It’s a debate as old as the hills: a shotgun versus the .22LR for hunting squirrels. Both weapons have their camps, their own followers, and both shine in different squirrel hunting situations, or so I’d like to believe.
We are not going to waste time here, but we will go directly into the discussion. First, though, I’d like to say that while I’m not a Ph.D. packing expert on bushtail behavior, I’ve been an active squirrel hunter since 1972 and have caught hundreds of small rodents, including what I call Trifecta: fox squirrel, gray and black squirrel, all in one morning, and all with a Pedersoli .32 muzzle-loading long rifle.
But enough of me. We’re here to talk about the ethics, challenges, and merits of shotguns and .22s for squirrel hunting, and ultimately find out which one is better, or at least better for you.
The argument why a shotgun is better than a .22 for hunting squirrels
I started hunting bushytails at the age of 8 with my father, Mick, a squirrel hunting fanatic. Squirrel hunting, my father always said, will teach you everything you need to know about hunting everything else, whether it’s whitetails, elk, or wild turkey.
When I was young, I tried many different shotguns in the squirrel woods: a Stevens .410 single shot, a Harrington and Richardson 20 gauge, a Winchester model 24 16 gauge side by side, and a Mossberg model 1966 500 caliber 12 with Poly-Choke. So he didn’t have the so-called squirrel rifle, and even if he did, he probably wouldn’t have used it. Dad shot a shotgun, and if it was good enough for him, well, it was good enough for me. Here’s why you might want to pick up a squirrel shotgun too.
1. Shotguns are better for leaves and moving targets
Dense foliage, which is common during the early part of squirrel season, can make a shotgun a good choice. During this time of year, you’ll be able to get a positive ID on a squirrel through the leaves, but you can’t see the creature’s head long enough to adjust a rifle’s reticle for a shot. So if the unimaginable happens and you miss, the bushytail will start scampering through the trees, giving you either a moving target or no target at all. Hundreds of #5 pellets in a 20- or 12-gauge shell come in handy if you’re serious about making Brunswick stew.
2. Do you want to ensure the success of young and new hunters? give them a shotgun
Let’s be honest here. If you are mentoring a new hunter, regardless of age, who is not a Marine Corps sniper, then a shotgun with its multiple pellets might be the best and most encouraging way to start. If you want to raise a fisherman, make sure he fishes. If what you want is a hunter, give him the best tools for success. For a younger hunter chasing squirrels, one of those tools is a shotgun.
3. Shotguns give older hunters a margin of error
My dad will be 82 in March and he’ll be the first to tell you that his hands aren’t as steady as they used to be. Combine the passage of time with a condition known as familial (essential) tremor, an often inherited neurological disorder that includes involuntary, rhythmic tremors of the arms and hands, and makes it difficult for him, and others in the same boat. , hold a steady .22LR rifle. Am I making excuses? I am not. I’m just hinting that if the mechanic’s skills change, his tools might change as well.
4. Close range shotgun can open up additional hunting opportunities
Across the country, suburbs are expanding, spilling over into the landscape and into areas that not too long ago were considered rural acres. They are outside the city limits, many of them, and open to hunting. But, with more and more houses being built all the time, there are plenty of places where you can no longer shoot a rifle safely. Even a .22 LR, with its drop distance of over a mile, cannot be used due to safety concerns.
However, a shotgun, say, a 20-gauge with 2-3/4-inch loads, might be fine in this suburban setting. The key phrase here is could be. It’s still important to make sure you’re within the law and far enough away from buildings to be hunting with a gun. If so, using a shotgun can open up squirrel hunting opportunities that might not otherwise be available.
What is the best shotgun load and choke for hunting squirrels?
There is the question of distance and performance on target. Shotguns are close-range firearms, and squirrels can be tough customers with thick heads, heavy bone structure, and thick fur and fur. So the shooter is restricted by distance, say 40 yards, and must fire the proper choke. In my opinion, that means modified or complete, and shot #4 or #6.
With that said, is the .410 a good pick for squirrels? Over the last half century, I’ve killed a lot of squirrels with the .410 11/16the #5s ounce; however, I will not recommend it because it is small. That’s the truth. It is better to opt for a 20 gauge and up.
The argument why a .22 is better than a shotgun for hunting squirrels
As is often the case with hunters as they mature, my squirrel hunting shotgun phase gave way to my .22 phase. That, if you’re curious, gave way to a .32 muzzleloader stage, but that’s another story for another time.
Like shotguns, I’ve had a lot of rimfire going back and forth from Squirrel #1. I’ve used a lever action Winchester Model 9422, the quintessential Ruger 10/22, a Stevens Model 66, a Remington Nylon 66, and a Savage Model 24 .22LR/.410 over/under, which was one of the most accurate. 22 rimfires I’ve ever had. All have been good and all have had some drawbacks. This is where and when the .22LR makes sense for the squirrels.
1. A .22 is silent
Without getting nerdy or technical here, the average 2-3/4″ 12 gauge cartridge fired from a 28″ barrel produces about 154 decibels (dB). By comparison, a standard .22LR (1200 fps/140 ft-lbs muzzle energy) will show 140 dB, while a subsonic .22LR (1050 fps/100 ft-lbs) will register around 70 dB, or about half as much. a traditional .22LR. 22 LR My point? A .22LR is a bit quieter than a shotgun and will theoretically scare away fewer nearby squirrels with each shot. It fires subsonic, and it’s even quieter.
2. Many .22 rifles are deadly accurate at range
For many rimfire shooters, the thrill of bringing a .22LR to the woodwork is the teamwork between an incredibly accurate rifle and a skilled shooter. There is also the comparison of distances, of which there is little comparison. Shotgun? Forty yards. An accurate .22LR? Most would quickly say 50 yards. About 75, if they can put a 40-grain bullet in a golf ball-sized circle at that distance. Still, others talk all day about a pack of ¼” at 100 yards, which in anyone’s book is good enough to headshot a fox squirrel. Regardless, there’s no denying the potential accuracy and advantage of the .22LR when it comes to distance.
3. Taking headshots with a .22 means you won’t lose any meat
Shoot a squirrel with a #5 shot at 25 yards and you’ll have several holes to deal with and bloodshot meat. Shoot the same squirrel in the head with a .22LR at 25 yards, and once he’s dressed, you’d swear he scared the crap out of him.
The Best Ways to Use a .22 for Squirrel Hunting
For one, there is little room for aiming error when using a .22LR. You’re going to have to be on your game when it comes to hitting that golf ball-sized target consistently with a 40-grain bullet at 57 yards. Or 35 yards. Or 70. Not much of a target, head off that squirrel, and you’ll have to be as good as possible.
It will also have to wait for a definite stop before firing. With a .22LR, I prefer to shoot a bushytail when it’s stuck to the side of a tree. If I miss, the bullet buries itself in the tree. One transfer, and it’s the same story, only I can put another fox squirrel in my bag. Such opportunities don’t always present themselves, but I try to maximize their “definite back stop” shooting situations. More than once I waited, or missed a shot, due to an incomplete cap. shotguns? The consequences of that pattern are 300 yards, give or take, not a mile.
Read Next: The 17 Best Squirrel Guns Ever
Finally, .22LRs can ricochet. My dad always told me not to shoot squirrels on the ground with a .22LR. “You never know who’s out in the woods messing around with mushrooms or whatever,” he’d tell me. At 1,100 to 1,200 fps, a standard 40-grain .22 LR is not the fastest cartridge on the shelf; in fact, it is quite slow and prone to ZINGGGGGGGing to who knows where after hitting rock, ice or hard ground. It’s better to let that squirrel climb a tree, or make it climb a tree, and then hit it than risk it ricocheting.
So which is better for hunting squirrels, a .22 or a shotgun?
All of this, and it really boils down to two words: personal preference. Shotguns have their role and their followers. So does the .22LR. I’ve shot both. I shoot both, along with the aforementioned .32 Pedersoli muzzleloader. The end result is really what you prefer. What you feel comfortable with. What you shoot consistently well with, and can ethically and responsibly take game with at the distances you choose to work at.
Can’t make up your mind? Chiappa offers a nice little .22LR over 20 caliber combo that, scoped, would make a great squirrel gun for the undecided.