Predator Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

The common North American small predators probably average 15 to 45 pounds live weight. Included are such beasts as the fox, coyote, opossum, raccoon, and bobcat. Similar size predators are found worldwide.

Most of these small carnivores prey on rodents and they are much tougher to bring down than typical varmints. A wounded predator may run great distances after being hit with a bullet that misses a vital spot. Do not just shoot at the animal. Aim for a specific spot, usually the heart/lung area.

Small predators are usually called to a stand or shot as targets of opportunity when still hunting (stalking). Most of the calibers recommended for varmint shooting are also recommended for hunting small predators. Typically the heavier varmint bullets in .22 caliber (55-70 grain), .24 caliber (80-87 grain), and .25 caliber (85-87 grain) will be the most appropriate for use on small predators. Soft point type bullets are entirely suitable.

Rifles for hunting these small predators differ from typical varmint rifles in that they are more likely to be carried greater distances and are seldom required to fire long shot strings. Sporter type rifles in centerfire varmint calibers, rather than heavy barrel varmint rifles, are an appropriate choice for predator hunting and such rifles are offered by practically all of the major arms makers. Some manufacturers even offer models primarily intended for hunting predators; the Savage Predator Hunter, Winchester Model 70 Coyote and Weatherby Mark V Super PredatorMaster are examples.

Not all predator rifles are scaled down varmint rifles. Adequate short to medium range small predator rifles include a wide variety of action types including lever, autoloading, pump, bolt and single shot models in calibers ranging from .22 WMR to .357 Magnum. Medium to long range predator rifles are usually single shot or bolt action models chambered for high velocity cartridges ranging from the .22 Hornet to the .25-06.

Perhaps ideal are the combination varmint/medium game calibers on the order of the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .250 Savage and .257 Roberts when loaded with bullets weighing from 80-87 grains. For more on cartridges, see the companion article Predator Cartridges.

As an example, one of my favorite small predator rifles is a Browning Low Wall falling block in .243 Winchester. This rifle has a 24" barrel, weighs about 7.25 pounds including scope and measures only 39.5" in overall length.

I shoot reloaded ammunition in this rifle, specifically the 87 grain Hornady BTHP bullet with a maximum powder charge, yielding a MV of 3100 fps according to the Sixth Edition of the Hornady Handbook. That load can be zeroed for predator shooting at 250 yards and at 500 yards the bullet is still carrying some 731 ft. lbs. of energy (more than typical .223 loads deliver at 200 yards). Unfortunately, its trajectory limits its practical range to about 300 yards. At 500 yards the bullet drop would be some 34.3", or almost 3 feet!

Many big game hunters simply use their big game rifles for predator hunting during the off season. Suitable cartridges include most standard numbers from 6.5mm to .30 caliber. Reloaders have access to light for the caliber bullets weighing from 90 grains to 125 grains that can be used to create deadly predator loads. Remember that almost all big game rifles will have to be re-zeroed when shooting these lightweight bullets. However, this minor chore pays big dividends for the predator hunter.

Even with the most powerful calibers, bullet placement remains 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.

Iron sights are suitable for shots at very close range; otherwise, any predator rifle should be equipped with a telescopic sight. Most of the scopes that grace big game rifles are also acceptable choices for hunting predators, particularly those in the fixed 6x or variable power 3-9x range.

A dedicated predator rifle can use a slightly more powerful scope. My .243 predator rifle mentioned above is currently wearing a 3-10x40mm scope, but has also worn a 4-12x40mm glass. Both seem entirely satisfactory. Larger scopes in the 5-15x and 4-16x range are unnecessary and add too much weight to be ideal for a predator stalking rifle.

As can be seen from the foregoing, a wide variety of rifles and cartridges can be used for predator hunting, as long as the shooter can put the bullet into a vital spot. In that respect, shooting predators is more like shooting big game than shooting varmints. Which is probably why predator rifles are closer to big game rifles than varmint rifles in all but caliber and/or bullet weight.

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Copyright 2005, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.