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Rifles and Ammunition for Pest Control

By Mark Wheeler

During the era of semi-automatics the AR platform, especially in .223, was everyone’s darling. Excellent basic functionality, aftermarket parts and every accessory imaginable. If you wanted accuracy - the AR was the place to go.


I’m not a professional pest controller, rather a farm forester. I hunt and shoot for recreation, meat, and economic necessity to protect my investment. I had used an AR for pest control as it was simply the best tool for the job. The .223 is an adequate round and would do the business if you are careful with shot placement, something which does not always happen.


Mark does much of his culling off a quad bike so it makes sense to practice his shooting from that position.


Follow up shots are often required when your shooting is less than perfect. The technique employed with the semi on a large mob of goats was to take deliberate aim at the lead goat, usually a nanny, then aim at “at the centre of mass” of the mob dropping as many as possible then spending time afterwards mopping up. 


It is an effective if brutal technique for culling large numbers. (Note: culling is quite different from hunting. What I’m discussing is pest removal for economic considerations - especially hares, goats, wallabies, canada geese, and in some situations, deer).



As we are all “safer now” I have been using a Ruger American in .223 interchangeably with a Howa 1500 Mini in 7.62x39. I “inherited” a large quantity of this ammunition and needed something other than my Baikal to use it in. There are plenty of other rifles to choose from, Troy’s PAR, Remington’s 7615 pump, Mossberg’s MVP, CZ’s lovely little 527 carbine amongst them, but many fail my self-imposed requirement of accepting interchangeable magazines.


A timber-stocked CZ in either calibre would be highly desirable but as my guns ride on the bike most days they do get knocked around. As I write this farmers are able to apply for pest control exemptions allowing them to own semi-autos for use only on their own land under strict controls.


This is a slight concession and an admission that the original ban was flawed. Anyhow lets compare the two contenders for your “Cindy Bucks” that I now have, The Ruger American and the Howa Mini 1500. 



First impressions:

This was an impulse buy straight after I lost my AR - they were like hen’s teeth at the time so I jumped at the chance to get one. Online reviews described them as the “California AR” and were flattering re their accuracy but commented at length on the standard of finish.


As the internet said, the finish on the bolt was rough, with fine machining marks up the entire length. It was noisy to operate, the only polished parts being the locking lugs. While the machining had no effect on accuracy it was unpleasant so 15 minutes with some #2000 grit wet & dry (and oil) smoothed it off. It runs nicely now. 


Opening and cocking require considerable effort (compared to my other bolt actions) which may be due to a combination of the sharp cam angle required by the 60 degree 3-lug bolt, the “biffy” firing pin spring, and the cam on the bolt that forces the rounds in the magazine down so the bolt head can clear them as it slides over. The push feed has a definite stop/start as the round chambers.


This is very noticeable if the bolt is operated slowly or gently. I believe it’s due to the extractor which has a short, strong, spring riding over the rim at the same time as the ejector is compressed before the bolt turns down to lock. The Ruger’s adjustable safety-blade trigger is very good. 


The 16-inch barrel is reasonably heavy with a semi-bull profile. It does show machining marks but it’s Parkerised for a low sheen non-reflective finish. Balance is good and the 10 round magazine makes a handy muzzle down carry point. With a muzzle forward suppressor the rifle is the same length as the bare barrelled Howa. Twist rate is 1:8 which covers pretty much all .223 bullet weights.


“This was an impulse buy straight after I lost my AR - they were like hen’s teeth at the time so I jumped at the chance to get one. Online reviews described them as the “California AR” and were flattering re their accuracy but commented at length on the standard of finish.”


The stock is hollow hard plastic - its nice and ergonomic but a bit “drummy” when knocked. A quick injection with some expanding foam silenced that. It shoulders and points really well, and the barrel is free-floated. The Ruger comes as standard with a picatinny rail for sight mounting.


It’s accurate too, the manufacturer claims sub MOA with selected ammunition.Weight as above scoped and suppressed (DPT muzzle-forward) with an empty mag is 3.76kg (8lbs 7oz). Standard pricing for the bare rifle is $900 to $1000 depending on specials.


Since September I have put 800 or so rounds through the Ruger, so I am getting familiar with the rifle and have had time to do a bit of “customisation” as shown in the photos. The cheek riser is made from split alkathene pipe and bale wrap tape. It’s required because I need to mount the Vortex Strike Eagle scope high enough to get the 2.5 inch height above bore the BDC seems to work best with. One day I may “upgrade” it to a piece of jandal glued on!


On the butt the zip tie secures the sling. It’s mounted safari style at the top of the stock which stops the rifle twisting.



First impressions:

The standard of finish of my 7.62x39 model is superior to that of the Ruger. The bolt handle is smallish for big hands but the addition of a Tikka slip-on bolt ball when I get one will improve it greatly. The bolt is very slick and easier to operate than the Ruger’s, possibly due to the shallower cam angle with its 90 degree 2-lug design. A clever bolt guide slot eliminates “slop” and makes for a very smooth action.

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The magazine catch design is poor - it’s at the point of balance, protrudes well forward and is easily released accidentally when you’re carrying the rifle, leading to dropped magazines. Cutting it off to a third of its length solves the problem, but if you prefer a less agricultural solution LUCKY THIRTEEN make a bottom metal magazine kit that is very functional.


A 5-round single stack magazine is standard and mag changes are quick and easy so several 5s are preferable to the optional 10s which protrude too far and make the slung rifle a bit unwieldy in my opinion. It’s light. The stock is a nice hard Hogue plastic, not the sticky one which I despise.


It does not sound hollow and is available in black or camo patterns. (I made my own dapple pattern with the remains of a can of beige camo paint). Many excellent custom chassis designs are also available for Howa rifles. The base model (mine) has a standard profile barrel; other options available are pencil and bull. All are free-floated in the stock. Twist rate is 1:10”.


The Howa has a nice 2-stage adjustable trigger and comes complete with standard 1-inch rings, rails are also available. As with the Ruger, Howa claims sub MOA accuracy with selected ammunition. Weight as above scoped, suppressed (DPT over-barrel), empty mag, is 3.46kg (7lbs 12oz). The scope is a Nikko Stirling GameKing 3-9x half Mil-Dot that I had lying around which works very well.


Standard pricing for the bare rifle is $700 to $1200 depending on special offers and barrel and stock options. At the time of writing I’ve only had the Howa two months and had put 100 or so rounds through it before sending it away for suppressing which took three weeks. So little trigger time with it so far, something the next few weeks will rectify. The mechanicals of both rifles are discussed in more detail later on.



Both manufacturers claim sub MOA, but do the rifles deliver? To find out I conducted a field experiment, shooting off my quad bike as I sometimes do in the field. This is not a scientific test. The target (see photo below) was at 100 yards and there was a stiff gusty breeze. 


The bottom left square was shot with Barnaul 123 grain hollow-points through the 7.62x39 Howa (the single shot at top left was a sighter). The bottom right group was shot with the .223 Ruger using Belmont Black 62 grain ammo. Mark believes that the difference in optics may have contributed to the Ruger’s larger group (see text).


The Strike Eagle’s reticle is possibly not as good for target shooting as the GameKing’s which could account for the difference in group size. With a Weaver Kaspa I originally fitted to it, the Ruger had shot 1-inch with ease using the same ammo. Anyhow, those were the results on the day. 


Both rifles are comfortable to shoot, although the felt recoil of the Howa is considerably more than the Ruger resulting in the rifle moving off target with each shot, but that’s not surprising really as it’s 280 grams lighter and the .30 cal (7.62x39) cartridge has 50% more energy than the .223.




The Howa has a pretty standard bolt based on the well-proven Mauser two-lug 90 degree rotation with a typical push feed extractor and button ejector (instead of the conventional Mauser one). It works slickly as you would expect. This bolt system works perfectly with twin stack magazines so in my opinion it is puzzling why Howa decided to use a single stack.


The Ruger’s bolt is different in that the body is the same diameter as the lugs (.8-inch). This may be so that bolts for the different calibres can be milled from the same barstock, with metal machined off as required. The .450 Bushmaster has the same rim diameter as the .308 so that opens up multiple calibre options with no redesign being required.There is a pronounced cam in line with the bottom lug which looks odd.


CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: A .223 at left, beside a 7.62x39. The .223 shoots flatter but the heavier Russian round packs more energy; the Ruger’s 60-degree bolt and the respective bolt faces – Ruger above, Howa below.


The purpose is to push and hold down the rounds in the magazine so that the bottom locking lug clears them. It is a push-feed design with a standard button ejector but on loading the round does not slide up under the extractor, rather the extractor must ride over the rim of the cartridge just before the bolt handle starts to turn. As mentioned this produces a definite stop or resistance if the bolt is worked gently.


The action works best when it’s operated at speed. Personally I would like both the firing pin spring and the extractor spring to be lighter to make for smoother operation but I wont be trying that modification myself.



Ruger designed the Ranch Rifle to use AR magazines which probably accounts for some of the design features of the bolt. On the other hand, as mentioned, Howa chose a single stack magazine, a design vaguely reminiscent of the Brno Fox .222 I owned once, and still used by CZ today. Therefore a 5-round Howa magazine is almost the same length as a 10-round Ruger mag.


Ruger’s magazine (left) is AR compatible. Howa chose a more traditional single-stack design.



Both rifles have excellent, adjustable triggers. Ruger’s blade safety feels a little like a two-stage, and the Howa is definitely that. I like a two-stage trigger and feel they make for better control (being and old codger brought up on Lee Enfields I suppose that’s only natural).

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These rifles are built to a price point and there is naturally a compromise on quality of finish in both, but not to the detriment of accuracy, functionality or reliability. 


There are at present no after-market options for the Ruger whereas the Howa has available different stocks, sight mounts, magazines and bottom metal as options, so for those wanting an off the shelf custom job it offers greater potential than the Ruger.


However I find that the Ruger “as is” fits my requirements.To answer the question, the Ruger has never let me down but just possibly I prefer the Howa as its action is smoother and easy to operate. But whichever one I grab in the mornings I have no regrets. As an aside, both rifles have two-point carbine slings fitted - my AR had one and I transferred it to the Ruger. It worked so well that I got another for the Howa rather than use a conventional type. 


The instantly adjustable sling length is ideal for the Ruger’s safari mounting style, and with the standard mounting on the Howa, adjusting is simplicity itself. 



Bulk factory ammunition in popular calibres are the pest controller’s friend, so .223 and 7.62x39 are the prime candidates with .308 also an option for bigger species. The short Russian cartridge was thought of by most people as a cheap and cheerful round, considered good for bulk shooting but one with a limited accuracy potential.


This view was no doubt reinforced by the type of firearms the round was used in: AKs, SKKs, SKS etc. The short sight radius of the factory tangent iron sights, the typically short stocks, the manufacturing tolerances designed to ensure reliable semi-auto (or full auto) operation, and the comparative difficulty in mounting optics did nothing to change peoples minds.


AR uppers in 7.62x39 showed the round’s true potential, and the Mini 30 and VZ 58 had always had a loyal following among shooters, as did the bolt action Bisley, Zastava and CZ carbines, but they were rather thin on the ground. I used an SKS briefly and had been impressed with its effectiveness. Based on that experience I was seriously considering an upper in 7.62x39 for the AR when political events removed that option. 


Comparative performance of the two rounds
  7.62x39 125gr @ 2477 fps   .223 62gr @2850 fps
Range (yds) Energy (ftlbs) Drop from line of bore in inches Energy difference versus .223 Energy (ftlbs) Drop from line of bore in inches
0 1591 0 Plus 541 ft/lbs+51% 1050 0
100 1288 3 Plus 458 ft/lbs+55% 830 2.3
200 954 15 Plus 354 ft/lbs +59% 600 11
300 689 36 Plus 264 ft/lbs +62% 425 26
400 484 73 Plus 186 ft/lbs+62% 298 54


The .30 cal Russian round starts off with 50% more energy than the .223 and maintains that advantage right to the limit of the ethical range. At 175 yards the Russian still has as much remaining energy as the .223 does at the muzzle and at 200 yards its trajectory is only 4 inches lower than the .223’s, after which it drops off more rapidly.


However bullet drop is consistent and with a BDC or mildot scope it is easily compensated for if you remember to allow for it. The .223 certainly has proven itself a capable small to medium game hunting cartridge and for volume pest control, due to the major advantage the AR platform gave it, it did not have any competition from the 7.62x39 in the semi era.


A lesson was learnt re the 7.62x39’s “rainbow” trajectory when several shots were needed to dispatch a goat at what was estimated to be 250 yards. A cloud of dust alerted Mark that his shots were falling about a foot short - when ranged the distance proved to be 288 yards.


Now with a few exceptions we have reverted to bolt actions thus the .223’s major advantage has disappeared and the 7.62x39 looks to be a serious contender for “Best in Show” for a universally available and effective cartridge for pest control. Having said that it looks like due to the changes that are still occurring to firearm law 7.62x39 ammunition, which was available in bulk for not much more than the cost of .22lr may dry up.


A lot of Russian ammo was surrendered for no reason - people thought that because its steel content stuck to a magnet it was banned by an Order in Council, however a steel jacket is not an Enhanced Core Penetrator. COLFO is pursuing court action over this but at best partial compensation for those who unnecessarily surrendered ammunition may be the only outcome.


With the loss of rifles that use this round for 3-Gun and the like, importers will have little reason to continue to import it in quantity. Imports from Russia have already been blocked (thanks UN), and there is unlikely to be sufficient demand for the likes of Belmont Ammunition to start manufacturing it - if their equipment could handle it and they could source the brass. If this happens the price will rise considerably with the Hornady practice ammo possibly being the best option. 


“These rifles are built to a price point and there is naturally a compromise on quality of finish in both, but not to the detriment of accuracy, functionality or reliability.”


As I write this the second reading of the arms amendment act has passed and it has gone back to parliamentary committee. Pump-action centrefires have been added to the government’s “let’s ban it” list and the Select Committee really just “shuffled the deck chairs on the Titanic” regarding the rest of it.


There is some hope that the review by the whole House may result in meaningful change before the final reading. Lobbying of MPs is being strenuously pursued in the hope that NZ First can be made to see reason. 


By the time this is published it may be a done deal and we will have to live with the fallout. So if you didn’t lobby your MP, donate at least once to COLFO, or make a written or oral submission to the select committee don’t dare complain about what we have to deal with, you have no right to.




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