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Saturday, July 02, 2011

A 21st Century Walking Varminter

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, July 2, 2011.)

“Walking varminter” is one of those
inexact terms some creative gun writer
came up with ages ago.
If you’re under 50, you might be asking, “What’s a walking varminter?”

Well, it’s a rifle, but neither I nor anyone else can define it precisely. If you’re an old-timer, you know one when you see one. And there was a day when you couldn’t do without one.

“Walking varminter” is one of those inexact terms some creative gun writer came up with ages ago. (Those guys weren’t immune to the need to invent catchy marketing names.)

They’re usually bolt actions, mostly because bolt guns generally are as reliable as light switches. Many are not overly expensive, so their owners tend not to fret overmuch about dings in the stock.

Often a walking varminter rides around in a truck, waiting for the driver to spot a field where the woodchucks need thinning. Just as often, it’s a back-door gun whose owner takes it for frequent walks and uses it to eliminate pests and nuisances of the winged, digging, or feral variety – critters from starlings to coyotes.

The most critical trait of a walking varminter is that it must be easy to handle and accurate when fired from an offhand position.

It’s hard to meet that requirement without a scope. A variable is probably best, though the higher powers can be counterproductive when taking quick, offhand shots. And since it will be carried, it needs a sling.

The walking varminter can come in many calibers. The nearly obsolete but still sting-worthy .218 Bee (another marketing name), the old slowpoke .25-20, all the .22 centerfires – almost any cartridge with comfortable recoil can be a walking varminter. In fact, the .22-250, when it was spawned by the .250-300 cartridge, was originally called the “Varminter,” although the .250-3000 was a varminter in its own right.

That generally sets the parameters – calibers from .22 rimfire through the .25 centerfires.

All those caliber numbers can be confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the nuances of cartridge development, but they bring me to my own walking varminter. It’s a little rimfire number smaller than the ubiquitous .22. It’s a .17 HMR (Hornady Rimfire Magnum), which is the new baby sired by the old .22 Rimfire Magnum. As with most kids, he’s faster than his daddy, some 500 feet per second faster.

The rifle I chose as for that cartridge is the Savage Model 93. Mine has a laminated wood thumbhole stock that feels like an extension of my arms. I topped it with a bright Alpen Apex scope in 4-16 power with a 44mm objective lens.

Why go up to 16-power for a pipsqueak of a cartridge? Since the rifle has zero recoil, it reveals to the shooter what happens at bullet’s impact, whether your target is an egg at 50 yards or a woodchuck’s head out there a hundred yards farther.

Unlike most carry guns, mine has a bull barrel. The tiny cartridge doesn’t require lots of steel like the high pressure centerfires, but the heavy barrel adds some steadying weight.

Some gun writers view the .17 HMR as temperamental, and recommend testing a wide variety of ammunition to find the most accurate. So far, my Savage seems to digest any ammo very well. Bullet choices are fly-weight – 17 grains and 20 grains, half the weight of a .22 rimfire bullet. That limits it to 150-yard shots, but on a windless day with a good rest it’s reasonable to ask it to place a bullet accurately at 200 yards.

The light bullet pretty much dissolves inside the target or on impact with anything else. That’s why the .17 HMR is probably the safest cartridge to use where farm animals might be nearby. It’s quiet, and not prone to ricochet.

If you want a walking varminter, you can call nearly any small caliber rifle into active duty. But in today’s world where people are more anxious about firearms than they once were, and you’re not taking long range shots, you can hardly do better than the .17 HMR. It has more ballistic enthusiasm than the .22 rimfire or .22 Magnum, and it’s actually a little safer thanks to the very lightweight bullets. In the 21st century, it’s close to perfect.


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