Mark Stone tests the CZ 455 Thumbhole Varmint .17 HMR. It’s an incredibly attractive rifle, but does it have more than just visual appeal?
It doesn’t seem to have taken long for the .17 HMR to have positively eclipsed the humble .22 when it comes to controlling vermin at distance, with numerous manufacturers scrabbling to add one to their range. The problem with the .17 seems to come in price – the difference between the .17 and its more aged, slower, but still effective sibling is often more than enough to put some shooters off. But while the CZ 455 Thumbhole Varmint as tested isn’t the most affordable you’ll find, after you’ve tried it for yourself it quickly reveals itself to be one of the most competent around and a small rifle that’s enjoyable to use. Equally, I also consider it to be one of the most visually pleasing rifles I’ve had the pleasure of testing for many a while.
Manufactured in the Czech Republic, the 455 Thumbhole seems unusual at first. What may at first seem something of an infeasibly shaped stock turned from attractive layers of laminate is actually one of the most comfortable modern stocks you’ll hold. A perfectly straight, broad parallel comb is further enhanced by an integral cheekpiece, while on the reverse side the profile scallops inwards before dishing into the large aperture thumbhole and pistol grip that’s nicely sized and well angled. The broad forearm culminates halfway along the 525mm, heavy varmint-style barrel.
What was most interesting for me was the Law Enforcement International moderator or LEI, available with either a brushed stainless steel or blued finish, which doesn’t actually look like a moderator’s been fitted to the rifle at all. It may not be as quiet as a larger mod, but it’s tangible proof that cans don’t have to look like bob weights and don’t have to destroy the designer’s hard work, and that small, unobtrusive moderators work well. So yes, I’ve actually found a silencer that I fully approve of.
Travelling through a vertical path of 90 degrees when cycling, the short bolt employs a small extractor and ejector located either side of the bolt head. Overall bolt travel in any direction seems almost non-existent, the stubby handle and large ball seemingly taking fractions of a second to perform the cyclic action. Initially stiff, the 455 did show signs of freeing up after 60 or so rounds had passed through it.
However, at no time did the flag-style safety show any inkling of being other than firm and noisy. No bad thing in its way and integral to the bolt, but anyone intending creeping up on some unsuspecting crow will instantly alert all around them the moment they disengage the short lever. Trigger-wise, the weight was a consistent 6lb 3oz – although this was more than acceptable from my point of view, it is fully adjustable for those who wish to lighten things up a bit. South Yorkshire Shooting Supplies offers a small conversion kit for about £20 that most dealers can fit while you wait.
Using a Weaver Classic V-10 2-10×38 clamped to the receiver’s dovetail by a set of Hawke Match Mounts as recommended, a few moments with the Leupold boresighter achieved truly spectacular results. Loaded up with 20-grain Hornady XTP Hollow Point Magnums, the 455 was drilling its rounds into the bull at 100 yards from the word go, to a degree the scope required no further adjustment or any degree of shooting in by the rifle. Add to this the fact that these Hornadys are still doing 1,776fps out at that distance and delivering 140ft/lb of energy, and that there isn’t the slightest amount of recoil, I soon discovered why the .17 HMR has developed such an enthusiastic following.
I was invited by a head keeper friend of mine to reduce the corvid population. The little CZ was a winner from the off. Not one to try my luck at some of the infeasible distances many a .17 HMR user boasts about, I took my longest shot at 146 yards, at which the abilities of the 455 became ever more apparent. Ok, so it was a perfectly still day with ideal conditions, but it did demonstrate just how effective the CZ actually was and just how impressive these little bullets are.
As a small vermin gun or an ersatz target rifle, I can see the benefits of the .17 HMR. However, at anything over 100 yards I still think a .22-250 or one of the 6mm variations is a better bet on foxes. I don’t know whether it’s because those in my part of the world have become savvy to the ways of the keeper or because they instinctively keep their heads down, but apart from the opportune shot or when it’s the only rifle to hand, the .17 HMR wouldn’t be my first choice. It is still a small round and won’t guarantee a clean, one-shot kill beyond the shorter ranges. On the other side of the equation, unless you can consistently bump bunnies in the head, this sizzling little round makes a mess of them. That said, it was seriously effective on hares.
One item of kit that did prove its worth while out and about during the night was the new Clu-Briter from Clulite. A new pistol-grip, trigger-operated torch with three power settings situated next to the thumb, this small, fully rechargeable lamp emits a large, soft circular beam with an intense, focused projection. From onboard a quad, this tough lamping aid more than proved its worth, with a 200 lumen output and three hours’ full-power operating time. More than sufficient for a late evening’s outing, the Clu-Briter was an ideal partner to the 455, with both rifle and lamp exhibiting a genuine working efficiency.
While my personal thoughts on .17 HMR will no doubt cause some to baulk, what I can say is that I know when I’m holding a quality rifle. I’ve never yet handled a CZ I didn’t like, but the new CZ 455 just has something about it – a purposeful air and a look that makes you want to pick it up and use it. It embodies everything that makes a CZ what it is with more than a passing hint at tradition combined with excellent build quality.
The instant you grasp this well thought out rimfire, you know CZ has got it right in feel, handling and the most incredible, straight out of the box accuracy. It may not be the cheapest .17 HMR set-up you arr likely to encounter at £1,142 in total, but mated to the Weaver scope and LEI moderator, the 455 has got to be one of the most efficient, rewarding and readily available outfits you’ll ever assemble. I’d add this combo to my ticket any day of the week.