.17 Remington Fireball Handloads
Date: Apr 06 2021
In 1950, Remington introduced the .222 loaded in a completely unique case based on no other. It would quickly become the benchrest shooting champion – until the PPC cartridges appeared in 1974. More importantly, the .222 Remington would spawn the elongated .223 Remington, introduced in 1957 (and today is America’s most popular centerfire cartridge); and the shortened .221 Remington Fireball. The Fireball dropped in 1964 with the official introduction of the same company’s XP-100 single-shot bolt pistol and provided 90 percent of the .223 Remington’s performance while burning 35 percent less powder. This efficiency inspired some exceptional wildcat rounds, like the .20 VarTarg, and the .17 Remington Fireball (RFB) under discussion here. The .17 RFB provides 300 to 400 feet per second (fps) velocity gains over the popular .17 Hornet.
The .17 RFB is nothing more than the .221 Fireball necked to .17 caliber, with case walls straightened and a 30-degree shoulder added. It took Remington until 2008 to adopt the cartridge. The round closely resembles the .17 Mach IV, created by wildcatter Vern O’Brien in the 1960s. The first commercial .17-caliber round, the .17 Remington, was hobbled by the inferior .17-caliber bullets available upon its release, often resulting in superficial wounds on animals such as coyotes.
More reliable bullets allowed .17-caliber rounds like the RFB to be run at 4,000-plus feet per second (fps) without worry of poor terminal performance. The .17 Fireball easily breaks 4,000 fps with 20-grain bullets and only 17 to 20 grains of powder. Adding 5 grains of bullet weight slows the pace to 3,750 fps but results additional large-target reliability. Pushing 20-grain bullets to even modest velocities of 3,800 fps results in high impacts on small varmints such as ground squirrels and prairie dogs. The .17 Fireball includes such mild recoil that the shooter gets to watch all the action through the scope. Small powder charges result in cleaner shooting than the .17 Remington – though all .17-caliber cartridges require frequent barrel cleaning to assure continued accuracy.
The Remington Model 700 SPS Varmint test rifles included a heavy (.82 inch at muzzle) 26-inch barrel and held a Swarovski Optik 3.5-28x50 P scope set atop Precision Hardcore Gear’s Tru-Level Picatinny rail. This is a consummate varmint rifle, including a long, heavy barrel for maximum velocity and minimal warming between shots, with molded synthetic stock and forearm vents to promote barrel cooling. The barrel and action include a protective Parkerized finish. It weighs 10.73 pounds scoped and the added Timney Trigger broke crisply at 2.08 pounds. It is my father’s favorite “rat rifle” and I was able to borrow it only because it was during the off-season.
Medium-fast powders including Hodgdon’s Benchmark, H-4198, H-322 and CFE BLK, IMR-8280 XBR, Western Powder’s Ramshot X-Terminator and TAC, Accurate’s LT-30 and A-2200, Alliant’s Reloder 10x and 7, Shooters World Blackout and Vihtavuori N133 were chosen for a combination of clean-burning characteristics and maximum velocities. Bullet weights from 15.5 to 25 grains were tested. Brass is easily formed by running .221 RFB brass through .17 RFB full-length dies and trimming to 1.40 inches. Nosler unprimed brass and Federal Premium Gold Medal 205 Match Small Rifle primers were used throughout.
Precision Redding full-length Type S Match Dies with .195-inch titanium nitride sizing bushing and micro-adjustable seating-die head were used. Sizing bushings are interchangeable and available in .001-inch increments, allowing “just-right” neck tensioning to accommodate specific chambers (a micrometer is used to measure outside neck diameter of a loaded cartridge and .001-inch subtracted). The spring-loaded micrometer head allows for precise bullet seating depth.
Shooting this series during March, I’d have to await sunshine to allow employing a standard chronograph to begin testing. My LabRadar, which allows meeting deadlines during the endless overcast days of a northern Idaho winter, will not record speeds exceeding 4,000 fps. The Fireball, fed lighter bullets, is capable of velocities well in excess of 4,000 fps.
Up front, I expected more from this rifle. There were certainly some exceptional groups involved, but the rifle proved more finicky than I anticipated. Some seating-depth jockeying would likely reap rewards, and the stock could use some work, as a piece of paper will not slip between barrel and stock. Possibly more germane, I was unable to clean the barrel as often as I would have liked during testing, my pull-through bore snake was too short to fish through the 26-inch barrel. After thoroughly cleaning the tube at home, for instance, the added 25-grain Hornady V-MAX loads assembled impressive clusters. My speed obsession may also have worked against me, as the lightest loads in many cases resulted in the best groups (though these were still well above actual start loads).
Hornady’s 15.5-grain NTX (Non-Traditional eXpanding) bullet is a polymer-tipped, lead-free (California legal) option allowing screaming velocity combined with dramatic terminal performance on small varmints. Of the powders CFE BLK, H-4198 and Accurate 2200 used with this bullet, H-4198 proved lackluster accuracy-wise, the best group only .87-inch at 4,226 with 17 grains of powder. CFE BLK – my go-to .221 Fireball rifle powder – produced top velocities and good accuracy, including a .48-inch group at 4,250 fps with 17 grains of powder. CFE BLK’s top velocity was 4,532 fps with this bullet using 18 grains of powder, but with poor accuracy. The most consistent powder with this bullet proved to be A-2200, producing .52- and .46-inch groups at 4,145 and 4,226 fps with 18 and 18.5 grains of powder, respectively. I’ll be testing this powder with other bullet weights moving forward.
Hammer Bullets’ 18 grain Dead Blow is another excellent nontoxic (California compliant) option milled from a single piece of copper. A proprietary hollowpoint design makes these bullets explosive on varmints, the lead-free composition making them relatively long for weight. Alliant Reloder 7, Hodgdon H-322 and Ramshot TAC were paired with this bullet. Reloder 7 did its best with a maximum load of 16.5 grains; .53 inch at 4,039. H-322 didn’t impress, .82 inch at 4,344 fps its best showing (maximum/compressed load of 19.5 grains), while TAC managed only .66 inch at 3,935 (19.5 grains) with this bullet. This is where I believe some seating-depth experiments are indicated (many mono-copper bullets prove fussy this way), as there was obviously room for improvement here.
The 20-grain Varmageddon by Nosler is a classic cup-and-core hollowpoint that provides a great option for high-volume, budget-conscious varmint shooters. This one was a real surprise, as it is the bullet my father wrings his best groups from out of this very rifle (19.5 grains Hodgdon H-335, 7½ Remington BR primer, 1.77-inch overall loaded length (OAL), around 3,850 fps). I should have paid more attention to that OAL, as I seated these bullets .006-inch deeper, resulting in disappointing groups overall. Vihtavuori N133, Hodgdon Benchmark and Ramshot X-Terminator (same as Accurate A-2230) were tried, with the best group just .62 inch at 4,043 fps with 18 grains of N133, .77 inch at 4,098 fps with 19.5 grains of Benchmark and .70 inch at 3,780 fps with 19 grains of X-Terminator.
Hornady’s 20-grain Z-MAX is the same as the V-MAX in every way, except the polymer tip is Zombie green instead of Hornady red. A couple thousand of these discontinued bullets were acquired at a substantial savings after the Zombie craze subsided. The plastic tip increases ballistic coefficients for flatter long-range trajectories and initiates dismantling impacts on small varmints. This bullet, seated to a 1.81-inch OAL, also started turning in better groups. Hodgdon CFE BLK, Shooters World Blackout and Alliant Reloder 10x were auditioned. Blackout loads were extrapolated from .221 Fireball loads tested before, velocities indicating these loads came out about right, with velocities mirroring other powder choices. Unfortunately, it did not turn in a noteworthy group with this bullet. CFE BLK shined, with 16 grains of powder producing a .45-inch group at 3,792 fps, and a maximum load of 17 grains printing .50 inch at 4,091 fps. Reloder 10x performed exceptionally, assembling .40- and .55-inch groups at 3,950 and 4,051 fps – providing an excellent combination of accuracy and velocity.
Berger’s 25 grain Flat Base Varmint was chosen to represent the 25 grain weight class after noting exceptional accuracy in other calibers with this bullet. This bullet would make the best choice for coyote-sized game, providing a touch more punch and less likelihood of breaking up before reaching vitals. Vihtavuori N133, IMR-8308 XBR and Accurate LT-30 were paired with this bullet, but none particularly impressed. Granted, the barrel had undoubtedly become fouled at this point in the test, with no means to remedy that. The best groups resulted from 18 grains of N133 (.66 inch at 3,822 fps, including very low extreme velocity spreads), a 19 grain maximum load of IMR-8308 XBR (.73-inch at 3,874 fps) and 16 grains of LT-30 (.75 inch at 3,622 fps).
I also wondered if this rifle just didn’t like heavier slugs, so I decided to try some 25 grain Hornady V-MAX I had acquired after assembling initial loads in a component-shortage swap with a friend. I had enough primed cases left over for exactly four-shot strings, and one does not waste primers these days. I had also scrubbed the barrel the night before. Using 18.5-, 19- and 19.5-grain charges of Ramshot X-Terminator produced .28-, .31- and .68-inch groups at 3,583, 3,687 and 3,809 fps, respectively, with a 1.81-inches OAL. Using 17.5 grains of Reloder 10x produced a .21-inch group at 3,787 fps. So much for this rifle not caring for 25-grain bullets…
There is an obvious allure in velocities of more than 4,200-4,300 fps, but I suspect a steady varmint-shooting diet of Hornady’s 15.5 grain NTX would result in premature barrel wear. I’ll save those bullets for my .17 Hornet. The Hammer 18 grain Dead Blow and Nosler 20 grain Varmageddon bullets deserve further experimentation, as I obviously didn’t do my part – though I did demonstrate what didn’t work, which is something. I could say the same with the Berger 25 grain Flat Base Varmint. Overall, Hodgdon’s CFE BLK, Alliant’s Reloder 10x, Vihtavuori’s N133 and Ramshot’s X-Terminator emerged as clear winners, providing a balanced combination of accuracy and velocity in this fine varminting cartridge.