June 2004

Varmint Cartridges: The .22-250 Still Reigns; Ruger’s .204 Is Hot

We put two of the newest small-bore centerfires ó Rugerís .204 and the .223 WSSM ó against one of the oldest cartridges, the .22-250 Remington, and found out the old dog can hunt.

Tech Editor Ray Ordorica particularly liked the .22-250 Savage. He noted that while itís great for factories to bring out new cartridges to keep shooter interest up, often thereís nothing wrong with the old ones, particularly in such a vital package as this Savage Model 12.

The quest for shooting fun takes us down many an odd road. Some think the old standards are the best, while others want something new because it promises at least novelty, if not the Holy Grail of accuracy or velocity or some other desired quality in a rifle. This month we tried out two new varmint-hunting cartridges against one of the old standbys, to see if new was better than, equal to, or worse than the old-timer. Because of the nature of our test rifles, we were slightly more interested in what the cartridges would actually do in terms of velocity rather than in maximum accuracy potential. We could not get three rifles of the exact-same type, because the guns, in at least one case, were so new that only one type had yet been made. We took what we could get. We also doubted some of the claims to high velocity that have been made for the new rounds. While we checked their speed, we’d keep a close eye on accuracy potential, too, within the limitations of the type of rifle tested.

We picked a Savage heavy-barrel .22-250 Model 12 BVSS Varmint for our “old standby” cartridge, and chose a fairly light Browning A-Bolt Hunter in .223 WSSM and a brand-new heavy-barrel Ruger Model 77 in .204 Ruger. The main purpose of all three cartridges is to be able to hit distant targets with little concern for trajectory compensation over the ranges at which the targets are shot. In other words, velocity rules, as far as these rifles’ users would be concerned. Whether or not there was any sound reasoning behind the new rounds didn’t really concern us at the start of this test. Makers like to bring out something new on occasion to increase sales interest, and we can’t really fault them for that. Of course you can buy a rifle chambered for any existing cartridge and with luck and skill, make it perform wonders for you. But you’ll be missing the newest and latest, which may or may not make the wonders come easier. Are the new ones worth a whoop? Let’s take a look at what we found, starting with our baseline gun.

Savage Model 12 BVSS Varmint, .22-250, $696

Stainless steel and laminated wood make a great combination, we think, and Savage’s natural-finished wood and brushed-stainless Model 12 was no exception. The Savage’s heavy barrel was lightly fluted on its forward portion. During our shooting we thought this helped cut mirage, but it was impossible to tell for sure. At the very least, it looked good and broke up the monotony of all that white steel. All metal finish was matte stainless, nicely done. The exception was the bolt body, polished fairly brightly and emblazoned with the Savage name. The laminated stock had beefy dimensions, which we liked. There was enough wood at the pistol grip to let us slide our hand down so the trigger finger contacted the bottom of the trigger, which tends to make the trigger pull seem lighter because of added leverage.

The front of this heavy and attractive stock was capped with a black forend tip, which looked great, we thought. The forend was wide and massive, which gave lots of options for bedding the rifle prior to taking a shot in the field. The stock was fitted with stainless sling swivel studs fore and aft. The firm, dark-red butt pad was well rounded on all edges. It had enough traction to stick well to clothing. The fit of the pad to the stock was outstanding. The inletting was also outstanding, as was the finish on the wood, as well as on the metal. This rifle would not take a back seat to many costing three or four times its price, we thought. It was all rifle, well made and well presented. And we had yet to shoot it.

The 26-inch, 1:12-twist barrel had a recessed crown, and was free floated back to the action. The action had Savage’s standard bolt release, which requires pressing the trigger (with the bolt open) before you can press down on the bolt release. The action tang held a three-position sliding safety, forward to fire. It was a touch crowded, we thought, but adequate. It worked well. The five-round magazine was blind. There was no floorplate. Removing rounds from the magazine required cycling them with the bolt, easily done with the safety in the middle position. We found that this rifle made it very easy to ignore the magazine. Loose rounds laid into the action fed perfectly throughout our shooting. Rounds also fed easily from the magazine, if that was desired.

The trigger was something new to us. This was Savage’s AccuTrigger, which was superficially like a Glock trigger. Within the blade of the trigger proper was a thin, spring-loaded safety blade that the trigger finger had to first compress before being able to contact the main trigger. If the main trigger were pulled rearward without the thin blade being pressed, the rifle would not fire, even though this uncocked the firing pin. But with the finger in the normal position, we found it was easy to adapt to this thin blade. Spring pressure was very light, requiring about 10 ounces to depress the blade against the main trigger. The main trigger had an outstanding pull, light and crisp, breaking at 2.3 pounds including the blade pressure. We believe Savage has come up with the perfect solution to the “lawyer’s trigger” of 5- to 10-pound pulls found on so many new rifles these days. This one was excellent in every way, we thought. Hats off to Savage.

We mounted our B&L 36X scope in Weaver bases and rings, and noted that Savage alone seems to have the right idea here. The useless little screws that most manufacturers put into the scope-mounting holes, even on rifles that must have a scope mounted before shooting them, were absent here. Thank you, Savage. We

tested with four types of ammo

. These were Winchester Supreme 55-grain Ballistic Silvertip, Federal 40-grain Sierra Varminter HP, Hornady V-Max 40-grain Moly-Coated, and Winchester Supreme 50-grain Ballistic Silvertip. We cleaned the bore after every six shots. We did this because the first three Winchester 55-grainers went into 0.4 inch, and the second three went into 1.0 inch. After we cleaned the bore, we fired groups that measured 0.5 and 0.4 inch, so we kept cleaning. The rifle was trying to shoot like a very costly custom target rifle, so we gave it every chance. Average for all groups with the 55-grain Winchester was 0.56 inch.

Next up was the Federal 40-grain ammo, and its light bullet promised high velocity. Writing on the cartridge box claimed 4,000 fps. We got 4,065 fps, and 0.75-inch groups on average. Good accuracy at good velocity, two for two. The Savage was acquitting itself handsomely, we thought. Next up, Hornady’s V-Max 40-grain bullets were supposed to come out at 4,150, and they did exactly that. They also averaged 0.4 inch for all groups. The Savage was performing like very few rifles we’ve tested. Finally we tried Winchester 50-grain Ballistic Silvertips, and we got only 1.0-inch groups. Take note of that. The most disappointing load with this rifle gave one-inch groups on average. How many rifles do you have in your rack that will do as well? We’ve seen darned few.

To say that we liked this rifle would be a vast understatement. This, then, was the standard of performance we’d look for in the other rifles. We had achieved well over 4,000 fps with two loads tested, and both gave excellent accuracy. The 55-grain load, which gave 3,600 fps, was an outstanding performer also. We’re sure that careful handloading would give excellent accuracy with 50-grain bullets of some configuration, if that’s what you want. While the .22-250 is not a .220 Swift, it can exceed the 4,000 fps “barrier,” and in the Savage Model 12 it did so with great style. It remained to be seen how well the new short, fat, Winchester round and the new long, skinny, Ruger rounds would stack up for accuracy and velocity.

Ruger Model 77 Mark II KM77VT, .204 Ruger, $845

This was another very attractive rifle right from the get-go. It had Ruger’s Target Gray finish, and even the included rings came in that color. The laminated stock had a wide beavertail-type forend with a large, flat area. It also had sling swivel studs, though these were blued instead of gray. The sharp-edged and rock-hard butt pad was somewhat slippery against our clothing, but from a solid rest that wasn’t much of a problem. However, Savage got this detail just right and Ruger didn’t. In fact, the fit of the Savage pad was better than Ruger’s. Both, however, were far better jobs than on other rifles we’ve tested recently, which had major portions of the pad standing out in the breeze.

The Ruger had its barrel floated back to the action. The 26-inch barrel was heavy but tapered, with a recessed crown similar to that of the Savage. This long, tapered barrel gave the rifle a graceful profile. Inletting, metal finish and wood finish were all outstanding. The Ruger had a hinged floorplate to permit emptying its five-round magazine. This turned out to be very hard to open, but it’s not something you use all the time. The three-position safety would also permit cycling of the rounds without the need to open the magazine floorplate. The stock at the pistol grip left us feeling something was missing, after our session with the Savage. We slid our trigger finger down to the bottom, but there was not enough stock to support the hand there. Ruger’s stocks have always looked and felt great, but right after shooting a rifle with a generous pistol grip we felt the Ruger could have used a longer pistol grip, no matter that it might not look as good.

The rifle had high enough rings that we could easily mount our 36X Leupold with room to spare. Here we inadvertently had some fun. We forgot to tighten the cross screws that secure the rings and scope to the integral Ruger bases, and they were just finger tight. We didn’t find that out until we had fired two groups of three shots each. The scope adjustments didn’t seem to follow as well as they should have, and that’s when we found the loose mounting screws. The two three-shot groups measured about half an inch. With the scope tight, groups didn’t get a whole lot better. That says something about the light recoil of the .204 Ruger in a heavy rifle, we thought. Recoil didn’t disturb the loose scope very much. Overall average for all shots with the only type of ammo currently available, 32-grain V-Max Hornady, was just over half an inch. Clearly the Ruger will shoot. Plans are for a 40-grain bullet, but we could not get these by press time.

The first thing we noted about the Ruger was that our .22-caliber cleaning rods would not fit. We used a drop-through to wipe the bore preceding and during our testing, but felt the excellent Ruger required an excellent cleaning rod. We phoned George Dewey at Dewey Mfg. and he informed us shooters have already demanded a .20-caliber rod specifically for these new rifles. Our thought was that a .17-caliber rod would work just fine, and it might, but serious shooters and really accurate rifles demand a proper rod, and Dewey now makes one. In fact he makes several, in different lengths. Dewey’s rod is designed for .20 Ruger and .22 rimfire. The company makes a different rod for .22 centerfires. One further suggestion Mr. Dewey made was to use a pistol-length brush in the smaller bores to reduce the force needed to get the brush through the bore, which in turn reduces rod bending and bore rubbing. If we owned the Ruger we would immediately buy a proper cleaning rod for it. Check Dewey’s website at www.deweyrods.com.

At the range there were no big surprises. Bolt operation was very slick. The magazine loaded easily as well, and rounds fed from magazine to chamber easily. There were no problems at all. Ejection was dependent on the bolt-operation speed, the rifle being controlled feed. We noted that rounds laid into the action fed perfectly into the chamber. We noted just the slightest touch of creep in the trigger, and would have liked a lighter pull, and of course more wood at the bottom of the pistol grip as already noted. But like most Ruger products, this one didn’t have any “flies” on it. The Ruger shot well. It was a good rifle.

However, the Hornady bullets did not come out at the velocity stated on the packaging. Velocity averaged 4,060 fps, not the 4,225 fps claimed, making the bullets 165 fps — about 4 percent — too slow. This was early-production ammunition, and we noted in the .22-250 tests Hornady’s velocity claims were right on the money. We’re sure that in the near future the claims and actual velocity will match. The slim ammunition is based on the .222-.223 head size. Company literature says it’s specifically the .222 Magnum that formed the basis for the new round. The report was a bit less loud than that of the .22-250, as far as we could tell.

Browning A-Bolt II Hunter, .223 WSSM, $741

Fitted with a post-plain chunk of indiscriminate wood, the light, portable and handy Japanese-made (Miroku) A-Bolt was not much of an eye-catcher. The checkering was sparse but effective. (Neither other test rifle had checkering, nor did they seem to need it.) The rock-hard, black, sharp-edged butt pad was slightly better than the Ruger’s for traction, and it was well fitted. The metal finish on the angular-actioned little rifle was uniformly matte black, and had very good polish beneath that. The trigger was gold plated.

The bottom of the aluminum trigger guard had the Browning logo in gold. In front of the guard was the very thick and ugly floorplate. This opened with a reasonable amount of pressure on the release button to show a short, fat magazine box that held only three of the short, fat cartridges.

The bolt release was a huge and clumsy-looking button on the left side of the action, standard for the A-Bolt. The safety was a two-position, sliding button on the tang. Pressed forward to the firing position, it revealed a red dot. It was hard to move with wet fingers, we found. When on, the safety locked the bolt closed. The bolt had a cocking indicator that protruded rearward and showed red-filled grooves. Bolt operation was fairly slick, though it took more effort to cock than with the other two rifles, largely because of the three-lug design.

The 21-inch barrel was tapered to a slim muzzle. The crown was crudely cut in the form of a countersink. It was apparently done after the barrel was blued, as there was no finish on the crown area. It made the rifle look like it had a chromed bore, but the bore was blued, so far as we could tell. The barrel was floated back to the action. The pistol grip area was strange, compared with the other two rifles. This one had lots of room and was comfortable, but if you slid your hand down along the grip it moved the trigger finger so far to the rear that it could not touch the trigger. However, on the range we found the trigger angle to be just fine with the hand in a relatively normal position.

The wood finish was dull, and while it filled the wood pores, it did absolutely nothing for the plain grain of the wood. Some of us thought the stock looked like a brown 2x4. Inletting was plenty good enough, however. The trigger pull was excellent, and broke at 4 pounds. We mounted a 12X Leupold in Weaver bases and rings, and proceeded to the range. Incidentally, we thought that 12X scope might be ideal for this type of portable varmint rifle. We tested with three types of Winchester ammunition, the only brand we could get. The bullets were 55-grain Super-X Pointed Soft Point, 64-grain Super-X Power-Point, and 55-grain Supreme Ballistic Silvertip, these latter loads in nickel-plated cases. Velocities were moderate, we thought, with the two 55-grainers coming out at 3,440 and 3,620, the latter being the Super-X PSP ammo. It equalled.22-250 ballistics. These fired cases showed more expansion at the base than the “premium” nickel-cased loads that gave 180 fps less velocity. The 64-grain Super-X gave 3,418 fps.

Unfortunately accuracy was also moderate, averaging 1.5-inch groups for all shots. This is perhaps not bad, considering the light rifle in which we tested these loads and the potential uses to which such a rifle might be put. There is no reason you have to use this cartridge on only the tiniest targets. A heavy-barrel rifle might have shot with greater accuracy, for example, but would be no fun to pack up the side of a mountain for long-range rock busting in secluded areas. We can’t completely fault the A-Bolt for its lack of sub-MOA accuracy, though we thought what it offered was somewhat of a disappointment. We’ve seen other light rifles shoot as well as either of the two heavy-barrel rifles tested here.

The A-Bolt did try to shoot, though. It frequently put two shots of the group nearly touching, with the third shot over an inch away. Simple problem? Maybe, or it might be a serious one. We don’t know. Cleaning after every few shots did nothing for groups.

We really didn’t like the cartridge. The fatness caused a reduction in magazine capacity to three rounds. The top round in the magazine fed reluctantly from box to chamber. We had to work, sometimes, to get it to feed. Despite the huge hole in the back of the chamber, rounds laid into the action loosely also sometimes had a hard time finding their way home. We could see no real advantage to the round, unless the light A-Bolt itself was an example of the short, fat cartridge’s advantage, in that it lets makers build lighter rifles. But there seems to be little need for a lightly built varmint rifle. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to throw this one in with the other two in this evaluation.

Gun Tests Recommends
Savage Model 12 BVSS Varmint, .22-250, $696 MSRP. Best Buy. The Savage was in every way a great rifle. It looked good, had excellent finish on metal and wood, a good-looking and durable stock that gave excellent control to the rifle, an outstanding trigger, and accuracy that most rifles simply never approach. The cost was more than fair, we thought, for value received. What’s not to like?

Ruger Model 77 Mark II KM77VT, .204 Ruger, $845, Buy It. This whole concept seemed to be well thought out and well executed, and we congratulate Ruger and Hornady for a fine match-up. Hornady seems to have a good handle on making tiny but accurate, and apparently well-performing, bullets. Now all they have to do is get the velocity up to snuff, or alter the claims made on the cartridge box.

Even at the velocity achieved, this will be a fine-performing rifle, we predict. But until several bullet makers come out with a variety of bullets for reloaders, we suspect that category of shooters (which means most varmint shooters, and other users of such rifles, we think) will opt for the more-easily fed .22-caliber cartridges. Ruger is offering this caliber in a great variety of rifle configurations including the No. 1, so you’ll have a bunch of choices in front of you. We think the tested rifle will be the most popular of the bunch. It seems to have the most going for it.

Browning A-Bolt II Hunter, .223 WSSM, $741. Don’t Buy. Our thoughts on the A-Bolt were that it was a plain and rather light rifle (7.3 pounds with our 12X scope) with an excellent trigger that gave disappointing accuracy with an unnecessary, though interesting, new cartridge. It also had a relatively high price, we thought. The poor thing didn’t have a whole lot going for it that would make someone want to take it home and give it a nice place to sleep. Someone might want to mess with it to see if the accuracy potential could be achieved.

We didn’t, and don’t really see the justification for such a high-priced rifle with so little to offer. In light of that, we suggest that you Don’t Buy it.