.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!

HOW ABOUT A .30-30? By Craig Boddington

It’s often said that the .30-30 Winchester has “taken more deer than any other cartridge.” Axioms like this are hard to prove and I can’t prove this one. Over the years, I’ve taken deer with numerous different cartridges…but only a handful with a .30-30.

Even so, I think it’s probably true. Introduced in 1895, the .30-30’s original 160-grain load barely hit 2000 feet per second, slow by today’s standards…but faster than any black powder cartridge. Compared to the large-cased cartridges of the day, the .30-30 was a tiny little thing. Early users quickly learned that its new smokeless propellant harnessed a lot of power and flattened trajectory. The .30-30’s also-new jacketed bullet penetrated well and offered a new dimension to bullet performance: Expansion.

In the euphoria over this newfound velocity the .30-30 was often used for large game, elk, moose, and even big bear. Undoubtedly, it still is, and with perfect shot placement (and, in its traditional lever-action platform, with fast repeat shots) it will get the job done. However, in 1895 and today, deer are America’s most widespread and popular big game. The .30-30 was quickly found extremely effective on deer-sized game…and remains so today. No one can estimate how many millions of deer have fallen to .30-30s. Winchester has made 7.5 million Model 94s, most of them in .30-30, and millions still in use. Add in hundreds of thousands of lever-action .30-30s from Marlin, Mossberg, and Savage; a few slide-actions, and a major sprinkling of single-shots. The .30-30’s rimmed case is probably best-suited to traditional tubular-magazine lever actions, but it was chambered to a surprising number of early bolt-actions!

Bruce Duncan with a big Idaho tom mountain lion and his battered Model 94 .30-30 carbine, short, light, easy to carry, for generations the odds-on choice for houndsmen.

Despite the many cartridges that are faster, shoot flatter, and harness more power, the .30-30 remains among our best-selling cartridges. Perhaps more surprising, it remains among the top cartridges in reloading die sales. Admittedly, this is partly because there are so many .30-30 rifles out there. However, I think it’s also partly because the .30-30 remains a useful hunting cartridge, with relatively light recoil and deer-killing efficiency.

Hornady’s LEVERevolution ammo has greatly increased the versatility of the .30-30. Left, 140-grain MonoFlex and 160-grain FTX; far right, a standard 150-grain round-nose load. Traditional blunt-nosed bullets are very effective at short range, but Hornady’s spitzer bullets with flexible polymer tips extend effective range to at least 200 yards.

Nobody ever said the .30-30 was a long-range cartridge…but not everyone needs to shoot at longer ranges. On our Kansas farm most of our whitetails are taken at less than 100 yards…and only a couple of stands offer even the potential for a shot beyond 200 yards. If you’re sitting over Southern soybean fields or endless expanses of Canadian wheat farms, then that’s a different story. But, across the continent the .30-30 shoots flat enough for most whitetail hunting…and hits plenty hard.

Although I’ve taken few deer with a .30-30, I’ve used it a lot for wild hogs. In Texas and the south, most hogs are taken from stands; as with whitetails, the most likely shooting distances are known. Alternatively, a fair amount of hog hunting is done with hounds. In all dog hunting shooting distances are very close. Whether for hogs, black bears, or mountain lions, almost every experienced houndsman I’ve ever known has a short, fast-handling, and much-battered .30-30 carbine. Most of my hog hunting has been along California’s Central Coast. Dogs are legal, baiting is not, but most of my California pig hunting is glassing and stalking.

John Stucker, Boddington, and Doug Mangham with some hogs taken on Doug’s and John’s deer lease in the Texas Hill Country. Our rifles ran the gamut: Stucker used his Sabatti .450/.400 double; Boddington used a .257 Roberts…and Doug used a Marlin 336 in .30-30 with a Skinner aperture rear sight!

In spot-and-stalk hunting you have no idea what kind of shot you might get! Pigs have keen noses and excellent hearing, but either they can’t see very well or use their eyes only as a tertiary defense. Get the wind right and move quietly, and in our mixed cover an approach can usually be made. As with deer, I’ve taken hogs with a lot of different cartridges. In the 25 years I’ve lived on the Central Coast our year-around hog hunting has served as my cartridge-bullet-rifle test lab. Longer shots are surely possible, but over the years I’ve taken just a couple of hogs beyond sensible .30-30 range—and I’ve never had any reason to suspect the .30-30 was anything less than plenty of gun.

Mind you, wild hogs can be larger than any deer, and although the whitetail is very tough, I think a big boar is tougher. But not tough enough to withstand a well-placed bullet from a .30-30. Despite mild paper ballistics, the .30-30 has a lot going for it. In 1895 Winchester chose the .308-inch bullet diameter of our then-new military cartridge, the .30-40 Krag, adopted in 1892 A few years later we moved to a larger-cased rimless cartridge that we came to know as the .30-06. The .30-06 is faster and more powerful than the .30-30, but here’s the point: Since the 1890’s we have known that a .30-caliber is a big bullet on deer-sized game. Within a cartridge’s effective range, a .30-caliber hits harder than a bullet of smaller diameter. With a century and a quarter of experience, we also know that, at .30-30 velocities, .30-30 bullets perform well, expanding reliably and providing deep penetration.

Almost all current .30-30 rifles accept either scopes or red-dot sights, significantly extending range…especially in low-light conditions. This is a Mossberg M464 .30-30 mounted with an Aimpoint red-dot sight.

A century or so back the .30-30’s original 160-grain load was replaced by 150 and 170-grain loads, which remain standard .30-30 fodder. As smokeless propellants improved velocities were also increased; the 150-grain load is standard today at 2390 fps; the heavy 170-grain load at about 2225 fps. The .30-30 rifle I have the most experience with is a short-barreled Model 94 Trapper. It grouped especially well with Winchester’s old 170-grain Silvertip load, so that’s what I’ve usually used. Historically, the tubular magazine lever guns are limited to flat- or round-nosed bullets, with aerodynamics sort of like thrown rocks. In my 16-inch barrel my actual velocities are lower than advertised, but who cares. That slow 170-grain bullet consistently delivered through-and-through penetration on both deer and wild hogs, and I don’t think I’ve taken a shot beyond 100 yards with that rifle.

Today we have newer, game-changing options. Introduced in 2005, Hornady’s LEVERevolution line incorporates sharp-pointed aerodynamic bullets with flexible polymer tips that are safe to use in tubular magazines. New propellants allowed slightly increased velocity. LEVERevolution now offers two .30-30 loads with spitzer bullets: 140-grain homogenous-alloy MonoFlex bullet at a zippy (for the .30-30.) 2465 fps; and a 160-grain FTX (Flexible Tip eXpanding) at 2400 fps. Sight either load about three inches high at 100 yards and you’re dead-on at 200 yards. So stoked, the .30-30 is thus perfectly viable beyond 200 yards on deer-sized game.

Kansas neighbor Chuck Herbel on the bench with his favorite “truck rifle,” a Winchester 94 .30-30. He recalls that he bought it when he was a young beat patrolman in Wichita…at a retail price of 60 bucks!

Depending on where and how we hunt, many of us don’t need to shoot even that far. So, allow me to let you in on a little secret: Hornady’s new bullets expand well and penetrate reliably. However, blunt-nosed bullets, especially flat-points, tend to deliver a heavy initial blow, and typically, blunt-nosed bullets initiate expansion more rapidly than sharp-pointed bullets. Those of us who crave ranging abilities have damned blunt-nosed bullets since the 1900’s. However, I submit that the .30-30’s tremendous reputation as a deer cartridge is based, at least somewhat, on those hard-hitting traditional blunt-nosed slugs.

Historically, most of my hunting with a .30-30 has been with iron sights. This sharply limits my range anyway, so I’ve mostly used traditional flat-points and round-noses, and I’ve been perfectly happy with the results. Today, with iron sights getting a bit fuzzy, I’ve gone to either scopes or red-dot sights. With extended capability, I’m using Hornady’s spitzer bullets, also perfectly happy with these results…but if you know your shots will be close, don’t overlook the traditional blunt-nosed slugs. Everybody, including Hornady, still offers them.

Boddington admits that he can no longer resolve open sights as well as he once could…but his M94 Trapper still passes the “paper plate test” easily, adequate accuracy for short-range work on deer and wild hogs.

With so many brave new cartridges we tend to think of the .30-30 as mild and unassuming, but let’s not sell it short. The formula that derives kinetic energy in foot-pounds uses the square of velocity, while bullet weight is taken “as is” and bullet diameter (frontal area) is not considered at all. Slower cartridges cannot win the foot-pounds race, but most experienced hunters agree that paper ballistics don’t tell the whole story. Hornady’s FTX 160-grain load (not a light bullet!) at 2400 fps develops 2046 foot-pounds of energy, over a ton. This is theoretically adequate for elk, more than plenty for deer, and enough for most anything between deer and elk. The amazingly popular 6.5mm Creedmoor, with a 140-grain bullet at 2700 fps, develops about 2200 foot-pounds. With foot-pounds, velocity always wins, so this is more kinetic energy than any .30-30 load can deliver…but not by all that much! No scientific formula exists to properly factor in bullet weight, frontal area, and bullet performance.

My experience suggests that a .30-caliber (.308-inch) bullet hits harder than a 6.5mm (.264-inch) bullet. Certainly it delivers more energy on impact and makes a bigger hole! If you need to shoot at longer ranges Lord knows we have plenty of choices…but for short to very medium ranges don’t overlook the .30-30…it’s still the deer-slaying machine it has always been!

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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