When I think “small game” I’m thinking edible animals, so the requirements for a small-game hunting rifles are different from “varmints” like prairie dogs, and different yet from furbearing predators, which may be taken at longer ranges, coupled with the desire to minimize pelt damage. In North America, our concept of “small game” is largely limited to the various types of rabbits (and hares) and tree squirrels.
Elsewhere the menu may be different, but I can’t imagine a more essential tool than an accurate, reliable .22 rimfire. At close range it will fill the pot and take care of pesky critters that come into the yard. And, at minimal cost with no recoil and mild report, nothing keeps us sharper than practicing with a good .22.
Among hunters and shooters, the value of a .22 is universal! An early African hunter wrote that he could “…walk from the Cape to Cairo with a .22 rifle and a big revolver.” When I’m thinking “small game” rather than plinking or target practice, I’m thinking .22 Long Rifle (LR). The .22 BB Cap was introduced in 1845, the .22 Short in 1857, and the .22 Long in 1871. Using the .22 Long case with a heavier bullet, the .22 Long Rifle was introduced in 1884. Propellants were initially blackpowder, but transitioned to smokeless in the 1890s. Since then, the standard .22 Long Rifle High Velocity load propels a 40-grain solid or 36-grain hollowpoint bullet at between 1200 to 1300 feet per second (fps). There are faster loads, including CCI Stinger and Remington Spitfire, but the .22 Long Rifle High Velocity is the world standard small game load. The good old hollowpoint design expands nicely, but damage is minimal on edible small game.
Honestly, there are few other choices, but that depends on your needs. On rabbits and squirrels the .22 LR has a theoretical effective range to 150 yards but, realistically about half that. Within 50 yards, and with good shot placement, it has enough power for game up to foxes and bobcats, but I don’t think the .22 LR is adequate for coyotes. The milder rimfire .17s (.17 Mach II and HMR) are more destructive on edible small game, and perhaps a little more effective on game up to foxes.
In Kansas our biggest animal problem is armadillos. In my lifetime they have advanced north from Texas and Oklahoma and we now have them in plague numbers, constantly digging up the yard. At my place, armadillos are a “shoot on sight” varmint. To that end, I keep a Marlin bolt-action .17 HMR on hand, more effective and with greater range than any .22 LR. However, I don’t think the milder .17s are adequate for coyotes, just not enough bullet weight. One year I used the Marlin in Africa for small predators and pygmy antelopes. It was fine for foxes, but disappointing on steenbok, a small antelope weighing less than 40 pounds.
You could step up to the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR), most often called “.22 magnum.” With considerably more velocity, it offers more power and range than a .22 LR; standard is a 40-grain bullet at 1875 fps. On rabbits and tree squirrels the .22 magnum is more destructive than needed, but effective on varmints to maybe 125 yards.
The only other cartridge that might be reasonably considered for small game is the .22 Hornet, a small centerfire cartridge dating to 1930 and propelling a 45-grain bullet at 2700 fps. The .22 Hornet is adequate for coyote-sized game to a couple hundred yards…but too destructive for rabbits or squirrels unless head shots are taken.
Elsewhere, “small game” has different connotations and the .22 Hornet is a wonderful tool. Petersen Publishing founder Robert E. “Pete” Petersen always took a .22 Hornet on his African safaris, using it for pygmy antelopes and, with care, for game up to impala. I’ve sort of followed Pete’s lead; I’ve often taken a .22 Hornet to Africa when smaller animals were high on my wish list. It has always performed wonderfully!
However, I have not taken a .22 Hornet into the squirrel woods! In the arena of edible small game, there’s no substitute for the .22 Long Rifle, the world’s most popular cartridge, sold annually into the billions. Honestly, the rifle platform doesn’t matter so much, so long as accuracy is “head of squirrel” to 50 yards. When I was a kid, I hunted squirrels with my early Ruger 10/22; a buddy of mine had a Winchester 1903 semiauto. He usually killed more squirrels than me because he was more patient, but either were fine and, since we both used iron sights, both were limited!
It’s often said that it’s a good idea to have a .22 with the same action and type of sight as your primary big-game rifle. Certainly, there’s merit in that, especially if you shoot your .22 as much as you should! I’m mostly a bolt-action/scope sight guy so my favorite .22 has long been a Kimber bolt-action with a small Leupold 2-7X variable. A friend from the Boone and Crockett Club, Dr. Richard Hale, goes even more traditional: He does his squirrel hunting with a vintage Winchester M52 bolt-action with target scope! Regardless of the .22 you choose, put a decent optical sight on it…and group it with several different loads to see what it likes!
Just the other day I took my old Kimber squirrel hunting in my Kansas woods, using Winchester Power Point hollowpoint ammo that the rifle shoots well. Our timber is loaded with squirrels, probably 60 percent fox (red) squirrels, 40 percent gray depending on the trees. I had a ball! There is no better teacher for woods skills, moving slowly and quietly, and paying attention! I flubbed on one gray squirrel that moved as I shot but the rest were head shots, no misses. I came out of the woods very pleased with myself!