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Compared: .17 HMR Varmint Ammunition

By Chuck Hawks

.17 HMR
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

As we began accuracy testing for our article, "Compared: Marlin, Ruger and Savage .17 HMR Rifles" (which you can find on the G&S Online Rimfire Guns and Ammo Page), it quickly became obvious that we were also, unavoidably, testing the ammunition used in the rifles. These were 17 grain varmint hunting loads from CCI, Federal, Hornady and Remington, the four brands of ammunition 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 companion article.

It is common knowledge in the trade that all four brands of .17 HMR ammunition are being produced by CCI in their Idaho factory. The load specifications and bullets used in the various brands vary, however, so it would be a mistake to assume that all four brands will shoot equally well in any given rifle.

Our rifle comparison involved having up to five G&S Online staffers (Technical Assistants Jim Fleck, Bob Fleck, Nathan Rauzon, Gordon Landers, and yours truly) shoot groups with all four loads through four different .17 HMR heavy barrel varmint rifles (two Marlin Model 917VS rifles, a Ruger 77/17VMBBZ and a Savage Model 93R17-BVSS). All four proved to be accurate arms.

Ultimately we fired a total of some 80 groups, or 400 rounds of ammunition, for record. That total does not include practice, sighting-in all the rifles or the 40+ rounds that we fired in the course of chronographing the four brands of ammunition for this comparison.

The Ammunition

Following is a brief description of each of the four loads we compared for this article.

The CCI 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. This bullet was designed specifically for the .17 HMR cartridge. CCI's published 100 yard velocity/energy figures for this load are 1873 fps and 132 ft. lbs.

The Federal Premium V-Shok load we tested uses the same 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. Federal figures for 150 yards are 1620 fps and 100 ft. lbs. 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.

Hornady, the company primarily responsible for the development of the .17 HMR cartridge, offers a Varmint Express load using a 17 grain V-MAX bullet at a MV of 2550 fps and ME of 245 ft. lbs. This bullet was also designed specifically for the .17 HMR, and is a plastic-tip, boat-tail design. I calculated the ballistic coefficient (BC) of this bullet at .123. Hornady velocity and energy figures for this load at 100 yards are 1901 fps and 136 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the figures are 1378 fps and 72 ft. lbs.

Remington's Premium "Gold Box" 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. This bullet is identical to the Hornady V-MAX projectile, except it has a gold plastic tip instead of a red one.

The trajectories of all of these loads are similar. The factory trajectories are based on a 100 yard zero and show a 2.6" drop at 150 yards (Remington figures).

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. 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.

Chronograph results

As part of this comparison we decided to chronograph the four brands of .17 HMR ammunition. I did the shooting and Gordon Landers recorded the data. 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 our Ruger 77/17VMBBZ test rifle. 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 four brands of ammo, including the highest velocity, lowest velocity, extreme spread, and mean average velocity.

  • CCI - high 2613 fps; low 2517 fps; extreme spread 96 fps; average = 2559 fps.
  • FEDERAL - high 2631 fps; low 2539 fps; extreme spread 92 fps; average = 2595 fps.
  • REMINGTON - high 2626 fps; low 2591 fps; extreme spread 35 fps; average = 2609 fps.
  • HORNADY - high 2698 fps; low 2621 fps; extreme spread 77 fps; average = 2658 fps.

The most unusual result from our chronographing is that all four brands of .17 HMR ammunition delivered significantly higher average velocities than the factory specifications call for. The CCI ammo exceed its advertised MV by 34 fps, the Federal load exceeded its published MV by 45 fps, the Remington load exceeded its published MV by 59 fps, and the Hornady ammo exceeded its catalog MV by a whopping 108 fps. And this is based on instrumental velocity at 10' (rather than actual MV) from a chronograph that is historically on the stingy side. This result is almost unheard of in all my years of chronograph testing. This .17 HMR ammo is hot stuff!

Rifle Range Protocol

All shooting with our four .17 HMR varmint 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.

The testing was done over several range sessions. The weather was mostly gray and cloudy, with occasional light rain and also an occasional sun break. This is typical late winter/early spring weather in Western Oregon. The ambient air temperature was usually in the mid-50's (F).

Because the .17 HMR cartridge is very susceptible to the effects of wind, we tried to do our shooting on calm days. But 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. After sighting-in the rifles, 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 used Outers Score Keeper targets throughout. We used the four smaller (3 5/16" diameter) bullseyes on each target, shooting one group with each load on each target. In an attempt to eliminate as much human error as possible, the rifles were fired from the range's heavy shooting benches using Caldwell lead Sled rifle rests. All scopes were set at 9x for uniformity.

Shooting results

It's interesting to see actual velocity figures for different brand of ammunition, but to me the most interesting part of this comparison is the range 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.

  • HORNADY - smallest group 5/8"; largest group 1 3/4"; mean average group = 1 1/8".
  • REMINGTON - smallest group 13/16"; largest group 2 3/8"; mean average group = 1 13/32".
  • FEDERAL - smallest group 11/16"; largest group 2 3/4"; mean average group = 1 13/32".
  • CCI - smallest group 1/2"; largest group 2 1/4"; mean average group = 1 17/32".

These results speak for themselves. With the smallest 100 yard groups running from .5 minute of angle (MOA) to .8125 MOA and the average group size between 1.125 MOA and 1.531 MOA across all four brands, 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. But 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!

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Copyright 2005, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.