Things to consider when choosing a caliber for ground squirrels
Cost of ammunition is a huge factor when it comes to shooting squirrels for me and most people. Due to the volume of ammunition you can go through (in excess of 500-1000 rounds in a good day), you need to pick something that is either economical to purchase, or economical to reload for. Calibers that can be easily procured, loaded for, and are cheap in bulk make the experience all that much better if you are not having to hunt for components or single boxes of ammunition all over the place.
Without further ado, lets get into the nitty gritty
.17 Hornady Mach II
The .17 Hornady Mach II is based upon the .22LR casing necked down to .17 Caliber. It pushes a 17 Grain projectile at 2,100 feet per second. Using Knights Bulletflight, here is the breakdown of the ballistics:
The .17HM2 is not without drawbacks though, most of it being the current scarcity of the ammunition. Since 2012, .17HM2 has been scarce to say the least. Before then, you could purchase it by the box for about $6-$8 per 50 rounds, and you could find it by the 500 round brick for $50-$70. Hornady has said that they are committed to the caliber, but as of now it is something they are making seasonally. When it comes back to being available, I will definitely be stocking up on ammo and converting a 10/22 to this caliber.
.17 HOrnady Magnum Rimfire
The .17 HMR is based upon the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire casing, necked down to .17 Caliber. It propels a 17 Grain bullet at 2,550 feet per second. Using Knights Bulletflight, here is a breakdown of the ballistics:
I have used the .17 HMR since 2012 for squirrels, being a bit hesitant on it since I thought such a small caliber would be deflected by the slightest breeze. Being not a firm believer in small calibers back then, I purchased a Savage 93R17 with the accutrigger as a test rifle, and I have been pleasantly surprised by it ever since. The caliber shoots flat, and I find you can get about 50-75 rounds through the rifle, firing upon squirrels as rapidly as I can accurately do so, until the barrel gets hot enough that I have to let it cool off.
Ammunition for the .17HMR, even in the current market is abundant and reasonably priced. By the box it can be purchased from $12-$14 per 50 rounds, or it can be found in bulk for about $100 per 500 rounds of Hornady or CCI. Recently CCI released the A17 .17HMR loading, which is advertised at pushing a 17 grain bullet at 2,650 feet per second, but I have yet to test it out in the field.
Until recently, there have not been many options out there in an autoloader for the .17 HMR. The problem is that due to the higher pressure the cartridge generates, a simple direct blowback system can unlock too soon, thus blowing up. In most circles, having your rifle blow up on you can be a pretty bad day. Until now the only two rifles on the market with decent feedback were the Volquartsen and Alexander Arms rifles if you wanted a semi auto .17 HMR. In the past two months Savage has released the A17, which uses a delayed blowback toggle to keep the rifle from blowing up. I have heard good feedback from a few people with these rifles, but I will probably wait until next year to purchase one myself, just to allow time for spare magazines to become available, and any possible bugs to get ironed out.
As far as bolt action rifles, there are a plethora of them available ranging in price from $200 all the way up to over $2,000. In my group we have successfully used the Marlin 917, Savage 93R17, Sako Quad, CZ455, and Anschutz 1517 MPR. More on these rifles to come at a later time.
One of the things I enjoyed the most with the .17 Hornet is due to the lack of recoil and flat trajectory, you could spot your own hits on squirrels. The satisfaction of this alone, combined with the accuracy is well worth the price of admission. Using ten grains of powder makes this round very easy on barrels as well, I found that I could go 50 rounds continuously without having the barrel get too hot to shoot. In the field I found it easy to get hits out to 300 yards, with me even stretching it to 450 yards on occasion without too much difficulty.
Ammunition is a bit on the expensive side, being as Hornady is currently the only maker of the ammunition. Ammunition can be found between $16-$21 per 25 rounds and is widely available. Currently brass and projectiles are abundant, but with brass being around $32 per 50 pieces, I find it more economical to just purchase loaded ammunition, then reload using the once fired brass. Powder consumption is practically nothing, with most loads being between 9-10 grains of powder.
I just recently was able to get the favored powder to start reloading my .17 Hornet, but one thing I have found already is you have to be careful processing your casings, as the brass is very thin, making it easy to dent and crush while sizing if you do not have it properly aligned.
Currently Savage, CZ, and Ruger are making production rifles in .17 Hornet. If you want something that is super flat with low heat and zero recoil, I cannot put enough emphasis on the .17 Hornet.
Being a wildcat, the only maker of loaded ammunition that I am aware of is HSM. Reloading for the .20 VarTarg is easy enough though. Using a case forming die .221 Fireball casings are necked down, then ran through a full length sizing die. That being said, you have to load your own ammunition in order to really shoot this caliber. If you are moderately autistic like The Giant Ginger and I, this won't bother you one bit.
As of now, since it is a wildcat, there are no true production rifles in .20 VarTarg. Cooper, Dakota, and other semi custom and custom rifle makers chamber rifles in the round, but it will set you back some money to obtain one. If you want something to make people ask "What is that", and you like reloading, the .20 VarTarg offers a great return on investment.
It goes without saying that the .204 is absolutely devastating on squirrels, with it being common that solid hits will sling pieces ground squirrel 4-5 feet in the air.
Ammunition for the .204 Ruger is commonly available, but it is somewhat pricy, average a dollar per round or more for factory ammunition. As a handloader, it is much more reasonable to make your own ammunition, and we have found that the cheap Midway USA 34 Grain Dogtown's shoot accurately, and explode on squirrels violently.
Since its introduction, the .204 Ruger has been a commercial success, with pretty much every major manufacture producing a rifle in it. If you want a rifle that is extremely flat shooting, with ammunition that is easy to get off the shelf, the .204 Ruger is a good choice. Keep in mind though, you may experience a decrease in barrel life, and have to switch to another rifle after 20 rounds or so to let the barrel cool.
.22 Long Rifle
Aside from the current market situation with .22 LR being difficult to find, it is cheap to buy and shoot in bulk. Decent hollowpoint ammunition will run you $24/500 rounds, with more premium ammunition such as CCI MiniMags running about $23/300 rounds.
Even with newer, and greater things coming along, I never go out for squirrels without a .22 LR with me. It is a good caliber to have handy to shoot squirrels within 100 yards, or to plink around with while you are letting the barrels of the larger calibers cool for a while. Going along with this, it takes several hundred rounds to heat a medium or heavy contour .22 LR barrel up enough that you have to let it cool. I know several people who only shoot .22 LR for squirrels, and these people are great shots because of it, since they have to be able to more carefully choose their hold over, and factor in wind. One downside is unless you have a good solid hit, or are using premium ammunition (such as my favorite, the Aquila 30 grain Supermaximum Hypervelocity), your hits will not be the most dynamic. With some bulk ammunition, I have seen it take two to three hits to put a squirrel down due to it passing through.
The choices of .22 LR rifles and pistols is nearly endless, with them starting at $100 and going up from there. Even if you do not want to use the .22 LR for squirrels, everyone should have a .22 LR in their collection.
The .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire
On squirrels, the .22 Magnum is definitely a step up in performance, with it being a dynamic performer with the 30 Grain VMAX loading. Recoil is minimal, and you can put quite a few rounds downrange before you have to let the barrel cool.
Currently, ammunition for the .22 Magnum is a bit harder to get, just due to the current rimfire demand. Ammunition can still be found for about $13-$15 per 50 rounds, with cases of 500 rounds running between $110-$130.
Since the .22 Magnum is a more mature rimfire cartridge than the .17 HMR and .17 HM2, there are quite a few more firearms chambered in it in the world. Semi automatic, pump action, bolt action, lever action, revolvers, and even a semi auto pistol are available. If you are wanting a rimfire cartridge that you can stretch further than the .22 Long Rifle, without buying a .17 HMR, the .22 Magnum is a good choice.
The .22 Hornet fits pretty much right in between the .22 Magnum and .223 Remington as far as ballistics. The Hornady loading pushes a 35 Grain VMAX at 3,100 feet per second. Using Knights Bulletflight, here is a breakdown of the ballistics:
Ammunition for the .22 Hornet is widely available, with Hornady running about $18-$20 per 25 rounds, and Prvi Partizan 45 Grain Soft Point (Which shoots excellent by the way) running $20-$25 per 50 rounds. Loading for the .22 Hornet is pretty easy, and only using between 10-14 grains of powder it is economical. Thin cases do require your attention while sizing however.
Being an old (1930's) cartridge, there are quite a few cool old rifles out there in .22 Hornet, and modern production offerings from Ruger, CZ, Savage and others out there. The .22 Hornet is a good performing cartridge that has been eclipsed by newer offerings. If you want a good old-school varmint cartridge, or you prefer your women with a little hair south of the belt, the .22 Hornet is the cartridge for you.
.223 Remington/5.56mm NATO
The great thing about the .223 Remington, is it is fucking everywhere. Everyone makes ammo for it, and everyone makes rifles in it. It is a fantastic choice for a squirrel cartridge if you are just getting into it, because it is cheap and easy to obtain. The .22 caliber projectiles in the 50-55 grain class perform great down range, doing well in the wind and sending the furry minions of hell into low earth orbit easily. We have found that the .223 tends to get to the point where you should let the barrel cool within about 30 rounds (one mag in an AR-15), and depending on what you are shooting you might be able to spot the hit, it is right on the verge of coming off scope when you fire in some rifles. In a heavier varmint rifle, or an AR with a muzzle brake, you should be able to watch your own hits.
Ammunition can be had for less than 30 cents per round, with varmint loadings averaging $20-$30 per 50 rounds. Reloading for the .223 Remington could not be easier, with the abundance of 5.56 brass, plethora of projectile choices, and it is pretty forgiving to load, even for the novice reloader. At 25-27 grains of powder to load, it isn't too terrible on powder consumption either.
Rifles are everywhere in .223. The AR-15 family is a fantastic pick for squirrels, as they are cheap, most shoot within acceptable accuracy, and the rifles are found at Walmart even. Hell, in my younger days I used a 16" barreled Model 1 Sales kit build AR to shoot squirrels, with a Bushnell 4-12 mounted on top of the carry handle. And if that worked, anything modern will for sure.
If you already have an AR-15, you have what you need to shoot squirrels. When I talk to people and they are asking what caliber to get for starting out shooting squirrels, I recommend the .223 Remington above all, due to the absolute plethora of rifles and ammunition available for it. .223 Remington is the internet pornography of squirrel calibers, you almost have to try not to find it because there is so much of it out there.
Heat is the biggest downside for the .22-250, I find myself shooting about 10 rounds through mine before I switch rifles and let it cool down. With this, it is a flat shooting, and phenomenally dynamic performer on squirrels. If you hit them towards the base of their body if they are standing, you can fling parts and pieces of them over 10 feet in the air. The downside is with the recoil of the .22-250, you usually cannot watch this happen, as you lose them in the scope during recoil.
Ammunition for the .22-250 runs about a dollar a round for loaded ammunition. Reloading the .22-250 is simple as simple can be. 38 Grains of Hodgdon H380, and the 55 Grain varmint bullet of your choice and you will more than likely be shooting lights out. If you really want some velocity you can drop down to a 40-45 Grain bullet and be pushing in excess of 4,100 feet per second. With the fast speeds of the .22-250 and the excellent selection of .22 Caliber projectiles, it laughs at most wind downrange.
Being an older varmint cartridge, nearly everyone who offers a varmint rifle offers a chambering in .22-250 Remington. If you want something that shoots super flat, is devastating, and is basically America in a centerfire cartridge, .22-250 is the round for you.
Being as this is one of my longer articles, I will be doing a video to go along with this, which is a TL;DR version of everything above.
There will be more in the series on shooting squirrels, as I will break down the equipment we use, and even some video of field performance.