You might not need to buy a separate predator rifle. The perfect candidate could be sitting in your gun rack right now.
By Ralph M. Lermayer
A friend once proudly informed me that he owned nine big game rifles. When I asked how many varmint rifles he owned, he looked at me quizzically and simply said, "Why, all of them!"
He was right, of course. Any centerfire rifle in any caliber can be used for the odd coyote, wolf, fox and bobcat. Many such critters have met their demise when they had the misfortune to stray in range of a deer or elk hunter loaded for much bigger game.
But while there's no doubt about the killing effectiveness of such options, they sure raise havoc with a hide or pelt. If your goals include a classy full-body mount of a bobcat in your trophy room, or maybe turning a prime coyote hide into $50, you might want to tone down the roar of the big game rifle a bit. Or, if you want to join the biggest movement in the shooting sports, predator hunting, yet pack and use that proven deer rifle without ruining valuable hides, there is a way.
Many of the available options depend on your cartridge choice. Some big bores don't offer much in the way of hide-saving opportunities. There's not much you can do with a .375 or 8mm, but you have a surprising number of choices with many other very common calibers.
Ideally, you need a load that is accurate, adequately fast but not necessarily a screamer, and goes in but doesn't come out. Or, if it does come out the far side, it leaves as small a hole as possible with no tearing or blowout. That's the realm of solids or bullets that fragment while inside.
Bullets designed to expand or mushroom on impact are precisely what you want for big game, but that same rapid expansion often destroys a valuable hide. The soft pocket of skin just behind the front legs and just forward of the rear legs on coyote, fox or bobcat commonly blow completely out when a smaller furbearer is hit with a mushrooming bullet. Repair is impossible.
The solution? Set up with a bullet that won't expand, or one that will fragment internally. One or two small-diameter bullet holes can be repaired easily and don't diminish the hide's value.
As a handloader, you have many options. Every bullet has an expansion range, a minimum and maximum velocity at which it will mushroom. Greatly reduced or "squib" loads can hold that bullet below the velocity it needs to expand. A .30-caliber 180-grain big game bullet fired into a coyote, fox, bobcat or such at about 1,500 fps will act like a solid. It's simply a matter of loading them down, keeping them separate from your full-house loads and learning where they strike. Should the odd predator appear while you're on stand, slip one in the chamber and claim your trophy. You'll find squib loads remarkably accurate and pleasantly quiet.
You must use caution when developing squibs. You can go too low, and if you do, there's a chance the bullet could lodge in the bore, creating a dangerous situation. Your best bet, and the only one we can recommend here, is to load the heaviest bullet a commercial loading manual recommends for your cartridge, to the lowest velocity published. Stick with slow-burning rifle powders like H870 and AA8700 when possible, and avoid the much reduced charges of ultra-fast pistol powders often recommended.
There is another avenue for the handloader, and it calls for the use of lightweight fragmenting bullets driven at high velocities. These are ultra-thin jacketed bullets with a generous exposed hollow point. They are designed to open up quickly and totally fragment inside smaller varmints and predators. Penetration is very limited. It's designed to be, so don't ever try to use one on big game, but for predators, they are just the ticket.
Several manufacturers offer these varmint bullets for big bores. The chart to the left shows the TNT series from Speer. It indicates the bullet weights available for each caliber, as well as the maximum velocity each can be driven. These have very thin jackets, so you can't push them too fast. They can be loaded in a wide variety of calibers including .22, .24, .25, .27, .28 and .30. Chances are, there's a TNT in the bunch that's perfect for your rifle. The Speer manual offers suggested accuracy loads using the full array of calibers in a wide variety of cartridges.
One curious and delightful characteristic of the TNT Series is that when loaded to similar velocities, the point of impact is usually within an inch or so of the heavier big game bullet weights. The 125-grain .30-caliber (.308) TNT, loaded to 3,000 fps, strikes precisely the same point in my .30-06 as full-house 165-grain loads. In my .300 Mag, it's only an inch high over my standard 180-grain. With these, I just point and shoot. In any caliber, they drop furbearers like a rock and totally fragment inside.
The Factory Options
Years ago, DuPont owned Remington. DuPont made plastics, Remington made ammunition, and that marriage created a viable varmint option for two of the most commonly found deer rounds: the .30-06 and the venerable .30-30. In these cartridges, Remington offers the Accelerator, a lightweight varmint bullet housed in a polymer sabot that can be fired in any rifle so chambered. The 55-grain bullet launched from a .30-06 has muzzle velocity of 4,080 fps. The .30-30 uses a 55-grain bullet at 3,400 fps.
Whenever I'm hunting with either of these calibers, there are a few Accelerators in my cartridge carrier. I've never been able to get either to shoot less than 2 inches at 100 yards, but that's not been a problem. Most of the predators that show up when I'm deer hunting are inside 100 yards. Hitting them is no problem, and hide damage is minimal. Point of impact can vary in different rifles, so check to be sure and commit the variance to memory.
In my pet .30-06, the Accelerator impacts 2 inches high and slightly right. In the .30-30, usually zeroed at 100 yards, the difference is negligible. When I'm spending long hours on a stand, I often fill the slow time with a little predator calling. If my stand is on or near a route to water, the chances of a prime hide strolling by are good. Just slip in the Accelerator and cash in.
There are also many factory-loaded options that are usually the lowest bullet weight for a given cartridge. Choosing the 87 grain for the .257 Weatherby, the 130 for the .30-06 or the lighter 7mm will give you sizzling speed, but in most, accuracy suffers as a result of an unmatched rate of twist. I've not found any that didn't raise Cain with a hide. Most are loaded with expanding bullets to screaming velocities - not a good choice if hides are what you want.
One exception: For those who shoot a .243, Federal and Winchester offer a 55-grain load with a fragmenting bullet. Both crank out at near 4,000 fps from a 24-inch barrel. These are the only low-weight factory loads I've been happy with other than the Accelerator.
Of course, if all you want to do is control predator numbers to enhance deer and turkey numbers on your piece of heaven, and hides don't matter, any of the lightweight factory options are perfect, as is your standard deer load.
Rifles & Optics
For the casual opportunistic shot, any rifle will obviously do, especially if you have a fur-saver load you can quickly slip into the chamber. But if you want to experience the world of exciting hunting all year, be welcomed on normally posted properties and get serious about reducing the number of predators where you hunt deer, you may have to tweak that rifle a bit. Stainless rifles or those sporting high-gloss stocks will spook wary varmints long before you see them. If your rifle is so adorned, use camo tape to tone it down.
Likewise, you'll find yourself in the lower end of that 3-9x or 4-12x scope when bringing targets close to the call. Shots are often well inside 50 yards.
Last, you need to make sure you can shift Ol' Betsy from a right- to a left-hand shooting position. Targets often come in to your weak side, and shifting to your left side is faster and creates less giveaway motion than trying to turn your whole body for the shot. Some of the more radical stock designs with extremely high rollover cheekpieces don't make the switch easily.
Barring these potential pitfalls, that old favorite deer rifle of yours will do admirably for predators. Just kill the shine, feed it an accurate fur-saving load and pick up a call. But be advised, it's very habit-forming.
Reprinted from the July 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.