“We’ve got a pair coming in at two o’clock,” I whispered to Darcy, my hunting partner. Almost a mile away, two coyotes slowly moved across the bleak, snow-covered prairie landscape. Darcy called again, drawing deep breaths as he worked his favorite predator call. The agonizing shrieks almost made my hair stand on end!
The coyotes picked up speed, running straight at us on the wind-packed snow. After they dipped into a low area, we shifted position slightly so our rifles were aimed in their direction. Seconds turned into minutes, but nothing showed. Just as Darcy prepared to call again a pair of ears appeared behind a snow bank, then both animals came into view. They were in Darcy’s shooting zone, far to my right. I watched motionless as his rifle moved onto the first coyote and waited for the shot. The wildcat .22 spoke, collapsing the big lead male.
The other coyote spun around and disappeared behind the snow bank, and Darcy sat up so he could see it. He quickly placed his snow-camouflaged rifle in his shooting sticks, found the animal and sent another Nosler hollow-point on its deadly journey. The deep thud told me exactly what to expect—more fur and one less fawn-killer on the Saskatchewan plains. Predator hunting can be a rewarding sport, in more ways than one!
Predator and varmint hunting share one thing in common: The more accurate the rifle, the higher the percentage of quick kills. Granted, you can use virtually any rifle to shoot vermin, but specialized heavy-barreled, flat-shooters are by far the most effective rigs. Gun manufacturers are fully aware of this, so you can select from a wide range of cartridges and rifles.
Today’s varmint cartridges can be categorized in the following manner. First are the “hot-rods.” These over-bore, barrel-eating cartridges are the next best thing to lightning. A fine example is the .220 Swift and its 4,100 fps velocity. Want to go faster? You can drop bullet weights and increase powder charges to obtain velocities well over 5,000 fps with wildcats such as the .22-243 or .22-6mm.
Next are the traditional “varminteers,” from the deadly little .223 Rem. to the tried and true .22-250 Rem. Velocities range from 3,100 to just less than 4,000 fps with 40- to 55-grain bullets. These are by far the most popular varmint cartridges, and they combine excellent accuracy with satisfying terminal performance. The new Winchester Super Short Magnums fit into this category nicely.
Next are the little guys—I like to call them “visual impacters.” Using lightweight bullets with modest powder charges, these cartridges allow the shooter to actually see his or her bullets strike. These cartridges don’t shoot as fast or as far as their big cousins, but they offer something special—visual examination of each shot as it creates a group or strikes an animal. Until you try a .17 Hornady, .204 Ruger or .22 Hornet you just don’t know what you’re missing.
There are many cartridges available that will do a fine job on both predators and varmints. True aficionados will demand specialized rifles for each sport, but most any .223 Rem. or .22-250 Rem. will do a good job on everything from gophers to coyotes.
Take Your Pick
Traditionally, the varmint rifle is a bolt action equipped with a heavy barrel, a large stock with a flat fore-end and a high cheek-piece. Of course, the rig will also include a high-powered scope. Alternately, the action might be a single-shot, such as a Ruger No. 1.
Generally, the other gun actions—pumps, lever actions and semiautos—aren’t the basis for great varmint rigs because they lack the inherent long-range accuracy of bolt actions. Having said that, I’d never scoff at the effectiveness of Remington 760 pump rifles chambered for .222 Rem., .243 Win. or 6mm Rem. for fast action when calling coyotes. Same goes for a good-shooting Ruger Mini-14 or an accurized AR-15—these rifles can drive tacks if they’re properly set up.
Who builds the best varmint hunting rifles? Once again the choices are dictated by personal preference. The bottom line is most any new varmint rifle will shoot extremely well, regardless of whether it’s built by CZ, Cooper, Kimber, Remington, Ruger, Sako, Savage, Thompson/Center, Tikka, Weatherby or Winchester, and the list goes on and on. Here are a couple of my favorites.
I’m in awe of the out-of-the-box accuracy I get with Winchester’s Model 70 Stealth varmint rifles. I have a database on more than a dozen Stealths, and many of them shoot near or just below half-inch five-shot groups at 100 yards! This year Winchester revamped the rifle to the Stealth II, and it’s an even better shooter. The most significant change is the use of a simpler, stronger trigger guard/magazine assembly that uses two guard screws instead of three. My Stealth II in .223 WSSM handles and shoots superbly.
Winchester also builds a rifle called the Model 70 Coyote that’s slightly lighter than the Stealth. I’ve shot several M-70 Coyotes in .22-250 Rem. and .223 WSSM that broke the minute-of-angle mark with ease. This is a nice rifle to tote in the field, and in the larger calibers it’s a great long-range deer and pronghorn rig.
The Remington Model 700 VS is available in several configurations as far as type of steel and barrel fluting, and they’re all great rifles. I’ve tested several VSs recently that consistently put five shots in groups measuring less than a half-inch at 100 yards.
I’ve also used several new Savage Model 12 Varminters and tactical-style rifles that shot bug-holes on the range. The Savage AccuTrigger models ensure a light, crisp trigger pull—a joy in these days of 7-pound lawyer-proof triggers.
Another company that’s building excellent varminteers is Thompson/
Center. The Encore and G2 Contender offer a unique advantage for serious shooters—interchangeable barrels so a wide variety of cartridges can be used with one frame and butt-stock. I recently attended a prairie dog shoot toting two heavy-barreled Encores in .223 Rem., and my little single-shot rifles killed as well as many super-expensive custom varmint rifles.
I’ve also field tested new rifles from Ruger and CZ that easily beat the minute-of-angle mark. Ruger’s .204 is a high-performance little cartridge that shares some of the excitement of the fast 17s. CZ is introducing some new rifles to the North American market that feature “Americanized” stocks, great accuracy and very reasonable prices.
Cooper Arms in Montana has built by far some of the most spectacular varmint rifles I’ve ever shot. These semi-custom single-shot bolt actions are routinely capable of five-shot groups at 100 yards measuring 1/4-1/2 inch. I recently tested several of them at a prairie dog shoot in Montana and they shot egg-shaped one-hole groups with Winchester and Black Hills Ammo—very impressive for factory ammo and a semi-custom rifle that doesn’t cost much more than some factory models.
No matter what cartridge and rifle you choose, the important thing is to shoot—a lot. There’s no better practice for upcoming big game seasons than to burn through hundreds of rounds of light-kicking varmint and predator ammo.