Today most shooters will be familiar with the .17 calibre thanks to the raging success of the .17 HMR, but until the advent of the .17 Hornet, few would have even heard of a .17 centrefire, let alone fired one. But many .17 concoctions have come in and out of fashion over the years, as wildcats and as commercially produced rounds.
The story starts back in the 1950s when wildcatting possibilities were boiling over the imagination of reloaders. One of the first was the .17 Hornet (Ackley), based on a necked down version of the .22 Hornet Improved, providing an accurate round with mild report and almost zero muzzle flip. Of all the .17s conceived in that era this was probably the most popular, with many varmint shooters marrying this little stinger with small Sako actions, designed specifically to chamber rimmed cases such as the .22 Hornet and .218 Bee. Indeed the .218 Bee also saw the Ackley treatment, providing a case with larger capacity than the .22 Hornet, resulting in around 250fps extra muzzle velocity. The .222 Remington, .223 Remington and .221 Remington Fireball have all been used as parent cases for various .17 wildcat designs.
The .17-222 was a straightforward .222 Rem case necked down to .17, and although many other variations in shoulder angle and body taper spawned from this, it remained the most popular based on this case. It would throw a 25-grain bullet at virtually 2,600fps with around 17 grains of H4198. Then, the .17-223 was a similar concept to the .17-222, but with greater case capacity it could push out 25 grains of lead at almost 3,900fps owing to an extra 5.5 grains of powder.
This wildcat became the basis the first commercially loaded .17 calibre, the .17 Remington, introduced in 1971. It has enjoyed steady sales throughout its lifespan, but has been held back by its exclusive varminting application. In this format the .17 centrefire was zipping along on the edge of the 4,000fps boundary, but paid the price with quick barrel wear and heavy fouling. In fact this put many hunters off the calibre in the early days. Badly made barrels and poorly designed bullets resulted in mid-flight disintegration or keyholing on the target just 15-20 shots.
Next, the more modern .17 Mach IV design. Conceived by Vern O’Brian in 1962, it took the .221 Remington Fireball case and necked it down with a 30-degree shoulder to take the little .17 bullet. In 2007 this wildcat cartridge was modified marginally by Remington, resulting in the aplty named 17 Remington Fireball. This proved extremely popular in the US, outstripping demand for the original .17 Rem. The case shoulder remained at 30 degrees, but OAL is slightly longer at 1.42in.
Delving into the ballistics, the advertised 4,000fps is more likely to be around 100fps less out your hunting rifle. This is still nipping along, with a 300-yard velocity around 2,200fps, delivering in excess of 235ft/lb of energy. To put this in perspective, the Fireball is delivering the same ft/lb at 300 yards as the ME of a .17 HMR, proving some considerable destructive power at these extended ranges (these stats are produced from a 24in test barrel).
Where it becomes interesting is drawing comparisons with the .204 Ruger. Remington load data indicates that the two have almost identical ballistics out to 200 yards, despite the .204 pushing a bullet twice the weight. At the 300-yard mark the .204 Ruger drops almost an inch less than the.17. It does this with almost three times as much energy and nearly half the wind drift, making one wonder if the .17 calibre is now redundant. Indeed, if I owned the .204 Ruger, I think the .17 Rem Fireball would be wasted space in the cupboard. It’s now down to the new Hornet calibre to revive the fortunes of the .17. BP