Shooting prairie dogs and ground squirrels is a ton of fun, especially with a magnum rimfire rifle in your hands.
Settling in behind the rifle, I could scarcely believe my eyes--the Wyoming alfalfa field was literally crawling with prairie dogs and Richardson's ground squirrels. There were thousands and thousands of them running around in the 3-inch-tall crop--it should have been knee high by this time of year--eating the rancher out of house and home. I snapped a loaded magazine into place, made sure the odd antelope and center pivot equipment were clear, and went to work.
Two hours later, I had exhausted my backpack's ammunition supply, and my thumbs were sore from loading the magazine. The tally was impressive--two 250-round cases and four hits for every five shots fired. Sunburned and thirsty, I knew it was time to head back to the ranch house for a drink and more ammo. Before leaving, I dropped to a knee and started picking up the diminutive cases that littered the ground in a circle around the bench. Though there were several varmint rifles chambered for scorching .22-caliber centerfire varmint rounds available in camp, the empties were not .223 or .204 Ruger or .22-250 cases. The .17 HMR was the cartridge de jour, and I was having the time of my life on a purely rimfire varmint safari.
Robert Ruark wisely advised us to always "use enough gun," so it might seem a little counterintuitive to bring a rimfire rifle to a game that seems the near exclusive domain of the super-fast, .17-, .20-, and .22-caliber centerfire cartridges. But a closer look reveals that several rimfire cartridges, when factors of economy and utility are considered, can prove ideal for the task. I certainly am not the first to come to this conclusion; rifle manufacturers usually turn out a heavy-barreled varmint version of their latest magnum rimfire soon after the standard sporter versions are on dealer shelves.
While a .22 LR rifle will certainly kill most varmints, rimfire varmint hunting really comes into its own with the two magnum cartridges, the .22 WMR and .17 HMR. The .22 WMR is a proven cartridge. Introduced in the 1950s and chambered in dozens of different rifle and handgun designs over the years, it's a great varmint round for sure. Bullet weights between 30 and 40 grains are pretty standard, and velocities of well over 2,000 fps can be expected with lighter bullets from full-length rifle barrels.
The .17 HMR--the new kid on the block--took the shooting world by storm with its introduction in 2002. An unabashed fan of light bullets moving at high speeds, I was enamored with the 2,550 fps performance turned in by the 17-grain bullet.
In terms of field performance, what do these cartridges offer a varmint shooter? The biggest advantage might be their total lack of recoil. No spotter is required, turning you into an efficient, solo varmint-wrecking crew. Depending on just how heavy the varmint rig may be, only the .204 Ruger offers shooters the chance to spot their bullet strikes on almost every shot. About half the time, I can spot .223 bullet strikes past 200 yards. More often than not, I am left wondering what happened and where it happened when I miss with a .22-250.
With a 100-yard zero, the .17 HMR is practically a laser out to 200 yards. Hornady's 17-grain V-Max bullet strikes 8.5 inches low at said distance, whereas the same company's 30-grain V-Max in .22 Magnum is 16.5 inches low at 200 yards. While the .22 Magnum might deliver a little more energy than the .17 HMR at the muzzle (322 ft-lbs versus 245 ft-lbs), they are practically the same at 100 yards, and the .17 HMR has 5 ft-lbs more energy at 200 yards (72 ft-lbs versus 67 ft-lbs). Either way, with lightly constructed varmint bullets, the results are explosive inside of 100 yards. The .17's flatter flight path is a big advantage, tipping the scales in its favor.
The Browning T-Bolt's straight-pull bolt has two lugs attached to a crossbar that is cammed in and out of place by a ball and socket arrangement.
With talk of a recession, a rimfire varmint hunt is a way to literally get more bang for the buck. Using manufacturers' suggested retail prices at the time of this writing, I compared rimfire ammo prices with those of centerfire varminting rounds. The most expensive rimfire cartridges loaded with premium bullets will run just under 38 cents per shot. Standard rimfire ammo with good old jacketed hollowpoint bullets will run just under 33 cents per round. White-box .22-250 ammo is just a shade over $1 per shot, while most common varmint cartridges loaded with premium bullets, depending on caliber, are anywhere from $1.50 to $1.75 per shot.
Generally speaking, I will shoot between 400 and 800 rounds a day on a good prairie dog shoot. Over three days of shooting, there will be 1,200 to 2,400 rounds of ammo headed downrange. With a rimfire rifle, the average total ammunition cost is between $430 and $860 per trip. The same amount of shooting with centerfire white-box cartridges would cost between $1,200 and $2,400. Premium ammunition raises the three-day averages to $1,950 and $3,910.
While smaller bullets and less powder certainly cost less, there are undeniable ballistic consequences; shots over 200 yards are possible but rare. On a northern Wyoming shoot some years ago, outfitter Brian Beisher and I decided to leave the prairie dog towns and cruise around some crop fields. We were armed with a CZ-USA Model 452 Varmint chambered for .17 HMR and just one magazine. A couple of hours and one case of ammo later, I had managed a hit at 219 yards, a distance confirmed with a laser rangefinder. Beisher was able to stretch some shots past that. The moral of the story is to know your flight path at extended ranges, even when armed with a rimfire. That--and bring more than one magazine.
While centerfire shoots are best conducted off sandbags and field tables, it pays to be more mobile when armed with a rimfire. When the dogs or squirrels finally catch on to the game and become scarce, just pick up and move to another area a few hundred yards away. Shooting sticks, a backpack with water, a case of ammo, and a seat cushion are all you need for hours of fun.
The other great thing about being so mobile is your ability to shoot into or against the wind. Most any day in one of America's fine Plains States will see significant wind gusts, which are an absolute terror for a rimfire's lightweight bullets. The only good
thing about the wind is its consistency; it blows all the time and usually from one direction. When the breezes start whipping your bullets off target, simply pick up and move to a position that negates the wind's effect.
American gunmakers are a conservative lot, rarely letting their wild side show itself in the form of cool rifles. When it does manifest itself, it is usually in a rimfire rifle--wildly colored laminate stocks, barrels wrapped in carbon fiber, and extended and exaggerated controls can be found in rimfire lines but very few other places. Rimfire rifles are not only deadly on prairie dogs, they are fun. Detailed here are some of the better, but by no means the only, varmint rifles chambered for .17 HMR, the king of rimfire varmint calibers.
Great "Safari" Guns
Some have said that the Browning T-Bolt was the best rimfire rifle in the world. I had never so much as touched one until a recent dog shoot in Wyoming, and after 1,000 or so rounds, I would almost have to agree.
The rifle, first produced by Fabrique Nationale from 1964 to 1974, was recently reintroduced and is now manufactured at the same Miroku plant that produces A-Bolt rifles and Citori shotguns for Browning. Its unique action dispenses with standard locking lugs that are rotated into place with a 90- or 60-degree turn of the bolt handle. Two lugs on a crossbolt match receiver cuts well behind the breechface and are cammed in and out of place by a ball and socket arrangement. The T-handle pivots just 20 or so degrees on a large pin at the bolt's rear to extract and refresh cartridges.
Shooting the T-Bolt is a blast. The action is lightning fast and glassy smooth. An innovative Double Helix magazine uses torsion springs and twin barrels to eliminate malfunctions and make loading easier--the amount of force required to load the first round or the tenth changes little. I could not tell you how many thousands of rounds my group went through on that most recent varmint shoot, but I do know there were no malfunctions. Accuracy is good, aided by a creep-free albeit heavy trigger.
For the most part, we were armed with standard sporter models, and they handled the furious shooting with aplomb, but Browning is soon to introduce a varmint model with a stainless-steel, heavy barrel and beefed-up laminate stock or blued/black composite stock version.
CZ-USA has built a complete line of rimfire rifles around the great 452/453 action, and prairie dog shooters will find the CZ 453 Varmint model perfect for long-range shooting. The 452 has a heavy, 21-inch bull barrel and standard trigger, while the 453 is equipped with a single-set trigger and a plain or fluted barrel.
Actions and bolts are machined from steel billets, barrels are cold hammer forged, and even the magazine follower is not plastic. The CZ feels like a real rifle in the hands. The Varmint has a decidedly American-styled, straight-comb stock with a slight palmswell, cut checkering, and oil finish. Quite a few of the rifles I have shot in the past years had stocks with exceptional figure. The guns, though simple, are nicely finished.
I would recommend spending the extra $100 for the single-set trigger. To set the trigger, simply push it forward until it clicks and then enjoy a light, creep-free break. It is adjustable and can be set to release the firing pin at a whisper--a nice feature for precision shooting.
The Savage Mark II action has been around for a long time and is simple, robust, and durable. The company took the Mark II and added some interesting features that make the Savage Model 93R17 BTVS a perfect all-day varmint rifle.
While the laminate thumbhole stock is the most obvious, the rifle's trigger is the most important. Savage can rightly claim to have started a trigger revolution that put decent, user-adjustable factory triggers on production-grade rifles. The AccuTrigger is simple to adjust, a dream to shoot, and greatly improves a rifleman's ability to hit tiny targets at long distances. A heavy, stiff barrel--it measures 0.8 inch at the muzzle and 0.935 inch at the action--completes the accuracy package and adds welcomed weight when trying to steady the rifle for an extra-long shot.
The CZ-USA Model 453 Varmint is a clean, classic-styled rimfire hunting rifle that provides good performance.
Savage's Model 93R17 BTVS bolt action is sturdy, accurate, and reliable. It's a great-looking rifle with bells and whistles that won't break the bank.
The thumbhole stock is striking and, more importantly, very comfortable. Three horizontal vents in the fore-end allow air to circulate through the stock and under the barrel for quicker barrel cooling. It is also equipped with two, count them two, sling swivels up front--one for a sling and the other for a bipod.
Just this summer on a Montana shoot, we pounded several thousand rounds through a BTVS without any problems.
I will never completely forsake centerfire rifles. There is nothing better than sending a dog skyward at unbelievable ranges with a .22-caliber bullet screaming along at 3,000+ fps, but rimfires provide a nice break from the centerfire game and help alleviate the strain on the old wallet. With a rimfire in hand and a pack full of ammo, the hours, ammo, and prairie dogs disappear.