Fall squirrel hunting with My Ruger .17 HMR rifle

By Bill Cooper
    A few decades ago squirrels were the most commonly hunted small game animal in the United States. Around 1930 roughly two-thirds of Americans lived in a rural setting. Squirrels were plentiful and hard times pressed many a farm into squirrel hunting service to put food on the family table. Most of those farm boys headed to the squirrel woods packing a single shot .22 caliber rifle.

    Much has changed in the near century that has passed since those needy times. Today 97 percent of Americans live on three percent of the land. To most Americans squirrels are now a cute little bushy-tailed rodent that inhabit parks and neighborhood bird feeders. However, there is still a corps of hunter-gatherer types in the country who still relish going to the woods to hunt squirrels. Many of the present era hunters have discovered the great advantages of hunting with the .17 caliber HMR.
    The .17 hit the market about 30 years ago, and quickly caught on with sharpshooters and predator hunters, and eventually squirrel hunters. It is currently one of the most popular calibers for squirrels.
    Ground squirrels are most often considered a pest and can do great damage to crops in some areas. Consequently farmers don’t care for them and classify them as varmints rather than small game. Ground squirrels are generally shot to thin them out rather than to provide meat for the dinner table.
    If you don’t want to eat ground squirrels, then marmot rifles and varmint bullets will do the job nicely. Any rimfire or centerfire varmint rifle from .17 M2 to 6mm Remington is adequate for shooting pesky ground squirrels. Range and wind conditions for the area you are hunting must be considered before choosing a caliber.
    The popular .17 M2 delivers 88 ft. lbs. of energy at 100 yards and shoots flat enough to be effective at that range. The .22 LR in varmint shooting form with 33-grain HP bullets, such as the CCI Stinger and Remington Yellow Jacket loads, delivers a similar amount of energy at the 100-yard range. However, it is a bit limited because of its curved trajectory to a MPBR of around 90 yards. Many shooters use them because they are cheaper but are more sensitive to wind drift than other calibers.
    The .17 HMR and .22 WMR rimfires are popular choices and both do a very good job of killing squirrels as far out as they can be hit. With the .22 WMR that range would equal about 125 yards. The .17 HMR, however, stretches out to about 165 yards. Too, it delivers more energy at that range than the .17 Mach 2 does at 100 yards.
    These facts make the Ruger .17 HMR my favorite squirrel cartridge. A soft recoil and minimal report make it an absolute pleasure to shoot. And the accuracy of my rifle is superb. In fact, the .17 HMR cartridge and the varmint rifles chambered for it are considered by many shooters to be the most accurate of rifle/cartridge combinations now available.
    For most ground squirrel shooting situations a heavy barrel varmint fire is not necessary. Most stand .17 HMR rifles will shoot about as accurately as the more specialized and more expensive varmint rifles. The little .17 cartridge heats barrels very gradually, equating to less importance than on a centerfire rifle.
    Tree squirrels are most often classified as a small game and regulated as such by many state game departments. Standard varmint cartridges are not appropriate for squirrels since they are intended to be table fare. Squirrels are small, fragile creatures and varmint cartridges do too much damage to the carcasses, rendering them useless as food.
    I generally always try to shoot a squirrel in the head. We used to eat squirrel heads, including the brains. These days many considered it unwise to eat animals brains, so I have given them up. Therefore, I shoot them in the head, as it is going to be discarded anyway. Most of what is left is edible, after butchering, of course.
    Ammunition for the .17 HMR are a good bit more expensive than .22 long rifle cartridges, but not enough to make them impractical to use for squirrels. I had much rather to shoot the .17 HMR, because to is very fast and flat shooting. A .22 with a scent scope is only good to about 75 yards. A .17 HMR equipped with good scope is capable of killing squirrels at much greater distances. It will shoot one at 100 yards easily. I have a friend who regularly kills squirrels at 150 yards with his .17 HMR.
    I have a very good white acorn crop on my place as well as black hickory nuts. Squirrels moved onto my place in mid-August to begin cutting the hickory nuts. Just as they were fishing up the hickory nuts, the white oak acorns had matured enough for squirrels to begin feeding on them.
    I much prefer cooler weather to hunt squirrels. By the first of October mornings have cooled considerably making time in the woods much more tolerable. Bugs, ticks, and mosquitoes have about run their course. The only real aggravation is lots spider webs, but I can tolerate them for a short morning squirrel hunt.
    I like finding a big white oak with plenty of acorn still on the tree. I can sit on the ground quietly near the chosen tree. Usually within 15 minutes squirrels will begin to move again. Then it is a matter of getting a squirrel in the crosshairs of my scope, while waiting for the animal to get in the clear, away from branches and leaves.
    The .17 HMR is quiet enough that many times other feeding squirrels will not run at the report of the rifle. However, it they do run, they will resume feeding in short order, offering yet another chance to take a head shot.
    Shooting a squirrel in the head at 75 yards is very satisfying. Too, hunting squirrels with a small caliber rifle is great practice for deer season.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award winning outdoor writer and inductee of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Outdoor Communicator. He is the host of the Living the Dream Outdoors Podcast, which can be found on most social media platforms. He lives in rural St. James and can be followed at www.facebook.com/ outsidealways.