September 30, 2022
By Brad Fitzpatrick
The .204 Ruger arrived in 2004 and was the first centerfire rifle cartridge to bear the company’s name. A joint venture between Ruger and Hornady, the .204 is based on a necked-down .222 Rem. Mag. case with a 30-degree shoulder—as opposed to the parent’s 23-degree shoulder. With plenty of space for propellant, the .204 drives a 32-grain bullet over 4,200 fps and a 40-caliber bullet at 3,800 fps.
When zeroed at 200 yards, a 32-grain Hornady V-Max bullet drops just over four inches at 300 yards when fired from a 26-inch barrel, and at 400 yards it’s just 13.1 inches low. Even at 400 yards the 0.204-inch bullet still clings to 367 ft.-lbs. of energy and shoots eight inches flatter than a .223 55-grain V-Max at that range. During the mid-20th century, P.O. Ackley had developed a wildcat by necking the .22 Hornet down to .17, and Hornady standardized it with its version in 2011. Hornady reduced the case taper and gave its .17 a 25-degree shoulder, which allowed it to propel a 20-grain bullet in excess of 3,600 fps and a 25-grain projectile above 3,200 fps. That wasn’t quite as fast as the .17 Rem., which was launched in 1971, but the .17 Hornet still carried 200 ft.-lbs. of energy at 400 yards.
Neither of these sub-.22 cartridges produce substantial recoil, but the .204 does kick slightly more. More noticeable, however, is the difference in muzzle blast. The .204 is considerably noisier than the .17. That may not matter when you’re at the range or shooting prairie dogs on the plains, but if you hunt in settled areas, you’re less likely to offend residents with a quieter .17. The .17’s notably lower velocity also means it isn’t as hard on barrels, and a .204 barrel heats more quickly when the shooting is fast-paced.
The .204 enjoys the advantages of firing a heavier bullet faster. It’s certainly a better coyote cartridge than the .17 Hornet, especially at long distances. The .204 Ruger 32-grain V-Max bullet with a muzzle velocity of 4,225 fps is still traveling 2,272 fps at 400 yards and hangs on to 367 ft.-lbs. of energy at that range. At that same distance, the 20-grain V-Max .17 Hornet bullet is traveling at just 1,721 fps—down from 3,650 at the muzzle—and clings to just 131 ft.-lbs. of energy. In my mind, the .204 Ruger is suitable on ’yotes to at least a quarter-mile, but the .17 is breathing very hard at that distance. If coyotes were my main target I’d stick with the .204. And since it shoots flat and doesn’t kick much, the .204 is also great for prairie dogs and ground squirrels.
Those who live east of the Mississippi and hunt small woodlots will find the .17 Hornet sufficient for most of their varmint and predator hunting. No, the .17 doesn’t offer the laser-beam trajectory of the .204, but if you zero a .17 Hornet at 200 yards it’s just over six inches low at 300 yards with a 20-grain Hornady factory load. That’ll cover most of the groundhog hunting that remains in the eastern U.S. It’s also a great choice for both red and grey fox. Again, while I think the dedicated coyote hunter should lean on the .20-and-ups, a well-placed shot from your .17 will do the job at a reasonable range.
The .204 Ruger is the clear winner in availability. Midway USA lists 18 different .204 loads with bullets weighing from 32 to 40 grains with an average price of around $1.90 a round. There are only two .17 Hornet loads, one from Hornady and one from American Eagle. Both use 20-grain bullets and average about $1.75 per round. Rifles in .204 are more widely available, and there are AR-15s and uppers chambered in this caliber.
There’s some overlap between the .204 and the .17 Hornet, but there are niches for both—depending upon what and where you hunt. Regardless of which you choose, you’ll get a low-recoil rifle that’s loads of fun to shoot.