“See anything?” Tim asked from the driver’s seat. “Yep” I replied, having spotted two woodchucks near a known burrow as we rolled by in Tim’s old Ford pickup. He pulled over, I grabbed the rifle out of the case in the bed, rested it across the hood, and smoked the groundhog at 125 yards. At that moment, I believed the heavy-barreled bolt action in my hands was the best gun for groundhogs. As the summer progressed, time would tell if that opinion changed.
Woodchucks have been a scourge of pastures and barnyards since settlers first came to North America. Historically the best woodchuck gun was whatever one was handy when you saw one. Many groundhogs in my boyhood haunts of southwestern Michigan fell to single-shot shotguns simply because that was the farm gun. Today, shooting woodchucks is more of a deliberate activity than a target of opportunity. The previously mentioned incident with my friend Tim was during our summer hobby of “cruising for ‘chucks” – i.e., driving slowly by fields we had permission to shoot over while the passenger looked it over with binoculars. If a woodchuck was spotted the designated shooter would dismount, retrieve the rifle, and shoot.
So, what is the best gun for groundhogs? I have seen them taken with a .22 Long Rifle, .17 HMR, .22 Magnum, .223 Remington, and .308 Winchester. Woodchucks can be a tough animal at times and at others, an easy kill. Based on this experience, here are my recommendations.
Table of Contents
Best All-Around Choice: Savage Axis .223 Remington
The Savage Axis is an affordable and durable rifle that lives up to the Savage reputation for accuracy. The Axis comes equipped with a synthetic stock and a detachable magazine. Having a plastic stock adds a layer of durability over a wood stock to this utility rifle. The detachable magazine can be loaded and kept ready apart from the gun, a handy feature for a rifle kept as a truck gun or by the back door of the farmhouse where kids may be present.
I recommended a .223 chambering for this rifle since it is the most popular varmint and target cartridge in North America and will handle any woodchucks for about as far out as you can accurately shoot a standard rifle.
The Rimfire Option: Ruger American Rimfire in .17 HMR
The .17 (HMR) Hornady Magnum Rimfire exploded onto the scene in 2002 and quickly developed a reputation as an accurate flat-shooting round. It is ideal for taking care of groundhogs that have made a home near barns, pumps, or other structures and equipment that do not need additional holes in them.
Ruger’s American Rimfire rifle is a man-sized rimfire – i.e., a rimfire rifle with nearly identical dimensions to its centerfire counterparts. The 22-inch medium-weight barrel gives the rifle a slight forward balance. To me, this rifle is the best rimfire you can get without spending the cash for a Ruger 77-17 or a CZ 457. The American also accepts the same magazines as the 10/22 (10/22 Magnum for the 17 HMR), so if you already have one, you do not need to buy different magazines.
For Long Range: Savage 110 Varmint in .22-250
I was going to recommend the Remington 700 Varmint in this caliber, but sadly, Big Green no longer produces a heavy-barreled rifle in .22-250. That is all good however, as the Savage 110 has quietly built a reputation for accuracy that surpasses the once-vaunted 700. The Savage Varmint comes with a target stock and a twenty-six-inch heavy barrel.
The .22-250 is an older cartridge, but it brings significantly more velocity to the table than the .223 Remington, over 300 feet-per-second more with a 55-grain bullet. This increase in speed allows the .22-250 user to hit distant targets with less holdover. Tim once killed a woodchuck at 410 yards with his .223, but that first round hit the dirt short of the groundhog. Thankfully, the animal was far enough from its burrow that he had the time to walk in two more shots before it paused just long enough to receive a round center mass. If Tim had been using a .22-250, that first round would have impacted roughly a foot higher at that distance, and may have connected.
Observations on Calibers
In my brief tenure as a woodchuck hunter, the most impressive results were obtained using a .223 launching a 55 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet. The woodchuck mentioned at the beginning of this article did not move from where we shot him. On closer inspection, his severed spine was protruding out a 2-inch hole in histhe back, and it looked like a chewed stick. Contrast this to the few groundhogs I shot as targets of opportunity with a .22 Long Rifle. Two out of three always ran off, and the neighbor’s dog found the carcass later in the week. Had I the time to shoot them in the head, the results may have been different, but they were jumped like rabbits out of brush piles and shot while they ran to their hole. Center-mass hits were the norm.
The .22 Winchester Magnum and .17 HMR always gave good results. My .22 Mag took woodchucks from three feet to a hundred yards. All were one-shot stops (the 100-yard shot was a head shot). Tim’s .17 HMR was our go-to rifle around the farm and near infrastructure. It never failed to anchor groundhogs at ranges less than 100 yards and allowed us to thread the needle through chain-link fences if needed.
If you have a clear field of fire, shooting woodchucks can make for good practice with your deer rifle. Calibers like .308 Winchester, .270 and .30-06 have no trouble dispacting the rodents, and the small target will test your aim. I know several farmers who prffer to use their deer rifle rather than buy a new one to clean groundhogs out of the pasture at 250 yards.
So, what is the best gun for groundhogs? The short answer is the one you have handy when you see one. The long answer is a rifle that you can shoot accurately and has enough power to do the job at the distance required. Evaluate your needs and get the best match.
Until next time.