Category Archives: Hunting

.204 RUGER: THE BEST VARMINT CARTRIDGE? By Craig Boddington

It was a perfect setup for prairie dogs; we had a big shade tree to our left, three of us in line on portable benches, with a big colony stretching away before us. Stephen Shen was on the left, Gordon Marsh in the middle, me on the right. Interestingly, all three of us were shooting the .204 Ruger cartridge: Stephen a Savage 116, while both Gordon and I were shooting Ruger No. Ones, his in blue/walnut and mine stainless/laminate.

Left to right: .17 Remington, .17 Remington Fireball, .17 Hornet,
The .17s run from very fast to “medium” and all are useful but, in common, the light .17-caliber bullets hold up poorly in wind. Left to right: .17 Remington, .17 Remington Fireball, .17 Hornet,

It wasn’t universal; Bill Green was off the right, popping away and having a ball with a semi-auto .17 HMR . This was Gordon and Bill’s annual prairie dog shoot out of Cheyenne, hunting with Craig Oceanak and Nick of Timberline Outfitters. It was my second shoot with them; for Stephen, CEO of Vector Optics, his first ever. We had other rifles, .223s and .22-250s. However, except for Bill, who clung to his .17 HMR and walked in some amazing shots, the .204s did the majority of the work.  There are many excellent varmint cartridges, so it struck me as unusual that three among our foursome were shooting .204s…but I think we made good choices.

The various .22 centerfires are the classic varmint cartridges—but only a few have become popular. Left to right: .22 Hornet (1930); .222 Remington (1950); ,220-250 (1965); .220 Swift (1935); .223 WSSM (2002).
The various .22 centerfires are the classic varmint cartridges—but only a few have become popular. Left to right: .22 Hornet (1930); .222 Remington (1950); ,220-250 (1965); .220 Swift (1935); .223 WSSM (2002).

When I say “varmint cartridge” I’m thinking rodents that eat grass and dig burrows, and thus cause problems for farmers and ranchers. Woodchucks in the East; prairie dogs, rock-chucks, ground squirrels and gophers in the West. Developing cartridges and rifles for this class of pest is primarily an American phenomenon, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.

The .204 Ruger is readily adaptable to the AR action and is chambered by numerous manufacturers. This super-accurate AR in .204 Ruger was made by MGA in Spring, Texas.
The .204 Ruger is readily adaptable to the AR action and is chambered by numerous manufacturers. This super-accurate AR in .204 Ruger was made by MGA in Spring, Texas.

The requirements are simple: Accuracy, range, and minimal recoil. Accuracy because we’re dealing with small targets. A ‘chuck is comparatively large, but an upright prairie dog is only a couple inches across. A “one-MOA” rifle is thus a 200-yard prairie dog gun. One-half MOA is really the starting point. Ranging capability does depend on how you go about it. The rim-fires are great fun for short-range work…and stalking the edges and shooting from field positions with center-fires is excellent training. But if you set up from deliberate shooting positions and try to reach out several hundred yards, fast, flat-shooting cartridges are essential.

My Ruger No. One .204 Ruger in stainless and laminate regularly turns in half-inch group with both 32 and 40-grain loads. Although a bit slower, I prefer the 40-grain load because the heavier bullet holds up better in wind.
My Ruger No. One .204 Ruger in stainless and laminate regularly turns in half-inch group with both 32 and 40-grain loads. Although a bit slower, I prefer the 40-grain load because the heavier bullet holds up better in wind.

In a big ‘dog town you might shoot steadily all day, with numerous breaks to cool and clean barrels. When I was a kid, I did a lot of prairie-dogging with a .264 Winchester Magnum—but it’s silly to take that much pounding. The 6mms and .25s remain excellent crossover cartridges: Varmints with lighter bullets, big game with heavier bullets. Power is not an issue; at close range the .22 LR is plenty good for the job.

We all have our favorites, but without question these are the three most popular centerfire varmint cartridges, all made by numerous manufacturers and readily available: Left to right: .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington
We all have our favorites, but without question these are the three most popular centerfire varmint cartridges, all made by numerous manufacturers and readily available: Left to right: .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington

However, the biggest problem with cartridges above the .22 center-fires is even that modest amount of recoil makes it impossible to call shots through the scope. This is especially important in the windy West. As range and wind effect increase, not every shot will hit. The ideal situation is to observe the strike through the scope and correct. You can’t do this while you’re lost in recoil! I’ve often said that prairie dogs are great teachers, both for precise shot placement and for calling wind. The buddy system works, taking turns spotting and shooting—but you’ll learn more if you can call shots through the scope and make your own corrections.

Velocity is important in a versatile varmint cartridge, but extreme speed isn’t everything! Few factory loads break 4000 fps, mostly with lighter bullets. Left to right, these are most of the modern 4000 fps merchants: .17 Remington (25 gr.); 204 Ruger (34 gr.); .22-250 (40 gr.); .223 WSSM (40 gr.); 220 Swift (40 gr.); .243 Winchester (55 gr.).
Velocity is important in a versatile varmint cartridge, but extreme speed isn’t everything! Few factory loads break 4000 fps, mostly with lighter bullets. Left to right, these are most of the modern 4000 fps merchants: .17 Remington (25 gr.); 204 Ruger (34 gr.); .22-250 (40 gr.); .223 WSSM (40 gr.); 220 Swift (40 gr.); .243 Winchester (55 gr.).

We have multiple choices, and the arguments for one cartridge versus another are actually pretty thin. The little .22 Hornet, introduced in 1930, was probably the first center-fire intended for varminting. It retains a following and I love it—but with modest velocity it’s limited in range. Introduced in 1935, the .220 Swift was the first commercial cartridge to break 4000 fps—and it’s still among few that do. Accurate as well as fast, the Swift still has fans, but for many years the .22-250 has been the most popular fast .22 center fire.

Gordon Marsh marks a prairie dog for Stephen Shen. Spotting for your buddies is half the fun of a prairie dog shoot, but the learning curve is steeper if you can call your shots through the scope. The .204 Ruger allows this; the fastest .22 centerfires have a bit too much recoil.:

In the 1930s there were several wildcats based on the .250 Savage case necked down to .224-inch. The most common was a 1937 version called “.22 Varminter,” legitimized by Remington in 1965 as the .22-250 Remington. The .22-250 isn’t as fast as the Swift, but close, and is very accurate. Other fast .22s have included the .224 Weatherby Magnum, .225 Winchester, and .223 WSSM, but the .22-250 is today’s preferred long-range varmint cartridge.

Wholesale Hunter’s Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. A great varmint rifle isn’t just the action and cartridge! Also needed is a good, clear scope with plenty of magnification and a sweet trigger. Marsh modified this Ruger with a crisp, light Jard trigger
Wholesale Hunter’s Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. A great varmint rifle isn’t just the action and cartridge! Also needed is a good, clear scope with plenty of magnification and a sweet trigger. Marsh modified this Ruger with a crisp, light Jard trigger

If there’s a problem with the .22-250, it’s simply that, unless gun weight is fairly extreme, there’s just too much recoil to call shots through the scope. So, over the years, many of us have consciously sacrificed velocity and range and used milder .22 center-fires. Developed by Remington’s Mike Walker as a bench-rest cartridge back in 1950, the mild and super-accurate .222 Remington filled this niche perfectly. Its lack of popularity today is coincidental. In the late 1950s the U.S. Army was looking for a smaller-caliber military cartridge. The .222 Remington didn’t have quite the velocity they wanted, so the .222 Remington Magnum was created with a longer case. It wasn’t popular as a civilian cartridge and wasn’t adopted by the military, losing out to the .223 Remington.

: I like to spend at least part of my time in a prairie dog town shooting from field positions. Misses increase, but the training is invaluable! Here, I’m shooting sitting with the .204 over a tall bipod
: I like to spend at least part of my time in a prairie dog town shooting from field positions. Misses increase, but the training is invaluable! Here, I’m shooting sitting with the .204 over a tall bipod

The .223 (5.56x45mm) is also based on the .222 Remington, with a lengthened case and shorter neck. We could argue that the .222 Remington is the more accurate cartridge, and the .222 Remington Magnum is faster. But what’s the point? As our military (and NATO) cartridge, the .223 Remington/5.56x45mm is today’s most popular center-fire cartridge, and it’s a marvelous varmint cartridge.

Vector Optics’ Stephen Shen on a portable bench with his Savage 116 in .204 Ruger, of course with a Vector high-range variable scope. Inexpensive, accurate, and with a great trigger, Savage offers several variations of excellent heavy-barreled varmint rifles.
Vector Optics’ Stephen Shen on a portable bench with his Savage 116 in .204 Ruger, of course with a Vector high-range variable scope. Inexpensive, accurate, and with a great trigger, Savage offers several variations of excellent heavy-barreled varmint rifles.

With a 55-grain bullet at about 3300 fps it’s effective on small varmints to at least 300 yards, and even in a fairly light-barreled rifle it’s mild enough to call shots through the scope. New contenders such as the .22 Nosler and Federal’s .224 Valkyrie will also run through the AR15 platform and offer more velocity. We could also argue that they are “better” cartridges…but it remains to be seen if they can approach the .223’s popularity.

Stephen Shen of Vector Optics, Boddington, and Gordon Marsh of Wholesale Hunter on a fine Wyoming morning with a huge prairie dog town stretching away behind us! All three of us used the .204 Ruger as our primary rifles, in my opinion one of our very best varmint cartridges.
Stephen Shen of Vector Optics, Boddington, and Gordon Marsh of Wholesale Hunter on a fine Wyoming morning with a huge prairie dog town stretching away behind us! All three of us used the .204 Ruger as our primary rifles, in my opinion one of our very best varmint cartridges.

Australian fox hunters created .17-caliber center-fires because the light bullet wouldn’t exit, thus minimizing pelt damage. In 1971 Remington necked down the .222 Remington Magnum to create the .17 Remington, a 4000 fps-cartridge with bullets up to 25 grains. The .17s are useful, and today we have choices, from rim-fires up through the .17 Hornet, .17 Remington Fireball, and the granddaddy .17 Remington. Accuracy can be astounding and there’s plenty of power for prairie dogs and such, although I question the milder .17s on coyotes. The big problem: The .17-caliber’s light bullets just don’t hold up in wind!

 

The .20-calibers, bullet diameter .204-inch, are a recent development, spawned by good old American wildcatters in the 1990s. There are a number of wildcat and proprietary .20-caliber cartridges, but the .204 Ruger is the only factory .20-caliber. Introduced in 2004 as a joint project between Hornady and Ruger, the .204 is based on the .222 Remington Magnum case.

 

The theory is to split the difference between the .17s and .22 center-fires…and the actual result, to me, offers the best of all worlds. Again, we’re talking the specialized world of varmint cartridges. The .20-caliber doesn’t offer the heavy-bullet flexibility of the .22 center-fires for larger game. They are certainly effective on fur-bearers up to coyotes, but don’t minimize pelt damage like the .17s. Also, the faster .17s are prone to rapid fouling; the .20s are not.

 

The .204 Ruger took off fast. All major manufacturers load it, with bullet weights from 24 to 45 grains. At about 34 grains and lighter the .204 Ruger reaches or exceeds 4000 fps. I’m not usually quick to pick up on a new cartridge—especially in an unfamiliar bullet diameter! My usual mantra is (grumble, grumble): “We’ve got enough calibers and cartridges!” A Ruger No. One in .204, stainless and laminate in heavy-barrel configuration, came in as a test rifle. I was impressed enough to buy it and, nearly 15 years later, it remains my go-to prairie dog rifle.

Here’s what I like about the .204: Accuracy is consistently good with all loads. My preference is the 40-grain load, not the fastest at 3900 fps, but with that heavier bullet it holds up in wind better than the faster, lighter bullets. More importantly, it seems to perform about as well as the .22-250 at similar velocities with varmint bullets from 50 to 55 grains. Most important: With the lighter bullet and heavier barrel (smaller bore equals more steel for equal barrel diameter) it has less recoil than a .22-250, so I can easily call shots through the scope.

 

Requirements for an ideal varmint cartridge are simple: Accuracy, velocity, shoot-ability. If I had to cut down to just one, it’s the .204 I’d hang onto!

TO TRAVEL WITH FIREARMS …By: Craig Boddington

At the airport on the way to Argentina: Duffel bag, gun case, and carry-on. A gun case automatically means you’re traveling heavy; overweight baggage charges are part of the deal when you travel with firearms.
At the airport on the way to Argentina: Duffel bag, gun case, and carry-on. A gun case automatically means you’re traveling heavy; overweight baggage charges are part of the deal when you travel with firearms.

Just recently I got back from a “mixed bag” hunt in Argentina: where I did some wingshooting, deer, and water buffalo hunting. I took an over/under Blaser 12 gauge; and a Blaser R8 with .270 and .375 barrels. At this moment I’m on an airplane, headed toward Cameroon. I do not have a gun case in the cargo hold; I’ll be using a “camp gun.” In this article I will be discussing the pros and cons of flying with and without  firearms while traveling to hunt.

Mindsets vary. If you’re a hunter who views a firearm as an essential tool, then, so long as a suitable tool is available, it may not be important for you to bring a favorite firearm. On the other hand, if you’re a “gun guy,” it may be important for you to bring a firearm you consider perfect for game you’re hunting. Destinations vary. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to bring guns; other times it’s a major hassle, but still possible. And there are places where the hunting is great but it is not possible to bring a firearm. You simply must use whatever is available.

I’m both a hunter and a “gun guy.” Given a sensible choice I prefer to bring my own. However, I’ve hunted several places where bringing a firearm isn’t possible. That’s easy: I’ll use whatever is available! Where decisions get hard are situations where practicality and convenience enter in. Essential to consider: Game and hunting conditions; and what firearms are available?

ARGENTINA AND CAMEROON

Hunting partners Gary Wells and Heather Smith elected to use camp rifles and save the hassle. They did fine; Gary’s stag is a lot bigger than mine! This huge red stag was taken with outfitter Marcelo Sodiro’s McMillan .300 Weatherby Magnum…pretty good “camp gun.”
Hunting partners Gary Wells and Heather Smith elected to use camp rifles and save the hassle. They did fine; Gary’s stag is a lot bigger than mine! This huge red stag was taken with outfitter Marcelo Sodiro’s McMillan .300 Weatherby Magnum…pretty good “camp gun.”

My two situations, Argentina and Cameroon, although quite different, are good examples that led to different decisions. Argentina is the largest destination in the world, up to 20,000 foreign hunters per year. Their police and customs officials are no strangers to firearms. Foreign hunters can get temporary permits on arrival, or in advance at the nearest Argentinean consulate. It isn’t really a problem, but there are costs: Their government charges for the permit and your outfitter will probably charge to help expedite the permit. If you are flying to various places around Argentina, you must check the firearms in and out with the local airport police with every transition—much like South Africa. It is not a problem, but it’s a hassle. My hunting partners, Heather Smith and Gary Wells, elected to use camp firearms…and they had to wait for me in every airport!

I was filming, so using sponsor firearms was essential. But, absent compelling justification, there is no reason to bring firearms into Argentina! Outfitters there have good guns. Bird lodges have racks of shotguns, usually Benelli and Beretta. Big-game areas will have well-scoped bolt-actions in appropriate cartridges. I used my guns while Gary and Heather borrowed; at the end of the hunt we were all equally successful.

In Argentina I carried a .270 and .375 barrel for my Blaser R8. As expected, the .375 barrel was used just once to take this water buffalo. These water buffaloes are huge and I needed the .375…but in this camp they had sturdy CZ .375s available for use.
In Argentina I carried a .270 and .375 barrel for my Blaser R8. As expected, the .375 barrel was used just once to take this water buffalo. These water buffaloes are huge and I needed the .375…but in this camp they had sturdy CZ .375s available for use.

Cameroon is a different deal. I wanted to take the perfect rifle, and had my heart set on a 9.3x62mm from Montana Rifles. I could have…but the only way to get a gun permit is through their Washington embassy and I ran out of time. Outfitter, Phillippe Bernon suggested (politely) that they had three good scoped .375s available: A Blaser R93, a CZ, and a Sako. This is a forest hunt. The range will be close, a .375 is fine. I decided it wasn’t worth it to fight city hall. I don’t even know which of the three I will use…but it really doesn’t matter.

TRAVELING WITH FIREARMS…

A hard case has to be sturdy with all hinges intact…and all lock holes must be filled with locks. I disassemble my guns inside the case and add a gun lock…the idea is to make the security folks as comfortable as possible.
A hard case has to be sturdy with all hinges intact…and all lock holes must be filled with locks. I disassemble my guns inside the case and add a gun lock…the idea is to make the security folks as comfortable as possible.

Anywhere in the world the most important thing is to know the rules. Within the United States it’s simple: In checked baggage, sturdy gun case, unloaded, disassembled if possible, all lock holes in the case filled with locks. Ammunition cannot be in the gun case, but can be in other checked baggage. The magic litany: “In original factory containers, less than 5 kilograms (11 pounds).” Always check the airline’s website for any special rules, and for sure announce firearms and ammunition when you check in. Here’s the first caveat: The rules change! Some carriers will not carry firearms. Period, end of story. Make damn sure!

Traveling outside the U.S. is more complicated. Basic rules are similar, but the check-in agent has the obligation to ensure that your firearm can enter your destination country. So, if a temporary permit is needed, do it in advance and have a copy…or make certain it’s right there in black and white (in the airline regulations) that you can obtain a temporary permit on arrival (Argentina, Canada, Namibia, and South Africa are popular examples of this situation).

Inside the U.S. ammo can be in a checked bag separate from the guns but elsewhere in the world it’s more common to check it separately in its own lock case. I’ve used this lockable ammo can for years; it starts unlocked in my duffel bag but can be locked and checked when required.
Inside the U.S. ammo can be in a checked bag separate from the guns but elsewhere in the world it’s more common to check it separately in its own lock case. I’ve used this lockable ammo can for years; it starts unlocked in my duffel bag but can be locked and checked when required.

Ammo is another story. In the U.S. you can technically put ammo in checked baggage separate from firearms. In much of the world ammunition is checked separately in its own locked container. Here’s what I do: My ammunition is packed in a small “military-style” ammo can…with a hasp and padlock in the can to be used when needed. I start with the ammo can unlocked in my duffel…but I can lock it, and check it separately as needed. Checking ammo separately in a locked container is standard throughout much of the world.

This U.S. Customs Form 4457, obtained by bringing your (cased!) firearm to any Customs office. There is no record kept, but it serves as a “U.S. gun permit” elsewhere in the world. Previously this form was valid as long as you owned the firearm, but today most of them have expiration dates in the fine print in the upper right corner…a current 4457 is essential.
This U.S. Customs Form 4457, obtained by bringing your (cased!) firearm to any Customs office. There is no record kept, but it serves as a “U.S. gun permit” elsewhere in the world. Previously this form was valid as long as you owned the firearm, but today most of them have expiration dates in the fine print in the upper right corner…a current 4457 is essential.

The permit process differs radically in various countries, but your outfitter and a gun-savvy travel agent (highly recommended!) can help. The real magic lies in a little piece of paper called “U.S. Customs Form 4457.” Available at any U.S. Customs office, it’s the same form used to record jewelry, watches, or cameras you’re traveling with…to prove you didn’t buy them overseas. No record is kept, so it’s a silly form…but essential for firearms.

Elsewhere in the world, U.S. Customs Form 4457 generally serves as a “firearms permit” to obtain a temporary permit. The problem is the game is changing. Historically, that magical little form 4457 was good as long as you owned the firearm. Today’s forms are dated with an expiration, fine print, top right corner. So, it’s wise (and in some countries essential for a temporary permit) to get new forms.

Ah, one more caveat. You need to know the rules. Unfortunately, many airline employees and even TSA and U.S. Customs folks don’t know their own rules! Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee liked to say “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Honest, you can’t argue with these people. You can go through various levels of supervisors, but you cannot argue and must be polite! Just now, coming in from Argentina, I got a belligerent inspector who refused to accept a copy of my 4457. That’s a first; it’s a form that no one has a record of, and copies should be fine…but not with this guy. He also insisted they do not expire, so, on this form, he was quite surprised to see, in fine print, “Expiration Date 08/31/2019” in the upper right corner.

The discussion, now calm, got more interesting when I commented that this form served as a “international” throughout much of the world. He insisted that our Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) did indeed “register” firearms and I needed to obtain proper permits. Yes, for certain situations…but in these United States, thank God, we have no nationwide registrations process. You would think U.S. Customs officials would know this—but they do not, and this is not the first time I’ve encountered this. Be polite, get your 4457, make sure it’s current, make copies, and carry the original!

…AND WITHOUT THEM

In 2018 I hunted Congo, one of several places where hunting is good but rifles cannot be brought in. We checked ahead; the outfitter had two Ruger Hawkeyes in .375 Ruger with choice of Aimpoint or low-power scope. Even if we could, there was no reason to bring a rifle.
In 2018 I hunted Congo, one of several places where hunting is good but rifles cannot be brought in. We checked ahead; the outfitter had two Ruger Hawkeyes in .375 Ruger with choice of Aimpoint or low-power scope. Even if we could, there was no reason to bring a rifle.

Trust me, it’s a lot easier to travel without firearms! It’s a relief not to have to schlep the gun case, clear its contents through various authorities…and worry about it! But that depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing. In several places I’ve hunted—Congo, Ghana, Liberia, Peru, Philippines—it’s been impossible to take a firearm so I’ve used what is there. Other times, like this hunt in Cameroon, it’s been too difficult. However, it depends on where you’re going. North America is rarely an issue; there are usually suitable firearms available. This is also true in Africa, Europe, South America, and South Pacific.

Firearms cannot be brought into Liberia. Rifles are generally illegal, but most of the hunting is at close range in thick forest so shotguns are perfect. On two different Liberian hunts I carried this well-used Mossberg 500…and it never failed. This is a zebra duiker, considered Liberia’s greatest prize.
Firearms cannot be brought into Liberia. Rifles are generally illegal, but most of the hunting is at close range in thick forest so shotguns are perfect. On two different Liberian hunts I carried this well-used Mossberg 500…and it never failed. This is a zebra duiker, considered Liberia’s greatest prize.

The biggest problem is Asia, largely mountain hunting where shots can be far. Flat-shooting, well-scoped, sporting rifles are rare throughout the region. I’ve done a couple dozen Asian hunts and, with just two exceptions, I’ve always brought a rifle. In the Philippines it was legally impossible; we borrowed a worn M14 from the local armory! But that was jungle hunting, where ranges are short. The last time I went to Pakistan I scrambled a hunt on short notice. Like this hunt in Cameroon, there wasn’t time to get a temporary permit, so I used the outfitter’s rifles. Mind you, before committing to the hunt I knew he had good rifles in camp and available.

Perhaps the weirdest “camp gun” I ever used was in the Philippines. Our outfitter had an arrangement with the local military and we “checked out” an M14 with military ball ammunition.
Perhaps the weirdest “camp gun” I ever used was in the Philippines. Our outfitter had an arrangement with the local military and we “checked out” an M14 with military ball ammunition.

No matter where you’re going, that’s a major key: If you choose not to bring your own guns, or you can’t, then you should find out what might be available for you to use. Honestly, you should do this anyway! Even with the best planning there is always the chance your baggage can go astray. Only rarely are guns permanently lost. This has never happened to me and, with heightened security, I think it’s extremely unlikely today. But delays happen and your hunt may be far from the airport; it’s good to know what’s on hand just in case.

The small tropical whitetail is the primary game in Peru. Rifles cannot be imported so “camp rifles” must be used and, for whitetails, must be accurate. This Model 70 in .270 Winchester was just perfect.
The small tropical whitetail is the primary game in Peru. Rifles cannot be imported so “camp rifles” must be used and, for whitetails, must be accurate. This Model 70 in .270 Winchester was just perfect.

Trust me, traveling with firearms is not getting easier! Recognizing this, smart outfitters the world over are “gearing up,” ensuring they have proper firearms to rent or loan. Heck, even though I’m completely left-handed, we keep a couple of decent right-handed rifles at the Kansas farm for hunters to borrow…and they see use every deer season!

Great optics from Zeiss – Craig Boddington

I’m probably not the first person who came up with this, but I’ve long called it Boddington’s First Rule of Optics: You get what you pay for! Sport optics is a very competitive field; there are reasons why Optic A is priced twice (or three times!) as high as Optic B. These reasons include quality of glass, construction, and coatings; and customer service. Now, I’d be the first to say that not every person or application really needs the highest quality.

On arrival at elevation in Nepal the first order of business was to check zero (0113), using a .300 barrel with Victory 3-12x56mm scope. That’s outfitter Mahesh Busnyat holding the target: One shot, good enough, ready to go hunting.
On arrival at elevation in Nepal the first order of business was to check zero (0113), using a .300 barrel with Victory 3-12x56mm scope. That’s outfitter Mahesh Busnyat holding the target: One shot, good enough, ready to go hunting.

Also, and this is important, as you move up and down the scales in optical quality, the differences are subtle. No sales hype can possibly explain the value in the price differential. And, guess what, in a brick-and-mortar gun shop—you can pick up one optic after another and compare, but it’s difficult to really see the difference.

After a lifetime of messing with this stuff I’m convinced the differences are there. Now, there’s no question that, just like anything else, some prestigious brands command higher prices. Back to my First Rule, I believe there are sound reasons why those brands are considered “premium!” As to what are the “best” optics, I won’t take that bait! There are great optics, and a lot of really good middle-priced glass, so good that, again, it’s hard to tell the difference, and plenty good enough for most shooters in most applications. I think most of us could agree that top premium optics include classic European brands such as Leica, Swarovski, and Zeiss. In the way these things shift back and forth, all three have been sponsors of TV shows I’ve been involved in, so I’ve used them all a lot.

I’ve used a lot of other good optics as well. In the weird world of “outdoor TV” we are obligated to use our sponsors’ products, in my writing and on personal hunts; I try not to play favorites! So I have been perfectly satisfied with a wide array of optics. No one can possibly have even passing familiarity with all brands…but one name I’m extremely familiar with is Zeiss.

Carl Zeiss opened shop in Jena, Germany in 1846. They’ve been building binoculars since 1893, rifle-scopes since 1904, and variable power rifle-scopes since 1922. The anti-reflective “T” coating was a 1935 Zeiss innovation that increased light transmission by 50 percent! Today, Zeiss Group is a huge company manufacturing lenses and products with lenses for wide applications: Vision care, photography, microscopes, telescopes, medical applications ,and  more. Zeiss Sport Optics, though important to us and a leader in our field, is a fairly small division.

Top of the line, Zeiss products are marketed under the Victory banner. Like many larger manufacturers, they also offer optics lines at medium price points. For some years this has been the Conquest line. Conquest is  good, Victory is better. Victory should be better because the price differential is significant. I’ve used both lines quite a bit and have been very happy. There are differences, but you have to look pretty hard. Whether the differences are worth the extra cost depends altogether on what you’re doing, and your budget.

The Blaser R8 was introduced in 2009. In the spring of 2010, I was going to Nepal’s Himalayas, then to Romania to hunt European brown bear. It seemed to me a switch-barrel rifle would be perfect for such diverse situations, so I got a Blaser R8 with .300 and .338 barrels. I put a Victory 3.5-10x50mm scope on the .338; and a Victory 3-12x56mm scope, with the Rapid Z 800 range-compensating reticle. As one might (and should!) expect, both scopes were clear and bright, and the adjustments were perfect and perfectly repeatable. Once zeroed, neither has ever changed!

In 2010 I set up a Blaser R8 with a .338 Blaser Magnum barrel, left, and 3-10x50mm Victory; and a .300 Blaser Magnum barrel, right, with 3-12x56mm Victory. The .300 saw its first use in Nepal’s Himalayas; the .338 on a bear hunt in Romania on the way home.
In 2010 I set up a Blaser R8 with a .338 Blaser Magnum barrel, left, and 3-10x50mm Victory; and a .300 Blaser Magnum barrel, right, with 3-12x56mm Victory. The .300 saw its first use in Nepal’s Himalayas; the .338 on a bear hunt in Romania on the way home.

Nepal is sort of a post-graduate mountain hunt; very high, steep, and completely on foot. I did my homework, verifying reticle hash-marks to much farther than I intend to shoot. In the event I drew two difficult shots. The Himalayan tahr was 465 yards, the blue sheep a bit over 500. Both times I had a stiff crosswind, but I read it right and the shots worked. Now, honest, I am not steadfastly faithful to any rifle, cartridge, or scope, but with an inaugural experience like that, both the Blaser and the Victory 3-12×56 scope became a stand-by for mountain hunts.

This excellent Himalayan blue sheep was taken in Nepal with a .300 Blaser Magnum barrel mounted with a Victory 3-12x56mm scope, distance about 515 yards. Both this scope and the Zeiss 10x45 RF binoculars became a favorite combo for mountain hunting.
This excellent Himalayan blue sheep was taken in Nepal with a .300 Blaser Magnum barrel mounted with a Victory 3-12x56mm scope, distance about 515 yards. Both this scope and the Zeiss 10×45 RF binoculars became a favorite combo for mountain hunting.

That scope is a good example of the principle that magnification is over-rated! In the scope world today, 12X isn’t all that strong, but optical clarity counts for more, and it’s amazingly clear. I’ve had other scopes on that Blaser, and the 3-12X Victory has been on other rifles. In 2010 the 3-10x50mm Victory performed perfectly on a nice European grizzly in diminishing light. Since then I’ve moved it back and forth to other rifles (and Blaser barrels), it has also seen a lot of use. That same year, 2010, I got really lucky and won a Zeiss 10x45mm RF range-finding binocular. So, until 2018, I frequently paired this binocular with one of these Victory scopes. Mind you, in that period I also used various rifles with other scopes; including Zeiss Conquest scopes with one inch tubes. They weren’t Victory (nor are they supposed to be), but I always found them to be pretty good glass!

This Eurasian brown bear was taken in Romania in 2010 with a Blaser R8 and .338 Blaser Magnum barrel, topped with a Zeiss Victory 3-10x50mm scope.
This Eurasian brown bear was taken in Romania in 2010 with a Blaser R8 and .338 Blaser Magnum barrel, topped with a Zeiss Victory 3-10x50mm scope.

In 2018 Zeiss revamped their line dramatically. The one-inch Conquest scopes are gone, replaced by two Conquest lines with 30mm tubes: V4 and V6, the former with four-times-zoom, the latter with six-times-zoom. There are six V4 models and three V6, both pretty much covering the spectrum from dangerous game to long range. The Victory line has also been revamped. New is the Victory V8 with eight-times-zoom! There are four V8 Victory rifle-scopes, all with 36mm tubes, ranging from 1-8x30mm to 4.8-35x60mm.

The binocular line was similarly updated, with three tiers or price points. Terra, the entry-level Zeiss binocular, Conquest in the middle, and Victory the top of the line. Of a particular interest to me, the 10×45 RF range-finding binocular has been replaced with four new RF binoculars, including on-board ballistics calculators that interface with the new Zeiss Hunting app.

These are sweeping changes, with product still working through the pipeline. I knew nothing until summer of ’18, when I had a chance to see some of the new product. Problem was I was only a month away from a major hunt in Mongolia. It’s fun to try new stuff, but it’s also a bit scary; your gut tells you to stick with tried and true stuff. But, it’s part of the job, and, after all, the label was Zeiss.

Zeiss’s Kyle Brown loaned me a Conquest V4 4-16x50mm scope. I am not an extreme-range shooter on game, so I figured the 4-16X would be all I needed…and it’s a nice-sized scope. He was also kind enough to let me use a 10-42 RF binocular. My 10×45 RF is awesome, but it’s a bit heavy; the new 10×42 RF shaves a few ounces and some bulk…and it has the Bluetooth interface

On steel targets I verified aiming point in the Conquest’s ZBR-2 reticle out to 800 yards, and did the same by dialing the turret. The 4-16x50mm scope tracked perfectly, but in Mongolia no shots were beyond 325 yards so I used the reticle.
On steel targets I verified aiming point in the Conquest’s ZBR-2 reticle out to 800 yards, and did the same by dialing the turret. The 4-16x50mm scope tracked perfectly, but in Mongolia no shots were beyond 325 yards so I used the reticle.

So, I mounted the new Conquest scope in a Blaser saddle mount, loaded the free Zeiss Hunting app onto my I-phone, and repaired to the range. (Fortunately, I have good cell coverage there!) I’d be using a .300 Weatherby Magnum barrel with Hornady 200-grain ELD-X. It was simple to put the data into the app. However, the Zeiss hunting app updates for atmospherics: Altitude, barometric pressure, temperature. Thing is, there may not be cell coverage in the middle of nowhere. No problem; I built my ballistics chart based on anticipated altitudes and average temperatures. I verified the hash-marks on the ZBR-2 reticle, and then I hedged my bet by putting the reticle—and its hash-mark values on a big square of duct-tape on my butt-stock.

On the range getting ready for Mongolia in August 2018. I’ve got the Zeiss Hunting app on my smartphone, connected to the 10x42 RF range-finding binocular via Bluetooth, and the 4-16x50mm Conquest scope mounted on a .300 Weatherby Magnum barrel.
On the range getting ready for Mongolia in August 2018. I’ve got the Zeiss Hunting app on my smartphone, connected to the 10×42 RF range-finding binocular via Bluetooth, and the 4-16x50mm Conquest scope mounted on a .300 Weatherby Magnum barrel.

The new Conquest scope came into zero easily and the adjustments were accurate, pure Zeiss. In the best part of a month in Mongolia we hit seven different areas, meaning endless drives and lots of bumping over horrible roads. I checked zero at least five times, and neither the rifle nor scope shifted a bit. The new 10×42 RF binocular was awesome, ranging far and fast. In the field, I must admit I didn’t strain the optics. Thanks to good stalking by the Shikar-Safari team, no shots exceeded 325 yards, but whether sheep, ibex, or maral stag, there were no misses, no tracking, and no lack of confidence.

All in all, I got what I paid for. Great shots, great scopes, and great rifles. It just takes some shopping around and field use to figure out what works best for you and your type of hunts.

Craig Boddington: Extending Your Range in Practice and in the Field

 Range Limits: Longer Than Ever, But Still Not Unlimited
(Craig Boddington)

In recent years I’ve done more long-range shooting than ever before. Ringing steel with relative ease at a thousand yards is not only fun, but also a huge confidence builder.

Years ago I did a lot of prairie dog shooting, which provides a fantastic opportunity for field practice. The target is tiny, and it doesn’t take much wind to blow the bullet clear off the mound, let alone off the varmint. And since prairie dog country is rarely calm, this is a great way to learn to read wind. If you can consistently hit prairie dogs at a couple hundred yards, big-game animals will pose little challenge at considerably longer distances.

Wyoming prairie dogJPG
In years gone by Boddington did a lot of prairie dog shooting. The target is small and the high plains are usually windy; he rates shooting small varmints in open country as some of the very best training for field shooting at distance.

I view range practice similarly. In a range setting, if you can ring steel consistently at 800, 900, or 1000 yards you will gain a lot of invaluable confidence in yourself and your equipment. Shooting targets at extreme range prepares you for field shooting at longer ranges, and shooting at actual distances is the only way to accomplish this. “Extending your range envelope” is a phrase I like. However, I don’t believe ringing steel at long range enables one to ethically shoot at game at similar distances.

Continue reading Craig Boddington: Extending Your Range in Practice and in the Field

Choosing the Right Cartridge – Craig Boddington

CHOOSING THE RIGHT CARTRIDGE… Out of dozens of good ones!
(Craig Boddington)

“Which cartridge for me?” is a question I’m often asked. It may come from someone looking for a first centerfire rifle to get a youngster or spouse started, but just as frequently I am asked, “What should I get next?”

Photo by Craig Boddington
Niece Megan Lurvey had never shot a rifle. We started with a .22 rimfire, then, to introduce her to centerfire muzzle blast, we went to a .204 Ruger. The various varmint cartridges are great for introducing shooters to centerfires, with the .223 the most popular and available.

These are altogether different questions. In both cases, it’s essential to know the intended purpose; for the second question, obviously, I also have to ask what that person already has. Either way, we have so many great cartridges today that’s it’s a bewildering mess! The good news is that there are few wrong answers—no “bad” cartridges make it to factory production, and there’s all manner of overlap and redundancy in power requirements. There are dozens of good “deer cartridges,” only slightly fewer great “elk cartridges,” and so forth.  Continue reading Choosing the Right Cartridge – Craig Boddington