Long-range varminting

David Duffy

It was the last week of November and there was a bushfire nearby that had been burning for several days. The farmer asked me: “Was it as bad as this last time you were here?” I responded: “No, it sure is dry.” He said: “It’s more than dry…” He asked me to come and have a look at a sheep. “I rescued this one yesterday. The crows have pecked its eye out and I’ve been giving it antibiotics.” I replied: “I’ll try to shoot some crows.”

The crows on this property not only cause the slow and painful death of sheep but they are also clever. If they are in the field and you show yourself, they are gone. So you have to stalk out of sight to a shooting position which may be some distance from them. I’d brought two rifles with me on this hunt, a .220 Swift with a 27″ one in 14″ twist heavy barrel for some long-range varminting and a lightweight one in 9″ twist 6SLR (.243 with 30-degree shoulder) so I could test the new 90g Sierra GameChangers on some varmints to see how they perform.

That afternoon I went for a walk with the Kimber 6SLR to an area which I have previously shot rabbits and crows at long range to check out what the rabbit population was like (it was poor last trip) and to see if the crows were hanging around.

I started to notice signs of rabbits and a fox was just too quick for me, scurrying along the dry creek out of sight. I came to a blackberry bush and the fox exploded out of it into an adjacent blackberry bush. He exited out the backdoor and the last I saw he was ducking under a fallen tree. I disturbed some crows on a dead sheep carcass and they took off. The carcass was in a good position for me. If I could come back early next morning and stalk undetected to the high embankment and lie prone, the carcass would be slightly more than 400 yards away.

Last time I varminted with my .220 Swift in this location I shot two rabbits from 390 and 431 yards using my homemade portable shooting bench from a hill behind me. I wouldn’t be able to use the portable bench this time as the crows would spot me. Having hatched a plan, I then went and shot some rabbits before it became dark and was impressed with how the 90g Sierras functioned.

The next morning, the crows were already on the carcass at 5.45am. I crawled into position with the Remington 700 but the crows saw me and flew off. I laid a sheet of camo material on the ground, put the bipod legs into position and ranged the distance with my Leica 1200 rangefinder at 420 yards. I waited in the prone position and set up the scope.

The magnification on the Zeiss 5-25 was adjusted to 25x and the parallax at one mark from infinity. The anti-cant device was checked and the Pod-Loc on the Harris bipod was loosened and the rifle tilted slightly so that the spirit level on the anti-cant device read level. The Pod-Loc was tightened. I checked the reticle diagram which I have taped to the top of my scope and saw that on 25x magnification the second stadia line on the Zeiss Rapid-Z varmint reticle corresponds with 415 yards. I was all set up and now I just waited.

It was probably 20 minutes before a crow flew in from a different direction and after circling the carcass, landed a few paces from it. Then another crow came. One jumped on top of the carcass and started to feast himself. I looked through the scope and chambered a round from the magazine. I steadied my breathing and centred the second stadia line on the crow’s chest. When I had expelled all the air from my lungs and at the point in time when my lungs were not causing my upper body to move, I gently touched the Jewel 16oz trigger. After recovering the sight picture, I saw one crow fly off and the other was dead.

The crows weren’t coming back in a hurry so I went and inspected the bird. The Nosler 55g Ballistic Tip certainly performed superbly, the entry hole was slightly lower than where I tried to aim. Even on 25x the crows and rabbits at that distance aren’t very big.

In the afternoon I came back again but everything was quiet. I ended up shooting a rabbit behind me at about 200 yards with the .220 Swift. Walking back after sunset a boar came down out of the bush. I steadied the 5.1kg rifle against a sapling, turned down the magnification to 5x and shot it through the shoulder at about 100 paces. The pig died, but I don’t recommend light varmint projectiles on game the size of pigs even if you shoot the head or neck. On another evening I shot a sow with a double lung shot using the Kimber 6SLR and the 90g GameChanger. The pig didn’t move. I believe these projectiles would be great on long-range wild dogs out of a .243-6mm-.240. They have a Ballistic Coefficient (BC) of .490 which is excellent for a 90g hunting projectile.

I decided to return early the following morning. However, I thought it better to move further back and not skyline myself as much this time. This would mean being on the lee side of a rise but not so far that the projectile wouldn’t clear the crest. It had rained overnight so I brought a square of carpet to sit on.

There were no crows on the carcass when I arrived. Within a short time, one came. I didn’t measure the distance but used the fourth stadia line. I took the shot and it didn’t feel right and it was a complete miss. The crow flew off. I pulled out the rangefinder and the distance was 448 yards. I should have used the third stadia line which corresponds to 450 yards. I waited. Around 40 minutes later another crow came and landed on the carcass. This time the shot was good. When I inspected the crow, the projectile had hit him in the head. Now this was just a fluke because at that distance I try to aim for the chest.

A relatively flat shooting cartridge such as the .220 Swift or .22-250 Ackley Improved (which holds one more grain of powder) is preferable to mitigate the effects of error at these sorts of distances. For example, even though the Leica rangefinder is superbly accurate, it is difficult to aim so that the beam hits exactly where the rabbit or crow is on a flat field when the distances are way beyond 300 yards. I normally take three readings and use the middle one. Sometimes I might be out by perhaps 25 yards. Even if you were to know the exact distance, adjusting for the precise amount of elevation often results in error.

Although 3800fps is the average velocity, the first shot out of a cold, clean barrel will shoot slightly slower and a warm barrel with a lot of copper fouling may go much faster. Other variables such as temperature, humidity and altitude are only approximate and error arises because of this.

My Swift also shoots the 50g projectiles accurately at 3900fps. If both the 50g at 3900fps and the 55g at 3800fps are sighted in 2″ high at 100 yards, the trajectories are virtually identical until about 300 yards (depending on the BC of the projectile used). Then the 55g projectile starts to shoot flatter and this increases with distance. At all distances the 55g projectile has less wind drift.

A 75g A-MAX (now replaced by ELD Match) at 3300fps from a .220 Swift out of a one in 8″ twist barrel sighted in at 2.2″ high at 100 yards, maximum mid-range rise above line of sight is 2.9″ at 150 yards compared to 2.9″ at 175 yards for the 55g Ballistic Tip sighted in at 2.0″ at 100 yards. It is only at about 525 yards that the 75g starts to shoot flatter. Up until that point the 55g has shot flatter.

The 75g at 3300fps has significantly less wind drift than the 55g projectile and the difference grows with distance. It is not the case that I would go out and varmint on a windy day. However, even if there is a slight breeze, the 75g will move off target less than the lighter projectile.

The 50 and 55g options are varmint projectiles and they have a dramatic effect when they hit a crow or rabbit. Although the 75g are match projectiles, they work okay on varmints but not nearly as good as the dedicated varmint projectiles. The performance of some of the other projectiles heavier than 75g on varmints is questionable.

If you shoot a bigger case than the Swift or .22-250 AI, then barrel life suffers too much and recoil/blast intensifies. It is important that you develop a highly accurate load if you start long-range varminting. My Swift can shoot five shots into 0.4″ at 100 yards and you really want at least this degree of accuracy at distances greater than 400 yards. I use AR2208 powder in the Swift and although some powders give higher velocity, it is very accurate and consistent for this cartridge and also in the .22-250 AI with both 50- and 55-grain projectiles.

Flat shooting cartridges such as the Swift and bigger (eg, .22-243 Middlestead) can’t be shot rapidly otherwise they become too hot and you will burn the throat out. For regularly shooting lots of varmints in quick succession, a smaller case such as the .222 is much better, but they are only suitable up to about 300 yards.

For a shooter easing into long-range varminting, there are some good factory heavy barrelled dedicated varmint rigs available that are accurate enough. When I started varminting in the 1980s with my .220 Swift in the Hunter Valley, I was happy with a rabbit shot at 300 yards, while 350 yards was a challenge. By the time I moved onto my second barrel, a rabbit or crow at more than 400 yards was an achievement. Now, a 500-yard rabbit or a 500-yard crow is the test.

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