Top loads for Popping Winter/Spring Predators and Varmints.Story by Phil Massaro and Photos by Massaro Media Group
With our big game seasons winding down, it’s time to turn our attention to the predators in the later winter and the varmints in the spring. Where the strong, stiff premium bullets – with their bonded cores, monometal construction and partitioned cores – are the darlings of the big game world, the small-bore cartridges that best handle the furbearers and varmints are the opposite: maximum frangibility is a benefit. I enjoy hunting both coyotes and foxes in January and February here in New York, when the fur is prime, and both species are beginning their breeding seasons. We have no lack of coyotes, and as they feed on wildlife and domesticated animals equally, they are actively hunted.
Many hunters also take them as a target of opportunity during deer season, as they will often be seen cruising after deer or cleaning up gut piles, and taken with the deer rifle in hand. But for those who actively pursue coyotes and foxes, specialized rifles, cartridges and bullets are the norm. Popular centerfire cartridges for these species include the .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .243 Winchester, .22-250 Remington and .17 Hornet, and among the rimfire cartridges, the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire, .17 HMR and .17 WSM are favorites. All of these cartridges have the energy and trajectory to cleanly take the furbearers within their eective ranges, though that range will be a bit different for each of them.
The muzzle velocities and bullet shapes will dictate sensible uses – for example, the bullet shapes and velocities of the .22 Magnum will limit its range, especially in comparison to the speedy .22250 Remington – and some of them can do double duty on deer and similarsized game. Where many deer are taken each year with the .243 Winchester, those 90 and 100 grain bullets that excel on whitetails and pronghorn antelope aren’t exactly what you want to use on varmints and predators. Yes, they’ll work, but not with the same dramatic eect as that of a thin jacketed 55 grain bullet at a higher velocity from the same cartridge.
THE IDEA BEHIND the varmint and predator loads is not complex: a high-velocity bullet of frangible construction, capable of pinpoint accuracy and that delivers a whole lot of hydrostatic shock to an animal of smaller stature than their big game counterparts. These species are thin-skinned, have lighter skeletal structures and (most) have a nervous system that can be rapidly switched o by that hydrostatic shock.
Some of my favorite varmint/predator bullets include the Nosler Ballistic Tip Varmint, the Speer TNT, Barnes’ Varminator, Sierra’s BlitzKing and MatchKing (more about that in a minute) and the Hornady V-Max. All of these have the properties any varmint/predator hunter wants, and all are capable of creating the fabled “red mist” when hunting woodchucks and prairie dogs. They all either have a polymer tip or hollowpoint design, and most oer a boattail variant for maximizing downrange energy and minimizing wind drift. Let’s take a look at them individually to get a better feel for what might work best for you. The Nosler Ballistic Tip was the first American bullet with a polymer tip, used to maintain a consistent ballistic coecient as well as acting like a wedge to initiate expansion upon impacting the animal.
The regular hunting version has been relied upon as a great choice for deer, antelope and similar-sized game animals, with the industry and Nosler themselves understanding there are better choices for game animals larger than deer, due to the rapid expansion. That expansion, and correlative lack of penetration, might not be desirable on an elk or moose, but is absolutely perfect for woodchucks. The Nosler Ballistic Tip is a wonderfully accurate bullet, and is frangible enough to minimize pelt damage (I recommend the lightest for caliber, to keep the bullet in the body and prevent an exit wound). I handload them for a number of cartridges, and my .22- 250 loves the Federal 55-grain Ballistic Tip factory load.
The Speer TNT is a flat-base hollowpoint with an internally-fluted jacket, specifically designed for rapid expansion and devastating energy transfer. They are aordable and reliable, and I have had great results in both rimfire and centerfire cartridges. The 55-grain .224-inch-diameter TNT has ruined the careers of more than a few coyotes, in both my .22-250 Remington and my dad’s .223 Remington. The Federal 30-grain TNT in the .22 WMR load makes a potent choice for the rimfire fan, and at 2,200 feet per second will send woodchucks to the Great Vegetable Garden in the sky. Often overlooked, give the TNT a try and I’ll bet you’ll be happy with the results. Barnes, traditionally synonymous with lead-free monometal bullets, offers their Varminator line of frangible cup- and-core bullets. Using a thin, scored jacket made of gilding metal over a lead core known as the Deton-A-Tor core, the Varminator gives extremely rapid expansion, rarely exiting on the larger furbearing species, yet will quickly dispatch the varmints with a humane kill. They are oered in .204-inch diameter at 32 grains; .224-inch diameter at 40 and 50 grains; and 6mm diameter at 58 and 72 grains. Looking for near-explosive terminal performance? Barnes’ Varminator line is just what you’re after.
THE SIERRA BLITZKING is their spin on the dedicated varmint bullet, and it features a lineup of bullets from .204-inch caliber up to .257-inch. They use Sierra’s proprietary acetyl resin compound for the sharp tip at the meplat, and mix it up with a variety of flat-base offerings as well as boattails. Sierra indicates that these bullets can handle velocities up to 4,400 fps – probably more than anyone will generate – yet still give that desirable frangibility at lower velocities, making the BlitzKing a very versatile choice for the varmint/predator hunter.
I’ve hand loaded these in my .22-250 Remington for years, and they are both wonderful on paper as well as in the field. They are not only available in component form, but now in Sierra’s factory-loaded Prairie Enemy ammunition. The industry-standard Sierra Match King, that record-setting bullet adored by the target crowd, makes a great varmint/predator bullet, in spite of the fact that the company recommends other choices. Based on the accuracy these bullets deliver, folks just couldn’t resist the temptation to try them on game animals. While the results were mixed on deer-sized game, the hollowpoint Match Kings were and are devastating on varmints and predators. My personal choice for that .22-250 I’m always going on about is the 53-grain flat-base Match King, over a load of 38.4 grains of Hodgdon’s H380; that combination has sent all sorts of woodchucks, foxes, coyotes, rogue skunks, marauding raccoons and more to their grave.
That Ruger rifle will put three shots in a group measuring just over ¼ inch, and my dad’s Savage .223 will equal that figure with the 52-grain boattail MatchKing. Despite the recommendations, I am a huge proponent of the hollowpoint MatchKing as a coyote killer. I can apply the same comments to the more modern Sierra Tipped MatchKing, as I’ve found them to be on par with their older sibling in the accuracy department, and the polymer tip will definitely give rapid expansion. Finishing up with Hornady’s V-Max, you’ll find a bullet wearing the proprietary AMP bullet jacket, signature red polymer tip, with a swaged lead core. Much like the others, the V-Max is one of those great blends of accuracy and violent expansion that makes such a perfect varmint bullet. They are one of the best choices in the diminutive .17s – especially that little .17 Hornet – as they will take full advantage of the velocities, most definitely creating the red mist. The bullet is so good that not only is it loaded in Hornady’s own factory ammo, but Federal has adopted the bullet in their ammo lines as well; that alone should tell you how good the V-Max is. The V-Max assuredly deserves an audition in your varmint/predator rifle. It is also available in the .22 WMR from both Hornady and CCI.
If you are a predator hunter, you’ll already understand, but if you’re not, and you want to extend your hunting season, grab a good rifle and a good predator call and get outside. Many landowners, especially farmers, will give access to those hunters in pursuit of post-deer season coyotes easier than those who wish to hunt deer.
Yes, here in the Northeast it can be cold, snowy and icy, but it’s a helluva lot of fun, and quite challenging. In Texas and across the West, there are many wide-open spaces where foxes, coyotes and bobcats can give great sport. Pick up a smallbore rifle and some frangible bullets, and have some fun chasing them.