.22’s and Monster Stew

Anyone who has ever faced an attack by a wild animal might relate to this bit of my past experience. Others might learn from it. It involves my first hunt in a remote area of South Mississippi – a place filled with poisonous snakes, swarms of hungry mosquitoes the size of sparrows, and all sorts of other critters and game that are generally a little more pleasant to encounter. That last part, the game, was what I was looking for that day. For me, at age 24, the other stuff seemed to just be the price of admission. I’ll start with a little background.

Winchester 255 lever action .22WMR
Winchester 255 lever action .22WMR

When I was 15, this Southern boy used the money he had earned and saved to purchase a .22 rifle. Not just any rifle but a semi-auto Winchester Model 77, with detachable 8-round magazine (which I mistakenly called a “clip”) and a spare magazine for urgent reloading purposes. Though I already had a .410 Winchester Model 37 single-barrel shotgun, this .22 LR rifle was my pride and joy.

At 16, I was hunting regularly with my new rifle. My buddy, Aubrey, and I would sprint through the woods toward the barking sounds of Aubrey’s two little mixed-breed dogs, Butch and Tippy, knowing they had treed another squirrel. Butch was mostly beagle and he took the lead and did most of the barking. But when we got to them and they were at different trees, you could bet on Tippy. She was just a little mutt but had a knack for tracking the squirrels through the treetops, whereas Butch tracked them on the ground to the tree they climbed.

The Winchester 77 semi-auto .22LR, with recently added scope. This little rifle bagged countless squirrels over the years.
The Winchester 77 semi-auto .22LR, with recently added scope.
This little rifle bagged countless squirrels over the years.

Over the next couple of seasons, Aubrey and I harvested countless squirrels. Since we were taught to never kill anything unless we intended to eat it (with the exception of snakes and the like), we got really tired of eating squirrel. And cleaning them was awfully unpleasant to me – a task both our mothers required of us before they would cook them. But, to our delight, we eventually found some folks nearby who would always take them off our hands. So we “shared” the squirrels most of the time after that.

A side benefit of the frequent use of that .22 rifle was that it made me a highly proficient rifleman. I could take running squirrels and rabbits, and even hit thrown clays with as much regularity as my older brother could with his expensive Browning O/U shotgun. That, by itself, was a win for me.

Years later: Upon graduating from college I passed up numerous job offers in various cities and took one at a paper mill in the little town of Moss Point, Mississippi. There I found the most hard-core group of hunters I had ever encountered – my kind of folks! Opening day of deer season would almost shut the plant down since so many people took off, with or without approval. It seems that paper companies own lots and lots of timberland, which is generally open to the public for hunting. So I found myself right where I wanted to be: sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico’s great coastal fishing, and thousands of acres of game-filled woods that were open to hunting. I still grin to think of it.

When squirrel season came around, I just had to take a crack at those woods. So I bought a hunting license and with directions from a buddy at work, found my way into nearby deep woods using logging roads. I had been told it was a great place for big fox squirrel. Since it was early in the season and this being South Mississippi, the vegetation was still green and full, so finding squirrel without dogs could be difficult. But I found that watching where I stepped was an even greater hindrance to squirrel hunting than the tree foliage. I had heard about and seen plenty of water moccasins and a few rattlesnakes during my short time living in that area, so I was particularly cautious about stepping on one. I revised my route and used a logging road as my path through the woods, stalking squirrel – which, by the way, was the only thing in season at the time and the only game that I owned a gun suitable for hunting – my little .22 rifle.

There was plenty of wildlife, if you can call mosquitoes and other flying insects “wildlife.” The overcast sky helped to see those treetops clearly and I studied them closely, near and far. Fox squirrels were highly uncommon where I had hunted in the past, so even though I was experienced, my experience was about to take a giant leap forward at least as far as South Mississippi fox squirrels were concerned.

My silent stalk on that road’s sandy surface paid off. I saw a squirrel working the ground beside the road about 75 yards ahead. I crept closer to make a good shot with my iron sights. But within only a few steps, it saw me and made for the closest tree: a ragged pine about 30 feet high. There were no other trees nearby for him to leap to, so he hid the best he could in that pitiful little tree. Circling the tree about 30 feet from it, I spotted him clinging tightly against the main trunk, near the top. Against the sky he looked like a big lump of tree bark – but I knew that was Mr. Squirrel. So I aimed for what appeared to be his head, as I had done maybe a couple of hundred times before, and fired.

The “smack” of the bullet sounded like a solid hit. But the squirrel just moved around the tree away from me. I moved around to line up another shot, took it, and got the same result. So I moved again for another shot, but this time aimed for the ribcage. Wow, that pissed him off. He ran out a limb and started barking at me, flailing his tail around and showing his teeth, which gave me a wide-open shot. I took aim to oblige his rude behavior with a reward of .22 caliber lead. He moved around a little, repositioning himself for his most foul squirrel curse words, or barks, and repeated his toothy display that indicated he was about to kick my ass.

A huge red fox squirrel, similar to the Mississippi Monster.
A huge red fox squirrel, similar to the
Mississippi Monster.

“Crap! What kind of squirrel is this?” I thought. I figured that my bullets had somehow gone bad. But all his indignant behavior, and the failure to take him out, somehow got to me, and pissed me off, too. So I unloaded on him from my spot just 25’ away.

The squirrel stopped posturing and cussing me, and slowly began to loose his upright perch on that limb. I thought he was finished as he started to fall off the limb. But he clung to it by a single paw, and just hung there for maybe 30-seconds. I had never seen a squirrel so hard to kill. Finally, it hit the ground with a great thump.

That thump must have revived the little beast because it sprang to life, showing me its teeth. I swear it growled at me several times as it moved toward me on the ground. I was so startled by its aggressive move that I almost fell down as I backed away, trying to but not finding my spare “clip” of ammo in my pocket. The situation seemed like something from a horror movie, where the little monster-beast won’t die and attacks the person trying to do it in.

The “monster squirrel” was so shot up that it had difficulty moving. Out of bullets, and realizing that I could outrun it if needed, I picked up a fallen limb about the size of a Louisville Slugger and took a Willie Mays one-handed swing at its head. My club shattered against the little monster’s skull. The thing just glared at me and showed me his teeth. Then it began pulling itself across the ground toward me while growling again! I could not believe what was happening.

After retreating to a safer distance to compose my thinking, I finally found that spare magazine and reloaded. I could finish him, “But should I?” I pondered. He had put up such a good fight that I briefly considered letting him go. But that would be cruel to leave him in the condition he was in, which was pretty badly shot up. None of my shots had missed. So I stepped forward to deliver the coup-de-grace. The little shit came at me again, lunging and growling with all that toothy display of defiance, so I gave him 3 or 4 shots to the skull at close range to end it. This time it took. He was down for the count.

Since we don’t kill things we don’t plan to eat, I felt obliged to take him home for our dinner. After all, it was just a squirrel, wasn’t it? – A big, red, hard-as-nails, bad-ass fox squirrel from South Mississippi. This was a monster squirrel if there ever was one.

Later at home when attempting to clean and prepare it for a pot of squirrel stew, I got another surprise: it had muscles like rocks – and I might add, ‘nads the size of walnuts. It had to be very old in squirrel years. Using my best knife, I could barely cut the little mean dude up. After studying the situation for several minutes, I decided that monster squirrels fit into the same category as snakes and other bad stuff, so I shouldn’t have to eat it. Besides, who would know? Guess you all know now.

I kept his tail as a reminder that I needed something more powerful than a .22 LR for squirrel hunting in South Mississippi. It was fine for those gray squirrels in Alabama, but it just didn’t do the job here. And after some outdoor-magazine research, I decided that the .22 Mag, which had been out only a few years then, might be a good choice for these monster squirrels. I certainly didn’t want a repeat of my last encounter with one of those mean little bastards. But I didn’t find any rifles in that caliber at the local shops.

WMR=Winchester Magnum Rimfire HMR=Hornady Magnum Rimfire The .17 HMR is a necked down .22 WMR.
WMR = Winchester Magnum Rimfire
HMR = Hornady Magnum Rimfire
The .17 HMR is a necked down .22 WMR.

My choice came from Gander Mountain, which was, to my knowledge, only a mail-order sporting goods company at the time. I ordered a Winchester Model 255 Deluxe, a lever-action rifle with a fancy stock and 11-rd tubular magazine for its .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire cartridges (also known as .22 Mag or .22 Magnum, and .22 WMR). The rifle arrived at my door by Railway Express’ local delivery truck a couple of weeks later. It was beautiful. I was glad I had paid those few extra bucks for the deluxe model. I promptly bought ammo and carried it to the remotely situated shell piles a few miles away to try it out. It was a blast.

Winchester 255 Deluxe .22 magnum rimfire. A fine rifle, serving well since 1966.
Winchester 255 Deluxe .22 magnum rimfire. A fine rifle, serving well since 1966.

Except for spending more than our meager budget should have allowed at the time, I have never regretted buying this fancy rifle. I now consider it an heirloom, one of the rarest of Winchester’s 200-Series rifles. I purchased it the same year as my daughter’s birth, so I guess it should go to her when I’m finished with it. But, not just yet.

If I had the internet back then, I would have read on Wikipedia that the .22 WMR cartridge is not suitable for small game intended for eating. It’s just too destructive. Well, I found that out right away back in 1966 when I shot my first squirrel with it. It was a chest shot that yielded me two chunks of bloody fur: one with a head and the other with a tail. After that, I only took head-shots with it. One of those .22 Mag HP bullets will normally remove a squirrel’s head for you – but you have to hit the head. Your game bag gets pretty messy, but other than that, it’s a fine squirrel gun. It will hit any target within its range if you can hold it steady enough on target. It was also recommended (online) for use out to 125-yards on coyote and prairie dogs. I have no reason to doubt that. And the range limits sound about right. The .22 Mag is incredibly more powerful and destructive than the .22 LR cartridge.

Since I was recruited to another job in Florence, SC, before the next Mississippi hunting season, I never got to try my new rifle on those big, red, monster, bad-ass Mississippi fox squirrels. But my new .22 Mag rifle sure worked great for me in South Carolina. And it still works great.

Where’s my little .22 LR Model 77 Winchester? I already passed it down to Matthew, my oldest grandson, for his 16th birthday. A gun like that was made for shooting and to be enjoyed, plinking or hunting, and not for long-term storage inside a gun vault. That’s something other grandpas might want to consider. But safety first – always.

One thing I learned from this is that monsters come in all sizes. This little one shook off multiple hits from a .22 LR like it was nothing. What would it take to stop a really big monster? That’s something to ponder in regard to a choice of defensive weapons.

TIPS:  If you have or are considering a .22 Magnum lever-action rifle, here are a couple of recommendations for trouble-free shooting:

  • The Model 255 magazine tube spring becomes so tight when fully loaded that it increases the chance of a jam upon chambering. So I make a practice to only load about 8-rounds into the tube, never the 11 that it will actually hold.
  • A smooth, one-motion lever-throw-cycle helps to insure that those very long and thin .22 Magnum cartridges chamber properly as the action closes. It also insures that the cases eject briskly and cleanly.
  • Also of note concerning the .22 magnum cartridge: DO NOT attempt to load or shoot .22LR in a gun chambered for .22WMR! The WMR casing is slightly tapered, and while the bullet (projectile) will pass through the same barrel, the cartridge brass itself is not the same shape and thus not interchangeable like a .357mag and .38special. Firing a .22LR in a .22WMR chamber can result in damage to the gun, or worse, your hands or face!

If you follow these practices, your Model 255 should function flawlessly for you. It should only take a little practice to get the feel for executing a smooth, one-motion lever cycle.

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