Have you ever been to a good, old-fashioned rat killin'?
Once upon a time, this was a highly anticipated activity if you lived in a rural area. Bear in mind, this was before the wonderful internet and in an era when folks didn't walk around glued to their smartphones, oblivious to the world around them.
Rats and mice are of course very destructive pests around a farm (or any residence), and really the only way to deal with these varmints is to send them to rat heaven. A planned and organized rat hunt on a farm was sometimes quite an affair, much like a good dove shoot or other social gathering. Usually the farmer would single out a specific building or area to concentrate on, such as the barn, tool shed or a granary.
Once the troops were in place, the mission often began with moving stacks of feed sacks, pieces of machinery, tools or anything the rodents might hide under. The rats then began to scurry, and in the close confines of a corn crib or storage area of a barn, it could get quite lively. There was generally a lot noise and yelling about a rat getting away, and the close work was usually done with some form of club or other blunt instrument.
Firearms would sometimes come into play — away from the main crowd for safety's sake. This was usually a .22 rifle, sometimes with solid ammo, sometimes with rat shot. If the rat escaped the main fray in the center of the invasion, those with a .22 were allowed to fire at the rat when he reached an area deemed safe for shooting. Although sometimes a lot of rats would escape, the farmer could usually bring the rodent population down to a more acceptable level.
I have often thought these exterminations of yesteryear may have been the beginning of the modern-day varmint hunter.
There was a time when most people hunted deer, rabbits, pheasants or ducks. You didn't hear as much as specifically hunting for what were considered nongame animals, such as groundhogs, crows or coyotes. By the late 1960s, this started to change, someone coined the term "varmint rifle" and the race was on.
The modern varmint rifle no doubt evolved from bench-rest competition rifles. The first varmint guns had heavy, blocky stocks, large-diameter barrels and telescopic sights sometimes as long as the barrel. The varmint rifle had the same goal as the bench-rest gun — hitting small targets at long distances. A varmint rifle became known for employing small calibers (usually .22) with a lot of speed. The varmint hunter wanted the rifle to shoot "flat," meaning with as little arc as possible between the muzzle of the barrel and the target, sometimes at extreme distances.
This quest for fast, flat-shooting calibers led to the development of several new calibers and is still happening. When hand loaders and rifle enthusiasts develop a new cartridge not available commercially, it is known as a wildcat cartridge. Some wildcats lay around for years before enough interest is generated for an ammunition company to take notice and produce them for sale to the public.
One such cartridge is the .22/250 (my personal favorite), which for years was the darling of many varmint hunters. The original work on the .22/250 (derived from the old .250/3000 cartridge) was done in the 1930s, and it lay dormant until 1963, when Browning made a bold step of producing a factory rifle in this caliber. Remington followed two years later with a Model 700 rifle and a line of ammunition with the company name, the .22/250 Remington.
Many other rounds of ammunition considered to be in the same arena were developed over the years, including the .222, the .222 Magnum, the .225 and the .220 Swift. Some of these calibers have gone by the wayside and have made way for varmint rounds in recent years such as the .17 HMR and the .204 Ruger.
The .17 HMR (Hornady Magnum Rimfire) was developed by the ammunition company Hornady in 2002 and is basically the old .22 magnum round-necked down to .17 caliber. Several gun manufacturers now offer rifles in the .17 HMR, and one you might want to check out is the Savage A17. The A Series of rimfire rifles from Savage feature a rotary magazine, efficient blowback action, and the Savage AccuTrigger. I found the A Series rifles to function well and fire accurately.
The scope on a varmint rifle is just as important as the gun, because once again we are trying to hit small targets at a long distance. For the Savage A17 — or any other rimfire rifle — consider the Bushnell Rimfire Optics line of scopes. Among other features of these optics is a Bullet Drop Compensator turret on the scope, which allows you to have preset hold over aiming points for the load you are shooting, a real advantage for the groundhog or coyote smirking at you from 200 yards.
The varmint rifle world has come a long way in the past 50 years, a long way from an old bolt-action, single-shot .22 in a corn crib.
Just don't hold it against me if I said I would still like to go to a good rat killin' somewhere.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.