Choosing a Predator Rifle
By Troy Hoepker
One thing you’ll probably never hear from me after I shoot a coyote that gets away wounded is to hear me exclaim that I didn’t have a large enough caliber bullet to anchor him. There’s always been a ton of discussion out there on which caliber is the “right” one for shooting coyotes. This article isn’t a part of that discussion. I’m not saying the topic isn’t an important one, it is. However, the mindset that I take to shooting predators at different ranges reflects on me as a shooter and not placing blame on the size of the bullet being big enough to do the job.
Most of today’s popular predator calibers from .204 all the way up to .243 will do the job at nice ranges but the key is putting the bullet where it actually needs to be to get the job done at any range. Bullet placement is everything. If I shoot a coyote at 350 yards with my .223 and he runs away, I’m not going to say that a .243 would have dropped him if only I would have been holding one. A bad shot is a bad shot and even one that is off only a few inches or one that shouldn’t have been taken in the first place is a bad shot. Personally I’m not going to blame the rifle for not putting the round where it belongs. I’ve just shot too many coyotes to believe otherwise. Rarely does that extra “thump” of a heavier bullet make up for a poorly placed shot on a coyote unless you are talking about an extremely large round; one that you likely wouldn’t be taking to the field to hunt coyotes anyway. The topic of caliber selection is one I’ve wrote about before and likely will again at some point, but the purpose of this article is to talk about the other aspects of predator rifles that make them the right fit.
Not long ago, I had this discussion with a friend of mine that was wondering what to get for a rifle to hunt coyotes. First off, I asked him what type of hunting he was going to be doing? The answer to his style of hunting would certainly help dictate some of the aspects he would need when considering a gun. Chase hunters often prefer a shorter barreled rifle to slip in and out of the truck easily. They may also want something that shoulders quickly, is comfortable to hold for off-hand shots and is equipped with a magazine that can hold a lot of rounds instead of a 3 or 4 round magazine commonly found in most bolt actions because their shots will likely be on fast moving coyotes. AR style rifles certainly fit the bill for those characteristics. For the coyote caller the answer may be different. They may want something with a longer barrel, something that is heavier barreled, or the opposite, which is a gun that is easy to swing onto a target that could be coming from any direction.
A raging debate continues as always between AR shooters and bolt-action shooters of which is the overall better coyote gun. Both guns have their place and each has its own distinct attributes that are better than the other. Without getting into that debate too much I do want to share some results from a contest I witnessed a couple of years ago that offered a unique real world comparison between the two that also featured coyote sized targets at different ranges. The results of the shoot might surprise both the AR enthusiast as well as the traditional bolt gun lovers.
Healy Arms, a firearms company that caters to the predator hunter selling guns, calls, and gear, put on the competition. There was a bolt division and an AR division of shooters and each had to complete a timed event of eight targets and a bonus target. The shooter is set up just like they would be when calling coyotes and has four targets on one side of them and four targets to the other side of them, each at varying distances downrange. With the clock running, the shooter has to hit each target while repositioning to shoot them much in the same way a hunter has to do when they are trying to kill multiple coyotes in the field in front of them. Some targets may be partially hidden. At the end the shooter then has to place their shot on a 3-inch steel bonus target that is set out at close to MOA around 250 to 300 yards away. The shooter is not told the distances to any target however. Shooters are penalized time for any missed shots at the targets that will be added to their overall time after they are finished.
In a timed event such as this where fast follow up shots are needed one would figure the winner of the AR division would have a much faster time than the winner of the bolt division. But that was not the case. Not the case at all!!!
Not only did the bolt-action winner have a faster time but most of the following place winners had much faster times than the rest of the field of semi-auto shooters as well. The fastest time was close however. The bolt-action winner had a time of 100.72 seconds. The semi-auto winner’s time was 102.89 seconds. The second place bolt guy scored a time of 118.31, a full minute faster than the second place AR shooter of 218.21. Third place for the bolt division also had a good time of 127.04 seconds whereas the third place AR shooter timed in at 221.79 seconds.
Those results surprised me a bit at the time but didn’t really surprise Mark Healy of Healy firearms. “We’ve seen this in other competitions as well. The bolt guys end up being faster a lot of times because those guys focus harder on making the shot count each time they pull the trigger. Some of the guys who hold a semi auto have more rounds and don’t have to cycle the bolt each time they fire and because they have more rounds, more rounds go downrange without focusing on shot placement. Shot placement is everything! You still have to focus on shot placement and not get in too big of a hurry.” Mark said.
I didn’t tell you that story to bad mouth a semi-auto rifle however. Today’s AR’s are extremely accurate, reliable, versatile and tough. They’ve won their merit among many coyote hunters as their firearm of choice and for good reason. Their accuracy now competes with bolt-action guns and the added feature of having the extra rounds that a larger magazine provides means that coyotes won’t get away for lack of bullets. The next bullet to send downrange is just a finger pull away leading to faster follow up shots. Choosing an adjustable length stock is also something to think about to give you that flexibility for just the right fit for the gun whether you’re wearing several layers of clothes and a thick parka or doing some springtime calling in a long sleeved tee shirt. The accessories you can add to an AR are endless and even though there really isn’t a big need for a ton of extras hanging off of the gun for coyote hunting, the option to add them for other purposes is nice.
If there are any drawbacks to the AR platform for coyote hunting they would have to be budget and weight in some cases. Most AR’s in general will run you well over the cost of a nice shooting bolt-action rifle. With that being said however, once you’ve purchased an AR you’re now only a couple of take down pins away from being able to swap out uppers and having a different caliber bullet to hunt with. The AR may be a bit bulky, weighty and more uncomfortable to carry than a turn-bolt rifle especially if equipped with a 20 inch barrel and I always like the accuracy of the 20 inch barrel over the 16 incher.
I carry a variety of bolt actions rifles when calling coyotes. Like anyone else, I have a favorite that does the bulk of the work and it’s a Tikka Hunter Series chambered in .223. The bolt slides like butter, the accuracy is great and I just prefer the look and feel of a classic walnut stock even though the gun weighs more than my Tikka T-3 in 22.250 with a synthetic stock. If you are a caller and will be hiking miles with a gun over your shoulder it’s important to choose something with less weight. I’ve owned several bull-barreled rifles and while all of them have been fantastic shooters, after a while I find they spend more time in the gun safe as something to look at more than something I hunt with much. The added weight hanging over me just isn’t something I go for and I tend to gravitate towards a lighter rifle when heading out the door for a hunt.
No matter which style of rifle you are looking at purchasing do your homework and research the barrel twist rates to make sure you can match the proper twist rate for the bullet you desire to use on coyotes. Make sure that the trigger is adjustable so you can set the poundage to your own liking. Consider a blued barrel or a camo gun to eliminate barrel shine or anything that may tip off a coyote. Check the weight of the rifle to make sure it’ll be light enough that it won’t burden you. Shoulder the gun and make sure the rifle is a good fit and research online reviews. I also like to take a close look at the safety and how it is located on the rifle. Is it easy to get to and slip on and off if you are wearing heavy gloves?
In the end, choosing the perfect predator rifle will be different for everyone. It’s choosing what works for you. If you are a lefty shooter, don’t compromise for a right-handed gun. There are plenty of offerings out there from different manufacturers for the southpaw. There may be some out there that just call coyotes in thick cover and might prefer an open sighted lever action rifle for those up close shots but still have a gun that will reach out there just a little farther than a shotgun to put a coyote down.
Ever hear the saying, “Beware the man who shoots only one gun; for he knows how to use it.” There might be a little truth to that. I don’t subscribe to only owning one gun. What fun would that be? But once you’ve made an informed choice and chosen the rifle for you, get familiar with it. Shoot and shoot and shoot it some more so that you know exactly what your point of impact will be at any different range. Above all that’s the most important part. Mark Healy said it best, “Most guns will generally outshoot you. If you get too focused on equipment you’re not as focused on marksmanship.” I agree. Pick out a rifle with a mix of some of the characteristics mentioned earlier that work best for you then get to work with your rifle and get to know it well so that it becomes an extension of your eyes and your hands. Coyotes will hate you for it!