I was 5 years old, sitting beside my father with a .410-bore Model 37 Winchester in my lap. We were watching squirrels running amuck for nuts and I was out of shells. I don't remember how many I fired but my shoulder was sore. On the way to camp I asked if I could use the .22 rifle next time. Dad said, "I reckon so."
A squirrel rifle has to be accurate, ideally capable of sub-inch groups at 50 yards and the sights and cartridge you choose should be influenced by the hunting methods you employ. I've tried about every rifle even remotely suited to squirrel hunting; every action design chambered for every rimfire cartridge. Here are seven tried-and-tested rifles ranging in price from less than $500 to $1,300.
1. Savage 93R17 BVSS .17 HMR Savage has a reputation of building affordable and accurate rifles. They offer over 30 rimfires priced between $250 and $600. When the .17 Mach II became available, I tried one in a Savage model 93R17 BVSS for an entire season. My only complaint was the heavy trigger pull. The new version-now only available in .17 HMR-comes standard with the great Accu-Trigger, stainless steel finish and a laminated stock. The street price is less than $400. What a bargain! (MSRP: $411; www.savagearms.com)
2. Remington 597 VTR .22 LR Go ahead, laugh. I know tactical-looking rimfires don't evoke visions of crisp fall mornings and bushytails scampering across the forest floor. But sometimes we hunt just for fun; every trip to the timber doesn't have to be a nostalgic journey or follow pre-conceived protocol. Any way you look at it, this rifle is cool, and if you like to hunt with an AR it's even cooler.
I'd just customized a 10/22 with a collapsible stock so my 9-year-old son could squirrel hunt with a rifle that fit him. Then the 597 VTR showed up. The best thing about the 597 VTR is the collapsible stock, which fits him and me. I got to thinking I might like a tactical squirrel rifle(!), so I mounted one of Weaver's new Tactical scopes. The big scope made the package too heavy for my son, but I enjoy head-shooting squirrels hiding high in a hickory tree while exercising all the stealth of a spec-ops squirrel sniper. Detachable magazines hold six or 25 rounds. (MSRP: $445; www.remington.com)
3. CZ 452 American .17 HMR After one year of squirrel hunting with this rifle, I was convinced it was the "answer" when it came to a stalking rifle for squirrels. No matter the distance, I just held dead on and pulled the trigger. Admittedly, a .17 HMR is a bit much for squirrels if anything other than head shots are taken. The good thing is head shots with the CZ are easy; at 100 yards you can cover every shot with a quarter.
I've tested a half-dozen CZ rimfires and all shot exceptionally well. The safety operates backwards from American-made rifles, and you might feel the trigger a bit creepy. A drop-in, aftermarket kit will fix the trigger, and after a few trips to the range you'll be comfortable with the safety. (MSRP: $499; www.cz-usa.com)
4. Thompson/Center R55 .22 LR For stump sitting or stalking, bolt-action or single-shot rifles are perfect. If you try hunting squirrels with a tree dog you need to be prepared for fast, tree-to-tree action, especially if you miss or are hunting fox squirrels. Then an autoloader is the way to go.
T/C's R55 is a real sleeper in this category. For a while I ignored the R55, thinking T/C's specialty was single-shots. When I finally tested one I was pleasantly surprised. The R55 is capable of sub-inch groups at 50 yards with most loads, comes with fiber-optic sights and even Weaver scope bases. Oh, and just as important, after more than 500 rounds without cleaning, the rifle has yet to jam. (MSRP: $604; www.tcarms.com)
5. Ruger 77/22 RM .22 Mag. After years of squirrel hunting with a .22 LR, I felt like I'd traded my .30-30 for a .300 Win. Mag. when I got my first .22 Magnum. I could hold dead on and hit a squirrel beyond 60 yards. After trying several .22 Mags. I finally decided on Ruger's classic 77/22 Magnum.
It has a nine-shot, rotary magazine, dual extractors, a stainless bolt, classic lines, integral scope bases and comes with scope rings. Mine shoots half-inch, 50-yard groups with all ammo I've tried and close to 1 inch at 100 yards with most loads. The factory trigger has a bit of creep and is a tad heavy, but a $50 Timney sear and spring kit will fix that. I imagine I'll give this rifle to my son when he's ready for his first magnum and completely bypass the old 37 Winchester or any shotgun for squirrel hunting. (MSRP: $754; www.ruger.com)
6. Weatherby XXII .22 LR Introduced two years ago, the Weatherby XXII exhibits all the flare and quality that made Weatherby famous. Weatherby teamed with famed rimfire rifle manufacturer Anschutz on the XXII, which is actually built on the Anschutz Model 64 action. The fine checkering, grip and fore-end cap and high-gloss finish all scream Weatherby.
I hunted extensively last season with a Weatherby XXII in .22 LR. When I pointed it and pulled the crisp 2.5-pound trigger, squirrels fell from trees. I especially like how the bolt handle protrudes from the stock more than is customary. This makes cycling the action fast and easy. The Weatherby XXII bridges the gap between factory and custom squirrel rifles. (MSRP: $999; www.weatherby.com)
7. New Ultra Light Arms M20 Rimfire 22LR New Ultra Light Arms is a custom shop in the hills of West Virginia that set precedence 25 years ago, offering incredibly accurate big-game rifles, some weighing less than 5 pounds. I've used Melvin Rifles-that's what I call them because Melvin Forbes is the guy who makes them-to take my first black bear, my best whitetail and the most squirrels in a single season.
Melvin's rimfire uses the same space-age, synthetic stock his centerfires rely on for strength and barrel-supporting stiffness. Mine is a single-shot, which you might think a handicap but, friend, not when one shoots like this rifle. Single-shots and repeaters are available in right- and left-hand actions and you choose barrel length and stock color. They come standard with a Timney trigger, Talley rings and a hard case. (MSRP: $1,300, single-shot; $1,350, repeater; 304-292-0600)