.44 Magnum: Not just for handguns!

Nobody said it better than Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan: “The .44 Magnum is the most powerful handgun in the world.” At that time this was true, but the .44’s reign as the most powerful handgun cartridge has long since ended. Today it is surpassed in power by several factory cartridges, including the .454 Casull, .480 Ruger, and both the .460 and .500 S&W. However, these cartridges also surpass the .44 Magnum in recoil.

44 handguns: The .44 Remington Magnum, designed as a handgun cartridge, has been chambered to numerous pistols and revolvers. Boddington’s T/C Contender with .44 barrel and his S&W Classic Hunter are shown with Garrett’s 310-grain super-hard-cat “Hammerhead” load…which will not cycle in all lever-action carbines.
44 handguns: The .44 Remington Magnum, designed as a handgun cartridge, has been chambered to numerous pistols and revolvers. Boddington’s T/C Contender with .44 barrel and his S&W Classic Hunter are shown with Garrett’s 310-grain super-hard-cat “Hammerhead” load…which will not cycle in all lever-action carbines.

The big .44, properly the .44 Remington Magnum, is a handful in a handgun! Some find it difficult to master, but in a heavy revolver it’s really not that bad. It remains my favorite handgun hunting cartridge, very accurate and plenty powerful enough for anything I desire to hunt with a handgun! For years gunwriter Elmer Keith had been experimenting with heavy handloads for the old .44 Special, using that case because the brass was thicker and stronger than standard cases for the .45 Colt.

44 Spl 44 Mag: Based on Elmer Keith’s handloading experiments, the .44 Magnum, right, was created by lengthening the old .44 Special case (left), so that the longer and more powerful cartridge could not be chambered in .44 Special revolvers.
44 Spl 44 Mag: Based on Elmer Keith’s handloading experiments, the .44 Magnum, right, was created by lengthening the old .44 Special case (left), so that the longer and more powerful cartridge could not be chambered in .44 Special revolvers.

Remington listened to Keith, lengthening the .44 Special case so the longer “magnum” version would not chamber in a revolver made for the shorter cartridge. Smith & Wesson made the first revolvers, the awesome Model 29 made famous first by Elmer Keith…and later by Inspector Callahan. Remington introduced the cartridge, and in 1955 the .44 Remington Magnum was born. Since then it has been chambered in numerous revolvers…and a few single-shot pistols and semi-autos. It remains the gold standard for handgun hunting, powerful yet (more or less) manageable, used to take a wide variety of game throughout the world.

Browning 92: Payton Miller and Mike Ballew with a big California boar, taken in about 1980 with one of Browning’s first Model 1892s in .44 Magnum. The 240-grain soft-point penetrated both shoulders and kept on going!
Browning 92: Payton Miller and Mike Ballew with a big California boar, taken in about 1980 with one of Browning’s first Model 1892s in .44 Magnum. The 240-grain soft-point penetrated both shoulders and kept on going!

However, the .44 Magnum isn’t just a handgun cartridge! It was still fairly new when, in 1959, Bill Ruger offered the first .44 Magnum carbine…and his fledgling company’s first long gun. The Ruger Model 44 was a sleek semi-automatic, somewhat reminiscent of the M1 Carbine…but fed by a short four-round tubular magazine. Marlin soon offered their 1894 lever-action in .44 Magnum, and since then there has been a steady flow of .44 Magnum carbines. Modern re-issues of Winchester 1892s have been so chambered for 40 years, and the Winchester 1894 has also been offered in .44 Magnum, along with other lever-actions and a few single shots. To my knowledge Ruger, in several iterations and model changes, has offered the only semi-auto .44 carbine.

Feral hog 44: This S&W Classic Hunter with 6.5-inch barrel has long been one of Boddington’s favorite hunting handguns, accurate and manageable. This is an extremely ugly California boar, taken with Garrett’s 310-grain super-hard-cast load.
Feral hog 44: This S&W Classic Hunter with 6.5-inch barrel has long been one of Boddington’s favorite hunting handguns, accurate and manageable. This is an extremely ugly California boar, taken with Garrett’s 310-grain super-hard-cast load.

Okay, since the .44 Magnum was conceived, developed, and is highly effective as a handgun cartridge, why a .44 Magnum rifle? Not to avoid the obvious, a carbine is easier to shoot than a handgun, and for most of us will be more accurate and offer more range. In a carbine the .44 has very mild recoil and is fun to shoot! However, one of the legends of the Old West was that it was more convenient for a cowboy (or outlaw) to have both a rifle and handgun using the same cartridge. From the 1870s the primary options were revolvers and lever-actions chambered to .38-40 and .44-40; in 1892 the .32-20 was added to this short list.  

IMG_1317: On the bench with a new Marlin 1894 in .44 Magnum. This is one of smoothest and slickest lever-actions Boddington has used. The rail mount has integral aperture sight, but offers full range of mounting with optics.
IMG_1317: On the bench with a new Marlin 1894 in .44 Magnum. This is one of smoothest and slickest lever-actions Boddington has used. The rail mount has integral aperture sight, but offers full range of mounting with optics.

For 60 years the .44 Magnum has been available in both handguns and long guns. There are several other modern options, but I’m not sure the two-gun/one cartridge concept was ever a perfect plan. Even in the 19th Century rifle actions were stronger than revolver actions. Beefed up .44-40 loads were offered “for use in rifles only” …causing problems when used in revolvers. Designed as a handgun cartridge, all “standard” factory .44 Remington Magnum loads can be used in both handguns and revolvers. However, not all commercial loads are “standard.” For years one of my favorite .44 Magnum hunting loads was Garrett’s “Keith-type” 310-grain super hard-cast flat-point. Garrett Cartridges of Texas, Buffalo Bore, and Cor-Bon specialize in offering heavy-bullet loads for cartridges such as the .44 Remington Magnum (and .45 Colt, .45-70, .454 Casull, .500 S&W, and so forth) Factory literature (and warnings!) clearly suggest firearms these loads are safe to use in. But lever-action carbines for pistol cartridges have definite Cartridge Overall Length (COAL) restrictions. Albeit with increased recoil, these heavy-bullet loads take a .44 Magnum handgun into a whole new level of performance…but they may be too long to cycle in a lever-action .44 carbine.

IMG_1333: Mounted with a low-power scope, the 1894 proved amazingly accurate…and offered hunting capability to at least 200 yards, awesome versatility from a short-barreled carbine.
IMG_1333: Mounted with a low-power scope, the 1894 proved amazingly accurate…and offered hunting capability to at least 200 yards, awesome versatility from a short-barreled carbine.

Similar problems can exist with other dual-firearm cartridges. I have a Big Horn Armory M89 lever-action in .500 S&W. They recommend Buffalo Bore’s 440-grain hard-cast flat-point, which is what I’m shooting. Their factory literature clearly states that standard factory loads with lighter bullets may not function. My favorite hunting handgun remains a S&W Classic Hunter, and I have a Marlin 1894 carbine, both in .44 Magnum. I have the Big Horn .500 S&W carbine, but I do not have a .500 S&W revolver! I shoot the .44 well, but for me the big S&W cartridges are above my comfort zone!

IMG_2318: Big Horn Armory’s M89 “Spike Driver” in .500 S&W is a beautiful and powerful carbine. Accuracy is superb with Buffalo Bore’s 440-grain load, but although the .500 S&W is obviously a dual carbine/handgun cartridge, standard factory loads with lighter bullets may not cycle.
IMG_2318: Big Horn Armory’s M89 “Spike Driver” in .500 S&W is a beautiful and powerful carbine. Accuracy is superb with Buffalo Bore’s 440-grain load, but although the .500 S&W is obviously a dual carbine/handgun cartridge, standard factory loads with lighter bullets may not cycle.

Personally, I don’t think of the .44 as a dual rifle/handgun cartridge. For me, the .44 Magnum remains an awesome handgun cartridge…but it also stands alone just fine as a useful and versatile carbine cartridge…and the most common 240-grain .44 Magnum loads function just fine in both platforms. Depending on who is doing the loading (and actual barrel length), 240-grain .44 Magnum loads exit a handgun barrel (average7.5 inches) at between 1200 and 1400 feet per second (fps). A longer carbine barrel (average of let’s say 18 inches) yields immediate and significant bonuses in velocity, energy, and flatter trajectory. With a 240-grain bullet 1600 fps is minimal, and some barrels and loads will break 2000 fps. Just like heavy-bullets do in a revolver, this puts the .44 Magnum into different categories of both power and utility.

IMG_3794: Coming off a stand in Texas with the Marlin 1894 .44 Magnum. Boddington intended to use the carbine for wild hogs, but after a couple of unsuccessful outings he turned it to deer hunting…where it came through with flying colors.
IMG_3794: Coming off a stand in Texas with the Marlin 1894 .44 Magnum. Boddington intended to use the carbine for wild hogs, but after a couple of unsuccessful outings he turned it to deer hunting…where it came through with flying colors.

Back in 1980, when Browning did the first run of new Model 1892s in .44 Magnum, Payton Miller and I ran up to northern California to try it out on a hog. Honestly, we were skeptical: How would the handgun bullet perform at the much higher velocity? Payton had a shot at big boar at about 90 yards and took the shoulder shot. The bullet, a standard factory 240-grain soft-point, exited the off-shoulder and dropped the pig with authority, concerns instantly resolved!

IMG_3910: A fine Nebraska whitetail, taken at sunset with the 1894 Marlin .44 Magnum, using a new Hornady 200-grain Monoflex bullet.
IMG_3910: A fine Nebraska whitetail, taken at sunset with the 1894 Marlin .44 Magnum, using a new Hornady 200-grain Monoflex bullet.

Lately I’ve been messing with a new Marlin 1894 in stainless and synthetic, 16.5-inch barrel. It is one of the smoothest lever-actions I’ve ever handled, and the accuracy is astounding. Zeroed a bit high at 100 yards, my neighbors and I take turns ringing steel gongs at 200 yards with no problems; it’s a really fun gun to shoot. So far, I’ve had it on a couple of hog hunts where the pigs didn’t cooperate.

Javelina .44: A young Boddington with a javelina, taken with one of his most memorable shots with a handgun, a bit over 100 yards with an 8 3/8-inch barrel S&W M29. Today his older eyes would preclude attempting such a shot with a handgun…but no issues with a carbine!
Javelina .44: A young Boddington with a javelina, taken with one of his most memorable shots with a handgun, a bit over 100 yards with an 8 3/8-inch barrel S&W M29. Today his older eyes would preclude attempting such a shot with a handgun…but no issues with a carbine!

I was starting to worry it was one of those hard-luck guns. A week ago, I had it on a whitetail stand on a cottonwood river bottom in western Nebraska. Just at sunset a very nice ten-point buck appeared and gave me a shot at 125 yards. The buck ran to the left into some cedars, but I found him almost immediately. The bullet, a new 200-grain Monoflex from Hornady, entered the on-shoulder, expanded perfectly, and was against the hide on the far side. Hopefully the jinx is broken; I look forward to trying it again on hogs soon.

Mike Walker and Elmer Keith: Remington’s great engineer, Mike Walker, conferring with Elmer Keith at Remington’s Ilion factory. S&W made the first .44 Magnum revolvers, but Walker and Keith deserve credit for the cartridge.
Mike Walker and Elmer Keith: Remington’s great engineer, Mike Walker, conferring with Elmer Keith at Remington’s Ilion factory. S&W made the first .44 Magnum revolvers, but Walker and Keith deserve credit for the cartridge.

REMINGTON’S BIG SEVEN By Craig Boddington

I’m on the record as stating (more than once!) that the 7mm Remington Magnum isn’t one of my favorites. It’s a popular cartridge so this always brings howls from its many fans. More importantly, at least to me, is that it’s not good journalism—or business—to contradict myself. Since I’ve been writing about this stuff for 40-odd years I think it’s possible (and allowable) for my opinions to change over time. But this opinion has not changed: The 7mm Remington Magnum is not among my all-time favorite cartridges.

7 mag line-up: Left to right: 7mm Remington Short Action Ultra Mag, .280 Remington, 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Weatherby Magnum, 7mm Shooting Times Westerner, 7mm Remington Ultra Mag. The 7mm Remington Magnum is hardly the only “fast 7mm,” and certainly not the speediest—but it is by far the most popular and most available, a world-standard hunting cartridge.

My reasons are simple: There are lots of excellent cartridges, and it’s impossible to love them all equally. I love the .270 Winchester because it shoots just as flat as the 7mm Remington Magnum…but burns less powder, has less recoil, does fine in a 22-inch barrel, and can be built into a lighter rifle. If I feel I might need (or just want!) more power I’ve generally stepped up to a fast .30-caliber, which can offer more bullet weight and frontal area with similar velocity…albeit with more recoil.

7mm 50th: This 2012 Remington M700 BDL was the 50th Anniversary edition of both the M700 and the 7mm Remington Magnum. This rifle produced half-inch groups, straight out of the box with factory ammunition.

It is possible other folks feel much the same. For some years the 7mm Remington Magnum was the world’s most popular cartridge to bear the “magnum” suffix. This is no longer true; the .300 Winchester Magnum has surpassed it in overall popularity. I don’t have the data to support a hypothesis that the .270 is currently more popular than the 7mm Remington Magnum, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The .270 seems to keep rolling along, and it is fact that Remington’s Big Seven is not as popular as it was 20 years ago.

1984 Dall sheep Alaska: In 1984 I took my first Dall sheep with a beautifully restocked left-hand M700 in 7mm Remington Magnum. At the time this was one of my only rifles; I used it a lot with perfect results.

That said, the Big Seven is a powerful, versatile, and effective hunting cartridge, and I have a lot of experience using it. Over the years I’ve used it in a lot of test rifles, some I hunted with and some not. However, for two periods I used it a great deal because that was the chambering of two favorite rifles. In the early 80s, living in LA and working at Petersen Publishing, I had multiple burglaries and lost almost all my firearms. A fellow lefty in the LA SCI chapter suffered a severe injury to his left eye, had to switch to right-handed shooting, and sold some rifles. Being a bit short of rifles at the moment I bought two: A pre-’64 Model 70 .375 converted to left-hand bolt, a rifle I used for years and should have kept; and a left-hand Remington 700 in 7mm Remington Magnum in gorgeous wood with a left-hand cheekpiece and rollover comb.

2000 Bishop mtn nyala: My old friend Joe Bishop used a battered Sako in 7mm Remington Magnum for all his mountain hunting, including for this mountain nyala in the high country of Ethiopia.

I used that rifle a lot, but a few years later I had a chance at a gorgeous David Miller rifle I couldn’t resist, also on a left-hand M700 rifle. Just by chance it happened to be chambered to 7mm Remington Magnum. Honest, that wouldn’t have been my choice, but the rifle wasn’t made for me and the price was right. For deer-sized game and African plains game it was my “go to” rifle for years. The cartridge performed flawlessly…as it has since introduced in 1962.

Using a new left-hand M700 X Custom, these are all five-shot groups fired with 168-grain Barnes LRX and 162-grain Hornady ELD-X. Both loads averaged under one inch for five-shot groups. I believe this “medium” weight range gives the 7mm Remington Magnum its greatest versatility for both hunting and long-range target shooting.

The fact that it might not have been my first choice has nothing to do with its utility—and it has been the first choice of many experienced hunters. Legendary sheep hunter Bert Klineburger (1926-2017) was a 7mm guy; he used his 7mm Remington Magnum to open much of the Asian sheep hunting available today. My old friend Joe Bishop, who left us early this year, was another staunch 7mm fan. He had a marvelous collection of fine guns—but he did his mountain hunting with a much-battered Sako in 7mm Remington Magnum.

At the SAAM shooting ranges at FTW Ranch in Texas the M700 X Custom in 7mm Remington Magnum, dialing a Swarovski scope, marched out 1000 yards with little difficulty. Much shooting at SAAM was done with a suppressor, a very pleasant experience.

Like most of the “belted magnums,” it’s based on a .375 H&H case, shortened and necked down to 7mm. In 1962 it was immediately seen as more versatile than Winchester’s .264, with the ability to use heavier bullets. Although it shoots very flat, it is not ridiculously fast. Light 140-grain loads average about 3200 fps; 160-grain bullets run about 2950 fps; and the 175-grain heavyweight is standard at 2860.

In Tanzania in 2010 I used a Dakota M10 single shot in 7mm Remington Magnum. Here, Jaco Oosthuizen and I are set up waiting for a sitatunga to step into the clear. He was nearly 300 yards out in the swamp; we waited more than an hour before getting a shot.

If I were hunting elk, I might step up to 175-grain bullets, but in truth I’ve almost never used 7mm bullets over 165 grains…and I’ve done little elk hunting with this or any other 7mm! When I was shooting the 7mm Remington Magnum a lot I generally used 160-grain Nosler Partitions, Hornady 162-grain, and 165-grain Sierra, trying to compromise between velocity/trajectory and the high Sectional Density (SD) of these medium-weight bullets. To my thinking this is a very good bullet range for a fast 7mm. Bullets of 140 to 150 grains are fast and work just fine…but .270 bullets of the same weight are only slightly slower and have higher SD. In the 7mm Remington Magnum, medium-weight bullets are superior in weight, velocity, and SD than anything you can fling out of a .270…and have higher SD than 180-grain .30-caliber bullets…with less recoil.

Although rarely for elk and never for moose or big bears, I used these medium 7mm bullets to take a lot of deer, some sheep and goats, caribou, a wide assortment of African antelopes, and the occasional black bear.

This Dakota M10 single shot in 7mm Remington Magnum was as accurate as pretty. This is a good East African sitatunga, taken in Tanzania in 2010.
This Dakota M10 single shot in 7mm Remington Magnum was as accurate as pretty. This is a good East African sitatunga, taken in Tanzania in 2010.

I predict neither the demise nor a huge resurgence for the 7mm Remington Magnum. Modern shooters are discovering that unpleasant recoil isn’t necessary for reasonable performance, witness the runaway success of the 6.5mm Creedmoor and the slow, steady increase of the 7mm-08’s popularity (which also uses. 284-inch bullets). However, also witness the gradual ascendancy of the .300 Winchester Magnum and other fast .30s.

On a recent caribou hunt John Boseman took the best bull in camp with a long shot from his 7mm Remington Magnum. Remington’s “Big Seven” isn’t as popular as it once was, but it’s still a popular and extremely effective hunting cartridge.
On a recent caribou hunt John Boseman took the best bull in camp with a long shot from his 7mm Remington Magnum. Remington’s “Big Seven” isn’t as popular as it once was, but it’s still a popular and extremely effective hunting cartridge.

Here’s the deal: You can take your pick and name your poison. The 7mm Remington Magnum is only slightly more powerful than the .270 Winchester and .280 Remington (both great cartridges). However, it is significantly more powerful, more capable, and more versatile than the mild 6.5mms and 7mms. It is less powerful, less capable, and less versatile than the fast .30s…but it also kicks a lot less. What you need depends largely on what and where you hunt and performance you’re most confident in, but the current interest in long-range shooting continues to increase development in more aerodynamic bullets…and the 7mm Remington Magnum has benefited.

This Remington M700 X Custom is the first 7mm Remington Magnum rifle I’ve owned in more than a decade. Recoil is considerably milder than the fast .30-calibers, and with modern aerodynamic bullets just about as effective.
This Remington M700 X Custom is the first 7mm Remington Magnum rifle I’ve owned in more than a decade. Recoil is considerably milder than the fast .30-calibers, and with modern aerodynamic bullets just about as effective.

Perhaps oddly, I haven’t owned a 7mm Remington Magnum for years. However, regardless of how I feel about it, as a gunwriter and as a hunter who often uses “camp rifles,” it’s an unavoidable cartridge, a world standard—and it performs. In 2010, in Tanzania, I used a gorgeous Dakota M10 single shot in 7mm Remington Magnum. It was an awesome rifle, as accurate as it was pretty. I wanted to buy it, but somebody else spoke first. In 2012, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Remington M700 and the Big Seven, I had in for test a simple and very “retro” M700 BDL in 7mm Remington Magnum. That rifle was astonishingly accurate, producing half-inch groups right out of the box. I should have bought it, but it was a right-hand action, so I sent it back.

So far this is the best five-shot group I’ve gotten from the M700 X Custom, about four-tenths of an inch with Hornady’s 162-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter load.
So far this is the best five-shot group I’ve gotten from the M700 X Custom, about four-tenths of an inch with Hornady’s 162-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter load.

Right now, I have a new version of the M700 from the Custom Shop, left-hand action with Shilen barrel and McMillan stock. I haven’t hunted with it yet, but I used it at the FTW Ranch in Texas, home of the SAAM training courses, and I’ve spent a lot of time with on my range. Using Swarovski Z8i scope with their Ballistic Flex Turret it went straight to 700 yards with no hiccups, and then on to 1000 yards with little difficulty. So far, my best accuracy has been with 168-grain Barnes LRX and Hornady 162-grain ELD-X. The Barnes LRX has a high Ballistic Coefficient (BC) of .550, velocity over 2900, and consistent five-shot-group average under an inch. The 162-grain ELD-X has an off-the-charts BC of .630 and Hornady’s Precision Hunter load averaged 3030 fps. This load also holds a five-shot-group average under an inch. As hunting bullets, the properties of these two bullets are different…but there isn’t much you couldn’t do with either of them.

For years this gorgeous left-hand David Miller rifle in 7mm Remington Magnum was my “go to” rifle for medium-sized game. This is my best-ever pronghorn, taken in west Texas with a tough shot from a sitting position at about 250 yards.
For years this gorgeous left-hand David Miller rifle in 7mm Remington Magnum was my “go to” rifle for medium-sized game. This is my best-ever pronghorn, taken in west Texas with a tough shot from a sitting position at about 250 yards.

As has been the case since 1962, the 7mm Remington Magnum is plenty powerful for the entire deer-sheep-goat class of game at all sensible ranges; and fully adequate for elk and the full run of African plains game, perhaps excepting only eland. With modern bullets, it’s even better than ever. After years of doing most of my long-range shooting with fast .30s and bullets from 180 to 200-grains, I found the Big Seven much more pleasant to shoot. I don’t think the cartridge will ever be among my all-time favorites, but it’s a fine hunting cartridge. It’s been a while since I’ve gone through a 7mm Remington Magnum phase, but this rifle could send me into another one!

.204 RUGER: THE BEST VARMINT CARTRIDGE? BY CRAIG BODDINGTON

It was a perfect setup for prairie dogs; we had a big shade tree to our left, three of us in line on portable benches, with a big colony stretching away before us. Stephen Shen was on the left, Gordon Marsh in the middle, me on the right. Interestingly, all three of us were shooting the .204 Ruger cartridge: Stephen a Savage 116, while both Gordon and I were shooting Ruger No. Ones, his in blue/walnut and mine stainless/laminate.

Left to right: .17 Remington, .17 Remington Fireball, .17 Hornet,
The .17s run from very fast to “medium” and all are useful but, in common, the light .17-caliber bullets hold up poorly in wind. Left to right: .17 Remington, .17 Remington Fireball, .17 Hornet,

It wasn’t universal; Bill Green was off the right, popping away and having a ball with a semi-auto .17 HMR . This was Gordon and Bill’s annual prairie dog shoot out of Cheyenne, hunting with Craig Oceanak and Nick of Timberline Outfitters. It was my second shoot with them; for Stephen, CEO of Vector Optics, his first ever. We had other rifles, .223s and .22-250s. However, except for Bill, who clung to his .17 HMR and walked in some amazing shots, the .204s did the majority of the work.  There are many excellent varmint cartridges, so it struck me as unusual that three among our foursome were shooting .204s…but I think we made good choices.

The various .22 centerfires are the classic varmint cartridges—but only a few have become popular. Left to right: .22 Hornet (1930); .222 Remington (1950); ,220-250 (1965); .220 Swift (1935); .223 WSSM (2002).
The various .22 centerfires are the classic varmint cartridges—but only a few have become popular. Left to right: .22 Hornet (1930); .222 Remington (1950); ,220-250 (1965); .220 Swift (1935); .223 WSSM (2002).

When I say “varmint cartridge” I’m thinking rodents that eat grass and dig burrows, and thus cause problems for farmers and ranchers. Woodchucks in the East; prairie dogs, rock-chucks, ground squirrels and gophers in the West. Developing cartridges and rifles for this class of pest is primarily an American phenomenon, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.

The .204 Ruger is readily adaptable to the AR action and is chambered by numerous manufacturers. This super-accurate AR in .204 Ruger was made by MGA in Spring, Texas.
The .204 Ruger is readily adaptable to the AR action and is chambered by numerous manufacturers. This super-accurate AR in .204 Ruger was made by MGA in Spring, Texas.

The requirements are simple: Accuracy, range, and minimal recoil. Accuracy because we’re dealing with small targets. A ‘chuck is comparatively large, but an upright prairie dog is only a couple inches across. A “one-MOA” rifle is thus a 200-yard prairie dog gun. One-half MOA is really the starting point. Ranging capability does depend on how you go about it. The rim-fires are great fun for short-range work…and stalking the edges and shooting from field positions with center-fires is excellent training. But if you set up from deliberate shooting positions and try to reach out several hundred yards, fast, flat-shooting cartridges are essential.

My Ruger No. One .204 Ruger in stainless and laminate regularly turns in half-inch group with both 32 and 40-grain loads. Although a bit slower, I prefer the 40-grain load because the heavier bullet holds up better in wind.
My Ruger No. One .204 Ruger in stainless and laminate regularly turns in half-inch group with both 32 and 40-grain loads. Although a bit slower, I prefer the 40-grain load because the heavier bullet holds up better in wind.

In a big ‘dog town you might shoot steadily all day, with numerous breaks to cool and clean barrels. When I was a kid, I did a lot of prairie-dogging with a .264 Winchester Magnum—but it’s silly to take that much pounding. The 6mms and .25s remain excellent crossover cartridges: Varmints with lighter bullets, big game with heavier bullets. Power is not an issue; at close range the .22 LR is plenty good for the job.

We all have our favorites, but without question these are the three most popular centerfire varmint cartridges, all made by numerous manufacturers and readily available: Left to right: .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington
We all have our favorites, but without question these are the three most popular centerfire varmint cartridges, all made by numerous manufacturers and readily available: Left to right: .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington

However, the biggest problem with cartridges above the .22 center-fires is even that modest amount of recoil makes it impossible to call shots through the scope. This is especially important in the windy West. As range and wind effect increase, not every shot will hit. The ideal situation is to observe the strike through the scope and correct. You can’t do this while you’re lost in recoil! I’ve often said that prairie dogs are great teachers, both for precise shot placement and for calling wind. The buddy system works, taking turns spotting and shooting—but you’ll learn more if you can call shots through the scope and make your own corrections.

Velocity is important in a versatile varmint cartridge, but extreme speed isn’t everything! Few factory loads break 4000 fps, mostly with lighter bullets. Left to right, these are most of the modern 4000 fps merchants: .17 Remington (25 gr.); 204 Ruger (34 gr.); .22-250 (40 gr.); .223 WSSM (40 gr.); 220 Swift (40 gr.); .243 Winchester (55 gr.).
Velocity is important in a versatile varmint cartridge, but extreme speed isn’t everything! Few factory loads break 4000 fps, mostly with lighter bullets. Left to right, these are most of the modern 4000 fps merchants: .17 Remington (25 gr.); 204 Ruger (34 gr.); .22-250 (40 gr.); .223 WSSM (40 gr.); 220 Swift (40 gr.); .243 Winchester (55 gr.).

We have multiple choices, and the arguments for one cartridge versus another are actually pretty thin. The little .22 Hornet, introduced in 1930, was probably the first center-fire intended for varminting. It retains a following and I love it—but with modest velocity it’s limited in range. Introduced in 1935, the .220 Swift was the first commercial cartridge to break 4000 fps—and it’s still among few that do. Accurate as well as fast, the Swift still has fans, but for many years the .22-250 has been the most popular fast .22 center fire.

Gordon Marsh marks a prairie dog for Stephen Shen. Spotting for your buddies is half the fun of a prairie dog shoot, but the learning curve is steeper if you can call your shots through the scope. The .204 Ruger allows this; the fastest .22 centerfires have a bit too much recoil.:

In the 1930s there were several wildcats based on the .250 Savage case necked down to .224-inch. The most common was a 1937 version called “.22 Varminter,” legitimized by Remington in 1965 as the .22-250 Remington. The .22-250 isn’t as fast as the Swift, but close, and is very accurate. Other fast .22s have included the .224 Weatherby Magnum, .225 Winchester, and .223 WSSM, but the .22-250 is today’s preferred long-range varmint cartridge.

Wholesale Hunter’s Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. A great varmint rifle isn’t just the action and cartridge! Also needed is a good, clear scope with plenty of magnification and a sweet trigger. Marsh modified this Ruger with a crisp, light Jard trigger
Wholesale Hunter’s Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. A great varmint rifle isn’t just the action and cartridge! Also needed is a good, clear scope with plenty of magnification and a sweet trigger. Marsh modified this Ruger with a crisp, light Jard trigger

If there’s a problem with the .22-250, it’s simply that, unless gun weight is fairly extreme, there’s just too much recoil to call shots through the scope. So, over the years, many of us have consciously sacrificed velocity and range and used milder .22 center-fires. Developed by Remington’s Mike Walker as a bench-rest cartridge back in 1950, the mild and super-accurate .222 Remington filled this niche perfectly. Its lack of popularity today is coincidental. In the late 1950s the U.S. Army was looking for a smaller-caliber military cartridge. The .222 Remington didn’t have quite the velocity they wanted, so the .222 Remington Magnum was created with a longer case. It wasn’t popular as a civilian cartridge and wasn’t adopted by the military, losing out to the .223 Remington.

: I like to spend at least part of my time in a prairie dog town shooting from field positions. Misses increase, but the training is invaluable! Here, I’m shooting sitting with the .204 over a tall bipod
: I like to spend at least part of my time in a prairie dog town shooting from field positions. Misses increase, but the training is invaluable! Here, I’m shooting sitting with the .204 over a tall bipod

The .223 (5.56x45mm) is also based on the .222 Remington, with a lengthened case and shorter neck. We could argue that the .222 Remington is the more accurate cartridge, and the .222 Remington Magnum is faster. But what’s the point? As our military (and NATO) cartridge, the .223 Remington/5.56x45mm is today’s most popular center-fire cartridge, and it’s a marvelous varmint cartridge.

Vector Optics’ Stephen Shen on a portable bench with his Savage 116 in .204 Ruger, of course with a Vector high-range variable scope. Inexpensive, accurate, and with a great trigger, Savage offers several variations of excellent heavy-barreled varmint rifles.
Vector Optics’ Stephen Shen on a portable bench with his Savage 116 in .204 Ruger, of course with a Vector high-range variable scope. Inexpensive, accurate, and with a great trigger, Savage offers several variations of excellent heavy-barreled varmint rifles.

With a 55-grain bullet at about 3300 fps it’s effective on small varmints to at least 300 yards, and even in a fairly light-barreled rifle it’s mild enough to call shots through the scope. New contenders such as the .22 Nosler and Federal’s .224 Valkyrie will also run through the AR15 platform and offer more velocity. We could also argue that they are “better” cartridges…but it remains to be seen if they can approach the .223’s popularity.

Stephen Shen of Vector Optics, Boddington, and Gordon Marsh of Wholesale Hunter on a fine Wyoming morning with a huge prairie dog town stretching away behind us! All three of us used the .204 Ruger as our primary rifles, in my opinion one of our very best varmint cartridges.
Stephen Shen of Vector Optics, Boddington, and Gordon Marsh of Wholesale Hunter on a fine Wyoming morning with a huge prairie dog town stretching away behind us! All three of us used the .204 Ruger as our primary rifles, in my opinion one of our very best varmint cartridges.

Australian fox hunters created .17-caliber center-fires because the light bullet wouldn’t exit, thus minimizing pelt damage. In 1971 Remington necked down the .222 Remington Magnum to create the .17 Remington, a 4000 fps-cartridge with bullets up to 25 grains. The .17s are useful, and today we have choices, from rim-fires up through the .17 Hornet, .17 Remington Fireball, and the granddaddy .17 Remington. Accuracy can be astounding and there’s plenty of power for prairie dogs and such, although I question the milder .17s on coyotes. The big problem: The .17-caliber’s light bullets just don’t hold up in wind!

The .20-calibers, bullet diameter .204-inch, are a recent development, spawned by good old American wildcatters in the 1990s. There are a number of wildcat and proprietary .20-caliber cartridges, but the .204 Ruger is the only factory .20-caliber. Introduced in 2004 as a joint project between Hornady and Ruger, the .204 is based on the .222 Remington Magnum case.

The theory is to split the difference between the .17s and .22 center-fires…and the actual result, to me, offers the best of all worlds. Again, we’re talking the specialized world of varmint cartridges. The .20-caliber doesn’t offer the heavy-bullet flexibility of the .22 center-fires for larger game. They are certainly effective on fur-bearers up to coyotes, but don’t minimize pelt damage like the .17s. Also, the faster .17s are prone to rapid fouling; the .20s are not.

The .204 Ruger took off fast. All major manufacturers load it, with bullet weights from 24 to 45 grains. At about 34 grains and lighter the .204 Ruger reaches or exceeds 4000 fps. I’m not usually quick to pick up on a new cartridge—especially in an unfamiliar bullet diameter! My usual mantra is (grumble, grumble): “We’ve got enough calibers and cartridges!” A Ruger No. One in .204, stainless and laminate in heavy-barrel configuration, came in as a test rifle. I was impressed enough to buy it and, nearly 15 years later, it remains my go-to prairie dog rifle.

Here’s what I like about the .204: Accuracy is consistently good with all loads. My preference is the 40-grain load, not the fastest at 3900 fps, but with that heavier bullet it holds up in wind better than the faster, lighter bullets. More importantly, it seems to perform about as well as the .22-250 at similar velocities with varmint bullets from 50 to 55 grains. Most important: With the lighter bullet and heavier barrel (smaller bore equals more steel for equal barrel diameter) it has less recoil than a .22-250, so I can easily call shots through the scope.

Requirements for an ideal varmint cartridge are simple: Accuracy, velocity, shoot-ability. If I had to cut down to just one, it’s the .204 I’d hang onto!

CLASSIC CARTRIDGES ON SAFARI By Craig Boddington

We American riflemen (and women) traditionally crave velocity…whether we need it or not. There’s a long-standing belief among African hunters, not just professionals, but experienced sport hunters, and meat hunters, that performance on game is actually better at moderate velocities.

It’s obvious that, given equal bullet aerodynamics, higher velocity flattens trajectories, and also increases energy yield. The “extreme range” fad, primarily (but not exclusively) an American phenomenon, generally adds to the thirst for speed. With the amazing array of great modern hunting bullets that we have today, I’m not convinced that performance is “better” at lower velocities, although bullets may perform more consistently. For sure, higher velocities increase recoil and muzzle blast. And, despite all the hype, not everybody shoots at long range.

This is the .275 Rigby presented to Jim Corbett in 1907 after he killed the infamous Champawat maneating tiger. Dan Baker’s .275 Rigby follows the pattern exactly…but Baker’s .275 has much more embellishment and is fitted with a scope in detachable rings.

Shooting game at seriously long distances is frowned on in Africa, where making a careful stalk to close or moderate range is considered part of the art. Also, from a purely practical standpoint, the standard rule in Africa is one drop of blood equals a license filled and a trophy fee payable. So, it behooves one to get close enough to be sure of the shot!

Dan Baker and Gladys Taggart with the largest-bodied zebra I have ever seen, certainly more than 800 pounds. A Hartmann’s mountain zebra, this big stallion dropped on the spot to a single 156-grain Norma Oryx bullet from Dan’s .275 Rigby (7×57).

Even so, over the past 40 years the “light rifle” in my African battery has often been a fast cartridge with significant ranging ability…whether I needed the capability or not. Favorite choices have been fast 7mms and .30-caliber magnums, and a few times a 6.5mm or 8mm magnum. I’ve also often used the .270 Winchester and .30-06, both with consistently excellent results. Neither of these old-timers are considered “fast magnums”—but they cannot be considered “slow.”

I just got back from a two-week hunt in northwestern Namibia’s Kaokoland with Jamy Traut, followed by a few days near Kimberley in South Africa’s Northern Cape with Mike Birch. Both areas are fairly open, where visibility is good and long shooting is certainly possible. Interestingly, we didn’t have any fast magnums…and the most recent cartridge in use was a .270 Winchester (1925), in Jamy’s “camp rifle” in case we needed a spare. The other three cartridges in use were older and slower.

In South Africa with Mike Birch, we wanted to get his daughter Kayleigh her first gemsbok. She drew a tough shot, about 250 yards with a lot of wind. She was shooting a Sako 6.5×55 with 140-grain Nosler AccuBond…plenty of gun and bullet if the shot is well-placed.

In Namibia I accompanied Dan Baker and Gladys Taggart, who had purchased Jamy’s donated safari at the SCI auction in Reno. They shared a gorgeous .275 Rigby on the pattern of Jim Corbett’s famous .275, except Dan’s rifle was magnificently engraved and was topped with a

Swarovski V6 2-12X scope. .275 Rigby is the British designation for 7×57 Mauser, introduced in 1892; John Rigby “anglicized” it to .275 Rigby in 1899, but the .275 Rigby and 7×57 Mauser are identical and completely interchangeable. Dan and Gladys were using Norma’s 156-grain Oryx bonded-core 7×57 load, velocity about 2500 fps.

Jamy Traut verifies bore-sight with Dan Baker’s gorgeous .275 Rigby, on the pattern of Jim Corbett’s famous .275…but this is a very special rifle even for a Rigby, with gorgeous wood and much embellishment. It became the workhorse rifle of the safari!

I brought a Montana Rifles Model 99 in 9.3x62mm Mauser, topped with a Leupold 1.75-6X scope. The 9.3x62mm is another classic Mauser cartridge introduced in 1905, with similar case dimensions to the .30-06 necked up to 9.3mm. The 9.3mm, caliber .366, is the European equivalent to the .375, still popular in Africa and widely used for driven boar in Europe. The traditional bullet weight is 286 grains, but I was using Hornady’s 250-grain GMX homogenous-alloy bullet, a bit faster at about 2500 fps.

Jamy Traut and Gladys Taggart with a fine kudu bull, taken cleanly with the .275 Rigby and 156-grain Norma Oryx bullets. This was a really tough shot, just a small window on a brushy hillside, taken fast off of sticks and placed perfectly.

My South African stopover was short, really just a visit. I still had my 9.3×62 and used it, but Mike needed to do some culling, so he had a favorite “camp rifle” on hand: A Sako in 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser. Adopted by the Swedish military in 1894, the 6.5×55 is very similar to the currently popular
6.5mm Creedmoor
in ballistics, although it pre-dates the Creedmoor by 114 years. Mike was also using a very modern 6.5×55 load, a 140-grain Nosler AccuBond at 2660 fps.

 Jamy had a couple of young American interns in camp, recent college graduates in hard science disciplines, who had never hunted. We took them to the range with Jamy’s .270, which had a suppressor to reduce recoil and blast. They caught on fast, at the time I departed each had taken zebras with the .270 using Hornady’s 140-grain American Whitetail load…no problem. Among the three older cartridges I think about 15 animals were taken, an eclectic mix of gemsbok, hartebeest, kudu, springbok, warthog, and zebra.

Dan Baker and Gladys Taggart with two exceptional Kalahari springboks, taken just a few minutes apart, sort of a “his and hers” double with the .275 Rigby.

A couple of animals required follow-up shots that might not have been necessary. Only one, a zebra I shot with the 9.3mm, required tracking. In my defense, the animal took a step as the shot went and I knew the hit was a bit far back. It was, but the big bullet exited and we followed a clear trail for a couple hundred yards and found it dead. All other animals were either down on the spot or went down in sight.

Since the Namibian hunt was Dan and Gladys’s safari, the majority of this work was done with the .275 Rigby. Southern Africa, especially Namibia, is hard-hit by drought this year, so country that’s normally fairly open was wide-open: There was no “long grass,” and flats that are normally grassy looked like the Sahara instead of the Serengeti. With minimal vegetation stalking was difficult, but both areas have lots of rocky hills, ideal for glassing but also good for stalking.

This Hartmann’s zebra was taken with a single 250-grain GMX from the Montana Rifles 9.3×62. With shot placement where it’s supposed to be, many cartridges and bullets will work…but so far I’ve taken a half-dozen large animals with this load. All bullets have exited!

As always, what constitutes “short” or “long” depends on one’s perspective. We did no long shooting at all, but due to lack of cover close shots were hard to come by. I’d call most of our shots “medium,” from 150 yards to 300 yards. All three “old and slow” cartridges proved perfectly capable for such shooting: On pronghorn-sized springbok, where precision is essential; and on large, tough animals like zebra, where shot placement and penetration come to the fore.

One of the longest and most difficult shots was on an unusually big-bodied gemsbok bull, 250 yards in a vicious crosswind, made with the 6.5×55 by 13-year-old Kayleigh Birch, her first gemsbok, anchored nicely on the spot.

On this safari I used Hornady’s 250-grain GMX in the 9.3×62. This bullet is a bit lighter and faster than the standard 286-grain load, but recoil is less and performance was awesome. In case a rogue elephant happened along I also carried a few 275-grain Norma solids, but had no occasion to use them.

Perhaps the prettiest shot was made by Gladys Taggart on a mountain zebra one afternoon just past sunset. Zebras are large, heavy, and tough; taking a zebra at last light is worrisome, but on that afternoon, we badly needed a zebra for leopard bait, and that was our chance. The shot was about 200 yards, facing, always a tough shot off sticks. Gladys was sure…and the little .275 Rigby dropped it in its tracks. Straight down!

As with the tortoise and the hare, the race isn’t always to the swift! Velocity isn’t a bad thing, but shot placement and bullet performance are more important. Those same African hunters who believe in moderate velocities also tend to believe in bullet weight, which sacrifices speed, but also enhances penetration. This is mitigated by bullet design, but all of the bullets we used were fairly heavy: By definition a 140-grain 6.5mm bullet, whether in the old 6.5×55 or new Creedmoor, is fairly heavy for caliber. A 140-grain .270 bullet is at least “medium,” likewise a 140-grain 7mm bullet. Today the 7×57 (.275 Rigby) is fairly standard with a 140-grain bullet.

Mike Birch uses 140-grain Nosler AccuBond in his 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser. Classic cartridges benefit from today’s excellent hunting bullets…and so do our modern cartridges

That’s the bullet weight I usually use in my 7x57s and I would have had no qualms about using the 140-grain load on any shot taken on this safari. Even so, I was very impressed by the performance of the heavier 156-grain bullet on zebras and larger antelopes. A difference of 16 grains in bullet weight is a ten percent increase and the effects were noticeable. As for my 9.3×62, well, it isn’t fast, but that’s a big, heavy bullet with a lot of frontal area, a horse of a different color. I have yet to recover one of those 250-grain GMX bullets.

This Rigby Highland Stalker in .275 Rigby grouped very well with both Hornady’s 140-grain .275 Rigby load, left; and with Norma’s 156-grain Oryx 7×57 load. The heavier bullet is a bit slower, but performance on large plains game was awesome.

A dozen or so animals proves absolutely nothing. However, mild, soft-recoiling cartridges like those we used have been performing well for generations—and with modern bullets, they perform even better. Velocity is fine if you need it. On this safari—and in many hunting situations—you don’t need to reach out. There are similar modern cartridges that are equally effective, including 6.5mm Creedmoor and 7mm-08 Remington…but the old classics still work just fine!

Kayleigh Birch, left, and her Dad, PH Mike Birch, with Kayleigh’s first gemsbok, a huge-bodied old bull with thick horns, taken cleanly with a suppressed Sako 6.5×55 and 140-grain Nosler AccuBond. Suppressors are in common use in southern Africa, excellent for reducing recoil as well as muzzle blast.

Getting a Tune-Up with Field Practice

Some of us are smart enough to service our vehicles regularly to forestall problems. Others, unfortunately like me, are constantly late with scheduled maintenance. It’s a testament to good design and manufacturing that I don’t have more mechanical problems than I do.

target shooting, steel targets, Weatherby Magnum
Boddington working out on steel targets, shooting over a pack with the rifle and scope he used in Mongolia, a Blaser R8 in .300 Weatherby Magnum with Zeiss 4-16x50mm scope.

Shooting is a bit like that: Constant maintenance, meaning practice, really is essential to keeping your shooting skills honed. I’m pretty sure all competitive shooters, in all disciplines, and at all levels from beginner to distinguished would agree. Practice is essential not just to get better, but to maintain skill levels.

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Benchrest Shooting Tips

Serious benchrest shooting is one of the most demanding shooting disciplines. It’s essentially a scientific search for ultimate accuracy. I don’t pretend it’s my game. I’m primarily a hunter, and my preference is to get away from the bench and spend as much practice time as possible shooting from field positions.

However, shooting from the bench is essential for achieving the desired zero, as well as determining the level of accuracy your rifle delivers and which loads produce optimum accuracy. So, although I have never been and probably never will be a benchrest competitor, I do a lot of benchrest shooting.

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Smart Summer Shooting

Learn how to make the most of your summer practice sessions on the range or in the field.

The summer doldrums are passing by quickly! We can start to look forward to fall hunting seasons, but there’s still plenty of time for some good shooting practice. If you’re a serious accuracy freak, improving your bench shooting may be a good goal in itself. That’s probably not a productive goal for hunters, however—there aren’t many benchrests in any game country I’ve seen! For hunters, then, it’s important to spend at least some of that range time shooting the way you’re likely to shoot in the field, including trying some new positions and techniques to steady yourself.

Summer varminting is really the best practice for field shooting. The real secret, however, is to consciously seek field shooting positions. You won’t hit as many…but you’ll learn a lot more.

Varmint Hunting is Great Practice for Larger Game

Honestly, if you have any access at all, I think summer varmint hunting is the very best training for field shooting. My friend, Gordon Marsh (the proprietor of this website, Wholesale Hunter,) just got back from his annual prairie dog shoot in Wyoming. I’m a bit jealous—I haven’t made time to go prairie dog hunting in quite a while! This type of hunt offers training (and a lot of shooting!) that’s hard to replicate on any range.

It really doesn’t matter if you’re an eastern woodchuck hunter or a western prairie dog, ground squirrel, or rockchuck shooter. Few situations are better for teaching you how to read wind, and when you become confident that you can hit small rodents, big-game animals don’t seem quite so daunting. If you can go varmint hunting, take advantage of it, but don’t spend all your time shooting over sandbags. Spend some time trying new positions and techniques, such as lying down over a pack or shooting off bipods and tripods. You probably won’t hit as many targets, but you’ll improve your versatility in the field, and that’s an invaluable skill to have when you’re hunting larger game.

At the range it’s a good idea to practice the way you intend to shoot. An attached bipod is a great tool, but some rifles will change zero when a bipod is attached. Better check it out!

Mimicking Field Shooting on the Range

If you don’t have an opportunity to go varmint hunting, don’t worry—you can replicate field shooting on the range. First and foremost, get away from the bench and practice from real field shooting positions. Do at least some shooting from all four of the classic “NRA” positions of prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing. Standing in particular is important, because it’s by far the most difficult position. Given any choice of a steadier position, only an idiot would take a standing, unsupported shot at a game animal, but sometimes, as in a fast-breaking close encounter, standing and shooting may be your only option. It’s better to practice your technique and never need to use it in the field than to be unprepared in a tough situation.

In the field the last and worst option is to take a standing unsupported shot…but in fast close-range encounters sometimes that’s all there is. You hope you never have to use it, but standing unsupported is a position that should be practiced a lot!

Donna and I use shooting sticks a lot, so we always take them to the range and spend at least some time shooting over sticks in both standing and kneeling positions. One of my favorite field positions is to rest over a pack, an extremely common situation in mountain hunting. Donna isn’t familiar with that scenario, though, so in preparation for a goat hunt, she practiced on the range by lying down over packs and rolled-up jackets at various heights.

In preparation for a mountain hunt Donna Boddington spent a lot of time on the range building various rests with packs and jackets. Note that she’s doing this with an old Kimber bolt-action .22…practice doesn’t have to hurt to be effective.

Range rules can vary widely, and you obviously have to work within the constraints of them, but you should be as creative as your imagination and your range allow. There aren’t any bullseyes, squares, or diamonds on game animals, so animal-shaped targets are more useful for field practice. Printed targets can be expensive, though, so I recommend interspersing your animal target-shooting with “paper plate drills.” A standard paper plate is a pretty good replica of a deer’s vital zone. I vary my paper plate drills and practice them standing, off sticks, and in a variety of field positions. Tiny little groups off the bench are confidence-builders, but from less steady field positions, “paper plate accuracy” is what you really need to achieve.

Paper plate drills are great: A paper plate is about the same size as the vital zone of deer-sized game, there is no precise aiming point, and they’re cheap alternatives to printed targets. They’re awesome for practice from field positions, and if you can consistently center the plate you’re ready for hunting season.

 

Build Good Habits: Practice with a .22 Rimfire

Earlier I said “practice smart,” and I meant it. As hunting seasons draw near, it’s essential to spend at least some range time with your hunting rifle. Avoid excessive practice with your favorite rifle—centerfire ammo is expensive and centerfire barrel life is limited. Most of the practice I’m talking about can be done with equal effectiveness with the good old .22 rimfire: little noise, no recoil, lower cost, and a whole lot less time wasted waiting for barrels to cool. In a perfect world, your .22 will be of the same action type and have similar scope or sights, but any and all rimfire shooting is good.

There’s no such thing as too much practice, but there is definitely such a thing as too much recoil. This is also where the .22 comes in. Range time is precious, and it’s tempting to try to cram in as much shooting as possible when you’re on the range. However, it’s a bad idea to overdo it; it’s all too easy to acquire a flinch or other bad habits that are all but impossible to shake off. The solution? Ration your recoil. Take it in sensible doses and mix in some plinking with your .22.

Donna Boddington practicing sitting behind a shortened tripod, a wonderfully steady option. In summer we don’t wear heavy jackets, so when shooting centerfires it’s a good idea to pad up. A folded towel helps, but the PAST Recoil Shield she’s wearing is better.

I can’t tell you how much recoil is too much because we all have different thresholds, but once you reach “too much,” it’s too late to turn back. With hard-kicking rifles, even ten shots in one range session can be over the limit. So, for instance, you’re very comfortable with a .270 or .30-06, but you’ve got a brand-new .375 or perhaps a real big-bore you’re itching to play with. Once again, the bench is a necessary evil for zeroing and testing accuracy. Pad yourself well, but shoot off the bench as little as possible. Shoot from sticks and offhand, so the body can give, and be patient. It’s impossible to get used to a new level of recoil in one range session, so plan your time. After a few shots with a big boomer, it’s a good idea to run a few magazines through a .22. This will reinforce good shooting habits and subconsciously remind you that shooting doesn’t hurt.

Donna is “working out” with a 9.3x74R double on paper plates. This light Sabatti shoots well but it has a bite…after a very few shots it’s time to run a couple of magazines through a .22!

If you do overdo it, don’t try to fight your way through it; you might create bad habits or hurt yourself. Instead, go back to the good old .22; concentrate on breathing and trigger control, and stick with it until your muscle memory is cleansed. Centerfire rifles, from varmint rifles to deer rifles, are by far my favorite tools, but the .22 rimfire remains the great teacher, and none of us are too old to keep learning. There’s always a .22 handy during my summer practice sessions!

Shooting sticks are marvelous but they take a lot of practice to get used to. It isn’t necessary to burn expensive ammo or absorb a lot of recoil: practicing with a .22 is just as effective!

Take-Away Tips for Practicing Smart Shooting

So as you continue your summer prep for hunting season, remember:

1) Varmint hunting is great practice for larger game, but you can replicate field shooting on the range with paper plate drills.

2) Practice different shooting positions to increase your versatility.

3) You should get some practice time in with your hunting rifle, but don’t overdo it. A .22 rimfire is just effective for practice drills as your favorite centerfire rifle.

4) If you worry you’re developing a flinch, take a break. Pick up your .22 and focus on breath control, trigger control, and other fundamentals. Don’t try to fight through a bad set—you can create bad habits that are hard to break.


Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world. 

For autographed copies of Craig’s books please visit www.craigboddington.com.

Shooting Groups in Summertime

Summer is the Perfect Season to Improve Your Accuracy and Technique by Shooting Groups

Turkey season—and its ridiculously early mornings—is finally behind us, so it’s time to catch up on sleep! Unfortunately for hunters, just about all other hunting seasons are behind us as well. Fishing may be good, but for me, the summer doldrums offer a good time to get some serious shooting done.

It doesn’t matter much where your interest lies; all shooting is good practice, and all shooting is fun. Whether you’re into rolling cans, punching paper, ringing steel, or breaking clays, it’s all good! The summer is also a great time to take your kids to the range—with school out, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to teach them how to be safe shooters and to show them how much fun shooting can be.

I particularly enjoy summer shooting sessions. The long daylight hours let me take my time, and in the summer I’m usually not in a big rush to get a rifle ready for a hunt. I can work on loads and take my time shooting groups, and in between I can plink with a .22, bone up on handgun skills, and throw some clays. This month, I’m going to show you how you can make the most of your summer at the range by shooting groups.

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