One of the most debated topics in squirrel hunting, aside from the dog you choose to hunt behind, is the type of weapon you use to chase foxtails and grays. Some hunters love the .22 LR, .17 HMR, and even the heavy duty .22 WMR Mag. Others stick to shotguns, from .410 to 12 gauge.
But which firearm, rimfire or shotgun, is better for killing squirrels? Well, that depends on how you hunt them. Different times of the year call for different tactics, and I’d say there’s no single rimfire striker or shotgun that’s best for all scenarios. After spending a few days in field and current Hunting editor Will Brantley’s Kentucky Squirrel Camp with a group of rimfire-loving rednecks (I use that term as a compliment) learned that each firearm has its advantages and limitations.
Rimfires can come
There is no question that a rimfire rifle can fire farther and more accurately than a shotgun. Early in the season, when the squirrels are in the treetops feasting on walnuts, a shotgun is a pretty useless tool.
Before the nuts fall from the trees, the squirrels don’t have much reason to spend time on the ground, so they stay in the safety of the leafy canopy, chopping nuts. Knocking squirrels out of the canopy with a rimfire firing pin is one of the most challenging shots you can take, as I discovered hunting with Brantley.
We were shooting CCI .17 HMR, .22 WMR, and .22 LR, all high-capacity rounds in the hands of someone like Brantley, who has been hunting rimfire squirrels all his life. Me, not so much. With any type of rifle shooting, you need to be steady before you pull the trigger. That’s hard to do when squirrels are jumping trees, and you’re trying to find your own tree trunk to lean on to keep the rifle still.
Firing a rimfirer accurately is a must for early season success, especially if the group of wood you are hunting has very tall trees. But getting accurate with a .22 at ranges of 75 yards (and beyond) is a challenge in itself. Anyone who has never done it before and thinks they can walk through public woods and kill a limit of squirrels with a rifle will be disappointed. I was surprised how difficult it was.
Rimfires are harder to shoot
If you’re firing a rimfire firing a lot of charges will destroy meat (the .22 LR doesn’t hit them too hard) if you body-shot squirrels, so you’ll need to hit them with your head. That means you’re trying to hit a walnut-sized target at 50+ yards. That’s a tough shot, even if you find a good break.
It’s hard to even locate squirrels in a tree at this time of year and finding solid rest is hard too. Once you spot a squirrel, you may have to go around another tree to find a clear shot.
While you are going around, you have to keep an eye on the tree that the squirrel is in so that you can follow its movements. Move cautiously so the squirrels don’t see you, and then find a tree that allows for a clear shot, all while sweating your butt.
It is quite obvious why squirrel hunting was considered the ideal first hunt. He teaches you how to locate game, listening for squirrels cutting and visually finding them in the tree, stalking critters, exercising patience, and shooting with precision. It’s a shame so many people skip squirrel hunting these days and go straight to deer or other big game.
Shotguns are best for dog work
Shotguns really shine if you have a tree squirrel dog. Every time I have hunted my pup, there has never been a time when I thought a rimfire firing pin would serve me better than a 20 caliber.
Since I am hunting mainly from October, when the leaves are falling, until February, when the trees are bare and the acorns are on the ground, my dog runs squirrels up a tree a short distance. I need to shoot quickly with my autoloader to give myself the best chance of killing the squirrel.
Ideally, you want to shoot him before he gets too far away from the tree and out of shotgun range. Some hunters like to hunt dogs with rimfire. Let the squirrel get to the top of the tree and then take it out. I have spent my hunting career primarily chasing waterfowl and game birds, and am comfortable swinging a shotgun at a moving target. I don’t want to wait until the squirrel reaches the top of the tree. I want my dog to sniff the squirrel, catch it, and then shoot it with my shotgun as soon as I can, so we can move on to the next rodent.
I understand that some dogs will stray far from their handle, and by the time you get to that barking dog, you need a rimfire firing pin. But if you hunt a dog that works closely like me, a shotgun is your best option.
Shotguns are also better for new hunters
Most new hunters will have more success waiting for squirrels to get within shotgun range. No matter what time of year you’re hunting squirrels, firing a rimfire firing pin accurately will be more difficult. The pattern of a shotgun spreads out more and the shooter doesn’t have to stand as steady.
For new hunters, a .410, .28 or 20 caliber telescopic sight are great options early in the season. Squirrels will often stop at a branch to chop nuts or just lie down on a branch to rest. These are great chances for a hunter just learning to kill a squirrel if they are low enough in the tree. I would recommend removing the scope as the squirrel transitions to looking for nuts on the ground. They will move a little more on the forest floor and it will be difficult to shoot with a scope.
Small batches of wood are suitable for shotguns
A small patch of forest jutting out into a farm field or the shores of a lake is ideal for shotgun work. The squirrels won’t move as much because they just don’t have as many trees to jump into. And, if you startle them and they run down a tree, that’s a great opportunity to shoot one. Also, they may just be running along the ground, traveling from tree to tree, and having a shotgun handy will make it much easier to hit a moving target than if you were firing a scoped rimfire striker.
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If you are firing a rimfire firing pin, your bullet will be moving significantly faster than a shell and can do some real damage to the squirrel on impact. I first shot CCI .22 WMR during the hunt with Brantley, and blew out the shoulders and hindquarters with body shots. The .17 HMR dealt similar damage, so if you want to save as much meat as possible, you need to land a headshot.
The CCI .22 LR “Stangers” did not do near-body damage like the .22 WMR or 17 HMR, but I body-shot nearly all of my squirrels with it and there was still some meat loss. I know most hunters probably don’t think losing a squirrel shoulder is something to worry about, but we’re here to fill the freezer, so you should do your best to cleanly kill your creatures and save as many of them as possible. of meat possible.
For shotguns, the more you increase the payload, the more shots your weapon will send in the direction of a squirrel. If you want to challenge yourself, a .410 is the way to go because it throws the smallest shot pattern. I like to use a 28 or 20 gauge, because they are lighter to carry than a 12 gauge, and at the ranges I’m shooting at, the extra payload capacity you can get from a 12 gauge shell isn’t necessary. Almost any lead small game load will work with shotgun hunting squirrels. I will shoot from shot No. 6 to shot No. 9. Some of the public lands I hunt on are near waterfowl management areas, so I must use non-toxic shot. I usually choose an inexpensive No. 6 steal load such as Federal Speed-Shok or Hevi-Teal because they offer better pattern density.
Before you go on your next squirrel hunt, consider how you will hunt them. If long shots are required, a rimfire firing pin is your weapon of choice. If it’s late in the season and there are squirrels on the ground or you’re hunting behind a good dog, a shotgun is the right choice.