Photo by Mike Bleech
High in the canopy of a hardwood forest, a fat gray squirrel leaps from limb to limb after apparently being pelted by a load of shot. On the other side of the woodlot, another squirrel jumps when a .22 bullet strikes between its feet, and then it scampers up a tree and into a cavity in the trunk. In both cases, the hunter failed because the ammunition was inadequate for the task. And in both cases, using some of the newer developments in ammunition could have easily rectified the problem.
Squirrels are small targets with very tough skin. Shotgun loads that would cleanly kill grouse and other thin-skinned small game will not adequately penetrate squirrels. The deeply arched trajectory of a .22 long rifle bullet often passes under a squirrel at moderate distances, or over it if the rifle is zeroed for longer shots.
NEW SHOTSHELL LOADS
If you hunt squirrels with a shotgun, the biggest mistake you can make is using inadequate loads. But let’s face it, very few squirrel hunters pay much attention to their loads other than picking a shot size that often as not is wrong. Many hunters use magnum loads with good intentions, not realizing that these might actually be poor choices. The results are too often wounded game that escapes into the cavity of a tree. Anyone who has field dressed a variety of small game knows how much tougher a squirrel skin is in comparison to most other small game.
Take a look at magnum shotshell loads. The word “magnum” is one of the most misused words in ammunition. What does it mean? Does it mean more powerful? More lethal? Regarding shotshell loads, the term magnum is typically applied to loads with larger than standard shot charges. But this is generally done at the expense of velocity. The greater the weight of the shot, the less velocity it will have at any given powder charge.
Lighter shot charges can be propelled at greater velocities. Newer 12-gauge loads listed as “high velocity” are claimed to have velocities of 1,300 feet per second (fps) to 1,500 fps. For 20 gauge, it’s 1,300 fps to 1,350 fps. Shot charges for 12-gauge high-velocity loads typically are 1 1/8 ounces to 1 3/8 ounces, while for 20-gauge loads, most are 1 ounce.
The result of higher velocity on game is better penetration. This translates into clean kills and less wounded game. A really big squirrel can weigh over 2 pounds, which still is quite small. One pellet, if it is large enough, passing through a vital zone will kill cleanly. Too much shot just makes eating the meat difficult. Squirrels are tasty, so don’t ruin the meat by tearing it up or filling it with shot. Any standard factory-hunting load contains a lot of shot.
Hitting squirrels is not difficult if you hit them right with the first shot. Not that we all don’t miss sometimes, of course. But the most common reason we sometimes miss is because the first shot at a still squirrel failed to produce a clean kill, thus resulting in the squirrel scampering off through high tree limbs. A squirrel running full-out, bouncing from limb to limb, becomes a more difficult target.
Pay attention to velocity, not the shot charge. Any perceived shortcoming in the number of shot should be compensated for by choking. Screw in the full choke tube, or improved-modified, when you hunt squirrels. But do this only after patterning your loads on paper to determine whether this tube actually produces the tightest and consistently densest patterns.
Larger shot maintains velocity better than smaller shot; therefore, it penetrates better at longer distances. Larger shot also makes a larger wound channel. Clearly larger shot — No. 4 or No. 5, ideally — are best for squirrels. Get any of the high-velocity loads using No. 4 or No. 5 shot and you will be on top of the game.
The .22 Long Rifle rimfire cartridge has long been the top choice of squirrel hunters who use rifles, challenged only by the .22 Winchester Magnum. No doubt both are great. But you can do considerably better since the advent of .17 rimfire cartridges.
The .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire was the first of these on the scene. It is a necked-down .22WM case. The .17 Mach 2 came next. It is a necked-down .22 Stinger, which is slightly longer than a standard .22LR.
The .17HMR is a scorching-fast rimfire round. A 10-shot string of the Hornady load using 17-grain V-Max bullets fired through a chronograph produced an average velocity of 2,621 fps. A 10-shot string of the CCI load using 20-grain Gamepoint bullets produced an average velocity of 2,447 fps. The smaller .17M2 is not as fast, of course, but still an improvement over the older .22-rimfire rounds. A 10-shot string of the CCI load using 17-grain V-Max bullets produced an average velocity of 2,018 fps. Tests were made using typical hunting rifles fired from the shoulder on a bench rest: the .17HMR from a CZ Varmint with a Bushnell Elite 3200 3x-9x scope, and the .17M2 from a Savage Mark II with a Bushnell Banner 3x-9x scope. The chronograph was a Shooting Chrony Gamma Master.
Since the newer .17M2 is about 600 fps slower, it begs the question of why is it necessary. For pure velocity and trajectory enthusiasts, there is no reason. But to the seasoned squirrel hunter, it makes all of the sense in the world. Comparing the trajectory of both .17 rimfires and the common .22 rimfires, the .17M2 is plenty flat enough within practical squirrel hunting distances. Trajectory tracking tests were made with rifles zeroed at 50 yards. Three-shot groups were fired at distances of 25 yards, 50 yards, 75 yards and 100 yards. Measurements were made from the centers of the three-shot groups.
Test groups for the .17HMR using Hornady loads with 17-grain V-Max bullets were so close together that it was difficult measuring the distances between them. The 25-yard group was -0.8 inch, the 75-yard group -0.1 inch, and the 100-yard group -0.4 inch. Total center-to-center spread was less than inch, making no sighting compensation necessary at the head of a squirrel.
Testing for the .17M2 used CCI loads with the same 17-grain V-Max bullets. At 25 yards the group was 0.6 inch, at 75 yards -0.4 inch and at 100 yards -1.1 inches — still inside the head of a squirrel.
For comparison, in the same test using Federal High Velocity .22LR ammunition, the 25-yard group was +0.4 inch high, the 75-yard group was -1.2 inches and the 100-yard group was -6.9 inches.
.22WM load with 40-grain bullets has a trajectory slightly inferior to the .17M2; -0.5 inch at 25 yards, -0.2 inch at 75 yards and -1.6 inches at 100 yards. That zero distance of 50 yards was used just for equal comparison. For actual hunting purposes, either of the .17 rimfires could be zeroed at greater distances to improve performance.
A second and more important reason for choosing the .17M2 over the .17HMR or .22WM for squirrel hunting is that the light crack of the .17M2 is hardly noticed by squirrels. While inexperienced squirrel hunters might debate velocity, seasoned squirrel hunters are much more concerned over noise levels. This is much more important than the distance advantage of the .17HMR, although it too is seemingly quieter than even the .22LR, a result of the smaller bore diameter.
Loud noises such as those made by any shotgun or even a .22WM will send squirrels into hiding where they will typically stay for anywhere from about 15 minutes to more than a half-hour. If it happens late in a feeding period they might not come out for hours. The louder the noise, the wider the area that is affected. You can keep moving to get out of an affected area, but if you are hunting a small woodlot or if squirrels are congregated in a particular feeding area, this can be a big problem.
MAKING A CHOICE
All things considered, the .17M2 is probably the ideal cartridge for serious squirrel hunting. It is not uncommon to take several squirrels in succession out of a single tree — or beneath a tree — without scaring them. Between a 12-gauge shotgun using high-velocity loads of No. 4 or No. 5 shot and a .17M2 rifle, a squirrel hunter is on the cutting edge of efficiency. Choosing between these is either a matter of what is legal where you hunt, hunting conditions or personal preferences. But remember, responsible sportsmen and sportswomen do not use these advances as excuses for stretching the range too far. Even using high-velocity shotshell loads, the maximum range for shooting squirrels is only about 35 yards to 40 yards. Hunting with a .17 rimfire rifle, the maximum range — depending on the accuracy of your rifle and marksmanship — can be out to at least 85 yards.
Enjoy your time afield.