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Propellant Profiles
Rifle Magazine
December - January 2004
Volume 39, Number 6
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 232
On the cover...
The Stainless Ruger No 1 .204 Ruger is topped off with a Leupold Vari-X III 3.5-10x variable scope. Rifle photo by Stan Trzoniec.
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For years we’ve had the .17- caliber Remington, wildcats like the .19 Calhoon, but from there on up to the popular .22s, there was a void. Hornady had the .20-caliber bullet on line for the last couple of years, but no one seemed to take notice. It was there to serve the needs of specialized wildcat cartridges, and since there was no press or informative articles on how it was used, it remained in the shadows.

Now we all have a full-blown, knock-your-socks-off .204 Ruger varmint cartridge capable of doing some extraordinary things with modest recoil and plenty of rifle choices to boot. Until this time I’d only shot factory loads, but now there is plenty of data using Hodgdon and its newly acquired IMR propellants. Out in Kansas in May, the good folks at Kimber had a prairie dog shoot that featured its rifles in both the .22-250 Remington and a test rifle chambered for the .204 Ruger.

Out in the field, the rifle shot true to its mark. Even with the wind gusting across the Kansas plains, the .204 Ruger performed admirably. With the ability to see shots through the scope without appreciable muzzle jump, wind or no wind, it was possible to walk shots into the intended target. Naturally with any varmint cartridge worth its salt, the farther the shot, the more fun it was to shoot! We did have to be aware of the burrowing owls that are about the same size and shape as a prairie dog, so a spotter with a good binocular was needed and much appreciated.

The .204 Ruger follows in the footsteps of many of the more popular .22 centerfires. It offers the same head diameter as the .222 or .223 Remington cartridges and mimics the .222 Remington Magnum very closely when it comes to overall length and other general specifications. To prevent the chambering of the .204 Ruger in rifles chambered for other than this proprietary cartridge, Hornady has moved the shoulder forward, which also allows more space for powder. Armed with an eyedropper, I filled the .204 Ruger with about 32.0 grains of water, while its parent, the .222 Remington Magnum, holds between 32.5 and 33.0 grains of water, depending on how steady I am and if a new case or a once-fired case is used.

In looking at the introduction of the .204 Ruger, it amazed me how both companies got up to speed, with products out to the consumer in such a short period of time. I was one of the first to see the .204 Ruger while on a photo shoot for Ruger last fall. Naturally I was sworn to secrecy, and while the details were sketchy at the time, the two-hour drive back to my office had my mind going in all directions on how this .20-caliber cartridge might fit into the scheme of things within the shooting sports and with hunters in the field.

It wasn’t long after that when press releases started to appear. Ruger, from the beginning, introduced five rifles to handle the new cartridge, and by the time the SHOT Show came around, the .204 Ruger seemed almost like history. Ruger bolt-action rifles include the Model 77 MKII Standard with a 24-inch barrel, blued action and classic American walnut stock with a suggested retail price of $695. The next one is the Target Grey Model 77 with a 26-inch barrel, brown laminated stock, two-stage trigger and currently retails for $845.

The last bolt action is the Model 77 All-Weather Ultralight with a 20-inch barrel, stainless steel action and a synthetic stock. Like the wood-stocked version, it too will retail for $695.

Ruger’s choice for the .204 Ruger is the No. 1 Stainless Varminter complete with a heavy 26-inch barrel, black laminated stock, target blocks and will retail at $950. Last, my all-time favorite, the Ruger No. 1 Standard is in blued steel, has an American walnut stock and retails for $920. When the Ruger arrived, I mounted a Leupold 6.5-20x scope with a pair of Ruger offset rings for more comfortable eye relief.

Anxious to get going on a reloading project, I pestered the folks at Hornady for some brass. That was out of the question simply because they had to fill the pipeline with factory loaded ammunition, and it was all they could do to keep up with demand. They would, however, ship the factory ammunition as soon as they could spare it. They kept their promise, and off to the range I went to fireform about 100 cases. Cleaning the barrel proved to be no problem as I simply used a .17-caliber cleaning rod and, with one .22-caliber patch on a .20-caliber brush from Midway, was well on my way to breaking in this new barrel.

The only stumbling block was a good set of dies. At the SHOT Show, I talked to the folks at Redding and RCBS and while they wanted to start cranking out die sets, the SAAMI standards were not set yet. There was a slight delay for a matter of weeks, but finally Redding and RCBS came through.

Bullets were ordered at the show from Hornady and Berger, and a check with some of the other major bullet makers showed that most – if not all – that I queried had a wait-and-see attitude about it being worth their time and effort to invest in .20-caliber bullet making operations. I received the 32- and 40-grain V-MAX bullets from Hornady, and Berger shipped its 35-, 40- and 50-grain offerings.

The .204 case uses the same Small Rifle primer like others of its ilk, and I chose CCI BR-4 bench¬≠rest primers. The list of powders included Hodgdon’s Benchmark, Varget, BL-C(2), H-4895 and H-335. From the IMR side of the column, I used 4064, 4895 and 4198. A friend who is also working with the .204 Ruger recommended Vihtavuori N135. Trim length on the .204 Ruger is 1.840 inches (the same   as the .222 Remington Magnum), and the overall loaded length is 2.250 inches. One interesting side note is that there is plenty of   loading information available from both Hornady and Hodgdon with starting loads and maximum loads listed. Most of my data came from these sources and can be accessed online at: www.hornady.com or www.hodgdon.com. It is well worth the time and effort to log onto these web sites, especially when working with a new cartridge like the .204 Ruger.

Once-fired cases were neck-sized only. This is my general practice, especially with a varmint cartridge, and I did not need to trim any of the cases. The only minor glitch I ran into was with the Redding die set. When seating the bullets, I could not seat them deeply enough into the case to maintain the overall length specified by Hornady and Hodgdon. Even with the seater plug down as far as I could turn it, cartridge overall length with the 32-grain bullet was still only 2.320 inches. Using the RCBS product showed no problems, and I used this seating die throughout the testing program.

To load powder into each case, I had to use a .17-caliber funnel. The “universal” funnel – .22 caliber and up – has a neck that goes over the .204 Ruger, and powder is lost from around the sides of the neck. Still another point: Because of the small .17 caliber diameter of the funnel, hold the powder pan higher than normal to allow the powder to trickle and bounce around in the funnel before entering the case, which makes for easier loading.

It was also interesting to note that with all the powders used, only a small amount of tweaking of the powder measure was needed to go from one powder to the next. Even with once-fired cases,    I never experienced any compressed charges, with most of the powders filling the case to either the top of the shoulder or half-way up the neck. Shooters who may want to volume load for extended trips in the field, I’d suggest either BL-C(2) or H-335 as neither one needed any trickling when loading from the measure.

Other than that, the .204 Ruger is a pleasure to load and thrives on standard loading practices. Some may note that because of the smaller bullet diameter, shooters with larger hands may have trouble. I did not find this to be a problem, as the difference between the .204 and .224 caliber is hardly felt within the confines of my fingers.

Naturally, there is nothing like shooting the cartridge to fully understand it. For a few weeks I played around with this new entry and got to know it better as time went on. Since I did not have new brass to work with, Hornady factory ammunition proved its mettle at the bench. When talking to the folks at Hornady, they had said, “Don’t be surprised if you do not reach the velocities (4,225 fps) quoted on the box.” Hornady tests were done with a special non-can¬≠ister powder that is not available to the public. The most I could muster out of the 26-inch Ruger barrel was 3,972 fps, about 7 percent less than the velocity printed on the box. Groups were no problem. Curt .75-inch groups were the average for most of the shooting sessions.

Handloading changed the attitude of the cartridge in many ways. First, accuracy was improved and so was velocity, depending upon bullet weight and powder. With the lighter 32-grain bullets, I could manage upwards of 4,028 fps with H-355. The smaller groups in the same bullet weight went to VV-N135 with 4,020 fps. If you’re the type to work and work until the smallest groups pop into view, this powder is well worth a try and offers a good balance between velocity and accuracy.

It’s interesting to note that if you tap into the resources offered by Hodgdon on reloading data, you’ll be surprised by the difference quoted on its spreadsheets and what you actually get on the range. For example, while Varget gave 4,030 fps on its data sheets, I could only reach 3,956 fps at the range.  If the difference in velocity does not bother you, and you like groups around .75 inch or possibly smaller, then this could be your favorite small game or varmint load.

Berger had sent some 35-grain bullets for evaluation. All performed rather well, and once again the load with a slightly lower velocity than the rest performed the best – 28.0 grains of IMR-4895 for  a velocity of 3,669 fps and a three-shot group size of .440 inch. Moving up, the Hornady 40-grain V-MAX with 30.0 grains of BL-C(2) came in with a group of .880 inch at 3,802 fps. Berger’s 40-grain entry hit .800 inch at 100 yards but with a velocity that slackened to only 3,472 fps.


The mystery of the day was the accuracy problem with the Berger 50-grain hollowpoint boat-tail (HPBT). Most of the time, only two out of the three bullets in a group reached the target! And when they did, they hit it sideways or keyholed. We narrowed it down to the rate of twist, which was confirmed later when I received an e-mail from Wayne Blackwell (W. Square Enterprises, “Load from a Disk”). We were sharing some information on the .204 Ruger, and since he did not have all the ballistic coefficient information on the Berger bullets, he contacted them directly.

Berger returned his request for this information with an interesting side note that read, “The 50 grain 0.204" caliber bullet is marginally stable in a 1-12 twist and should be shot in a 1-9 twist barrel. We (Berger) DO NOT recommend this bullet being shot in a 1-12 twist which the .204 Ruger has.” In a nutshell I’d suggest you use only bullets in the 32- to 40-grain class for the best in accuracy with Ruger rifles.

While on the subject of field duty, drop tables are sure to be looked into, and except for the information printed on the Hornady box, there is nothing else published. Wayne Blackwell was kind enough to help lay the groundwork for the handloads I am working with now. If you have his program, you can now download this key data from www.loadammo.com for future reference.

The first line in Table II (above) is from the Hornady box with a 32-grain bullet traveling at a velocity of 4,225 fps. The rest of the data goes along with the velocities I was able to run off using my handloads with the bullets indicated and the ballistic coefficients supplied to Wayne from Hornady and Berger. While the Hornady 40-grain bullet is slightly heavier than the Berger 35-grain bullet, it shoots a slightly tighter trajectory simply because its ballistic coefficient is higher. While shots taken at 300 yards might not make that much of a difference, long-range shooting at 400 and 500 yards certainly is cause for concern and might require a rezero of your rifle.

The Ruger .204 is certainly going to be a staple in my varmint shooting collection. Within two weeks of finishing this report, Ed Hall, another outdoor writer, and I went chuck hunting in eastern New York State. In my neck of the woods, the chuck population has almost vanished simply because of the coyote population exploding, so Ed invited me out to his collection of fields for some summertime fun. Over the years chuck hunting has turned into a challenging sport, because the chucks have become more wary of their wily predators. Now they build their dens along the hedgerows in the tall grass the farmers never touch, because they don’t want to damage their cutting machines on the older stone walls and hidden rocks.

Wherein years past you’d see dozens of chucks in a day; today you’re lucky if you count a half-dozen. Out of nearly two full days afield, we glassed eight chucks and took three. Distances varied, but like the hunt in Kansas, the rifle did its job if the shooter did his. Quantity of the chucks was not the important thing here; it was the quality of the hunt that mattered to both of us.

The .204 Ruger is certainly an interesting cartridge and will be given more attention in the upcoming months. I like the low recoil, and being able to see the hits without them disappearing from the scope is yet another benefit. For varmint shooting in all parts of the country, it’s sure to make its mark. It’s my prediction that eventually it will turn into a “classic” small game cartridge like the .222 Remington or .22-250 Remington. The only problem I see presently is that under most circumstances the cartridge does not deliver its advertised velocity; yet another possibility surfaces that this may be a cartridge waiting in the wings for that just-right, over-the-counter powder like we’ve seen in other cartridges (e.g., .25-06) of the past.

Only time will tell, but for now, I’m happy with the .204 Ruger just as it is. For more information on the rifle, contact Sturm, Ruger & Co., 200 Ruger Road, Prescott AZ 86301.

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