Skip to main content

Best Rifles for Small Game Hunting

You've got options when it comes to hunting small game. Let's break them down!

Best Rifles for Small Game Hunting

The .17 HMR is a great cartridge, and Boddington uses it a lot. It’s more destructive than necessary for edible small game, and in his opinion tops out at fox-sized game. This is a Cape fox, taken in Namibia with a Marlin bolt-action in .17 HMR.

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!

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

B&C Typical Mule Deer

B&C Typical Mule Deer

Doug Burris Jr's typical mule deer taken in 1969, could just be one record that will never be broken.

Sighting In the CZ .557 Carbine

Sighting In the CZ .557 Carbine

Kevin Steele sights in his CZ .557 carbine rifle that he plans to use on a Colorado elk hunt.

Best Whitetail Shot Placement with a Rifle

Best Whitetail Shot Placement with a Rifle

Craig Boddington breaks down where hunters should aim on a whitetail that provides the best possible margin for error.

Moon Phase Rut Tips

Moon Phase Rut Tips

John Dudley, technical writer and host of Nock On TV discusses why it's imporant to follow moon phases for the rut.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

We evaluate the 6.5 in a real-life case study. Is The 6.5 The Perfect Hunting Caliber? Ammo

Is The 6.5 The Perfect Hunting Caliber?

Mike Schoby

We evaluate the 6.5 in a real-life case study.

Is lever action dead? Not by a long shot.The Return of Lever Action Rifles Guns

The Return of Lever Action Rifles

Craig Boddington - May 26, 2020

Is lever action dead? Not by a long shot.

A new wave of allergies threatens to turn hunters into vegetarians; learn more about this tick-transmitted problem.Ticks Making People Allergic to Meat News

Ticks Making People Allergic to Meat

David Hart

A new wave of allergies threatens to turn hunters into vegetarians; learn more about this...

Are predators really to blame for declining deer numbers? The answer might surprise you.Do Coyotes Really Affect the Whitetail Herd? Conservation

Do Coyotes Really Affect the Whitetail Herd?

Jeff Johnston

Are predators really to blame for declining deer numbers? The answer might surprise you.

See More Trending Articles

More Guns

Traditionally stocked rifles are regaining ground in a market flooded with plastic.Traditional Wood Stock Rifles Regaining Ground Guns

Traditional Wood Stock Rifles Regaining Ground

Keith Wood - June 29, 2020

Traditionally stocked rifles are regaining ground in a market flooded with plastic.

Mossberg's accurate Patriot Predator is the most affordable way to harness the power of the 6.5 PRC.Mossberg Patriot Predator 6.5 PRC: Rifle Review Guns

Mossberg Patriot Predator 6.5 PRC: Rifle Review

Brad Fitzpatrick - June 26, 2020

Mossberg's accurate Patriot Predator is the most affordable way to harness the power of the...

We pick the best guns and ammo from our giant Gear Issue.Top Firearms & Ammunition of 2020 Guns

Top Firearms & Ammunition of 2020

Petersen's Hunting Editors - July 31, 2020

We pick the best guns and ammo from our giant Gear Issue.

A made-in-the-USA straight-pull rifle that may change the way American's hunt.Review: The Savage Impulse Guns

Review: The Savage Impulse

Jeff Johnston, Contributing Editor

A made-in-the-USA straight-pull rifle that may change the way American's hunt.

See More Guns

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save.

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Petersen's Hunting App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Petersen's Hunting subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now