The .17 Caliber Centerfire Varmint Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

The first of the modern .17 varmint cartridges introduced by a major manufacturer, and still the fastest, was the .17 Remington of 1971. As factory loaded, the hot .17 Rem. drives a 20 grain AccuTip-V bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 4250 fps and a 25 grain JHP bullet at a MV of 4040 fps. This puts it in the same league as the .220 Swift in velocity.

The .17 Rem. is based on the .223 Rem. case (with some dimensional changes) necked-down to accept .172" diameter bullets. Like its parent case, the rim diameter is .378" and the shoulder angle remains 23-degrees.

The only serious knock on the .17 Remington is that the relatively large amount of powder forced through a tiny hole leaves a lot of powder fouling that must be removed frequently. Choose a clean burning powder when you reload for the .17 Rem. In addition, reloaders have found that small variations in powder charge can result in large changes in velocity. As with any ultra high velocity cartridge, barrel life can be extended by using less than maximum loads. Try a 25 grain bullet at about 3750 fps.

Around 2007, no doubt spurred-on by the tremendous commercial success of the rimfire .17 HMR cartridge, Big Green tried again with the introduction of the .17 Remington Fireball. This hot .17 is based on the .221 Fireball case necked down to accept standard .172" bullets. It is quite similar to the earlier wildcat .17 Mach IV.

The .17 Fireball ameliorates some of the drawbacks of the bigger .17 Remington. It drives a 20 grain AccuTip-V bullet at a MV of 4000 fps or a 25 grain JHP bullet at 3850 fps. Using a 250 yard zero, at 300 yards the drop of the Fireball's 25 grain bullet is only 0.3" greater than the drop of the same bullet fired from the .17 Remington. Naturally, it kills just as well. A 25 grain spitzer bullet bucks the wind better than a 20 grain bullet and the lower velocity extends barrel life. Reloaders can drop the velocity of a 25 grain spitzer bullet to 3750 fps to extend barrel life without an appreciable reduction in field performance. As far as I know, Remington is the only major arms manufacturer currently producing .17 Remington and .17 Fireball rifles.

The latest of the SAAMI standardized centerfire .17's is the .17 Hornet, designed and introduced by Hornady. This little cartridge is small in size and cost, but big in performance. It is based on a blown-out, necked-down, sharp shouldered (30-degree) version of the .22 Hornet case. The .17 Hornet was introduced in 2013, in the middle of the Obama second term inspired ammo shortage, unfortunate timing. It drives a conventional 20 grain V-Max bullet at a MV of 3650 fps or an all copper 15.5 grain NTX bullet at 3860 fps. With maximum loads, reloaders can increase the MV of the 20 grain bullet to 3750 fps, or launch a 25 grain bullet at 3200 fps.

The .17 Hornet is probably the best balanced of all the .17 centerfire varmint cartridges and my guess is it is destined to become the most popular. Its performance is right up there with the hot .22's and it is much more pleasant to shoot, with minimal recoil and muzzle blast. It has become my personal favorite among all centerfire varmint cartridges. Due to its mild report, it is particularly well suited for use in semi-populated rural areas.

As this is written, CZ, Ruger and Savage are offering .17 Hornet rifles, as are some of the smaller rifle makers. Other manufacturers are considering offering .17 Hornet rifles, as it can easily be adapted to any action suitable for the .22 Hornet.

All three of these centerfire .17's were designed for shooting varmints and small predators at long range (meaning beyond the effective range of the .17 HMR and .17 WSM rimfire cartridges). There seems to be an appeal to varmint hunting that never wanes. At ranges in excess of 200 yards, it is certainly a challenge to both the shooter and the rifle.

Small targets at long range put an emphasis on accuracy. In the right rifle, all of the centerfire .17's can be extremely accurate. The .17 Hornet, for example, has proven to be one of the most accurate cartridges ever tested by Guns and Shooting Online.

Part of the great appeal of the centerfire .17's is their mild recoil and relatively tame muzzle blast. Even the largest .17 cartridge, the .17 Remington, is fun to shoot over extended periods of time. Because the .17's are easy to shoot, hunters shoot them well.

Of course, like all rifle cartridges, the centerfire .17's do have drawbacks. Because their bore diameter is so small, .17 caliber varmint rifles need to be cleaned more often than .22 caliber varmint rifles to maintain best accuracy. However, a more important disadvantage of the .17's is the relatively poor ballistic coefficient (BC) and sectional density (SD) of their bullets. (To be fair, the .22 varmint calibers also suffer from low BC and SD problems, particularly compared to the .24 caliber cartridges with 70-85 grain bullets.)

Ballistic coefficient is indicative of aerodynamic drag, or how efficiently a bullet flies through the air. The higher the BC, the better a bullet retains its initial velocity and the flatter it shoots. Sectional density is the square of a bullet's diameter divided by its weight. A bullet with a high sectional density is a long bullet for its caliber; this helps it penetrate well. Given two bullets of the same basic shape, the one with the higher sectional density will also have the higher ballistic coefficient, so to an extent SD and BC go hand in hand.

Unfortunately, bullets for .17 caliber rifles are SD and BC challenged; they score low in both areas. The light, relatively short .17 bullets shed velocity quickly and are unusually susceptible to lateral drift in cross winds. Wind drift is a function, not so much of velocity, but of the rate of velocity loss. The larger bore varmint calibers have an advantage over the .17's in these areas.

Still, for most varmint shooting the centerfire .17's are an excellent choice, as evidenced by their growing popularity. Their relatively mild muzzle blast (particularly in the case of the .17 Hornet) means that they can be used closer to civilization than the .22 and .24 calibers (non-shooters tend to equate noise with danger) and their mild recoil means that more rounds can be fired with greater accuracy over a longer period of time. They are also more economical to reload than ballistically equivalent, larger caliber cartridges.

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Copyright 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.