Varmint Rifle Roundup

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

varmint rifle test
Testing Varmint Rifles
Nine types of ammunition were fed through five different varmint rifles.Outdoor Life

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 for the 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 1 1/2 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. [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 different types of ammunition are represented there, which shows the need to experiment with a variety of loads to optimize your off-the-shelf accuracy. This trial-and-error process is the easiest way to make your rifle shoot better. The difference between the best and worst groups for the Remington 700, for example, was greater than 2 inches and, on average, the rifles saw a 1.124-inch difference in group size.

ACCURACY IN THE FIELD

More prairie dogs have met their ends at the hands of shooters who have propped their rifles on the hood of a pickup than by any other method, but there are better ways to go about it. Rigging a portable and sturdy shooting rest is not difficult; however, if you want to avoid the hassle of building one yourself there are plenty of out-of-the-box options. In Montana we took along two Cabela's "Elite" shooting benches. Not only did they fold flat and transport easily, but they were very stable and provided a much better platform than our wind-buffeted trucks would have.

Keeping your guns clean is another easy way to shoot more accurately. During your time in the field, periodically scrubbing your bore with a solvent like Shooter's Choice or Sweet's 7.62 Solvent, followed by pushing patches through until they come out clean, will keep your bullets on target.

A couple of words of advice, however. Always use a bore guide and never use a screw-together cleaning rod. The pieces of multi-part cleaning rods never align perfectly and that slightly raised lip makes for a dandy cutting edge that will shave bits of metal from your bore if you're not careful. So stick with one-piece cleaning rods (the J. Dewey Mfg. Co. makes some really fine ones) to avoid ruining your rifling. Give your rifle a more thorough cleaning at the end of the day to remove copper fouling from the bore and grit and grime from the other parts.

MAKING THOSE LONG SHOTS

Remember when I said that the 561-yard hit I made wasn't a fluke? You might not be surprised to learn that I was shooting the Remington 50-grain V-Max ammunition out of the Savage at the time. Five-shot groups from this pairing averaged just over half an inch--0.567 inches to be exact. (The Savage shot Winchester's 50-grain Ballistic Silvertip a hair better, with a 0.557-inch average group size.) As Shooting Editor Jim Carmichel puts it, half-inch groups are the gateway to true long-range accuracy and are usually the product of custom or semi-custom guns and handloaded ammunition. One thing this test shows is that the Savage, loaded with the right factory ammunition, is knocking on that gate. While it is incorrect to assume that a gun that shoots a half inch at 100 yards will automatically print one-inch groups at 200 yards, our shooting in Montana demonstrated that the Savage is a serious long-range varminter. The 0.567-inch groups with the Remington ammo at 100 yards interpolate to a 3.18-inch group size at 561 yards--in other words, a prairie-dog-sized cluster of bullet holes. Of course, nailing a skittish target at an unknown distance while dealing with strong winds is very different from punching paper at the rifle range--the demands on your shooting skills are much greater. However, no matter how steady you hold the crosshairs, you'll never make that shot unless all your gear--your rifle, your ammunition, your scope mounts and your optics--is up to the task. The good news is that based on our testing in the wide-open Montana countryside and in the controlled environment at the rifle range, making 500-yard shots with off-the-shelf varmint rifles and ammunition is within your reach. All you need to do is hold up your end of the bargain and shoot as well as the equipment can.

OUTDOOR LIFE EDITOR'S CHOICE 2004

SAVAGE M-12BVSS-S ($675; www.savagearms.com)

Savage has a long-standing reputation for making good rifle barrels--but it takes more than that to produce a shooter that turns in half-inch groups. An adjustable (and user-friendly) trigger, a pivoting bolt head that helps align the cartridge in relation to the bore and a stiff single-shot action are other features that contributed to this rifle's customlike accuracy.

Another measure of the versatility and quality of this rifle is that it turned in the best groups for every type of ammo in the test, with just one exception--and even there it was only 15/1000ths of an inch off.

The Model 12's chunky stock is not graceful by any means, but in keeping with the form-follows-function philosophy of the rifle's design, it is comfortable, even for all-day shooting. Put simply, this Savage is a lot of rifle for the money and is one of the best values out there.

Other Varminting Gear

Prairie-dog shooting is most fun when done as a team sport, particularly when you're using hotter calibers like the .22/250 that make it difficult to see your bullet's impact. To share the joy when making the shot of a lifetime, a spotting scope is a must. Leupold's 12-40x60 Tactical is a great piece of glass for watching the action. It's also tough and light and compact enough that you won't think twice about bringing it with you no matter where you go. The howling winds out on the prairie knocked it over more than once, but its rubber armor saved it from any damage. Its mil-dot reticle also makes it easy to show someone else where the game is. You just give a coordinate (e.g. three dots up and one to the left) to help him zero in on the critter. ($1,250; www.leupold.com, 503-526-1400)

When it comes time to shoot for serious accuracy back at the range, you don't want to prop your rifle on any old rest. Investing in a quality benchrest like Sinclair International's All Purpose Rest is a smart move. It's as solid as a bank vault and allows you to make precise adjustments to maneuver your rifle into the correct position instead of forcing you to contort your body. The adjustable top accommodates any style forend, from hunting rifles to benchrest stocks. ($240; www.sinclairintl.com, 260-493-1858)

VARMINT RIFLES

Measurements are the average of two 5-shot groups. Bottom row is group avg. by ammo.

COMPANY/CONTACT: Browning A-Bolt Varmint Stalker (801-876-2711) Caliber .22/250 Rem. Rate of Twist 1 in 14 in. Capacity 4+1 Weight (unscoped) 8.2 lb. Barrel/Overall Length 26 in./45.75 in. Metal Finish/Stock Blue/Synthetic Price $787

Scope/Rings Bushnell Elite 4200 8-32x40/Warne Maxima Federal 40-gr. Sierra Varminter HP 0.979 Federal 55-gr. Sierra BlitzKing 2.176 Federal 55-gr. Sierra GameKing 1.217 Hornady 40-gr. VX 0.784 Hornady 50-gr. VX 0.851 Hornady 55-gr. VX 1.654

EDITOR'S CHOICE Remington 50-gr. V-Max 0.996

Winchester 50-gr. Ballistic Silvertip 0.866 Winchester 55-gr. Ballistic Silvertip 1.464 Overall Average Group (in.) 1.221 Average of Best 3 Groups (in.) 0.834 Comments This lighter-weight varmint gun would make an outstanding coyote rifle.

[COMPANY/CONTACT] Remington 700 VLS (800-243-9700) [Caliber] .22/250 Rem. [Rate of Twist] 1 in 14 in. [Capacity] 4+1 [Weight (unscoped)] 9.38 lb. [Barrel/Overall Length] 26 in./45.50 in. [Metal Finish/Stock] Blue/Laminate Wood [Price] $725

[Scope/Rings] Bushnell Elite 4200 8-32x40/Warne Maxima [Federal 40-gr. Sierra Varminter HP] 1.111 [Federal 55-gr. Sierra BlitzKing] 1.533 [Federal 55-gr. Sierra GameKing] 1.101 [Hornady 40-gr. VX] 1.067 [Hornady 50-gr. VX] 1.255 [Hornady 55-gr. VX] 3.108

[EDITOR'S CHOICE Remington 50-gr. V-Max] 1.027 [Winchester 50-gr. Ballistic Silvertip] 1.307 [Winchester 55-gr. Ballistic Silvertip] 1.543 [Overall Average Group (in.)] 1.450 [Average of Best 3 Groups (in.)] 1.093 [Comments] With its jeweled bolt, rich laminated stock and excellent metal finish, the 700 was by far the most handsome rifle in the test. [COMPANY/CONTACT] Ruger No. 1 Varminter (928-541-8820) [Caliber] .22/250 Rem.

[Rate of Twist] 1 in 14 in. [Capacity] 1 [Weight (unscoped)] 9 lb. [Barrel/Overall Length] 24 in./40.25 in. [Metal Finish/Stock] Stainless/Laminate Wood [Price] $910

[Scope/Rings] Bushnell Elite 4200 8-32x40/Warne Maxima [Federal 40-gr. Sierra Varminter HP] 1.085 [Federal 55-gr. Sierra BlitzKing] 1.829 [Federal 55-gr. Sierra GameKing] 1.275 [Hornady 40-gr. VX] 1.212 [Hornady 50-gr. VX] 1.509 [Hornady 55-gr. VX] 1.129

[EDITOR'S CHOICE Remington 50-gr. V-Max] 1.377 [Winchester 50-gr. Ballistic Silvertip] 1.329 [Winchester 55-gr. Ballistic Silvertip] 2.211 [Overall Average Group (in.)] 1.439 [Average of Best 3 Groups (in.)] 1.142 [Comments] This rifle blends a traditional falling-block action with a modern laminated stock and stainless barrel--an intriguing combo.

Ruger M-77 Mark II Target (928-541-8820) [Caliber] .22/250 Rem. [Rate of Twist] 1 in 14 in. [Capacity] 4+1 [Weight (unscoped)] 9.75 lb. [Barrel/Overall Length] 26 in./45.63 in. [Metal Finish/Stock] Stainless/Laminate Wood [Price] $819

[Scope/Rings] Bushnell Elite 4200 8-32x40/Warne Maxima [Federal 40-gr. Sierra Varminter HP] 0.985 [Federal 55-gr. Sierra BlitzKing] 1.315 [Federal 55-gr. Sierra GameKing] 1.270 [Hornady 40-gr. VX] 1.140 [Hornady 50-gr. VX] 0.861 [Hornady 55-gr. VX] 0.915

[EDITOR'S CHOICE Remington 50-gr. V-Max] 0.666 [Winchester 50-gr. Ballistic Silvertip] 1.310 [Winchester 55-gr. Ballistic Silvertip] 1.110 [Overall Average Group (in.)] 1.063 [Average of Best 3 Groups (in.)] 0.814 [Comments] Very accurate with the right type of ammo. Its "gray" metal finish is probably the toughest and most durable of the test.

EDITOR'S CHOICE Savage Model 12BVSS-S (800-370-0708)

[Caliber] .22/250 Rem. [Rate of Twist] 1 in 12 in. [Capacity] 1 [Weight (unscoped)] 10 lb. [Barrel/Overall Length] 26 in./46.25 in. [Metal Finish/Stock] Stainless/Laminate Wood [Price] $675

[Scope/Rings] Bushnell Elite 4200 8-32x40/Warne Maxima [Federal 40-gr. Sierra Varminter HP] 0.931 [Federal 55-gr. Sierra BlitzKing] 0.667 [Federal 55-gr. Sierra GameKing] 0.887 [Hornady 40-gr. VX] 0.799 [Hornady 50-gr. VX] 0.712 [Hornady 55-gr. VX] 0.709

[EDITOR'S CHOICE Remington 50-gr. V-Max] 0.567

[Winchester 50-gr. Ballistic Silvertip] 0.557 [Winchester 55-gr. Ballistic Silvertip] 0.856 [Overall Average Group (in.)] 0.743 [Average of Best 3 Groups (in.)] 0.597 [Comments] An off-the-shelf varminter with true 500-yard accuracy potential. Its adjustable trigger helped it outshoot the competition.

Group Average by Ammo (in.)

[Federal 40-gr. Sierra Varminter HP] 1.018 [Federal 55-gr. Sierra BlitzKing] 1.504 [Federal 55-gr. Sierra GameKing] 1.150

[Hornady 40-gr. VX] 1.000 [Hornady 50-gr. VX] 1.038 [Hornady 55-gr. VX] 1.503

[EDITOR'S CHOICE Remington 50-gr. V-Max] 0.926

[Winchester 50-gr. Ballistic Silvertip] 1.074 [Winchester 55-gr. Ballistic Silvertip] 1.437

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