The Best Predator Rifle: Bolt-Action vs. AR
December 19, 2016
A Western kid by upbringing, I have long been enamored by ultra lightweight, hard-kicking, powerful rifles that you could hike all day with and still make that long cross-canyon shot on an elk.
But when it comes to predators, lighter rifles are not always better. Like everyone who chases them, I've sure missed my share of coyotes at longer ranges, and always figured that's part of the game. But a wise man once told me heavier guns are inconvenient to carry not only because of their weight, but also because when you shoot one you will end up carrying more animals out.
I have since learned that he was right: You should only use a heavier predator rifle if you wish to hit what you are aiming at.
Don't get me wrong — you won't find me lugging a benchrest gun on a backpack hunt. But if my next setup for a coyote involves less than a half-mile of hiking, you can bet I'll be packing something with a heavy barrel. Neither the beauty, a state-of-the-art custom bolt gun, or the beastly heavyweight AR pictured above is a lightweight, in any sense. Nor will they settle the bolt gun versus AR argument for good. But the custom McMillan Tactical Hunter Varminter in .22-250 and the Stag Arms Super Varminter AR in .223 are prime examples of near-perfect coyote killers for guys willing to pack them.
So let's get right to the point. Hitting coyotes consistently past 200 yards is a challenge, for a lot of reasons. There is no other game animal that I have seen people miss so consistently.
For one, field conditions when calling for dogs are rarely as ideal as resting across sandbags at the range or parking over the hood of your car on a prairie dog town in Nebraska.
The second big reason we miss them is a small one: coyotes are deceivingly diminutive. They are not half the size of a deer, as most of us think when we see one loping across a field with their long legs and all that fur. No, they are on average one-fifth the size of an adult deer and much smaller than that compared to a big buck.
A third reason people miss coyotes all the time is they simply don't give you long windows of opportunity in which they are not moving. They don't graze and browse or root around. Coyotes are anxious, nervous, antsy creatures by nature. We naturally want to rush the shot.
The fourth reason they are missed so often is the intangible something-something. Hunters just seem to kind of wet their pants when shooting at coyotes. I attribute this to the fact that they are predators, not prey. People not only miss them much more than similar-sized species like javelina and antelope, but they also overestimate their ability to hit them.
I was on a hunt a few weeks ago in Alberta and dialed my gun in after the flight. It was a Winchester Coyote Light 70 in .22-250, a lovely rifle that quickly squeezed down to ½-inch groups in eight or so shots with 50-grain ammo by American Eagle. This took less than 10 minutes, but an impatient buddy teased me about taking so long.
I pointed out the half-inch groups and he snarked "I'm looking for coyotes more than a half-inch in size."
And he quickly rough-sighted his rifle in "good enough." Incredibly, just as we left the makeshift 100-yard range in the forest, a young coyote popped from the brush where we'd been shooting, if you can believe, and sat there while my buddy jumped out, fumbled around and shot at it at a mere 70 yards. WHIFF! Missed it clean! Was it the gun or the shooter? We'll never know, but I did enjoy telling him "that coyote must have been a half-incher."
Having dialed his gun in a little tighter could not have hurt. He went on to whiff the only other coyote he saw on the trip, another easy shot, and after that he stuck with duck hunting. Another writer also fanned two of two on the trip. These guys were veteran shooters, but people just seem to miss coyotes a lot more than other critters. They're small, they're crafty, they don't hang around long and they really seem to excite people.
Another case-in-point'¦yours truly. Using the McMillan, a hyper-accurate death laser of a rifle, I managed to miss the first coyote I ever shot at with it. I was hunting with friends around a small pond in Nebraska when a big blonde dog worked slowly in and stopped just over 250 yards out in heavy 25 mph sustained wind. I refused to hold off-hair to the upwind side of the dog to allow for drift, yet at the shot, he flopped over and thrashed. Yes! To my dismay, he leapt up and streaked off.
Luckily, he paused for a second at 289 yards. With the second shot I used hurried dead reckoning and whock! The lightning-fast little bullet chilled that dog's grits right there. He didn't move a muscle, which is what is so lovely about the "two-fifty"'¦if you do your job it zaps them like Thor. I was sure I'd hit him twice, but when we skinned the doggy we found just one bullet hole in him.
Why he appeared hard hit that first shot I have no idea. We generally write off such instances to the coyote's Matrix-like escape artist moves, which is what makes them so fun to hunt.
Clean Trigger Pulls
It takes precision to kill coyotes past 200 yards, especially on a field rest. A heavier gun is a huge advantage for a lot of reasons. For one thing, they are inherently very accurate due to low barrel vibration affecting the bullet as it releases from the muzzle. Heavy-barreled guns are also less finicky about what ammo you feed them, probably for the same reason. Heavy barrels are less affected by temperature, slower to heat up. They're stiffer, too, and tend to be longer, which maximizes velocity and thus flattens trajectory.
That's a lot of pluses. Another reason they inherently shoot better that is not discussed in gun mags much is a direct side benefit of their inherent weight. We all know a smooth trigger pull is the most critical aspect of performing a great shot. Squeeze the trigger, don't slap it, and don't pull your gun off target with the squeeze, right? Fundamentals. Well, that's a lot easier to do with a heavier gun due to all that kinetic energy at rest.
So a heavy gun simply makes performing a clean trigger pull much more effortless and forgiving. If your trigger is a little scratchy, it doesn't matter as much if the gun is so heavy it doesn't want to wiggle.
That's a lot of convincing if you need it. A total lack of recoil in heavy guns also makes anyone shoot better. And the single biggest thing is steadiness (and the reason most tournament pros pack inconveniently heavy bolt guns with target barrels). The same reasons the old buffalo hunters often packed guns that could tip a horse over in the scabbard.
Those crosshairs simply don't bobble around as much from the wind or from the hunter's excitement when the gun weighs a lot. The McMillan is essentially a bull-barreled benchrest varminter, with a cerakoted and fully-floated pipe that is also fluted for cooling and to reduce weight. With that ultra-stiff, accuracy-enhancing stock and a trigger that breaks like a glass straw, well, if you miss anything it's on you, because Kelly McMillan missed nothing when he built this one, right down to the pillar glass bedding.
If you can believe it, the AR is actually heavier, with that super-boss 24-inch heavy stainless barrel. When you hold it, it seems like the upper and lower are really just a support system for that beastly barrel. With a mid-sized Nikon scope, it comes in at 11 pounds — about like an Africa heavy rifle.
The touted two-stage match trigger is not nearly as clean-breaking as the McMillan's custom Jewell, but much more affordable and still quite shootable because of the gun's mass.
Admittedly, neither gun is particularly pleasant to lug around, but if you're halfway fit and pack light otherwise, coyote hunting is not like sheep hunting. You generally are not climbing mountains and going tens of miles up trails in a day. Typically, jaunts are half a mile from setup to setup.
You may walk 10 miles in a day, but it's broken up a lot. And when you raise a 10-pound rifle up on the sticks, a confidence comes with it that is enviable when those crosshairs settle down like that scope were atop an old buffalo gun. You steer that duplex reticle home and it doesn't want to move until that animal is dead. Even if your breathing is less than perfectly calm.
Besides, while chasing coyotes, you're shooting off sticks or a bipod 90 percent of the time if you're smart, anyway, so it's not like you have to hold that rifle up.
Now, if you are on an epic cross country desert coyote hike, which I'm given to want to do in the Snake River country and other wide open places with loads of public land (like Nevada), then God bless you for the fortitude, and you do need a light rifle. In these instances, my ideal gun would be a Kimber model 84m in .243. It is beautiful, light, fast as quicksilver, reasonably priced and five pounds of wind-bucking death that will outshoot a .223 and is still a short action. That caliber has enough whop to tackle wolves and light big game should the need arise. But that's another story.
SO WHICH GUN?
The Mac versus the Stag is really a question of bolt-action versus AR. The McMillan is expensive and state-of-the-art, and with its custom trigger and that sexy khaki cerakote finish, it's an unfair comparison when that tricked out stock alone costs as much as some ARs. But similar benchrest-style bolt-action killers like the TC Precision Hunter or the Winchester Model 70 Coyote series can be had for far less, so by which gun, I really mean what action: AR in .223 or bolt gun in higher performance calibers.
Both are frighteningly accurate. McMillan is famous for sniper rifles, and that's all you really need to know about that. It's a gun built to competition custom benchrest standards, with added features like an adjustable cheek piece to put your face in line with the scope. Bolt guns are inherently more accurate, yet you really can't get much more accurate than this Stag AR: It comes with a half-inch MOA guarantee! And incredibly, the Stag offers that extreme level of performance yet costs little more than standard ARs, around a grand.
So for me, which gun I take with me has become an east versus west argument. Hunting east of the Mississippi, you will find the Stag Super Varminter in my hands nine times out of 10. Out west, that McMillan will be rested across my sticks for the simple reason that the superior trigger combines with the awesome killing power of the .22-250 to make it a more lethal package at the longer ranges you will be shooting in open places like Utah or Montana.
The "two-fifty" rarely requires a backup shot, because it is a flatter shooting, harder hitting caliber with more energy. When you have to make that kind of 289-yard shot in the heavy wind, as I did, it's the gun you want to use. I run a thread protector on the muzzle brake when hunting with a partner out of concern for their hearing. The upside to that brake? With the total cancellation of recoil you can still see the coyote in the scope if another shot is needed, and it's fun to see the bullet strike.
On the other hand, amid the wooded bowls and small fields of the east, shooting over 150 yards is rare, so the Stag starts to make a lot of sense. In the east, coyotes run in packs or pairs more often, probably because they are larger bodied and hunt deer more than western dogs.
For that reason a follow up shot or even a third is awfully nice to have, especially from a gun in which you do not hear the bolt cycling. The slightly more droopy trajectory of the .223 will rarely come into play, and it kills them dead as disco at closer ranges. The faster follow up shots the Stag offers are a plus in the brushy east, where more bullet deflections and smaller shot windows occur.
One thing is certain. Either of these guns will make coyotes yearn for the days when guys mostly shot predators with semi-accurate deer rifles and .22 Hornets!