The ideal coyote rifle? How about an accurate, easy-carrying carbine that shoulders quickly? Song dogs don’t always give you a standing shot, so a rifle that delivers fast follow-up shots would be great.
When Ruger’s Mini-14 came along, I thought I had my answer.
I got my hands on a Ruger Mini-14 not long after the neat-looking .223 autoloader was introduced. Modeled after the M1/M14 battle rifles I’d once trained with — and resembling the popular U.S. .30 Carbine — the Mini-14 appealed to a lot of sportsmen. It was fun to shoot, but aperture sights limited its long-range varminting potential. There was no easy way to mount a scope. After testing the gun, I returned it to the factory.
An improved version of the Mini-14, the Ranch Rifle, was announced in 1982. It featured integral scope bases and a new internal buffer to keep scope crosshairs intact under the pounding of a hard-cycling action.
This rifle often rode in the rear window rack of pickup trucks, inspiring the “Ranch Rifle” designation.
I’m far too lazy to farm or ranch, but I enjoy hunting coyotes. That’s why I bought an early Ranch Rifle. I thought it would be perfect for shooting yodel dogs with the right scope.
The Ruger accounted for a few foxes and coyotes, but I missed some long shots with it. I’d sighted in the scoped rifle right after I got it, but hadn’t paid enough attention to accuracy. I finally got around to firing several three-shot groups from a sandbagged rest, and was discouraged with the results. The 3 1/2- to 5-inch groups it printed at 100 yards was an unhappy revelation. I eventually sold the rifle and moved on.
In 2006, Ruger temporarily suspended Mini-14/Ranch Rifle production. Recognizing the rifle’s abysmal accuracy, Ruger engineers set out to solve, or at least mitigate, the problem. New tooling was produced, and manufacturing procedures were revisited. The goal was to improve castings and, wherever possible, machine parts to tighter tolerances. The result was greatly improved accuracy and otherwise enhanced performance.
I’m a show me kinda guy, so I took all the hype with a grain of salt and requested a sample to test. When I removed the new Ranch Rifle from its shipping box, no changes were apparent. I mounted a 4.5-14x40mm Leupold Vari-X III in the stainless steel rings provided, assembled a variety of .223 factory loads and headed to the range.
In spite of a 5 1/2-pound trigger, the new Ranch Rifle delivered much improved accuracy. It still can’t compete with bull-barreled bolt rifles capable of 1/2-inch groups at 100 yards, but it shot considerably better than its predecessors. Most three-shot groups fired from sandbags at 100 yards measured between 1 1/2 and 2 inches across — a big improvement.
Shortly after my Ranch Rifle arrived, I learned of another Mini-14 variation. The Mini-14 Target Rifle sports a heavy 22-inch stainless-steel barrel with a bulbous muzzle attachment that I first thought was some kind of brake. This was actually an adjustable harmonic dampener similar to Browning’s B.O.S.S. system. Turning the threaded dampener moves it back and forth along the barrel until you find the rifle’s sweet spot for the particular load you’re using.
The Target Rifle’s barreled action is mounted in a highly distinctive black-laminated thumbhole stock sporting an extremely long, high, straight comb to properly position your eye behind a scope. No provision is made for iron sights. A patented recoil buffer capping the butt can be adjusted for length of pull in half-inch increments.
I begged a short-term loan, and soon had the chance to shoot the Mini-14 Target Rifle. It delivered better accuracy than the new Ranch Rifle I’d been testing, but I didn’t consider the difference all that significant. The two-stage trigger broke at 5 3/4 pounds, virtually the same as the Ranch Rifle’s trigger. From 100 yards, most three-shot groups varied from 1.20 and 1.75 inches, measured between centers.
However, a pair of groups with Black Hills’ 60-grain V-Max loads made 0.78- and 0.89-inch clusters, proving that, with the right ammo, the Target Rifle was capable of true MOA accuracy. If I’d taken time to experiment with the harmonic dampener, I’m pretty sure the rifle could have bettered that performance.
While the Mini-14 Target Rifle outshot the Ranch Rifle as I put them through their paces, I chose the Ranch Rifle for hunting coyotes. This decision was based on ease of handling. The Target Rifle tipped the scales at a hefty 9 pounds before I added a scope. Mounting a Burris 6-24x44mm Signature scope brought the ready-to-hunt weight to an onerous 10 pounds, 10 ounces. That’s a lot to lug around!
With its slimmer 18 1/2-inch barrel, the Ranch Rifle weighed only 8 pounds, 4 ounces, including the Leupold scope. The Target Rifle had the edge on accuracy, but when it came to toting a rifle up rolling hillsides or across miles of sagebrush desert, it was no contest. Did I already mention I’m lazy? The Ranch Rifle won hands-down. Price? Suggested retail of standard Ranch Rifle is $909, while the Mini-14 Target Rifle with a laminated stock is $1,149.
Other commitments and cold, snowy weather delayed a planned coyote hunt until mid-April. That’s when Tim Janzen and I drove to Lander, Wyo., where we met Tim O’Neil, a champion coyote caller who’d agreed to be our guide.
Tim O. picked us up at our motel at 5 a.m., then drove 100 miles to Red Desert country. A storm had been predicted, but the morning dawned calm and sunny.
“There’s one!” Tim J. exclaimed. The truck braked to a halt, and Tim J. bailed out, chambering a round in his 6mm-.284 rifle.
My rangefinder said the coyote was 468 yards away. As soon as the truck stopped moving, the animal broke into a fast lope. Tim tried leading it, but when he fired, the song dog only ran harder. It was a nearly impossible shot, but Tim figured he had nothing to lose.
“Seeing a coyote this soon is a good sign,” Tim O’Neil grinned. “We’re going to have a good day!”
That proved to be a lousy prediction. Within minutes, the desert wind picked up, and up . . . and up! When we arrived at our first calling site, the wind knocked me down when I got out of the truck!
Bending low against the wind, we struggled to the lee side of a nearby ridge. Separating, we settled into masking clumps of sagebrush, rifles ready. Tim O. blew sparingly, waiting three or four minutes between each call. Under these conditions, the call wouldn’t carry more than 100 yards. After 30 minutes, nothing appeared. We got to our feet and struggled back to the truck.
This scenario was repeated throughout the day. “Those coyotes are smarter than we are,” Tim O. said. “They’re staying home, keeping out of this wind. We don’t have the same good sense.”
We weren’t surprised when the weatherman announced wind velocity was a good 40 miles per hour that day. Then he predicted snow overnight.
“If it snows, the wind should settle down,” Tim predicted. “We’ll have a better day tomorrow.”
Leaving the motel the next morning, we drove through a raging blizzard in 32 degree temperatures. It stopped snowing by 10 a.m., but instead of abating, the wind actually increased.
After two days of hard hunting in unbelievably high winds, the score was Coyotes 10, hunters zip. Field testing the improved Ranch Rifle would have to wait for another day.
This article was published in the August 2007 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.