.17 HMR Varmint Rifles Compared: Marlin, Ruger and Savage
By Chuck Hawks and the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
This comparison took longer to bring to you, loyal G&S Online readers, than anticipated. The idea was to compare the top of the line .17 HMR varmint rifles from the top manufacturers, Marlin, Ruger, and Savage. Not to pick a subjective "winner," but to point out the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each, as well as documented shooting results. This article is the result.
Naturally, we needed rifles from all three manufacturers, and scopes to go on them. Guns and Shooting Online Technical Advisor Jack Seeling privately purchased a Marlin 917VS rifle along with a 4-12x AO Simmons AETEC scope. (Marlin "A" for the purposes of this review.)
Technical Advisor Jim Fleck acquired a second Marlin 917VS rifle and a 4-12x AO Bushnell Banner scope to go with it. (Marlin "B" for the purposes of this review.)
I requested from Savage Arms the consignment of a 93R17-BVSS test rifle (purchased by Technical Assistant Nathan Rauzon after the review was completed), and from Sturm, Ruger the consignment of a 77/17VMBBZ test rifle. Both companies cooperated fully and have our heartfelt thanks for their assistance in this project.
These rifles needed scopes, of course. Leupold kindly consigned to us a VX-II 3-9x33mm EFR scope for the Savage rifle, and Bushnell consigned an Elite 3200 5-15x40mm AO scope for the Ruger. Many thanks to both scope manufacturers for providing such fine optics for this comparison. Full length reviews of these scopes can be found on the G&S Online Product Review Page, as can Individual reviews of the Marlin, Ruger, and Savage rifles.
To have the greatest available pool of data from which to work, we ended up testing the four .17 HMR varmint loads commonly available in our area (CCI, Federal, Hornady, and Remington) in each rifle. That grew into a separate ammunition comparison, the results of which you can read on the G&S Online Rimfire Guns and Ammo Page.
Ultimately five other Guns and Shooting Online staffers became involved in the analysis and testing of these rifles and ammunition. It was my responsibility to write this article, but Technical Advisors Jack Seeling, Jim Fleck, Bob Fleck, Nathan Rauzon and Gordon Landers were also involved in the project.
Everything eventually came together, and we were able to bring the comparison to fruition. So let's get started with a brief description of the .17 HMR cartridge.
The .17 HMR cartridge
The .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire is the hottest cartridge innovation since the .22 WMR was introduced back in the 1950's. It was developed as a joint project by Hornady, Marlin, and Ruger.
The .17 HMR is based on the .22 Magnum case necked-down to accept .172" diameter bullets. New, sophisticated projectiles were designed specifically for the new cartridge, and enough Hodgdon's Li'l Gun powder was used to give a 17 grain bullet a MV of 2550 fps and ME of 245 ft. lbs. in the Hornady factory load. Quality control was (and is) very tight; the goal is MOA (or better) accuracy from factory loaded .17 HMR ammunition. The result of all this is the highest velocity, flattest shooting, and most accurate rimfire small game and varmint cartridge ever produced.
CCI, Remington, and Federal began providing .17 HMR ammunition, also loaded with 17 grain varmint bullets, and the sales of both rifles and ammunition took off. Winchester, PMC and other ammunition manufacturers followed suit, and the rest is history.
This cartridge is so useful and so impressive that comments like, "The best cartridge development in the last 50 years" and, "Makes .22 rimfires obsolete" were frequently heard from our shooters. One reviewer was wondering aloud if he could rebarrel his treasured Browning A-Bolt Medallion .22 LR rifle to .17 HMR.
To take best advantage of the long range potential of the .17 HMR cartridge, I zero a 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 maximum point blank range (+/- 1.5") of 165 yards. At 200 yards you will need to hold 5.5" above the desired point of impact.
In some ways the Marlin, Ruger, and Savage rifles compared here are quite similar. First of all, these are probably the arms North American varmint hunters seeking a .17 HMR rifle are most likely to consider. Most noticeable is that these rifles all look similar. There is not a vast difference in cosmetics, although the Ruger's Target Grey metal finish is unique.
All three models are at the top of their respective manufacturer's rimfire hunting rifle line. All are configured as heavy barrel varmint rifles with target crowns. All are bolt action repeaters with stainless steel barreled actions. All use dual hook extractors and a fixed ejector. The safeties are located at the right rear of the action. There are visible cocking indicators at the rear of their bolts. All come with gray/black laminated hardwood stocks with full pistol grips and studs for attaching quick detachable sling swivels. They are sold without iron sights, but include bases for mounting telescopic sights. And, of course, all are chambered for the .17 HMR cartridge.
The Savage 93R17-BVSS rifle
The Savage Arms 93R17-BVSS is based on a bolt action with a tubular receiver. It locks closed by means of a single square lug at the root of the bolt handle. The bolt is removed by simply pulling the trigger all the way rearward and withdrawing the bolt. There is no separate bolt release.
The simple pre-AccuTrigger mechanism of our test rifle broke at a creepy 4.5 pounds. This is, unfortunately, about average for today's rimfire rifles. Later versions of this rifle have been dramatically improved by the addition of Savage's superb 2.5 pound Accu-Trigger, giving the Savage an advantage over all other rimfire rifles in this critical area.
On the plus side of the ledger is the Savage's 5 round, detachable box magazine, which protrudes only slightly beneath the stock and definitely interferes less with the bottom line of the rifle than the Marlin's long 7-round magazine. The cut checkering panels on the laminated stock's pistol grip and forearm are a nice touch lacking on the other rifles. The Monte Carlo comb correctly positions the shooter's eye behind a telescopic sight.
The Savage's two position safety was stiff, but seemed to work satisfactorily. The magazine system also worked correctly, unlike the Marlin's. It was not difficult to insert and seat the Savage magazine. Feeding was reliable, and the Savage rifle's action is smoother and operated with less force than either of our Marlin rifles.
In overall function, the Savage was second to the Ruger, but quite satisfactory and definitely superior to our pair of Marlins.
The Savage is the least expensive of our three contenders. Its lower price shows in its plastic trigger guard (complete with mold line) and cheap sheet metal bottom iron (blued, not stainless). Both are simply screwed to the bottom of its Monte Carlo stock rather than inletted into the stock, as they should be. And the black plastic butt plate is not as nice as the rubber butt pads supplied on the Marlin and Ruger rifles. Never the less, the Savage's stainless steel barreled action, heavy barrel, and grey/black laminated stock make it a decent looking varmint rifle.
Here are the basic specifications of the Savage 93R17BVSS:
This rifle is a bargain. It works well, it's accurate and, due to its shorter length and lighter weight, it is more versatile than its Marlin and Ruger competition. The BVSS can serve quite nicely as a small game stalking rifle in addition to its primary role as a varmint rifle. There is a full review of the Savage 93R17BVSS on the G&S Online Product Review Page.
The Marlin 917VS rifle
The Marlin 917VS comes with a laminated Monte Carlo style stock that correctly positions the eye behind a telescopic sight. Its receiver is tubular and its action locks closed by means of a single lug at the root of the bolt handle. The two-position safety is positive and works well. The bolt is removed by simply pulling the trigger and withdrawing the bolt. There is no separate bolt release.
Our two test rifles were equipped with Marlin's vaunted T-900 Trigger System. This includes a very wide trigger with a reasonably clean, but heavy, 5.5 pound pull. In use I would rate it inferior to the Ruger's trigger, and about equal to the lighter but creepier Savage trigger.
Here are the basic specifications of the Marlin 917VS:
The 917VS is a good looking varmint rifle. The stock is well proportioned, although it lacks a fluted comb. The rifle has good lines, interrupted by the long 7-shot magazine that protrudes a good inch below the bottom of the stock.
Overall the Marlin is not quite as refined as the larger Ruger 77/17, but it is a little more refined than the Savage 93R17-BVSS. The stainless steel sheet metal bottom iron and aluminum alloy trigger are inletted, for example, unlike the Savage. When one notices the details, the Marlin's higher price (compared to the Savage) appears to be justified.
The 917VS is fed from a sheet steel removable box magazine, and this is the source of the rifle's most significant drawbacks. The magazine well is too large, and allows the magazine to be inserted incorrectly--in front of the wide rear magazine guide rail. This is, unfortunately, not that hard to do--especially in the heat of an active varmint shoot.
But correct magazine insertion and a positive "click" as the magazine locks home does not guarantee reliable feeding. Even when locked in place, the magazine is so loose in the magazine well that often the shooter must use his off hand to press upward on the bottom of the magazine. This eliminates the "slop" from the system and allows the bolt to catch the rim of the top cartridge, sliding it free of the magazine and into the chamber. The design of the Marlin magazine also allows the rim of the top cartridge to occasionally be caught behind the rim of the second cartridge in the magazine, which ties-up the rifle.
These complaints were common to both of our Marlin test rifles, and all three of the magazines we had at our disposal. A quick trip to our favorite sporting goods store confirmed that the new Marlin in their gun rack shared the exact same problems, so this is clearly a design/manufacturing defect, not something confined to one or two individual rifles. All five shooters experienced the same problems. These shortcomings can usually be overcome by carefully observing the angle and position of each cartridge loaded into the magazine, ensuring that the magazine is correctly and fully seated in the magazine well, and using the off hand to hold the magazine all the way into the action as the bolt is operated.
Despite all of these precautions, on occasion the tip of a cartridge will not clear the forward lip of the magazine, jamming the rifle. This last problem occurred more often with JHP style bullets than with plastic tipped bullets. The 917VS can be babied and will then feed correctly most of the time, but in terms of reliable function the Marlin 917VS is one of the worst bolt action rifles I have ever encountered.
The two Marlin rifles also required more force to cycle their bolts than either of the other two brands. These Marlins are good looking, accurate varmint rifles, but they are not based on the world's slickest bolt action. There is a full review of the Marlin 917VS on the G&S Online Product Review Page.
The Ruger 77/17VMBBZ rifle
The Ruger 77/17VMBBZ is by far the most expensive of our test rifles. Its higher price is justified by a number of superior features. Among these are its one-piece, dual locking lug bolt; ultra-fast lock time; investment cast, heat treated, stainless steel receiver; low, three position safety; heavy, tapered, precision hammer forged barrel; low glare, corrosion resistant Target Grey metal finish; integral scope mounts for Ruger rings (included); superior trigger mechanism; and rotary magazine system.
Its nicely shaped stock has a straight, fluted comb that correctly positions the eye behind a scope sight. A smaller diameter pistol grip and more delicate wrist enhances control. The forearm is slender and graceful, but flattened on the bottom to aid shooting from a rest.
The Target Grey metal finish is nicely complemented by the grey/black laminated hardwood stock. The rifle has a special, very business like appearance, although about half of the people we asked preferred the standard satin stainless steel finish of the Marlin and Savage rifles. Both look good to me.
The famous Ruger rotary magazine deserves special mention. This detachable magazine fits flush with the bottom of the stock for a sleek appearance. Its internal spool keeps the individual cartridges separated and its stainless steel lips and feed ramp minimize wear. The body of the magazine is made of very tough glass filled nylon. Feeding is slick and trouble free. It is easier to load than the sheet metal box magazines used by the other rifles and holds more cartridges. Everyone preferred this magazine system. This is by far the best magazine system used by any of the rifles compared in this article.
Also worth special mention is the Ruger's trigger. It is clearly superior to the Marlin and Savage triggers. The test rifle's trigger broke at smooth 4.5 pounds by my RCBS gauge with almost no creep. Its excellent release makes it seem lighter than it actually is. This would not have been anything to write home about 30 years ago, but these days it's a very good factory trigger. In fact, this trigger is both lighter and smoother than the one in the Ruger M77R centerfire rifle I recently reviewed. It did not make much difference shooting from a Caldwell Lead Sled on a bench rest at the rifle range, but in the field this superior trigger (and the action's ultra-fast lock time) would enhance the rifle's practical accuracy.
The three position safety operates like the safety on the M77 centerfire rifle (or a Winchester Model 70). The fully forward position is "fire," the fully rearward position locks both the trigger and the bolt and is "safe," and the middle position locks the trigger but not the bolt for safer loading/unloading.
The bolt release is a separate, flush mounted lever on the left side at the rear of the action, rather that an extension of the trigger as in the Marlin and Savage rifles. This eliminates the possibility of damage to the trigger mechanism by having it also serve as the bolt stop.
The Ruger's smooth, round bolt knob (my favorite kind) is positioned perfectly, directly over the trigger finger. Unfortunately, the rather short, straight bolt handle is perilously close to the ocular bell of a high powered scope when operated, leaving insufficient room for fingers--particularly gloved fingers in cold weather. A slightly longer, more curved, bolt handle would alleviate the problem. This is a relatively minor complaint, but it was noted by three of our reviewers.
Here are the basic specifications for the Ruger 77/17VMBBZ:
The 77/17VMBBZ is a deluxe rifle. It is, perhaps, a more specialized varmint rifle, longer and heavier than the other rifles reviewed here. The Ruger definitely has the best lines, fit and finish. Its action is the strongest, smoothest, and most reliable in operation. There is a full review of the Ruger 77/17VMBBZ on the G&S Online Product Review Page.
The Scopes and mounts
All of the scopes used in this comparison worked fine. The .17 HMR cartridge generates so little recoil that eye relief is not a safety factor and, in any case, all of these scopes offer eye relief adequate for centerfire varmint rifles. These scopes are designed to take the pounding of centerfire rifle calibers, so durability should not be a problem.
They are all alleged to be waterproof and shockproof. All four scopes were supplied with some sort of "plex" reticle, a real Duplex in the case of the Leupold (Leupold invented the type) and a knock-off of the Duplex in the others. They all had a front focusing adjustable objective (AO) to eliminate parallax, and the range figures seemed accurate as marked. They all came with some sort of fast focus eyepiece. Lens caps were supplied with all but the Leupold, a strange oversight for the most expensive scope in the comparison. In short, all four scopes did what they were supposed to do without any problems or malfunctions.
Various mounting systems were used, depending on what was provided with the rifle. In my opinion the best scope mounting system is the Ruger's integral base and matching Ruger rings. This is the most secure and trouble free way to go, but all of the scope mounts worked fine during our testing.
Brief comments about each scope follow. Full length reviews of each can be found on the G&S Online Product Review Page.
One Marlin rifle ("Marlin A") was equipped with a Simmons AETEC 3.8-12x44mm AO scope in high Millet scope rings that clamp directly to the tip-off scope mount grooves in the Marlin's receiver. The Simmons AETEC line features aspherical lenses to maximize sharpness and minimize optical aberrations. This model boasts fully multi-coated optics, 1/4 MOA fingertip windage and elevation adjustments, fast eyepiece focus, a medium "plex" type reticle, and a matte black finish. A lens hood is included.
We found that the windage and elevation adjustments were satisfactorily accurate and the view through the scope is crisp and clear. Everyone praised this scope's optical quality. My only suggestion is that I wish it were available with an optional fine reticle, as the standard version is a little bit heavy for a varmint scope. This is a big game reticle. Never the less, it served adequately on the Marlin .17 HMR rifle.
The other Marlin rifle ("Marlin B") was fitted with a Bushnell Banner 4-12x40mm AO scope. This was the least expensive scope in the review, but it proved to be sufficient for a .17 HMR varmint rifle. The Banner was mounted directly to the rifle's tip off mount grooves by means of high Millet rings. It features a one-piece tube, 1/4 MOA fingertip windage and elevation adjustments, fast focus eyepiece, standard Multi-X reticle, and a matte black finish. This scope's AO features an extended focus range, making it suitable for air rifles and rimfire rifles that may be used at short range, as well as long range hunting and varmint rifles.
The Banner's optics are acceptable, but do not offer resolution equal to the other (more expensive) scopes. Nor is flare as well controlled. Eye position is fairly critical to prevent the scope "winking" at the shooter. The reticle is a little finer and seemed to subtend a less of the target than the AETEC reticle, which is a positive feature for a varmint rifle. Remember that the Bushnell Banner is the least expensive scope used in this comparison by a considerable margin. Altogether, it gave good performance considering its modest price.
Roughly twice the price of the AETEC and three times the price of the Banner (based on the manufacturer's 2005 MSRP) is the Bushnell Elite 3200 5-15x40mm AO scope, which was mounted on the Ruger rifle using the supplied Ruger high scope rings. Physically the largest rifle in the comparison, it seemed reasonable that the Ruger should wear the biggest scope.
This upscale model features a one-piece tube, fully multi-coated optics, 1/4 MOA fingertip adjustments, standard Multi-X reticle, 3.5" eye relief, 91% total light transmission, fast focus eyepiece, and a matte black finish. It boasts an extended AO focus range of 10 yards to infinity. A lens hood is included.
The Elite 3200's fully multi-coated optics suppressed flare well. The view through this scope was sharp and clear, at least as good as any of the other scopes and noticeably better than the Banner. Field curvature at the edge seemed well controlled and the aiming area of the crosshair is a bit finer than the AETEC's. Given its good optical quality, precise reticle and high magnification, this would be the best scope for long range varmint shooting. The Elite 3200's performance justified its price.
The most expensive of our four scopes (by about $15), and also the smallest, is the Leupold VX-II 3-9x33mm EFR Compact. EFR means, "extended focus range." The scope's adjustable objective focuses from 10 meters to infinity. This makes the scope especially suitable for use on rimfire rifles and air rifles. This premium scope includes Leupold's Multi-Coat 4 fully multi-coated optics, 1/4 MOA coin adjustments, fine Duplex reticle, locking fast focus eyepiece, and a matte black finish.
Although less powerful than the other scopes, the Leupold's sharp, clear optics were second to none. Flare and optical aberrations were well controlled. And the fine Duplex reticle subtended less of the target, allowing for greater aiming precision. This is the best reticle of the bunch for a varmint rifle.
I mounted this scope on the Savage rifle, as it perfectly complemented that rifle's smaller size and weight. Due to the Savage barrel's lack of taper, high Weaver rings were required to give adequate clearance for the scope's adjustable objective. The Weaver rings were clamped to the Weaver bases mounted on the rifle at the Savage factory. I very much liked the view through this compact Leupold scope.
All shooting with our four .17 HMR varmint rifles was done at the Isaac Walton rifle range south of Eugene, Oregon. This outdoor facility offers target stands at 25, 50, 100, and 200 yards. After sighting-in the rifles, all shooting for record was done at 100 yards. 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.
The testing was done over several range sessions. The weather was mostly gray and cloudy, with occasional light rain or hail and also an occasional sun break. Because the .17 HMR cartridge is very susceptible to the effects of wind, we tried to do our shooting on calm days.
For uniformity, all shooting was done at Outers Score Keeper targets. Only the four smaller (3 5/16" diameter) bullseyes were used on each target. The larger center bullseye was ignored. All groups consisted of 5 shots. Called flyers--the result of shooter error--were ignored, but all other hits were included in the measured group sizes.
Four brands of ammunition were fired in each rifle. All were loaded with 17 grain varmint bullets, since these are primarily varmint rifles. The four types of ammunition were: CCI-TNT (Speer TNT JHP bullet at a MV of 2525 fps), Federal Premium V-Shok (Speer TNT JHP bullet at a MV of 2550 fps), Hornady Varmint Express (Hornady V-MAX bullet at a MV of 2550 fps), and Remington Premier Gold Box (Rem. AccuTip-V bullet at a MV of 2550 fps). The Remington AccuTip-V bullet appears to be identical to the Hornady V-MAX, except its plastic tip is gold rather than red. Hornady manufactures these bullets for Remington.
Each rifle was fired for record with each brand of ammunition. Participating is the shooting were Jack Seeling, Jim Fleck, Bob Fleck, Nathan Rauzon, Gordon Landers and yours truly. The results of all of this shooting, which amounted to a minimum of 80 rounds for record from each rifle and in some cases more, are detailed below.
Marlin 917VS "A" - Smallest group 5/8" (Hornady); largest group 2 1/16" (CCI); mean average group = 1 1/8".
Savage 93R17BVSS - Smallest group 1/2" (CCI); largest group 2 1/4" (CCI); mean average group = 1 3/16".
Marlin 917VS "B" - Smallest group 11/16" (Federal); largest group 2 1/16" (Federal, Remington); mean average group = 1 1/4".
Ruger 77/17VMBBZ - Smallest group 7/8" (CCI); largest group 2 3/8" (Remington); mean average group = 1 7/16".
Nathan shot the smallest group in the review at 1/2", using the Savage rifle. He also shot the best average group size with any single rifle using all four brands of ammunition at 15/16", again with the Savage. Way to go, Nate!
The classy Ruger 77/17VMBBZ is considerably more expensive than the Marlin and the Savage, but its sophistication and superior features justify its higher price. For the connoisseur of fine rifles, it is probably the rifle of choice. Five out of six reviewers agreed that it was the most desirable rifle in the group if price is no object. (The lone dissenter put it second to the Marlin due to the Marlin's superior intrinsic accuracy.) However, in the "value" category, where the reality of its higher price is considered, the Ruger got one first place vote, three second place votes, and two third place vote.
The Marlin 917VS is a good looking, nicely put together varmint rifle. It is the middle rifle in aesthetic appeal, and also in price. (But much closer to the Savage than the Ruger in price.) Its accuracy is unsurpassed. If price is not a factor the Marlin would be the first choice of one reviewer, the second choice of one reviewer, and the third place finisher for the rest of us. Its positive features would ordinarily make the Marlin the top gun for "value" in this review. Unfortunately, its magazine problems held it back. The final tally for "value" was two first place votes and four third place votes.
The Savage 93R17BVSS is shorter, lighter and more versatile than the other two models. It is definitely a bargain at the lowest price point of the three. It's also reliable and accurate. In our "price no object" poll it received four second place votes and two third place votes. For "value" it was the first choice of two reviewers, the second choice of three others, and the third choice of one reviewer.
These conclusions are purely subjective. They are just our personal opinions. We all agreed, however, that no one would go too far wrong by choosing any of these models for their .17 HMR varmint rifle. The rodents will never know what hit them.
Note: Individual reviews of the Savage 93R17BVSS, Marlin 917VS and Ruger K77/17VMBBZ rifles can be found on the Product Reviews page.
Copyright 2005, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.