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The .204 Ruger

If you’re like most firearms enthusiasts, you put a great deal of thought into every purchase. Consider the .204 Ruger for small game.

Varminting in the high desert with a Howa .223 Rem.

Varminting in the high desert with a Howa .223 Rem.

My Introduction to the .204 Ruger Rifle

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 many of them. There are those who rely upon one or two versatile rifles and, over time, have developed impressive skills with them. There are others whose interests and activities cover a broader spectrum, and they’ve polished a variety of skills with several firearms, choosing the most appropriate for the distance and terrain.

Woodchuck I'd dropped with a Sako .222 "Vixen" in summer 1969.

Woodchuck I'd dropped with a Sako .222 "Vixen" in summer 1969.

My Experience

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 competition 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 and concentricity. That understanding made me a more accurate small game shooter because varminting often involves tiny targets at great distances.

Ground Squirrel (Sage Rat)

Ground Squirrel (Sage Rat)

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 high velocity .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 on 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 .223 Rem and the .22-250 performed well. In the 1990s, we relocated to the Pacific Northwest. Old favorites still perform well, but I have the opportunity to work with other cartridges in different terrain.

A mature marmot.

A mature marmot.

I’ve cycled through a lengthy list of .22 centerfire rifles: .22 Hornet, .221 Fireball, .222 Rem., .223 Rem, .222 Rem. Magnum, .220 Swift, .225 Winchester, .22-250, etc. A few favorites remain in my possession but many others have been sold or traded because I enjoyed working with them, learning what does or doesn’t work well for me, then moving on to another rifle/cartridge combination. These days, I enjoy assembling or developing a good rifle as much as I enjoy shooting it!

L-R: ..204 Ruger, .222 Rem., .223 Rem., and 22-250,

L-R: ..204 Ruger, .222 Rem., .223 Rem., and 22-250,

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 5mm Remington cartridge disappeared.

A friend purchased a Savage Model 93 bolt action rifle 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 in crosswind conditions.

A sage rat appeared at a burrow entrance approximately 48 paces away, 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 a great difference.

Long-distance shots are available to test a varminter's marksmanship.

Long-distance shots are available to test a varminter's marksmanship.

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We traded opportunities for shooting and spotting, and our day went well. The day's demonstration effectively illustrated that (a) I don’t know everything, (b) I ought not operate by presupposition, and (c) lightweight, tiny bullets of less-than-.22 caliber can indeed be devastating on small game and less susceptible to crosswinds than I assumed. As distances increased, the .17 HMR performed much better in crosswinds than I expected it would. When the 204 Ruger appeared, I was more interested and receptive to the twenty caliber bullet than I otherwise may have been.

One of many alfalfa pivots in Lake County, Oregon.

One of many alfalfa pivots in Lake County, Oregon.

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 .222 Rem., .223, and .22-250 continue to 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 promise I’d made in the past: I can’t permit a rifle or sidearm to gather dust or become a wallflower in the safe; they must be used and perform well or they'll be sold/traded for something else. I no longer hunt medium game so a .30-'06 bolt action sporter based on an M98 Mauser action, though a fine performer, had not been used afield in a great while. I sold it to a neighbor and provided my reloading data. He is very pleased with it, so it was a win-win transaction.

I decided to add a .204 Ruger rifle to my battery of varminters and I used the resources from the sale of the .30-'06 to purchase a new Howa 1500 barreled action (with heavy barrel), and equipped it with a laminated wood stock from Boyd Brothers. A Vortex Crossfire II 4-12X telescopic sight, intended for another rifle, was repurposed for the .204 and I chose a Warne base and rings to mount it to the Howa 1500 receiver. Despite rough treatment on another rifle, that base and ring combination had proven itself to me as rock-solid.

Howa 1500 with Vortex 4-12x scope.

Howa 1500 with Vortex 4-12x scope.

I'd boresighted very patiently and my first shots at 50 yards required very little adjustment, so I promptly moved the targets to 100 yards. When zeroed at 100 yards, the first of my 5-shot groups were well under one inch, and I could cover the five bullet holes with a 25¢ piece, an American quarter. I was confident I could improve upon that by careful effort and adjusting the seating depth of the bullet.

I must tell you, I am favorably impressed with Hornady’s 32-grain factory load for this cartridge. I'd purchased a generous supply (500) of Hornady 32 grain V-Max bullets, so I focused my subsequent efforts on accuracy.

Zeroing the Howa .204 Ruger on the bench.

Zeroing the Howa .204 Ruger on the bench.

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. 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 and mail-order vendors.

Life-size vermin targets. The pencil is graduated in 16ths of an inch.

Life-size vermin targets. The pencil is graduated in 16ths of an inch.

At the end of my first 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 cartridge length of 2.278 inches. I weigh every charge and I should comment that a powder funnel for twenty caliber is a necessity. A funnel for .22 cartridges will not do.

.20 caliber funnel

.20 caliber funnel

A shooter with whom I correspond uses a heavier (40 grain) 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 seems to recoil mildly, certainly no more than my .222 Rem., so I can usually keep small game within the field of view of my scope when I fire, and reloading the cartridge will permit me to get more than 230 rounds out of a 1-pound can of smokeless powder. I should add, I wouldn't choose the .204 Ruger as my first or only varmint rifle. It reaches its best performance (consistent accuracy) when handloaded. For a shooter who doesn't handload, I think a .223 or .22-250 rifle are the better options.

Final zero of .204 Ruger rifle. The load is acceptable and, with minor adjustment, the rifle is now "field ready".

Final zero of .204 Ruger rifle. The load is acceptable and, with minor adjustment, the rifle is now "field ready".

An Essential

In summary, this .204 Ruger rifle joins other heavy-barreled varmint rifles in my personal battery of favorites and I’m very pleased with it. I enjoy handloading for optimum accuracy, and I rarely choose or use maximum loads. The case life for these cartridges has been equivalent to the brass for my .223 varminter.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Ed Palumbo (author) from Tualatin, OR on October 25, 2018:

Frank MOA, Thank you for your comment. The .204 Ruger is not the answer to every varminter's prayer. If your .223 and .22-250 are performing well for you, you need not purchase another rifle. If you are an avid handloader and are curious about this cartridge's capabilities, I think it's worth exploring. I did discover my .204 is accurate and effective. Would I trade a good .223 or .22-250 for it? No, I would not, but I have several varmint rifles chambered for different cartridges and all of them are accurate performers, and I've learned something from each of them. If you are inclined to explore the possibilities of another cartridge, I think the .204 Ruger bears a closer look. Though its projectiles are light in weight, they attain blisteringly fast velocities of 4,000+ fps. Assuming good bullet placement, it hits hard! But it doesn't disturb nearby ranchers or farmers a fraction as much as some cartridges. I enjoy using it, and I my handloads have been gratifyingly accurate, so I recommend it on that basis. It's not a "must have" - I think you've got that requirement covered with your .223 and .22-250 - but it's worthy of consideration. Thank you for your comment; it allows me to clarify my position.

Frank MOA on October 25, 2018:

If a .223 and .22-250 will cover most of my varminting requirements, why should I even consider a .204 Ruger? I don't think I see the niche that this cartridge is supposed to fill, or the task that it's supposed to perform better than existing .22 centerfire cartridges.

That said, I really like the photos you've provided.

Ed Palumbo, Author on October 09, 2018:

Wayne, Thank you for reading and commenting. The .204 Ruger is another good choice, though hardly the only fine varmint cartridge on the shelf. In terms of accuracy, it has delivered beyond my expectations but in purely practical terms (and for a shooter who doesn't handload) the .223 is probably better because ammunition is commonly available. If you enjoy experimenting with different bullets and powders, the .204 Ruger is rewarding!

wayne cates on October 09, 2018:

Good info to have learned for future weapons.

Ed Palumbo (author) from Tualatin, OR on October 07, 2018:

Tammy, The rifles are precision instruments and I enjoy working with them. Thank you for reading my work!

Tammy Palumbo on October 07, 2018:

Between your beautiful .204 Ruger rifle and your special hand-loaded ammunition those varmints don't stand a chance. Good article and photos!

Ed Palumbo (author) from Tualatin, OR on October 07, 2018:

Bill, Much has been made over time about susceptibility to crosswind, When I was young, firing thirty caliber rifles at 300 and 500 yards, my bullet choices weighed 168 and 190 grains. At distance, crosswinds had time to act upon a bullet and smaller projectiles were unpopular for matches.

As a varminter, an Oregon resident and an older man, I tend to think more pragmatically. I have fired at varmints that were 250+ yards away. In truth, the crosshairs of my 12X scopes completely subtend the tiny body of a sage rat at that distance but still make jackrabbits vulnerable. A few of the alfalfa pivots where I shoot are about 500 yards in diameter, and here I encounter the humbling reality that my vision does not accommodate small targets well at that distance. Given a "normal" distance of 250-300 yards, and the fact that most of my .22 centerfires provide high velocities, the wind doesn't have much time to act on those bullets.

Most of my shooting with the .204 has been with the generous supply of 32 grain bullets I have on my shelves, and the effect on target has been decisive, impressive. I typically load my .223 with 50 grain bullets, and my .22-250 with 55 grain bullets, and all are excellent performers.

An alfalfa pivot is as flat as a phonograph record for its diameter and crosswinds are unavoidable. As I move around the circumference of the pivot for better position or sunlight, the direction of that crosswind will change. At this writing, crosswinds have not been a concern requiring more than a half-body or full-body width correction into the wind at longer distances.

I don't own a chronograph because I am much less concerned with velocity than I am with accuracy, so tight groups at 100 and 200 yards are my yardstick. Since I rely on a few .22 centerfires (from .22 Hornet, .222 Rem, .223 to 22-250) I haven't found crosswind to be a concern except with the Hornet. Mild crosswinds have not been a great concern for me.

If my crosshairs subtend the body of the sage rat, I won't take the shot because I can't deliberately place the bullet. A jackrabbit is at greater hazard at longer distances, based solely on the size of the target. My limitations are self-imposed. If the crosswind is strong enough to blow my hat off my head, I'd probably wrap it up and find a cup of coffee somewhere.

Briefly, at the distances I shoot and the conditions that typically exist there, crosswinds provide no serious concern for me. Best of luck to you in the field, and thank you for your intelligent question!

BillCa on October 06, 2018:

The .204 seems interesting. How would you compare it's ballistics in the field versus a .223 using a 40 or 50 grain bullet? With the .204's light bullet, I'd worry about even a mild crosswind.

Ed Palumbo (author) from Tualatin, OR on October 06, 2018:

Robert, You've already made good choices. Candidly, the .204 Ruger doesn't kill a sage rat or woodchuck any deader than my other varmint rifles, but it was a cartridge I hadn't worked with before and I was curious. I've heard shooters swear by it and others dismissed it. It has exceeded my expectations, but so have others in my varmint battery or I'd have sold them promptly. CZ builds enviable rifles & sidearms, and I wish you a lifetime of shooting satisfaction with your .222 and .223!

robertstants on October 06, 2018:

Great article! Interesting build. I have never tried the 204 Ruger, having settled on the .222 and the .223 both by CZ I might have to take a second look at the 204.

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