5 Best Varmint Cartridges: Factory Edition

Person holding remington 700 in camo

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.

If you are hunting squirrel/rabbit-sized game, the lighter grain weights are very acceptable. especially since most shots will be within 100 yards.

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.

Hornady .223 Rem Ammo Box and varmint cartridges

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.

Hornady Superformance .243 Winchester varmint cartridges

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.

.22-250 ammo box and rounds

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.

Hornady .224 Valkyrie ammo box

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.

Federal 6.5 Creedmoor ammo box

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!

About the Author:

John Bibby

John Bibby is an American gun writer who had the misfortune of being born in the occupied territory of New Jersey. His parents moved to the much freer state of Florida when he was 3. This allowed his father start teaching him about shooting prior to age 6. By age 8, he was regularly shooting with his father and parents of his friends. At age 12, despite the strong suggestions that he shouldn’t, he shot a neighbor’s “elephant rifle."

The rifle was a .375 H&H Magnum and, as such, precautions were taken. He had to shoot from prone. The recoil-induced, grass-stained shirt was a badge of honor. Shooting has been a constant in his life, as has cooking.

He is an (early) retired Executive Chef. Food is his other great passion. Currently, he is a semi-frequent 3-Gun competitor, with a solid weak spot on shotgun stages. When his business and travel schedule allow, you will often find him, ringing steel out well past 600 yards. In order to be consistent while going long, reloading is fairly mandatory. The 3-Gun matches work his progressive presses with volume work. Precision loading for long-range shooting and whitetail hunting keeps the single-stage presses from getting dusty.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (17)

  1. Lefty, you must mean the Remington Accelerator, a 30.06 cartridge with a .224 bullet jacketed in a sabot to make it .30. Crazy fast, as I recall, and very flat for a long way out. Also virtually untraceable, as the rifling gripped the sabot, which falls away, and the projectile arrives unmarked. Assassination, anyone? Hence, you will likely never see them again.

  2. The 220 Swift is a faster cartridge than the .22-250, poor barrel metallurgy and better marketing are the reasons for the .22-250 being a more popular cartridge today not its ability to push a bullit any faster than the Swift (because it can not).

  3. My favorite varmint caliber for woodchucks is a Remington 7 mm Magnum. Yes, it is over kill, but I shoot woodchucks from 300 to 500 yards. Using the old Hornady 120 grain Spire point and custom loads, when zeroed in at 300 yards, the drop at 500 yards is just over 7″. Crosshair a standing woodchuck in the middle of the forehead at 5oo yards and the shot hits mid chest. It also has the ability to be loaded for almost any game in North America.

  4. What’s happened to the 222 REM ?? Excellent caliber for small critters out to 300yds and coyotes at 200yds. Makes a better ‘rifleman’ of the shooter.
    Also mention to be given to the.17 Hornady Hornet

  5. Hi Lefty, Back in the day (before they were taken off the market) I shot a cotton tail with a Remington Accelerator 3006.
    It literally disintegrated it. Head shots only for that type animal.
    It would also blast a soda can of water into multiple pieces.

  6. I have all of the guns mentioned in this article, and one that I like is the 22 Hornet. It shoots fast and flat and I have taken a deer with it. Totally blew the heart up with a hollow point. We used it in West Virginia for shooting groundhogs. My mother was a crack shot with it and I would definitely use it to hunt coyotes.

  7. The .22 Hornet is my fathers, mine and my two brother’s choice for groundhogs and foxes for over 60-years. Excellent accuracy. Being a center fire, I have hunted deer with it (head shots only). The only downfall, factory ammo has been expensive, even back in the ’60’s and ’70’s. Thank God for reloading.

  8. When it comes to varmints, I love my Savage 110 in .204 ruger. 32 gr. Vmax for small varmints, 40 gr. V max for coyotes to 300 yds. The light recoil makes for an accurate shooting gun, (ie no flinching! ) and contrary to inexperienced shooters, it’s as deadly a gun as any varmint gun I’ve seen out to 300 yds and when you get used to shooting it in wind, 400 yds. You can also get 45 gr. Bullets that are a little slower but can still “reach out and touch someone”. If you can’t get within range of a one shot kill with this gun, maybe it’s your stalking skills that need to be more deadly?

  9. Uh, Doc, you said ” The .22 WMR will handle largevarmints, even deer under 50 yards.Inexpensive andversatile, the .22 WMR is also the best choice fora ‘bug-out’ or long term survival cartridge/chambering.”
    That may be true, but in many states, shooting at a deer with any rimfire cartridge will earn you a loss of weapon, vehicle and hunting rights for 5 years, not to mention huge fines, and possible time with roommates you don’t really want down at graybar hotel.

    Just because a gun may be capable of taking deer in the right circumstances, doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good idea. I know people who shot deer with .30-30’s and lost them. I have heard of cases where people killed large animals with small caliber handguns, but that is not a recommendation for carrying something like that for self defense.

    For a bugout survival rifle, I would choose my AR and just carry the .22 LR conversion kit I have. The .223 will take a deer at short range (less than a couple hundred yards) and the .22 will take raccoons, (Done that with that rifle) and any number of other critters and varmints that can be eaten.

  10. With bullets weights  from 30-grains to 50-grains,accurate jacketed/plated bullets, soft-point and hollow-point, the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire(.22 WMR) is an excellent, versatile, and inexpensivevarmint cartridge. The .22 WMR will handle largevarmints, even deer under 50 yards.Inexpensive andversatile, the .22 WMR is also the best choice fora ‘bug-out’ or long term survival cartridge/chambering.Good shooting!
    ‘Doc’ Dempster

  11. If push comes to shove i.e. these days,one can neck down 30-06 brass
    Has anyone seen /used those 30 caliber sabots with 223 projectiles?

  12. 25.06 was my choice, bullets available from 75 to 120 grains and flat shooting to cover any animal on out to 500 yard’s and beyond.

    With the ability to choose different bullets and reloading your own ammo you can put together a slower velocity round to minimize hide damage if you do desire.

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