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Compared: .17 HMR Varmint Ammunition
By Chuck Hawks
In the course of accuracy testing the various .17 HMR rifles reviewed for Guns and Shooting Online, it became obvious that we were also, unavoidably, testing the ammunition used in the rifles. These were usually 17 grain varmint hunting loads from CCI, Federal, Hornady and Remington, the brands of ammunition most readily available in our local area. Knowledge is the most precious commodity on earth and we weren't about to waste what we had learned, hence this article.
For this comparison, G&S Online staff members, including yours truly, shot groups through five different .17 HMR rifles (two Marlin Model 917VS rifles, Ruger 77/17VMBBZ, Savage A17 and Savage Model 93R17-BVSS). All proved to be accurate arms.
Ultimately we fired a total of over 80 groups and 400+ rounds of ammunition for record. That total does not include practice, sighting-in all the rifles or the 60+ rounds that we fired in the course of chronographing the five types of ammunition.
Following is a brief description of each of the five loads we compared for this article.
The CCI TNT load uses a 17 grain Speer TNT jacketed hollow-point (JHP) varmint bullet at a claimed muzzle velocity (MV) of 2525 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 241 ft. lbs. CCI's published 100 yard velocity/energy figures for this load are 1873 fps and 132 ft. lbs.
The CCI A17 load uses a 17 grain Varmint Tip bullet at a claimed MV of 2650 fps and ME of 264 ft. lbs. CCI's published 100 yard velocity/energy figures for this load are 2050 fps and 159 ft. lbs.
The Federal Premium V-Shok load we tested uses a 17 grain Speer TNT JHP bullet at a claimed MV of 2550 fps and ME of 245 ft. lbs. The catalog 100 yard velocity is 1900 fps and the 100 yard energy is 135 ft. lbs.
Hornady offers a Varmint Express load using a 17 grain V-MAX bullet at a MV of 2550 fps and ME of 245 ft. lbs. Hornady velocity and energy figures for this load at 100 yards are 1901 fps and 136 ft. lbs. This bullet is a plastic-tip, boat-tail design that is also used in CCI and Remington factory loads. I calculated the ballistic coefficient (BC) of this bullet at .123.
Remington's Premier load offers a 17 grain AccuTip-V varmint bullet at a MV of 2550 fps and ME of 245 ft. lbs. The claimed 100 yard figures are 1901 fps and 136 ft. lbs.
I prefer to zero a varmint rifle for its maximum point blank range (MPBR), allowing a 1.5" deviation above and below the line of sight. Accordingly, I sight-in my .17 HMR rifle to hit 1.5" high at 100 yards with the 17 Grain V-MAX bullet at a catalog MV of 2550 fps. This means the bullet hits dead on at 145 yards and about 1.5" low at 165 yards, for a MPBR (+/- 1.5") of 165 yards. At 200 yards you will need to hold 5.5" above the desired point of impact. Incidentally, in a 10 MPH crosswind this bullet will drift 3.3" laterally at 100 yards and a whopping 8" at 150 yards. Wind drift is the .17 HMR's Achilles heel.
As part of this comparison we decided to chronograph the five .17 HMR loads. We fired 10 shots per load over the Guns and Shooting Online Chrony chronograph. The chronograph was placed at a distance of 10 feet from the muzzle of the test rifle. The CCI A17 load was chronographed using a Savage A17 test rifle with a 22" barrel, the rifle for which this load was specifically designed. All other loads were chronographed from a Ruger 77/17VMBBZ. This rifle was chosen because it has a 24" barrel, the standard length used by most ammunition manufacturers for chronograph testing. Here are the instrumental velocities for our five loads, including the highest velocity, lowest velocity, extreme spread, and mean average velocity.
The most unusual result from our chronographing is that all five .17 HMR loads delivered significantly higher average velocities than called for by the factory specifications. The CCI TNT ammo exceeded its advertised MV by 34 fps, the Federal Premium load exceeded its published MV by 45 fps, the Remington Premier load exceeded its published MV by 59 fps, the Hornady Varmint Express ammo exceeded its catalog MV by 108 fps and the CCI A17 load exceeded its published MV by a whopping 125 fps. This is based on instrumental velocity at 10', rather than actual MV. This result is almost unheard of in all my years of chronograph testing.
Rifle Range Protocol
All shooting with our five .17 HMR rifles was done at the Isaac Walton rifle range, located in the forested hills south of Eugene, Oregon. This pleasant outdoor facility offers target stands at 25, 50, 100, and 200 yards, but all of our shooting for record was done at 100 yards.
The testing was done over several range sessions. The ambient air temperature varied between 55 and 80 degrees. (If you don't like the weather in Eugene, wait a while and it will change.) Because the .17 HMR cartridge is very susceptible to the effects of wind, we tried to do our shooting on calm days. However, there is always some air movement in the hills and it does enlarge .17 HMR groups. I am sure that the averages below would have been smaller if testing had taken place at an indoor range. Of course, varmint hunting is an outdoor sport, so these results are more indicative of real world performance.
Our range protocol was simple. All shooting for record consisted of 5-shot groups at 100 yards. Called flyers--the result of shooter error--were ignored, but all other hits were included in the measured group sizes. Groups were measured from center to center of the bullets farthest apart.
We shot at Outers Score Keeper targets. We used the four smaller (3-5/16" diameter) bullseyes on each target, which we thought gave us the best aiming precision. In an attempt to eliminate as much human error as possible, the rifles were fired from the range's heavy shooting benches using a Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest. The riflescopes were set between 9x and 12x, depending on shooter preference.
It's interesting to see actual velocity figures for different brands of ammunition, but to me the most interesting part of this comparison is the accuracy results. Certainly, it was the most difficult to compile. Fortunately, shooting .17 HMR rifles is really fun. They are accurate, flat shooting, quiet and have practically no recoil.
These results speak for themselves. With the smallest 100 yard groups running from .5 minute of angle (MOA) to .9375 MOA and the average group size between 1.125 MOA and 1.531 MOA across all five loads, this is obviously very accurate factory loaded ammunition.
As always, it behooves anyone with a .17 HMR varmint rifle to do some accuracy testing to discover what load shoots best in his or her individual rifle. After that, if you are still not getting respectable groups, either you or your rifle is probably the source of the problem. .17 HMR ammunition is pretty darn good!
Copyright 2005, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.