Predator Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

6mm Rem.
6mm Rem. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

By "predator" I mean small predator, not dangerous game. This article is about predators ranging from about 15 to 40 pounds live weight. Typical small predators include fox, coyote, opossum, raccoon, bobcat and the like. (Actually bobcat and raccoon are too intelligent and interesting for my sights, but they are among the typical small predators of North America.) No doubt similar size small predators in other parts of the world would be equally susceptible to the cartridges discussed in this article.

The small predators are much tougher animals to bring down than prairie dogs or sand rats. A predator may run for miles with a broken leg. Aim for a vital spot. Do not just shoot at the whole animal. For the purposes of this article, I am assuming that the shooter can get an appropriate bullet into the heart/lung area (chest) of the predator.

Due to time and space constraints I cannot list every suitable small predator cartridge. Those mentioned below are representative. If your favorite cartridge is similar to one of those mentioned, it is also probably suitable.

Short to medium range predator cartridges

At short range the .22 WMR with a 40 grain JHP bullet, if the bullet is well placed, will do an adequate job. But the .22 WMR rapidly sheds energy as ranges increase, and its bullets are light and lack the sectional density required for reliable penetration on these tough little meat eaters. I recommend passing on shots in excess of 100 yards with .22 WMR rifles.

Other suitable short to medium range centerfire predator cartridges include the .22 Hornet, .218 Bee, .25-20, .256 Win. Mag., .25-35, .32 H&R Magnum, .32-20, and .357 Magnum. These are classic varmint and predator cartridges limited primarily by their trajectory. Because most were designed for use in lever action rifles or revolvers, they are typically loaded with flat point bullets that shed velocity rapidly. The typical zero range for these relatively low velocity cartridges is 100 yards, yielding a maximum point blank range (MPBR) of about 125 yards. The .22 Hornet and .218 Bee operate at higher velocity, shoot flatter, and are effective on predators out to perhaps 150 yards, given proper bullet placement.

Medium to long range predator cartridges

These start with cartridges on the order of the .221 Fireball in terms of trajectory and downrange energy and go up in power and range from there. These cartridges can be zeroed at between 200 and 250 yards. Most will kill cleanly at 300 yards, if the shooter can arrange to put the bullet into a vital spot.

Included among the typical .17-.22 caliber varmint cartridges suitable for use on small predators are the .17 Remington, .204 Ruger, .221 Fireball, .222 Remington, and .223 Remington. The big case .22's, such as the .225 Winchester, .22-250, .224 Weatherby Magnum, .223 WSSM, and .220 Swift will really reach out there and carry the most energy. They are probably the best choices among the .22 centerfires for a dedicated predator rifle. 55 grain and heavier bullets are generally favored in predator loads for the big case .22s.

Offering greater killing power, when used with appropriate bullets, are the high velocity .24 and .25 caliber combination varmint/medium game cartridges. These are probably the ultimate small predator cartridges, and when loaded with 80-87 grain bullets they are less susceptible to cross winds than the .22 centerfires.

More power than the .24 and .25 caliber cartridges results in more muzzle blast and recoil, but little real increase in killing power. Dead is dead, and the high velocity .24 and .25 caliber cartridges produce very dead predators. They include such numbers as the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .243 WSSM, .240 Weatherby Magnum, .250-3000 Savage, .257 Roberts, and .25-06. These calibers can be zeroed at 250 yards for a practical range of about 300 yards. Their range is ultimately limited by trajectory, not killing power.

Big game cartridges

Lightweight bullets for shooting varmints and predators are offered to the reloader for many common big game calibers. These include 95-100 grain bullets in 6.5mm, 90-110 grain bullets in .270, 100-115 grain bullets in 7mm, and 100-125 grain bullets in .30 caliber. To use these relatively light weight bullet effectively, almost all rifles will require re-zeroing. The varmint/predator bullets in these calibers will seldom shoot to the same point of impact as the big game bullets normally used.

These light bullets turn big game rifles in calibers such as .260 Remington, 6.5x55, 6.8mm SPC, .270 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57, .280 Remington, .30-30, .308 Winchester, and .30-06 into perfectly useful predator rifles, even if they are "overkill" for the purpose. Remember, even with these substantial calibers, bullet placement is critical. Aim for the predator's heart/lung area and a kill will result at whatever range you can get the bullet into the animal's vitals.

For example, a .270/110 grain bullet driven at a MV of 3300 fps and zeroed at 250 yards results in a trajectory much like that quoted for the hot .24 and .25 caliber cartridges. It's just noisier and kicks more. Fortunately, predator hunting is a much more leisurely business than varmint shooting, and typically requires far fewer shots, so the extra blast and recoil are less obnoxious. Also fortunate is the fact that the typical 3-9x big game scope is also suitable for hunting predators.

For more on rifles and scopes, see the companion article "Predator Rifles," which can be found on the Hunting and Hunting Rifles section of the Rifle Information Page.

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Copyright 2006, 2010 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.