They had caught us. My son, Anse, 5 at the time, and I had heard hickory nut cuttings raining down from the canopy on the next ridge, and were trying to get up close quickly. But moving quietly through dry leaves with a hyperactive child in tow is difficult.
We had to cross an ATV trail that momentarily put us out in the open, and that’s when the barking started. I slowly sat up and looked through the late August foliage. I caught a glimpse of the blinking tail. By increasing my scope’s magnification, I could see the squirrel’s black eye and ears, and that was enough to fire. We were 80 meters away, more or less. I rested the heavy front end of the .17 on my knee and told Anse to cover his ears. At the report, the squirrel slumped over the log for a second and then fell to the ground, a sure sign of a perfect headshot.
“Dad, you gave that one blisters!” he said.
That’s right, son… And maybe we could have killed another, if we’d stayed put, but Anse was already burning a trail through the woods to retrieve it.
That shot would have been a problem with the squirrel gun I’ve mostly carried for the last 24 seasons. It’s a Marlin 880 SS .22 LR with a fixed Tasco 4x scope. It’s a simple setup, and while I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of squirrels I’ve killed with it, an 80-yard headshot is beyond its capabilities. Or at least, beyond my ability with him.
The CZ 457 Varmint in .17 HMR and 10X scope that I was shooting, on the other hand, did the job just fine. It’s a fancier, more expensive gun that fires a fancier, more expensive cartridge, but that shot made my son look at me like a hero, and that’s worth a lot. And if I’m honest, I’ve enjoyed hunting with the setup so much that I’ve been in the woods for squirrels more often in recent years.
That is also worth a lot.
Why choose a Magnum Rimfire cartridge for hunting squirrels
As for popular cartridges, Hornady made a splash when he introduced the .17 HMR in 2002. It’s a flat shot, with a reputation for outstanding accuracy. Vermin shooters loved it from the get-go, but squirrel hunters mostly steered clear because the standard load, a 17-grain ballistic tip at nearly 2600 fps, pulverizes too much meat.
The .22 WMR has some of the same destructive issues (I’d say a 40-grain hollow point magnum is more vicious than the .17 ballistic point). But historically it has also had a reputation for inaccuracy, and that’s an even bigger problem. Even if that reputation has been exaggerated (I’d say, a bit), squirrel hunters won’t buy a word about it. That and economics (squirrel hunting loses a lot of appeal when it gets expensive) is why the .22 LR hollow point has long remained the king of squirrel loads.
But rimfire rifles, including affordable ones in magnum calibers, have improved a lot in the last decade. There are now numerous pistols under $600 with free-floating barrels and adjustable triggers. As much as that, ammo has improved, with several game-friendly bullets available in both .17 HMR and .22 WMR.
Still, why would you want a magnum rimfire firing pin for hunting squirrels if your regular .22 works just fine? The advantage of the flat trajectory is enormous. To be fair, you may not need that in a Midwestern forest. But if you’re hunting in large, mature trees, especially late in the season when squirrels are foraging on the ground, your shooting opportunities can be surprisingly wide. A 100-yard hit is not uncommon, and 50-yard shots are about average. Only dirty heathens aim to shoot squirrels through the body. It’s headshots only if you want to be my friend, and when you’re talking about a target that size, a drop or lift from a quarter-inch bullet is huge.
To that end, a .17 HMR aimed at 100 yards with 20-grain bullets will be .4 inches low at 20 and .4 inches high at 75. You can hold a squirrel’s eyeball at pretty much any distance you can . to see them in the woods and get a clean headshot. A .22 WMR with 40-grain bullets will do the same thing at 75 yards.
By comparison, a hypervelocity long rifle hollow point sighted at 0.3 inches high at 25 yards will be nearly an inch high at 50 and 2.5 inches low at 100. Such a bow works if they are body-shooting squirrels: but I meant what I said about that. You could put a high-end scope with adjustable turrets on your .22 and carry a rangefinder to accommodate drop, but if you do that, you’re inflating your small gaming budget again. And besides, who wants to mess with all that equipment? Squirrel hunting is supposed to be simple.
Magnum game loads
You need to choose your bullets carefully if you are hunting with a magnum rimfire firing pin because from time to time it will miss the head and hit the body. As long as it’s an accident, it doesn’t make you a heathen. But you don’t want the entire bug to be inedible. That would be a tragedy. My favorite bullet, in both calibers, is the CCI Gamepoint, which is a 20-grain pointed soft-point in .17 caliber and a 40-grain PSP in .22 caliber. Hornady makes a similar 20-grain .17 soft spot in the HP Varmint. CCI also makes a 20-grain Full Metal Jacket .17 HMR, which I haven’t tried, and Winchester makes a 40-grain FMJ in .22 WMR, which I have. It’s a good squirrel charge, if you can find it and your gun fires it.
The point is to opt for heavier bullets designed for controlled expansion or not, and avoid lighter ballistic points and hypervelocity hollow points. There are several loads out there with even heavier bullets (45 to 50 grains) for the .22 WMR, but velocities with most of them are slow enough that you start to lose the round trajectory advantage over a rifle. length. Stick to 40 grains at 1900fps or faster.
To be clear, even with the correct bullets, both calibers are still more ruthless than your average long rifle hollow point in the flesh. I stress again that you should strive for clean head shots. But a bad angle that cuts off a shoulder probably won’t ruin the squirrel. With the 20-grain Gamepoint off my .17, the entry wound is small and the exit wound is the size of a nickel. Headshots are more dramatic because there is more bone to hit. Squirrel brain eaters should stick to their .410s, but for the rest of us, modern rifles and ammunition have helped the squirrel team take a giant leap forward.
Best Magnum Rimfires for Squirrel Hunting
CZ 457 Varmint .17 HMR
When I was 14, I upgraded my .22 open sights to a 4X telescopic sight. That gave me a huge advantage, but nothing like this setup, which has become my go-to squirrel rifle. It is topped off with a Leupold VX-3HD 3.5-10×40 CDS-ZL viewfinder. Anse calls it my “big blister gun.”
American Ruger .22WMR
My friend Ryan and I have been squirrel hunting together since college. Regardless of what you’re looking for, Ryan is one of those guys who always, well, kills things. His pet Ruger American .22 Mag uses a 3-9×40 scope, and I’ve seen him headshot squirrels at 100 yards with it.
This would be the magnum version of my old squirrel gun, but upgraded with a heavier barrel and adjustable trigger. Marlin’s bolt-action rimfire rifles have Micro-Groove rifling and, in my experience, have always been excellent marksmen. Their single-stack aluminum chargers are also incredibly reliable.
Read Next: The Best .22 LR Ammo Options for Hunting and Competition
Savage B22 Magnum FV
I hunted with this gun for a full season a few years ago, and it’s a marksman. He had an excellent adjustable trigger and, to me, produced the tightest groups of any .22 Magnum I have ever shot. It’s not the prettiest gun out there, but it’s hard to argue with that for the price.
Tikka T1x MTR .17 HMR
F&S collaborator Michael R. Shea is a rimfire nut in a way I’m not. He’s spent most of his income on rifles and ammunition for the competition, but he’s also becoming a stickler for headshot squirrels. This Tikka got its nod as the best .17 on the market for the money.
What about the .17 Mach 2?
The .17 HM2, or Mach 2, was introduced a couple of years after the .17 HMR, but never caught on in the same way the more powerful cartridge did. The Mach 2 is a .22 LR Stinger case necked down to accept a .17 bullet. It’s seen a bit of a resurgence: CCI introduced a new Mach 2 VNT payload last year, and its most loyal fans are among serious squirrel hunters.
It has a flatter trajectory than the Long Rifle, making 100-yard headshots easier, and the reduced velocity also makes it less destructive than the HMR. But ammo options are limited (only three available that I could find), and there aren’t many .17 Mach 2 rifles out there either. The Mach 2 also produces less muzzle energy than a high velocity .22 LR hollow point and from what I’ve seen wounds a lot of squirrels that don’t get shot in the head. If I were out shopping I would go for one of the more common gauges.