remarkable spectrum of versatility. The choice of bullet will depend on cartridge volume, approximate bullet velocity, the barrel rifling’s rate-of-twist, the propellant (and resulting chamber pressure), and intended purpose or performance (e.g., target-shooting, thin-skinned game). You are not expected to intuitively know all this, but if you follow the recommended loads in your reloading manuals as one would follow a cooking recipe, you will use the appropriate amount of smokeless powder and bullet weight for your intended purpose. Do NOT start with or exceed the recommended maximum loads!
A friend asked, “What’s the difference between ‘reloading’ and ‘handloading’ ammunition? Good question! As commonly used, “reloading” refers to recycling your expended brass cartridge case to use them again, essentially remanufacturing your brass. “Handloading” implies extra steps in precision reloading to exploit optimum accuracy potentials. I reload my centerfire pistol and revolver ammunition; I carefully handload my varmint and target ammunition. The goal is consistency, and there are precision tools and techniques that are useful, but experience will dictate what may or may not contribute to very accurate shooting. My colleague regards handloading as something akin to alchemy, and it need not be difficult.
In the past, it was easy to improve upon the accuracy and performance of factory rifle ammunition. Technology, manufacturing processes and quality assurance have noticeably improved, and some premium ammunition performs remarkably well. The shooter is the beneficiary of that improvement in precision and Quality Assurance, but premium ammunition is understandably more expensive.
Cartridge brass is 70% copper and 30% zinc, there is no secret about that. Despite being chambered for the same cartridge, we can expect variations in brass cartridges from different manufacturers on issues of consistent case wall thickness, internal volume, base thickness, annealing, and other production steps. The greater the consistency, the more uniform the chamber pressure and the greater the potential for downrange accuracy. The handloader has the ability to provide individual dimensional measurement for greater uniformity. This is a labor-intensive issue and mass production cannot compete with that. The factory may measure powder volumetrically; the handloader can load powder by weight with an accurate scale, keeping the powder charge to less than one-tenth of grain variation.
A benefit of reloading is reduced cartridge cost. I won’t call it “savings” because I really don’t save money; I simply shoot much more for the dollar I spend. If I had to purchase factory ammunition, I’d consider shooting in volume prohibitively expensive. Instead of purchasing a box or 20 factory-loaded cartridges, I load 50 cartridges on my workbench with no compromise in quality or accuracy potential. I normally purchase components in bulk, when I can, buying boxes of 250 varmint bullets instead of 50 or 100 per box, thus saving on packaging. You will spend less on one box of 500 bullets compared to five boxes of 100 each. For that reason, I try to purchase boxes of 250 varmint bullets for my .22 centerfire rifles, or boxes of 500 cast or swaged bullets for my .38 Special/.357 Magnum revolver.
I’m an Oregon resident; I have lived elsewhere and I am keenly aware that my family and I are extremely fortunate to live where we do. I live less than four miles from a well-established gun club with well developed resources, and those firing lines are my “laboratory” for load development. When I lived in the Northeast, the woods provided fine whitetail deer habitat but my varminting opportunities or long shots on small game were limited to privately owned or cultivated land, to dairy farms and pastures, and field trips were inconvenient and relatively rare.
There are areas of Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado that have presented me with remarkable opportunities for outdoor recreation, and there are many areas where I’m sure I could be happy and consider myself fortunate to reside there, but I am definitely thankful for my corner of Oregon. Over time, I’ve explored other areas of the state, networked and found places to practice realistically to improve my accuracy, then used those abilities in the field.
There are presuppositions I hope to avoid. Simply purchasing a varmint rifle and zeroing at 50 to 100 yards may not effectively prepare us for the field. Practice (the more realistic, the better) provides a great advantage.
When I practice, I can use targets that are readily available at a well-stocked sporting goods store or gun shop. Other shooting associates have adopted some of the same methods. My targets are as simple as party balloons, paper plates, index cards, clay skeet/trap targets, beverage cans, or paper targets with life-size varmint silhouettes. Bullseye target quickly become boring. I set my targets at varying distances in an effort to better acquaint myself with range estimation and changes in my rifle’s point of impact at 25 to 300 yards.
I don’t use glass bottles or light bulbs as targets because they disintegrate in sharp fragments that will not biodegrade. I’d suggest avoiding the use of containers for harmful chemicals as targets because what remains of the contents or of the container itself may pose a threat to nearby water sources and area wildlife. Leave the site in as good or better condition than you found it.
There is a new generation of targets that will permit a great many bullets to pass through before their useful service ends, and I use those with satisfaction. When using my .22 rimfire rifles and handguns, I include a few targets I would not use for the more powerful .22 centerfire cartridges. I’d recommend practice in the standing offhand, sitting, kneeling and prone positions with the rifle(s) or sidearm(s) you intend to take afield.
Avoid trashing your practice area; always bring trash bags to collect your mess. You carried it in, so carry it out. Pick up your expended brass. Reloaders will collect their brass for the most practical reason; it’s 50% of the cost of their ammunition! Some shooters their leave brass on the ground; that is wasteful and in poor taste. If you don’t reload your ammunition, give the brass to an appreciative shooter who does reload that cartridge, or save it in a cool, dry, airtight container because you may choose to reload someday.
While savoring a cup of coffee with conversation, a friend (who is not a shooter and is averse to hunting) asked why I didn’t consider it cruel to shoot varmints, and I tried to explain that our purpose is not to inflict pain, it’s to eliminate the varmint. As we spoke, a mosquito landed on his left forearm and he reflexively swatted it with his right hand, so I asked if he could see the correlation; he’d just eliminated a pest or nuisance without any hesitation. He countered that the insect was an insignificant parasite, and I suggested that his parameters for pest elimination apparently paralleled my own.
He shook his head and said, “You can’t list a mosquito and a mammal on the same page. Besides, the mosquito experienced no pain when decisively slapped into oblivion.” Admittedly, the mosquito made no sound that indicated it experienced pain, but I tried to put it in perspective. “Varminters don’t shoot fuzzy puppies, Jim; we target critters that injure crops or domestic animals.” He paused to sip his coffee and added, ““I’m just not psychologically geared to kill things.” I nodded and joked, “I bet there’s a mosquito that would disagree with that.” My friend and I enjoy these exchanges, these differing opinions, this conversational swordplay, because it’s fine mental exercise.
An acquaintance commented that he wouldn’t kill anything he wouldn’t eat. Small game is the bottom of the food chain, and in the areas where I shoot, the carrion-eaters (buzzards, coyotes, crows, magpies, etc.) will reach that squirrel or jackrabbit before my shooting session is finished, and I do not discourage them or interfere with their service. Further, a well designed bullet appropriate for small, thin-skinned animals will not likely leave much to retrieve. The Hornady SX and V-Max, Sierra Blitz, and Speer TNT bullets, among others, create a pronounced impact and hydrostatic shock that may produce a “red mist” when striking the varmint, an indication that the creature expired immediately, like a lightning strike or blowing out a candle with a powerful jet of air.
I cannot recommend varmint bullets if you intend to save or sell the pelt, nor are these bullets appropriate for medium game because they will not penetrate as deeply as a medium game bullet should; they will cause a shallow wound and often will not penetrate to the heart-lung area. Choose a bullet appropriate to the game.
I’m well aware that may be an insensitive, upsetting mind-picture for some readers. Consider, if you will, that small game does not die in a retirement home of old age. These creatures form the foundation of the food chain for predators, for coyotes, foxes, bobcats, owls, hawks, etc. Typically, the last moments of their lives will be a panicked effort to escape a predator. The predators usually die fighting for dominance and mating rights. We like to think that Nature is kind; it is not. It’s a daily life-and-death struggle for existence. A properly placed bullet is instantaneous and, in my opinion, a relatively merciful end.
For me, time afield is usually a social exercise, a time shared with friends, and every trip provides reasons for humor. We spot for each other, one shooter looking through a spotting scope or binoculars to assist in adjusting fire. We learn from each other's rifle modifications, equipment and cartridge choices. We witness each other’s long, difficult shots, often with an exercise of humor. We may compete informally for the greatest number of varmints, marvel at the near misses, or commiserate with each other for the ones that got away. If a colleague's accessory performs well, we learn from it (and probably purchase it for ourselves when we return from the trip). At day’s end, we cover the highlights and compare notes. I learn something useful with every trip afield.
I have no argument with those who regard varminting as unworthy of their time or effort. I haven’t hunted medium or larger game with a rifle or handgun in more than four decades, though I continue to “hunt” with a digital camera. It’s all a matter of preference. Maximum range and minimum target continues to challenge me. One associate commented that varminting is “sniping, not hunting” and I suggested he accompany me on a small game trip to get a better personal perspective. He has since added a .223 sporter to his battery of personal rifles and has asked when we can return to Lake County.
If varminting interests you, I urge you to explore the subject for yourself, preferably with an experienced friend. If you are a shooter, you will have new reasons to practice regularly, to challenge, improve and productively utilize your marksmanship, and to enjoy a relaxed environment of shooting. Varminting is not a high-stress pursuit, and I enjoy operating at my own pace.
Time has imposed a few physical limitations, but I can sit patiently, observe carefully, and shoot accurately. I enjoy the satisfaction of firing at a distant varmint and placing my bullet properly. At day's end, I hope to tell my host or the landowner how we've done. If you’ve absorbed the basics of marksmanship with your favorite rifle, whatever the chambering, I encourage you to consider varminting. Looking back over the past generation, I've seen new cartridges introduced, new bullet technology made available, improvements in rifles and stocks and these factors have made it an exercise of continuing interest. I believe you will find it challenging and you will continue to develop.