The .204 Ruger
Issues to Consider
As we pursue our areas of interest, develop our proficiency, or delve deeper into hunting or competitive shooting, we redefine our equipment needs. One does not hunt big game with a rifle designed for small game, or opt for a heavy-barreled competitive rifle in dense woods where a more responsive, lighter rifle or carbine would serve best. You choose your area(s) of interest and equip yourself accordingly.
It has been my pleasure to have known a great many shooters in the past >50 years, and I’ve learned something valuable from a great many of them. There are those who rely upon one or two versatile rifles and, over time, have developed impressive skill with them. There are others whose interests and activity cover a broader spectrum, and they’ve polished a variety of skills.
As shooters, we eventually find some outlet that strikes a chord, presents a challenge and sparks an interest. For me, that was varmint-shooting. As an extension of that, I became involved in benchrest shooting in 1969-71, and a benefit of that was to learn better handloading techniques. For benchrest shooters, handloading approaches an obsessive-compulsive pursuit of consistency. That understanding made me a more accurate small game shooter, because varminting often involves tiny targets at great distances
A ground squirrel is about the size of a dollar bill. At 100 to 300 yards, that is a challenging target! Over time, I have developed a preference for .22 centerfire rifles. I’m not a collector, but I seem to have accumulated a few rifles that rise to the challenge of accuracy over distance. Many rifles have passed through my hands, and my preferences depend in large measure with where and how I shoot. When I lived in the Northeast. I relied on a .222 Remington and a .22-250 to eliminate woodchuck (groundhogs) from dairy pastures in Upstate New York. I relocated to the West Coast in early 1972, and found coyotes very interesting. The .22-250 performed well.
I’ve cycled through a lengthy list of .22 centerfire rifles: .221 Fireball, .222 Rem., .223 Rem, .222 Rem. Magnum, .220 Swift, .225 Winchester, .22-250, etc. A few remain in my possession but many have been sold or traded because I enjoy working with them, learning what does or doesn’t work well for me.
In 2002, we saw the emergence of the .17 HMR (Hornady Magnum Rimfire). Cartridges come and go, depending on the market’s response, and I was curious whether the .17 HMR was a mere flash in the pan. Similar ideas have appeared in the past. For example, the 5mm Remington, appeared in 1969 but sales withered and the cartridge disappeared. Yes, a long memory can be a curse or a blessing, depending on one’s perspective.
A friend purchased a Savage Model 93 chambered for the .17 HMR and I looked at the little pill with interest. I stepped afield carrying a Ruger M77/22M, a .22 WRM, and my colleague relied on his 17 HMR. A sage rat appeared at approximately 48 paces, and I deferred to my friend, who eliminated the varmint accurately and decisively. Observing what was left of the sage rat, I had to admit, the .17 HMR had efficiently done its job. Hornady provided this ammunition with a well-designed bullet, and the projectile makes all the difference.
We traded opportunities for shots and our day went well. The demonstration effectively illustrated that (a) I don’t know everything and ought not operate by presupposition, and (b) lightweight, tiny bullets of less-than-.22 caliber can indeed be devastating on small game and less susceptible to crosswinds than I assumed.
Time passed, and .22 rimfire ammunition at local retailers seemed scarce, difficult to keep in stock. I was unable to find my preferred ammunition for the .22 Long Rifle and .22 Magnum, but ammo for the .17 HMR was consistently on the shelves, available for purchase.
In 2004, the .204 Ruger cartridge arrived with some fanfare or skepticism from pundits and scribes, and many of us took a wait-and-see attitude toward this new cartridge. I thought it showed promise in terms of the shooting I enjoy and the areas where I do my varminting, but my .223 and .22-250 serve me well. In the recent past, I’ve looked at a few of my rifles that have been sitting dormant in my safe and reminded myself of a statement I’ve made in the past: I can’t permit a rifle or sidearm to sit dormant in the safe; they must be used and perform well or they'll be sold/traded for something else.
I decided to add a .204 Ruger rifle to my battery of varminters and began with a new Howa 1500 barreled action (with heavy barrel). Next, I ordered a wood laminate stock from Boyd’s, a drop-in fit. I have no reason for subtlety in the field, so the stock was a blue-black laminate. Warne rings and one-piece base were my next choices because it’s a rock-solid combination, and I had a Vortex 4-12X scope on hand.
When all was assembled, I purchased Hornady factory ammunition with 32 grain V-Max bullets and went to the 50 & 100-yard lines at Tri-County Gun Club to sight in. I’d boresighted very patiently and my first shots at 50 yards were in the black at one o’clock. After a sight adjustment, I moved my target to 100 yards and fired 5 rounds, then swabbed the barrel. If you’re going to use a .20 caliber rifle, a .22 caliber cleaning rod will be of no assistance; you need a thinner cleaning rod and they are available at many retailers.
At 100 yards, I fired another 5-shot group and was very pleased that the bullets grouped tightly (sub-MOA) but I made a minor windage & elevation adjustment and switched to one of my vermin targets, a life-sized silhouette of a rat. I must tell you, I am favorably impressed with Hornady’s 32 grain factory load for this cartridge. At the end of my firing session, I had 50 fire-formed brass cases. I neck-sized and handloaded them with 29.5 grains of CFE223 powder, Remington 7½ primers, and the Hornady 32 grain V-Max bullets seated to provide an average overall length of 2.278 inches. I weigh every charge and I should comment that a powder funnel for twenty caliber is necessity.
A shooter with whom I correspond uses a heavier bullet, a different powder and also gets praiseworthy results, so there is some latitude for experimentation with different loads. To its credit, the .204 Ruger recoils no more than a .222 Rem., so you can usually keep small game within the field of view of your scope when you fire, and reloading the cartridge will permit you to get more than 200 rounds out of a 1-pound can of smokeless powder. I wouldn't choose the .204 Ruger as my first or only varmint rifle. It reaches its best performance when handloaded. For a shooter who doesn't handload, I think a .223 or .22-250 rifle are the better options.
In summary, this .204 Ruger rifle joins other heavy-barreled varmint rifles in my battery of favorites and I’m very pleased with it.