August 10, 2021
In the years right after World War II, there was considerable interest in what we might call “sub-bore” cartridges, and that interest has persisted in varying degrees. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll define “sub-bore” cartridges as smaller than .22 caliber, i.e., bore diameters less than 0.224 inch. Some commercial cartridges that fall into this group are Hornady’s version of the .17 K-Hornet, Remington’s .17 Fireball and .17 Remington, and the .204 Ruger, also from Hornady.
Of course, wildcatters have been busy, too. James Calhoon has developed .19-caliber cartridges called the .19 Hornet, .19-223, and .19 Badger on the .30-caliber M1 case. Another pioneering sub-bore experimenter was Bill Eichelberger, who developed rounds with .10-, .12-, and .14-caliber bores, including some rimfires. Early development of sub-bore cartridges was hampered by the difficulties in making small-caliber barrels and bullets, but these days, those problems have mostly been solved, and many of the wee ones now enjoy considerable popularity.
Probably the best all-around sub-bore is the .20 caliber, and no one has been a more fervent proponent of that bore size than Todd Kindler. Kindler is the president of The Woodchuck Den Inc., in Baltic, Ohio, and has sired numerous .20-caliber cartridges based on various existing cases, including the .222, .223, and .22-250 Remingtons, .222 Remington Magnum, .22 Hornet, and .218 Bee to name a few. I have to say he is an oracle on the caliber.
Perhaps the finest of the .20-caliber rounds he developed is called the .20 VarTarg (“Var” for varmint, “Targ” for target). It is the .221 Remington Fireball case necked down, and Kindler developed it in 1996. The only slight change was to increase the shoulder angle from 23 degrees to 30 degrees. The resulting case is 1.400 inches long, same as the original. Cases are easily made in one pass of a .221 case into a VarTarg sizing die, and you’re ready to go. The first firing forms the new 30-degree shoulder.
Brass is available from Remington and Lapua, and both work well. A note on Lapua cases: Mine have standard-diameter flash holes, but some Lapua cases may have the smaller European flash hole, which requires a smaller decapping pin, so check before running a case into the sizer.
Several custom gunsmiths make .20 VarTarg rifles, but it’s not a standard factory chambering. However, because I seem to always be on the lookout for something “different,” in early 2020, I decided life would be greatly enhanced if I had a .20 VarTarg rifle. I was to be affected by two forces. The first was the “new-rifle bug,” a malady well known to serious riflemen. The second was the COVID-19 virus (I’ll get to that in a moment).
Every Project Has Its Headaches
To keep this project relatively simple, I purchased a new Remington Model 700 SPS in .223 Remington. That way the boltface would be correct for the necked-down .221 case. I sent the barreled action off to Shaw Barrels in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, to be rebarreled to .20 VarTarg.
But as soon as my Model 700 left for Pennsylvania on the UPS truck, that second “bug” reared its ugly head. As COVID-19 ravaged the state, the governor ordered the closure of all “non-essential” businesses. Well, you can bet that Shaw’s gun barrel business wasn’t declared “essential.”
That severely impacted Shaw’s operations and put all orders, including mine, in a holding pattern. They soldiered on, and eventually the rebarreled Remington action arrived.
It was exactly to spec. The 23-inch, stainless-steel barrel is beautifully polished, and it has a 1:12 twist. And its 0.660-inch-diameter muzzle is finished with an 11-degree target crown. I added a few aftermarket upgrades to the action, including a Timney trigger (with safety) and a Gre-Tan Rifles firing pin and spring assembly. I also added a High Score Bench Rest follower on top of the factory magazine follower for ease in single loading.
The Model 700 SPS came in a rather attractive synthetic stock, and though I am usually not a big fan of synthetic factory stocks, this one is internally reinforced with a lattice of cross-members, so it’s pretty stiff. However, the barrel makes solid contact with virtually the entire fore-end channel. I started test-firing with the factory stock installed but later added a solid walnut stock from Stocky’s LLC in West Palm Beach, Florida. The Stocky’s stock mimics the Remington BDL pattern and has nice wood grain and extensive checkering. The panels have unique “stippled” borders along their edges, and there is a black wooden fore-end tip and pistol grip cap.
An important feature of this stock is that it has Stocky’s patented aluminum “Mini AccuBlock” bedding block. Unlike the round channel of the factory stock that receives the tubular receiver, the AccuBlock has two precisely machined “V-shaped” surfaces under the receiver ring at the recoil lug that ensure a solid and uniform bed for the action and prevent any metal-to-wood movement during firing. Plus, the stock is pillar bedded fore and aft to prevent wood compression, and the barrel is free-floated so it can’t touch the stock when firing.
The barreled action fit into the new stock like a glove, and it was almost a “drop-in” installation. The only minor hiccup was that the rear of the bolt handle rubbed on the cutout in the stock. No problem as just a few deft file strokes and a dab of Tru-Oil quickly fixed that.
The stock has a Monte Carlo comb and cheekpiece, and overall, it’s very well done. The walnut stock added 1 pound, 2.6 ounces to the rifle, bringing the rig’s weight with a scope installed to 10 pounds, 2 ounces.
Speaking of scopes, I used a brand-new ATACR 4-20X 50mm scope from Nightforce. It has Nightforce’s MOAR illuminated reticle. Other reticles available are the MIL-C, MIL-XT, and Tremor3. All are in the first focal plane. It goes without saying that this scope is top drawer in all respects.
A True Wildcat
The .20 VarTarg cartridge is a true “wildcat,” i.e., it is not “approved” by SAAMI. As a result, it’s not a “factory” cartridge, and no company makes factory-loaded ammo for it. Fortunately, this is no problem because nearly every die manufacturer makes reloading dies for it. I ordered a die set and shellholder (the same one as the .223 Remington) from Hornady and was ready to make my own ammo. I set the sizing die in my Redding T-7 Turret press to set the shoulder back 0.003 inch—as determined with a Hornady Lock-N-Load Headspace Comparator—and voila! cases chambered with only the slightest hint of resistance.
As for the components, I secured a good supply of Lapua cases; Federal 205 and GM205M primers; and 0.204-inch-diameter bullets ranging in weight from 30 to 40 grains from Berger, Hornady, and Speer. For your information,
I seated bullets so that the base of the bullet was at the start of the case neck.
Before I get to the shooting results, I must point out that because the .20 VarTarg is a wildcat there is almost no pressure-tested load data for it. The Western Powders website lists 30 loads for six of its powders and four bullets, ranging in weight from 24 to 40 grains, and none of my loads (as seen in the accompanying chart) exceed Western’s maximum charges for its powders with similar weight bullets. The maximum pressure for VarTarg loads shown by Western is 60,942 psi. For reference, the Speer Handloading Manual Number 15 lists the SAAMI maximum average pressure (MAP) for the VarTarg’s parent cartridge as 60,000 psi.
I am delighted to report that the Shaw barrel was easy to clean (all it took was a brushing and patches with Butch’s Bore Shine solvent), and after firing hundreds of test rounds, I have yet to detect any copper fouling in the bore when examined with my Gradient Hawkeye borescope. This was a pleasant surprise, as these little bullets zip down that barrel pretty fast.
Three powders stand out in the .20 VarTarg. VihtaVuori N120 was excellent with 30-, 32-, and 40-grain bullets and produced the highest velocities with all bullets tested. It achieved fine accuracy as well. VihtaVuori N130 also performed well, as did Western’s Ramshot X-Terminator. Truth be told, the erudite VarTarg reloader could probably get by with just those three powders. But where’s the fun in that?
Other powders that turned in good performances were Hodgdon Benchmark, Accurate 2220, and Accurate 1680.
Let’s look at accuracy. It was obvious early in the testing that the Shaw barrel was going to be very accurate. In fact, I quickly eliminated any bullet-powder combination that didn’t shoot into an inch. There was no reason to waste time and components with them when so many other combinations shot so well.
I ended up with 36 “keeper” loads, and the group average of all of them was a delightful 0.61 inch. Bullet weight didn’t seem to affect accuracy much, as the group averages varied only a few hundredths of an inch between bullet-weight classes. The bullet with the smallest group average (0.49 inch) was Hornady’s 32-grain V-Max. It was followed closely by Speer’s 39-grain TNT hollowpoint at 0.54 inch.
If I had to pick an “all-around” load, I’d go with the Hornady 32-grain V-Max with 17.5 grains of N120 (3,625 fps and a 0.41-inch group average) or the Berger 35-grain Varmint Match with 17.3 grains of N120 (3,518 fps/0.61 inch) or the Hornady 40-grain V-Max over 19.8 grains of X-Terminator (3,364 fps/0.44 inch).
The downrange ballistics of the .20 VarTarg cartridge are as expected. Heavier bullets have more energy and less wind drift, but they are slower. The trajectories of the 32- and 40-grain bullets are similar. Sighted-in for 200 yards, these bullets strike about 5.6 to 5.8 inches low at 300 yards and about 17 inches low at 400 yards. (See the ballistics chart on the previous page for more details.)
I shot some three-shot and five-shot groups, just for comparison, and here’s an interesting observation. The five-shot groups averaged just 0.08 inch (14.8 percent) larger than the three-shot clusters.
So, where does this leave the intrepid varmint shooter? Is it worth the expense to have a rifle made for the .20 VarTarg? In case you’re wondering, my rifle ended up costing $1,520 ($540 for the original Model 700; $555 for the Shaw barrel work, $150 for the Timney trigger, $199 for the Stocky’s stock, and $76 for the Gre-Tan firing pin assembly).
Here is some food for thought. The .20 VarTarg shoots great (that’s been established for years), and it offers several advantages over larger cartridges. First, there is the efficiency and economics of the round. It develops relatively high velocities with not much powder, so it’s cheap to shoot (a pound of powder will load 350 to 400 rounds), and wear and tear on the barrel is minimal. Plus, the recoil is so low (ranging between 1.8 and 2.2 ft-lbs) that the shooter can see the impact on the target through the scope.
Then there is what we might call the non-pecuniary return on our investment. The .20 VarTarg is unique. It is the result of careful thought in its design, and it has a proven track record. It is a delight to handload and to use in the field as well as on the shooting range. It exceeded my expectations. Plus, the potential bullet-powder combinations are almost endless, leaving the inveterate experimenter awash in riches.
Thus, I rest my case. Like the old chicken in every pot saying goes, I say a .20 VarTarg in every gun safe!