.20 VarTarg Handloads
Date: Sep 14 2020
Todd Kindler’s brainchild, the .20 VarTarg (Varmint-Target), was created by necking down the .221 Remington Fireball case with the 30-degree shoulder set back slightly and mouth necked down to .204 caliber. While the .204 Ruger is the undisputed 20-caliber speed king, the VarTarg, like the parent .221 Fireball or necked-down .17 Fireball, is a highly-efficient cartridge providing a lot of performance for very little investment per trigger pull. The .20 VarTarg, for instance, burns from 15.5 to 21 grains of powder per shot, compared to the 25- to 31-grain charges consumed by the .204 Ruger. Unfortunately, the VarTarg lives in the shadow of the .204 Ruger. This is a real shame, as the smaller round proves ultra-accurate, hard-hitting and is mild enough to allow varmint shooters to mark their own hits and misses with even the highest-magnification scopes. Its mild manner also assures improved barrel life compared to the .204 Ruger and longer shot strings before a warming barrel signals a pause in festivities while addressing a hot ground squirrel colony or extensive prairie dog town.
Another big plus for the VarTarg – as far as wildcats go – is it’s pretty simple. Creating brass is no more involved than a single pass through a full-length resizing die. The new Lapua .221 Fireball brass used to make VarTarg brass for this test came out a hair’s-width short of the recommended trim-to length of 1.395 inches after being run through Hornady Custom Grade Series IV dies. Keep in mind, some early VarTarg reamers were dimensioned to accommodate only brass with turned necks (this information usually provided on the barrel adjacent the caliber stamp), while newer .232-inch outside neck diameter chamber reamers (as found in production Cooper rifles, for example) require no neck turning following forming. Resizing is generally most successful with new or freshly-annealed brass. I did ruin three of the 100 Lapua brass early in the reforming process, shoulders collapsing during resizing. The lightest application of Hornady’s Unique Case Lube around neck areas remedied the situation, with no further hulls lost and no ugly shoulder dents resulting.
Aside from simple brass production the VarTarg proves highly forgiving for careful handloaders, a wide variety of powders and load charges providing excellent accuracy with .204 bullet designs weighing from 24 to 39/40 grains. Federal Premium GM205M Small Rifle Match primers were the spark plug used during all testing.
The test rifle was built from a BSA Guns (Birmingham, England, 1911 to 1913) Martini No. 12 Cadet Martini-pattern single-shot rifle manufactured in the early 1900s, re-barreled with a 22½-inch tube measuring .685 inch at the muzzle and fitted with a handsome red/yellow/black laminated-wood stock and forend. The Martini action has its origins in 1880 Martini-Henry Mk III rifles from the late British colonial period, later converted to Martini-Metford rifles chambered for black powder .303 British rounds, and later Martini-Enfield Mk I (rebarreled) or Mk II (newly manufactured) rifles in the same chambering, but suited to smokeless powders. This was the British military service rifle from 1885 to 1918, with many used by former colonies as reserve arms well into World War II. Martini rifles make excellent single-shot conversions because they were very well made and include stout actions capable of handling modern pressures produced from modern rounds like the modern varmint cartridge tested here. This rifle was drilled and tapped for scope use, holding a fixed Leupold 12x 50mm set in Leupold STD rings and single-piece base.
The basic problem with the Martini action stems from weak extractors. So while the action itself easily handles “Plus-P” loads, chamber extraction after the shot can become frustratingly problematic for varmint shooters who gravitate to maximum loads, while seeking flattened trajectories and dismantling impacts. With a hot rod cartridge like the .20 VarTarg, finding you are unable to wring maximum performance from your handloads makes this all the more annoying. This was certainly the case with this Martini rifle, many loads were torn down and throttled back in the middle of testing after shooting the first or second load in a ladder group and finding extraction a tad sticky. If I were shooting Martini rifles on a regular basis, I would develop a keen interest in powders relinquishing the lowest chamber-pressure to highest velocity ratios.
Handloaders of .204 cartridges do not enjoy the seemingly endless bullet options of, say, .224-caliber rounds. Some might view as a blessing, making load development that much easier. Representative bullets were chosen from varmint options and the most common weights – 24- to 39-grain hollowpoint and polymer-tipped examples. Powder choices closely mirror those used to fuel the .221 Fireball parent cartridge.