Ammunition

5 Best Varmint Cartridges: Reloader Edition

man in camo carrying rifle

Reloaders have customization options for varmint cartridges that factory options cannot profitably fulfill.

They are targeting the sweet spot of the buying market, not the smaller niches.

We as reloaders can put together powder, projectile and even barrel twist combinations far outside the ranges factories are willing to support.

Here are five options that are superior to any factory options.

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 to further discuss (see other options at the end).

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 improves where the factory left off.

1. .223 Rem/5.56 NATO

This round is everywhere. It is chambered in bolt guns, semi-autos, AR-15s and long-barreled pistols.

If you can’t find a gun chambered in this, you aren’t looking very hard.

Now within this plethora of choices, I would suggest that the SHTF 16-inch barreled M-4gery is probably not the best varminting platform and certainly 55-grain NATO ball ammunition is a poor choice.

However, a 20 to 24-inch barreled precision semi-auto or bolt gun is a very solid option.

I choose to run 77-grain Berger OTM handloads for my coyote ambushes. As a reloader, I can easily run this bullet at sizzling velocities.

In my precision 24-inch barrel AR, my load generates +2,750 fps (add 100 fps for a bolt gun) and with a 25/225-yard zero provides a very flat shot out to 300 yards.

To put some numbers on this, the round is never more than 2.7-inches high or 3.9-inches low, between zero and 275 yards.

I don’t typically take shots on this size game past 300, but 350 yards is roughly 14-inches low and 400 yards is roughly 23–inches low.

These numbers show why, especially with this choice. With a 10 mph crosswind, at 300 yards it deviates by less than 10 inches.

Perhaps the bigger value, is at 300 yards the projectile still hits at 2,075 fps and carries 735 ft/lbs of energy.

This means the bullet is still within its deformation velocity and that is plenty of energy for an ethical kill.

pile of .223 remington ammo varmint cartridges

2. .220 Swift

Due to being eclipsed by newer and larger rounds, the .220 Swift has all but been forgotten by most shooters.

It was the original rocket round, when introduced the +4,000 fps velocity stood well above all other rounds.

With modern powders, this cartridge is capable of 4,400 fps (although many find the accuracy node 100-150 fps lower).

To do this, a diminutive 35-grain bullet is needed and this has disadvantages at distance, but for handloaders wanting to work in the lower bullet weight ranges, this is a fabulous, if obscure, cartridge.

With a 35-grain Nosler at 4,300 fps (accuracy node), this provides a 25/385-yard zero with a max overage of 6.3 inches at 225 yards and 10.4-inches low at 475 yards.

The bullet retains an acceptable 541 ft/lbs of energy at 300 yards and a wind drift of 12 inches.

As you can see, this is quite good for such a light bullet choice, but other (harder-recoiling) rounds have the advantage at distance. 

Stepping up to a 52-grain Nosler still easily provides 3,750 fps, which provides a 25/335-zero with a max high mark of  5.1-inches at 200 yards.

The projectile is 6.1-inches low at 400 yards and provides 701 ft/lbs of energy at 300 yards.

This is a 25-grain lighter projectile than with the heavy-for-caliber 5.56, yet yielding the same downrange energy and the same 10 inches of wind drift.

Hornady .220 Swift Ammo varmint cartridges

3. .243 Winchester

For the reloader, there are three choices for varmint cartridges with this caliber.

#1. Move up to .243 Ackley Improved. This provides at least 200 fps more velocity to the below numbers, thus making it flatter shooting and retaining more energy at distance.

#2. Running a light for caliber bullet, something in the 55 to 60-grain weight. This will provide roughly 4,050 fps.

With a Hornady 58-grain V-Max, this translates to a 25/375-yard zero with a maximum high of 5.85 inches at 225 yards.

It also means you will only be 7.25-inches low at 450 with a retained energy of 710 ft/lbs at 400 yards.

At 300 yards, the wind drift is a hair over nine inches.

#3. Running a heavier varmint round. Something like an 80-grain Berger Varmint at 3,300 fps.

This will get you a 25/300-yard zero with the max over being 4.3 inches at 175 yards. At 400 yards, you are 8.6-inches low.

The wind is pushing you 7.1 inches at 300 yards with a retained energy of 1250 ft/lbs.

Coyote on the prowl

4. .257 Roberts

Here, unlike with the 5.56, a light-for-caliber projectile is the way to go. A Hornady 75-grain V-Max provides a very light-recoiling shot at 3,600 fps.

This makes follow-up shots much simpler if there is more than one target, or by some chance you miss.

At those speeds, the projectile comes apart very rapidly inside the prey, doing significant internal damage without harming the pelt too much.

At 3,600 fps, the 25/325-yard zero has a peak deviation of 4.9-inches high at 200 yards and is six-inches low at 400 yards.

It also still provides a very ethical 850 ft/lbs of energy at 400 yards. With 10 mph winds, the drift is 8.5 inches at 300 yards.

As you can see, this is a very flat-shooting round that makes fairly simple work of predator hunting out to at least 300, if not 400 yards.

close up of rifle telescope for sport hunting on table wooden

5. .300 Win Mag

Some of you are going to question my sanity with this choice. However, reserve judgment until after you see the numbers.

Using a Barnes 110-grain TSX easily gives 3,850 fps at the muzzle. This provides a 25/380-yard double zero.

At 300 yards, you still have 2,760 fps and 1,860 ft/lbs of energy and only 7.8 inches of drift.

This velocity and energy will ensure deformation of the TSX bullet at this distance and brutal expansion at closer ranges.

If you are good at reading wind, this is still a viable choice at 500 yards, with a velocity of 2,170 fps, energy of 1,150 ft/lbs and 23.8 inches of drift.

All of this comes with very little recoil penalty considering the other advantages.

This light round has 25-30% less recoil than its 150-grain bigger brother.

bolt action rifle with night vision optics, thermal imager, ballistic calculator, soft focus, backlight, entourage.

Reloading Varmint Cartridges

The reloader has as MANY more choices in varmint cartridges that have not been addressed.

It simply comes down to what calibers you already own, does your rifle have an appropriate twist rate for the light (or heavy) for caliber projectile.

Then, with things like Ackley Improved, are you willing to pay for a quick touch-up to the chamber to provide 150-300 more fps and a more efficient powder burn.

Almost all of the calibers discussed in the non-reloader article can be improved with reloading, and many other calibers can (normally) be shot with light-for-caliber bullets.

A short list:

  • .204 Ruger
  • .22-250 AI
  • 6mm Creedmoor
  • 6.5 Creedmoor
  • 6.5 PRC
  • 7mm-08
  • 7mm Magnum
  • .308 AI
  • .300 PRC

What are your favorite varmint cartridges for reloading? 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 (8)

  1. Hey GRUMPY 49,
    I agree completely with shorter range shots, and LOVE my 22 Hornet in the T/C Contender. I’ve had it for over 35 years. Paired with a Tong tool dies powder, bullets, primers and a box of 20 cases, I can stay out for a couple days, shooting and loading at my leisure.
    I have the .223 Conetender 10″ which I load 40 grain Speer soft point Spitzers in and with (older Hodgden 4227 powder) get a 5 shot grouping of less than 3/4″ at 125 yards…with a 4x Leupold EER scope, verified several times! The lighter bullet and powder combo lessens the noise considerably too, but still loud compared to the Hornet.

  2. I love my Ruger No 1 in 30-06 and have killed everything from prairie poodles to elk with it I load the 125 grain tnt over reloader 15 with a velocity of 3250 fps it has explosive results it is not for friendly under 200 yards but coyotes don’t go anywhere when hit with it. Reloading makes my deer rifle a varmint rifle.

  3. Considering the comfort of shooting light-for-caliber gets me to thinking again about my K31. Reloading for my semi-autos has restrictions about recipes strong enough to operate their actions. My Swiss straight-pull doesn’t mind at all if I throw in little 130-grain +/- bullets for a much more pleasant shooting experience than the 174-grain standard. It is fun to shoot with the lighter recoil and the lovely straight-pull action.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. I’m partial to the 25-06 here in Oklahoma, to buck the winds. I still use my 220 swift on calmer days, 10-15 mph.

  5. I prefer a Rem 22-250. I have this caliber in a Tikka mod 695 and it is deadly. I have designed and built 3 loads that all land on target at 200 yds and give me a variety of bullet performance characteristics. I have a thick skinned sierra match hollow point for slow expansion, a BT soft point for a little more impact and a polymer tip for fast expansion. With minimal drop out past 300, low recoil in my opinion and a wealth of both factory ammo and loading components I find this a very solid choice. And if I want to plink on some steel i have a Win FMJ load to get some recoil therapy. With these options I am a happy and well appointed varmint nightmare.

  6. And yet the 264wm isn’t on the list, but a 300wm as a varmint round! Flatter and better ballistics than the 30cal! I have both cartridges.

  7. With bullets weights  from 30-grains to 50-grains,accurate jacketed/plated bullets, soft-point andhollow-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 andv versatile, the .22 WMR is also the best choice fora ‘bug-out’ or long term survival cartridge/chambering.
    Good shooting!

    ‘Doc’ Dempster

  8. Classic .22 Hornet is an overlooked cartridge that is a great T/C Contender (10″ barrel) varmint combo. IF the Contender had a .221 Fireball 10″ barrel, then that would be also a great combo. Note that the .223 Contender 10″ barrels are too short and waay too loud to be of any value. Sometimes, less can be more. Not everyone needs to shoot 200+ yards.

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