Mike Powell on foxing with the .17 Hornet

After a few years of foxing with the .17 Hornet, Mike Powell casts his verdict on the suitability of this varminting calibre

I’ve now owned a .17 Hornet for over two years and in that time I’ve got to know it quite well. Of all the rifles I’ve owned this calibre has raised more questions than any other. 

My connection with the Hornet, both .22 and .17, goes back a very long time and in fact my very first sight of a “big” rifle was when I was about 13. After pestering a local keeper, he allowed me to accompany him on occasions when he was on his rounds.

He had a .22 Hornet, I think it was a BSA, and I saw him shoot everything from rabbits to fallow with it. It seems to me that the .22 Hornet for some reason draws more people than any other calibre.

Perhaps this will change as time passes, but there is certainly something about the Hornet that captures people’s imagination.

The .22 Hornet originally started out as a wildcat round back in the 1920s, and appeared on the commercial market in the 1930s. At the time it was the most accurate centrefire rifle available, and was often described as a survival rifle as it was extremely versatile in the range of quarry it could despatch. Bullet weights range from 34 to 46 grains and the cartridge produces velocities from 2,500 to around 3,000 feet per second.

In use, the .22 Hornet is relatively quiet and has very little recoil. Perhaps one of the reasons this calibre has retained its popularity is that it lends itself extremely well to being reloaded. When I started out on my reloading career, the .22 Hornet was one of the very first calibres I dealt with and I always found it a very easy and forgiving cartridge to load.

In the 1950s one P. O. Ackley worked on and developed the .17 Hornet using a necked down .22 Hornet case, but for many years it remained a  ‘wildcat’ calibre. That was until Hornady stepped in and in 2013 won the prestigious Shooting Trade Award for the best rifle cartridge of the year. The rest is history.

While not taking off in the same way as the .17HMR rimfire, the centrefire .17 certainly aroused a great deal of interest. Loaded with Hornady’s Superformance powder the .17 Hornet 20 grain V-Max cartridge produced a rather surprising 3,650fps muzzle velocity whilst its smaller sibling, the 15.5 grain NTX round, left the muzzle at a claimed 3,870 fps. Even allowing for the fact that on occasions factory claimed figures can be a little optimistic, that’s still quick!

For some considerable time the trend among a lot of shooters who went out after small vermin up to the size of foxes had been to use either the now venerable .22 Hornet, the .222 Remington or the .223 Remington, so a great deal of interest was generated when the .17 Hornet appeared on the scene. 

I soon had one to test and as a .22 Hornet and .17HMR owner realised that the .17 Hornet was something very different – it wasn’t too long before I purchased a .17 Hornet of my own.

The rifle I decided on was the CZ527 Varmint with a laminate thumbhole stock. There is no need to go into details about this CZ as much has already been written about just what a brilliant rifle this is – and having now owned and used one I have nothing to add except to say it rates equally alongside rifles costing substantially more.

In use, the .17 Hornet produces a similar trajectory to my .223, using 55-grain bullets. The smaller calibre produces less noise; in fact with a decent moderator like the MAE from JMS Arms it really isn’t very loud at all.

I’ve been using these mods on a couple of rifles and they really are very good, depending of course on the terrain. The .17 Hornet as far as I’ve seen doesn’t unduly disturb rabbits or other game – certainly far less than the .223.

Whilst it’s largely academic the .17 Hornet produces little barrel fouling and research indicates that despite the high velocities the Hornet doesn’t suffer from barrel wear to any great degree.

Certainly with the sort of use we give our rifles in this country, as compared with the USA, barrel wear is of little consequence. Another benefit is the almost total lack of recoil allowing bullet strike to be observed; a contributing factor to this has to be the fact that many modern rifles tend to be quite heavy.

So after several hundred rounds and varying successes, what is my current thinking as far as the .17 Hornet is concerned, is it a goer or has it been a flash in the pan? What are its good points and are there any bad ones?

Originally, as I said earlier, I bought the .17 Hornet as a backup foxing rifle, mainly for summer use after having watched our American friends taking out prairie dogs at some pretty remarkable distances.

It seemed to me that it would also be an ideal tool for long-range rabbit control in places where I just couldn’t get close to them. I had seen footage of animals such as bobcats being shot with this diminutive bullet so foxes, I thought, wouldn’t present a problem.

On the other side of the coin I had also heard that it was susceptible to wind drift, but having used my .17HMR extensively for night shooting rabbits and never really finding the wind a problem, that side of things didn’t bother me too much.

Once zeroed, and having got used to the rifle with a bit of range work, the first efforts on rabbits were very encouraging. I am no great expert at long range shooting for a variety of reasons; mainly I was never brought up to shoot at long distances, much preferring to get close and make sure.

Also the land I shoot over isn’t really suitable for long-range work, but since acquiring the .17 Hornet I’ve been doing some long-range rabbit work (by my standards) and find it to be absolutely brilliant out to a little over 200 yards.

Carcass damage can be severe, so chest shots are the order of the day. I realise head shots are the best, but at 200 yards I find head shots not all that easy – although the rifle is capable, I’m not!

Turning to the fox, since having the .17 Hornet as a reserve foxing rifle, I have in fact shot several with it. Looking back I came to realise that despite its accuracy and high speed it’s not really a foxing round. I suppose the first half dozen or so I shot with it lulled me into a sense of false security as they all dropped pretty well on the spot.

Then I had a ‘blow up’ on a shoulder shot, where a follow up shot was required. A couple of foxes later I had a runner. When I finally got it, it was in fact another blow up and this started sowing the seed of doubt as to its suitability for quarry as large as a fox. Although I stuck with it, a pattern emerged with a series of problems amongst a series of clean kills.

I suppose to sum up the fox situation I would have to say that – although I have been shooting and trapping foxes for very many years – I never like to see any animal suffer.

I share this opinion with most shooters of my acquaintance and, where the .17 Hornet is concerned, there were just too many occasions where the fox didn’t drop on the spot for me to be happy. Out to 100 yards it was pretty good but anything beyond that there could, on occasions, be problems.

I now restrict the little Hornet to rabbit work, and very good it is too. I love the accuracy, which also allows crows and other corvids to be dealt with at ranges way beyond the capabilities of the .22LR and the .17HMR; it is also great fun to use. It’s what I now term my “summer rifle” as sitting out on a warm summer evening and picking off a few rabbits at decent ranges is something I really enjoy.

Another factor is that I can reload for it. It’s a bit fiddly but once you get into the swing of things it becomes quite easy. I’ve used H110 and IMR 4198 powders and have had good results from both of them.

I’ve really enjoyed using the .17 Hornet but have learned it does have its limitations – as a small vermin rifle it’s brilliant. I don’t find the wind to be a problem at the ranges I shoot at, but I would have to say if you use it on fox, stick to ranges below 100 yards.

It’s an inherently very accurate calibre and as a true vermin rifle takes a bit of beating. Whether it will ever gain the same sort of status as its big brother the .22 Hornet remains to be seen, but I’ve certainly never regretted getting this feisty little rifle.

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