In any list of the “best,” there is going to be discussion and perhaps even arguments over the choices that are left off.
That is sort of the point and makes it fun for further discussion.
As such, my criteria are as follows: flat shooting out to at least 300 yards, minimizes fur damage, capable of an ethical kill on coyote-sized game, and is available from the factory.
For most people, the last criteria is most important. If you don’t reload, a “reloader’s only” round is not very useful.
Certainly, there are wildcats and other items that will do much “better” than what I suggest here, and I might well agree since I have over five loading presses, but this is about factory ammo.
Notice these varmint cartridges are not in order of value. Depending on the intended game, that might vary anyway.
It might even make sense to use .22 LR in that case.
Longer-range shots and game bigger than a bunny will be best taken with heavier rounds, both in grain weight and velocity.
1. .223 Rem/5.56 NATO
For those who don’t reload, Hornady factory 53-grain V-Max rounds are a common choice. In my rifle, this round averages 3,400 fps.
This creates a 25/300-yard zero, with the ballistic arc never over 4.3-inches high. At 350 yards, the drop is 3.7 inches and 400 yards is 10 inches.
At 300 yards, the velocity is 2,400 fps and energy is at 675 ft/lbs. In my mind, this is very acceptable.
The wind drift is also just over nine inches at 300 yards. Within 300 yards, there is no reason not to use this round, possibly out to 400 yards if you are good at reading wind.
Past 400 yards, the energy drops too low to ensure a clean kill.
There are many other factory rounds that will work well. If your shooting is within 200 yards, lighter/faster options may also work well.
The farther your shots, a heavier bullet’s wind-bucking abilities will be of more value.
Just know, there are not that many 68 to 77-grain varmint options in factory loads and they do not come cheap.
2. .243 Winchester
In factory trim, the .243 light-for-caliber rounds make quite good varmint choices. The 58-grain Hornady Superformance V-Max provides 3,925 fps.
This creates a 25/35-yard zero with the arc 5.6A-inches high at 225 yards. It is 8.7-inches low at 450 yards with a wind drift of 9.3 inches at 300 yards.
Retained energy is also very acceptable at 900 ft/lbs at 300 yards.
A heavier choice might be the 87-grain V-Max at 3,240 fps. This gives a 25/300-yard zero with a maximum arch of 4.1 inches at 175 yards.
It hits 9.3-inches low at 400 yards and retains 2,510 fps and 1250 ft/lbs of energy at 300 yards with a drift of 6.8 inches.
This round gives us a bit of absolute flatness for more practical flatness, better wind bucking and more retained energy at ranges most people will hunt at.
3. .22-250 Remington
The introduction of this cartridge effectively ended the excitement created by the .220 Swift.
Shooting a factory 35-grain bullet at 4,450 fps eclipsed the earlier round.
This option provides a 25/385-yard zero with a peak height of 6.4 inches at 225 yards.
At 300 yards, the velocity remains 2,480 fps with 480 ft/lbs of energy and 12.5 inches of drift.
For those not that good at wind reading, this is probably a 200-yard cartridge.
Stepping up to the factory 55-grain load changes things a bit and the velocity drops to 3,680 fps.
The 25/335-yard zero provides a max height of five inches at 200 yards.
At 300 yards, the velocity is actually a tad higher at 2,486 fps and with 750 ft/lbs of energy (270 more ft/lbs) and 9.8 inches of drift.
You lose a bit of initial velocity, but gain effectiveness at realistic ranges for coyote-sized critters.
4. .224 Valkyrie
With this round, very few factory choices go below the 60-grain threshold.
This is partly due to the cartridge being designed to take advantage of the longer and heavy-for-caliber .224 projectiles available.
The 60-grain weight is a very good choice for coyote-sized varmints, at 3,300 fps it provides a 25/285-yard co-zero with a maximum apogee of four inches at 175 yards.
The velocity of 2,235 fps and 660 ft/lbs of energy are very acceptable at 300 yards.
The wind drift is 10.8 inches, so that makes it a bit tricky, but inside 250 yards, things are pretty sound.
Handloaders have options both below and above this weight, but for those people, other calibers may perform better.
5. 6.5 Creedmoor
With newer factory ammo options, we are still limited to a 95-grain minimum weight projectile, but the numbers make this a solid option.
They are a much better option than the much more solidly constructed 120-grain choices.
The Hornady 95-grain V-Max provides 3,300 fps at the muzzle.
This gives us a 25/310-yard double zero with a maximum height of 4.25 inches at 175 yards.
The numbers at 300 yards are 2,500 fps with 1,320 ft/lbs of energy and 7.4 inches of drift.
At 400 yards, the energy is still over 1000 ft/lbs, but the wind is kicking us almost 14 inches off course.
Conclusion: Best Factory Varmint Cartridges
With all of these factory choices in varmint cartridges, your current twist rate was taken into account and all of them should work in your unmodified gun.
Obviously, some choices will work better in your specific firearm.
As always, grab a box or two of similar rounds from a few manufacturers and see which works better with your setup.
That being said, especially for the 5.56, .243 and .22-250, there are several options available.
The 6.5 Creedmoor and .224 Valkyrie are a bit new for wide factory expansion into light-for-caliber rounds.
What are your favorite varmint cartridges available from the factory? Let us know in the comments section below!