The .204 Ruger

By Chuck Hawks

.204 Ruger
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The first big cartridge announcement for 2004 came from Hornady and Ruger. These are two of our industry's most innovative companies, and they collaborated on the design and introduction of the .204 Ruger. Hornady took primary responsibility for the design and manufacture of the new cartridge and Ruger for the first .204 rifles. Both companies must be gratified by the acceptnace and commercial success of the .204 in only four short years

Permit me to quote some of the initial Ruger text describing the new cartridge:

"A cartridge doesn't have to look odd to perform great. The new .204 Ruger is the result of a bold yet sensible thought. Forget about 'super short fat magnum' cartridges with more difficult feeding, increased rearward bolt thrust, and shortened barrel life. A standard short-action (rifle) accommodates this powerful, accurate, flat-shooting varmint cartridge. You get incredibly swift performance without a super-long or super-fat cartridge case. The new .204 Ruger is a sensible cartridge that really works."

This is not the first commercial .20 caliber cartridge. The 5mm Remington Magnum Rimfire, a .22 WMR case necked-down to accept a .2045" bullet (38 grains at a muzzle velocity [MV] of 2100 fps) was announced in 1969. It never caught on with consumers or other rifle or ammunition makers and died in obscurity some years later.

There have been at least a couple of even more obscure wildcat .20 caliber cartridges, the best known of which is probably the .20 Tactical. The .20 Tactical is based on a necked-down .223 Remington case. For years, Hornady offered a 33 grain V-Max bullet to reloaders interested in the .20 Tactical and other .20 caliber cartridges and reloading data is included in the Sixth Edition of the Hornady Handbook. Maximum MV's run 4000-4100 fps. As Hornady reported in their introduction to the .20 Tactical, "What is the .20 Tactical capable of that the .17 Remington or the .223 Remington are not? Pragmatically speaking, nothing." (A revealing statement, considering Hornady's later development of the very similar .204 Ruger!) As far as I have been able to ascertain, the .20 Tactical has not exactly set the world on fire, even among wildcatters.

The .204 Ruger is much like the .20 Tactical. Rather than using the common .223 Rem. case as a starting point, the .204 is based on the similar but obsolete .222 Remington Magnum case. It retains the same .378" rim and head diameter as its parent, as well as the same 1.85" case and 2.28" cartridge overall length (COL). This new case is .09" longer than the .20 Tactical case. The shoulder of the .204 is set a little farther forward than the shoulder of the .222 Mag. Case capacity is thus slightly greater than the .20 Tactical, perhaps by a couple grains of powder. Primer size is small rifle. Bullet diameter is .204".

The Hornady factory loads for the .204 Ruger use a maximum charge of a new ball powder specially developed for the purpose. This is not a canister powder and it is not available to reloaders. The factory loaded bullets include a 32 grain V-Max, 40 grain V-Max and 45 grain Spire Point. These are varmint bullets that have established a reputation for excellent accuracy and violent fragmentation that minimizes the chance of ricochet. They are strictly varmint and small predator bullets, as penetration is inadequate for animals bigger than coyotes.

The commercial success of the .204 Ruger has compelled the other major US ammo companies to offer .204 Ruger factory loaded ammunition. As I write these words in 2008, Remington, Winchester and Federal all offer .204 factory loads with ballistics similar to the 32 and 40 grain Hornady factory loads.

Like other light bullets for their caliber, the ballistic coefficient (BC) and sectional density (SD) of the 32 grain .204" V-Max are rather poor. Hornady figures list the BC as .210 and the SD is .110. This is comparable to the 40 grain .224" Hornady V-Max bullet offered for the various .22 centerfire calibers (BC .200, SD .114). None of these are impressive numbers.

It is worth noting that most experienced varmint shooters choose a heavier bullet with a better BC and SD for their centerfire varmint rifles. Stubby bullets with a low BC are extremely susceptible to wind drift and rapidly shed their initially high velocity. For comparison, Hornady's popular 55 grain .22 caliber V-Max bullet has a BC of .255 and SD of .157. The popular 75 grain V-Max bullet for the various 6mm cartridges has a BC of .330 and SD of .181, which is more like it and explains why the .243's are so much more effective at long range and especially in windy conditions.

The figures for the 40 grain V-Max bullet are better. It has a BC of .275 and is factory loaded to a MV of 3900 fps. This bullet shoots measurably flatter than a bullet of similar weight fired from a rifle chambered for the popular .223 Remington cartridge.

Hornady factory ballistics for the popular 32 grain bullet in the .204 Ruger claim a MV of 4225 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 1308 ft. lbs. from a 24" test barrel. The velocity and energy figures down range are 3583 fps and 941 ft. lbs. at 100 yards, 3025 fps and 671 ft. lbs. at 200 yards, and 2531 fps and 469 ft. lbs. at 300 yards. This is the fastest factory loaded cartridge ever introduced, although the .220 Swift, .223 WSSM and 5.6x57mm can achieve similar velocities with light 40 grain bullets that, as we have seen, are comparable to the 32 grain .204 bullet. Hornady claims that their factory load for the .204 Ruger is very accurate, designed to shoot into 1 MOA or less.

The trajectory, zeroed for a maximum bullet rise of 1.5", should look like this: +0.1" at 50 yards, +1.1" at 100 yards, +1.5" at 150 yards, +1.1" at 200 yards, -0.3" at 250 yards, -2.7" at 300 yards. The maximum point blank range of the .204 Ruger (+/- 1.5") is approximately 277 yards (calculated for a scope mounted 1.5" above the bore).

Because the .204 is factory loaded with a specially formulated powder that is not commercially available, reloaders will generally not be able to duplicate the ballistics of the factory load. (Rifles, of course, are individuals, so the actual results will vary.) The hottest loads listed for the .20 Tactical have MV's in the 4100 fps range, which I suspect will also be about the maximum velocity (within SAAMI pressure limits) attainable by .204 Ruger reloaders using canister powders.

Here is some reloading data courtesy of the Hodgdon Powder Company:

Starting Load - Hornady 32 grain V-Max bullet, 26.0 grains of H335 powder, MV 3703 fps, 40,600 PSI.

Maximum Load - Hornady 32 grain V-Max bullet, 28.3 grains of H335 powder, MV 4044 fps, 54,800 PSI.

These loads used Hornady cases and Federal 205M primers. They were tested in a 24" barrel. As with other ultra-high velocity varmint cartridges, barrel life be better at MV's around 3800 fps.

From the reloader's standpoint, there is little to choose between the .20 Tactical and .204 Ruger cartridges. In fact, .223 cases are widely available for reforming and .222 Mag. cases are not, since Remington has discontinued the latter. One might therefore conclude that the .20 Tactical is actually the better choice for the wildcat reloader who simply must have a .20 caliber varmint rifle. However, for everyone else the .204 Ruger would seem the better choice, as it is generally desirable to have a rifle chambered for a factory loaded cartridge.

The .204 Ruger will perhaps more frequently be compared to the plethora of existing .22 centerfire cartridges. As we have seen, a 40 grain .224" bullet is approximately equal in BC and SD to the 32 grain .204" bullet, and is therefore a valid comparison. Using the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading as a reference, with canister powders widely available to reloaders the popular .223 Remington can drive a 40 grain bullet at a maximum MV of 3800 fps. The .224 Weatherby Magnum, .225 Winchester and .22-250 Remington can all drive 40 grain bullets at 4100 fps, about the same as the anticipated MV of the .204 with canister powders. The .220 Swift, .223 WSSM and 5.6x57 RWS can all drive a 40 grain bullet to a MV of about 4300 fps. And Hornady offers a .220 Swift factory load with a 40 grain V-Max bullet at a MV of 4200 fps.

Initially, Ruger offered 5 rifle models in .204 caliber, three Model 77 bolt actions and two No. 1 falling block single shots. Specifically these were the M77R Mk. II Standard, KM77VT Mk. II Target, and KM77RLFP Mk. II All-Weather Ultra Light bolt actions plus the No. 1-B Standard and K1-V-BBZ Stainless Varminter single shots. The sales of these inspired a number of other rifle makers to offer the .204 Ruger chambering and today Remington, Savage, Kimber, Cooper and others have entered the field.

The recoil from any of the Ruger .204 rifles should be light, similar to that of the .223 Remington in rifles of equal weight. The Hornady factory load should deliver about 2.6 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and a recoil velocity of 4.4 fps in an 8.5 pound rifle.

There is no question that the .204's factory ballistics make for spectacular quick kills on varmints and small predators to well beyond the MPBR of the .204 Ruger cartridge. Whether it offers any practical advantage over the hot .17 caliber and .22 caliber centerfire varmint cartridges will be up to the individual consumer to decide when he or she shells out hard earned dollars for a new varmint rifle. The .204 Ruger, however, is here to stay!

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Copyright 2004, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.