We are now well into small game season. Squirrels are chattering and rabbits are hopping. Both animals make for delicious natural protein and I highly recommend filling your stomach and freezer with some this fall. When hunting them with a firearm, there are two distinct schools of thought: Using a rimfire gun or a shotgun. I have encountered people from both camps who cannot believe that anyone hunts small game with the other firearm. The sensible small game hunter knows that both weapons have their place and a good hunting tool kit should contain both.
Rimfire Cartridges For Small Game
The rimfire cartridge for use in small game hunting goes back a long way. 22 Long Rifle is probably the quintessential small-caliber cartridge used today and most shooters learn on a 22 rifle before shooting anything else. There are however some other options such as 17 HMR and 22 magnum which are growing in popularity. The benefit of using a rimfire small-caliber bullet to hunt small game is pinpoint accuracy, low recoil, low noise, and a range of about 100 yards. Rimfire ammo is also very inexpensive compared to centerfire ammunition, often costing just 7 cents per round. The semi-automatic, lever-action, and bolt action format 22 rifles all mirror their centerfire counterparts in operation, and hunting small game with one can be great practice for hunting larger game with a centerfire rifle. The 22 rifle excels at shots on the ground, long shots, and shots with a firm backstop (a large tree for example). The drawbacks of the 22 cartridge for small game is that bullets can travel up to a mile away if fired into the air so caution is necessary when hunting with them.
Shotguns For Small Game
The shotgun is a classic hunting gun that is unmatched in versatility. One can hunt everything from squirrels to elk with a shotgun. The most common shotguns for small game are .410, 20 gauge, and 12 gauge which can all be suitable for hunting squirrels and rabbits. The trick with a shotgun for small animals is to use an appropriately sized birdshot to ensure that you make an ethical kill while minimizing meat loss. A BB or #2 sized birdshot would likely be overkill for almost all small game situations and you would lose too much meat. #4, #5, and #6 are traditional birdshot sizes used for squirrels and rabbits. Smaller sized shot than #6 can be difficult to pick out of the meat and can mean more pieces of shot in the meat. When shooting at high treetop squirrels, #4 is great to use as it has a little more killing power—especially at further ranges. Single shot, over-under, double-barreled, pump, and semi-automatic shotguns can all work well for small game hunting. My preference would be towards a pump or semi-automatic gun, personally. The benefit of using a shotgun is that your margin for error increases, meaning, that you can miss by a few inches and still hit your target as you are throwing out a cloud of shot towards the animal. The farther your target is away, the more dispersed the pattern of shot will be when it hits it. On the flip side, you may not want to shoot a squirrel at 5 yards with #4 birdshot or you will likely decimate it with the wad, cup, and all of the shot hitting it. The ideal range for a shotgun kill on small game is 25-60 yards depending on the gauge you are shooting. With a shotgun, you can take some shots that would be dangerous with a solid bullet as the shot dissipates significantly in force past several hundred yards.
Which One Should I Use?
The answer is ideally both. Early season the shotgun will excel as you will be shooting at squirrels up in their nests. As late season sets in, and the leaves fall you will take more shots at game on the ground and the decrease in foliage will increase your visibility. This will make longer shots more practical. Having both to choose from before your hunt is a great option. You can tailor your weapon to the conditions in the woods, master both formats (rifle and shotgun), and bring a friend to small game hunt with you.