Center-punching tiny targets requires top-notch glass, but what makes a riflescope acceptable for varmint shooting?
Any old scope will suffice for varmint shooting—unless you actually want to hit something. For what’s to follow to make any sense, you must first have some small interest in serious burrowing rodent shooting. I’m not talking about causal dabbling with your favorite deer rifle, or sniping the occasional prairie dog, ground squirrel or farmland woodchuck out of pure boredom, but sure enough serious small-varmint shooting.
Serious typically translates into serious money spent on serious varmint rifles, something chambered in a fast, reach-out-there small bore and holding a chunky tactical-style stock and bull barrel. Something chambered in, say, .204 Ruger, .223 Remington or .22-250 Remington. Something weighing 10 or 12 pounds out of the box. Something capable of at least ½-MOA five-shot groups at 100 yards on a very consistent basis. And shooting regularly resulting in burning multiple hundreds of rounds per diem. That kind of serious.
Of course, small varmint shooting can also involve rimfires, and I’ll get into that too but we’re, again, usually talking about something a little more serious than your childhood single-shot directing bullets with iron sights. My two serious .22 LRs, built on Ruger 10/22 actions, hold $750 to $850 worth of aftermarket parts. So that tells you where I’m coming from when I say serious burrowing rodent shooting.
I’m a real gun nut with a serious addiction, and I shoot small varmints—burrowing rodents mostly—with body counts reaching into the thousands. For instance, I shot 750-plus rounds of ammo in 2½ days at tiny eastern Oregon Belding’s ground squirrels last week. I can rattle off my latest truly impressive shot at the drop of a hat: rock chuck, 403 yards, 10- to 11-mph crosswind, .22 Creedmoor, Berger 85.5-grain LR Hybrid Target (G1 BC .445) sent at 3,202 fps, 300-yard zero, 3.9 MOA come-up, 3.4 MOA wind correction. Cold-shot kill, and I hiked all the way across that rough canyon to take a picture, too.
I always say you can’t hit what you can’t see, and most small varmints grow awful small with the perspective of a couple hundred yards added. I find a single precision kill more satisfying than any number of lucky hits generated by a requisite number of bullets sent downrange.
The ambiguous “they” will warn of the horrors of midday heat shimmer, your every heartbeat telegraphed into wiggling reticles, the difficulty of finding targets and excess weight. The heat-shimmer argument, in my experience, is greatly exaggerated. I just don’t seem to suffer the same degree of problems related in print—but then again, my varmint rifles generally hold glass with MSRPs far greater than the rifles that hold them. It regularly hits me that my high-end variables rarely come off the highest magnification, even on the warmest days. Regarding unsteady crosshairs, well, I just don’t do that much unsupported varmint shooting. There’s usually a portable bench involved or a cradle or bags tossed onto the roof of the truck (to gain some vegetation-penetrating elevation) or situated over the hood of a truck. If I go for a hike—as I often do while hunting rock chucks on rough-and-tumble public ground—my rifle wears a quality bipod.
If you have a difficult time finding your target in the scope, no matter the magnification, I’d say you aren’t spending near enough time behind said optic. Getting on target quickly, even with excessive magnification, comes easier with practice. Or twisting the magnification rings up and down between shots … weight? We’re talking varmint shooting here, not mountain hunting. When sniping tiny, distant targets, weight is your friend.
A dedicated varmint rifle, one used exclusively to target burrowing rodents, deserves serious glass. This doesn’t include predator calling, which average big-game scopes cover quite well. When choosing a serious varmint scope, my demands are pretty dogmatic. I want a side parallax knob (not front bell). I insist on exposed turrets. I’ll take ballistic holdover marks only if they don’t become clutter. I want second focal plane—period. A 50mm or larger objective lens and top-notch optics coatings are preferred. As far as magnification, I’d call 6-24x just about ideal.
Side parallax serves double duty; bringing targets into gin-clear focus and—just as importantly when shooting at extended ranges—ensuring reticles are precisely aligned in the image plane, eliminating the absolute need to center the eye perfectly in the scope before each shot.
When taking 150- to 250-yard chip shots, ballistic holdover marks are acceptable, though I cannot abide ultra-busy reticles that only serve to obscure the target. At 300 yards and beyond, hit-to-miss ratios began to erode quite quickly, and this is where turrets take over. Kentucky windage offers no consistent precision at extended ranges, turrets shifting the program from luck to decisive aiming once again. Larger, more wary varmints, such as rock or woodchucks, provide a wider margin for error, prepared ballistic charts usually getting the job done even on longer shots. On smaller burrowing rodents, especially ground squirrels, some trial-and-error dialing (particularly for wind) is sometimes required—which isn’t out of the question, as you’ll commonly receive multiple shots at a single critter, or one of his buddies volunteering at a similar range.
Why dedicated varmint shooters (or big-game hunters for that matter) would choose a first focal plane scope (FFP) is a mystery to me. The common reasoning is that FFP maintains a consistent relation to the target throughout its full range of magnification, which allows making more accurate yardage and moving-target lead estimations through the scope via MOA or MIL marks of known value. This might prove useful to military snipers engaging human targets in fluid battlefield scenarios, but we’re varmint shooters, not military snipers, despite any delusions to the contrary.
The problem in varmint shooting, engaging tiny rodents (not humans), is FFP crosshairs appear coarser in relation to the target at higher magnifications, and often begin to obscure targets at longer ranges—when such magnification is most useful. Too, we own laser rangefinders, so don’t need to judge range via crosshair relations. I prefer the frog-hair-fine crosshairs of a quality SFP reticle, which remain thin at every magnification setting. The ability to aim at a specific point on a rodent, even see hide to each side of the crosshair, goes a long way toward connecting on the trickiest shots.
I’ve pointed to the 6-24x50mm configuration as my top preference, with my three Vortex Viper PST turret scopes responsible for much of that reverence. Some other current favorites include a Trijicon 5-20x50mm AccuPoint, Leupold VX-3i 8.5-25x50mm and Meopta Optika6 MeoPro 4.5-27×50.
My tricked-out Ruger 10/22s I’ve mentioned, one holding a match-chamber Volquartsen bull barrel, another a Benz-chambered Adaptive Tactical Tac-Hammer tensioned barrel, both including Little Crow Gunworks’ GRX recoil jobs and professional bedding. Other recent .22 LR experiences involved Ruger’s American Rimfire Long Range Target and Bergara’s B-14 rifles, .22 LRs holding grown-up stocks with adjustable cheekpieces and such. All include accuracy potential far exceeding any high-velocity hollow-point ammo that might be counted on to anchor tenacious burrowing critters. In some places, like eastern Oregon or southern Idaho, bulk packs of .22 LR shells are consumed per diem during these campaigns.
I also spent this past spring shooting an Anschutz 1761 chambered in .17 HMR, despite owning a laminated-stocked, heavy-barreled Marlin XT-17 in the same chambering that’ll hold its own against the expensive German rifle. In some places, against the smallest ground squirrels, in particular (eastern Oregon’s Belding’s, Southern Idaho’s Richardson’s), when wandering northern Idaho’s vast clear-cuts or cruising private ranch roads between centerfire portable-bench setups, I’m simply in a rimfire frame of mind. This doesn’t mean I take this shooting any less seriously than centerfire sniping.
A rimfire scope should include parallax adjustment—simple as that. If it doesn’t, even if it’s given a rimfire label, I’ve zero interest. The reason has less to do with parallax corrections and more to do with focus. A rimfire is generally chosen in high-volume arenas, meaning a “rat” might be engaged out to, say, 150 yards (the point at which even the fastest .22 LR energy drops off exponentially) or pop out of a burrow at 15 or 20 yards. Even if only 15 yards away, I prefer shooting at tack-sharp targets.
Rimfire scopes need not be expensive to remain functional—and I beat mine up pretty hard. Some of the best examples include the two Bushnell Rimfire Optics held by my 10/22s. One, a A22, includes a 3.5-10x36mm configuration, the other a 3-12x40mm. Zeroed at 50 yards, the A22 includes lower hash marks that correspond to 75-, 100- and 125-yard impacts relatively well. The 3-12x40mm includes exposed pre-etched turrets providing options marked 75, 100, 125, 150 and 175—as in yards. The A22 includes an objective-bell parallax (not my favorite, but acceptable on a rimfire) and the other, a side parallax adjustment. I don’t think either one set me back more than $150 to $175.
A rimfire scope need not have a rimfire label to remain viable. That Ruger American Rimfire Long Range mentioned earlier wears a 30mm-tubed Bushnell Engage 2.5-10x44mm big-game scope, for instance. It includes, firstly, side parallax focus, and not only Deploy MOA hold-over marks but exposed turrets. I’ve made some rather long .22 LR shots using both systems. That Anschutz 1761 wore a Burris RT-15 3-15x50mm all spring—a pretty serious centerfire scope with side parallax adjustment and exposed turrets. My Marlin XT-17 is now paired with a Vortex 6-18x44mm Crossfire II with objective-bell focus and ballistic compensation marks. I’ve used all to snipe ground squirrels at ranges well outside what would be considered normal rimfire ranges.
There are circumstances or times when you simply feel like challenging yourself. I’d say anything past 400 yards (when wind stirs) to 500 yards (on calm days) qualifies here, because we’re talking burrowing rodents and not man-sized steel gongs. I’ve certainly made such shots with standard varmint cartridges in a pinch, but when I know I’ll be going long—or when seeking such scenarios—my varmint rifles become a little more specialized.
Traditionally, this has involved my custom 6mm Remington with a fast-twist barrel or Ruger Precision Rifle in 6mm Creedmoor (both fed sleek, ballistically talented 105- to 110-grain bullets), more recently my Little Crow Gunworks-built, 1:7-twist .22 Creedmoor sending 85.5- to 90-grain bullets with BCs in the .500s at around 3,200 fps. Unlike rounds such as the .22-250 Remington or .220 Swift launching 50- to 55-grain bullets with BCs in the high .200s, these cartridge/bullet/rifle combos trim 10-mph/400-yard wind-drift margins from feet to inches.
Optic features mirror those already touched on, I just adopt a touch more magnification in the interests of clearly seeing my target way out there. A Trijicon AccuPower 4.5-30x56mm tops my .22 Creedmoor. Hawke’s Frontier 30 SF 5-30x56mm SF Mil Pro graces my 6mm Creedmoor. My 6mm Remington presently holds an EOTech Vudu 5-25x50mm compact, because this has become my walkabout rockchuck rifle. All include exposed, zero-stop turrets that track reliably and easily return to a known zero after substantial vertical corrections. The Trijicon and Hawke sport 56mm objective lens to tame heat shimmer on longer shots in rocky terrain. All include exceptional optics, allowing separating chameleon-like rockchucks from cluttered backgrounds, and nearly microscopic crosshairs to allow precise shot placement. All but the Hawke include alarming price tags.
I’m not all that particular about what optic is tacked on to my big-game rifles. Give me a decent straight-6 and you’ll hear no complaints from me. Big game is, well, big. The burrowing rodents, which hold so much fascination for me, not so much. Interestingly, I also tend to shoot at small varmints at much greater distances than I consider prudent with big game. A gut-shot varmint is still a good varmint—good and dead.
And you simply can’t hit what you can’t see!
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2021 Buyer's Guide special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
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For big game hunting with my 6.5 PRC Browning X-Bolt Pro I have a Bushnell Elite LRTS 4.5 – 18 x 44 scope with G3 illuminated reticle. This model is no longer produced but a similar 3.5 – 21 x 50 DMR scopes available.
Here in Nevada distances can be long so an 18X scope is called for with 21X being just fine too.
My score’s G3 “Xmas tree” reticle helps with holding for wind as well as hold-over for longer shots than the 200 yard zero.
Using lighter solid copper Hornady bullets the 6.5 PRC cartridge is good for coyotes as well.