Best Varmint Handloads According To John Barsness
Over the decades I’ve done a lot of varminting, partly because Montana has an abundance of burrowing rodents, which farmers and ranchers tend to want reduced in number. In fact my first full-time job out of high school was as a ranch hand in southeastern Montana, where a small part of the job description was driving past a couple of prairie dog towns while out fixing fence or checking water holes. The rifle belonged to the rancher, a .22 Long Rifle bolt-action with a ¾” tube Weaver scope, which always rode in the window rack of the primary ranch pickup.
I learned two things from this: The .22 Long Rifle doesn’t work all that well on prairie dogs beyond 100 yards, both because the bullets drop steeply, and drift considerably even in what’s considered a mild breeze on the sagebrush prairie. Eventually I bought a Savage Model 24 combination gun, with a 20-gauge barrel under a .22 Winchester Rimfire Magnum barrel. The .22 Magnum proved a little better—but not much.
My first centerfire varmint rifle was a slightly used Remington 700 in .243 Winchester, purchased in 1974. At the time a lot of hunters were buying rifles in such versatile rounds, useful on both varmints and bigger game, and the .243 led the pack. I’d been handloading both rifle and shotgun ammo since around age 12 with the old Lee Loader hand tools, but decided the .243 needed something more, so bought an inexpensive press and dies, eventually working up both varmint and deer loads.
The varmint load was the 85-grain Sierra GameKing at around 3300 fps—at least according to published data. It took varmints from prairie dogs to coyotes, but soon I decided it wasn’t great for PD shooting, because it kicked too much to see where the bullets landed through the cheap 3-9x scope. I was used to being able to spot my shots, even though the narrow field of view of the skinny Weaver on the ranch .22.
Since then I’ve tried a bunch of other cartridges on various varmints, and have narrowed down the favorites:
The .17 Hornady Hornet (www.hornady.com) is by far my most-used varmint round, mostly because smaller burrowing rodents are most abundant in Montana. After acquiring a CZ Model 527 in 2013, the year after the cartridge appeared, I tried the powders showing highest listed velocities in Hornady’s data. The best load was 12.0 grains of Accurate 1680 for around 3600 fps with 20-grain plastic-tipped bullets, whether Hornady’s V-Max or Nosler’s Tipped Varmageddon. They grouped 5 shots into around half an inch at 100 yards, and the bullet expanded well out to 300+ yards.
A few years later Hodgdon CFEBLK powder appeared, and 12.7 grains got about 150 more fps. Groups weren’t quite as small, so I stuck to the A1680 load on little ground squirrels, but tend to use the CFEBLK load on prairie dogs.
The next larger cartridge on my favorite’s list is the .204 Ruger, which I mostly use at ranges beyond 300 yards, out to around 500. My favorite handload is 27.0 grains of Ramshot TAC and the 40-grain Hornady V-Max, which according to both Hornady and Bryan Litz (www.appliedballistics.com) has the highest ballistic coefficient of any .204 bullet in the 40-grain class.
The muzzle velocity is just over 3700 fps from the 24-inch barrel of my Remington 700, and while lighter bullets can be pushed over 4000 fps, the 40-grain V-Max works better at 300-500 yards, in particular drifting noticeably less in wind.
Like A1680 and CFE223BLK, TAC is a spherical powder, so flows very easily through a mechanical powder measure and tiny .17 caliber case necks, important when loading lots of prairie dog rounds—and also burns very cleanly, reducing the need to scrub the bore.
Plus, in hot-temperature testing, done on a 95-degree day with the ammo further heated to 115 degrees by being “greenhoused” in a clear ZipLoc bag, the load only gained 24 fps, and accuracy remained the same. Since a lot of prairie dog shooting takes place in hot summer weather, when rifle barrels heat up quickly, this is pretty handy.
TAC’s also the powder I use in the most popular prairie dog round, the .223 Remington. Usually I use a 50-grain plastic-tip and 26.0 to 26.5 grains of powder, which gets muzzle velocities from 3100 to 3450 fps in barrels from 16 to 26 inches long.
But if the barrel has a faster rifling twist than the long-time SAAMI .223 standard 1-12”, heavier bullets can be used, and Hodgdon Varget works better. I also prefer plastic-tips in faster twist barrels, because even target bullets like the 69-grain Sierra Tipped MatchKing and 73-grain Hornady ELD-M expand well at 500+ yards.
I used to use the .22-250 and .220 Swift a lot on long-range varmints from prairie dogs to coyotes, but these days go a little bigger for ranges beyond 500—though not much. While I’ve shot burrowing rodents from prairie dogs to rockchucks out to 900 yards with a variety of cartridges up to the 6.5-06, eventually I settled on the 6XC, designed by famous target shooter David Tubbs.
The 6XC is a based on the necked-up .22-250 case, with the shoulder set back to also lengthen the neck. This not only enhances accuracy but extends barrel life, partly because it reduces powder capacity slightly, and partly because the shoulder angle tends to direct hot powder gas inside the longer neck—instead of in front of the case mouth, like the .243 Winchester.
My rifle is a custom built on a Remington 700 action by Charlie Sisk (www.siskriflesmfg.com), with one of his adjustable, aluminum STAR stocks (Sisk Tactical Adjustable Stock). With a 20x SWFA scope and a 26-inch, 1-8 twist Lilja stainless steel barrel measuring .84” in diameter at the muzzle, it weighs an ounce under 13 pounds, which reduces recoil and aids in steady holding.
The best load I’ve found so far is the 95-grain Tipped MatchKing and 41.0 grains of IMR4451, for around 3150 fps. While production of 4451 is temporarily suspended while the Quebec company that produces it is filling military contracts, I still have a plentiful supply—but if you don’t H4350 or IMR4350 will work with a similar powder charge. However, 4451 also contains a de-coppering agent, which helps considerably when prairie dogging.
All the powders mentioned except the suspended 4451 are now being distributed by Hodgdon (www.hodgdonreloading.com), which also sells them through their website.