What is the best 22 for rabbit hunting?
There are probably more bullets fired shooting wild rabbits in the UK than at any other species of animal and the vast majority of them will be .22 rimfires. I would further venture to suggest that the majority of those will be sub sonic, shot through a silencer (moderator) for maximum stealth. It’s a marriage made in heaven: just the right ballistic performance to consistently kill quickly, allied to inexpensive, widely available cartridges.
If it has a downside through, it would be its relatively short maximum hunting range. From experience I’ve learned that headshots are the humane way to go and that to make a good one you need to stay within 75-yards. Hitting a 1 ½” target at that distance isn’t easy, especially with a lightweight sporting rifle with a rudimentary stock. These are often very slim and can have a rather short pull length, perhaps better suited to junior shooters learning their skills rather than a large adult.
This made me wonder if a .22lr rifle designed as a target gun, would allow the max range to be stretched by getting a better interface between the rifle and shooter, to make the ultimate long range rabbit shooting rifle. This idea is everywhere now in the full-bore world, where adjustable stocks rule the roost in competitions and some of those oh-so-desirable features have crossed over into the sporting world too.
With this in mind I had a look around at what was on offer and one very interesting model caught my eye. It comes from the ever-reliable Ruger American Rimfire range in the form of their LRT (Long Range Target) model, which ticks a lot of the boxes on my wish list. The obvious thing is the target style stock that has a vertical pistol grip that promotes the very best trigger pull. By placing your hand at 90-degrees to the trigger blade’s movement, you greatly reduce unwanted muscular tension which means that the rifle is less disturbed as the trigger breaks. This alone can be a big help to improving accuracy.
Next, I note that the stock is a good, solid hand full and that the standard 13 ½” pull length can be increased, a feature that will be highly appreciated by taller shooters. On top of this is an adjustable comb that moves in two planes. As you’d expect, it moves up and down, but interestingly it can move fore and aft which is important for shooting prone.
I won’t shoot a rifle today that doesn’t have an adjustable cheek piece, full stop. The improvement in head support, consistency of mounting and better accuracy, mean that it’s no longer an accessory on fancy, high-end models, but an absolute necessity in my eyes for any serious rifle.
I can see that the LRT has little drop to heel, suggesting that it was designed as a prone rifle from the beginning and I feel that anybody looking to stretch the performance envelope of this classic cartridge will be shooting this way. To aid this further, it has a long fore end in which is Ruger’s M-LOK accessory rail, flush fitted along its length. This offers a very secure and stable mount for bipods which are every hunter’s friend in the field. If you’re shooting off the bonnet of your truck, you might prefer to use support bags, but on the move the bipod is the only choice for me when rabbit shooting.
I was pleased to see that the LRT has a decent heft, weighing in at some 8lbs (3.63kg) un-scoped and with no silencer fitted. Weight is your friend for long-range accuracy as is length and at over 40” (103cm) there should be plenty of mass forwards for stability on aim. Unusually for a rimfire, the LRT’s barrel is thick (0.86”, 2.19cm) and long too, with the muzzle being screw cut ½”-28, ready to receive a moderator (silencer). Of course, you could choose a lightweight one, but one with a little heft could further aid stability. I’ll confess that I didn’t know that Ruger hammer-forges it’s rimfire barrels and this one comes with a six land, 1 in 16 right hand twist, with what Ruger describes as their ultra-fine rifling.
Bedding the action perfectly into the stock’s inletting is big news in the centrefire world, but less often discussed for rimfires, but if you’re taking everything to the limit, it’s certainly a worthwhile consideration. Any unwanted movement between stock and action has a negative effect on ultimate accuracy. Ruger understands this and employs their Power Bedding System which is an integral bedding block that can be torqued down on consistently, locking everything securely together.
You can’t shoot what you can’t see, so adding a high-quality scope will be a vital part of long-range performance. Today there are many scopes that offer high magnification and a fine reticle that won’t obscure too much of the rabbit’s head as we aim. Clarity and light transmission will also be very important because the best time to shoot rabbits is often in the evenings. It’s legal to shoot rabbits all year round, so gloomy, overcast winter days also need good optics to make long shots work.
The LRT comes fitted with a one-piece aluminium Picatinny rail very securely bolted to the steel action eliminating any worries about scope movement, should it get knocked in transit. As ever, it will be important to use good quality mounts to lock things down properly as cheap mounts can be the weakest link in the chain.
So, there we have it. A gun capable of delivering good groups at long range but how do you use that ability in rabbit shooting reality? The sub sonic .22lr bullet only flies at just over 1000fps so its trajectory is very curved, therefore understanding just where your shots will land at each distance if the key to success. After zeroing your rifle carefully, the best thing to do is place target cards at 10-yard intervals from 50-yards to 100 and then shoot directly at the bullseye on each one, without making any correction in your aim. The cards will show a full record of just how much the bullets drop and you can then write that information on a card that you can have with you as you hunt.
Next, you’ll need a laser rangefinder that will accurately measure the precise distance to the rabbit as you approach. You can refer to your card to know the adjustment needed then correct your hold by eye, or better still, many modern scopes will allow you to use their elevation adjuster to ‘dial’ the amount you need to be spot-on for that range. This is a very accurate way of shooting and the one I recommend the most. As with many things in life, practise will be the key to learning this technique and I suggest that you become proficient at the range before you take your .22 rifle shooting rabbits.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in any long-range rifle sport, but especially when .22 hunting rabbits, is that you need to learn to ‘read’ the wind, as it always has an effect on where your shots land. Even a gentle breeze will have some input into the bullet’s path, which can be hard for some people to accept but just because you can’t see it, don’t think it’s not a factor. Always think about this on the practise range and learn to understand just how much each wind speed has affected the shot at it hits your paper targets. This is vital information for success in the field.
As for the question of what is the maximum range for .22lr hunting rabbits, only you can answer that, by which I mean that there are many factors that add up to YOUR answer. If you bear in mind that you need to hit a target of around 1 ½” diameter, you’ll see from the target cards that you retrieve from your practise range just how far away that you and your rifle/scope combination can make that happen. Some talented shooters who have done their homework, claim to be successful right out to 125 yards.
UK law is very relaxed and generous when it comes to shooting rabbits, perhaps because they’re one of the biggest pests to farmers across the country. You can shoot them all year round, both day and night provided that you have permission from the landowner and the correct licence for your gun. During the summer the population usually explodes, with millions of young being born, each of which will breed tremendously quickly themselves, which is why one pair can soon become thousands. Because of this, they can eat huge areas of farm crops and valuable grazing which costs farmers millions of pounds a year.
.22lr rabbit shooting is a great sport and provides a valuable service to the farming community. It also provides free-range, organic meat to your dining table. As rifle and optical technologies move on, our ability to reach further in the field has grown too and we’ve never been as well off for technically advanced hunting kit as we are today. If you’ve ever thought about getting into this excellent sport, then now is the time. .22 lr rabbit hunters have never had it so good.