Introduced in 2002, this speedy cartridge has enough punch for coyotes, but leaves edible squirrels intact
I remember seeing a .17 HMR cartridge for the first time. I was a freshman in college, and the owner of a local gun shop I frequented had set some of the individual rimfire rounds on display as a curio. Seeing the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire case necked down for a tiny polymer-tipped bullet was just cool as hell. The “.22 Mag.” was the truck gun for hillbillies like me, with a 100-yard punch on groundhogs and coyotes that a regular ol' .22 Long Rifle simply didn’t have. But compared to either of those calibers, the .17 HMR looked modern and fast, and it didn’t take long for the shooting world to embrace it.
That was in 2002 — 20 years ago this year — when the .17 HMR was officially released. Since then, more than a billion rounds of it have been sold, according to this American Rifleman story. It is chambered in rifles and handguns from virtually every major manufacturer, suiting a variety of budgets. Most .17 HMRs are bolt-action rifles, but you can get a single-shot, lever gun, or semi-automatic if you desire. There are even several .17 HMR revolvers.
The cartridge shoots .172-inch-diameter bullets (4.4mm) weighing from 15.5 grains up to 20 grains, and it shoots them fast, at 2,400 to 2,700 feet per second. All are jacketed, and most have polymer tips, though there are hollowpoints, pointed soft points, and full-metal-jacket designs available, too. When zeroed at 50 yards with the standard 17-grain bullets, the .17 HMR has 3 inches of drop at 150 yards, and just under 10 inches at 200. A 40-grain .22 WMR bullet, by comparison, drops 23 inches at 200 yards with the same 50-yard zero.
For the intended purpose of shooting small varmints and long-range plinking, the .17 HMR has probably displaced the .22 WMR as the rimfire caliber of choice. It’s more accurate on average, and certainly flatter shooting. It’s a hands-down favorite for prairie dog hunting, and it works well for groundhogs, crows, raccoons, opossums, armadillos, nutrias, ground squirrels, and other assorted small varmints. For predator calling, I’d still rather have a .22 Mag. and 40-grain bullets, but I use my own .17 extensively on the trapline to dispatch coyotes, bobcats, and foxes, usually from 50 to 75 yards. A hit just behind the shoulder crease is lethal in seconds on even a big coyote, makes a tiny entry hole, and rarely leaves an exit. Skinning those critters has proven to me that the bullet inflicts serious trauma, too, despite the tiny size. It’s perfect for a humane kill that preserves fur.
The .17 HMR has more going for it than being a flat-shooting varmint cartridge. From Appalachia to the western fringe of the Ozarks, the tradition of squirrel hunting with a rifle is as old as Daniel Boone. Shots at gray and fox squirrels in the big timber average 40 to 50 yards, and they can be double that in the early fall — when squirrels are feeding in towering hickories and oaks — and again in the winter when they’re foraging on the ground on open hardwood ridges. Since most of a squirrel is edible, and they’re not very big to begin with, riflemen prefer to shoot them in the head, a target about the size of a half-dollar. The .22 WMR is fine for that (its reputation for sketchy accuracy is unwarranted in my experience). Problems arise when you miss a squirrel’s head. The 30- to 40-grain hollowpoints moving at 2,000 feet per second simply pulverize squirrels.
With the .17 HMR and the proper bullets, you get way less meat damage than with a .22 WMR, but an even flatter trajectory and usually, better accuracy. I’ve been an avid squirrel hunter for 31 years, and I used a scoped .22 Long Rifle for 27 of those years. But I switched to a .17 HMR four years ago (I shoot a CZ 457 Varmint with a heavy barrel), and it more than doubled my effective range. I shoot CCI’s 20-grain Gamepoint in my gun, and body shots (not that I’d ever commit such a travesty on purpose) don’t destroy any more edible meat than hits from a hyper-velocity .22 LR (Stinger, etc.). At 40 yards and beyond with that bullet, it usually leaves a tiny entry hole with an exit the size of a nickel. Lighter hollowpoint and polymer tipped bullets are more destructive.
There's no denying the .22 LR is a great squirrel round, especially inside 50 yards. But its lobbing trajectory leaves a lot for squirrel hunters to remember on lengthy shots. If you sight it in at 25 yards, you’re nearly an inch high at 50 yards — enough to shoot over a squirrel’s head — and 2.5 inches low at 100. Sighted in at 100 yards, the .17 will be about a half-inch low at 20 yards and a half-inch high at 75. I’ve taken some 100-yard shots at squirrels, but it’s usually difficult to see them much beyond that in the woods. Simply put, with a .17 HMR, you can aim for a squirrel’s head from about any distance you’re likely to see one and hit it, provided you do your part to make a good shot. If you’re a serious squirrel hunter, you know what kind of advantage that is.
Lastly, I've shot hundreds of squirrels with a .17 HMR, and thousands of them with a .22. Squirrels are tough for their size, and I've seen plenty of them scramble into a den tree after a marginal hit with a .22. I can't say as I've ever lost one hit with a .17 HMR. If you've wondered why I haven't mentioned the .17 Mach 2 in this story, that's it. It's a neat little round that works, but in my experience, it wounds a bunch of squirrels.
Pay to Play
You can't compare the Big 3 rimfire cartridges without mentioning price. While ammo prices are up across the board, the .22 LR is still far and away the most economical caliber to shoot. It remains the superior plinking round that works well for plenty of small-game applications. If you can only own one rimfire, get a regular .22.
But it's no fun to just own one rimfire. When the .17 HMR debuted, a box of 50 cartridges cost a little more than a box of .22 WMR. These days, the difference is a wash — both will set you back $20 or so, when you can find them. They’ve been scarce in these recent lean times, but that’s no way to predict the future. Both calibers are here to stay, and both serve good purposes, and that’s why I own rifles and handguns alike chambered for both cartridges. But for serious squirrel hunting, with occasional varmints thrown in, the .17 HMR is a bit better. It has in fact established itself as the best rimfire hunting cartridge made — and it only took 20 short years to do it.