Thinking small

Are .17 rimfire and centrefire calibres set to challenge the .223’s established dominance as a foxing round? Mike Powell draws on all his experience to find out the answer

During my lifetime I’ve shot a considerable number of foxes with a considerable number of rifles. Many of those rifles have been models on test loan, and not ones I’ve owned myself; however, I do have a variety of my own rifles that have, at one time or another, all taken foxes. While out recently waiting for a poultry raider that didn’t turn up, my thoughts turned to the various calibres that I have personally used for my fox control work, and the way trends change in the shooting world.

A glance through any reloading manual will reveal a considerable number of ‘foxing calibres’ up to and including the .243. The main reason for this variety is the fact that virtually any rifle is more than capable of killing a relatively small animal like a fox.

Years ago I wrote a piece for Sporting Rifle where I described shooting a fox with an FAC-rated air rifle. Perhaps not surprisingly, it brought a veritable hailstorm of protests from people saying how reprehensible it was to even think about shooting a fox with such a firearm.

While I would never suggest that air rifles on the whole are suitable for fox shooting, that doesn’t mean that in certain circumstances they won’t do the job. The rifle involved at that time, which I still have, is an Air Arms S410, which I seem to remember was, at that time, running around 40ft/lb and perfectly capable of putting a heavy .22 pellet through a one-inch pine plank. It was also highly accurate, so shot placement at around 25 yards was a formality, and the fox in question never moved. It was one of the most instant kills I have seen.

The full range: Air rifle, .22LR, .17 HMR, .22 WMR, .22 Hornet, .17 Hornet, .223, .243, .308

On the other end of the scale, the largest calibre I have shot foxes with is a .308, used when out stalking. But the .308 and the air rifle are the rarely used extremes. In between them there are a very wide range of calibres at your disposal.

Today, there has been a tremendous surge of interest in small, fast calibres, with particular interest centring on the .17/.22 variety. Calibre choice is definitely susceptible to trends, with many new calibres, when they first arrive on the scene, soon becoming the ‘must-have’ rifle. I remember the arrival of the .243 WSSM and I even bought one myself. It was very accurate and overall a nice rifle, but was no better as far, as I could see, than a standard .243 when used in the field. The problem came when I wanted to move it on. The calibre had dropped out of favour and no one wanted a .243 WSSM any more. This is always going to be a risk with new calibres – or anything else new for that matter!

One of the biggest calibre developments I can remember is without a doubt the arrival of the .17 HMR around 2002. This high-speed, frangible little round was a tremendous improvement over the venerable .22LR and it certainly caused a stir in the shooting world. The .17 HMR was a high-speed (2550fps at the muzzle), flat-shooting calibre that proved ideal for rabbit shooting, particularly at night when range judging is difficult. Zeroed at 100 yards, shots could be taken out to half as much again with confidence. But what interested a lot of people was the fact that at sensible ranges (which I personally would put at no more than just about over 100 yards) it was capable, with sensible placement, of dropping a fox in its tracks. In the 15 years or so that I’ve owned an Anschütz .17 HMR, I’ve only had one runner. All the foxes shot with the HMR have been ‘opportunistic’ ones shot when out after rabbits – in most situations it definitely wouldn’t be my immediate go-to foxing round.

Mike with his .22 Hornet – could it soon be confined to the past?

Sadly, after a flying start, the HMR ran into ammunition problems with split cases, ‘squibs’ that failed to detonate properly, and in my own case, two rounds where the primer failed to ignite the powder. These occurrences should never really have happened and it took far too long for the problems to be sorted. Fortunately today, manufacturers have addressed the problem and problems are few and far between. I do still hear the odd story, but I suspect this is due to old ammunition possibly still circulating around. All of this was a great shame as I believe the .17 HMR is a really an excellent rabbit round that is very much more than capable of taking out the odd fox.

One or two other .17 calibre rifles have arrived over the years but haven’t really caught on to the massive extent that the HMR did on it’s first appearance. Back in 1971 the first of the commercial .17s appeared: the .17 Remington, This was an incredibly quick round (4250 MV) using a 20-grain bullet, and would kill a fox out to considerable distances. However, as with all these very small rounds, wind could affect bullet placement, which was not ideal at all.

The small calibres, of which the .17 Hornet is the only true fox round

Then in 2007 the .17 Remington Fireball appeared. This was another high-speed calibre using 20- or 25-grain bullets at around the 3900fps mark. The Fireball still has a number of enthusiastic followers and without a doubt is good for foxes out to 200 yards in the right hands; once again, though, I think it would be fair to say that the Fireball never really became a big commercial success in this country. In America, where they do a lot of long-range varmint hunting, the Fireball and .17 Remington have a much bigger following. Perhaps the weather is better suited to long-range, small-calibre shooting over there, where shooting prairie dogs from stable rests, such as benches or trucks, is a sport – unlike anything that we have here and certainly lends itself to these small and rather speedy rounds.

Over the past few years, the popularity of lighter calibres, undoubtedly started off by the .17 HMR, has risen, and some new ones have appeared, causing a lot of interest. In 2013, Winchester launched the .17 Winchester Super Magnum (WSM). Developed behind a wall of secrecy, this is the fastest rimfire available, propelling a 20-grain bullet at 3000fps, which puts it alongside a lot of the centrefire small calibre rifles out there.

The .17 WSM is the fastest rimfire round available and will take a fox at sub-200 yard ranges

I recently tested the Savage B-Mag in this calibre and was impressed. It really is a very nice round to shoot and is also very accurate. Surprisingly, it didn’t appear to damage rabbit carcases as much as my .17 HMR, unless you did a diagonal body shot when the only beneficiaries were the ferrets! As a foxing round it certainly does the job, and though like most of the small-calibre rifles it is quite capable of killing foxes at over 200 yards, I would personally treat 200 as the absolute maximum. The reason I say this is that even with my ‘normal’ foxing calibre, the .223, I rarely take shots much in excess of 200 yards. With the light rounds the .17s in particular employ, the effect the wind can have on these not particularly ballistically efficient bullets will undoubtedly affect shot placement. This can, of course, can lead to misses, or worse, injuring rather than a clean kill.

The .17 WSM slots neatly between the .17 HMR and the .17 Hornet (on which more in a moment). Quite whether this gap really did need filling I’m not altogether sure, but it has filled it, and very efficiently too. I was really taken with the WSM, and knowing what I know now, if I was looking to move up from a .22LR to something with a bit more ‘oomph’, I would certainly take a long look at the 17 .WSM. Ballistically, the round does well, and if zeroed an inch and a half high at 100 yards, the drop at 200 is just over an inch. so out to 200 yards it is a case of ‘point and shoot’. For a rimfire, that’s very impressive.

Last but certainly not least of these small calibres is the .17 Hornet. While I have certain reservations about some of the small calibre rifles for foxing, I have no reservations about the .17 Hornet. It’s been with us for about five years now and has become popular in the USA. As a foxing round it has a lot going for it. With a decent moderator (I use a MaccTecc), the report is certainly not too intrusive, and I would happily use it around habitation. Recoil is negligible, allowing bullet strikes to been seen under the right conditions. It can be reloaded, which can be a bit fiddly, but certainly keeps the cost down.

The .17 Hornet is a very capable foxing calibre

Clearly manufacturers think the .17 Hornet has a future, for quite a few offer rifles in this calibre. CZ, Ruger, Weihrauch, Savage and even Anschütz have decided the little Hornet is a ‘goer’.

I have always been a keen .22 Hornet shooter, but having used the .17 version, I fear my old .22 Hornet rifle may be spending a lot of time in the dark recesses of the cabinet. The smaller version is such a flat-shooting, accurate round that I really don’t think the .22 equivalent will be getting much use, much as I like it. Using the 15.5-grain ammunition from Hornady, if you zero the .17 Hornet at 1.5-inches high at 100 yards, you should be spot on at 200, which is good enough for me.

SO WHAT’S BEST FOR FOXING?

The centrefire .17 rifles (.17 Rem, .17 Fireball, .17 Hornet) could all truthfully be described as foxing calibres, whereas the rimfire calibres we’ve covered here, though capable of killing a fox at relatively close range, are really not dedicated foxing rounds. Of the three centrefires, from what I have seen, the Hornet has to be the best be for foxing.

Despite the .17 Hornet’s ability to kill foxes cleanly and humanely, there are certain caveats. Comparisons are odious, but it is going to be hard to rob the .223 of its crown as the accepted foxing calibre. Certainly for me and for many others too, it has accounted for vast numbers of foxes. The .222, too, has also given excellent service, and is still the choice of many who pursue the fox. These larger centrefire rifles are easy to reload, and for those who rely on factory ammo, there is always a wide choice available. I have never really seen the need to change my .223 for anything else for foxing.

Three with the .243. At the end of the day a good big ‘un will beat a good little ‘un

The larger calibres, using bullets that are normally twice as heavy (if not more) as the diminutive .17 calibres, will carry more destructive power, though the high speed of the .17s with their ballistic tips can cause severe trauma. Ballistically, the heavier centrefires are far better for long-range shooting. Shooters the calibre of Sporting Rifle’s Mark Ripley, who is one of the small band of truly excellent long-range shooters, wouldn’t consider using a 15.5 or 20gn bullet out to 500-600 yards.

Bring things back into more achievable ranges and we return to what I do, which is fox control. Around 80 per cent of the many foxes I deal with are shot at 100 yards or less owing to the fact I use good night vision equipment and fieldcraft learned over 70 years. I would try to get almost every fox I shoot at sub-150-yard ranges – that figure would almost certainly drop off at 200 yards plus.

With modern equipment and a far greater knowledge of the fox, perhaps we shouldn’t be looking at constantly stretching ranges, but reducing them. It’s here the .17 calibres and in particular the .17 Hornet really comes into its own. Quiet, very accurate, flat shooting and a pleasure to shoot, I have little doubt that this calibre will find a permanent home in many fox shooters’ cabinets.

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