November 19, 2022
One billion rounds. Yes, that’s billion with a “B.” Hornady has given shooters a lot to be thankful for in the last 20 years: LeveRevolution, Creedmoor and PRC cartridges, Critical Defense, Critical Duty, ELD-M and -X bullets, and much more. And one of Hornady’s grand-slams was the .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire (HMR), which was introduced in 2002.
At the start of the new millennium, then-ballistics engineer Dave Emary was working on a Christmas present for his father. His dad had a rifle in .22-250 that Emary had given him for Christmas in ’75. Fast-forward a quarter century; his dad was getting older and not comfortable shooting the old .22-250. So, the project started out as a hand-built .22 Magnum. His dad loved his birds, so the rifle was to be used for sniping woodchucks and squirrels that kept getting into the bird feeders.
“I was a little bored,” Emary recalled, “and I’d always been disappointed in the accuracy of most any rimfire I ever fired. While working on the .22 Magnum, I got to thinking, what if I necked the case down to .17, designed my own chamber, and used high-quality bullets?”
There’s more to the story, but that was the start. His dad loved the one-of-a-kind “17/22 Magnum” and raved about its accuracy.
WHAT’S IT FOR?
I have a bad habit of asking that question when a new cartridge comes along. If I don’t immediately see purpose and need, I figure it doesn’t have a chance. (The .17 HMR isn’t the only cartridge I’ve been wrong about!) Emary and his dad “got” the .17; they’d seen the accuracy and deadly efficiency, but I didn’t get it. As legend has it, neither did Steve Hornady. Emary knew he had something special, but the boss was unconvinced and rejected the concept over and over.
Hornady told this one himself around a campfire: “I was sick of hearing about it, so I finally gave in, and I told Dave he was betting his job!”
Hornady made the bullets, but from the beginning Hornady .17 HMR ammo has been loaded by CCI.
Emary again: “Hornady asked me how many rounds I thought we should order from CCI for the first year’s production. I told him ‘50 million.’” I’ve known Steve Hornady a long time, and I could see him choking. “‘No way!’ he said, ‘I’m going to order four million.’ The actual volume in the first year was nearly 100 million rounds.”
FUN — AND DEADLY
Here’s what I didn’t get about the .17 HMR: It was fun! Shooting is always fun, but it’s more fun if you hit what you’re shooting at without getting kicked around. The .22 WMR is an extremely capable little cartridge, but accuracy is usually pedestrian. Right out of the starting gate, the .17 HMR became known for tack-driving accuracy. With a 17-grain Hornady V-Max bullet traveling at 2,650 feet per second (fps) and a 20-grain V-Max at 2,350 fps, it’s a hot little number. Hornady recently added a 15.5-grain NTX bullet at 2,525 fps, an essential load for areas where non-lead projectiles are required. On small varmints like prairie dogs, the HMR is good for a couple hundred yards, and it’s powerful enough for foxes and coyotes. There’s no recoil, fairly mild report, and it’s relatively inexpensive. What’s not to like?
I have a plain Marlin XT-17 bolt-action with heavy barrel that’s ridiculously accurate. It lives on my Kansas farm, where our number one pests are armadillos that invade from Oklahoma. Oh, boy, the little .17 HMR is impressive. Although it’s an uncommon cartridge over there, one year I used it in Namibia. It was great for Cape fox and the small antelopes.
The HMR is a bit too destructive for edible small game such as rabbits and squirrels, unless you restrict yourself to head shots. (You can because the cartridge is plenty accurate.) However, for me one of the HMR’s greatest roles is rodent reduction. The last few years I’ve been doing an annual prairie dog shoot near Cheyenne, Wyoming, with industry friends. We alternate from rimfire to centerfire and back again, but Missourian Bill Green is the .17 HMR king! The last two shoots, his centerfires never made it out of the gun case. Green uses a semiautomatic Savage A17, and he makes it talk. I’ve seen him hit prairie dogs beyond 300 yards with his HMR. (No, you’re not going to hit them all at that distance, and the wind call may be several feet.) When he connects on a long one, a big grin is automatic. I’m continually amazed at what that tiny little cartridge will do.
THE ACCURACY SECRET
The first .17 HMR rifle was a Marlin Emary had from his grandfather, using a shot-out, cut-off, and rechambered .17 Remington barrel. From the beginning, Emary was after accuracy, and he credits the consistent accuracy of the .17 HMR to two primary factors: The chamber and good bullets. Hornady partnered up with Marlin and Ruger to manufacture the first .17 HMR production rifles. The body of Emary’s chamber has clearances similar to the .22 WMR chamber, but the throat has a minimum .0005-inch clearance and maximum .001-inch. That’s five ten-thousandths to one-thousandth! Emary said, “I remember telling the guys at Marlin and Ruger that they needed to keep bore and groove and the throat dimensions tight, or the cartridge would lose its appeal. The late Harold Waterman at Marlin understood this, and they were very careful.”
Obviously, Hornady knows how to make bullets. The difference with the .17 HMR, however, is that the .17 HMR bullets are not “rimfire” bullets; they’re premium rifle bullets which are made to Hornady’s conventional production standards. Massive numbers brought ammo costs down, but .17 HMR ammo is still costlier than much rimfire ammo due to the cost of the bullet.
Marlin and Ruger were first, but it didn’t take long for most rifle manufacturers to jump on the .17 HMR bandwagon. You can do the math; it takes a lot of rifles to burn through a billion rounds. The majority of manually operated .22 WMR rifles could simply be rebarreled to .17 HMR with few mechanical changes.
There were, however, challenges (and some notable failures) in developing reliable .17 HMR semiautomatics. Although said for years, it is not true that “the .17 HMR is not suitable for semiautos.” Savage broke the code with its A17, introduced in 2015, using a delayed-blowback action. The Savage isn’t alone. Alexander Arms has been making .17 HMR AR uppers for 10 years. However, the Savage was the first economical semiauto designed from the ground up around the .17 HMR cartridge.
As rifles proliferated, so did ammo. CCI loads .17 HMR for Federal, Remington and Winchester. PMC and Sellier & Bellot also catalog .17 HMR offerings.
THE DOG TOWN
In early July 2021, I joined Hornady’s Seth Swerczek, outdoor writer John Haviland, and American Hunter’s Editor Scott Olmsted for a prairie dog shoot out of Casper, Wyoming — specifically to celebrate the .17 HMR’s 20th birthday. I’m probably not as avid a prairie dog shooter as I once was — some restraint comes with age — but I turn down few chances, and for good reason. First, ranchers hate the little rascals because they eat grass, and even more because their burrows and mounds destroy pasture. I doubt it’s possible to eradicate them by shooting, and that isn’t the goal. Rather, periodic shooting thins them a bit, and the only other alternative is poisoning.
Second, the prairie dog is an awesome shooting instructor. They are small targets, and there is rarely a still day on the high plains. There’s nothing better for learning to how to call wind. If you are able to hit prairie dogs consistently at a couple hundred yards, then no big game at twice the distance should be daunting. Also, it’s fun! There’s plenty of shooting, socializing, spotting and coaching.
I always enjoy a prairie dog shoot, but this time I was especially eager. I’ve seen what my buddy Green can do with his .17 HMR rifle. I’ve had my Marlin since the cartridge was fairly new (and I figured out what it was for), but I’ve done relatively little prairie-dogging with the .17 HMR. We were shooting with Kelly Glause of Cole Creek Outfitters and his son Cody who has his own business, Heart Spear Outfitters; great guys and old friends. Swerczek was a new friend, but Haviland, Olmsted and I go back a long way.
A fine summer morning in Wyoming, it was still slightly cool. Cody Glause stopped his truck on top of a little rise where a huge prairie dog colony sprawled in all directions. Closer dogs chirped at our intrusion. Swerczek and I unlimbered and went to work, me with a Ruger 77/17, and he with a Savage 93R17 BTV bolt-action.
The Glauses had portable benches and we used them a bit. Mostly we did what I call “roving” varmint shooting, i.e., we wandered from spot to shot, used sticks, field positions and natural rests. You don’t hit as many as from a solid rest with sandbags, but it’s more fun and better practice. Kelly swore he had a couple of big towns that hadn’t been shot. By July that’s rare, but he didn’t disappoint; we had prairie dogs in sight all the time and at all ranges. If we’d been using centerfires, we’d have spent a lot of time waiting for barrels to cool.
I like the .17 HMR, and I’m plenty familiar with its capabilities. Even so, I was amazed at how effective these rifles were. Out to about 160 yards, there was no excuse for misses. Past that, it got tougher. At 200 yards, we weren’t going to hit with every shot; more than a puff of breeze blew the little bullets off their mark. That’s part of the fun; it’s a good feeling when you call the wind right.
I’ll be honest: I hate to miss! I didn’t attempt some of the feats that I’ve seen my friend Bill Green pull off. Even so, Swerczek and I both made first-round hits to 230 yards, and shot a few dogs out to 250 yards. The .17 HMR shoots amazingly flat. Even beyond 200 yards, holdover isn’t much but the wind wreaks havoc.
Funny, the pandemic ammo shortages had even hit Grand Island, Nebraska, where Hornady operates. Swerczek brought all the ammo he could get his hands on, but we weren’t unlimited. We divvied it up, allocated rounds for each truck, and cut them in half for each day. That was fine, too; we had plenty of shooting, but it’s been a lot of years since I ran out of ammo in a prairie dog town.
When our “allotment” ran dry, we gathered at Cole Creek deer camp for lunch. Haviland and Olmsted had an equally good morning, shooting a different town with Kelly, but they were also out of .17 ammo. In the afternoon we tested the 6mm ARC (my first exposure to that new cartridge). Swerczek had a well-dialed bolt-action; and that little cartridge was impressive. It easily reached out beyond 400 yards.
The second day we did it all over again. I paired up with Olmsted, and Cody took us to a different town. The dogs weren’t up at first, so we started a bit slow and then it got better. I wandered up the two-track and found a little knoll where I laid prone with all manner of prairie dogs in a little valley below. That’s where I ran out of ammo. Perfect timing; it was past noon, and I was hungry and ready to find shade.
Through the last 20 years, I doubt that I’ve shot my full share of those billion .17 HMR cartridges, but I did some catching up in those prairie dog towns!
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