What Makes a Varmint Rifle?

Varmint rifles are popular; there’s no denying that. More shooters are taking to hunting everything from prairie dogs to coyote. Spending your off-hours ridding someone’s land of vermin is usually a welcome pastime that landowners don’t always have time to do. Varmints are a destructive, invasive and generally unwanted group of pests most people would rather live without. So what’s the best tool for the job? It really depends on what you’re planning to eradicate.

The standard varmint rifle fills a gap between small .22 LR rimfire rifles and larger deer calibers. It is a sort of sweet spot where you get decent range, accuracy and flat trajectory all in one package. Ideally, a varmint rifle will have a few characteristics that set it apart from a smaller hunting rifle. Heavy barrels are a common inclusion. They allow for more accurate follow-up shots since they take longer to heat up. Often, varmint hunters utilize a fixed position and use more ammunition than hunters who stalk their prey.

Another useful addition is a magnified scope. Varmint hunters frequently face the difficult task of hitting small, fast-moving targets. Manufacturers generally also include free-floating barrels to increase accuracy as well. As far as actions go, most varmint rifles are bolt guns. However, the semi-automatic AR trend seeped well into the world of varmint hunting in recent years. Specialized AR varmint rifles are commonplace and some argue they fill their respective roles better than their bolt-action counterparts do.

Since accuracy is the most desired feature, the calibers chosen usually offer a flatter trajectory. This means the projectiles need to be small and fast. A lightweight bullet traveling very fast means that hunters won’t have to adjust their shots as much for bullet drop. Ammunition manufacturers often design the bullet to disintegrate on impact. This means all the energy from the round transfers into the animal, rather than traveling straight through. This creates a cleaner kill and less chance of wounding the critter in question.

The most popular calibers for varmints are usually part of three separate groups, beginning with the smaller, quieter calibers. They’re perfect for shooting vermin at closer range in more populated areas. Common choices are the .17 HMR, .22 WMR, .22 Hornet and .218 Bee. Inside of 185 yards, they get the job done perfectly.

At medium ranges, a little more beef is necessary. The .222 Remington is a nice choice and performs very close to the more popular .223 Remington. Both cartridges are solid choices and if I was only able to own one rifle, it would probably be a .223 Remington. A decent scope on a .223 bolt-action is one hugely useful tool.

For those shooters who are trying to stretch it out to the next county over, the .22-250 is an amazing piece of hardware. In my personal experience, .22-250 rifles perform extremely well for varmint hunting, offering a nice balance of power and accuracy. Other options include the .220 Swift, .223 WSSM, .243 Winchester and the 6mm Remington. Some of these rifles share the distinction of being useful deer and hog cartridges as well. In particular, the .243 Winchester has a long-standing reputation as a useful all-around cartridge for anything up to large hogs.

Serious varmint hunters have to use their specialized tools to make extremely accurate shots at great distances—often while the target is on the move. This means the shooting skills required to be successful are greater than some other forms of hunting. Choosing the proper rifle will help, but it takes a lot of practice to be a proficient varmint exterminator. Check out our varmint rifles and see if one fits you. Those pesky critters won’t stand a chance.

What’s your favorite varmint rifle and caliber? Tell us in the comment section.

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 (9)

  1. I have 22 mags, a 22/250 & a 243. I like shooting them all. The 22 mags are primarily walk around guns. The 22/250 is my primary varmint gun, with 55 grain vmax bullets it will flatten coyotes as far as I will ethically shoot. I like to keep the hides & the vmax goes in small & doesn’t exit but really destroys the inside. The 243 has killed many deer with 100 grain partitions in the federal supreme load and it shoots the federal 80 grain load really well, also a good coyote load. Lastly when just walking the river bottoms or fields I love the Winchester 40 grain jsp in my humble opinion the best 22 mag load.Happy hunting

  2. For Thomas S. Thank you for the information. It is my first Howa and is excellent. I wondered if it was a fluke or the norm. I am pleased to learn it may be typical, as I am considering buying another.

  3. Owen McCullen—Its one of the most accurate rifles I’ve ever shot. I’ve got that one for varmints. And I’ve
    got another Howa in 7mm-08 for deer and hogs and it’s just as accurate. Howa was mainly a company that
    Concentrated on building actions for other companies for a long time. Weatherby and mossberg
    use mainly Howa actions. I still want one in .22-250.
    My friends dad came up with that .243 load. 55gr Barnes varmint grenade bullets. First time we chronoed it I couldn’t believe it.

  4. This is for Thomas S. I could not agree more. One question. I have a .308 Howa and it is amazingly accurate. Is yours like that, too?

    I have hit coyotes with a similar load and it reminded me of the photos of mutilated bodies of Vietcong sappers who strapped explosives to their chest and then flung their bodies on the wire and detonated the explosives. Pretty close to the same effect. Bit of an exaggeration, but not much.

  5. I’ve got a .243 Howa that’s deadly on anything varmint size. A 55gr bullet on top of a .243 doing over 4000fps makes just about anything look like they swallowed a hand grenade.

  6. I enjoyed this post. In my more salad days, I liked to hunt jack rabbits and found the .22 LR pistol, with a red dot reflex type sight a lot of fun in daylight, but too bright at night. Shooting was fast.

    Other than rabbits, coyotes were a very savory target. We were often in quite windy country, with gusty winds from various directions the norm and not the exception. I tried several different calibers and eventually settled on a .243 Browning high wall single shot. It had a splinter barrel and seemed to weigh about 3 pounds but was really deadly on the first shot. It was my experience that if the first shot did not connect, you were not going to get another so the single shot was not a great disadvantage. I am from the old school that felt the first shot was the best shot and the more modern “spray and pray” was not terribly effective.

    I had real trouble with the .17 WMR due to the wind. Got rid of it a year or two after it came out. On dead calm days, it was fine but given a little cross wind and it made dopping the wind very problematic. On buttes behind the target, I saw splashes several feet off where the impact should have been. I found the .22 WRM better than the 17 in the wind. However, neither could hold a candle to the .243.

    Further, the .243 was more than adequate for the “yote”. I had one, hit with the .22 WRM that I never recovered. It went down, but got up somewhat sluggishly and went away before I got another round into him. I suspect he went off and died. I think I hit him too far back and he was gut shot. A rib could have deflected the little .22. It would not have done that with the .243. I hope he had a bad history, because he came to rather a bad end, I suspect.

    I never lost a coyote I hit with the .243. It seemed like several went into the air, sideways, and ended up in the dirt on their sides with devastating wounds, which I will not describe out of respect for the gentler sex who may read this. The crows and ravens likely had a field day on the following morning.

    By the way, the digger squirrel is omnivorous, often eating their “mates” who were hit but not dispatched. Rather plaintive squeaks as they were being devoured while yet alive by their fellows. It made for some nice follow up shots, often as they attacked their dieing comrade. The normal caution of the digger squirrel seemed lessened when dining on fellow squirrel.

    Finally, I found .243 ammo almost as available as .22 WRM and, while having one, more easily found than .17 HMR. Even in small, out of the way country stores that might only have .30-06 and 12 Guage, I would find that they often also had .243.

  7. The .22 LR is a decent enough varmint cartridge, and I’d choose it over the .22 mag or .17 HMR. A 10/22 loaded with CCI Mini Mags can handle up to coyote-sized critters while Federal bulk is good enough for squirrels and prairie dogs.

  8. My preferred varmit gun it my .22WMR bolt action with a 3 to 8 scope on it. Where I live I have a field that is just about 150 to 175 yards accross in front of the house. My house sits on a slight hill giving me a great field on fire. When my ducks and chickens are out with their bitties the crows like to sit in the trees waiting for an opportunity to ring their dinner bell. I have my .22WMR sighted in at 150 yards and like to ring their bell right back at ’em. They have grown wary and like to fly in from the wooded side of the hill but that’s even better for me ’cause they don’t see me waiting in the garage waiting for them. I tried using a .22LR but it just didn’t have the legs needed to do the job. There are no more chucks left in the field from last years excursion with the .22WMR. Now the cows are safer too.

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