The concept of a .17 Hornet is nothing new; wildcatters were experimenting with small-cased seventeens back in the 1930s, and a whole raft of them were developed as super-squirrel and crow cartridges. They were intended for shooting in settled communities where it was expedient to keep noise to a minimum and reduce ricochets as much as possible. P.O Ackley whumped up the .17 Pee Wee on a necked-down .30 Carbine or .218 Bee case; either would do. And the .17 Super Pee Wee was formed by slightly shortening the body of the .219 Zipper case for a rimmed version or the .25 Remington Rimless case. Latecomers were the .17 Javelina on a shortened and blown-out .222 case; the full-length .17-222; the .17-223; the .17 Flintstone Super Eyebunger on the .22-250 case; the .17 Mach IV on the .221 Fireball case; and the .17-222 Magnum. But the .17 Ackley Hornet proved to be the most popular of them all.
My introduction to the .17 Hornet came in 1969 when a shooting mate showed me a rifle built on a Brno ZKM 465 action by Don Black and handed me the cartridge. It was a .17 Ackley Hornet. We were sniping at rabbits on a warren about 300 metres distant and I was armed with my .220 Swift. Most of the afternoon he could equal my kill rate, at least out to 250 metres, but late in the evening when a wee bit of a breeze sprang up, he did more missing than hitting. This made me lose interest and I had no inclination to gain more experience with this sub-calibre until 1971 when Remington introduced the .17 Remington as a new cartridge for their Model 700 bolt-action rifle. The cartridge was based on the .223 Remington case necked down to .17, with the shoulder moved back .087 inch to lengthen the neck while retaining the same shoulder angle. The cartridge was an immediate success at a time when fox pelts were bringing high prices. The fast-stepping, highly frangible little .172 inch bullets could be depended upon to kill instantly without tearing a large exit hole which reduced the value of the fox pelts.
After the demand for fox fur petered out most shooters moved on; they came to realize that the .17 Remington was a special purpose cartridge which had certain drawbacks, and got their rifles rebarreled for the more popular .223 Remington. The hot .17 fell down in several areas; it was hard on barrels, fiddly to clean and the ultra-high velocities, in some brands of rifles, gave serious problems with metal fouling badly affecting accuracy. The .17 soon became redundant and eventually Remington stopped chambering for it although they still produce ammunition – a 20gn AccuTip-V at a sizzling 4250fps and a 25gn JHP at 4040fps. When the .204 Ruger came on the scene, it drove the last nail in the .17 Remington’s coffin.
The future of the .17 Remington was uncertain once the novelty wore off, and it never caught on with varmint hunters who couldn’t be bothered with it. Maybe it was too exotic or perhaps performance really didn’t appear that spectacular when compared to other varmint calibres.
In 2008, “Big Green” made a half-hearted effort to resurrect the calibre by offering the .17 Remington Fireball which shot the same weight bullets albeit at 250 foot-seconds less velocity. It raised muted cheers for a short time, but it seems that varmint hunters were less than impressed because it practically died in its birthing. Now we have Savage, CZ, Chiappa and Ruger making rifles for a commercial version of the .17 Ackley Hornet. The 64 dollar question is: will it garner any more popularity among varmint hunters than its predecessors did?
According to P.O Ackley, the .17 Hornet which is simply the K-Hornet necked down to .17, is one of is one of the best- balanced .17 cartridges. Being a down-to-earth guy, he credited it with being extremely deadly on small game up to the size of foxes out to 200 yards.
Savage and Ruger aren’t the first companies to chamber for a .17 Hornet, Kimber made rifles for the .17 Ackley Hornet, but reloaders struck problems with it when head separations occurred after only two or three firings. This also happened with .22 Hornet rifles, causing Kimber to drop both rounds from their line-up. More about this in my reloading column.
Varmint hunters who operate on small holdings in more closely settled areas where noise is a factor will rejoice when they hear about the .17 Hornet. Introduced in Hornady’s SuperFormance varmint line, initial factory loadings feature a 15.5gn NTX bullet at 3870fps and a 20gn V-Max bullet at an advertised muzzle velocity of 3650fps, which is close to what wildcatters claim for the .17 Ackley Hornet with a 25gn Remington bullet and 14.5gn of IMR4198.
Don’t be dazzled by the 3870fps load; with the low B.C of .115 and S.D of .075 that light bullet sheds velocity faster than a pollie changes his views. At 100 metres velocity is already down to 2863fps and by the time the featherlight 15.5gn bullet reaches the 300m mark it’s idling along at 1402fps and energy has dropped off to a mere 68 ft/lbs. Nor does it shoot as flat as the 20gn load. Sighted-in 44mm high at 100m for a 200m zero, it drops 315mm at 300 compared with 115mm for the 20- grainer!
Savage is offering the .17 Hornet in three different versions of their Model 25 – the Lightweight Varminter and thumbhole- stocked Lightweight Varminter-T (both with laminated wood stocks) and Walking Varminter with synthetic stock. It’s also available in the Ruger M77/17. All of these rifles are equipped with 24 inch barrels.
My test gun was a Savage Model 25 Light Varminter belonging to Marcus O’Dean the editor of Sporting shooter who seems to be in danger of becoming a rabid gun nut. He sent me his rifle, a set of Weaver mounts and a Weaver 4-16x42AO scope with semi- target turrets and a .223 Ballistic-X reticle. Marcus’s choice of scope is a good match for what I consider to be a serious varmint rifle, because the trajectory of the .17 Hornet is very close to that of the .223 over 300 metres. The Savage Model 25 has a triple lug bolt, a laminated wood stock and a 600mm bull barrel with a diameter of 24mm at the recoil lug and is straight tapered to reach 16.80mm at the muzzle. Field ready the outfit weighed 4.3kgs.
I cannot see any need for a higher magnification scope on any .17 calibre, but many varmint hunters will mount more powerful scopes on their .17 Hornets in a attempt to reach out farther than is practical. My own choice would probably be something like the Meopta Meopro 4-12×50 with Plex II reticle.
The Model 25 has a three-lug bolt and in .17 Hornet the detachable polymer magazine holds four rounds. The outfit was accompanied by two square 25-round boxes of Hornady .17 Hornet ammo loaded with the 20gn V-Max bullet at a nominal 3650 fps. I couldn’t wait to run a few rounds over the chronograph to verify the bullet speed since my previous experience with the .17 Ackley Hornet revealed that it fell well short of the 3650fps with a 25gn bullet that wildactters credited it with, 3350fps being more realistic, at least with the Du Pont 4198 powder they favoured.
Don’t think I am being skeptical, because I know full well the kind of velocity increases that Hornady’s Superformance proprietary powders are capable of. But I never could see pie in the sky, and seeing is believing. I was not surprised to see a chrono reading of 3561fps, but subsequent rounds clocked 3613, 3635, 3655 and as the barrel heated up, a surprising 3665fps for an average velocity of 3626 fps. Checked with my P-Max gauge, chamber pressure averaged under 50,000 psi which is pretty modest by today’s standards.
The Savage Model 25 has a strong three-lug bolt action and a laminated hardwood stock stained to resemble walnut that I found to be a good fit whether shooting with a bipod or over some hastily assumed rest. The broad beavertail forend sits squarely on a rifle rest and is equipped with dual sling swivels, one for a sling and the other for a bipod. The pistol grip has a tight curve and a high, Monte-Carlo comb which raises the eye in perfect alignment with the scope’s eyepiece. The thin black rubber buttpad clings to the shoulder of a shooters jacket. The Savage Model 25 in .17 Hornet is a lot of fun to shoot. The AccuTrigger is crisp, breaking cleanly at 1.134kgs and recoil is too light to be felt which results in the rifle sitting steady on a rest with no perceptible movement. Perhaps the greatest buzz from shooting the .17 Hornet is the almost total absence of recoil. The rifle moves so little that, if you don’t blink your eye, you can see the hole appear in the target and watch fur or feathers fly as the fast-stepping little 20gn V-Max slams into whatever kind of varmint it is you’re shooting at.
At the range and in the bush the Weaver 4-16×42 scope provided a sharp clear image and the 1/4-minute adjustments were sharp and precise. After aligning the reticle with the aid of a collimator, sighting in was achieved with the expenditure of only fiverounds with the scope set at 16x. One thing I was thankful for was that for accuracy testing it was a calm day without the slightest hint of a breeze. There’s been a lot written about how those very light .17 calibre bullets are very sensitive to even a slight breeze, but the reality is that they are blown no farther off course than a 50gn bullet from the .222 Remington.
Another fallacy that went the rounds about .17s was that they tended to foul excessively and that the build-up of copper after firing less than 20 rounds would actually cause bullets to keyhole. There’s no doubt that a fast .17 will foul the bore but this only happened with the hot ultra-high-velocity .17 Remington when rifles weren’t thoroughly cleaned. On more than one occasion I fired 60 to 80 rounds through my Model 700 in one afternoon at rabbits without cleaning and noticed no dropping off in accuracy. I reckon that the rumours about excessive fouling dated back to the early 1930’s .17 wildcat era when barrels were comparatively rough and shot bullets with jackets which were far too soft. As for bullets keyholing: it happened to me too. But it was caused by the 25gn Remington bullets which were too thin of jacket. When they were loaded hot and driven at 4100fps it caused the jacket material to strip and the bullets to tumble in flight. After “Big Green” replaced these bullets with Hornady in their factory loads the problem vanished. I still have several hundred of those Remington bullets on hand, and figured they be ideal performers in the more sedate .17 Hornet.
Accuracy with the 20gn factory load was excellent, exactly what I expected from a Savage rifle with 3-shot groups at 100 metres running from .450 to .650 inch for an average of .484. All of the groups were nice and round with no fliers.
Being used to loading semi-rimmed Swift cases into my F.N Mauser in .220 Wilson Arrow I took care to slide each round into the Savage magazine so that each rim sat in front of the round beneath it. Once the owner of one of these guns gets used to loading the detachable polymer magazine box this way, he’ll have no problems with the feed.
We sighted-in the .17 Hornet with factory ammo 45mm high at 100 metres to gain its most effective trajectory. The bullet was still 40mm high at 150, zeroed at 200, and dropped 82mm at 250 where velocity had dropped off to 2235fps and striking energy to 222 ft/lb. Even though it starts out pretty fast, the light 20gn bullet loses velocity faster than a heavier .22 calibre bullet. The .17 Hornet rates as a genuine 250 metre varmint cartridge, however, the lighter bullet is more susceptible to crosswinds than a 55gn bullet out of a .22-250 or .220 Swift. So it’s better to stay home and whip up a batch of reloads on a day when there’s a frisky zephyr at play.
While it may shoot as flat as a .223, .17 bullets are going to be buffeted about more by even a gentle breeze, and those light bullets don’t deliver anywhere near as much energy. For picking off rabbits and foxes out to 200 metres or so, it’s an amazing fun gun.
By my rule of thumb, 250 metres is the maximum distance to be shooting at varmints with the .17 Hornet since velocity peters out pretty fast and the light 20gn bullet is travelling at only 2000fps at 300 metres where it delivers little more punch than the .22 Long Rifle bullet has at the muzzle. In the wind the flyweight bullet gets blown off course about the same as the slower, heavier bullet from a .222 – 284mm at 250 metres in a 16 kph wind.
The .223 Rem. driving a 55gn bullet at 3200fps sighted-in 50mm high at 100 metres for a 200 metre zero, shows 25mm more drop at 250 than the .17 Hornet but retains 565 ft/lb of energy which gives it over twice as much hitting power as the .17 Hornet at that distance.
The .17 Hornet’s trajectory curve coincides closely enough so that the Weaver Ballistic-X reticle used in conjunction with a laser rangefinder will enable the shooter to hold dead-on for shots out to 500 yards – if he is wildly optimistic. More realistically, however, on dead calm day, the .17 is capable of scoring hits on varmints out to 300 metres, which regardless of what many shooters may believe, is a right far piece out yonder.
Summing up: the .17 Hornet is a fine mid-range varminter capable of reaching out 250 metres to handle 90-percent of all varminting chores, and allows the shooter to call his shots through the scope. It isn’t as hard on barrels and far less susceptible to fouling and requires less frequent cleaning than the larger-cased .17 Remington Fireball and .17 Remington.
In my experience, the .17 Hornet is about the best possible cartridge that Hornady could have devised in this calibre. Factory ammo is accurate, and with the present abundance of good- quality components, tools and accessories available for this mini-bore, reloading is no more difficult than for any other calibre. Its future, however, is a lottery. Now that the novelty has worn off, few handloaders can be bothered with .17s. And neither the .17 Remington or the .17 FireBall caught on with dyed-in-the-wool varminters the way the factory hoped they would.
Sub-calibres are probably one of the fastest growing areas of shooting interest, The instant popularity achieved by the .204 Ruger in 2004 was a clear sign that shooters are still attracted by small, light-recoiling calibres. Another cartridge that proved the market is growing is the.17 HMR which was a wildly successful rimfire entry into the sub-calibre arena, but may be under threat from Winchester’s new .17 Magnum which is 500fps faster. Let’s hope the .17 Hornet enjoys more success than previous .17 centrefires and enjoys a long life.
This article was first published in Sporting Shooter Magazine May 2013