ARs for Varmint Shooting

Prairie dogs make holes. Lots and lots of holes. Cattle and horses can step in them and break legs. Farm equipment grinds to a halt on dirt mounds. Native grasses have a hard time getting a foothold in these p-dog towns.

So I'm happy to do my part helping ranchers control the population. The rascally rodents also make great targets, and that helps me shoot better.

Luckily, gun makers have been pumping out quality rifles and handguns to help us bring the out-of-control rodent population back in check.

On a recent shoot in Wyoming, my friend Steve Gash and I hauled out long-range Thompson Center Icons and T/C Venture Predators in .223 and .204 to knolls and rolling hills near Encampment on the Spur Ranch. We'd ride two tracks till we saw what looked like a mortar-training area -- holes with light-colored sandy dirt spread around -- that indicated an infestation. Then we'd get to work.

If the spot looked like a prairie dog city with hundred of rodent residents, then we'd break out the tables, spotting scopes and Lead Sleds for long-range action.

Gash, a longtime gun writer, is a nut for the "walking varminter," the Venture in .204, and you can't blame him.

"When it goes off, recoil is so slight the barrel barely jumps," said Gash. "You can see where you hit, and see where you need to hold next time, if you miss. You can view it all through the scope. I like that."

And he especially liked it when it was on target. A whoop went up with each satisfying pink cloud.

We'd pop p-dogs out 300, 400 and 500 yards. Gash had one beauty at 617 from one ridge to another. It took him 10 shots with the .204 as a spotter directed.

"High and left by 10 inches. Left, 6 inches. Bingo!" said Everett Degger of Hornady Ammunition. He said it was as much fun spotting as pulling the trigger. I don't know if I'd agree with that, but to each his own.

Occasionally we would arrive at a location that wasn't awash with black-tails. We felt it was our duty to keep it that way. Instead of setting up a table, and perhaps taking it down soon after due to a lack of targets, we'd load up on guns and ammo and hoof it.

A holstered S&W 617 revolver was a popular choice. A walking varminter was another gun-for-the-road. But I picked up a Smith & Wesson M&P15-22. This is a faithful reproduction of an M&P15, but instead of .223 the 15-22 is in .22 Long Rifle.

Right off the bat, you knew you were cutting your effective range by at least 75 percent as compared to the Ventures or even the M&P15 in .223. But this was close-in work as we mopped up p-dog towns, or walked moon-cratered prairies on the lookout for Richardson's ground squirrels or scurrying, barking p-dogs. (The genus Cynomys in their scientific name, Cynomys ludovicianus, is Greek for "dog mouse.")

The trade-off in effective range is made up in the compact, light gun that is super-cheap to shoot.

When I first picked up the M&P15-22, a few things came to mind.

1. This is plastic.

2. This is light.

I liked how light it was, but will the plastic fail me when I am pulling the trigger?

The M&P15-22 has both a polymer lower and upper. The 16-inch barrel is match-grade carbon steel. But just about everything else, save the bolt and trigger group, is plastic, a "high-strength polymer," according to S&W, which sponsored the shoot.

If there was a good proving ground for this gun, I was standing in it. With small, deserving targets all around, I did my best to fire up that p-dog town and produce a Failure To Feed or Failure To Eject. Hundreds of CCI and Federal Champion rounds later, and many rodents down for the count, I had not seen an FTF, FTE or any jam or failure at all.

That's saying something.

If the gun came up short, it's the trigger. It ships with a 7-pound trigger. There's some creep and travel. The good news is it will take a standard AR trigger group.

Similar semi-auto guns are the Sig Sauer 522, modeled after the 556, and Ruger SR22. Both of those .22LR-chambered guns have been around longer than the M&P15-22, and are both quality guns at similar prices. Major differences include triggers (Sig probably tops of the bunch), accessories (M&P takes AR furniture) and accuracy (Ruger may have this category topped).

If you have to choose just one, it's tough to go wrong. P-dogs don't like any of them.

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