The .17 caliber is hardly new. It probably first achieved popularity among Australian fox hunters more than 50 years ago. The Down Under rabbit infestation is well known, but for the boom in foxes that followed, the little .17 seemed just the ticket. The bullet would enter, do its work, but not exit, thus minimizing pelt damage. In the 1960s good old American wildcatters started necking various small centerfire cases (including the .22 Hornet) down to .17, and the caliber found favor with quite a few serious stateside varminters.
After quite a bit of wildcatting activity Remington introduced the .17 Remington in 1971. Based on the .222 Remington case, but with the neck shortened and the case lengthened to increase powder capacity, the .17 Remington was—and is—one of fastest of all factory cartridges, propelling a 20-grain bullet at 4,250 fps, or a 25-grain bullet at just over 4,000 fps.
Although wildcatters never gave up, this is pretty much the story of the .17 caliber until the last decade. The .17 Remington did—and does—have a following, especially among predator hunters. It has been less popular among high-volume varmint shooters because it quickly achieved a reputation for rapid fouling that affected accuracy. Why? Well, when velocities are that high some fouling is unavoidable, and because of the .17’s small bullet diameter, a couple thousandths of fouling buildup is more critical than with larger calibers.
In 2002 Hornady introduced the .17 HMR, based on the .22 WMR case necked down. The .17 HMR has been a spectacular rimfire success. It tends to be more accurate than than .22 WMR, and with a little 17-grain bullet at 2,550 fps (or a 20-grain bullet at 2,375), it’s awesome for small varmints at short range. Hornady followed up in 2005 with the .17 Mach 2, using the CCI Stinger case (slightly longer than the .22 LR case) necked down.
In 2007 Remington necked the stubby .221 Fireball case down to .17, creating the .17 Remington Fireball. This little speedburner propels a 20-grain bullet at 4,000 fps, and it’s very accurate as well. However, it’s fair to say that, of all today’s .17 offerings—both rimfire and centerfire—only the .17 HMR can be considered a runaway success.
The Load, the Rifle
Now there’s one more, the .17 Hornet, developed by Hornady late last year and now making its debut in the Savage Model 25 bolt action. I’m not always good at predicting winners and losers in the marketplace—and it’s way too early to tell—but I’m calling this one a winner.
The concept isn’t new; wildcatters have been necking down both the .22 Hornet and blown-out .22 K-Hornet since the 1960s. The .22 Hornet is really a blend, not quite as sharp-shouldered as the K-Hornet, but with quite a bit of the .22 Hornet body taper removed. Thanks to modern propellant technology, it’s also an idea whose time has come. Introduced in Hornady’s Superformance Varmint line, the initial factory loading features a 20-grain V-Max bullet at an advertised velocity of 3,650 fps, which seems to me to be an astounding performance from such a small case.
I was first introduced to the .17 Hornet at Intermedia’s August Round Table at PASA Park in Illinois. It seemed accurate and was a lot of fun to shoot, but at that time both rifle and ammunition were in prototype form. Several months passed before I was able to get my hands on a production rifle and ammunition. No matter. My first impression of the rifle/cartridge combo held up just fine.
The Savage Model 25 is a serious varmint rifle. There are three versions. The one I got was the Light Varminter. It has a laminate wood stock and a 24-inch bull barrel. With the Leupold Vari-X II 3-9x50mm scope I put on it, it weighs about 9½ pounds. The scope deserves special mention. The Vari-X II, or “VX2,” is hardly new, but for 2012 this time-tested Leupold line has received a significant facelift, with improved optics and adjustments. At the 2012 SHOT Show they had the “new” VX2 mounted on a platform side by side with the “old” VX2—and you could actually see the difference. That said, many prairie dog hunters will mount more powerful scopes on their .17 Hornets, while predator callers may prefer a smaller, more versatile hunting scope like the 3-9x50mm I used on the test rifle.
As may be imagined, with the little .17-caliber cartridge, it’s an extremely stable platform. The rifle can also be had with a laminate thumbhole stock (Lightweight Varminter-T) or with synthetic furniture (Walking Varminter). The Model 25 has a three-lug bolt, and in .17 Hornet, the detachable polymer magazine holds four rounds.
Small But Sizzling
Hornady’s .17 Hornet ammo comes packed in a square 25-round box. The first thing I did was run several rounds over the chronograph. Honestly, I was skeptical. I know it’s a light little bullet, but how could they get that kind of velocity out of that tiny case?
A partial answer, at least, is Hornady’s Superformance proprietary powders. Like I said, I was skeptical, and I’d have been perfectly happy if the factory ammo even came close. But it didn’t just come close. My actual average on this lot of ammo was 3,675 fps, which suggests that, for those who prefer a lighter “walkaround varmint rifle,” the published velocity of 3,650 fps can probably be achieved from a 22-inch barrel.
At the bench the little .17 Hornet is just plain fun. With a heavy rifle like the Model 25 Savage there is almost no movement when the trigger breaks—and varmint hunters will love that. The Savage Accu-Trigger is crisp and clean, and although the magazine proved a bit of a stumbling block in development, feeding from the polymer magazine was smooth and flawless.
At the range it probably didn’t make much difference. The new Leupold was clear and bright, and the adjustments were precise. After rough bore sighting the rifle came readily into zero with just a couple of shots. With a stable rifle in a solid rest, a good trigger, and the scope turned up to 9X, I felt like the groups I was getting were representative of what the rifle and load wanted to deliver. Maybe I could have done slightly better with a scope of higher magnification…but I wouldn’t swear to it. Also, I was aided by an extremely calm day. One thing that cannot be changed is that the .17’s very light bullets are pretty susceptible to wind drift.
OK, is that enough suspense? Get on with it, Boddington, how did the darned thing shoot? Quite well, thanks for asking. Right out of the box, with factory ammo and no barrel break-in, this particular Savage Model 25 is a half-MOA rifle. Of a dozen groups, my best measured .40 inch; my worst .75 inch. The majority were extremely consistent at just about a half-inch. I tend to think that’s pretty darned good for first crack out of the box. Although 3,650 fps is still pretty darned speedy, I was surprised that barrel heat didn’t seem an issue. I fired quite a few shots in quick succession, but the Savage’s heavy barrel hardly got warm to the touch (lots of steel, small hole!). I fired it warm and I let it cool, but the accuracy didn’t vary noticeably.
The cartridge’s overall length—at 1.723 inches—is exactly the same as the .22 Hornet. The rimmed case will not be suitable for all actions, but it should fit nicely into all existing platforms that will handle the .22 Hornet. As much as I love the original Hornet, I have to admit that serious accuracy has rarely been the cartridge’s strong suit. So, as has been the case with .17 HMR versus its .22 WMR parent, it’s my guess that the .17 Hornet will prove noticeably more accurate on average than the .22 Hornet we’ve long known and loved.
It’s also a whole lot faster, with a trajectory curve that closely matches that of the .223 Remington with a 55-grain bullet. Unlike the .17 HMR, its centerfire case can be handloaded, however Hornady is pricing its factory ammo to be extremely competitive: The suggested retail price for a box of 25 (note the five-round bonus over most centerfire rifle ammo) is $25.27; part of the idea is for the cartridge to be more affordable. But no matter how you compare it, the .17 Hornet is not a .17 Remington, much less a .223.
While it does shoot just as flat as a .223, its light bullets are going to get blown about a bit more on windy days, and those little projectiles cannot produce nearly as much energy. On the other hand, it is a whole lot more capable than the .17 HMR. I use the HMR for armadillos and other pests around my Kansas place. For small varmints out to 150 yards or so, it’s an amazing little cartridge, but it has sharp limits. At 2,550 fps I’ve found it to be marginal for coyotes. Even at close range you have to be very careful with shot placement, and once you get out there a bit, it just doesn’t have enough steam.
I’ve also used the .17 HMR in Africa for small predators and pygmy antelopes, and I’ve found it marginal for jackal (which, like coyotes, are very tough); and I’ve seen issues with penetration even on small, thin-skinned antelopes like steenbok. But add 1,000 fps to that little .17-caliber bullet and you have an entirely different cartridge with an altogether different set of capabilities.
The .17 Hornet should prove plenty of gun not just for foxes, but also for coyotes and bobcats and, like the faster .17s, should do its work without pelt-damaging exit wounds. For the ground squirrel and prairie dog shooters, it has both accuracy and extended range over the rimfires, so while no .17 can be considered a true long-range varminter, it will reach into the middle distance almost as well as the .223, with the added advantage of letting the shooter call the shot right through the scope.
In our vast spectrum of factory cartridges, there aren’t many gaps, but I think the .17 Hornet found one: a versatile .17 that reaches out without breaking the bank or burning the barrel. It’ll be very interesting to see how well it catches on.
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