Varmint Rifle Roundup | Outdoor Life

Varmint Rifle Roundup

You don't need to spend big bucks for outstanding accuracy.

The road from Malta to Zortman stretches out like a thin asphalt ribbon dividing the prairie in north- central Montana. It's the middle of June, and an unusual amount of spring rain has transformed the landscape on either side of the highway from the drab and subdued patchwork of yellows, browns and greens one normally sees this time of year into a riot of bright colors. Under the oversized Montana sky it's easy to see several miles down the road as I follow my friend Andrew McKean's pickup into the center of some of the country's best prairie-dog hunting.

The impressive distances we're taking in through our dusty windshields foreshadow the type of shooting we've come to do. Armed with several .22/250s and box upon box of ammo (nine different types, all told) we plan to spend the next several days testing the limits of our rifles and our shooting abilities. But unlike many accuracy-obsessed varmint shooters who reload, rebarrel, retrigger and otherwise tinker with their firearms (spending fistfuls of money in the process), we're here to see what our off-the-shelf rifles and factory ammo are capable of.

Our home for the week is the Zortman Motel and Garage, a hospitable establishment that meets our three top criteria: it's clean, it's cheap and it's gun-friendly. It's also close to a couple hundred thousand acres of public land that support a bountiful prairie-dog population. Andrew, who works for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (and is a regular contributor to Outdoor Life) knows this country well. As we drive the back roads with fellow shooters Ken Dolph and Terry Thompson, both from ammo maker CCI/Speer, we have little problem spotting the telltale mounds of dirt and close-cropped grasses that mean we've stumbled into a dog town.

Each day we set up in a half dozen different spots and shoot until the prairie dogs refuse to venture out of their burrows. As we try different rifle and ammunition combinations-and measure the distance of our hits with our three laser range finders-it soon becomes clear that long-range accuracy isn't the exclusive province of the custom gun-and-handloading crowd. We're regularly scoring hits at 200 and 300 yards and, with some of the rifles, we're shooting prairie dogs 400 yards away with confidence.

On the second day of shooting, teaming up with Andrew as my spotter, I potted a prairie dog at 561 yards after just one ranging shot to account for a stiff crosswind and precipitous bullet drop-not too shabby for stock equipment. You could chalk that up as a fluke hit, of course, but a look at the results of our accuracy testing with the rifles and ammo on the range after the varmint hunt suggests otherwise.

How We Tested
After we had our fun in Montana, I took the rifles to my local gun club and shot each of them at 100 yards off a benchrest using the nine types of ammunition. For every rifle/ammo combination I shot a pair of 5-shot groups. The results were then averaged for the chart on page 86. To properly assess the accuracy potential of the rifles and ammunition, all five rifles wore the same type of scope, rings and bases. The scope we selected was the Bushnell Elite 4200 8-32x40. It delivered excellent optical clarity and its simple duplex reticle was ideal for both the prairie and the bench. In the field, the Bushnell's 1/8-MOA adjustments were fine enough to meet the demands imposed by nudging the point of impact to take long shots at small targets. The adjustment knobs themselves were easy to manipulate; they feature a micrometer-style scale on the side so that it's a simple matter to quickly adjust the zero from 100 yards to 500 yards and back again.

The scopes were held in place by quick-detachable rings and mounts made by Warne. We opted to use the company's Maxima series for the test. In general, my preference has always been to shoot with fixed rings-I never saw much need forhe ability to easily remove a scope while hunting. For this trip, however, it would have been impossible to transport all the rifles with scopes fixed in my multi-gun case. Over the days of shooting in Montana and during the trips to the gun club I removed those scopes dozens of times, and the sturdy steel rings excelled in the one area where it matters most: The rifles' zeros never shifted.

The Rifles
When you start talking about prairie dog rifles, most shooters picture a heavy-barreled bolt-action with a wide, flat-bottomed forend. Heavy barrels take longer to heat up than the daintier versions that adorn most sporting rifles, and this reduces the creep you might find in your point of impact during a long shooting session. The bolt-action, of course, has been the standard-bearer for accuracy among rifles for decades. And a stout, flat-bottomed stock gives the shooter a steadier platform for lining up precise shots off a rest. In addition, the extra heft provided by bull barrels and beefy stocks makes for reduced felt recoil and more comfort for the shooter.

Three of the rifles in our test fit this mold-the Remington 700 VLS, the Savage M-12BVSS-S and the Ruger M-77 Mark II Target. The Browning A-Bolt Varmint Stalker we tested had more of a "walking" varminter configuration, with its sporter stock and lighter barrel, but as the test results indicated, when paired with the right type of ammunition this gun held its own. Last, our Ruger No. 1 Varminter came with the requisite heavy barrel and wide forend, but its elegant falling-block action made it the only non-bolt-action in the group.

At the range, all of the rifles attained sub-one-minute 5-shot groups with at least one type of ammunition, which means they're all capable varmint guns. The trick is finding the ammunition that pairs up best with a given rifle. Looking at the chart, the temptation is to damn the less accurate performers while singing the praises of the better shooters. But that would be a mistake. These rifles are just a single example of a given gunmaker's products, and while we'd like to think that every rifle that rolls off the production line is equivalent to all of its brethren, that just isn't the case. Even with tight allowable tolerances-after all, no machine can produce two exactly identical parts-rifles are bound to come out with slightly different dimensions, which will add up to different levels of performance at the range. The point is that a single example of a particular product is not a definitive sampling.

That said, when you see the performance of a rifle like the Savage, which grouped every type of ammo very well (and earned our "Editor's Choice" for this test in the process), you know you've got a shooter that deserves to be called the best in its class. But just what do the results of the Savage test actually tell us? Consistently small groups (the Savage's 18 five-shot groups averaged 0.743 inches) can come only from a rifle with everything working as it should. That means that not only are all the various components-trigger, bolt, receiver, stock, barrel, etc.-well-designed and well-built, but they are all functioning properly in relation to each other. A world-class barrel doesn't do you any good if it has been cross-threaded into the receiver. Likewise, a poor stock-to- action fit will ruin your dreams of bughole groups.

The most evident advantage the Savage brought to the test was its innovative AccuTrigger. At its lightest setting this adjustable trigger will break at about 1½ pounds and, just as important, it does so cleanly. All the other triggers were rougher and heavier by comparison, which certainly hampered the accuracy of those rifles. The Ruger M-77 Mark II Target's trigger was the second-best of the lot, so it isn't surprising that it was the second most accurate rifle in the group. (Even though some triggers like the Remington's can be adjusted, the goal of the test was to run the guns "as is" from the factory, so no amateur gunsmithing was allowed to improve their performance.)

The Ammunition
The factory .22/250 ammunition we tested came in three bullet weights-40, 50 and 55 grains. Rifle makers have a tough decision to make when it comes to selecting the optimum rate of twist for barrels, because different bullet styles and weights behave differently (sometimes radically so) when imparted with different amounts of spin. Typically, gunmakers settle on a rate of twist that seems to shoot a variety of bullets well. [BRACKET "For a more detailed discussion of twist rates and accuracy, see Shooting, November."] All the rifles in this test came with a 1-in-14-inch rate of twist except for the Savage, which has a 1-in-12-inch twist. (Savage switched to a faster twist for its .22/250s several years ago to accommodate the growing popularity of heavier bullets in this caliber. As a rule of thumb, heavier bullets in a given caliber need to be spun more quickly to stabilize them.)

Given the near unanimity of twist rates, it wasn't surprising that certain bullet weights outperformed others. In particular, the 40- and 50-grain bullets proved to be more accurate than the 55-grain offerings. Averaged over all the rifles, the 40-grain bullets turned in 1.009-inch groups, while the 50-grain bullets shot 1.013-inch groups-an insignificant difference. By contrast, the heavier 55-grain bullets produced 1.398-inch groups on average, nearly 4/10ths of an inch worse. That discrepancy is not a big deal for coyotes at close range, but those 0.4-inch spreads every hundred yards will add up to a lot more misses on distant prairie dogs, which offer targets that are 3 to 4 inches across or less.

It's also worth noting that the 55-grain bullets did worse than the other bullet weights in nearly every rifle-they didn't shoot poorly in just one or two. If you look at the three least accurate group sizes for each rifle tested, you'll find that 80 percent of them (12 of 15) came from 55-grain bullets even though the 55-grain bullets account for only 44 percent (20 of 45) of the entries in the chart. But (and there's always a "but" when talking about accuracy) one of the 55-grain loads, Federal's Sierra BlitzKing, shot the tightest group of the whole test, a 0.272-inch hole from the Savage M-12.

What about the most accurate ammunition overall? Remington's 50-grain V-Max turned in the smallest average group size (0.926 inches), earning our "Editor's Choice" crown for this roundup. Right on its heels was Hornady's 40-grain VX, which produced 1-inch groups on average. Does this mean you'd be best off shooting these .22/250 loads to the exclusion of the others? Absolutely not.

If you look at the most accurate groups for the five rifles, you'll see that four adjusted, the goal of the test was to run the guns "as is" from the factory, so no amateur gunsmithing was allowed to improve their performance.)

The Ammunition
The factory .22/250 ammunition we tested came in three bullet weights-40, 50 and 55 grains. Rifle makers have a tough decision to make when it comes to selecting the optimum rate of twist for barrels, because different bullet styles and weights behave differently (sometimes radically so) when imparted with different amounts of spin. Typically, gunmakers settle on a rate of twist that seems to shoot a variety of bullets well. [BRACKET "For a more detailed discussion of twist rates and accuracy, see Shooting, November."] All the rifles in this test came with a 1-in-14-inch rate of twist except for the Savage, which has a 1-in-12-inch twist. (Savage switched to a faster twist for its .22/250s several years ago to accommodate the growing popularity of heavier bullets in this caliber. As a rule of thumb, heavier bullets in a given caliber need to be spun more quickly to stabilize them.)

Given the near unanimity of twist rates, it wasn't surprising that certain bullet weights outperformed others. In particular, the 40- and 50-grain bullets proved to be more accurate than the 55-grain offerings. Averaged over all the rifles, the 40-grain bullets turned in 1.009-inch groups, while the 50-grain bullets shot 1.013-inch groups-an insignificant difference. By contrast, the heavier 55-grain bullets produced 1.398-inch groups on average, nearly 4/10ths of an inch worse. That discrepancy is not a big deal for coyotes at close range, but those 0.4-inch spreads every hundred yards will add up to a lot more misses on distant prairie dogs, which offer targets that are 3 to 4 inches across or less.

It's also worth noting that the 55-grain bullets did worse than the other bullet weights in nearly every rifle-they didn't shoot poorly in just one or two. If you look at the three least accurate group sizes for each rifle tested, you'll find that 80 percent of them (12 of 15) came from 55-grain bullets even though the 55-grain bullets account for only 44 percent (20 of 45) of the entries in the chart. But (and there's always a "but" when talking about accuracy) one of the 55-grain loads, Federal's Sierra BlitzKing, shot the tightest group of the whole test, a 0.272-inch hole from the Savage M-12.

What about the most accurate ammunition overall? Remington's 50-grain V-Max turned in the smallest average group size (0.926 inches), earning our "Editor's Choice" crown for this roundup. Right on its heels was Hornady's 40-grain VX, which produced 1-inch groups on average. Does this mean you'd be best off shooting these .22/250 loads to the exclusion of the others? Absolutely not.

If you look at the most accurate groups for the five rifles, you'll see that four

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