Varmint/Predator Hunting Is A Moving Target


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Varmint/predator hunting is a niche market, but it can translate to lucrative commerce outside of traditional big-game hunting seasons.

In the eastern U.S., varmint hunters target groundhogs and crows.

In the south, coyotes and feral pigs are the headliners.

Prairie dog hunting is very popular in the West, but coyote hunting is emergent among younger hunters.

Regardless of location, varmint hunters typically use small-bore rifles chambered for .22-caliber centerfire cartridges. Because they’re inveterate tinkerers, varmint hunters are also very fond of accessories. Popular add-ons include daytime and nighttime optics, portable benches, rests, aftermarket barrels, aftermarket stocks and suppressors.

Most varmint hunters also reload their own ammunition, which means additional sales of bullets, powder and primers when available.

Addressing A “Unique Market”

Bill Pool, owner of Arkansas Gun Traders in Benton, Ark., is an ardent prairie dog hunter and an accomplished target shooter. He says there are distinct sects within the varmint hunting community that can best be described as “unique markets.” Prairie dog hunters prefer bolt-action rifles with heavy barrels. They snipe from portable benches from the suburbs of sprawling prairie dog towns.

Coyote hunters are mobile. They desire light, compact rifles.

“A lot of those guys buy sporters because they walk a lot. They’re just going to get a few shots,” Pool noted. “They buy a varmint caliber, but they don’t buy a true varmint gun. High-volume shooters buy heavy-barrel guns.”

Serving either sphere of the varmint hunting market is challenging, according to Pool, because varmint hunters are educated and savvy. They’re not generally impulse buyers. They know what they want.

“When I get a phone call, it’s, ‘Do you have such and such?’” Pool said. “If you don’t have such and such, they look somewhere else.”

Top Requested Bolt-Action Rifles

The most requested bolt-action guns are Savage, Tikka and CZ, according to Pool. Savage and Remington dominated the varmint hunting market, but Remington is currently out of the game. Pool noted Tikka adroitly filled Remington’s void, and customers now ask for it. Tikka used to be a tough sell.

“Savage is probably the biggest varmint rifle we have,” Pool observed. “They make a variety of guns, and they shoot well. If you want a reasonably priced gun and it shoots well out of the box, it’s hard to beat a Savage.”

One reason Savage is so popular, Pool shared, is because it’s so easy to modify.

“Savage has got to be one of the most popular guns because it’s such a do-it-yourself market,” Pool said. “It’s a lot like the Ruger 10/22 market and the AR-15 market. You can buy a barrel and put it on, and it takes minimal equipment and minimal know-how to do it. The possibility was there for a long time, but people didn’t really start swapping barrels around until Savage got to be a popular brand.”

“Most of the people prefer the AR platforms more than anything else because there’s so much available for it, and they can build it any way they want.”

Jim Eddie, Associate
The Shootin’ Den • Colorado Springs, Colo.

Modern Sporting Rifles Shine

Because of its versatility, the AR-15 platform has also become very popular in varmint hunting. Simply by swapping upper units, you can convert a .223 into a .30-caliber or larger to handle virtually any hunting or shooting application.

Driving its popularity are generations of former and active military personnel who used tactical military rifles during nearly 30 years of continuous warfare in the Middle East and Asia.

Jim Eddie, an associate at The Shootin’ Den in Colorado Springs, Colo., noted the trend mirrors earlier preferences of former soldiers gravitating to the firearms they used in previous conflicts.

“Of the newer shooters — the younger folks — it’s kind of like what we saw post-World War I with bolt-action rifles,” Eddie said. “After World War II, the semi-auto became popular. The modern sporting rifle is popular among the new wave of combat veterans, the 40-and-under category. It’s what they carried, and it’s what they’re used to. It’s not a bad platform for varmint hunting, either. A lot of the guys who came back had sniping backgrounds in the Middle East. It’s what they like.”

Notice Eddie’s subtle shift in terminology: He didn’t call it an “AR-style” rifle or a “tactical-style” rifle, its usual references in media. It is becoming known as the “modern sporting rifle” (MSR). It’s a crucial step to mainstream acceptance for a platform that experiences considerable resistance in popular culture.

“Most of the people prefer the AR platforms more than anything else because there’s so much available for it, and they can build it any way they want,” Eddie shared. “You can change your upper to a 24″ barrel or a 20″ barrel. The flexibility of the modern sporting rifle platform, the modularity of it, makes it really easy. With just one lower, you can have 20 rifles without having to buy 20 rifles.”

In much of Colorado, largely because of federal regulations that discourage hunting prairie dogs on public land, many hunters have shifted their focus to coyotes. Due to its light weight and portability, the MSR is ideal for hunting coyotes.

“What people are looking for in the hunting world is a lightweight rifle,” Eddie observed. “As far as varmint hunting goes, I don’t get a ton of people coming in specifically looking for a dedicated varmint rifle.”

Rock River Arms Fred Eichler Series Light Predator2L

CZ 457 Varmint Precision Trainer MTR

Going Hog Wild

In Texas, where feral pigs run rampant, hog hunting is immensely popular, as is coyote hunting. Dillon Baker, general manager of Texan Guns and Gear in Stephenville, Texas, said his outlet specializes in hunting guns. He also sells a lot of varmint calls and assorted shooting accessories. The Bog Pod shooting tripod, for example, is very popular.

Where legal, many hog hunters prefer to hunt at night when hogs are most active. Their kits include a thermal optic and a red light. The red light illuminates a pig’s eyes for target acquisition, Baker shared. The thermal optic aids in target identification.

“We sell a lot of thermals to hog hunters,” he noted. “Everybody who comes in wants one if they can afford it. That market has grown tremendously. As thermal prices have come down for quality optics, we’ve been able get more of them into hunters’ hands.” 

According to Baker, hunters can buy a good AGM thermal unit for about $1,000.

“A lot of people can get in on that price point and get a little above a decent-quality thermal optic,” he elaborated. He also sells a lot of Trijicon, Fusion and Pulsar Thermal Imaging.

Coyote hunters rely heavily on electronic callers, according to Baker.

“Fox Pro is big around here,” he said. “I sell a crap-ton of them.”

Demand For Suppressed Rifles Up

Curiously, suppressors are becoming common in the varmint hunting market, Baker noted. The federal e-form has contributed to their popularity by simplifying the approval process. 

“Instead of having to wait 375 days, it’s down to 150 days,” he said. “It has really changed the game. Now we have people buying a thermal and a suppressor, and they’re getting it fairly quick.”

People aren’t buying suppressors for stealth, Baker said. They buy them to protect their hearing.

“It’s not for the pigs; it’s for them,” he stated. “When you’re shooting high-powered rifles, you don’t have to worry about blowing your buddy’s eardrums out. He’s suppressed too.”

Because of the demand for suppressed rifles, many gun manufacturers offer threaded barrels.

“I order more guns with threaded barrels than without because the chances of putting on a suppressor are growing every day,” Baker observed. “I don’t see a reason to not buy a threaded barrel, and honestly, I don’t know why gun manufacturers are offering guns without threaded barrels.”

Even though the platforms have changed, varmint hunters remain very specific about the cartridges they like. There are a lot of niche cartridges for special applications, but most varmint hunters still use .223 Remington, 5.56×45 or .22-250 Remington. It’s not likely to change soon because those three are so well proven afield. The .204 Ruger is also very popular.

“I order more guns with threaded barrels than without because the chances of putting on a suppressor are growing every day.”

Dillon Baker, General Manager
Texan Guns and Gear • Stephenville, Texas

Similar Trends In South Dakota

Prairie dog hunting is still king in South Dakota, but hunters there are also embracing coyote hunting, said Matt Harnes, manager of Teton River Traders Gun Shop in Ft. Pierre, S.D. As in Texas and elsewhere, coyote hunting tournaments are creating a lot of interest.

Interest in prairie dog hunting ebbs and flows with prairie dog populations, which fluctuate with disease. When prairie dogs are plentiful, people hunt them enthusiastically, Harnes noted. When populations are down, interest wanes.

Even in prairie dog hunting, the modern sporting rifle is becoming increasingly popular, Harnes suggested, because the rifles are becoming more accurate. His AR-style rifles shoot 1/2 to 3/4 MOA. The downside to using a semi-auto with high-capacity magazines is you burn through ammunition a lot faster than with a bolt action.

“A lot of guys figured out they have self-control problems and burn up their ammo pretty quick,” Harnes said. “We see a lot of guys go back to bolt rifles, but not because of accuracy.”

There’s also a lot of demand for suppressors among Harnes’s clientele, again for the social aspect.

“I see a lot more suppressors so people can talk while they’re shooting,” he said. “Prairie dog hunting is still very much a social sport. It’s the main mindset I see. I don’t see a lot of guys go out by themselves. Very few.”

Components Still An Issue

A big detriment to varmint hunting is the scarcity of reloading components. All high-volume shooters reload their own ammo, but it’s difficult and expensive with primers, bullets and powder being so scarce. However, this problem is beyond the retail level. You can’t stock what you can’t get.

Nevertheless, varmint hunting has a dedicated following throughout the U.S., and retailers who serve this market generate loyalty, goodwill and recognition.

And, of course, sales. 

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