Foxing Calibres

The 70-grain .243 held more energy than any other round tested at 300 yards

Foxing is the fastest growing sector of the shooting sports, with the amount of kit available increasing on a near daily basis.

Though I have always enjoyed foxing, my hunting antics have traditionally been weighted towards stalking deer and hunting big game. However, through my duties for The Shooting Show, this balance has dramatically shifted and my nocturnal activities increase exponentially. I have been fortunate enough to spend time with some great foxers as well, and learned far more than I ever knew to begin with.

Danny Lawson night foxing with the .204 Ruger

This has led me to a number of my own conclusions on kit and tactics, but the most emotive issue is always one’s choice of calibre. Instead of imposing my own views on the matter, I have pulled in friends and hunters on each foxing calibre, along with providing the raw facts myself.

The list of suitable foxing calibres is vast, even if not always particularly practical. Everything from the bunny-stopping .17 HMR to the militarily selected 7.62 sees use chasing down Basil, but there are some that do the job better than others. If we tackle the subject from day one, there are a few questions most hunters will ask:

  • What is the cost of ammunition?
  • What is the availability of ammunition?
  • Are rifles readily chambered in the calibre?
  • What are the down-range ballistics and performance like?
  • How long will my barrel last?

With this in mind, there is no point, for example, suggesting that an 85-grain .22-250 Rem is the answer, as finding a factory rifle with a twist to support it would be all but impossible. That is the realm of custom rifles.

So now we get to the list. The first couple were easy enough: .243 Win, .22-250 Rem, .223 Rem. I doubt there is a big brand manufacturer who doesn’t chamber them, and they are widely used across the country. Then we get to some of the newer calibres, .17 Hornet and .204 Ruger. A quick call around my foxing buddies provided one further addition: the mighty .220 Swift.

Plenty of hunters reading this will shake their head at the fact I have missed their calibre of choice, but we need to keep the criteria in mind and accept that we need a short list to start with. The most notable absence is the .17 HMR, and I and many of my hunting companions have cleanly killed foxes with this little calibre. However, most will concede that it is simply not a foxing calibre. It has the capabilities, in the right circumstances and conditions to take foxes, but few professionals would embark on a night’s foxing with only a .17 HMR in hand.

 

Spent .22-250 Rem cartridges

.22-250 Rem

Having handed over the rest of the calibres to my colleagues, I thought I would take the .22-250 Rem on board myself – indeed, this is what my Howa 1500 foxing rig is chambered in. The treble-two-fifty can definitely be described as a sweet shooter. It’s not as gentle as a .222 Rem or the smaller cased calibres, but a moderated rifle fitted with a varmint barrel will hardly recoil, with sight picture easily maintained between shots. It’s a soft shooter, but you are very aware that a lot of energy is hurtling down-range.

In terms of terminal performance, the .22-250 Rem is superb. I am yet to have a fox do anything other than drop on the spot when the person behind the trigger does their bit. Shooting homeloads of 55-grain Nosler Ballistic tips, there is only occasionally an exit wound, with the internals blended into a claret soup. It tends not to be a particularly fussy calibre either, with loads fairly easy to tune, and most accepting an array of factory fodder. It is also inherently accurate, with my own rifle putting pretty much any ammo into ¾in, and homeloads into a five-pence piece at 100 yards.

Ballistically, it’s not the most impressive, but then it’s not far off either. There are some benefits to this, though, with barrel life better than the short-lived Swift. Loaded to sensible levels of around 3,600fps, you’re looking at a 300-yard drop of just 5in when zeroed 0.88in high at 100 yards. With that you will tackle almost any situation you will encounter at night. Obviously wind has to be taken into account, and that will be the limiting factor of the .22-250 Rem.

In terms of our list, it is one of the more expensive calibres, but choice certainly won’t be a problem. Neither will finding the rifle you want, as every manufacturer worth their salt will chamber at least one model in .22-250 Rem. I can’t see me ever replacing my foxing set-up in .22-250 Rem.

Byron Pace

.204 Ruger

The .204 Ruger launched itself as the new foxing champion, boasting the title of ‘the fastest factory centrefire in the world’. The hype has long since died down, and after a few years of infield testing, we can finally see if the calibre has lived up to what it promised.

The first thing to note is that most hunters aren’t loading the light 32-grain bullet, which crossed the 4,000fps mark. The benefits gained in flat trajectory just don’t compensate for the wind drift, or the loss of down-range energy when compared to the heavier 39-grain load.

Although many manufacturers chamber the calibre today, when I first had the urge to get my hands on a .204 the choice was limited, so I went the custom route, with a tactical, Remy-based rifle put together by Callum Ferguson of Precision Rifles. As you would expect, the rifle is extremely accurate, but I have found the .204 Ruger quite finicky to tune loads for, and by far the fussiest of any calibre I have owned. The other issue is ammo availability if you don’t load your own.

You would definitely describe the .204 Ruger as a gentle shooter. Recoil is negligible when moderated, and you would almost think you are firing a .22WMR. As already alluded to, trajectory is super flat, and out to 400 yards is almost identical to a .220 Swift pushing a 55-grain bullet. As with all light calibres, wind is a big consideration, and the lightweight 32-grain load will shift as much as six inches at 200 yards with a 10mph wind. However, if you up the weight to 39 grains, you will have much more satisfactory results, on par with the rest of the foxing calibres. Barrel life is better than the over-bore .22-250 Rem and .220 Swifts, but the high speeds can chew throats quicker than a .223 Rem.

I would compare down-range terminal performance to shooting a 55-grain .223 Rem. It’s hard to separate them really, and this is evident in their 300-yard energies. Again, dropping to 32 grains almost halves the 300-yard performance in this department.

The .204 Ruger is a lot of fun to shoot, and once tuned, very accurate, but I am not convinced it really lived up to the hype. It would make a superb round for long-range varmints, but as a foxing calibre I still rate my old .22-250 Rem as being superior.

Danny Lawson, head keeper

 

.220 Swift

I had gathered the information and views on the Swift in preparation for this test, but I will have to cut the analysis as there is very little between the 50-grain Swift and 55-grain .22-250 in terms of energy and trajectory.

Of course, the lighter 40-grain Swift shoots a lot flatter, with less than four-inches of drop, but you will have more than 100ft/lb less energy than the 50-grain bullet at 300 yards, and at more than 4,200fps it will be a serious barrel burner. Ammo is expensive and rifles are less readily available than the .22-250 Rem, which in terms of hunting capabilities for foxes does everything the Swift does with a heavier bullet and a longer-lasting barrel. So although it is an excellent killer, shooter and grouper, by comparison the Swift has to be counted out.

 

.223 Rem

It is probably fair to say that the .223 Rem wouldn’t be as popular as it is today without it being a military calibre. Like the .308 Win, the availability of cheap ammunition and rifles certainly helped establish the calibre in the sporting world.

There is no doubt that the .223 Rem is very popular as a foxing calibre. As you would expect, there is a vast selection of rifles chambered in .223. Off the shelf ammunition selection is good, and, of course, you can obtain very cheap military surplus ammo as well. Being non-expanding, it can’t be used for hunting, however it does provide a cheap way of getting a lot of practice in. Having said that, of the mil spec ammo I have fired, I have never found any to group particularly well in a hunting rifle. This is most likely due to the clash between rifle twist rate and the loaded bullet weight.

Shooting the .223 Rem is a very calm and understated affair. When moderated, there really is very little fuss, and I have never had any trouble getting factory ammo to shoot well. Shooting with a very modest muzzle velocity, barrel life is generous. It’s unlikely most hunters will ever shoot out a rifle in their lifetime, unless doing a serious amount of range work. The same cannot be said for some of the other calibres. It’s not the flattest shooter, and a 55-grain bullet will need a full inch and a half at 100 yards to drop on target at 200 yards. Once you’re comfortable with that, it becomes second nature. At night, most shots will be up to 200 yards, with a much smaller proportion past this, so the drop beyond isn’t too much of an issue as long as you’re aware.

Possibly one of the most convenient points of this smaller calibre is that you can get away with having a much shorter barrel than, say, a .22-250. Cut a .22-250 down to 18-inches and you will be wasting a lot of performance. You can get away with it when it comes to the .223 Rem, and that makes shooting in and out of a vehicle much more convenient.

I would say finally that, although the calibre kills the vast majority of foxes outright, every now and then you will get them running on a way. Obviously this could happen with any calibre, but it is more noticeable with the .223 Rem than a .243 Win or .22-250 Rem.

Phil Chapman, grouse keeper

 

.243 Win

Although most people think of the .243 Win as a stalking calibre, its origins lie in the pursuit of varmints. A 100-grain bullet may be the default choice for many, but most rifles will shoot better with some lighter fodder. Indeed, most hunters never really get to see the true capabilities of a .243 Win until they downsize to 70 grains or less. It is here that you will see what a tremendous calibre it is for foxing.

Without a decent moderator, the .243 Win does induce enough muzzle flip on recoiling to cause loss of sight picture. This is not at all ideal, but clamp a moderator on the end of your rifle and it’s a different animal entirely. Although it may be the heaviest recoiling of the shortlist, moderation makes it only marginally more noticeably than a .22-250 Rem.

Rifle choice and ammunition selection will never be a problem for what is probably the UK’s most popular calibre, and for the handloader there are plenty of excellent bullets available for experimentation. It doesn’t normally take much to find ammunition to suit a .243 Win, and even factory rifles with factory ammo can return less than ¾in groups with a bit of trial and error.

Most importantly, though, it’s a very forgiving calibre when hunting. For me as a gamekeeper/stalker and a paid fox controller in the Hebrides, I need a calibre that is going to put a fox down and keep it down. Like many, I have rotated my gun cabinet through the ‘in’ calibres of the day, but I keep coming back to the .243 Win. Loaded with 100- or 105-grain bullets, even if bullet placement is a bit off, it will knock a fox off its feet where it stands. The same cannot be said for some of the smaller calibres. Even at 300 yards, the energy is more than 1,000ft/lb, whereas a .223 Rem is almost half that.

The weather on Skye can be unpredictable, with winds whipping up in seconds. The broken, rough terrain makes locating a dropped fox hard enough even when you know where it is. I am not shooting super long ranges, and nor do I want to think about complex ballistics before pulling the trigger – that’s for prairie dog hunters and target shooters. With relatively cheap ammo on offer, the .243 Win does everything I want it to do and is my number one choice.

There’s no doubting the .220 Swift can put down a fox, but it loses out in comparison to the .22-250, which offers cheaper ammo, greater rifle choice and is friendlier to barrels

It is possible to load a .243 Win very hot indeed, especially with 55-grain bullets. Even with factory loads, these return more than 3,800fps MV, and will vastly reduce the life of your barrel. However, from 70 grains upwards bullet velocities are more modest. If you’re worried about flat shooting, the 70-grain bullet offers an excellent compromise. Only dropping 5.5-inches at 300 yards with a one-inch high zero at 100 yards, it still delivers more energy than any of the other calibres listed here.

Scott Mackenzie, professional fox controller

 

.17 Hornet

This is the newest calibre to tickle the foxing world. As a result of this, few people seem to have done extensive foxing with it. Obviously the lightest bullet weight of the short list, it is the softest to shoot. From my experience, it is a very accurate factory round. Trajectory replicates the .223 Rem shooting a 55-grain bullet, as discussed above, while down range energy is only about a third. At 300 yards, the .17 Hornet has slightly less energy than the ME of a .17 HMR. As you would expect, wind is probably the biggest consideration. It drifts the most, with more than a foot of compensation needed at 300 yards with a 10mph wind.

So as a foxing round, where does this leave the baby of our calibre line up? Of those listed above, the .17 Hornet has been used the least as it is the newest. It is quite apparent that the .17 Hornet will drop foxes quite convincingly many times in a row, but the margin for error is much smaller than the bigger foxing calibres. It is far more suited than a .17 HMR, but lacks the knock down and anchor power of the other calibres. I am sure rifle choice will continue to grow, although at the moment it is limited (as is ammunition choice). That said, the Hornady Super Performance 20-grain ammo is superb.

One of the big bonuses is that rifles are light, feeling more like a rimfire than a centrefire. Although I don’t know anyone who has shot a barrel out yet, calculations show you should get more than from a .223 Rem due to minimal powder burn. I think the .17 Hornet probably sits more comfortably as a long range varmint round, and no doubt finds considerable favour in the States after prairie dogs and rock chucks. With only 11 grains of powder required, re-loading is cheap by comparison, too. Byron Pace

Ballistic comparison table
Bullet MV (fps)  ME (ft/lbs) 300yd energy Bullet drop 300 yds Wind drift 300 yds/ 10mph
.220 Swift 50gr 3850 1646 757 -4.7 9
.22-250 Rem 55gr 3625 1605 780 -5.2 8.8
.243 Win 55gr 3850 1811 904 -4.4 7.9
.243 Win 70gr 3450 1851 980 -5.5 8
.223 Rem 40gr 3700 1216 500 -5.5 10.8
.223 Rem 50gr 3240 1282 598 -6.8 10.4
.204 Ruger 39gr 3750 1218 623 -4.7 7.8
.17 Hornet 20gr 3650 592 200 -6.4 13.5
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