The headline for this piece could have just as easily been ‘The ultimate varmint rifle’, as it’s not all about foxing by any means. Yes, foxing is probably the most popular application for these kinds of calibres, but a ‘varmint rifle’ covers a lot more ground than that. You may also need to nobble bunnies at extended range, all manner of corvids, and even smaller species of deer given the appropriate calibre. For me a varminter is a fast, flat- shooting, point-and-click rifle.

Dialling doesn’t come into it. You might need a touch of holdover at extended range, perhaps, but essentially it’s a rifle that will allow you to put the crosshairs on a small target of opportunity over a very wide range of distances, confident that the flat shooting and accurate round will get the job done.

We’ll look at the calibres a little later, but there are other factors that need to be added into the equation. Obviously you will have to establish a ‘need’ for a particular calibre. This can be trickier than it sounds. For example, I’ve had friends that have had to fight for a .22-250 for foxing, but were offered a .223 without question. 1,650fps at the muzzle for a .22-250 as opposed to 1,280fps for a .223, with both employing exactly the same .224 bullet? Strange.

Often the issuance of a variation is simply a case of familiarity, .223 is the preferred calibre for foxing, so many licensing bodies and the police simply like to go along with that. Just because someone works in firearms licensing doesn’t mean they have any particular interest in shooting, so slightly more exotic calibres can take some explaining.

The same is often true with .243, a hugely popular all-purpose calibre and ideal as a varminter running lighter (55-70gr) bullets. The problem is, it can be quite hard to get land cleared for .243 as it’s considered a deer calibre when used with a 90-100gr bullet.

That’s not a problem if you have an open ticket and at least one permission cleared for .243, but it can be a tough sell on flatter land.

Light or heavy?

The next decision is weight. Regular readers may be familiar with my trusty Tikka T3x.

It’s a fantastic rifle, but with its varmint barrel and GRS stock it’s quite a weighty beast. It’s perfect for a bit of long-range varminting from a fixed position but it’s a big rig to hump around when rough shooting, especially when combined with an NV scope, IR torch, etc.

The latest addition to the foxing fold is a Sako Carbonlight in .22-250, recently superseded by the Sako 90 Peak. This is very much at the other end of the spectrum, being ultra light, fast handling and perfect for stalking fields on foot. The rifle pictured has a couple of foxing-specific add-ons, primarily a Picatinny rail for easier scope swaps and a strap-on comb raiser to ensure a more consistent head position. Admittedly it’s a bit of a shame to bastardise this beautiful rifle with add-ons, but a varminter needs to work for a living, so needs must.

Foxer 1
My T3x foxing rig ready for action with the lamp or any IR or thermal add-ons                                           

What is long range?

When selecting any rifle you are faced with a quagmire of facts and figures, ballistic charts, retained energy data and so on, and varminters are no exception. When it comes to a varmint rifle, such charts generally terminate at 500yd.

A 30-55gr bullet does not have the mass for extreme long range. A .204 starts out with 1,260ft-lb but that drops to just over 250ft-lb at 500yd, that’s still more than a .17 HMR has at the muzzle and plenty for varminting, but there is a realistic limit.

There’s also the issue of accuracy. All the calibres listed here famous for their accuracy, but logic should suggest when enough is enough. The kill zone on a fox is 4", so given a rifle capable of 1 MOA that gives you a maximum range of 400yd.

With a 200yd zero, the bullet drop more than triples between 300 and 400yd, and doubles again from 400 to 500. This formula applies to all the calibres listed. To be honest I’d consider anything around the 300yd mark to be extended range with any varmint rifle, especially on smaller targets such as corvids.

Here are the figures based on a .204 profile. 100yd, +6"; 200yd, 0"; 300yd, -4"; 400yd -13"; 500yd -29". This is the flattest shooting of all the calibres but this basic ballistic profile is pretty much identical across the board. The only difference is a slightly enhanced curve and the terminal energy, which obviously increases dramatically depending on bullet weight. The only exception would be the .223, which tends to be a good deal loopier than the others.

If you have aspirations to shoot extremely long range (500yd and beyond) a varminter is not your best option. For that kind of shooting you’re much better served with a
6.5 or above, so calibres such as .260, 6.5x55, 6.5 Creedmoor or .270. Mark Ripley regularly takes on these kinds of shots but only with his .260 big rig after lots of painstaking hand loading, testing and practice.

Foxer 2
Arguably still the ultimate all-rounder, a .243 is a great varminting choice                                              

Ammo availability?

If you’re not a reloader, the availability of factory ammo is a key factor when selecting a varminter. If you do reload it isn’t really an issue, as bullets are very widely available given the popularity of .243 and the .224 bullet used in both the .223 and .22-250.

The .204 is admittedly a bit more of a niche bullet, but there’s still plenty of variety for any reloader.

If you’re not reloading, you’ll want good local availability of factory loads and you also want as wide a variety of manufacturers as possible. This is one of the key factors that determined the calibres listed here.

As I’m sure you’re aware, all rifles have their own preferences when it comes to ammo, and to get the best from a factory fed varminter you do need a few options. Further, more obscure chamberings aren’t as attractive on the second-hand market, so if you like to swap and change your guns, stick to the more popular chamberings.

Now before the emails start flying in, I do realise that there are other really effective varminting options. Die-hard fans of .222 will no doubt be horrified it’s not on the list. The same could be said for the awesome but now sadly largely defunct .220 Swift – the list goes on. But the bottom line, in my opinion, is that if you’re looking to invest in a brand- new varminter the following calibres would represent the best overall investment in terms of longevity, performance and resale appeal.

Foxer 3
The Carbonlight, and now it’s all-new replacement the Sako Peak, are great choices if you have the extra cash required

Calibre choices

.204 is definitely the currently in-vogue varminting calibre. An awful lot of custom foxing rifles are being chambered in .204 – and with good reason. It’s the flattest shooting varminter in the roundup (with standard loads) and very accurate.

Descended from the .222 cartridge, as is the .223, it offers slightly more case capacity than the .223 but considerably less than the .22-250 and .243. This certainly isn’t an issue in terms of speed, as the lighter .204 bullet (around 32gr) clocks up a staggering 4,200fps in a long-barrel rifle.

Performance in the field is impressive considering it’s by far the lightest bullet, and it actually outperforms the .223 in terms of bucking the wind. Its real appeal is the laser like ballistic curve; it’s a real point-and-click calibre. The other major USP is the incredibly low recoil (typically under 3ft-lb), which is little more than a 17HMR.

None of calibres listed are punishing to shoot by any means, but the .204 with its extremely low recoil allows the shooter to maintain the sight picture far more easily. Its only real shortcomings compared with the heavier .22-250 and .243 are that it’s slightly more prone to wind drift and there’s less retained energy at extended range. The latter is largely irrelevant with typical UK varmints.
The only other thing that may factor into a buying decision is that the .204, unlike all the others, is not legal for smaller species of deer, with .220 and up being the minimum bullet diameter for both muntjac and CWD.

Foxer 4

.223 is the bread-and-butter varminting calibre. It doesn’t have quite the glamour, speed or the ballistic profile of the others but it’s tried, tested and very cheap to run, with training ammo (steel cased non-reloadable) on offer at around £25 for 50. That’s less than half the price of the others, which if you’re planning to nail a lot of long-range corvids and bunnies is definitely something worth considering.

It’s the favoured foxing calibre with many licensing bodies and has probably accounted for more foxes in the UK than any other, simply due to the number of rifles out there. It easily has the widest range of ‘off the shelf’ ammo and it’s available everywhere, so there are no issues in terms of resale appeal.

At roughly 1,000fps slower than the others (when running lighter bullets) the .223 is a slightly different animal. There’s more holdover and you’re moving into dialling rather than the point-and-click of a dedicated varminter. Having said that, it can cope with heavier bullets and is definitely capable a longer range. You just need to keep a close eye on the wind.

Recoil is very manageable at roughly 3.5lb on a typical 8.5lb rifle, so not a great deal more than the feather light .204. It’s an excellent and cost-effective all-rounder, but perhaps without the dedicated point-and- shoot appeal of the more exotic calibres.

.22-250 is a true varminting specialist, offering very similar ballistics to the .204, with speeds of 4,450fps using a 35gr Hornady bullet, although 50-55gr is the typical load. It’s extremely accurate and very hard-hitting courtesy of its heavier bullet. Excellent wind bucking abilities and down range energy make the .22-250 is a force to be reckoned with when varminting.

I’ve been doing a lot of foxing with the Carbonlight .22-250 of late and there’s a lot to like. The only trade-off with this ultra-light rifle is that recoil is quite lively. Typically a
.22-250 delivers about 6ft-lb on an 8.5lb rig, but the Carbonlight is much lighter at just 5.5lb unscoped.

Foxer 7
      Any rifle chambered in .22-250 or .204 is a sign of a very serious foxer                                               

As a consequence, it is quite feisty for a small bore, certainly not uncomfortable in any way but there is a bit of muzzle flip and loss of sight picture due to the low overall mass of the rifle. In terms of feel at the shoulder I’d say it’s very similar to my heavy weight .243 foxing setup.

That said, it’s a joy to carry in the field, fast handling, perfect for point-and-shoot opportunities over a very wide range of distances, and has accuracy that makes it ideal for smaller targets at extended range.

.243 is no doubt the ultimate all-rounder and easily the most popular calibre for do-it-all rifle shooting. From 55gr bullets for foxing all the way to 100gr for red deer, there’s
no other calibre that can compete when it comes to flexibility. It’s the very reason I and countless others have invested in one.

Foxer 5
                                                 55gr Federal Premium is the perfect choice for my .243                                                            

With 55gr bullets hovering just below 4,000fps, it’s blisteringly quick and certainly capable of giving the .204 and .22-250 a run for their money in ballistic performance. It’s also easy to feed off the shelf, with plenty of ammo from a wide range of manufacturers in a variety of bullet weights.

It has the heaviest recoil in the roundup but not by much, with roughly 6.5lb of felt recoil on a typical 8.5lb chassis. On my Tikka T3x (with its heavy barrel and GRS stock) I’d put that closer to 6lb, so on a par with a .22- 250 but still roughly twice that of the .204.

If you’re in the market for a real workhorse that can cover all the bases you can’t go wrong with a .243. There’s a reason it’s the keeper’s calibre of choice and a firm
favourite with stalkers and pest controllers.

Foxer 6
.22.250 – a little more exotic but there are still plenty of options                                                       

The Carbonlight/Peak is the pinnacle of the Sako 85 and 90 action series. Available in .223 all the way to 7mm Rem mag, and at just 2.5kg, it’s a tour de force when it comes to weight and high-tech materials. The beautiful, soft-touch, aerospace-grade carbon weaved stock is pretty much perfect.
The classic 85 action with its controlled feed means it’s easy to sneak a round into the chamber, although a slightly more deliberate approach is required on extraction, as the ejection
angle is high on the 85 action. As a result, empty cases can bounce back if you’re too gentle when retracting the bolt.

Barrels are all cold hammer forged and manually inspected, with Sako’s sub-moa guarantee as standard. A staggered five- shot stainless steel magazine, which can be top loaded through the ejection port, sits behind its Control Latch release, ensuring everything stays where it should.
The two-way safety locks both the bolt and the trigger and unlike my T3x it also offers the ability to load or remove a cartridge from the chamber while the safety is engaged, thanks to a small lever just in front of the main safety. The trigger itself is single stage and adjustable from 2-4lb, and has a lightweight hard-anodized aluminium trigger guard.

The bolt does have a slight rattle when fully retracted but that’s part and parcel of the classic 85 action. In practice is blisteringly fast with no chatter and a rock-solid lockdown.
The Carbonlight is a joy to shoot, with impeccable handling and pointability – as it should be for a rifle at this price. It’s classed as a ‘semi-custom’, and with its unique blend of high-tech and tradition you get what you pay for.

The T3x has been out for a while and is available in a myriad of configurations and calibres, including .204. Rather than detailing the technical stuff, I’ll concentrate on personal experience. I’ve owned this rifle for about six years and I have never regretted buying it for a second. It has performed faultlessly in the field and has been a joy to own and shoot.

It’s insanely accurate and has a superbly smooth action. The standard stock, with its semi-beaver style forend, is excellent, but being a bit of a custom-fit nerd I was beguiled by the GRS Bifrost and just had to have it. Just didn’t tell the other half – she thinks they just forgot to ask for it back. Ignorance is bliss!

As for features, the only thing that’s missing is the safety system used on the Carbonlight. With the T3x you need to disengage the safety to retract the bolt and extract a round, which isn’t ideal but something you soon get used to.


Sako 85 Carbonlight in .22-250: RRP from £3,300
Tikka T3x Varmint: RRP from £1,550
Stalon Moderator – X-Series: RRP £325

Additional hardware:
Barton Gunworks Sako 75/85 short action Picatinny rail: RRP £89.95
Wraith 4K Max digital day-night vision scope: RRP £799.99
Hawke Frontier: Frontier 30 FFP 5-25x56 Mil Pro reticle: RRP £999