Squirrel can be taken with either type of firearm, so how do you decide which is best for you?
Just like with other forms of hunting, there are enthusiasts that prefer different methods of take for their game of choice. Squirrel hunters tend to fall into two distinct groups along a strong dividing line: those who use shotguns and those who use rifles. Within these camps you can break them down further into people who like the various gauges, calibers and the like. Particularly for rifles, there are hunters that pride themselves on skill with open (iron) sights and those that enjoy the technical side of scopes.
Hunting Squirrels with a Rifle
The rifles most commonly brought on a squirrel hunt are .22 guns that come in short, long, or long-rifle. These days, most folks use long-rifle because they are readily available. Hollow point bullets are not necessary, but they can sometimes be readily purchased in box stores thanks to the growth in predator hunting.
The most popular .22 rifle of all time is the Marlin Model 60. As an inexpensive gun that experienced a long-running production, you will frequently encounter this gun in the field. The Model 60 features a tubular magazine that can hold 10-12 rounds, which is convenient for not having to carry extra ammunition loose in your pocket. The gun is semi-automatic which means that each time you squeeze the trigger, a bullet is fired. They are forgiving and straightforward to operate. I’ve had one for 20 years and have never had major issues with it.
Other popular makes and models you will see in the squirrel woods include the Ruger 10-22 and a variety of old hand-me-down classic single shots that never go out of style. I also enjoy the Browning SA-22. The cool features include loading ammunition into the magazine through a hole in the stock. The gun is not as balanced across the entire length of the gun, but rather the balance is shifted back toward the butt end. This is because the forearm and the stock are two separate pieces of wood rather than the more solid construction of the Marlin Model 60.
The goal is to treat every gun like glass, but the Marlin can take a beating compared to the Browning, which is more expensive and more akin to walking around the timber with a fiddle that you would not dare to bonk into a tree. The SA-22, being light at the front, is beneficial for holding the muzzle steady for a longer period if you are really taking your time to shoot squirrels at a distance.
For a few years there was a surge in .17 HMR promotions, but then the expense and ammunition shortages put a stop to that. In all honesty, they were too much power for the job. You will also find people that swear by .32 caliber muzzleloaders which is fun and has similar ballistics to a .22 caliber gun. Target (plinking) grade rounds are perfectly adequate for most people since the quality of production is so standardized these days.
Hunting Squirrels with a Shotgun
Particularly in parts of the rural South, shotgunners are the dominant force in squirrel hunting. The ability to hunt diverse game species with the same gun throughout the year, whether in dense pine stands or thick briars, make shotguns hard to beat. You will often see a mix of 12- and 20-gauge guns.
Increasingly, as development carves up the landscape and safety concerns over the effective range of firearms become more prevalent, shotgun hunting may very well be the future of small game hunting. Some states even limit the use of lead shot on public lands for upland and small game.
The most common shot size for squirrels in lead is #6. For non-toxic shot, the general rule is to go a size of shot bigger (lower number, i.e., #4 or #5 shot). You will hear comments about “ruining the meat” from rifle hunters but squirrels, especially the big fox squirrels, have a tough hide compared to other similar-sized mammals. Often, the concussion of being hit with a shotgun load will knock one out of a tree and only a small number of pellets will make it through to vital areas.
Many of the BBs will be caught in the skin and can be removed during processing, eliminating potential lead contamination in the edible parts. My go-to shotgun for twenty years has been the Remington 870 Express in 20 gauge. It is a pump shotgun. I shoot standard 2.5 to 3 inch shotgun shells that can be picked up at box stores right off the shelf. These are regularly #6 shot, but if you are looking for non-lead options, visit the waterfowl section for #4’s.
Be sure to check your state’s regulations about the number of shotgun shells your gun is allowed to hold. You will often find that to simplify rules across seasons, shotguns must have a plug to limit the magazine to holding just three shells.
One of the things I commonly see is people attempting to level or swing a shotgun that is too long for them. The telltale signs are that their torso is leaning back from their waist and their elbows are locked straight. Conversely, a confident shooter with a well-fitting gun has their non-dominant foot forward and their shoulders slightly rolled toward the front over the gun.
Other Considerations for Hunting Squirrels
Squirrel hunting can be as simple and inexpensive to get into as a person would like it to be; conversely, you can put intense effort into experimenting with different grain loads (amount of powder in the ammunition) and a myriad of optics. The major brands have decent versions of scopes to suit your personal preferences and hunting style.
One of the best investments you can make is in a decent shoulder sling for your gun. After decades of cradle-carrying a firearm for miles while following dogs, I cannot believe that I did not start using slings earlier. Part of the reason is probably still/stand squirrel hunting so much as a kid and old habits die hard. In rough terrain it is helpful to have your hands free to stabilize yourself on trees or rocks as you scramble. One time I even lost my footing and fell downhill into the side of a tree across my collar bone because I was hugging a gun in my crossed arms. Had the tree not stopped me it could have been bad! Yes, I have had more than one person compare squirrel hunting with me to elk hunting in the West but I digress…
The rifle and shotgun each have their benefits. Shotguns are great for the early season in areas with a lot of gray squirrels that tend to run through the treetops before the leaves fall. Rifles are perfect for carefully placed head shots at a sitting squirrel or in places where fox squirrels can be found which, unless they are old and educated, have a habit of being less erratic in their movements. The sweet spot for squirrel hunting is when you have a mix of each kind in your hunting party. The versatility of being able to adapt to whatever situation you encounter makes the rivalry between methods moot. New hunters, regardless of age, are often more comfortable with the less precise aiming sometimes needed for a scattergun, which can build confidence.
Marc Gray has been hunting squirrels for nearly 30 years with his Dad and other members of the the Gray family. He grew up in Central Virginia and has family in North Central Missouri where he also hunts regularly. His nationally-known line of squirrel dog founded in 2005, Gray’s Mountain Feist, is in its seventh generation and has hunters in more than 20 states enjoying the strain. Since 2913, he and wife, Jess, have produced two dvd videos showcasing their dogs hunting across the country. Gray is a 2006 graduate of Unity College in Maine with a Bachelor’s in Wildlife Conservation. In 2009, he completed his Master’s in Wildlife Science at South Dakota State University. Marc works internationally on advancing conservation of natural resources, notably pollinators, most recently. @GrayFeist on Twitter & Gray’s Mountain Feist https://www.facebook.com/grayfeist/