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Varmint Hunting Today

Jon R. Sundra

Spring's finest outdoor sport combines precision shooting, social interaction and an impressive equipment checklist.

This is the time of year when a young man's fancy (and an old man's, too), turns to varminting. Well, it does if your interest in guns and hunting is such that you refuse to mothball your muskets for six months or more each year!

As winter winds down, many of us conjure up thoughts of groundhogs fattening up in some verdant hayfield, the location of which is kept with Manhattan Project secrecy. If you live out West, it's the marmot -- the groundhog's cowboy cousin -- or prairie rats that command your attention.

Wherever it's done, East or West, varminting sees many of us through from one hunting season to the next. It challenges both equipment and hunter to whatever degree we allow. And because of this self-imposed difficulty, it is for many the most absorbing shooting sport of all.

As summer approaches, seasoned varminters need no reminders of what's ahead or how to prepare for it. On the other hand, if you're considering your first serious varmint hunt, you've got a mind-boggling array of rifles, cartridges, optics and related equipment to sift through.

Before taking a tour of what's out there, let me begin by saying I assume you've already done some varmint hunting, but not enough to have invested in any specialized equipment. Maybe you started with a .22 rimfire, or a spotter chambered for a dual-purpose cartridge like the .243, or perhaps your trusty .30-'06 stuffed with a varmint load.

That's fine. You can have a lot of fun that way, and yes, you can be fairly successful at it. But soon you realize there's equipment better suited to the job. The point is further driven home if you've hunted with a buddy who's got, say, a heavy-barreled 22-250 with a gonzo scope aboard.

So although we can press any sort of rifle/caliber/scope combination into service, we're going to take it to the next level and look at equipment that's designed to excel at one thing only: varmint hunting.

Nuts And Bolts Of Rifles

The most important item, of course, is the rifle itself, and for that the choice narrows to a bolt action fitted with a stout barrel. Indeed, for decades the only difference between a production sporter and a varmint rifle was a heavier barrel.

Nowadays, however, most factory varmint rifles will also have different stocks specifically designed for prone and bench shooting. The toe is not as far below the bore line, the grip is more hand filling, and the forend is flat and considerably wider than on your average sporter stock. Some manufacturers, like Ruger and Weatherby, even provide a more refined trigger on their varmint rifles.

All major manufacturers who offer bolt action centerfire rifles also offer varmint/target counterparts. Remington, for example, has five: the new Model 700 EtronX, the VS, the VLS, the VS Composite and the VS-SF, all available in either .223 or .22-250. Additionally, the VLS is offered in .243 and 6mm Rem., and the VS-SF in .220 Swift.

Savage has a similarly extensive line of production varmint rifles, among them the new 12-VSS that joins five other models offering various combinations of laminated or injection molded stocks with actions mated to stainless, blued or fluted barrels.

U.S. Repeating Arms offers three heavy-barreled versions of its Winchester Model 70 -- the Stealth and two stainless models with or without fluted barrels.

Browning offers the fewest options among the biggies with the A-Bolt II. In the Varmint model you have a conventional-shaped stock, and in the Eclipse Varmint you get a thumbhole. In either case, the barrel is equipped with BOSS, and the stock is a black wood laminate.

Even Weatherby, who for so many years never offered a heavy-barreled rifle, now does so in the form of their excellent Mark V-SVM. Introduced in 1999, the SVM is based on Weatherby's lightweight action sporting a fluted Kreiger Criterion barrel and a Bell & Carlson stock with integral bedding block.

The Custom Option

For our purposes, this first venture into an all-out varmint rig will be a factory production job. Once you get a year or two of field experience, your next rig will probably be more specialized. Perhaps you'll either go to a semi-custom shop like H-S Precision or Dakota Arms for one of their varmint rifles, or you'll choose a barrel, action and stock and have 'em put together to your specs by an accuracy gunsmith. But again, because the options with semi-production and custom rifles are virtually limitless -- and a lot more expensive -- we're going to stay with production-level rifles here.

Ditto for calibers. There are dozens of standard and wildcat cartridges that make superb varmint calibers, but if truth be told, there's precious little you can't accomplish with a plain vanilla .223, .22-250 or .220 Swift. If you want more steam than that, there's always the .243 and 6mm Rem., but they should really be the upper limit.

Sure, there are plenty of highly experienced hunters who favor more exotic and more potent cartridges -- the .22 or 6mm PPC's being good examples of the former; the .25-06, .264 Win., or even one of the 7mm mag, as examples of the latter. But again, that's for the next step up. For now let's stay with those practical calibers that are readily available and for which there are many highly accurate factory loads: the ,223, .22-250, the Swift, and to a lesser extent, the 6mm.

Philosophy Of The Cartridge

Assuming you've already done enough varminting to have some opinions as to what you need in a cartridge, I'll just air some thoughts that you may want to consider. For the kind of high-volume shooting that can occur on a good prairie rat town, barrel life and recoil become factors. Some of the best and most experienced shooters I know prefer the smaller .223 for several reasons.

For one, there really isn't as much difference in the effective range of the .223 versus the .22-250 or .220 Swift, as the paper ballistics would indicate. In the real world, there's always wind to contend with on the prairie, and mirage (off both barrel and landscape), to equalize the calibers. Over the course of a day's shoot, I can honestly say that hit percentages of shooters using the .223 aren't appreciably less than those using larger or faster calibers.

Not only that, but in a 10 to 11 lb. rifle, the .223's recoil is light enough to allow you to see your own misses and make the necessary hold corrections. With more potent calibers there's enough muzzle jump to momentarily blot out the sight picture. This situation is further exacerbated as scope magnification increases; the more magnification, the smaller the field of view. That's why barrel porting is becoming increasingly popular.

Varmint Peepers

I've come to prefer the .223 and a scope of no more than 16x for prairie rats. In fact, I've often used a 12x scope with excellent results. Another advantage to scopes in this power range is that their larger fields of view make it easier to acquire targets.

Normally, you first spot a critter with your binocular, and then you must scrunch down behind your scope and find it again. The larger the field of view, the easier it is. The same holds true when people are spotting for you and you're trying to find what they're describing in your scope.

Another reason I avoid scopes above 16x is because the depth of focus is too shallow. If you're going to refuse any shot under, say, 300 yards, then the shallow depth of focus on a 24x or even a 36x scope is no big deal. You just set the adjustable objective at 300 yards and everything from 250 yards on out is going to be in reasonably sharp focus.

If you're like most of us, however, you're going to also take the close shots whenever they're presented. When a "dummy" pops up 40 yards off your bow, it'll look like a ball of fuzz when viewed through a 24x, or worse, a 36x scope that's been adjusted for 400-yard shooting. Unless you don't mind constantly readjusting the focus -- and I do -- you'll find scopes of 12x to 16x easier to live with.

If your prime target is marmots or groundhogs, there's even less justification for scopes above 16x because the target is larger. Of course with a variable, you can crank down to a lower power for close shots and the depth of field resolves itself. But that too requires fiddling around with the scope from one shot to the next.

So what's best, fixed-power or variable? There's no shortage of seasoned vets who prefer a fixed-power scope, it's less expensive, it's more rugged and dependable, the optics are better, and the shift in zero which is present in all American-style scopes with non-magnifying reticles is absent. These are, however, attributes that one comes to value only after a goodly amount of experience using both. Even then you may well prefer the variable.

All things considered, a novice varminter would probably be happier with a variable -- something in a 4-12x to 6-18x range -- for that first serious varmint rifle. After that you too may want to try a fixed-power.

All Those Extras

Leaving the shooting system behind, we now turn to the indispensable accessories. Until recently, that meant sandbags or a bipod and a set of binoculars. Today we must add a laser rangefinder to that list.

For varminting, East or West, we set up shop in one place and stay a while. There's nothing steadier than sandbags on terra firma, so if you don't have to schlep 'em too far, that's the way to go.

But even short moves of a couple hundred yards at a time make sandbags impractical. If you want any mobility at all, try a collapsible bipod like those offered by Harris, B-Square or Stoney Mountain. The steadiest are the short ones that allow you to shoot prone. The longer models that allow shooting from the sitting position aren't steady enough for really long-range work.

As for binoculars, just keep in mind that you'll have 'em glued to your eyes for several hours over the course of a day. Buy the best you can afford; you won't be sorry.

Magnification isn't all that critical, but you're best off with something between 8x and 10x. Because all glassing is done while leaning over the hood of a vehicle or sitting on the ground, being able to support your elbows makes a 10x glass manageable. If your budget dictates the same binocular must be used for varminting and general big game hunting, then you'd be better off with an 8x.

Because this sport is always done in good light, 32mm objectives are perfectly acceptable. But again, if you're also using the same binoculars for, say, deer and elk hunting where twilight performance is important, then you might want to go with the larger, heavier 42mm objectives.

The Laser Show

Lastly, we come to laser rangefinders. Five years ago I wouldn't have even mentioned these techno marvels because the only ones that really worked -- the Leica Geovid and Swarovski's RF-1 -- sold for around $3,000. That's roughly three times what the rest of your rig combined will cost!

Today, among the various models offered by Bushnell, Nikon, Simmons and Tasco, we've got over a dozen units to consider. All are spot-on accurate, dependable, no larger or heavier than an 8x binocular, and sell at street prices that range between $250 to $450. In fact, the new Leica LF-800 weighs 12 ozs. and is damn near small enough to fit into a shirt pocket!

Any of the aforementioned reduce by half the problems of long range shooting. By knowing the exact distance to the target and the points of impact of our rifle at various distances downrange, first-shot hit probability increases dramatically. When the range is known, the only variable remaining is wind deflection. I say "only" but judging wind and the effect it will have on the bullet's flight has always been at least as difficult as range estimation, and probably more so.

But then I'm glad the wind remains a limiting factor, for if ever the time comes that such thing as marksmanship skills, experience and composure in the presence of game are nullified by technology, and hitting game at extreme range becomes a sure thing, I'll take up tennis.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Publishers' Development Corporation
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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