Who out there hunts varmints with big game rifles?
While everybody enjoys summer, to a lot of people it does have one major defect in that big game season isn’t open. Thankfully, there is a relief from this in the form of varmint hunting.
Every year we head out into the field chasing after gophers, prairie dogs, rock chucks and various other little critters. Usually we use this as a good excuse to buy a new varmint rifle, and I’m certainly not the guy to discourage this behavior. For me to tell anyone else they have enough guns would set a new record for hypocrisy.
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That being said, one of the best opportunities that spring and summer varmint hunting offers is the chance to sneak in a bunch of practice with your usual big game rifle. Hey, if you still want to buy a new varmint gun, you can always go out twice as much.
When I’m in the mood to try my hand at varmints with my big game rifle, I usually go to a spot where the gopher population is a little light. I take whatever rifle I’m using that year along with the pack I carry and all the other various gear I’m planning on using for the upcoming big game season.
I’ve found that stalking varmints in a sparse environment does a great job of mimicking the conditions of big game hunting. You locate game, walk to it, get into a shooting position and give it your best shot.
During a big game season, I’ll only go through these operations a few times, but out stalking gophers I can try it out a dozen times in a day.
By the end of three or four trips out shooting gophers with my big game equipment, I’ve gotten an excellent idea of what works and what doesn’t along with a feel for what I need to work on before fall rolls around.
An interesting lesson you learn using your big game rifle on varmints is that just about any accurate rifle will serve as a useful varmint gun.
Granted, not all of them are particularly economical when it comes to shooting a large volume of ammunition, but they do all work. How well they work is something you get a lot better understanding of after a few field trips.
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Over the years varmint hunting has exposed several issues with rifles that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about until big game season.
I once owned a .458 Winchester Magnum that shot like a dream, and could nail prairie dogs a lot farther out that anyone would believe, but the latch on the magazine liked to pop open when you carried it.
It was nice to learn this with cheap ammo in the summer, as opposed to learning it with rounds that cost $2 each during snowy big game season.
Speaking of my old .458, varmint hunting is a great excuse to work out some super accurate loads for your rifle.
If you’re not a handloader, it’s a great time to shop around and find some factory ammo that shoots well. Regardless of the source, varmint hunting will give you the real world “no bull” assessment you need.
In the case of my elephant rifle, I’d settled on some 350gr Hornady bullets sitting on top of a pretty full case of IMR 3031. These rounds beat my shoulder like I owed them money, but gave beautiful little cloverleaf groups at 100 yards.
Naturally, I didn’t much fancy the idea of firing twenty of these in a day, so I drummed up a load using cheap lead cast 300gr bullets and a slower-burning power.
My “cream puff” rounds hit at about the same point of impact at 100 yards, but were infinitely more cordial to my shoulder.
That year I would start things off with a few of my hunting loads and then run out the rest of the day with lighter-kicking fodder, focusing on my form to keep things productive.
A solution like this for mellowing out the recoil on a big game rifle can be found with most cartridges by a diligent handloader, and the recent advent of low-recoil factory ammo offers the same thing to the non-handloader.
There are a few practical issues to bear in mind when you’re out varmint hunting with your big game rifle. The first is to me mindful of ricochets.
A lot of varmint shooters prefer to use highly frangible bullets that are designed to expand in small critters. These lightly constructed bullets also tend to bounce around a lot less when they make contact with the earth.
Big game bullets stick together much better and have a greater tendency to skip after landing. A safe shooter never fires without a clear backdrop, but when you’re using heavy jacketed bullets it pays to increase your mindfulness.
The second issue to bear in mind is that firing a lot of ammo quickly isn’t what a lot of big game rifles are designed for. Big game rifles tend to have much lighter barrels than their varmint rifle counterparts, so it’s important not to overheat them.
Remember that you’re practicing your stalking technique, so don’t wear out your barrel trying to clean out the field.
The final consideration has to do with noise. Big game rifles tend to be a lot louder than traditional varmint guns. If you’ve got a good varmint shooting spot on private land, the landowner may be fine with you shooting your .218 Bee in his back field all day, but might feel differently when you start banging away with a .375 H&H.
If you’re hunting on private land, it can’t hurt to talk to the landowner first and find out if it’s okay to switch to heavier artillery. A good varmint haunt is hard to find, so don’t lose one by being impolite.
As ethical hunters, we should all be engaged in some kind of realistic practice like that which varmint hunting offers.
Gophers, prairie dogs and rock chucks are a lot smaller than the big game we hunt, but their entire bodies are about the same size as the vital area we aim for on big game.
If you can consistently hit gophers at 250 yards, this is an indication that you can do the same thing with a deer’s heart.
Varmint hunting with big game equipment allows you to check all of your gear, from rangefinders to backpacks, in a controlled environment while making adjustments as needed.
It also allows you to practice all the little things nobody ever gets enough practice at, like judging wind drift and figuring out how to beat that pesky mirage in your scope.
If you want to be a better big game hunter, a decidedly smaller target is the place to start.