What's the Best Cartridge for Coyote Hunting?
December 23, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
My informal study indicated that four quite different cartridges hold the loyalty of the bulk of coyote hunters. In order of size, they are:
The .204 Ruger is undoubtedly the best option for dedicated pelt hunters — it's blazing fast, yet recoils very politely — making for a forgiving, flat trajectory coupled with fast follow-up shots. Projectiles almost never exit, leaving pelts in premium condition. Plus, you can get AR-15 rifles chambered in .204, maximizing the great little round's potential. Most 40-grain factory loads push a bullet at close to 3,650 feet per second. When sighted in at 200 yards, it drops only 17 inches at 400, and impacts with around 380 foot-pounds of energy. It's worth noting that Hornady's Superformance load betters those numbers considerably. The .204's only downside is how its tiny projectiles get buffeted about considerably in windy conditions — and coyote country is often windy country.
The .223 Remington's big claim to coyote fame is two-fold; Ammo is fairly inexpensive and common, and most AR-15s are chambered for it. Without doubt, the .223 is the slowest of the four contenders, unless super-light projectiles are used — and they also give up velocity too quickly to be of great value at long range. In other words, it's not as flat-shooting as the others represented here. Good .223 projectiles for coyotes run in the 50- to 55-grain range, and exit the muzzle of a 24-inch barrel at some 3,200-plus feet per second. Sighted in at 200 yards, such a bullet drops just over 21 inches at 400 yards, and carries around 420 foot-pounds of energy at that distance. On the plus side, it's about the biggest .22-bore cartridge that can be counted on to not exit and damage pelts — with careful projectile selection. Out to about 300 yards, the .223 Remington pretty hard to beat as a coyote cartridge.
The .243 Winchester has long been a top choice among tournament hunters, where putting a coyote down with authority is important. It's also common among crossover hunters, who want to hunt predators and deer with the same rifle. Good coyote bullets weigh in at 70 to 80 grains. Though slightly faster than most .223 loads — and therefore flatter — it's not as fast as the .204 or .22-250. A typical 70-grain load exits the muzzle at about 3,400 feet per second. When sighted in at 200 yards, it will drop about 18 inches at 400 yards, and hit with over 760 foot-pounds of energy — great coyote authority indeed. Downsides are noticeable — the .243 has considerably more recoil than any of the other contenders here, and bullets usually exit and create a big hole in the pelt.
The .22-250 Remington is legendary in the ranks of coyote hunters. It shoots tremendously flat, pushing coyote-appropriate projectiles at 3,800 feet per second or more, which equates to very flat trajectories. It's no faster than the .204 Ruger, but it carries considerably more bullet weight, hits harder and bucks wind better. For instance, a 50-grain projectile exits the muzzle with the aforementioned 3,800 feet per second. When sighted in at 200 yards, it drops about 15 inches at 400 yards and impacts with almost 550 foot-pounds of energy. On the downside, it recoils a fraction more than either the .204 or .223, and frequently the bullet will blow out the far side of a coyote, sometimes doing considerable damage to the pelt.
Logically, any of the four will serve you very well in the coyote hunting arena. Boiling it down, I personally waffle between the .204 Ruger — for it's light recoil, pelt-friendly nature, and compatibility with AR-15 rifles — and the .22-250, for it's forgiving, flat trajectory and impact authority.
Okay, okay. I know; I must declare a winner. By the slightest of margins, I'll go with the .22-250. No cartridge is more proven on predators. Few hit harder downrange with as little punishment on the shooters' end. None are more forgiving — the laser-flat trajectory and decent wind-bucking ability help hunters connect at unknown ranges and in buffeting winds.
I'm not saying it's the best for everyone — and we'd love to hear your arguments for other cartridges in the comments section below. What I will say is this: Nobody choosing a .22-250 as his or her primary coyote gun will ever be disappointed.