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 sage 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 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. However, 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.

Suitable short range centerfire predator cartridges include the .25-20, .256 Win. Mag., .25-35, .30 Carbine, 7.62x39mm, .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.

Medium to long range predator cartridges

These start with cartridges on the order of the .22 Hornet in terms of trajectory and downrange energy and go up in power and range from there. These cartridges can be zeroed at between 150 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 .20-.22 caliber varmint cartridges suitable for use on small predators are the .204 Ruger, .22 Hornet, .218 Bee, .221 Fireball, .222 Remington and .223 Remington. The big case .22's, such as the .225 Winchester, .22-250, .224 Weatherby Magnum and .220 Swift, will really reach out and carry the most energy. Frangible bullets weighing around 55 grains are generally favored for predator loads in .22 caliber cartridges from the .223 on up in case capacity.

A step up in power from the .22 centerfires are the high velocity .24-.25 caliber cartridges. These include such numbers as the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .250-3000 Savage and .257 Roberts. These cartridges can be zeroed at 250 yards for a practical range of about 300 yards.

The .240 Weatherby Magnum, .25-06 and .257 Weatherby Magnum represent the ultimate in range and power when used with varmint weight bullets, but also in recoil and muzzle blast. These are primarily medium game (Class 2) cartridges that are also factory loaded with varmint/predator weight bullets to extend their versatility.

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. The range of any the high intensity and magnum .24 and .25 caliber cartridges is ultimately limited by trajectory, not killing power.

Big game cartridges

Lightweight bullets for shooting varmints and predators are offered to reloaders 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 and, depending on the individual rifle, are often not as accurate as the heavier bullets for which these cartridges were designed.

These light bullets turn big game rifles in calibers such as .260 Remington, 6.5x55, 6.5mm Rem. Magnum, .270 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57mm, .280 Remington, .308 Winchester and .30-06 into 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.

A specialized, high magnification scope is seldom required for shooting predators. A typical 3-9x big game riflescope is suitable for most predator hunting and a 4-12x scope is probably close to ideal.

For more on rifles and scopes, see the companion article Predator Rifles.

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Copyright 2006, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.