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Squirrel Hunting Guns
By Chuck Hawks
Squirrels are known for being cute, frisky, intelligent, and curious. (They are also cannibalistic, which is not as well known.) Their curiosity sometimes works to their disadvantage, as they will often watch hunters to see what they are doing. And if they can see the hunter, the hunter may well be able to see them!
I enjoy watching squirrels in the park, and feeding them nuts by hand in campgrounds. In the woods, however, they are game animals. I have always enjoyed the heck out of squirrel hunting, and where I live they are open all year long, so I have done a lot of it.
Shotguns, rifles, and handguns are all used to hunt squirrels. Having used all three to harvest a great many squirrels over the years, I can confidently state that rifles and/or handguns are the sporting way to go.
Squirrel hunting is primarily the province of rimfire calibers. The cartridges to seriously consider include .17 M2, .17 HMR, .22 LR, and possibly .22 WMR.
Squirrels as varmints
Ground squirrels are generally considered to be a pest and can represent a significant crop loss to farmers. These little rodents are therefore commonly classed as varmints rather than small game. The distinction seems to be that ground squirrels are usually shot to thin the population, rather than for the dinner table.
If you don't care about preserving an edible carcass, then varmint rifles and frangible varmint bullets are appropriate. Any rimfire or centerfire varmint rifle from .17 M2 to 6mm Remington is adequate for shooting ground squirrels. The best caliber will depend on the range and conditions, especially wind.
The .17 M2 delivers 88 ft. lbs. of energy at 100 yards, and shoots flat enough to be useful at that range. The .22 LR in hyper-velocity varmint shooting form with 32-33 grain HP bullets, such as the CCI Stinger and Remington Yellow Jacket loads, delivers a similar amount of energy, but is limited by its more curved trajectory to a MPBR of around 90 yards. These cartridges are cheaper to shoot but more sensitive to wind drift than the other popular ground squirrel cartridges.
The .17 HMR and .22 WMR rimfires are popular choices and both do a good job, killing squirrels as far as they can be hit. In the case of the .22 WMR that is probably on the order of 125 yards, based on the maximum point blank range (+/- 1.5") of the cartridge. But in the case of the .17 HMR that is all the way out to about 165 yards, where it delivers more energy than the .17 Mach 2 does at 100 yards.
That makes the .17 HMR, hands down, my favorite ground squirrel cartridge. Its mild report and absence of recoil make it a real pleasure to shoot. And the accuracy of the .17 HMR varmint rifles we have tested for Guns and Shooting Online has been superb. The .17 HMR cartridge and the varmint rifles chambered for it are among the most accurate rifle/cartridge combinations available.
Actually, for most ground squirrel shooting a heavy barrel varmint rifle is unnecessary. Many standard .17 HMR hunting rifles seem to shoot about as accurately as the more specialized varmint rifles. The little cartridge heats barrels very slowly, meaning that a heavy barrel is much less important than on a centerfire rifle.
Nor are specialized, high powered scopes necessary for shooting ground squirrels. My Anschutz 1717 D KL rifle wears a Leupold VX-II 3-9x33mm AO rimfire EFR scope. Load up any good .17 HMR scoped rifle with cartridges using 17 grain varmint bullets and have at 'em.
Squirrels as small game
Tree squirrels are generally classified as small game animals, and regulated as such by most state game departments. Since the animals harvested are to become table fare, varmint cartridges and varmint bullets are generally inappropriate. Squirrels are small creatures, and a frangible varmint bullet, including those fired by .17 M2, .17 HMR and .22 WMR arms, are too destructive if the bullet strikes the animal's body, particularly at the short ranges at which tree squirrels are commonly shot.
I always endeavor to make a head shot on any squirrel I intend to eat, as that way no meat is destroyed and cleaning is simplified. And I have found that the .22 LR High Velocity cartridge with a 36-37 grain copper-plated, hollow point bullet is the ammunition of choice, whether fired from rifle or handgun. This load seems to have been designed for squirrel hunting, and perhaps it was. It normally expands well enough to kill quickly with a chest shot, without tearing up the little animal any more than necessary.
The .22 LR HVHP kills faster and more certainly than the .17 HMR or .22 WMR using FMJ bullets. The latter drill a very small hole through a squirrel, and frequently allow fatally hit rodents to escape recovery, only to die a painful death soon after. The greater energy of the rimfire magnum JHP bullets is wasted on the landscape behind the squirrel.
There is no more sport in shooting a squirrel with a shotgun than there is in ground sluicing birds. I consider it to be simple killing, not hunting. Shotguns are an efficient way to bag squirrels, but not very sporting. Besides, shot pellets are inevitably left in the meat. Biting down on one is not fun.
If you must shoot squirrels with a scattergun, low brass field loads in any gauge from 28-12 are all that is required. I like #6 shot in 12 or 16 gauge guns (fewer pellets in the meat), and #7 1/2 shot in 20 and 28 gauge guns.
My all time favorite squirrel rifle is a Marlin Model 39A lever action carbine with a 4 power scope, but any accurate .22 hunting rifle will serve. Accurate is the operative word, since the head of a squirrel is a small mark. A good .22 hunting rifle should be able to shoot 1.5" groups at 75 yards from a bench rest.
Iron sights will seriously limit the range at which reliable head shots can be made, so I strongly recommend a scope for any squirrel rifle. A fixed 4 power rimfire scope provides an adequate field of view and has all the magnification required. One of the 3-9x power rimfire scopes will also suffice. A scoped rifle should be zeroed to hit dead on at about 75 yards. That way the midrange rise is no greater than 1.5".
The .22 LR rifle cartridge is usually sufficient for a squirrel rifle, as not many hunters can hit a 1" target beyond 75 yards from field positions, anyway. Nor are squirrels easy to spot at long ranges, since they live around trees and brush and are usually obscured from distant observers by foliage. I would estimate that most of the squirrels I have killed fell between 15 and 50 yards from where I stood.
For those who have the skill and opportunity to push the range envelope, an accurate .17 HMR hunting rifle shooting the 20 grain Hornady XTP small game hunting bullet can be zeroed to hit 1.3" high at 100 yards (or dead-on at 134 yards), yielding a MPBR (+/- 1.5") of 154 yards. I have a .17 HMR Henry Golden Boy rifle that performs superbly if set up that way. Most of its long range potential is wasted however, because I lack the skill to consistently make head shots on squirrels at 150 yards. 100 yards is a very long shot at a squirrel head!
My favorite way to hunt squirrels is with an accurate .22 LR handgun. Since squirrel hunting is basically a short range proposition anyway, a handgun is not as big a handicap as it might seem, provided the shooter has developed the skill required to use it effectively.
My favorite squirrel hunting handguns are a High Standard Trophy II target pistol that wears a red dot sight, and a Colt Diamondback target revolver with a 6" barrel. On the latter I use the supplied (fully adjustable) iron sights. Either is a fine squirrel gun out to around 25 yards--that being is far as I can reasonably attempt head shots from field positions with any sort of handgun.
The .22 Diamondback, probably the best medium frame revolver ever produced, and can be carried comfortably in an ordinary belt holster, a real advantage. Another revolver that I particularly like for squirrel hunting is the 6.5" Ruger Super Single Six. These almost always require a reduction in spring tension to achieve a decent trigger pull, but that is about a 2 minute job.
Other .22 revolvers, autoloading pistols (Browning and Ruger are names that come to mind), and single shot pistols such as the T/C can also be perfectly satisfactory as long as they have the requisite intrinsic accuracy. Not all .22 pistols will shoot 1.5" groups at 25 yards, even from a bench rest, so accuracy is a priority for any handgun to be used for squirrel hunting.
In addition to the aforementioned red dot optical sight, I have also tried various handgun scopes from 1.3x to 5x. Unfortunately, since my skill (or lack of it) limits me to 25 yard head shots, I find that the more powerful optical sights are far less advantageous on a handgun than on a rifle, and their field of view is quite tiny, a definite drawback. A 2x pistol scope has all the power I have ever needed for squirrel hunting.
A handgun is the most fun and also the most sporting way I know to hunt squirrels. Certainly it is less efficient than a rifle, but it is more challenging and more fun. And, as far as I am concerned, fun is the whole point of the exercise!
Copyright 2006, 2010 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.