.17 Hornet Handloads
Date: Dec 09 2020
The .17 Hornet offers pure shooting joy, producing nearly zero recoil and mild muzzle report, shooting flat out to 275 yards, dramatically dismantling burrowing rodents and decisively anchoring larger varmints and predators up to coyote size. With near-standard 20-grain bullets, the .17 Hornet has proved effective out to 330 yards, the point at which the tiny projectiles run out of energy and fall to earth. With a quality turreted scope, I consider my .17 Hornet a 350-yard rifle.
Hornady standardized the .17 Hornet in 2011, removing some of the case taper found in .17 Hornet wildcats and sharpening the shoulder to 25 degrees. Variations of the .17 Hornet – obviously built on .22 Hornet cases – have been around for decades, the most recognized is P.O. Ackley’s .17 Ackley Hornet from the 1950s. Hornady’s version provides a hugely efficient and economical round that fits into standard .22 Hornet actions. Overall, I shoot my .17 Hornet cheaper than my .17 HMR, while also gaining a 1,000-fps velocity advantage. Tiny, highly-frangible bullets also make the .17 Hornet safe for shooting near civilization.
Miniscule powder charges can make the .17 Hornet somewhat finicky, though certainly not as fussy as the parent .22 Hornet. The .17 Hornet’s sharp shoulder helps keep cases centered to the bore, alleviating some of the accuracy challenges of the .22 Hornet (which headspaces off the rim). The .17 Hornet doesn’t seem to be as particular about primers as the parent .22 version and I’ve experienced fewer problems coaxing tight groups from my .17 than my .22 Hornet. The trim-to specs for this rifle is 1.34 inches.
My .17 Hornet, used for testing here, is a Savage Model 25 Walking Varminter holding a “medium-contour” 22-inch barrel measuring .71 inch at the muzzle, including a nice target crown and 1:9 rifling twist. The AccuTrigger was adjusted to break at 2½ pounds and the rifle feeds from a four-round detachable magazine (single feeding this rifle doesn’t work well). The 3-lug bolt includes a short throw and has remained smooth through thousands of shots. A Vortex Viper PST 6-24x 50mm scope with exposed ¼-MOA turrets, side focus and illuminated reticle was installed in four-screw, medium Burrus Zee Rings the day I purchased this rifle and has remained ever since. The rings sit on two-piece bases. The outfit has proven capable of sub-half-inch 100-yard, five-shot groups with tailored handloads.
I fired nothing but Hornady factory loads (the only option initially)
while accumulating brass for handloading. This ammunition shot so well – consistent sub-half-inch groups – that when I began handloading, I sought to duplicate factory ballistics of a Hornady 20-grain V-MAX sent at 3,650 fps. Accurate 1680 was determined to closely duplicate factory velocities (from 24-inch barrel used to develop Hornady load data), so I worked loads around that single powder. Oddly enough, that 3,650 fps mark also produced ¼- to ½-inch groups. So, for the past 10 years, my .17 Hornet has been shot with only one bullet, one powder and one load. This test was devised to explore additional options.
During the interim, Hornady introduced the 15.5-grain NTX (lead-free Non-Traditional eXpanding), making 4,000 fps theoretically possible (with a longer barrel). Midsouth Shooter’s Supply’s 20-grain Varmint Nightmare X-Treme HP has remained a curiosity based on price alone, a 10-cents per-shot investment when purchased in bulk. Nosler’s 20-grain Varmageddon has produced noteworthy results from other rifles, and they are considerably cheaper than premium poly-tipped bullets. The Hornady Z-MAX is the same V-MAX I’ve always fed this rifle, only holding a green tip. These are leftovers from when the “zombie era” was a thing. Berger’s 25-grain Flat Base Varmint was added to see what that weight is all about in this cartridge. My working assumption had always been that the 25-grain bullet kills everything good about the .17 Hornet, namely velocity. But for a moderate-range, predator-calling load, the added payload offers obvious appeal.
For powders, I ignored older formulas that might prove less temperature stable, or even dirtier burning. My .17 Hornet gets used largely during warm spring and early summer varmint-shooting forays. The tendency with smaller cartridges like the Hornet is to push toward maximum loads. Powders that might develop dangerous pressures if left in a hot truck cab make me nervous. Also, tiny .17 caliber tubes foul quickly, clean-burning powders allowing maybe 100 shots instead of 50 before deploying the bore snake. Copper-erasing Hodgdon CFE-BLK was an obvious choice, as were the other “Blackout” powders; Shooter’s World Blackout and proven Accurate 1680. Hodgdon’s Lil’Gun remains suspect in terms of cleanliness, but its velocity generation remains alluring. Other powders included were Vihtavuori N120, Accurate 2200, Alliant Reloder 7, and Hodgdon 322 and H-4198 for the heavy bullet (the latter both stable Extreme Series formulas).
It’s always interesting to punch paper with a rifle you’ve owned for a while and developed certain assumptions about. I fell into my preferred load fairly quickly, so I always assumed this rifle and cartridge, was inherently accurate. Overall that proved true, but it also proved more finicky than I’d formerly believed.
The Hornady 15.5-grain NTX is a real stand-alone, lead-free as mentioned, but also light enough to generate some serious velocity from even a case so small as the .17 Hornet. The light bullet (with a .115 G1 BC) drops nearly 2-3 inches more at 300 yards than 20-grain bullets. I always seem to believe lead-free bullets aren’t capable of delivering the same degree of accuracy as lead-core bullets (I’m usually wrong), and that assumption remained until the very end of this test. The best Hodgdon CFE-BLK group printed only .69-inch at 3,689 fps. Hodgdon’s Lil’Gun produced a .64-inch group at 3,808 fps with 9.5 grains of powder, but then a maximum load of 9.8 grains broke the sub-half-inch mark I expect from this rifle. That load printed .41-inch at a sizzling 3,889 fps. Accurate 1680 did the trick, producing a .28-inch group at a smoking 3,911 fps. There’s some serious appeal in these numbers – accuracy combined with serious velocity!
Twenty-grain test bullets covered the gamut from ultra-affordable to mid-priced hollowpoints to a premium polymer-tipped design. Midsouth’s 20-grain Varmint Nightmare X proved itself right out of the gate, 10 grains of Vihtavuori N120 produced a .48-inch group (with low extreme velocity spread), 10.5 grains a .45-inch cluster. The only disappointment here was the lackluster velocity, 3,076 and 3,169 fps was as good as that powder would do. Shooters World Blackout improved velocity, 11.5 grains pushed this bullet to 3,255 fps and produced a .63-inch group and 12 grains pushed 3,450 fps and printed a respectable .52-inch group. Accurate 2200 managed a .49-inch group at 3,165 fps, with a low extreme velocity spread. For whatever reason, my rifle didn’t get along Nosler’s Varmageddon. The best it would do from this rifle was a .62-inch group with 11.5 grains of Hodgdon CFE-BLK at 3,305 fps, and .88-inch with 12 grains of Accurate 1680 at 3,571 fps. The remainder of the groups fired with this bullet aren’t worth commenting on.
With Hornady’s zombie-inspired Z-MAX, I started with Accurate 1680, knowing exactly what to expect from that powder and believing it to be the benchmark to compare against all other options. When my proven 12-grain load shot only a .57-inch group at 3,593 fps, and with its usual low extreme velocity spread (when it usually prints around ¼-inch), I knew I had a problem. I stopped shooting, returned home and gave the barrel a thorough scrubbing. That cleaning proved worthwhile. Accurate’s 2200 assembled .57-, .40- and .51-inch groups with 12-, 12.5- and 13-grain loads at 2,974, 3,151 and 3,315 fps, respectively. Vihtavuori N120 assembled .46-, .38- and .71-inch groups with 10, 10.5 and 11 grains of powder at 3,007, 3,227 and 3,348 fps, respectively.
Berger’s Flat Base Varmint represented the 25-grain weight class (Hornady’s V-MAX is the only other 25-grain .17-caliber bullet I’m aware of). On average the 25-grain bullet gave up 225-650 fps velocity to the standard 20-grain weight, the superior .230 G1 BC giving up only an inch in drop at 300 yards and gaining a slight increase in delivered energy. It also proved exceptionally accurate from this rifle. A charge of 10.5 grains of Alliant Reloder 7 produced the smallest group of this test; .20 inch at 2,936 fps. A 11.5-grain charge produced a .42-inch group at 3,092 fps. Hodgdon’s 322 produced a .37-inch group at 2,746 fps and 12.5 grains .45-inch at 3,123 fps. The tightest group with Hodgdon’s 4198 was .50-inch at 2,759 fps. Reloder 7 and H-322 both served well with this bullet and would make exceptional predator-calling loads in wooded habitats or congested areas.
With the lighter bullets, the clear accuracy winner is Accurate 1680, with Hodgdon CFE-BLK and Shooters World Blackout worth further investigation. Accurate 2200 and Vihtavuori N120 certainly turned in exceptional groups, but lacked the velocity generation to assure flattened trajectories and make the most of this cartridge. With 25-grain bullets, Reloder 7 and H-322 are the obvious powders of choice and helped calm my aversion to that bullet weight.