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What’s the Best Cartridge for Coyote Hunting?

by Joseph von Benedikt   |  December 23rd, 2013 49

Most hunters will agree the best round for shooting a coyote is the one you have when you spot Wile E.

Cartoon jokes aside, what cartridge would you choose for a dedicated predator-hunting rifle?

Most fast varmint-type cartridges work just fine, but there are a few that excel. Though weeding just one out of the pack and dubbing it the very best is risky business, that’s what we’re here to do. I recently conducted an informal poll among a bunch of buddies passionate about predator hunting, and came up with a list of contenders. But first, let’s look at the attributes that make for a top-performer.

Coyotes aren’t a very big target. Even a large, mature western male will weigh only about 45 pounds—though the rare northern male has been known to top 70 pounds. Their vitals range from about the size of a large apple on a small coyote, to the size of a large grapefruit on a big one. Throw cold, wind, snow, distance and jumpy nerves (both yours and the coyotes) into the scenario, and you’ve got a difficult target under less-than-optimal circumstances. A good predator rifle will shoot under 1 MOA, while the best ones shoot groups of ½ MOA under ideal conditions.

Flat Trajectory
Often hunters don’t have time to range a coyote—it’s a “take it now or loose the shot” opportunity. To minimize errors in range estimation, a good coyote round offers blazing velocities—which in turn provide flat, forgiving trajectories. Knowledgeable coyote men choose cartridges that push bullets at 3,400 feet per second or faster—sometimes much faster.

Projectile Performance
Optimum coyote cartridges are available with projectiles designed to expand violently on impact. The best projectiles for song dogs make a tiny entrance hole and then fragment into particles, dumping all the available energy into the coyote for an immediate, humane kill and minimizing pelt damage from full penetration. The best cartridges for this task are those of .20 and .17 caliber. Larger diameter projectiles often blow a big hole out the far side of an animal and cause significant pelt damage. However, this can be minimized through careful projectile selection—and it’s worth mentioning that in states with hefty bounties, most hunters couldn’t care less about pelt damage. They’d rather put a coyote down with authority, even if doing so results in two bullet holes. Coyote contest teams tend to like bigger, more aggressive calibers as well; in their case a canine lost to minimal bullet energy may equate to a lost tournament.

Low Recoil
Fast follow-up shots can be important. Sometimes, you miss your first attempt, and other times you’ll have a pair come in—if you’re really lucky—you’ll get a crack at the second coyote after dropping the first. Cartridges that don’t jar you to your heels with recoil offer advantages. With the best, you can stay in your scope through recoil and spot your own impacts. Any round that fits and functions through an AR-15 rifle has an advantage here; it’s the only semi-auto that provides adequate accuracy, and it certainly offers fast repeat shots.

The Contenders
My informal study indicated that four quite different cartridges hold the loyalty of the bulk of coyote hunters. In order of size, they are:

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