There’s a lot to take in as David Duffy dissects the top culling cartridges
Whether you like walking around hunting varmints or shooting them from a distance using a rest or bipod, there’s quite a selection of cartridges, both factory and wildcat rounds, to do the job.
Due to the volume of shooting varmint hunters usually do compared to pursuers of big game, sometimes factors such as availability of good quality brass if you’re a reloader, or obtainability and cost of rimfire and factory loaded centrefire ammunition will determine what cartridge is most suitable for your needs.
My first rimfire was an Anschutz .22 Magnum. For a new shooter this is a top choice because the .22 Magnum is good on foxes, cats and devastating on rabbits. The Anschutz was accurate but I would have preferred a five-round clip rather than four with a spare holding eight-10 rounds as it’s easy to empty a magazine on a colony of rabbits.
Then I bought a Sako .222 and found this even more accurate, far more powerful with greater limit and reloads were not much more expensive. When offered an excellent price for the Anschutz, I sold it.
Both the .22 Magnum and the .222 mangled the rabbits, as frequently they would be shot in the body rather than the head. I acquired a .22LR and eventually settled on Winchester 40gr Power-Points as its fodder. These gave good results and even with body shots, most of the rabbits could be salvaged for the pot.
This is the feature I like most about the .22LR ‑ less meat wastage on small game but also it is quieter than nearly all other cartridges, especially when using subsonics in a 23” barrel, and it’s cheap to run. When the 42gr Power-Points came out, these made the .22LR more suitable for close-range foxes with good shot placement as not only are they heavier, but also travel slightly faster.
The CCI Velocitors are quite good on small game as well. Eventually I bought an Anschutz 1416 .22LR and a spare 10-round clip to use with the five-round magazine, replacing the plain-stocked 1451.
I was tempted to go for a .17HMR as they are accurate and have far more span than a .22LR. The cost of ammunition is high though and the cases are prone to cracking. I can reload my .17-222 and .222 for roughly the same cost and they are even more accurate and have greater range and power. The .17HMR is a lot more powerful than the .17 Mach II and usually has the edge in accuracy over the more powerful .17WSM, so the .17HMR is my second choice for a rimfire after the .22LR.
The length of the .17-222 is perfect for most extra-short actions and it feeds better in some rifles than the efficient and shorter .17 Mach IV and similar .17 Fireball. It is faster than the .17 Mach IV/Fireball and just as accurate and it doesn’t have a rim like the less powerful .17 Hornet.
I also like the .17 Remington which is marginally faster than the .17-222, but if you can’t source .17 Remington brass, using .223 brass gives too short a neck so the best option is using .204 Ruger brass. The availability of good quality .222 parent cases plus using the .222 made me choose the .17-222 over the .17 Rem.
I run weight sorted Winchester .222 brass through the full-length sizing die and the cases are formed. If you wish to use high-quality Lapua brass, then you would need to neck-down in two stages, say to .20-222 then to .17-222. The .17-222 using 25gr V-Max projectiles sighted 1.2” high at 100 yards is good for 300 yards on rabbits, crows, foxes and feral cats. The Pac-Nor stainless 3 groove 9 twist barrel doesn’t foul as quickly as some .17 calibre barrels do and is highly accurate.
I prefer the .20-222 over the excellent shorter .20 VarTarg for the same reasons I like the .17-222 over the .17 Mach IV. However, I think the best .20 round uses readily available high-quality Lapua .223 brass and pushes the shoulder back with a 30-degree angle and slightly blows out the case.
This round is called the .20 Tactical and is a better design than the easier to form straight neck-down of the .223 case. It is faster than the .20-222. If you buy factory loaded ammunition, the high velocity .204 Ruger is an excellent choice.
The .223 has a slight range, wind-drift and power advantage over the .222 and top-quality brass is easily available, as are factory rifles and loaded rounds. The .222 is still thought to be more inherently accurate, has marginally less recoil and longer barrel life and high-quality brass is also available for it. Both are good medium distance varmint cartridges.
My preference goes to the .222, but the .223 is better if you don’t reload. The .22 PPC and .22 BR are believed to be even more accurate than the .222 and have more velocity but they don’t feed as well from a magazine, and magazine capacity is also reduced. I think the best designed .22 case around .222/.223 capacity for use in a magazine is the .22 Tactical using readily available .223 brass.
Way before the .22 Nosler and .224 Valkyrie were designed there were similar varmint cartridges such as the .22 Rimless Lindahl Chucker and .220-25 Original Donaldson Wasp, developed between 1935 to 1940 using the .25 Remington case. These cartridges are a step up in performance over the .222/.223, feed well from a magazine and do magnificently at 250-350 yards, and can be housed in an extra-short action with medium heavy 24-26” barrel, in a portable weight rifle.
The Chucker, Wasp and Valkyrie do not have rebated rims, which is good. It is hard to source alternative brass to make .22 Nosler cases because of the length of the case. I like the idea of using 53gr V-Max projectiles in a one in 12 twist barrel with cases of this capacity and would prefer a case length midway between the .224 Valkyrie and .22 Nosler that can be made from 6.8 SPC brass if need be. The parent case of the 6.8 SPC is the .25 or .30 Remington.
In terms of long-range .22s, the .220 Swift has about 100fps advantage over the popular .22-250, but both cases stretch a fair amount. The .220 Wilson Arrow has a flatter shoulder and this reduces stretching of the Swift case. My next barrel on the Swift will probably be a one in 8 twist so I can use high ballistic coefficient (BC) projectiles such as 75gr Hornady ELD-M. Either an extended magazine well for my short-action Remington 700 or a reamer with a short throat would be needed as these projectiles stick out a lot more when seating close to the lands.
The .22-250 AI case doesn’t stretch as much and gives velocities marginally higher than the Swift and holds about one more grain of powder. However, the .22-250 AI (the 40-degree version) doesn’t feed well from a magazine and requires fireforming to make the cases, which uses up barrel life and is time-consuming.
The .22 Creedmoor is similar to the .22-250 AI but feeds better from a magazine because of its 30-degree shoulder and it doesn’t require fireforming. Reports are that it is also very accurate. The .22 Creedmoor is probably the best of the longer range .22s, but I still like the Swift.
Larger cases such as .22-243 and .22-6mm have shorter barrel life, more recoil/blast and sometimes finding excellent accuracy is more difficult than using a smaller case.
The 6mm and larger
The .243 is excellent as a walkaround rifle for larger varmints like wild dogs or feral pigs and also medium size game such as goats and small deer. I really like the 6SLR, which has a 30-degree shoulder and a longer neck and is formed from the .243 case by simply running it through the 6SLR full-length die.
When you’re not sure what you might come across, the 6mm and .257 calibres are a good dual-purpose choice. The .257 calibre has an advantage with bigger game as heavier projectiles can be used.
For longer shots, the 6mm projectiles have better BCs than the .257 calibre which are restricted by the slow twist barrels. Nevertheless, the .25-06 has a loyal following and those who use it speak highly of it for longer range varmints.
I use a .240 PSP, which is an improved 6mm Remington with a 28-degree shoulder and a long neck. The .240 PSP shoots the 90gr Swift Scirocco at 3350fps with 53gr AR2213SC out of the 24¼” barrel – about 50fps less than the .240 Weatherby using 55gr AR2213SC maximum load.
For extreme long-range varmint shooting, cartridges that use long, heavy but high BC projectiles such as the 6mm Creedmoor, 6.5 Creedmoor and 6.5 PRC are not out of place. The 6.5 PRC has greater case capacity for extreme ranges, yet not so much that recoil/blast becomes a big issue.