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.17 HMR Review at Cabela's

.17 HMR Review

Author: Mike Schoby

It has shooters across the country collectively saying "Wow!", and after our tests we have to agree!

Ruger 77/17 with box of ammo.
I have never been accused of being clairvoyant. I have never been able to predict what the stock market is going to do. I don't even have any idea what my chances are for drawing a coveted Wyoming elk tag. However, when I first saw the diminutive .17 caliber rimfire cartridge sitting on my desk, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that Hornady had designed a winning cartridge destined for immediate success.

Let's face it, ballisticians are scraping the bottom of the barrel of new ideas. Most of the cartridges in use today were designed a generation (or two, or three) ago. Now, all that hits the scene as "new" are slight aberrations of old ideas. Sure "new" designs may offer a bit more velocity, or are available in a shorter action, but in the end, very few of today's new whizbang cartridges make you step back and say "wow!"

This is what the .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire has done. It has shooters across the country collectively saying, "Wow!" The last time the shooting world saw a "new" design in a rimfire cartridge was in 1970, with the advent of the now long-defunct 5mm Remington. Wildcatters have been playing around with various .17's for years, but this is the first commercially made .17 rimfire ever produced.

Dave Emary, Hornady's Senior Ballistician, gave me some insight into this intriguing cartridge. "I began working on it in October of 2000," he began. "I was actually building a custom .22 WMR rifle for my dad, and started tinkering around with the idea of necking the case down to .17 caliber. I started running some numbers, looking at velocity and energy levels and it all looked really good. I built up the rifle and got the ball rolling. The first four months of the project was just a personal interest, done on my weekends. When I realized what I had, I presented the idea to Steve Hornady, and it has taken off from there." This idea is not original he continued. "Wildcatters have been playing with it for years, but most of the loads have not been held within SAAMI parameters and often didn't work with existing rifles, not to mention that they did not have the specifically designed 17-grain V-Max bullet available to them. Our goal was to develop a cartridge that mimicked the established pressure parameters generated by the .22 WRM, that would perform better ballistically, and could be chambered in .22 WRM actions" After reviewing the numbers, not only did they meet their goal, I would say they hit a home run!

What is it good for?
This question is always my litmus test of any new cartridge or rifle. It can be the neatest, hottest selling product out there, but if it doesn't really fill any specific niche I can think of, it doesn't get me too excited. Luckily possibilities for this cartridge abound. To begin with, it makes an excellent medium range varmint rifle. It shoots flat enough to anchor prairie dogs, chucks and ground squirrels out to 200 yards. The ammo is relatively cheap (about twice as much as premium hyper-velocity .22 LR but only half the price of any premium centerfire ammo). The extremely frangible bullet is perfect for varmint shooting where any possibility of a ricochet is a concern. The report is minimal (on par with a .22 LR) so it should not disturb nearby neighbors, when shooting in relatively populated rural environments. While it will never make the cut as my primary varmint rifle, it will always find a place in my pickup as a back up when my flatter shooting centerfire is cooling down between shooting sessions or when the prairie dogs are close and the wind is negligible.

In addition to a short to medium distance "spare" rifle, it is also perfect for starting off youth or women shooters in the sport of varmint hunting. It offers more range and more knock down power than a traditional rimfire, but without the noise and recoil that can detract from good marksmanship and eventually develop a flinch. Best of all, the rifles are compact and light enough to be used by shooters that are small in stature.

What are its limitations?
Everything has trade offs and no one cartridge can do it all; the .17 HMR is no exception. The biggest disadvantage to this cartridge is that it is extremely susceptible to wind. Drift charts indicate that the 17-grain bullet, in a 10 mph cross wind, will drift around three inches at 100 yards and around 15 inches at 200 yards. In a 15-mph gust the bullet will drift 23 inches at 200 yards.

When compared to high velocity centerfire cartridges, this sounds like a lot. However, when compared to it's main competition, the .22WMR, it is a great improvement. At 200 yards the .17 HMR drifts 15 inches less than a .22WMR in a 10-mph cross wind. When speaking of trajectory the .17 MMR also blows the doors off the competition. At 200 yards, it drops 10 inches less than a .22WMR.

Trigger pull on the Ruger 77/17.
Ruger has produced a model 77, chambered in .17 HMR, and called it fittingly enough the 77/17RM. Currently, Ruger is only producing one version; walnut stocked with a blued sporter-tapered 24" barrel. Like the Ruger 77/22 and 10/22, this rifle incorporates a handy nine - shot rotary magazine. The test gun I received is quite a looker. It has very good wood and figuring for a standard-grade, production rifle, and the blueing has a deep wet look which compliments the overall appearance nicely. Unlike some rimfire rifles, this model is adequately proportioned for adult use. It had an overall weight of 6 1/4 lbs. and an overall length of 41 1/4 inches. It shoulders like a good sporter-weight rifle should, and has a great mid-point balance.

The rifle comes without iron sights, so I mounted a Leupold 6-20X, target dot reticle scope for testing. The factory supplied rings/bases worked perfectly and were high enough to allow plenty of clearance for even this relatively large 40mm objective scope. The rifling cuts looked clean and bur free, and upon running a Dewey rod through the barrel with a cotton patch, the rifling felt smooth and consistent. The safety was a bit stiff to put on, but after some use, it has smoothed up nicely. According to our digital Lyman trigger pull gauge, the factory trigger broke at 4 lbs. 10 oz, which is a bit heavy for my liking as well as being a bit rough and gritty. However, a qualified gunsmith could clean up the poundage and smoothness - but in today litigious society, heavy factory trigger pulls seem to be the norm.

Trigger pull on Marlin .17HRM
Marlin hit the scene with both feet running and offered two different models in .17 HRM this year. Both are based on the same action as their .22 WMR rifles and are fitted with non-tapering .815 inch free-floated, bull barrels with a target crown. The receivers are grooved for dovetail rings. Instead of making a walking varmint rifle, like the Ruger, Marlin opted to go for more of a target/varmint style, and for those looking for a dedicated medium-range, prairie dog rifle, it will be well received. My first test model was the 17VS in stainless with a nice looking gray laminated stock. The overall length was 41" with a 22" barrel with an overall weight of 7lbs.

The second model looked identical in design but had a hardwood stock and blued bull barrel and action. It had the same overall length but weighed a pound less. Both came complete with a single stack, seven round magazine, rings, and a trigger lock. While both rifles came with a set of rings, they were not high enough to mount a large objective scope. However, a set of high rings worked fine for mounting the Leupold 6-20X.

Both rifles had substantial trigger pulls. The stainless/laminated trigger broke the scale at 5-lbs. 9 oz, while the blued came in at 5 lbs. 8 oz. There was some creep and grit. Like the Ruger, both of these Marlins would benefit from a good trigger job by a qualified gunsmith.

Tim Miller, Internet Director, tests the Marlin 17VS - and check out the groups!
Staff Target Test Results
Seven shooters firing five-shot groups each, compiled the data for this portion of the test. The wind was strong but blowing directly head on to the shooters, and it did not appear to be effecting the shots significantly. The Marlin averaged 1.11 with the best groups measuring .968 center to center, with the worst group measuring 1.31. The Ruger averaged a little better, posting a .96 center to center average. The worst group from the Ruger was 1.21 while the best was a diminutive .52 five shot cluster. I was extremely impressed with both guns. Anytime you can take a factory rifle with factory ammunition, on a windy day, combined with a variety of shooters and still average around MOA is pretty impressive.

Both rifles were topped with matching Leupold Vari-X III 6-20 target scopes to eliminate as much shooter/scope deviation as possible. For small varmint shooting, this scope worked perfectly, but for those looking to have a more versatile rig for everything from rabbits to ground squirrels, a lower powered scope such as an Alaskan Guide 4.5 -14X would be perfect. All groups were shot off a bench using "The Rock" rifle rest and appropriate sandbags.

Author, Mike Schoby, with a Nebraskan coyote shot with the .17HMR while field testing.
Field Test Report
I have to admit, I have more love for field use then I do for paper punching statistics. Therefore, the first thing I did when I got the Ruger .17 HMR punching bullseyes was to grab a box of ammo and head to a local prairie dog town. The first sod poodle that raised his head was about 150 yards away, which is a bit farther than I like shooting with a rimfire, magnum or not. At any rate, I had a solid rest and the wind wasn't blowing so I settled the crosshairs and took up the slack on the trigger. The pipsqueak cartridge, broke the afternoon silence with an almost inaudible "pop."

The prairie dog flopped onto his back alongside the hole and didn't even kick. Before I could contemplate the performance of the new cartridge, another dog stuck out his head 50 yards closer; another quiet "pop" yielded another dead dog. The afternoon proceeded along like that until, I realized I was rapidly diminishing my limited ammo supply. However, I didn't need to shoot anymore, the cartridge and rifle had more than proven themselves worthy of smaller varmints.

Unlike a .22 LR that is very limited in range and doesn't always humanely dispatch small rodents, the .17 was a comparative powerhouse. Over the course of the afternoon, I made enough long shots to convince myself the bullet has enough velocity and energy to be a serious 150-yard prairie dog rifle, with the occasional 200-yard shots being a possibility on windless days.

My next field test found me perched under a gnarled old tree overlooking a large expanse of rolling Nebraska real estate, as the sun cleared the horizon and illuminated frosty blades of grass. The rabbit in distress calls seemed to echo off in the distance, and then all went silent. I waited. After a few minutes my hunting partner began to call again. I looked to my left and there, gleaming white on the southern hills, was a prime-pelted coyote. He was quickly making a beeline toward our hidden calling location. I watched him approach us through the scope. He closed the gap from 200 yards, to 100 yards, and was finally getting within range of the tiny 17-grain bullet. At 60 yards he stopped, but my angle was bad for a shot as he was facing the calling stand of my partner, Darrin Fehringer. I held my shot, and waited for the right angle. Peering through the scope, I heard the crack of Darrin's .25-06 and saw the coyote collapse. He looked over at me and shrugged - I knew what he meant - we couldn't have waited much longer, the coyote was getting anxious to leave. In another second, neither of us may have had a shot. With the .17 HMR - you really have to be patient and pick the correct bullet placement.

I motioned for Darrin to keep calling, and within minutes, I saw another white speck approaching our position. Unlike the first dog, this one was slow and deliberate. Whether that was because hunters had fooled him before or because he heard the first shot, I am not sure, but even though he was slow, he did keep coming in our direction. It took him probably 15 minutes to cover 200 yards. When he finally topped the small ridge 100 yards away, I had the Leupold target dot centered on his chest. He looked back over his shoulder and I decided it was now or never, as the dog didn't look likely to come any closer. I squeezed the trigger and the report from the cartridge even sounded more diminutive then it did on the prairie dogs the previous day. However, the bullet hit with a resounding "thump" and the coyote started to spin in circles. Before I could fire another round, down the slope he ran. He probably covered 100-150 yards before piling up in a barbed wire fence.

Examining the wound, (to the bullet's credit, my shot placement was less than perfect) the bullet entered at the last rib and took out the back of the vitals but did not exit (which is typical performance as the bullet only penetrates around 3 inches of ballistic gelatin at 100 yards). Had my shot been closer to the heart/lung region, I believe the coyote would have dropped quicker. However, this led me to my second conclusion about the .17 HMR and larger predators - it will kill coyote sized game, (as the dead dog at my feet mutely attested) but it is not ideal. The .17 is perfect for prairie dogs, woodchucks (or rock chucks), foxes, but should not be considered a coyote or bobcat rifle. The range is too limited and the bullet performance is less than adequate. However, should a close shot opportunity arise, the diminutive 17-grain bullet will do the job.

All and all, I was very impressed with both the paper accuracy and varmint potential of this round. I mean, where else can you get this kind of performance out of such a cheap, fun to shoot cartridge with several rifle options available? The only question I have to answer now is; which rifle should I buy? What the heck, they're small - I'll take two.

Cartridge Tech Specs
Bullet Weight: 17 grain Hornady V-Max Polymer Tip with Boat Tail
Bullet BC: .125
Bullet Velocity: 2550
100-Yard Velocity: 1800 fps
Muzzle Energy: 250 ft-lbs.
100-Yard Retained Energy: 130 ft-lbs.
Cartridge Overall Length: 1.365

Authors Note: At the time of testing, both ammo and rifles were in short supply and this demand is expected to continue throughout the year. Keep checking back to Cabela's, if they are temporarily out of stock of either the rifles or ammo.