Gopher Getter II

by John Anderson


Reprinted with permission from January 2004 Varmint Hunters Magazine

Fred Heil favors his Contender Carbine chambered in .19 Calhoon for shooting ground squirrels. Here he's using a portable shooting stool made by Pennsylvania gunsmith Jim Peightal. This is the quarry, the Richardson's ground squirrel, common throughout much of Montana and several other states, plus three Canadian provinces.

"Here, shoot this for the afternoon" Fred said as he handed me a Contender Carbine and a bag of ammo. I like Fred. Every time I hunt with him, he absolutely insists I shoot one or more of his guns part of the time. And he even provides the ammunition, My kind of huntin' buddy!

The occasion was a trip last May to northern Montana to shoot Richardson's ground squirrels with James (Jim) Calhoon (manufacturer of Calhoon bullets) and Fred Heil ( a retired West Coast businessman who is a VHA member, a good friend of James, and an avid varmint hunter). I first met Jim and Fred three years ago while hunting prairie dogs in northern Montana with my longtime hunting companion Doug Tweed.

One day on that trip, when it was very windy, Doug and I drove over to Havre to meet Jim and his wife, Cathy, and see their bullet-making facility. After touring their plant and enjoying lunch with them, Jim said we needed to try shooting some ground squirrels despite the wind. Naturally, he absolutely insisted we try his .19 Calhoon cartridge, built on a converted Ruger 77/22 Hornet rifle,

This occasion was our first look at this wildcat cartridge, designed by Jim. It's a .22 Hornet case necked down to .19 caliber that's fire-formed to a nearly straight body taper. The shoulder is blown forward also, resulting in a short neck and increased case capacity. Jim even uses Remington Hornet cases because they hold half a grain more powder than other brands. Doug and I took turns shooting ground squirrels (commonly called "gophers" by the locals, though they are not gophers at all) with this rifle the rest of the afternoon.

We had so much fun that Jim suggested we get together the rest of the week for some serious squirrel shooting with him and Fred, who was due for a visit the next day. So much for our prairie dog shooting. We decided that since we'd shot prairie dogs a lot over many years, we could forego a few days of that to experience "gopher shootin'." So for the rest of the week we met Fred and Jim each day on a ranch about halfway between Havre and where we were staying in Malta. We quickly became converts to "gopher shootin'," and the rest of the week we thoroughly enjoyed the company of Jim and Fred, the high volume shooting and trying various firearms they thrust at us and absolutely insisted we shoot. It was quite an introduction to a type of varmint we had never shot before, as well as becoming thoroughly acquainted with the .19 Calhoon cartridge.

Over the years I've become rather familiar with a couple of other Hornet-based cartridges: the .22 K-Hornet and the .17 Ackley Hornet. Thompson/Center introduced their Contender single-shot, break-open handgun frame with interchangeable barrels in 1967. Three years later I ordered one with a 10" octagonal barrel chambered in .22 K-Hornet, and I've been shooting Contenders and the K-Hornet since. And while I haven't owned a .17 Ackley Hornet until rather recently, I've shot others quite a bit . Doug has had a Contender with a .17 AH barrel for years and I've fired it a number of times. Then, in the spring of 2000, Fred Smith at Bullberry Barrel Works sent the VHA a rifle built by his company on a CZ action that was chambered in a .17 AH, and I had the pleasure of testing it before it was auctioned at the Jamboree that year.

While Doug and I hunted ground squirrels with Jim and Fred in 2000, I fired a lot of rounds through my own .22 K-Hornet (now with a custom 14" barrel), shot Doug's Contender Carbine with a custom barrel in .22 K-Hornet a lot, plus his .17 Ackley Hornet, and did my best to go though as much of Jim and Fred's .19 Calhoon ammunition as I could. It soon became apparent that all three of these Hornet-based cases were doing a fine job on "gophers," offering about as much performance as was necessary for these targets that are about a quarter to a third the size of an adult prairie dog. And a year later I shot prairie dogs in western Kansas with Jim and Fred, where Fred absolutely insisted that I shoot his Contender Carbine in .19 Calhoon all of one afternoon - with his ammo.

The Montana ground squirrel hunt three years ago was so much fun that I've been wanting to get back there since, but it wasn't until last May that things worked out for my schedule. One of my goals on the trip was to test on "gophers" the .22 K-Hornet, the .17 Ackley Hornet, and the .19 Calhoon as extensively as I could. As a step towards achieving that goal, I had ordered from Bullberry Barrel Works two custom barrels for the Contender frame, both stainless steel, 22" long and 0.8" diameter, along with high grade walnut stocks and forearms. One barrel is chambered in .22 K-Hornet and the other in .17 Ackley Hornet. I assembled the barrels and wood on two stainless Contender frames, topped with Burris 4-12x Compact scopes with Plex reticles and target knobs. The scopes were mounted in Leupold Dual Dovetail rings and bases. I have used these scopes before on rimfire rifles and liked them a lot, so I decided to simply transfer them to these small centerfire rifles for the trip.

Though I had no .19 Calhoon rifle to take with me, somehow I had a feeling that either Fred or Jim would hand me a rifle in that chambering and absolutely insist I shoot it on the ground squirrels. Darned if that isn't what happened !

For decades my favorite bullet for my K-Hornet have been the Nosler 45-grain bullet with soft lead tip and the Speer 45-grain spitzer point. The Nosler, in my gun is slightly more accurate, though not enough to get excited about, and both bullets provide superb expansion. I've shot a truckload of young-of-the-year prairie dogs and lots of Montana ground squirrels with these bullets and have no complaints about their performance. I can half-inch five-shot groups at a hundred yards with the Noslers and only slightly larger groups with the Speers.

These days, there are even more bullets available that perform outstandingly in the Hornet and K-Hornet. Recently I've been trying the 40-grain Hornady V-Max and the 40-grain Barnes Burner VLC coated varmint bullets. Accuracy and expansion are both excellent with these bullets, though I'd have to give a slight edge in expansion to the V-Maxes. Other fine choices include the new 33-grain Speer Hornet TNT hollow-point; the relatively new Hornady 35-grain, and 40-grain weights; JRP Custom Bullets with their .22 caliber 20-grain HP, 25-grain HP and 30-grain HP; and James Calhoon produces several .22 caliber bullets that range from 30-grains to 62-grains. The one I would choose for Hornet-based cases weigh 30 grains, 37 grains, 42 grains, and 46 grains.

All Calhoon bullets are made with what Jim calls "double hollow point" construction. The lead core has a cavity in its nose, and the jacket gets a hollow point when formed around the core. Jim makes no claim to offering benchrest bullets, just "fine shootin' varmint bullets," but they are remarkably accurate and, with their double hollow-point construction, they are explosive on targets. Plus, the zinc -based coating on the jackets fouls barrels at a slower rate than copper-based jackets so you can shoot about twice as much before having to clean the barrel.

My spring schedule kept me from getting all the handloading done that I wanted before traveling to Montana, but I did have some K-Hornet loads still kicking around my loading room so they went into the pickup. Plus, I had along three brands of .22 Hornet factory ammunition to try on ground squirrels. My list of bullets wasn't as comprehensive as I would have preferred, but I was convinced I had enough to get a good idea of how the Hornet would stack up in the gopher wars.

My handloads included 42-grain Calhoon bullets, 40-grain Nosler bullets, 40-grain Hornady V-Max, and 45-grain Noslers and Speers. All were loaded in Winchester cases with Winchester small rifle primers. Factory Hornet ammo included Hornady Varmint Express with their 35-grain V-Max (listed at 3,100 fps), Remington with a 45-grain jacketed hollow-point (listed at 2,690 fps), and Winchester Supreme with a 34-grain jacketed hollow-point (listed at 3,050 fps).

Some examples of accuracy I got with my .22 K-Hornet T/C Carbine included (all five-shot groups at 100 yards) just under half an inch with the Hornady factory ammo and half an inch with the Winchester factory ammo. The Nosler .45-grain Hornet bullet propelled with W-296 powder hovered around 5/8", and Calhoon's 42-grain double hollow point (also with 296) hovered just under half an inch with one exceptional 3/8" group. The Hornet typically never has been noted for having benchrest accuracy, but some of today's factory loads produce remarkable accuracy and a handloader, working with a good barrel and some of today's outstanding bullets can make the Hornet shoot just fine. Certainly, a good .223 or .22-250 typically will outshoot the Hornet, but a good Hornet delivers more adequate accuracy for ground squirrels, which often are shot inside 200 yards...and frequently a lot closer. And though the Hornet's trajectory begins to resemble a rainbow much beyond 200 yards, I've always found lots of ground squirrels and young prairie dogs to shoot at well within that range. My point here is that the Hornet certainly is up to the task. The near total lack of recoil, low noise level, and small charges of powder (thus reducing costs) make the Hornet an excellent choice as a "gopher getter."

When I started field testing my .22 K-Hornet on Montana ground squirrels, the performance on Nosler and Speer 45-grain Hornet bullets was no surprise. I've used these bullets a lot and they provide fine expansion. If I never had any other bullets than these, I'd still be happy to shoot the Hornet. But more modern bullets (lighter, with higher velocities and new tip designs) produce even more devastating expansion, and often a bit better accuracy. The Calhoon 42-grain double hollow-point bullet provides spectacular expansion; a squirrel hit with one of these missiles simply doesn't go anywhere...except to that big alfalfa patch in the sky. The 40-grain Hornady V-Max is another bullet that offers all the performance on ground squirrels a shooter could ask for...fine accuracy and expansion that's everything you want. The 40-grain V-Max seems to have a thinner jacket than other plastic-tipped bullets, making an excellent choice for small varmints like ground squirrels.

Testing factory Hornet ammunition on ground squirrels for the first time provided a pleasant surprise. The three brands I had with me delivered everything a shooter could want - excellent accuracy and terrific expansion. The Hornady line, with its 35-grain V-Max, opens up on gophers like you wouldn't believe. And so does the Winchester brand with its 34-grain jacketed hollow-point. This bullet has no plastic point, relying instead on a combination of hollow-point, dead-soft core, and a very thin jacket that is scored on the inside to open up quickly. And it does so in fine style. Both the Hornady and Winchester factory Hornet ammo are quite accurate in my guns. The Remington load, with a 45-grain jacketed hollow-point bullet certainly is not new technology compared with the likes of a plastic tip - but it is a tried-and-true design that's proven itself for ages. The ammo killed squirrels just as satisfactorily as the other factory loads. Perhaps Remington's attitude with this ammo is, "If is ain't broke, don't fix it." The squirrels certainly didn't know the difference.

All in all, I find the .22 K-Hornet a more that adequate round for ground squirrels. True, the trajectory is not as straight as a stretched string at longer distances, but so many targets in a good gopher patch are well within the Hornet's range that I don't find that a factor. With no recoil to speak of and moderate report, the Hornet is pleasant to shoot. Cheap too! you can load more than 500 cases with a pound of powder.

Next up was field testing the .17 Ackley Hornet. It's a true wildcat since there is no factory ammo that can be shot in its chamber to fire-form into the new case. So, it's necessary to make cases, and for that I used Redding's forming die set which consists of a form die No. 1, a trim die, and an extended shellholder. My loading dies also are Redding - a full length die, a neck-sizing die, and a seating die. Forming .17 AH cases is not particularly difficult, just time consuming. I spent quite a few evenings in my basement reloading room preparing a thousand cases. In the July 2000 issue of The Varmint Hunter Magazine I went into more detail on the forming process so I won't cover it again here.

I loaded half the cases with Calhoon 19-grain double hollow-point bullets and the other half with Hornady 20-grain V-Max bullets, using 11 grains of AA 1680 powder for fire-forming. I would be forming out the cases in the improved chamber each time I fired at a gopher.

My first choice for powder in the.17 Ackley Hornet is AA 1680. It's noted for fine accuracy and excellent velocity. The second powder I would try is H4227. One of these two propellants usually will work just fine.

Regretably,.17 caliber bullets are not as plentiful as .22 caliber bullets. Among the large manufacturers, only Hornady produces such bullets. James Calhoon offers .17 caliber bullets weighing 19, 22, 25, and 28 grains. He recommends the 19-grain weight for the Ackley Hornet and the .22-grain weight for the .17 Mach IV. Those weighing 25 and 28 grains he suggests for the .17 Remington case. Berger also makes fine .17 caliber bullets, and I've used them with success before, but I was out of them at the time I did my loading data for the Montana trip so I had none to field test this time. (But now I have another excuse for another gopher gettin' trip.) Other small manufacturers also make .17 caliber bullets and some are sold by Todd Kindler, owner of The Woodchuck Den.

I made very good use of the .17 Ackley Hornet in my Contender Carbine while in northern Montana. Late one morning, I fired more than 60 rounds in 45 minutes in the area around an old log cabin, where the wife of a ranch owner had asked us to thin out the gophers. I doubt if there were two acres of grass there, but gophers were all over the place. At the time I was shooting Calhoon bullets, and simply plopped down on the ground and shot from the sitting position. The little rascals favored a slat block placed on the ground for cattle, and I killed more than a dozen near that block without moving.

That afternoon Jim and Fred had a large pasture in mind for their shooting, and I wanted to hike to the top of a large hill where I had spotted numerous ground squirrels earlier in the week. The area I had in mind was not somewhere I wanted to drive my pickup, so I put a Harris Bipod and a sling on the rifle, hung a rolled up shooting mat on my shoulder, grabbed a bag of .17 AH rounds, and included a Swarovski 10x50mm SLC binocular, Leica LRF 1200 laser rangefinder, and a bottle of water. Then I proceeded to climb.

Once on top, I realized I had found the mother lode of ground squirrels on this ranch. Because it would be next to impossible to get to this area in a vehicle, I was certain the squirrels here had never been shot at. To say they were plentiful would be an understatement. The little grass munchers were everywhere, the pasture torn up with their holes and mounds. Carefully scanning the hillside to my left and a basin in front of me with the Swarovski binocular, I was in awe of both the number of critters and the amount of damage done to the turf. Ii was now time to go to work.

I unrolled the shooting mat, unfolded the bipod legs, set the bag of ammo by the carbine, and commenced firing. There were, quite literally, squirrels everywhere I looked. I shot one way for a while, turned around and shot in opposite direction, then to the left and then to the right. When the targets in one area got a bit spooky, I'd just fire in another direction for a while.

Hornet-based cartridges, from left: .22 K-Hornet, .19 Calhoon, and .17 Ackley Hornet. To the left of the .19 case is a 27-grain double hollow-point Calhoon bullet and to the right is a 32-grain double hollow-point Calhoon bullet.

In this particular spot, 200 yards was a long shot, and most targets were well-within that range, probably averaging 150 yards, though those were not the norm. All in all, the .17 Ackley Hornet cartridge and the .19-grain Calhoon bullets were more than up to the task. What the .17 AH gives up in bullet weight it makes up for with velocity and flatter trajectory, compared with the .22 K-Hornet. Bullet expansion is spectacular and the trajectory is flat enough that only 2 or 3 inches of holdover was needed at the longest ranges I was shooting at.

In about 90 minutes I fired more than 100 rounds, and decided it was time to move. There was a low hill to the west of me and I thought I needed to check out the area that I could not see behind the rise. I walked about a hundred yards west, enough to get past the low rise, and found myself in a new mother lode. Before me was a broad, shallow basin with a hill to the north sloping gently upward from the far edge of the basin. It was a target-rich environment, with grass munchers to the left, right, and center. Near the top of the hill the shots were 300 yards and more, enough to make shooting interesting. At such a distance, the velocity of my fire-form loads would mean a drop of 7" or a bit more. As is usually the case, it's not the elevation that's so difficult to compensate for, it's crosswinds. And yes, these light .17 caliber bullets can get blown off course a bit.

There was a steady breeze from the west, and since I was shooting mostly to the north, nearly all of my shots beyond 150 yards or so would require some compensation. But that's part of the fun. Ii didn't take very many shots to determine about how much holdoff was needed to connect on a pretty consistent basis.

A couple of times curious ground squirrels came out of their holes about 10 yards in front of me to see what I was doing. They learned very quickly but didn't live long enough to think about it much. One of the features I like most about the Burris 4-12x Compact scope is that the adjustable objective will focus as close as 7 yards, so I cranked the AO ring way around until I actually had these nearby squirrels in sharp focus. Of course, the bullet is about an inch and a half below the line of sight so I had to hold the crosshair over the squirrels' backs to hit them. At this close distance they looked the size of a hose in the scope.

Ground squirrels seem to be innately curious about finding out what happened to their departed brethren, so it's not unusual to shoot one near a mound and then have one after another come creeping up to look over the remains. I shot five around one mound and seven around another when curiosity got the better of them.

The ranges I was shooting in this new location averaged a bit longer than the first spot, and I had a bit more wind to contend with, but he situation made for excellent field testing conditions for the Hornady .17 caliber 20-grain V-Max bullets I had switched to. Once again, accuracy was excellent and expansion was spectacular. These bullets did all I asked of them.

As much as I like the .22 K-Hornet, the .17 Ackley Hornet may be an even better gopher getter because of its higher velocity and flatter trajectory. Certainly there is no problem with killing power when the light, frangible bullets strike these small critters. They quite simply become very dead very quickly.

If you ask Jim Calhoon (or even if you don't) he will explain in considerable detail why his .19 Calhoon case design is the best gopher getter out there that's based on the .22 Hornet case. And he just may be right. The short story is that the .19 caliber is sort of in between the .17 and .22, so .19 bullets have the velocity of the .17 for flat trajectory and most of the weight of the .22, for higher energy delivered on target. Plus, with the shoulder blown forward (resulting in a shorter neck), the case capacity of the .19 is greater than either the .17 or .22, which is why the heavier .19 bullets can equal or exceed the velocity of the .17 AH. Another plus is that the case capacity is not so great that the barrel heats up too much. So the .19's performance, both in velocity and energy, is about all you're going to get out of the Hornet case...and it's way more than adequate for shooting ground squirrels.

Even though I had shot the .19 Calhoon before on both ground squirrels and prairie dogs, I was eager to take up Fred's offer to use his Contender Carbine for an afternoon of gopher shooting. Yep, the .19 Calhoon cartridge offers a lot to like in the way of accuracy, velocity, and high impact energy. And of course Calhoon bullets expand spectacularly on gophers. I've shot enough Calhoon bullets (thousands) to know that they are deadly varmint bullets.

That afternoon I went back to an area I'd shot earlier in the week while Jim and Fred were shooting on another part of the ranch. Over the course of several hours I had near shots and far shots and everything in between. By the time I met Jim and Fred later in the day, I had made Fred's ammo bag lighter by several hundred bullets. I really like shootin' partners who absolutely insist I burn up their ammo.

This day was a good learning experience with the .19 Calhoon. The cartridge not only works, it works exceedingly well. As Jim claims, it just may well be the best "gopher getter" based on the .22 Hornet case. And Jim is convinced nothing larger is needed for ground squirrels. I suspect there just might be a .19 Calhoon rifle in my future for gettin' gophers. He offers the cartridge in converted Ruger 77/22 VHZ models (.22 Hornet) and CZ 527 American Models (designed for the Hornet case), with barrels supplied by Pac-Nor Barreling. I've shot both rifles a lot and like them both. Or I could cheerfully live with another Contender Carbine. Decisions, decisions!

To give you an idea of the performance you can get out of a .19 Calhoon, here are some figures. For starters, as mentioned earlier, Jim uses Remington Hornet cases because he says he can get half a grain more powder into his case than other brands. He makes five bullet weights in .19 caliber, weighing 27, 32, 36, 40, and 44 grains. The three heaviest he uses only in his .19-223 case. The two lighter weights he uses only in the .19 Calhoon. He prefers the 27-grain weight for ground squirrels and 32-grain for the larger, heavier prairie dogs. (The .19 Calhoon loaded with the 32-grain bullet is a 300-yard prairie dog cartridge, he says, and it also offers excellent penetration on even larger critters such as coyotes.) Federal small rifles primers and CCI 400 Primers are his favorites. The slower powders suitable for the .22 Hornet work best in the .19 Calhoon. Fifteen grains of either AA 1680 or VV N120 powder deliver 3,600-plus fps muzzle velocity with the 27-grain bullet out of a 24" barrel. (With the 32-grain bullet he would drop the powder charge to 13.5 grains, getting 3,300-plus fps velocity.) Jim believes the .19 Calhoon treads very close on the heels of the .17 Mach IV cartridge, which is based on the larger capacity .221 Fireball case.

Over a number of years I've gained quite a bit of experience shooting young-of-the-year prairie dogs (about the size of ground squirrels) with Hornet-based cartridges. And more recently I've shot a lot of Richardson's ground squirrels using these cartridges. The three that I've described here may not be the only Hornet based cartridges out there (there are other variations of improved Hornets, and I think there is a .20 caliber), but the ones I have mentioned are the ones I have shot a lot. They all do the job in exemplary fashion and I like all three. And all are economical to shoot.

The Hornet round itself (whether factory or improved version) is better than ever with today's bullets and powders, and a rifle in the standard chambering offers the advantage of shooting nothing but factory ammunition if one so chooses. But personally, I prefer the K-Hornet for a gain in velocity (from around 100 to nearly 300 fps increase, depending on bullet and powder) and greater energy. And for handloaders the .22 Hornet can use any of a large number of excellent .22 caliber varmint bullets from a number of sources.

The .17 Ackley Hornet, with bullets weighing no more than 20 grains, offers higher velocity and energy and a flatter trajectory than the .22 K-Hornet. However, fewer bullet choices are available.

The .19 Calhoon may well be the best of the three Hornet-based cartridges I've tried. It combines the bullet weight near the .22 end of the spectrum and the velocity near the .17 end if the spectrum.

What it comes down to is that any of the three cartridges is a fine choice on ground squirrels, with all the performance needed for these small critters while sipping small doses of powder that will nor overheat a barrel. You can't go wrong. Whichever you choose will provide about all the fun you can handle in a good gopher patch.