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Field Testing Ruger's .17 Magnum

Field Testing Ruger's .17 Magnum

The Model 77/17 may just be the hottest rimfire of the year.

From a steady rest, the ground squirrel was still a pretty small target through the Leupold scope with the power turned all the way up to 8. My shooting partner and I guessed it was something over 150 yards away, and I broke a shot when the critter stopped scampering around. The little bullet sent the little varmint tumbling.

It was the third shot in a row I'd made on the hillside at a distance normally considered way too far for a rimfire, but the new rifle/cartridge combination in my hands made the shots seem routine. I pulled a rangefinder out of a duffel bag and checked the distances on the three dead squirrels--154, 161, and 188 yards--each a little further up the grassy, oak hillside on Southern California's Tejon Ranch.

The rifle was Ruger's Model 77/17 chambered for the .17 HMR (Hornady Magnum Rimfire), and after the last 188-yarder, the two of us looked at each other said almost in unison that we were going to buy this particular test rifle.

I frowned. The other shooter was an editor who shall remain nameless, meaning that I, as a mere writer, was down the line in pecking order in getting first chance to buy this gun. I kept suggesting throughout the day, that the 77/17 was mine, and he kept insisting that it was his. (This is still not resolved, but as this is written, I have possession of the test rifle.) I have owned and shot perhaps 15 different Ruger 77/22s in its various modifications and factory permutations. I have shot some with custom barrels and chambers and many with modified triggers. The rifles have been in .22 LR, .22 WMR, .22 Hornet, and .44 Magnum. I even have a .19 Calhoun barrel currently living on what was originally my first .22 Hornet. The compact action, short bolt throw, and wonderful balance has made this model of my favorite rifles. The Model 77/22 series is also one of the finest looking rimfire guns available. With this bias already built in, it did not take much effort for me to fall in love with the new Ruger 77/17. It was nearly identical to a wood-stocked .22 magnum I shot for a couple of seasons. In fact, the magazines are the same and the action length is the same. The only difference is the cartridge you stuff into those magazines.

The .17 HMR--for those of you who've somehow missed all the excitement about this new rimfire development--is based on a .22 magnum case necked down to shoot 17-caliber bullets. The Hornady load uses a 17-grain V-Max bullet that leaves the barrel at 2,550 feet per second--more than 300 fps faster than the best .22 mag loads. (My Oehler 35P said the bullet was going 2,610 fps our of the Ruger.) Sighted in at 50 yards, there is 10 inches less drop at 200 yards with the .17 HMR than the .22 mag, making the .17 HMR an honest-to-gosh 175-to-200-yard varmint cartridge.

Because ammunition was a little difficult to come by when the test gun first arrived, we didn't spend as much time shooting it at the range as we did in the field. With the first 150 rounds, my partner and I only shot five groups (25 shots) before going hunting. It was spring. The ground squirrels were thick on the Tejon Ranch. We had quail nests to protect. But while getting the gun tacked in from a benchrest that wasn't exactly the epitome of stability, I managed to shoot three five-shot groups that were all under an inch. At 100 yards! With most rimfires, I have always been pleased with one-inch groups at 50 yards, so we were pretty dazzled with the accuracy of the .17 HMR. One of those three groups I shot was 5/8-inch at 100 yards. I was in love.

Later, when another lot of ammunition arrived, I shot another half-dozen groups at 100 yards, but under very breezy conditions. The Ruger still shot groups that were just a snick over one inch in this brisk wind. The 77/17 is definitely a shooter. Quite frankly, it is better than any out-of-the-box rimfire Ruger I have ever shot, and I believe that is a testament to the ammunition as much as the gun.

The Hornady V-Max 17-grain bullet is a sweet-looking little pill, very sleek and aerodynamic. With only one brand of ammo on the market, Ruger obviously cut the chamber of the 77/17 to match the Hornady case dimensions perfectly. It showed. After what I saw in our test gun, I will be surprised if most of the factory guns don't shoot one-inch 100-yard groups under good conditions.

The .17HMR propels a 17-grain Hornady V-Max bullet at an advertised 2,550 fps. The author's chronograph measured the velocity from the Ruger 77/17 at slightly over 2,600.

To test how the cartridge performed in the field, we shot the Ruger side-by-side with my Anschutz .22 magnum on two different ground squirrel outings. We shot Remington 33-grain V-Max and CCI 30-grain Speer TNT loads in the .22 mag. There was an noticeable difference in the report, a real positive for hunting in areas where subdivisions and ranchettes are not far away.

As expected, the .17 doesn't hit with the same kind of wallop as the .22 mag. But I was still impressed with the effectiveness of the little .17 bullet. It penetrated well while still causing massive internal damage. Exit wounds were often small, suggesting that it would be a perfect gun to use on small predators for hunters who want to cause minimal pelt damage. In our side-by-side shooting, we were impressed with the flat trajectory of the .17 against the .22 mag. Both of us have shot my Anschutz and killed squirrels at 150 yards and more with this gun, but that was usually after missing once or twice and "walking" shots into the squirrels at those distances. With the .17 HMR, I watched my partner shoot four squirrels in a row at ranges from 130 to 145 yards, all with his first shot. He then whacked one at 167 yards. The longest shot we made was on a squirrel at 188 yards. With the correct sight-in, I'm convinced that we could smack small game with little or no holdover out to about 150 yards, and then only a slight holdover on out to 200 or 225 yards.

I don't think I'd be going too far out on a limb to say this is going to be one of Ruger's biggest-selling bolt rimfires in a long time. It offers centerfire performance on varmints, but at a cost that is on par with a .22 magnum.

Production Ruger 77/17s are available in gun stores as this is written but ammunition might be difficult to find for a while. I have standing orders in at two local shops.

Now, I just have to figure out a way to keep a certain editor's mitts off the test gun in my safe.

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