6-Guns & Varmints

by Skeeter Skelton


Shooting Times Magazine

June 1967



To most shooters the term “varmint” conjures up visions of an Eastern woodchuck, sitting on a hillside, rubbernecking across a sunny meadow at the rifleman who is carefully making last minute adjustments on his ten-power scope prior to dropping the fat rodent with a high velocity .22 slug.


Or maybe your cup of tea involves strapping a stuffed owl into a tree and spinning a 45 rpm recording of owlhoot music until all the crows within hearing are circling in the range of your 12 gauge.


If you love precision varmint rifles to the exclusion of all else, if a shotgun meets your criteria of the only gun for a gentleman game shooter, better turn to the next article, bud, ‘cause I’m a handgun man.


Before you start feeling sorry for me, let me do some bragging. During my 30 years as shooter and hunter, I’ve bagged a lot of game. Most of these animals were, of course, in the varmint category, although I have collected a few heads of the big stuff. Mostly I have used the sixgun.


At the tail-end of the Depression, in the late 30’s, the Texas Panhandle was my home. Chamber of Commerce people call it the Golden Spread now, but in those days it was the Dust Bowl. Drought combined with bad markets to make life intolerable for ranch people whose livelihood depended on grass for their cattle, and rain for their wheat and stock feed.


For some bitter reason, Providence chose this time to explode the rabbit population. Despite the lack of forage, the jacks multiplied into legions that threatened to strip the Panhandle of the last nibble of greenery.  Drives were organized, with safari-type beaters running thousands of the dirt colored hares into wire pens, where they were dispatched with clubs. This made for much newspaper publicity, but the drives were hard to put together and too much work to attract regular participants.


To me, Phase II of the Rabbit War appealed much more, and made me a pistol shot. After much deliberation, tight-fisted county commissioners put a two-cent bounty on jackrabbits’ scalps, and it became economically feasible to shoot as much as I liked.


My only gun at that time was a long-barreled Stevens single shot pistol, chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge. It would be illegal, these days, with its detachable, skeletonized shoulder stock, and maybe it was then. As a practical matter, I never used the stock, but simply shoved the Stevens into my belt, dropping a box of .22 Long Rifle hollowpoints in an overall pocket.


Twenty-two shorts cost a dime a box in those hungry days, but I was extravagant enough to prefer the high speed long rifle ammo. Even though the old single shot was worn and loose, it would bring down a buck jack at 20 yards with no sweat, as long as the right ammunition was used. Shorts couldn’t be depended on, and I soon learned the fiscal aspects of rabbit gathering.


Fifty jacks under the 2-cent bounty system grossed one dollar. On dollar would buy about four boxes or 200 rounds, of long rifle hollowpoints. This allowed me a generous quota of misses, along with a few shells left over for bullfrogs, doves, ducks, and other table delicacies. All my shooting was at game. No storebought shells were wasted and I never fired at a paper target until I arrived in Marine boot camp some years later.


This parsimonious use of cartridges stood me in good stead, instilling careful shooting habits. I wanted to hit - I had to hit - with my first shot or the target was off on a loping trip to the next county. Shooting two-handed, and using any available rest, I taught myself the basics of sight picture and trigger squeeze. The inherently short range of my old Stevens taught me to stalk, and to let the hammer down on the unfired cartridge if Br’er Rabbit decided to run. Most were taken inside of 20 yards, and I don’t recall ever trying at over 40, even if I felt lucky.


In 1947 I wintered on a ranch in eastern Colorado. One sub-zero morning I arrived home from a dance. Pulling my 71/2” .32-20 Colt single action from under the car seat, I wearily mounted the stairs to my second floor room. Just as I pulled off my Sunday boots, a terrified squawking came from the direction of the frame building that housed my mother’s white Leghorns.


I jerked loose my frozen window in time to look down on a thickly-furred coyote taking his leave of the premises. He was outlined perfectly against the crusted snow, and carried a shrieking hen in his jaws.


Resting the .32-20 on the window sill, I dropped the big dog with one soft-point Winchester slug in the center of his back. As I was about to close the window another, smaller coyote emerged from the henhouse at a fast trot, slowing to sniff at its mate. One more shot got the second chicken thief, and brought me a chewing out for “shooting in the house” at that time of night.


When I rode for the U. S. Border Patrol, their issue holster arm was the heavy Colt New Service .38 Special with 4-inch barrel. The Service was generous with ammunition, dishing out for or five boxes of .38 wadcutters per man per month in the hope that officers would practice staying alive. I can’t speak for my compadres in the old horse patrol, but my cartridge ration was used to plow under the rock squirrels, hawks, and antelope Jacks that I met in a day’s 20-mile horseback ride.


One warm morning my partner and I were signcutting on the trail of two wetbacks, riding perpendicular to their course up a dry wash near Nogales.


On a cutback 60 yards in front of us perched a big hawk, engrossed in a meal of what turned out to be a plump desert quail. Sliding from my horse, I rested my old New Service on a rock, gripping it with both hands and holding a little high. The Remington 146 grain wadcutter took the bird fair amidships with a solid plunk, making feathers fly. The old hawk glared, ruffed his neck feathers, then flew off over the hill.


This experience sobered me considerably. Like any other hunter, I didn’t relish the thought of crippled game carrying off one of my handgun slugs to suffer a lingering death in the brush. Then, too, if the hardware that I toted for defense purposes wouldn’t do in a three-pound hawk, how adequate would it be on a man target.


In the course of the next few months I acquired a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum with a 5” barrel. A little shooting with factory ammunition showed me that the lead bullet .357 loads were not suitable for my purpose. They leaded the bore so badly as to make accurate shooting hopeless after only a few rounds. I cured this leading bug with the purchase of a Lyman 358156 HP mold, which threw the famous Ray Thompson HP gas-checked bullet.


This bullet shot clean without leading, was extremely accurate, and when driven at Magnum velocities expanded sufficiently to be a sure killer on any solidly hit game animal. For 20 years it has remained my favorite hunting and self-defense bullet.


Sized to .357” and loaded over 13.5 grains of 2400 in .38 Special cases, or 15 grains of 2400 in .357 hulls, this slug has never permitted a single animal to get away from me when I was able to place it in the body area. Loaded thusly to high velocity, and shoots flat enough to require little holdover even at the 100-yard marker.


With the advent of the .44 Magnum, handloaders began putting up high velocity load featuring fast-expanding hollowpoint bullets, either cast or swaged. These slugs are devastating on varmints at any range under 100 yards, when loaded to the full velocity potential of the .44 Magnum.


Out at long range, where velocity has dropped off to the point that expansion is not accomplished, the big forty-fours still punch full-caliber holes that spell clean kills on any small animal. Big, heavy bullets have a distinct accuracy advantage in long range handgun shooting, defying wind drift and frequently splashing up clouds of dust that can be noted. This allows the shooter to mark his misses and use Kentucky windage to compensate for follow-up shots.


Game is slower to become frightened when fired upon from a greater distance. Rabbits, hawks, and prairie dogs will often freeze with bullets striking all around them, as long as the shooter himself is far enough away. The handgunner takes advantage of this trait by marking where his bullets fall and adjusting his sight picture until he lobs a big slug home, much as a combat artilleryman works.


I like being able to utilize my regular .357 and .44 holster guns as stand-ins for varmint rifles. This enables me to carry the same gun daily, yet be properly armed for defense and even big game shooting.


But we live in an age of specialization. Some hunters shoot only varmints. If they’re pistol shooters, they want a varmint shortgun. For a long time, such perfectionist could do little but choose an iron bored for the .22 rimfire and hope for the best.


A dissatisfied segment, wanting higher velocity, flatter trajectory, and the resultant greater destructiveness on small game, started experiments that had interesting results. Choosing heavy-framed revolvers to withstand the higher pressures they needed, these single-minded buckos came up with the sixguns in the centerfire .22 range, once the sole domain of riflemen.


The venerable single action Colt was a favorite conversion. Hundreds of these old thumbusters were turned out chambered for wildcat versions of the .22 Hornet and .218 Bee, making up in the excellent varmint guns with higher velocity than had previously been enjoyed by the chuckbusters.


In the early fifties, the noted pistol smith, Jim Harvey, devised a beautifully machined alteration of the fine S & W K-22 Masterpiece, with the chambers bored out for a shortened, sharp shouldered .22 Hornet case. Christened the .224 Harvey Kaychuk, this was a most excellent varmint pistol. I acquired one, and was amazed at its flat shooting qualities, making hits on jacks and coyotes out to 100 yards and beyond with little or no sight elevation when the revolver’s standard iron sights were zeroed at 50 yards.


They Kaychuk was strictly a hand-loading proposition, but our big companies were becoming interested in the idea. Smith and Wesson tinkered with the K-22 and served up the .22 Jet, a versatile and controversial handgun. Two guns in one, the Jet is chambered for a rimmed .357 case necked down to .22 and corked with a jacketed, soft-nosed bullet. Through the use of metal inserts, a takeoff on the old Marbles “sub-caliber” device, .22 rimfire ammunition may be fired from the Jet, with the shift from centerfire to rimfire ammunition being accommodated by a clever switch on the hammer nose that will deliver the blow of firing pin to ignite the type of ammunition selected.


The shape of the .22 Jet case, often referred to as resembling a milk bottle, has caused problems. When the smallest trace of oil is present in the chamber or the case itself, the fired case reacts much in the manner of the piston of a combustion engine, ramming violently against the recoil shield of the revolver, and frequently tying up the gun.


Another entry into the field was the .256  Winchester Magnum. This cartridge was turned out before there was a production handgun to fire it. All the major revolver makers tried and failed to devise a sixgun that would handle it efficiently, the problems mainly being those of extraction of the fired cases. Only Ruger’s unique single shot, patterned after their fine Blackhawk revolver, was chambered for this round.


Probably the most spectacular, and certainly the most efficient, varmint pistol is the futuristic-looking Remington XP-100. A plastic stocked, bolt-action single shot, the Remington is actually a short rifle, sans shoulder stock, chambered for the .221 which is a shortened version of the tack-driving .222 Remington.


Unwieldy, the Remington nonetheless is the most accurate long range pistol I have fired. Its accuracy is such as to demand the use of telescopic sights to achieve its full potential. When the XP-100 was introduced, I topped one with Bushnell’s 1.3X Phantom scope and found it easy to kill one-pound Texas prairie dogs at 150 yards. With the newer 2.6X version of the Bushnell, it became even easier.


To my mind, these handgun mutations have been carried too far. The XP-100 is efficient. It would be more efficient, and just as handy, if it were fitted with a trim rifle stock and a 16 inch barrel, renouncing its kinship to the handgun family.


The most practical addition to the battery of hunting handgunners in the last ten years has been the revolver chambered for the .22 WMR round. This tiny cartridge, in its hollowpoint version, does a superb job on anything from coons to coyotes, confined to reasonable handgun ranges. At fewer than 50 yards, it is so destructive on rabbit-sized game as to be a little gruesome, and is the frequent choice of professional predator control hunters after big cats and bears.


Smith & Wesson, Colt, and Ruger all make excellent revolvers in the .22 Magnum caliber. When loaded with the full jacketed version of this slug, the .22 Magnum is a fine killer of table game up through wild turkeys. It should not be overlooked by and serious handgun hunters.


Apologizing is a sign of weakness. If you hunt with the handgun, as I do, avoid the necessity of dreaming up alibis. Shoot two-handed, avail yourself to the rest. Equip yourself with the finest target-type handgun you can afford. Load it with ammunition designed to give you the best chance to hit and to kill cleanly. Stalk your quarry to the closest range, pick your shots, concentrate on sight picture and trigger squeeze. You’ll get varmints.


And don’t apologize to the riflemen. The advice in the last paragraph is for them, too—compliments of a handgun man.




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