Asked to describe my perfect small-game cartridge, it would be something like this: medium caliber (.25 to .32); bullet weight of 75 to 130 grains; low velocity of from 1,600 to 2,000 fps. The bullet would be cast lead with no jacket.
Such a cartridge would fit nicely into a rifle that can be carried comfortably in one hand as you prowl the woods and creek bottoms, and it would have modest noise and less recoil. Moving that way, the hunter is ready for whatever comes along, from a scurrying squirrel to a scuttling armadillo. It would make a nice turkey cartridge, and if you stalk to get close, you could hunt woodchucks with it.
The term “small game” used to mean everything from crows and hawks to edible critters like squirrels and rabbits. Gradually, crows and woodchucks were relegated to the “varmint” category, complete with specialized high-velocity rifles. These rifles offer exquisite accuracy but are pretty awkward to carry around. Hawks, owls, and herons are now protected. The few who still hunt squirrels and rabbits do so with rimfire rifles with scopes installed.
Just as small game as a category became almost a thing of the past, so did the rifles made for the purpose. With the possible exception of the .300 Blackout, there has been hardly a cartridge introduced in the past 50 years that could be called a small-game round, and the older cartridges have died away one by one.
This is too bad, not because you can’t hunt small game with other rifles, but because the old-fashioned centerfire small-game rifle was just a lot of fun to take out, carry around in the wilds, and use to take a shot at anything from a rabbit to a crow to an empty tin can. Centerfire small-game cartridges like the .25-20 and .32-20 are more versatile than .22 rimfires because they allow reloaders to cast their own bullets and tailor loads to their exact requirements for bullet weight and velocity.
My reason for specifying cast bullets is that they are inexpensive, so you can load and shoot a lot of them, and they are reliable killers on small game without destroying a lot of meat. Also, you can power a lot of shooting with one pound of a powder like Unique. Think about it: If you load the .32-20 with six grains of Unique, you get 1,150 rounds from a one-pound can. That’s pretty economical.
Another great thing about older cartridges like the .25-20 and .32-20 is that they were chambered in some very nice rifles. Winchester single-shot rifles and the better Stevens rifles are the obvious ones, and there are a lot of those around. Some that had the good fortune to be owned by serious enthusiasts have been well cared for and work as well today as they did a century ago.
If you are of a more experimental bent, there is a whole new horizon with the British “rook and rabbit” rifles for cartridges like the .310 Cadet. There are a lot around in miniature Martini actions, but many are break-action single shots. Even those with names like Holland & Holland engraved on the barrel are not selling for much these days. If brass proves impossible to get, many can be rechambered to .32-20 or .32-40. The latter can easily be loaded down to comfortable small-game levels.
A few years ago I came across a Martini cadet rifle that had travelled from Westley Richards in Birmingham to New South Wales in Australia and thence to Canada. Somewhere along the line, it was rechambered to .32-40. With its 25-inch barrel, full-length military-style stock, and target-style ladder rear sight, it is absolutely delightful to shoot.
As it sits, there is nothing about this rifle I would change, and chasing armadillos through the woods with a Westley Richards gives one a sense of being very stylish.