The old .22 LR rimfire has been an inexpensive, low-recoil, soft-report standard for starting new hunters and training anyone to shoot accurately without flinching. It’s also ideal for hunting small game. Heck, poachers even use it to steal turkeys and whitetails. But the .17-caliber rimfires are in many ways better.
By now most hunters know there are “seventeens” out there, but they might not know how many. Or the details.
The first commercially successful .17-caliber to make a splash was the .17 Hornady Mag. Rimfire (HMR). It was created by necking the .22 Win. Mag. down to take a .177-inch bullet. The standard load pushes a 17-grain bullet 2,550 fps from most rifles.
Lesser known is the .17 Mach 2. Also a creation of Hornady’s, this pipsqueak cartridge was formed by necking a .22 LR case down to handle the same 17-grain, .177-inch bullet. The smaller powder reservoir still manages to push that tiny bullet an average of 2,100 fps. That’s fast enough to generate 166 ft-lbs. of muzzle energy. More importantly, the velocity and efficient shape of the bullet (part of its .125 ballistic coefficient rating) keep it’s trajectory on a tree squirrel’s head from 10 yards clear out to a 120 yards. Zero at 100 yards and the bullet flies no higher than 0.75-inch above your line of sight. At 120 yards it has fallen 1.25 inches.
Of course the .17 HMR flies even flatter. Zero it at 120 yards and it’ll put the bullet about 0.75 inches high at 80 yards, and 1.25 inches below line of sight at 145 yards.
Today's 17 rimfire all shoot .177-inch bullets. The .22 Mach 2 at left is built from a necked-down .22 LR, the .17 HMR in middle from a necked-down .22 Win. Mag., and the .17 WSM from a larger nail-gun case.
The impact velocities of the thinly jacketed, soft-lead core bullets inflict dramatic and messy holes on game. Some would call this “explosive.” The bullets don’t really explode, but it sure looks that way. And they can break into a few smaller pieces. All of this is good for instant kills, but hard on meat. The solution, however, is simple: head shots.
The .17 Mach 2 is not popular and might become obsolete. That’s too bad because this might be the ultimate squirrel hunting cartridge. The reach advantage is obvious, but another advantage is safety. Hit the flimsiest twig and that bullet is likely to tear into two or more jagged, fluffy pieces.
Most shooters ignore the Mach 2 in favor of the .17 HMR. It’s certainly more versatile, hitting hard enough to work beautifully on woodchucks, jackrabbits, badgers, raccoons, red foxes, bobcats and, inside about 150 yards, even coyotes.
Bullet placement is critical on the bigger game. I once took a raccoon broadside just below the ear from about 75 yards and merely knocked it out. By the time I walked over to pick it up, it had revived enough to growl and take a few swipes at me. Hard-headed. A red fox taken in front of the shoulder angling back died instantly. So have numerous chucks and jacks and a coyote hit in the head.
The .17 HMR started proving itself as soon as it became available. Here the author had taken Texas jackrabbit, red fox and raccoon using a Winchester lever-action.
The New .17
The ultimate 17 is the new .17 WSM. Based on a 27-caliber nail gun case, this rimfire throws a more efficient 20-grain bullet 3,000 fps. When it comes to ballistics, this dwarfs the .17 HMR, more than doubling retained energy at 200 yards, flying twice as flat and drifting half as much in the wind.
After a slow start in the market place, the .17 WSM is now hitting its stride with Winchester and Hornady loading it. Bolt-action, single-shot and auto-loading rifles are coming on line from companies such as Winchester, Ruger, H-S Precision, Volquartsen, Franklin Armory and Savage.
All .17 ammo will, or at least should, cost more than .22 LR ammo, but not much more than .22 Win. Mag. ammo. Figure $15—maybe $17—for a box of 50 .17 WSM, the most expensive … if this crazy ammo hoarding trend finally abates. You might beat this by handloading some of the 17 centerfires, but you’ll never beat the convenience.