Mike Powell explores the history of the .204 Ruger calibre and tests it as a foxing round with his trusty custom rifle.
Over the many years I’ve been shooting foxes I’ve used a considerable number of rifles and calibres, and these numbers have been increased by my review work even further. I am sometimes asked what is the best calibre for shooting foxes, and to be perfectly honest this is an almost impossible question to answer.
As I have said many times, virtually any rifle from a 12ft/lbs air rifle up to a .243 Win will, under certain circumstances, kill a fox. So selecting the “best” comes down to a mixture of things such as range, prevailing weather conditions, the type of land and possibly above all, the shooter’s own ability.
Of course you discount such items as air rifles as being fox suitable even though some, especially FAC rated models, will kill foxes. Equally, rimfires will all kill foxes and I use them myself where close range fox work is carried out around farm buildings and in noise sensitive areas – but again they are in no way what could be termed fox calibres.
So as we move into the centrefire calibres, all will kill foxes and once you leave the ‘17’ calibres (more on them later) you can pick any of them and know for a fact they will all kill foxes humanely with decent shot placement, though even that becomes academic if you start bringing anything above .243 into the mix.
So, if you’re looking to acquire your first true foxing rifle what should you be looking for? For a start a little will depend upon the type of land you will be shooting over and equally your ability to shoot accurately.
My writing colleague and good friend Mark Ripley is someone whose ability to shoot foxes at distances I find astonishing. He uses a .260 and, from what I know of the land he shoots over, anything less than a .223 would not be the ideal tool at all.
Chalk and cheese
However the country I shoot over is very different and few shots are taken at much more than 200 yards and even that is a little unusual. I suppose too, that I come from a rather different time when equipment of all types was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is today and we really had to get to know our quarry far more than you do today.
Also, having been brought up with a shotgun for my fox work I have got used to getting as near to Charlie as possible, and don’t believe in taking a shot unless it is more than well within my own limitations.
Then in 2004, at the Las Vegas Shot Show a new calibre was launched that was to cause almost as much interest as the .17HMR had before it. The two American firms of Ruger and Hornady had been collaborating to produce a small, high velocity, extremely accurate cartridge designed for small to medium varmint shooting.
I suspect the prairie dog (ground squirrel) was top of their list as this has a large following in that country. This is a small burrowing animal that lives in “towns” throughout the grasslands of North America.
These colonies can be enormous, stretching for miles and inhabited by, in some cases, countless thousands of these grass eating burrowing rodents. Hated by farmers, there is a whole shooting industry built up around them, including organised ranches where accommodation and guaranteed high number shooting is on offer.
Many and various are the calibres used, but the number of shots likely to be taken in a day’s shooting often runs into the hundreds. So the two companies set out to produce a rifle tailored for this type of shooting.
The requirements were for a small, high velocity, flat-shooting cartridge that was economical to reload, as clearly ammunition costs could be high with the potential for large numbers of shots being fired. They also wanted a round that would be relatively easy on the barrel. The result after a lot of research was the .204 Ruger.
Some time passed before I was able to get a .204 for review but when I did I really liked it. It can be quite difficult to explain why we like a particular calibre as with many of them they will all do the same job perfectly well.
You only have to run your eye over some of the shooting forums to hear how everyone has their own thoughts on which are the best calibres/rifles for certain quarry species.
When I first used the .204R I had in my possession a .17Hornet, that while capable of killing foxes, over time I found that I was getting a few “runners” – something that I try to avoid at all costs.
So while I did like the little Hornet I decided it would be used for long range (for me) rabbit shooting and retired it from the fox scene. The problem of runners disappeared when I was reviewing the .204R and there was just something about this calibre that really ticked all the boxes for me.
It was relatively quiet, virtually without noticeable recoil, and extremely accurate. Checking the ballistics also showed it had an extremely flat trajectory. So the seed was sown and from then on I was on the lookout for a suitable rifle in that calibre.
Eventually, a call from Steve Beaty at Ivythorn came saying a rather nice Mike Norris custom .204 Ruger built on an H-S Precision action had turned up and, to cut a long story short, I bought it! Having had this rifle for over six months or so, I can give my considered opinion as to how it has worked out as a true fox calibre.
Knowing from my American contacts, and watching numerous YouTube videos, that in the States they use this calibre a lot for coyote shooting, and knowing that your average coyote is twice the size of our red fox, I had no doubts as to the calibre’s ability to kill a fox. Indeed, some of the distances they shoot coyotes at with this calibre are very impressive!
From the beginning this rifle inspired confidence, zeroed half an inch high at 100 yards its maximum point blank range was a comfortable 250 yards, more than enough for my needs.
The first half dozen foxes I shot with it dropped on the spot, the seventh required a quick second but that was due to some bad shooting on my part. Since those early days I’ve shot quite a lot of foxes with the 204R to the extent it is now my “go to” fox rifle.
I reload for it and after trying 32grn bullets which didn’t work that well I have to say, I tried 40grn which were far better, but were nowhere as good as the 39grn Sierra Blitzkings. Reloading with these bullets was rather surprising; results showed that unlike other calibres I reload for, the .204R had good results even with different loads and powders.
For example, when testing IMR4166 Enduron three different loads, 26.2gr, 26.8grn and 27.4grn all printed sub half inch groups at 100 yards with the lowest and highest weights being the best and almost identical.
Again, 27gr of H4895 gave almost identical results. Remington 40grn factory ammo opened up to .75 inch groups, still excellent. I have tried both 32grn reloads and factory ammo and whilst giving decent groups none of them performed as well as the 39grn especially, or the 40grn rounds. That could of course be down to the rifle.
Near and far
As I said earlier the vast majority of my foxes are shot at around the 100 yard mark, with the odd one out to a little over 200 yards. By far and away most of these are shot from static positions which as a rule allows really accurate shot placement.
This is perhaps more important when using a 39grn .204 round than when using, say, a 55grn round in a .223 cal rifle, or a considerably heavier round in larger calibre rifles. As the saying goes “a good big’un will usually beat a good little’un!”
But shooting and rifles aren’t always about this and many other factors can come into play. For example, with the .204 I can see the bullet strike as recoil is almost non-existent, and the sound factor comes into quite a bit of the shooting I do.
It is very rare for people living nearby to hear my shots even though they are well aware that I’m shooting near them. Its flat shooting abilities inspire confidence and, from the reloading aspect, I’ve found the .204 Ruger is both easy and economic to load for.
When reviewing rifles it isn’t unusual to find the odd one here and there that doesn’t perform as well as you would expect but in truth I have yet to find a factory produced rifle in .204R that doesn’t shoot well.
As I mentioned before, my own .204 is a custom job built by Mike Norris on an H-S Precision 200SA action using a 23” fluted Lothar Walther Select Match barrel with a 1-10 twist rate.
The stock is a McMillan A3 Sporter fully glass pillar bedded. With a MDT AICS pattern ten shot magazine, it’s the most accurate rifle I’ve ever owned. We have a more in-depth report on custom rifles, including Mike Norris, on page 44.
I have come to the conclusion that the .204 Ruger certainly is a most suitable foxing calibre. Although, I have always said that the .223Rem is my choice as the perfect foxing calibre, I am hard put to change that point of view. However, comparing the performance of these two calibres for my own use the comparisons are a little surprising.
The 39grn Sierra Blitzking at 200 yards has a little over ½-inch less drop than the .223Rem 50grn at the same distance which to be honest isn’t unexpected, however the thing that did surprise me was the energy the little 39grn bullet delivers at the same distance which was almost 80ft/lbs more, due to its velocity at that range which is not far off 500fps more. Clearly these figures vary from rifle to rifle and are load dependent, but it does give an indication of what this quite small calibre round is capable of.
From a purely practical point of view if I had to get rid of one of these two rifles the choice would be a hard one, but I suspect the .204R would be the one to give way, simply because the .223Rem is a more versatile calibre with its wide range of bullet weights. But my thoughts on the .204R as a foxing rifle are 100 per cent positive, it will lend itself to the job perfectly well.
There are, and always will be caveats on any comparisons between calibres. As I said earlier for much of his fox work Mark wouldn’t go for the .204 – equally, I don’t need a .260 for mine. I have found the .204 to be a lovely rifle to use for the type of fox work I undertake and it really is a pleasure to use.
More on foxing from Sporting Rifle
- Long range foxing with Mark Ripley
- The future of foxing as lockdown is eased
- Predator perfection – best scopes for foxing
- Foxing during a driven game day
- Guide to foxing in midsummer