Squirrel Hunting Rifles: Which Is Best For You?

Hunting takes many forms. Thanks to generational traditions, outdoor publications, and even video games, when we think of hunting, chances are it involves chasing big game like deer, moose, bear, hog, and the like. Depending on particular crop or livestock problems in your area, you might be after varmints and predators. Small game hunting is often overlooked despite the fact that it is probably the most approachable and successful way to hunt. Small game animals like rabbits, squirrels, doves, and quail don’t give you the big payoff in the field, but it also doesn’t cost big to hunt them. Your rifle or shotgun need not be the latest, and your scene control need not be perfect.

Small game can be had in remote locations as well as close to home and all of it can often be covered by a basic hunting license. Although all small game has the potential to help you hone your shooting skills on the fly and provide prime protein, the squirrel is probably the most popular and presents their own unique challenges, challenges that can be met by a keen eye, knowledge of squirrel signs, and the right firearm. This overview concerns a few squirrel hunting rifles and their potential benefits and drawbacks endemic to small game rifles more generally.

Squirrel Hunting: Shotgun vs. Rifle

An entire chapter can be dedicated to whether to select a shotgun or a rifle for squirrel hunting. Both methods are legal in most areas. Shotguns have the advantage of having a cone of shot pellets that can be more forgiving if the aim or vision is not perfect. On the other hand, beyond a certain distance, small game can escape a widening pattern, and random pellet hits to the body of an animal can result in some bloodshot meat.

Some hunters are adamant about using a rifle and taking headshots to avoid any meat damage and extend the distance from which they can shoot. However, you have to be mindful of your backstop, as rifle rounds can travel much further than the decaying pattern of birdshot pellets from a shotgun.

Many states allow the use of .32 and .36 caliber muzzleloading rifles, but the go-to rifle both in regulation and in practice is a rimfire rifle, usually chambered in .22 Long Rifle. This list consists of rifles chambered in .22 LR, but versions of these rifles available in .17 HMR and .22 Magnum will suffice if we remember the headshot rule. To keep with the mantra of a low barrier of entry, these rifles have to be competitively priced and sufficiently accurate for the task, although each will have its quirks to keep in mind.

Marlin Model 60

Although it recently left production, over 11 million Marlin Model 60 rifles are in circulation. It is arguably the most popular .22 rifle ever made, and with good reason. This semi-automatic rifle features dual extractors for greater reliability after repeated firing and a bull barrel with Marlin’s Micro Groove rifling, which minimizes damage to the bullet as it travels down the bore.

The Model 60 was introduced in 1960. It had a healthy magazine capacity of 18+1 and a 21-inch barrel. In the mid-1980s, however, the magazine and barrel were chopped to a 15+1 capacity and a 19-inch barrel. All models come with basic iron sights and a 3/8-inch dovetail for mounting a rimfire scope.

marlin model 60
Marlin has made many different bolt-action and semi-auto .22 rifles, all of which will make a handy squirrel gun, but the Model 60 is perhaps the most prolific.

Although it is not as modular as other rifles, like the Ruger 10/22, the Model 60 has long been marketed as a budget rifle that needed no add-ons, as one could be had for a hair over $100. Dedicated rimfire shooters will opine that the Model 60 is the more accurate gun between the two, but it comes down more to the ammunition and the shooter. It may help that the Marlin tends to be more muzzle-heavy than other .22 rifles. With the right ammunition, I can reliably get my Model 60 rifles to produce one-inch groups at 50 yards using the iron sights.

Common Criticism

A common criticism of the Model 60 is its tubular magazine that hangs under the barrel. To unload the tube, you have to remove the spring and dump the rounds into your hand. Then, loose ammunition is pushed down the tube until it is fully loaded. The spring is then replaced, and the rifle is chambered.

There is a danger of your hands working around the rifle’s muzzle while you are dropping rounds into the tube. In addition, it is a slow process that is particularly encumbered if you are working with numb hands or having to load and unload, like when getting in and out of vehicles.

The CZ 457

The CZ 452 and 457 series of rifles are a great buy for the small game hunter. The current 457 series is available with either a synthetic or beech wood stock and nitride steel furniture and barrel. The 457 is a bolt-action rifle that nominally feeds from a five-round magazine and uses barrels ranging from 16 inches to 25 inches.

cz 457 scout
The CZ 457 Scout is one of my favorite bolt-action .22 rifles. It is a bit more accurate than the other rifles on this list, but it is also the most expensive.

Unlike most rimfire rifles, the CZ 457 is available in configurations for both left-handed and right-handed shooters. Most models of the 457 come with a set of iron sights, which vary according to the model. My compact 457 Scout youth rifle has a rear sight that is grossly adjustable for windage and elevation, while other models have an adjustable ladder sight. Others are set up with just an 11mm dovetail for optics sans iron sights.

The 11mm dovetail on the receiver is an oddball aspect of this Euro rifle. Although it is dimensionally similar to an American 3/8-inch dovetail but cut differently, I have found that American 3/8-inch scope mounts work perfectly fine.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Because of its bolt-action design, the 457 can cycle different types of ammunition. If you favor low-noise and low-powered ammunition, this is not a problem. The 457 also gets high marks in the accuracy department, and it is not difficult to get one-hole groups at 50 yards. Most 457 models come with a set trigger, which allows for a very light trigger pull. My 457 Scout lacks this feature, but the trigger pull is still smooth and light.

The disadvantage of the 457 is that its bolt-action design makes it harder to get fast follow-up shots if you need them. It is also the most expensive rifle on the list. It is easy to justify a $500-600 price tag for a centerfire hunting rifle, but going for a 457 in either .17 HMR, .22 LR, or .22 Magnum might be a bit of a stretch. But if you are looking for a tack driver to head into the squirrel woods, it is worth a hard look.

Henry Classic Lever-Action

Henry Repeating Arms has been making a catalog’s worth of lever action rimfire rifles that appeal to both tradition and function. Lever-action rifles are quick to cycle from the shoulder and, like bolt guns, can generally cycle different kinds of ammunition. The lever-action rifles from Henry use a barrel-mounted tubular magazine like the Marlin Model 60. This allows the manually operated Henry to cycle different lengths of cartridges too. If you have a rifle in .22 LR, you can increase your capacity by feeding it either .22 Short or .22 Long ammunition. All three rounds are sufficient for squirrels.

While all of Henry’s .22 rifles will suffice for small game, their Classic Lever-Action is the most accessible way to get a lever gun into the squirrel woods. Over a million have been sold so far, and it is, by far, the one Henry most stores will stock.

Henry Small Game Carbine review
Henry Repeating Arms makes a rimfire rifle to suit any small game pursuit. I have always found the iron sights to be bulkier than other rifles, but they are more than useable if you are willing to stalk. Henry rifles are deceptively accurate with the inclusion of a scope.

Features of the Henry Classic

The Classic Lever-Action is chambered in .22 Long Rifle and features a 15-round magazine. It is a classic walnut and steel rifle, except for the zinc alloy cover over the receiver. It comes with an 18-inch round barrel and tips the scales at only 5.25 lbs., making it a lighter and handier option compared to some other rifles on this list.

The Henry Classic Lever features a pair of basic notch-rear and blade-front iron sights but has a 3/8-inch dovetail for a rimfire scope. In my own testing with the Classic Lever-Action, I could coax five rounds into a two-inch group at fifty yards using the iron sights, but I could cut that result in half with a low-powered optic.

The carbine with its tube magazine open for loading.
The Henry and the Marlin Model 60 both use a tubular magazine.

In addition to its cycling characteristics, the Henry Classic can be carried loaded safely in the field and brought into action quickly. To render the rifle safe to carry, lower the hammer into the half-cock notch. To fire, thumb the hammer back and go to work. Although lever guns tend to be more expensive than your typical autoloader or bolt-action rifle, the Henry Classic is competitively priced in the $300 range. The one disadvantage of the Henry Classic, like the Model 60, is its tubular magazine, which can be cumbersome to load and presents a potential hazard when working around the muzzle of the rifle.

Ruger 10/22

Ruger introduced the 10/22 in 1964 and millions have been made in countless configurations ever since. If you are in the market for a .22 rifle, the Ruger 10/22 is an option that is impossible to dismiss outright. It is a model with so many accessories that it is possible to build a 10/22 without any Ruger parts. But the base 10/22 is an excellent rifle for hunting squirrels in its own right.

The author aims a Ruger 10/22 takedown. The rifle wears an extended BX 25 magazine.
The Ruger 10/22 is arguably the best rimfire rifle for small game, but some criticize its trigger and dismiss the great number of add-ons as unnecessary.

The base model 10/22 is available with either a hardwood or synthetic stock and either a blued steel barrel and black anodized aluminum receiver or a stainless barrel and in-the-white receiver. Barrel lengths vary between 16 inches and 18 1/2 inches. All models come with a gold-beaded front blade and a foldable rear notch iron sight. The receiver is tapped and drilled for the included Weaver scope mount, allowing you to use conventional centerfire rings without adapters as you would with rifles that use a 3/8-inch dovetail.

The Ruger 10/22s stock iron sights are fine compared to the blocky sights on some rifles, like the Marlin Model 60. This can make it easier to hit smaller targets at a distance, but older eyes might have trouble picking up the front sight. Whether you opt for iron sights or an optic, the 10/22 is capable of 1-inch groups at fifty yards.

Rotary Magazines: A Huge Advantage

Unlike some of the other rifles on this list, the Ruger 10/22 uses a detachable magazine for easy and safe loading and unloading. The 10/22 comes with a standard 10-round rotary magazine, but higher-capacity magazines like the BX-25 are readily available and reliable. The base model 10/22 is available in most places where firearms are sold and can be had for under $300. After some ammo testing, you can be ready for squirrel without much investment, or you can do a deep dive into the world of 10/22 aftermarket accessories to have fun with your rifle when the season is not in session.

browning sa 22
This Browning SA-22 is my preferred squirrel rifle. It has its quirks, but it fills the requirements needed in a small game rifle. It is accurate and it gives me an excuse to get into the woods.

Squirrel Rifles: Very Few Wrong Answers

When it comes to selecting a rifle to hunt squirrels, there are very few wrong answers. Basically, any rimfire rifle will suffice as long as it is mechanically safe and consistent with the ammunition you choose. All squirrel rifles will have their quirks and peculiar benefits. What qualifies as which is entirely dependent on you and will often only reveal itself on the range. A set trigger is an accuracy asset until your fingers are too numb to feel it. A detachable magazine seems better than a tube magazine until it is left at home by accident. But a good rimfire rifle is not hard to find, and the game is not so elusive. While the 2023-2024 squirrel season has come to its end, now is the time to prepare for your next hunting adventure, as the new season is coming sooner than you think.

Terril is an economic historian with a penchant for all things firearm related. Originally a pot hunter hailing from south Louisiana, he currently covers firearms and reloading topics in print and on his All Outdoors YouTube page. When he isn't delving into rimfire ballistics, pocket pistols, and colonial arms, Terril can be found perfecting his fire-starting techniques, photographing wildlife, and getting lost in the archives.

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