On a recent cold-weather coyote hunt on the Eastern Plains of Colorado, I sat hidden among a sea of tall grass, the sky clear and brisk and the FoxPro call screaming with a jack in distress call. The eerie cries echoed across the open country for at least 10 minutes before, at long last, I saw a pair of ears pop up over the ridge some 400 yards distant. A weary ‘yote, somehow wise to the call and yet unable to resist temptation, crept closer. He stopped at 375 yards as I ranged him in my binos.
With winds gusting up to 15 mph, I was satisfied with my choice of cartridge, a .243 Winchester that more than a few of my buddies have sneered at as too much gun for small predators. I played a little Kentucky windage in my reticle, squeezed off a round, and watched as the dog made one final death spin in the same spot. Not only did that 75-grain Hornady V-Max bullet hold up in the wind, moving just a few inches left, it barely dropped at that distance with a zero of 200 yards.
When it comes to predator cartridges, several factors make for a legendary round. First, it’s got to handle the wind. Second, it’s got to deliver enough stopping power without destroying a pelt. Third, it’s got to be a flat-shooting screamer that can deliver some high-horsepower feet per second. That’s a lot to ask, but these eight cartridges hit the sweet spot. Here’s our look at the best predator cartridges ever made.
1. .243 Win.
Introduced in 1955, the .243 Winchester is by far and away one of the most popular and effective cartridges ever designed. The cartridge is a .308 necked down for a 6mm (.243) bullet, which can be loaded at 105 grains for bigger-bodied animals like deer and elk, or down to 55 grains for a screaming 4,000 fps of varmint vaporizing velocity. For coyotes and similar-sized predators, I prefer the 75-grain Hornady V-Max paired with the Mossberg Patriot, which along with a Lightning Bolt-Action (LBA) trigger offers tack-driving accuracy easily out to 400 yards. It does require the right optic to make long-range shots effective, which is why my Patriot is currently topped by Swarovski’s 2-16x50 Z8i riflescope. The .243 can conquer long ranges and high winds, and it’s reasonably light on recoil. It’s also versatile enough to tackle everything from fur-bearing predators to deer and elk, which is another reason I keep mine handy in the truck year-round.
Mossberg Patriot Scoped Combo (#27931) in .243 Win.
2. .22-250 Rem.
No respectable list of predator hunting cartridges would be complete without the venerable .22-250, which is a popularized wildcat introduced commercially in the mid-1960s. The design is based on a necked-down case from the parent .250-3000 Savage and offers flat shooting and hard-hitting ballistics, perfect for the open prairies on which coyotes and other predators thrive. Accurate out to at least 400 yards, the .22-250 is the most popular of the .22-caliber centerfires and sends a 55-grain projectile at 3,600 fps. Great at handling the wind, delivering stopping power at extreme ranges, and available in several rifle platforms and varmint-capable bullets from 40-70 grains, the .22-250 easily ranks atop our list.
3. .204 Ruger
Introduced in 2004, the .204 Ruger is one of the newer cartridges on this list but has a proven track record for delivering accuracy, low recoil, and fairly lengthy barrel life while still producing velocities above 4,000 fps. It is also the only commercially produced .20-caliber cartridge, making it something of a rarity in the ammo world. The parent case is the .222 Rem. Mag., which is necked down to receive the .20-caliber bullet and features an altered shoulder angle of 30 degrees. Thirty grains of powder will send a 32-grain V-Max bullet downrange at roughly 4,100 fps, which is plenty of octane for distant ‘coyotes or bobcats. The cartridge is pretty readily available in multiple rifles, from bolt guns to AR-type rifles.
New For 2017: MVP Varmint Scoped Combo (#27972) in .204 Ruger
4. .223 Rem.
Based on the availability of this commercialized military round, as well as the number of rifles chambered for it today, the .223 Rem. is one of the most relied-upon varmints and predator cartridges of all time. The .223 was developed in the late 50s as an experimental military round for the Armalite (AR-15) rifle and has only grown more popular since then. Nearly identical to the .222 Rem. Mag., the .223 has a slightly shorter case and makes for an excellent varmint cartridge out to at least 300 yards. Depending on bullet weight and load, it produces velocities around 3,000 fps. A wide range of ammunition is available, too, from 40- to 75-grains and a wide variety of bullet designs. It’s also a great round for the AR-type platform, like Mossberg’s MMR, and is my go-to when blasting away at prairie dog towns all day - not to mention, this firearm offers a CA-compliant model. The MMR can also be customized with lights and lasers for hogs and coyotes were legal to do so, making predator hunting that much more effective and enjoyable.
Mossberg MMR Carbine Rifle (#65074) in 5.56mm NATO/.223 Rem
5. .17 Win. Super Magnum (WSM)
The young buck on the predator cartridge block, the .17 WSM was introduced in 2013 and was developed from a .27-caliber nail gun blank. Launching 20-grain varmint-tipped bullets at about 3,000 fps with virtually no recoil, the .17 WSM is perfect for the fur collector, since it remains lethal out to 300 yards but produces minimal pelt damage. The downside is that it can be more susceptible to wind, which is often cantankerous on the wide-open plains, but even in high winds remains effective out to 200 yards. Rimfire ammunition in .17 WSM is readily available and relatively cheap, making it great for coyotes or a full day of shooting at prairie dogs. I spent several days last year putting the cartridge to work in South Dakota on prairie dog colonies and simply fell in love with it. Inherently accurate with barely any recoil, it’s available in several lightweight rifles and makes for a terrific predator round.
6. 6.5 Creedmoor
If you talk to serious long-range shooters, you’ll hear a lot about various 6.5mm cartridges like the .260 Rem. and 6.5-284 Norma. While popular among a fairly small group of predator hunters, these cartridges lack the popular appeal of many other cartridges. The fate of the 6.5mm bullet all changed, however, with the introduction of the 6.5 Creedmoor, which is almost identical to the .260 Rem. but has in recent years become one of the most popular cartridges around. I took a long-range shooting course at Arizona’s famed Gunsite Academy this year in which we employed the 6.5, and we consistently slapped steel at over 1,000 yards. In South Dakota, I nailed a prairie dog at 902 yards, a feat the kind folks at Swarovski can verify. The 6.5 Creedmoor is another cartridge to consider for overall versatility, low recoil, and flat shots and is highly effective up to elk. The 6.5 sends a 120-grain A-Max bullet at roughly 3,000 fps with 2,500 ft.-lbs. of energy, more than enough stopping power for even the bigger predators, including black bears and wolves.
New For 2017: MVP Predator (#27785) in 6.5 Creedmoor
7. .308 Win.
The parent cartridge to many offspring, the .308 is arguably the most popular big game cartridge on the market today. And for good reason: It delivers nearly the same ballistics as the .30-06 in a smaller case and suitably accepts bullets from 110- to 180-grains. It’s a favorite of long-range shooters and has been around since its military development back in 1952. So why is it on a top predator cartridge list? For one thing, it can handle the bad boys of the predator realm, like black bear, and it’s wildly available at relatively low prices in an obscene number of rifles from bolt guns to AR-type rifles. Second, the .308 must be considered a top predator cartridge simply based on the number of rifles hauled afield and the realization that the best predator round is ultimately the one you’ve got with you at the time. And if you had to have one rifle to do it all, from a bobcat to moose, the .308 would certainly be a top choice. The downsides are going to be recoil and pelt damage, but effectiveness at long range and versatility earn this cartridge a spot on our list.
New For 2017: Mossberg Patriot Predator (#27874) in .308 Win.
8. .17 Hornet
As interest in .17-caliber cartridges has increased, the .17 Hornet has gained in popularity among varminters and predator hunters alike. A necked-down variant of the .22 Hornet, the .17 sends a 20-grain V-Max bullet across the range at 3,650 fps, produces reasonable recoil, and is phenomenally flat-shooting and hard-hitting. It commercially duplicates the performance of P.O. Ackley’s .17 Ackley Hornet, which is over 60 years old. Out to 400 yards, the .17 Hornet has roughly the same trajectory as a .223 Rem. with a 55-grain bullet, and provides longer barrel life than other popular .17s like the Fireball and .17 Rem. A few years back, I shot prairie dogs with this cartridge all day until our hosts at Federal Premium had to pry the rifle from my hands. In terms of performance on prairie dogs, it hits more like the .22-250 than the .17 WSM, thus making it more accurate at distance, while retaining low recoil. Ammo and rifle chamberings are not as easily found as other options on this list, but it’s still one of my favorite predator rounds.