Henry Golden Boy .17 HMR Scoped Varmint Rifle
By Chuck Hawks and the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
In the fall of 2005 Guns and Shooting Online reviewed a Henry Golden Boy rifle in .17 HMR caliber. (You can read the complete review of that rifle on the Product Review Page.) In order to preserve the smooth top of its Brasslite receiver, the Golden Boy model is not grooved for tip-off scope mounts like most rimfire rifles. It requires a special cantilever scope mount for which the barrel must be drilled and tapped. Reluctant to drill and tap the barrel of the test rifle sent to us for review by Henry Repeating Arms Co., we elected to test fire the Golden Boy using the rifle's supplied open sights.
The results of our review were excellent using only the iron sights. In fact, they were so inspiring that we got permission from the kind folks at Henry RAC to make the Golden Boy into something of a Guns and Shooting Online project rifle. The goal was to convert this classic beauty into a serious .17 HMR varmint rifle.
Now, before we go any farther I must advise you, gentle reader, that Henry RAC already offers a .17 HMR varmint rifle in the form of their Varmint Express (Model No. H001V). The Varmint Express shares the same smooth lever action as the Golden Boy, but in a blue-black receiver grooved for scope mounting. Perhaps most important, since the standard Henry lever action stock is designed for use with iron sights, is the checkered Monte Carlo butt stock that is standard only on the Varmint Express. The level comb of this stock correctly aligns the shooter's eye with a telescopic sight. An accessory Henry cantilever scope mount is also included with the Varmint Express rifle, giving the user a choice of scope mounting methods. The Varmint Express comes with a 20" round barrel and Williams Fire Sights.
So, our decision to convert the Golden Boy into what is essentially a brassy Varmint Express was purely whimsical. We like the looks of the Golden Boy's Brasslite receiver and its octagon barrel is somewhat heavier than the standard round barrel. It seemed worth the effort because not only was our Golden Boy an accurate rifle, its action is butter smooth. And, by the end of our review its trigger released at a clean 2-1/8 pounds. Of course, we are gun nuts of the worst sort, which may help to explain the occasional lapse of reason. (Then, too, we have a custom gunsmith on our staff!)
A rifle as good as the Golden Boy practically screams for a good telescopic sight, regardless of its traditional styling. So, the first thing we did is to order a Henry cantilever scope mount for the Golden Boy.
We also took the opportunity obtain a solid brass replacement forend barrel band at the same time. The supplied shiny black band looked out of place (at least to us) on this otherwise brass trimmed rifle.
Guns and Shooting Online engraver and custom gunsmith Rocky Hays drilled and tapped the Golden Boy's 20" octagon barrel and mounted the cantilever scope base. While he was at it, he couldn't resist the urge to mill down the scope base to reduce the clearance between the bottom of the cantilever and the top of the receiver to get the scope as low as possible. (engravers are by nature perfectionists.) The Henry base accepts Weaver type rings, and even with the lowered mount we were able to use Weaver low height rings.
We initially mounted a compact 4x fixed power scope on the Golden Boy, thinking that we might use it as a dual purpose small game and varmint rifle. As it turned out, we use our Golden Boy almost entirely for shooting small varmints (mostly sand rats and the occasional jack rabbit), so we replaced the 4x scope with one of Leupold's fine VX-II 3-9x33mm EFR rimfire scopes. This varmint type scope comes with an adjustable objective and a fine Duplex reticle; it is ideal for aiming precisely at distant small targets. (You can read a full review of the VX-II 3-9x33mm EFR scope on the Product Review Page.) I don't know of a better scope for a .17 HMR rifle.
The Golden Boy's stock is designed for use with iron sights. That means the comb is much too low to allow a proper cheek weld after a scope is mounted about 2" overbore, as is required by the Henry cantilever scope base. In order to correct that deficiency, we first tried an accessory leather lace-on comb. The stop-gap nature of that solution seemed out of character with a rifle as nicely turned-out as the Henry Golden Boy, so ultimately Rocky Hays cut the comb of the stock and installed a Graco Adjustable Comb kit. While he was at it, Rocky engine-turned the Graco's base plate. (Those custom gunsmiths . . .!)
Then we found that even with the new adjustable comb fully elevated, it was still too low. So, Rocky fabricated spacers (extension posts) to increase the adjustment height. Ah, success at last! You routinely see adjustable combs on trap guns, but seldom on a rimfire varmint rifle. Thus was a traditional lever action rifle transformed into a modern varmint rifle.
Let's estimate what it would cost to recreate this project: Henry Golden Boy .17 HMR rifle ($569.95 MSRP); Leupold VX-II EFR scope ($455 MSRP); Weaver scope rings ($20); custom lowered cantilever scope mount base ($27.50 + $145 modification and installation); Graco adjustable comb kit ($30), with spacers ($30), engine turning ($35), and installation ($150); and--oh yes--a brass forend band ($27.50). Total cost at MSRP prices (it could be, and was, done for less) would be about $1489.95 and project time about one year--but we dawdled.
At this point you might reasonably ask, "Was it worth it?" Rationally, no, it probably wasn't. A Henry Varmint Express rifle that accomplishes the same end can be purchased for much less money, and certainly less time and effort. That, after all, is why Henry offers the Varmint Express as a production item ($509 MSRP). But, ya gotta admit that our Golden Boy Varmint project rifle is both functional and a brassy little attention getter.
A quick summary of the standard Henry Golden Boy's major features may be appropriate. In our full length review we found that, and I quote:
"This eye-catching .17 sports a shiny Brasslite receiver . . . and solid brass buttplate, set off by a select American black walnut stock . . . The 20" octagon barrel is equipped with a Marble's adjustable buckhorn rear sight and a post front sight . . .."
"We were impressed by its excellent feel. It balances between the hands (right beneath the ejection port) and has enough weight to hold steady without being a burden to carry in the field."
"Operationally, the Henry is a traditional, external hammer, lever action rifle. The safety is a "quarter cock" hammer position . . . There is no lever wobble in any position. The Golden Boy is a modern rifle, but it looks and operates like a classic 19th Century lever action."
With its standard Marble buckhorn rear sight and gold bead post front sight, Guns and Shooting Online Technical Assistant Bob Fleck and I were able to average 1.4 MOA groups at 25 yards with .17 HMR Remington Premier ammunition in that earlier review. Now, a year and a half later, that the same rifle has been equipped with a high quality telescopic sight worthy of a fine varmint rifle and we were finally able to do some serious shooting at 100 yards. This was done at the Izaak Walton Gun Range south of Eugene, Oregon. This is an outdoor range with covered shooting positions, solid bench rests, and target stands at 25, 50, 100, and 200 yards.
The range conditions were pretty wet, as it was by this time mid April of 2007. ("April showers" in Western Oregon last about 9 months.) It "showered" off and on throughout our shooting session with the scoped Golden Boy varmint rifle, and the wind was variable and gusty--far from ideal conditions for a .17 HMR rifle. The temperature was a damp and chilly 52 degrees.
Bob Fleck and I again did the shooting chores. We used a Caldwell Lead Sled rest weighted with a two 25 pound bags of lead shot. (We were also testing .338 Federal loads that day.) For ammunition we used .17 HMR Remington Premier, Winchester Supreme and Hornady Varmint Express, all with a similar V-Max bullet. The actual difference between these three bullets is the color of their polycarbonate tips: gold for Remington, red for Hornady and a silver for Winchester. All three bullets are made by Hornady. We also shot groups for record with CCI TNT ammo, using a Speer 17 grain JHP bullet. The catalog MV of all of these loads is 2550 fps.
We zeroed the rifle to hit 1.5" high at 100 yards in order to take advantage of the flat shooting .17 HMR's maximum point blank range (+/- 1.5") of about 165 yards. For record we shot 5-shot groups on Champion Score Keeper targets at 100 yards. Here are the shooting results:
AVERAGE GROUP SIZE, ALL BRANDS OF AMMUNITION = 1.73"
This rifle showed a preference for Winchester and Hornady ammunition, and didn't much like the CCI load. I don't know how much the wind and rain affected the bullets' flight, but know that they did. We definitely had some horizontal stringing due to the wind. I also know that if I had been shooting at a rock chuck ("ground hog" to Easterners), almost every round fired would have been a hit. Considering the damp and uncomfortable conditions, I'd call that a successful outing at the rifle range with the Henry Golden Boy project rifle.
Note: A full review of the stock Henry Golden Boy .17 HMR Rifle can be found on the Product Reviews page.
Copyright 2006 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.