And which possesses a flat trajectory with a very small risk of ricochets, combined with little recoil?
If so, look no further than the .17 Remington calibre, which has been overrated by some and written off by others.
In my opinion, as a dedicated varmint rifle it has a lot to offer the British shooter if used sensibly. I have now owned five different .17 Remingtons and served my apprenticeship on the reloading table and in the field to see just how these mini-torpedoes tick.
First, a bit of background history. Remington surprised everyone by legitimising the .17 by not domesticating the .17/223 cartridge, as expected, but by using the .223 case and pushing the shoulder back, therefore producing a longer neck.
Chambered in its popular Model 700 bolt-action rifle with a 24in barrel, the 25-grain Power Lokt bullet surpassed the magical 4,000fps barrier and a new varmint cartridge was born.
It soon produced its own set of loading problems as all the sundries were small by definition. The .172 (not .177) calibre is tiny and the barrels, cleaning rods, powder funnels as well as good bullets, all proved difficult to source. Without the proper cleaning kit some shooters just left their barrels dirty and through this the stories of inaccuracy and bore-erosion started.
Today the problem is rectified by properly sourced kit but, as they say, mud sticks. That’s why, even today, people who talk of the .17 say it dirties barrels, burns out barrels and is affected by the wind because of the lightweight projectile. I have shot enough targets and vermin with a .17 to say that, in my rifles, these statements are unfounded.
Loading the .17 is really good fun and today there are enough good bullet manufacturers producing high-quality bullets to get the best from the calibre. Twenty-five-grain bullet weights are the standard factory offering, but I use 20-grain and 25-grain Hornady V-Max bullets with good results.
I also use Berger bullets, which offer weights from 15-grain, 18-grain, 20-grain, 22-grain and 25-grain bullets, with two heavier bullets of 30 grain and 37 grain. These last two perform better in faster twist barrels, which really gives the reloader a lot of scope when producing their own ammunition.
There is only so much powder you can burn efficiently down that tiny barrel diameter, and because of this, very small changes of powder weights can give skyward pressures and inconsistency, therefore change your powder weights by 1?10th increments.
Part of the appeal of the .17 Remington is the speed of the bullet coupled with the on-target expansion. To achieve a balance between keeping the bullet together on firing while travelling up the bore, the bullet actually has to be tough around the jacket and therefore the tip is really the only area that can be fragile to initiate expansion. If not, the bullet comes apart in the barrel or on the way to the target.
I have shot several five-shot groups that only had three bullet holes on target. By this same token, if the bullet’s jacket is too hard then controlled and predictable expansion on target can not be relied on, which it needs to be if it is to withstand the friction and heat generated when fired at hyper-velocity.
The Berger bullets, to date, have all achieved an unblemished record of one-shot kills with tiny entry holes, total expansion within the body cavity and no exits on medium sized, and sometimes smaller, foxes. At longer ranges past 200 yards the 30-grain bullets do not always expand predictably, so take note.
The .17 ballistics
If you are shooting magpies, crows or other feathered vermin then a rapidly expanding 15-grain or 18-grain Berger is just the ticket. Available as a flat-base design or Maximum Expansion Factor (MEF) bullet, both provide super-fast velocities coupled with a very flat trajectory and sheer on-target energy transfer. They are also very safe to shoot since the bullets do not exit the carcase and ricochets are non-existent just right for around the farm.
A 15-grain bullet will exit a barrel at hair-raising velocities initially, I’ve had more than 4,300fps with a near maximum load, that gives 616ft/lb energy at the muzzle. However, the key word here is initial velocity. Anything that travels at those speeds with such a small mass will have a small ballistic coefficient.
This translates to poor retained energy figures down-range. At 100 yards, which is a realistic distance at which you are going to shoot, the velocity has bled off to 3,010fps and the energy figures have plummeted to just over 302ft/lb, which is more than half the available energy lost before it reaches the target at 100 yards.
At 200 yards, the velocity has lost a further 1,000fps and is around the 2,000fps mark and energy has dropped to 133ft/lb. This is still capable of cleanly killing a fox. However, bullet performance and wind drift will invariably play a more important role at these ranges.
Similarly, the 18-grain bullet, setting off at the same velocity of 4,300fps, has a greater energy figure of 739ft/lb and at 100 yards has dropped to 3,158fps and 398ft/lb, better than the 15 grain but not much. Choose the most accurate and effective bullet weight in your own gun. (Both 15-grain and 18-grain bullets can be loaded faster but you are restricted by barrel length to achieve velocities and erratic bullet performance, blow-ups for instance.)
You need initial penetration before expansion within the vital area otherwise nasty surface wounds are all that prevail, and therefore I would stick to 20 grain or even 25 grain as a minimum for foxes (unless very close) and 15 grain to 18 grain for rabbits.
I have found that Alliant RL15 has been the most consistent and accurate powder to use. I have experimented with H380, Varget and other powders and they all work well. Some burn cleaner, some have better load densities, but RL15 stands out as the best in my gun yours may well be different. Starting with a load of 23-grain RL15 with a 15-grain Berger produces 3,610fps. Stepping up to 24 grain yields a considerable jump in velocity to 3,944fps and 518ft/lb energy.
Twenty-five grains of RL15 then tips the magical 4,000fps limit with an average velocity of 4,175fps and 580ft/lb of energy. Now we are getting somewhere and all the pressure signs are good. An increase of another 0.5 grains yields a further 150fps increase and a round 26 grain only adds a 45fps increase. So the plateau has been reached where no more powder can be burned to increase velocity. Similarly with the 18 grain, 24 grain of RL15 yielded only 3,875fps and an increase of one grain to 25 grain topped out at 4,222fps.
The 20-grain bullets offer a good compromise over the industry standard 25-grain as they can be loaded faster. Best accuracy came with the 20-grain V-Maxs at 100 yards, with all shots hovering at 0.45in. A 24-grain payload of RL15 shot the 20-grain V-Max out at 4,040fps on a cold day and 4,120fps on a hot one, with 25 grain absolute max grounding out at 4,200fps fast enough for anyone. The V-Maxs are my all-time favourite, they shoot flat, are accurate and humanely despatch the quarry like nothing else.
Alternatives, getting heavy
The Remington factory load of a 25-grain bullet travelling at approximately 3,900fps (from my rifle) generating 845ft/lb energy is great if you do not want to reload. At 100 yards there is still a healthy 3,389fps velocity and 638ft/lb striking energy that is more than enough for humane despatches. At 200 yards, 2,781fps velocity is becoming slower but there is still 429ft/lb energy on tap. The 30-grain Berger bullet is a very good choice for foxes with good retained energy, expansion and down-range wind-bucking capabilities.
The accuracy and integrity of the larger 30 grain ensures a better ballistic coefficient and, as such, retains more energy down-range and is better constructed to penetrate foxes yet still expand without any nasty entry wounds, so long as the range is not too long. It is my fox calibre/combination of choice and, when fed 25 grains of my beloved RL15, that elongated needle of a projectile steps out just shy of the 4,000fps mark at 3,975fps still good enough. Accuracy, again, is phenomenal, 0.5in or better at 100 yards. Though, as with all the .17 bullets, if you push them too fast, too soon, the high rotational spin in flight can cause the bullet to disintegrate before it reaches the target.
I always have space for at least one .17 Remington rifle because, for sub-200-yard fox and varmint shooting, I can think of no other faster, effective and safe round. The new .20 calibres now coming on to the market, however, are very interesting and will be my next calibre to review.