As a kid back in the early 70’s, I well remember reading the first Australian reviews of the newest, hottest rimfire on the block…the 5mm Remington Rimfire Magnum. The shooting world though couldn’t give a shit and by the mid seventies, the 5mm had come and gone with hardly a whimper. And so it was with mixed excitement and caution that I started to look seriously into what all the fuss was about with this .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire .  

I was somewhat comforted by the fact that this new development was a combined effort by Hornady (bullets), Ruger (rifles) and CCI (ammunition plant). All the ingredients were there to make the HMR a success and even before release, many manufacturers were announcing rifles in the new chambering. This was made possible by the SAAMI specs for the HMR limiting pressures to that of a WMR…so in effect if you had a .22 WMR rifle in your catalogue, just add a .17 cal barrel and presto! The HMR functions through a standard .22 WMR action and magazine, why wouldn’t a manufacturer get involved? 

The impressive advertised velocity of 2550 FPS for a 17 Gr V-Max bullet was made possible by Hodgon’s Lil Gun powder…something that wasn’t available for previous attempts at a wildcat based on the .22 WMR case.  The HMR took off in the US and exceeded all expectations, within 6 months the first HMR’s were seen on some gunshop shelves in Australia. Initially, the choices were Ruger and Ruger and then a few Marlins started to turn up. And so it was that I stood there racking my brain on which HMR should come home with me. I liked the look of the Ruger but knew they were a lucky dip as to accuracy, the Marlin was butt ugly & agricultural but several I’d seen shot awesome. In the end I narrowed it down to a CZ 452 Varmint (6 month wait) or a Ruger 77/17 VMBBZ (sitting there winking at me)….you can guess what happened.

The HMR and Bunnies, a match made in heaven

     The all stainless, target grey Ruger with it’s 24” medium heavy barrel was an impressive looking rifle and the charcoal grey laminated stock really set it off. The $32 I paid per packet of Hornady ammo was a lot less impressive and  of course if you didn’t like it, you were shit out of luck as Hornady was the only flavour of ammo available for the first 12 months. This was part of the marketing agreement between the three partners involved in the HMR’s development. Worldwide demand was far outstripping supply of HMR ammo and the CCI plant was running 24 hours a day to try and meet demand.

          Australia actually fared pretty well in this respect as many blokes I corresponded with in the US had serious ammo shortages at the time.
As it turned out, buying the Ruger was a smart move. The CZ Varmints that came in months later, all had off centre crowns!

          The rifle was stripped, cleaned and after checking the alignment of the supplied Ruger rings, I set up a Leupold  6-18x40 AO VX2 on top of the Hummer. The first range session went very well, although it was immediately apparent that the trigger was way too heavy although creep free and pretty good otherwise. Sighted in dead on at 100m, I was amazed to see just how flat this HMR could shoot. A dead on hold from anywhere between 25m to 120m or so would easily keep the bullet within the confines of a Rabbit’s head! I was also relieved to see that I got one of the better Rugers. Accuracy at 100m was running just under 1.0” to 1.25”…..and I’ve seen much worse than that from similar rifles. Some blokes were convinced the accuracy would improve after “running in”, I have very little faith in this running in nonsense and have not seen anything to convince me otherwise. 

            Surprisingly, there was no copper fouling at all that I could detect after 100 rounds, the powder fouling on the other hand is pretty significant. That Lil Gun powder is one of the filthiest I’ve seen and fairly stubborn to remove. A good soaking with Hoppe’s No9, followed by a few patches soaked with Shellite does the trick with minimal scrubbing required. So apart from the requirement to purchase a Dewey .17 cal rod & jags, the HMR really doesn’t present any unusual problems I often hear being quoted around the place. Accuracy stays good for a couple of packets before a cleaning is needed.

           My early testing of ammo consistently revealed muzzle velocities of over 2600 FPS, from several different rifles. ES was very good and lot to lot consistency was excellent with not much to pick between Remington, Hornady and CCI V-Max loads. It has also been my observation that the early batch of HMR ammo was of a higher quality than the current offerings, some of which suffer from split necks, bulged cases and generally poor consistency from lot to lot. I guess all the loading machinery at CCI was new and within tighter specs in the early days, but now with a few years of wear & tear…things are different. I hope they address the problem and get things back on track.

          I was generally happy with the accuracy of  my Ruger but growing increasingly jealous of how well some of the newly arrived Savage, Marlin and CZ rifles were shooting. On the other hand, the Ruger’s action & rotary magazine system are second to none in terms of smoothness, strength & reliability in a rimfire rifle and I’ve used some pretty big dollar Anschutz & Kimber examples. I simply can’t remember one instance of a feed or eject problem with the Ruger, I can’t say the same for the others. It might surprise a few to know that this same rimfire action is used on the .22 Hornet version of this rifle.  At about this time, my local range was about to start a 200m Rimfire Fly competition….and they encouraged us HMR shooters to join. The seeds for a project rifle were planted. I ordered a Boyd’s Ross Thumbhole Sporter stock and a 20” Green Mountain fluted heavy barrel. Those .17 cal holes are small at 200m so a 6.5-20x50 VX3 Leupy was put on layby.

          While I waited for all the bits & pieces to come in, I went about introducing the Hummer to the local Rabbit and Fox population. If ever there was a perfect cartridge for Rabbits, the Hummer is it. The 17 Gr V-Max bullet is an emphatic killer with any half well placed shot on a Rabbit, even at ranges that would be considered crazy for a rimfire. I have shot many Rabbits past 180m once I learned the holdover. Out to 150m, it is very mechanical really, crosshairs on shoulder & squeeze equals one dead Rabbit. Rolling Fox’s is pretty convincing as well, though the shot has to be placed more precisely. Past 100m, forget body shots, the horsepower isn’t there and you need to shoot them in the head for on the spot drops. The Fox is “Big Game” for the Hummer.

          Several Fox’s I chest shot at 150m ran for a short distance & needed finishing off, though anything hit in the head has stayed put. In still conditions, I’ve shot a few Fox’s at around 180m. Fur damage is non-existent, in fact you’d be hard pressed to find the bullet hole until you skin the Fox. I’ve not had a 17 gr V-Max exit on a Fox at any range. Following the 12 months after the release of the HMR, a growing list of different loadings from various manufacturers steadily increased, although all of it is still made by CCI at their plant. We now have a choice of the original 17 Gr V-Max in several different coloured plastic tips from Remington, Hornady, Federal, Winchester and CCI. There is a 17 Gr JHP from CCI, and 20 Gr XTP from Hornady & Federal and 20 Gr Gamepoint from CCI.

Accuracy of the HMR can be stunning at times

          Also newly arrived is an FMJ loading…what it’s intended use is, I really don’t know. My experience has been that the 17 Gr V-Max load is the most accurate out of most rifles and also performs best on small game. The 20 Gr loadings by contrast have seen quite a few crawl offs and from what I’ve seen offer nothing over the original load. I think the heavier loads are most likely a response to US shooters wanting to use the HMR on Coyotes and other larger game. Ammo choice is now greater and prices have come down to around $14 per pack if you buy a brick at a time, that’s actually cheaper than many premium brands of WMR ammo.

          So how does the HMR compare? Compare to what is what I say. Most reviews compare it to it’s parent the .22 WMR, which is a mistake in my opinion. They are two completely different cartridges, as different as say a .308 and .30-30 are. The .17 HMR is far flatter and more accurate than the .22 WMR, and although on paper they seem to put out similar energy figures…they are misleading. In the real world, the WMR is far more emphatic on anything bigger than a Rabbit and simply in another class when it comes to putting down a goat or a pig. Of course a headshot from a HMR is fairly terminal on larger game than Rabbits too, but it has absolutely nowhere near the on-target energy the WMR seems to deliver. I’m talking about actual results on real animals here from many years of using a WMR.

          What about the wind you say. Yes, the wind will move the HMR around…as it does all the rimfires. Truth is, the HMR suffers slightly less from drift than the WMR and nobody ever gives wind a mention when discussing the WMR. I can tell you that shooting side by side with .22 WMR’s in the 200m Fly will absolutely convince you of the HMR’s superiority both in accuracy, trajectory and fighting the wind. The problem is visual, you shoot a couple of 0.8” groups with the HMR, then a bit of wind picks up and they blow out to 1.5”. It looks terrible, and you can shoot a sub 0.5 MOA group and still not have holes touching…those .17 cal holes are small but a ragged one hole group shot with a .17 is a very small group indeed.  Groups of 1.5”-1.7” were fairly common by the HMR’s shooting the 200m Fly, by contrast more than two scoring shots from a WMR were a cause for celebration and a group worth measuring was rarely seen as the wind is actually made at my range, and then exported to all other parts of the world.

The sort of country where the HMR is right at home

           The go-fast parts for my rifle were slowly coming together and I spent a lot of time re-working the action and trigger on my Ruger. The trigger beat me in the end and as I had all sorts of problems trying to import a replacement trigger assembly, I sent the original away to a gunsmith for reworking. Next was lapping the bolt lugs for even contact, the Ruger bolt is unusual in that being two piece it is a mid-locking design whereby the lugs lock into the receiver recess halfway along the bolt. I then separated the bolt halves and manufactured an oversize case hardened pin that holds the front section onto the bolt in order to eliminate all play and give a more consistent shot to shot lock up.

          The Boyd’s stock turned up and I got stuck into finishing off the inletting as the action did not sit quite square in the stock. I decided to bed the  action using Devcon steel epoxy.

         The Green Mountain barrel was next, I was concerned about a small amount of “barrel droop” I detected as I tightened up the barrel retaining V-Block.   The barrel being floated all the way to the receiver the droop was significant, in fact most scopes would run out of vertical adjustment and still be too low. Hmmm, I discussed the problem with a few blokes in the US and I had two options. Shim the barrel tenon or set it up with Loctite before tightening the V-Block. I set up the barrel dead vertical in the receiver using a spirit level and let the Loctite set overnight. Next morning I tightened the V-Block and checked headspace…all was good and I proceeded to assemble the rifle and give the new barrel a good cleaning. It was then that I noticed fluffs of flannel being stripped at the muzzle by a small sharp burr on the crown. Oh great, rather than send the barrel away I decided to glue a small ball bearing on the end of a plastic tube to use as a lapping stick. Using a very fine grade of valve grinding paste on the ball bearing and some light machine oil, I hand-lapped the crown and finished with some 00 steel wool to polish the job.

The first shot down range was a relief, the barrel droop problem was solved and the first hole was only half an inch away from where it should have been. The thumbhole stock was a joy to use and the smith had done an excellent job on the trigger. At the very first group after sighting in, it was instantly obvious the Ruger had become something else again. Groups were running around 0.7” at 100m but the rifle was very sensitive to the stock screw pressures.

The "star" signature of a good crown

The rifle is a one off I'm very proud of

          Over subsequent weeks, I bedded the first 1.5” of barrel forward of the V-Block as well as bedding the bottom trigger guard metalwork in Devcon. The rifle responded very well and 100m averages came down to 0.6” with some absolute rippers around 0.3” every now and then. I was onto a good batch of Hornady ammo at the halfway point of the Rimfire Fly comp and I really began to dominate it. By the end of the year, nobody bothered to shoot it except me. The single biggest improvement to the rifle was consistency, and I enjoyed some really good results right up until I gave the Fly away.

          So after all that, was it worth it? You bet it was, I’m a hopeless tinkerer and I learned a lot along the way and ended up with a custom rifle I pretty much built myself. Those aspects of the Ruger I didn’t like (accuracy) were addressed and I’m left to enjoy a super solid and reliable rifle not found in an off the shelf offering.
          From a purely dollars point of view it would make more sense to buy an Anschutz HMR that would shoot just as good straight from the box, but where’s the fun in that? My Hummer now enjoys a very productive life as the weapon of choice for eliminating Rabbits, Foxes and pest birds on the many small acreages close to town. As a quiet, safe rifle for closely settled areas the HMR is hard to beat. Very low risk of ricochet or over penetration and yet with the range of a small centrefire makes it a very good choice for many small game situations. Whilst a bit expensive to run as a plinker, the fun factor simply can’t be denied and if the HMR has one negative then it must be the effect it will have on your .22, doomed never to see the light of day again.

Australian Hunting Net ©2006