The Browning T-Bolt Target/Varmint .17HMR is not only a good-looking rifle, its handling and style are effortless
I own an original Browning T-bolt, which I have had since the mid-1960s and still marvel at its unique design with its super-fast straight-pull bolt operation.
Available stocked in wood or synthetic and with short or long barrel profiles, the .17HMR T-Bolt is ideally suited for the British vermin hunter on two counts: it’s well built in terms of design and manufacture, and it uniquely holds a 10-shot capacity magazine.
It is now made in Japan by Miroku (not in Belgium as it used to be), but the fit and finish, combined with a realistic price of under £600 makes for a modern, accurate sporter in a classic design. I had the Varmint version on test with a larger stock and heavier barrel than the standard Sporter version, and I must confess, I prefer the Varmint version.
Action and magazine
The T-Bolt was one of the first straight-pull rimfire rifles, with the bolt cycling the action with a single straight-pull “back and then forth” motion. This is achieved with the bolt handle pivoting on a cam outward that disengages the twin circular locking lugs or rings from the receiver walls, allowing the bolt to move backwards. It is smooth and fast to operate, as well as being safe, and provides a solid lock-up, although on the closing stroke there is more effort, as the bolt is cocked.
The bolt body is a single unit that has twin extractors to ensure positive extraction and controlled support for the case as it is loaded, and the firing pin is exposed at the top of the bolt with a red strip visible when the T-Bolt is cocked. It’s a quality action with an ultra-fast operation and it carries a deep blued finish. Scopes are mounted on a pair of Weaver-type scope bases, which are supplied.
Best of all is the magazine. Being a double helix arrangement, you can have 10 rounds loaded into a small overall magazine size. Totally unique, this system works remarkably well, with no stoppages in testing. It is released by a forward-mounted lever catch that drops the magazine into your hand.
The magazine construction is polycarbonate with a translucent body showing the innards and the double helix operation holding the .17 HMR rounds in an “S” configuration. A small wheel is rotated a quarter of a turn to load a round, removing the spring tension so 10 rounds are easy to load quickly.
Trigger and safety
The trigger and safety are housed in a single unit that forms part of the receiver’s rear tang with the polycarbonate trigger-guard beneath it.
The safety has two positions, one for bolt removal and one to lock the trigger, not the bolt, so .17 HMR rounds can be removed or loaded from the action with the safety on. The safety sited in the pistol grip tang area makes it convenient to use, but bolt removal is a knack.
The trigger finish is gold in colour and adjustable for weight but the factory setting of 4.25lb — though a tad heavy — broke cleanly, but only after a certain amount of creep.
The normal Sporter profile barrel is 22in long while this .17HMR Varmint version is 16.5in long. Both start at 0.825in diameter at the receiver ring (measured from the outside of the barrel) tapering down to 0.535in at the muzzle for the Sporter and 0.675in for the Varmint.
The barrel is already screw-cut for a sound moderator with a 0.5 UNF thread, so when a sound moderator is fitted, the overall length of the rifle does not become ungainly, and the short 16.5in barrel had little effect on velocity. The barrel is fully free-floating along its entire length, so the natural barrel harmonics are not upset when fired, ensuring consistent accuracy regardless of foul weather.
The stock has a classic feel and look — it blends the best of American features with the feel of an English rifle. The walnut quality is high with fine- lined grain and good colour with a subtle oiled finish that gets better with age and use. This Varmint version has a raised cheek-piece that lifts the comb for scope use and has a profile to both sides of the stock so it’s good for left- or right-handed shooters.
Cut chequering to the pistol grip and fore- end is well done and the fore-end profile has a beaver tail look to accommodate a larger barrel diameter, giving a firmer hold and rest in the hand or off a bipod. There is a small amount of bedding compound to achieve a perfect union between action and stock, helping accuracy and consistency of shooting.
Accuracy was good overall with all ammunition tested but the Hornady NTX load was extremely accurate at 50 yards while the CCI Game Points were better at 100 yards. At 50 yards the NTX grouped into a tiny 0.4in group for three rounds and had a muzzle velocity of 2,543fps yielding 223ft/lb energy. At 100 yards the larger, heavier CCI Game Point 20-gr loads shot at 2,361fps for 248ft/lb energy and put three shots consistently into 1in groups.
There was not a lot of difference between the remaining loads, all shooting 0.5in to 0.75in groups at 50 yards. So the lighter non-toxic or lead-free NTX would be great for rabbits while the heavier Game Points could double as a close-range fox load.
How does the Browning T-Bolt Target/Varmint .17HMR measure up?
Accuracy: Good, dependable accuracy with a variety of ammunition types.
Handling: Smooth and fast to operate, this is a well-balanced little rifle.
Trigger: Crisp, but the safety can be slightly awkward to use.
Stock: Perfect design for its size and with a good finish. Profiled both sides.
Value: Great value as it comes in below the £600 price point.
The T-Bolt is not only a good-looking rifle, its whole style, handling and accuracy are reassuring and come effortlessly. In the Varmint trim with a shorter and heavier barrel and lovely fuller stock design, this T-Bolt model is ideally suited for the British market, especially with the threaded muzzle for sound moderator use.
If you want a one-gun vermin solution that does everything then the T-Bolt Varmint is pretty hard to beat.