Can rimfires beat their centrefire brethren for foxing? Mike Powell gives the lowdown on how best to use the humble .22 and .17 for controlling Charlie.
One topic of discussion that constantly seems to crop up both online and within the pages of shooting magazines is which calibre is most suited to the shooting of foxes.
Within this discussion more often than not the question of using rimfire rifles to shoot them also seems to raise the hackles of some! As I shot my very first fox with a BSA Sportsman Five .22LR a long time ago I thought I would take a look at the facts behind the use of these small calibre rifles and where they have been involved in my own fox control career.
As I have said many times before, virtually any rifle is capable of killing a fox provided two factors are taken into consideration: range and accuracy. Clearly all rifles have their limitations, be it a matter of just a few yards, or in today’s shooting world aided with the latest technology, 1000 yards plus.
It’s possible, though I’m not sure too many foxes are killed at that sort of distance! Without a doubt the most well known and prolific rimfire is the .22 Long Rifle (.22LR).
This round was originally developed from the .22 BB cap of 1885, then the .22 Short, which appeared in 1857, finally appearing in the current well-known shape and size in 1887, so it’s been here for a long time.
For vast numbers of young shooters, myself among them, it was our first ‘real’ rifle. In fact as a boy I knew a friendly gamekeeper who would shoot virtually everything that moved with either a .22 Hornet or a old .22LR, make unknown. This included roe and fallow, obviously no longer legal! So quite clearly the little .22LR is capable of killing large quarry.
So how and when would you use a .22LR for shooting foxes as in truth it is no real fox round? As a fox controller I am quite clear as to when I will take my Anschütz .22LR with me when after a fox. The greatest advantage the .22LR has over any other rimfire is lack of noise.
Fitted with a decent moderator, a bolt-actioned .22 using subsonic ammunition is virtually silent. Certainly, someone indoors wouldn’t hear a moderated .22LR if it were fired 50 yards away from them, and it’s here that it comes in so useful.
As shooters, we live in difficult times when even our totally legal activities come under close inspection, so if I have to deal with a problem fox in a ‘sensitive’ location it’s my .22LR that I go to.
As far as range is concerned, I have on rare occasions killed foxes out to around 70 yards, but that is, in my opinion, stretching it a little so I generally limit .22LR use to 50 yards or so.
Generally the places it gets used are around farmyards, smallholdings or in urban locations where for one reason or another as little noise as possible is an advantage. I also use it for mopping up cubs at the earth when that becomes necessary. In both those cases the range is invariably below 50 yards.
The venerable .22 Long Rifle has been with us for a very long time, but it does has a couple of downsides, the worst being its ability to ricochet, with the attendant Western movie sound effects.
And today, though it has competition from some ‘newcomers’ on the rimfire scene I can’t see it disappearing, certainly for the foreseeable future.
One of the humble .22 Long Rifles more recent competitors has been the .17 HMR (Hornady Magnum Rimfire). Developed by collaboration between the American firms of Hornady, Marlin and Ruger as first and foremost a small vermin round it first appeared commercially in 2002.
I remember getting mine, an Anschütz 17/17 in the early days and in a very short time the calibre really took off, demand for ammunition in particular outstripping supply.
The .17 HMR was developed from a .22 Winchester Magnum case necked down to accept a .172 bullet. In the case of Hornady’s ammo the bullet is a 17-grain V-Max. In 2004 a 20-grain version appeared although I don’t think this was ever as popular as the 17-grain version. Perhaps as in my own case many found the heavier round didn’t seem to perform as well as the 17-grain.
The Americans developed the .17 HMR specifically for shooting such things as prairie dogs, gophers, rabbits and the like. So is it suitable for shooting foxes in this country? Again, like the .22LR it will kill a fox but has considerable limitations.
The maximum range I have shot a fox with mine was 120 yards but that was exceptional, if I had to suggest an effective and reliable range for using this very fast, frangible round on foxes I would limit it to 100 yards. As always shot placement is important although I can honestly say that of all the fairly high number of foxes I’ve shot with the .17 HMR only a couple have been real runners.
I find the .17 HMR comes into its own as an excellent rabbit rifle with the ability to take down a fox should you chance upon one on your rabbiting forays. Some advocate zeroing this calibre at one and a half inches high at 100 yards, giving a zero of about 150 yards.
As I use mine primarily for rabbit shooting from the pick-up at night, I zero it at half an inch high at 100 yards and find this works just fine.
There have been ammunition problems over the past few years, too well documented for me to go into here and many were put off this calibre as a result.
Fortunately these problems have been addressed and over the past year they appear to have receded which is excellent news because the .17 HMR really is an excellent all round small vermin calibre, and although you do get the odd ricochet these are rare compared with the slower, heavier, solid lead round used in the .22LR. With a muzzle velocity of 2550fps, the .17 HMR is no slouch!
The downside compared to the .22LR is the noise factor, without a moderator it really is a very noisy little round. With a decent mod it becomes much quieter but no matter how good the mod is you won’t tame the sonic “crack”.
There are two more rather less common rimfire rounds that again will kill foxes at greater distances than the previous two, and one is the .22 WMR, which appeared in 1959.
This calibre fires a 30-grain V-Max bullet and has a muzzle velocity of 2200 fps. I tried one briefly but wasn’t impressed with it as a foxing calibre. It would certainly kill a fox out to about 125 yards but was hard on rabbits however; I really couldn’t recommend it as a standalone foxing calibre.
The other which is a far more attractive proposition as a “crossover” small vermin/fox round is the .17 WSM. Using 20 grain V-Max ammunition this rifle has a muzzle velocity of 3000fps and is without a doubt more than capable of killing a fox humanely out to around 175 yards. Again I have only used this calibre rifle for a short period.
The problem I have with using rimfires for foxing is that none of them do the job as well as a .22 centrefire (.222/.223) so for anyone looking for a rifle specifically for foxes they would be better off with one of those.
With the exception of the .22LR, rimfires will be affected noticeably by the wind once you get out to 100 yards or so. The HMR, WMR and the WSM are excellent vermin rounds but, as previously mentioned, can be a bit hard.
That said, their accuracy means head shooting with them is quite possible but are limited in their use on foxes mainly because of the lack of energy at longer ranges.
To sum up, rimfire calibres are limited in their use and for the casual/sport fox shooter I would describe them as no more than ‘chance’ rifles for taking the odd fox within relatively close ranges.
Except for the .22LR which is the most inefficient round overall, for my fox control work it’s the most useful! I use the .17 HMR for rabbits for which it’s ideal and the very occasional fox.
However, for practical, serious fox work I look no further than my .223 Sauer 202 though I must confess to having a bit of an affair with a .17 Hornet! But that’s another matter altogether.
Rimfires are enormous fun and reasonably cheap to run and without a doubt they have their uses, but true foxing calibres they are not. However, the shooting world would be a much poorer place without them.
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