We recently put MeatEater’s Steven Rinella in the hot seat, grilling him for answers to your top small game questions on squirrel hunting. We’re back at it with a new installment on rabbit hunting with a rimfire rifle, and you can’t afford to miss it.
Q: When does a rifle trump a shotgun?
SR: Lots of folks hunt rabbits with beagles, where the dogs push the rabbits in a loop back toward the hunter. The rabbits tend to keep a good lead on the dogs so they’re not always ripping past full blast, so a good hand with a .22 can often connect on these slower-moving passes. But in general, a shotgun is better suited for this method for most folks.
Where a .22 really shines and brings a whole different type of fun to rabbit hunting is spot-and-stalk and still-hunting, especially in the open, drier regions of the West. I like to hike through piñon and juniper groves and other likely habitat hunting for rabbits. I stop often, looking for rabbits on south-facing slopes on sunny, cold days, or near rock outcroppings, abandoned prairie dog burrows and other cover. I use my binoculars a lot, glassing these areas before moving on, and usually spotting the rabbits before they spot me. A .22 rifle is perfect for this kind of hunting since shots are often long and at stationary targets.
Q: When it comes to rabbits with a rifle, do you go scope or no scope?
SR: For me, a scope for sure. If you’re going to still-hunt rabbits with a rifle in the open areas of the West, you’re just going to be more accurate at these distances with a scope
That said, if you’re the kind of hunter who likes to use a .22 behind beagles, open sights might be the way to go for those snap shots at close, moving rabbits.
Q: Let’s talk vitals on a rabbit. Where are guys and gals going to want to hit these bunnies? Does this change depending on range?
SR: With rabbits, I always take a head shot if I can—it wastes almost no meat. If you’re on, it kills the rabbit immediately, and if you’re off, it’s almost always a clean miss. A shot through the chest and rib area will cleanly kill a rabbit, of course, it just wastes some meat in the rib and saddle area. What you want to avoid is shooting the rabbit through the shoulders or hindquarters, as that’s where most of the meat is. At the far end of your effective range, a chest shot will give you more margin for error.
Q: How far should you be prepared to shoot rabbits with a rifle?
SR: Hunters who have shooting skills, an accurate rifle and ammo, good optics and a solid understanding of the ballistics of the load they’re shooting, can reliably kill rabbits out to 100 yards. However, a .22 starts to drop quickly past 75 yards, so that is probably as far most folks should regularly shoot, and 50 yards and under is even better. I always like to get as close as I can. Trying to stalk close to the game is part of the fun for me. If you use some hunting skills to stalk carefully you can usually close the distance to 50 yards or less.
Q: Any special ammunition you prefer for downing rabbits?
SR: Hypervelocity rounds that use lighter, hollow-point bullets for increased velocity and flatter trajectory are what we use. The CCI Stinger is hard to beat. It lets you shoot farther and is more accurate. The hollow-point design also causes the bullet to expand quickly for good performance on game.
Q: What makes rabbit hunting so fun?
SR: There is a reason why “breeding like rabbits” has become shorthand for having a lot of kids. Rabbits reproduce so prolifically because they are one of the world’s great prey animals. They are found around the globe in all kinds of habitats, and they’re essential food for so many animals: birds of prey, snakes and other reptiles, coyotes and wolves, and bobcats and lynx, and of course, man. Rabbit meat is delicious and one of my favorites. Hunting rabbits is a challenge, yet their near ubiquity also gives them a lot of appeal. Whether you’re in the Northeast, the South, the West, in woods and swamps and open lands, you can find a rabbit to hunt.
Q: Tools of the trade. Any rabbit-specific gear you need to have?
SR: Some tough-ass pants. Hunting rabbits means pushing through some brushy cover, tangles and thorns that can tear thin pants and leave your legs crisscrossed with bloody scratches. My favorite is First Lite’s Sawbuck Brush Pant. They’re real tough, yet they are also a bit stretchy and very comfortable. I’ve talked enough about binoculars, so I won’t belabor that point, but just like with squirrels, lots of folks don’t think they need binocular when rabbit hunting, but I use them all the time.