I love to squirrel hunt for the pure, low-brow fun of it. You get to see a lot of game, make a lot of stalks, and do a lot of shooting. That’s the Good Time Trifecta in my book. Plus, it’s cheap and accessible. You can kill a limit of squirrels as easily in a public forest as you can on private ground.
Squirrel hunting is also the perfect opportunity to pull a favorite old gun out of the safe and use it. This year on opening weekend, a buddy of mine hit the field with an antique pump .22 that belonged to his grandfather—and he killed a limit with it. This lineup of guns, including both some classics and some new favorites, is one that’s proven itself in the woods. I’ve seen them all out there and but for a few exceptions, I’ve killed squirrels with all of them, too. You’re free to argue with my choices, but enter into the fray knowing that if I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
Annie Oakley’s lever-action .22 is also the most iconic squirrel rifle of all time. When I think of it, I think of my dad, because that’s the gun he carried, and he’s the one who taught me to hunt squirrels. Introduced in 1891, the 39A is the longest continuously produced rifle in the world (though today, new ones are only available through Marlin’s Custom Shop). Most don’t associate lever guns with precision, but this one isn’t built like most lever guns. It’s big and heavy, with a wide forend that rests perfectly against saplings, and a Micro Groove barrel that is famous for cloverleaf groups. Dad’s gun likes a Winchester 37-grain Super Speed hollowpoint, wears the same fixed 4x scope that it’s always had, and will shoot tight groups to this day.
Remington 552 Speedmaster
With a classic walnut stock and the unmistakable brass deflector, the 552 Speedmaster is another icon of the squirrel woods. It’s a tube-fed autoloader, still in production, and it’s one of the very few autoloaders that will handle Short and Long .22 cartridges, in addition to the usual Long Rifles. That’s not a huge advantage these days, since few people shoot anything other than .22LR, but 20 years ago, many of the serious squirrel hunters I knew swore by the .22 Short, because it destroyed very little meat.
CZ 457 Varmint
Two years ago, I got this rifle—mine’s a .17 HMR—on loan from CZ. It’s the most accurate firearm I’ve ever owned. When they asked for it back, I told them no, and sent them a check for it instead. My 6-year-old son, Anse, squirrel hunts with me most days now, and he’s dubbed the gun Big Blister. When squirrels are out of range for him, he asks me to press Big Blister into service, because he is from a bloodline that does not like to see things get away. With this gun, squirrels seldom do. I shoot a 20-grain CCI Game Point out of it, which isn’t as explosive as most .17 HMR rounds are on squirrels. Still, you’re best to aim for the eyeballs to keep all the quarters intact.
In all my years as an outdoor writing hack, the question I’m asked most often is, “how the hell do you skin those squirrels so fast?” It’s because I paid attention as a kid. When my neighbor saw me struggling to skin game with the traditional, cut-across-the-back method, he taught me a better way. And after skinning a few thousand bushytails, I’ve gotten OK at it. That neighbor was a squirrel killer, and the rifle he used was Browning’s SA-22. The bottom-ejecting autoloader, based on a John Browning patent, was the first semi-auto .22 ever put into production—and they’re still made to this day. With walnut furniture, a sleek forend, and a tubular magazine that loads through the stock, the gun is unmistakable. The current production Grade VI models have golden critters engraved into the receiver—squirrels included. The rifle is a take-down, and the barrel, not the receiver, is drilled and tapped for scope mounting.
Marlin 880 SQ
An 880 SS, which was the stainless-steel version of Marlin’s popular magazine-fed bolt-action of the ’90s (replaced today by the XT series), was my go-to squirrel gun for most of my life. I still have it and hunt with it to this day, and it’s still one of the best-shooting .22s I’ve ever owned. But I’ve always wanted the SQ version of the same rifle. It’s my gun, but with a heavy barrel and recessed crown. The 880 SQ wasn’t an expensive gun but in its day, if you saw a squirrel hunter toting one, you knew he was serious about his head-shooting.
The most-often customized rimfire in the world definitely makes the list—though it’s a safe bet the plain, wood-stocked factory version bought straight off the gun rack has been carried to the squirrel woods more than anything else. Autoloading .22s don’t get much more reliable, and when fitted with a heavy aftermarket barrel, they’re hell-on-wheels-accurate. But in my experience, even the skinny, factory carbine tubes are plenty accurate enough for squirrel hunting. My hunting buddy in high school carried one, and when we’d finish our limits of a morning, we’d take whatever ammo was left in our pockets and load it into the 30-round “banana mag” he kept in his backpack. Then, we’d spray .22 bullets into a muddy creek bank, fast as we could pull the trigger. That was good redneck fun, back when ammo was cheap and people weren’t hoarding it. The 10-22 is handy and inexpensive, and if you’re the type to tinker, there’s just nothing better.
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Winchester Model 62
Most of these classic pump-action “gallery guns” are surprisingly good shooters that will last forever, because they were designed to entertain the class of people who enjoy attending traveling carnivals (by God, I love carnivals). That gun I referenced earlier, that my buddy hunted with on opening weekend, and that his grandfather also hunted with decades and decades ago, was a vintage Model 62 pump. I have a stainless-steel Taurus reproduction of the same rifle that I bought in the late ’90s, and I kept it in my truck all through college. It’s a take-down gun that easily breaks apart and stashes in a gear bag. Scope mounting is possible but inconvenient, so I never added an optic. But I had better eyes back in college, and I used its open sights to keep our dorm room crockpot a bubbling with fresh squirrel quarters at all times.
Ruger American .22 WMR
During that same college experience, I met my buddy Ryan, while I was cleaning squirrels in the dorm parking lot on the tailgate of my pickup. We’ve hunted together every season since. If you are a squirrel, he is to be avoided at all costs, particularly if he’s carrying his pet Ruger American .22 WMR—which he just calls “Twenty-Two Magnum.” For less than $400, this is a rifle that has an adjustable trigger, shoots way better than it should, and is nearly indestructible. He loaned to a friend just last weekend, and that friend said the gun was so good, the scope seemed to have an “autocorrect” function so as to prevent missing. Thinking about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Ryan miss anything with it.
Traditions Crockett .32
Years ago, I had a .32-caliber Traditions muzzleloader that’s similar to the Crockett rifle in current production. A classic percussion sidelock, the gun is about the closest thing you can get today to the rifle Jeremiah Johnson settled for before he found Hatchet Jack’s frozen carcass and .50-caliber Hawken on the mountainside. Small-bore muzzleloaders can be a little finicky—but they’re also amazingly accurate once you dial into the right load. Mine shot best with just 12 grains of FFFG black powder and a patched .310 lead round ball, and that combo was lethal on 25-yard squirrels.
Winchester Model 37
Any shotgun will work just fine for squirrel hunting. Tote a Perazzi to the hickories, if that’s your thing. But a single-barrel introduced during the Great Depression gets my nod as the best squirrel-hunting scattergun of all time. The Model 37 sported a small exposed hammer and beefy “Steelbilt” construction. The automatic ejector popped those spent hulls out damn near as hard as the gunpowder propelled the shot, too. Most of them came with factory full chokes—almost as if the Winchester folks knew that these would be used for dropping squirrels from high out of the canopies. I have one in 16 gauge that was my dad’s first gun when he was a kid, and the shotgun he carried when he wasn’t carrying a rifle. He called it “Brother Win,” and loaded it with hi-brass “ounce and an eighth sixes.” Brother Win would kill a fox squirrel at 50 steps back then, and it still will today.
Mossberg 510 Mini Youth Super Bantam
A little shotgun that fits, with a woods full of squirrels, is about the best way I know of to get a kid into hunting. With an 18.5-inch barrel and weight of just 5 pounds, I don’t know of a shotgun any smaller than this micro-sized pump, either. The 510 is based on Mossberg’s time-tested Model 500. I’ve shot the 20-gauge version, and its recoil with anything heavier than a dove load is akin to Daniel LaRusso’s crane kick to the face. But the .410 version isn’t bad at all, and if you’re using lead shot, squirrel hunting is the one pursuit where that little shell and its 11/16-ounce payload is actually useful.
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Harrington & Richardson Topper
You can find as many of these old guns stamped with the New England brand as the H&R brand, but they’re all under the same umbrella. Like the Winchester M37, the Topper had everything going for it, as squirrel guns go. It was rugged, inexpensive, simple, and reliable—plus, with a full choke, it threw a tight, game-killing pattern. There were compact and Junior versions, trap versions, versions with color-case-hardened receivers, and even a survival-style Tamer version in .410. But the standard Topper, usually in 20-gauge, is the gun I’ve seen used most in the squirrel woods, and it’s still one of the best bargains going in the world of single-barrel shotguns.
CVA Scout .410
Seeing as this gun is new for 2020, it might seem a stretch to include in a list of best guns ever. But my son used it to kill his first squirrel just the other day, and I know a winner when I see it. It’s functionally like any other break-action single shot—but with some thoroughly modern enhancements. Marketed as a turkey gun to pair with TSS .410 shells, it has a Jeb’s turkey tube, a scope base, and a synthetic camo stock with removable spacers to accommodate a growing hunter. All of those things help for precision shooting, which is exactly how you should think of a .410 in the squirrel woods. It’s much closer to rifle shooting than wing-shooting. You need a tight pattern aimed right at them, same as you’d aim at a gobbler’s head.
Ruger New Model Single Six Hunter .17 HMR
My introduction to the .17 HMR came while field-testing this handgun during squirrel season some 15 years ago. I was impressed with the cartridge’s accuracy potential then, and I still am today. The revolver had a 7.5-inch barrel with a slab of steel on top, cut for the included Ruger scope rings. I added a variable-power Leupold pistol scope to it, and from a good rest, the gun would outshoot my .22 rifle. And at reduced handgun velocities, the .17 HMR wasn’t any more destructive on squirrels than a high-velocity .22 hollowpoint from a rifle, either. I didn’t have the money to buy that gun at the end of the review, and so I returned it. I’d call it one that got away. A similar version with the integral mount is still listed today on Ruger’s website, but best I can tell, it’s only offered in .22 Long Rifle.
Smith & Wesson 617
Built on Smith’s K-frame, this one is a big double-action—big at least, as rimfires go. The modern version of the Model 17 K-22 Masterpiece (a 6-shooter introduced in 1947), the 617 is a stainless gun with a 10-round cylinder. It has a reputation for being one of the most accurate production revolvers out there. My buddy got one for Christmas when we were in high school, and he still has it today. He mounted a red-dot sight to it, and though I prefer a scope for hand-gunning squirrels, it’s still a fine setup for close-range hunting.
Ruger Mark IV Hunter
The Mark IV solved the biggest issue many shooters had with Ruger’s classic Mark II semi-auto, with its one-button takedown system. With a fixed barrel and receiver, these pistols produce the accuracy necessary for a dedicated squirrel pistol. The Hunter version has good adjustable sights, a 6.8-inch tube, stainless finish, and nice-looking wood grips. It’s also drilled and tapped for an optics base, which is all but mandatory for hand-gunning squirrels.
Browning Buck Mark Field Target
Like the Ruger, there are many iterations of the Buck Mark, and they’ll all work on squirrels in a pinch. But choosing a model that’s a little “dressed up” is the way to go if you’re looking for a dedicated hunting gun. Although there is a “Hunter” version of the Buck Mark available, my nod for a new squirrel pistol would actually go to the suppressor-ready Field-Target model, which has a full-length Picatinny rail for mounting whatever optic you’d like to use. The muzzle is threaded for use with a suppressor, too. Sub-sonic ammo makes for the quietest report, but it sucks for hunting—especially at yet slower handgun speeds. Still, a suppressor will dampen the crack of the high-velocity hollowpoints that you need to use for this game, which is handy for both saving your own hearing and for keeping multiple squirrels in one tree from scattering to parts unknown after the first shot is fired.