The .17 caliber; tiny but terrific.
Even though Ackley doesn't claim to be the first to work with calibers smaller than .22, he must be credited, to a large degree, with bringing the .17 caliber to the attention of America's shooters. According to a letter received from Ackley in May, 1983, his first teenybore cartridge was the .17 Ackley Pee Wee, created in 1945 by necking down the .30 carbine case. The rifle was a scaled down, or as he puts it, a miniature version of the 1917 Enfield, hand-made in his shop.
Ward Koozer, another gunsmith who would later gain fame and fortune by reboring and rechambering Model 92 Winchesters to .44 Magnum, was Ackley's busines partner at the time. Koozer made .17 caliber bullets in an arbor press by bumping up sections of copper electrical wire to .172-inch diameter. Even though they were solid copper, those first bullets were quite similar in form to those made today, including a hollow point.
In 1946 Ackley squeezed down the neck of his .22 Hornet Improved wildcat and called it, aptly enough, the .17 Ackley Hornet. Dissatisfied with the performance of solid copper bullets, he next took up his problem with Ralph Sisk, a custom bullet maker in Iowa Park, Texas. Soon thereafter, Sisk started producing .17 caliber bullets in three weights; 20, 25 and 30 grains. Around 1949, Ackley came up with his .17 Bee, and soon after Remington introduced their .222 in 1950, its case was pounced on by Ackley as well as other .17 caliber fans.
At about this same time, Paul Marquart, the fellow who still turns out those superb cut-rifled barrels, tried Charles Landis' .17 Woodsman but soon abandoned it because .25-20 single-shot cases were hard to come by. Around 1956 Marquart produced one of the first truly successful .17 wildcats by shortening and blowing out the .222 Remington case. He called it the .17 Javelina. Actually, the Javelina performed much like several other wildcats kicking around at the same time but what made it outshine the others were the barrels it was chambered in. Marquart and Bill Atkinson were partners in the A&M Gunshop of Prescott, Arizona, a company that is said to have pioneered the production of high quality rifle barrels with very tiny holes.
During the early 1960s, Vern O'Brien of Las Vegas Started building .17 caliber rifles with 18 and 20-inch barrels, furnished by A&M and P.O. Ackley. They were built around the short Sako action with stocks made by Nils Hultgren and were available in .17 Mach IV, .17-233 and .17-222 Magnum. In 1967, Harrington & Richardson bought the manufacturing rights to O'Brien's rifles, dropped the Mach IV and .17 Magnum chamberings and introduced their Model 317 Ultrawildcat rifle in .17-223 caliber.
When the rumor of a .17 caliber project came floating down from Ilion, it was assumed by one and all that Remington would simply domesticate the .17-223 wildcat, but they fooled all the troops. They utilized the .223 case alright but pushed back its shoulder, resulting in a longer neck and slightly reduced powder capacity. Chambered in the Model 700 with a 24-inch barrel, the .17 Remington cartridge pushed its 25-grain Power-Lokt bullet beyond the magic 4,000 feet per second barrier. The .17 and .22 caliber centerfire cartridges have a great deal in common. Both began life with relatively small powder capacities but eventually grew in appetite as varmint shooters sought higher velocities and flatter trajectories. And, of course, both emerged before bullet-making technology, as well as bore cleaning products and methods, had advanced far enough to cope with their special requirements. For this reason, their reputations were permanently tarnished while still in their infancies.
In fact, the .17 caliber cartridge story sounds very much like that of the .220 Swift. In the beginning, gunwriters praised the big .22 to the heavens as the best thing since jacketed bullets for shooting big game, but soon began to back-peddle as tales of game wounded and lost began to trickle in from misguided hunters. The same thing happened with the .17; reams of prose, replete with black and white glossies showing everything from billy goats to donkeys to brown bear slain with the teenybore were eagerly gobbled up by multitudes of shooters, wide-eyed with innocence. That bubble quickly got popped too, but the damage had been done.
The .220 Swift was introduced before barrel-making technology had caught up with its velocities; barrel life was extremely short because turn-of-century steels still in use at the time were no match for its hot breath. Barrel life wasn't a problem with the .17s but barrel quality was. When soft-jacketed bullets of the day were violently pushed to high velocities, they deposited bits and chunks of jacket material in rough bores and accuracy spiraled down the drain after but a few shots. Also, when those bullets were subjected to velocities and rotational torgue higher than they were designed to withstand, their thin jackets ruptured during the trip down the bore, causing them to take a tumble between here and there.
Nowadays, anytime a discussion of cartridges among varmint shooters turns to the .17s, there is no middle ground, as is most often the case with larger calibers. One side absolutely detests the mere mention of any bullet smaller in diameter than .224-inch and quickly relegates the .17s to the pot along with the world's other most useless developments. The problem with this side of the trail is the fact that many of the members of this school either: A, haven't tried the .17 since the 1950s and 1960s, B; still believe that everything written about the .17s decades ago holds true today (and often repeat it so they'll sound like an expert), C; are stricken by a severe case of tunnel vision, and finally D; are convinced that 40 rounds on paper and 20 rounds at varmints makes them an expert and have never seriously worked with this caliber.
Almost as bad are those who tread the extreme opposite side of the trail. These are the same fellows, or perhaps their descendants, who placed huge stumbling blocks in the .220 Swift's path by touting it to the heavens as a big-game cartridge.
It's time we took a .17 caliber trip down the trail's middle.
Unlike today's .17 fans (and there are many), yesteryear's .17s caliber shooters was faced with many pitfalls and hurdles. For this reason, the teenybore was quickly classified as a lost cause. Nothing fit the .17; there were no powder funnels, case trimmers, case mouth chamfering tools and possibly worst of all, there were no brushes or cleaning rods made for such a tiny bore. Some didn't clean at all while others ruined bores and destroyed accuracy with makeshift equipment. I have a 1960s vintage .17 cleaning rod, no doubt made by someone with the best of intentions but I wouldn't use it for all the bore solvent in hoppe's land. It was made by twisting steel wires together and would probably destroy accuracy in about two passes through the best of barrels.
It's a different story now. Although every backwoods gunshop doesn't stock .17-size accessories, everything for keeping those little rifles shooting is available. Powser funnels, bullet pullers, case trimmers; case neck brushes, reamers, turners and deburring tools; cleaning rods and brass brushes; loading dies for wildcats and tamecats--you name it. It's not at all difficult to obtain a .17 caliber rifle either, especially if you like Remingtons, Sakos and Tikkas and if you wait long enough, Kimber may decide to take the plunge.
Should your taste lean more toward the exotic and mysterious, several gunsmiths specialize in building .17 rifles from scratch, or they'll rebarrel one of those old pets that lost its accuracy three seasons ageo. While I'm on the subject, my pick of the wild bunch is the .17 Mach IV. Cases are easily formed by simply necking down .221 Fireball brass and its performance is not too far behind that of the larger cartridges. This pert little wildcat, combined with an action proportionate to its size makes for a delightfully lightweight varmint rifle. The Kimber Model 84 and short Sako actions are perfect candidates for the job at hand.
What it boils down to at this point is this: although the .17 is not our most population caliber, the availability of rifles and accessories for it indicate that it is far from dead and gone.
When it comes to achieving top accuracy from any rifle, two things must be kept in mind; bullet jacket and powder residue fouling must not be allowed to accumulate excessively in the bore, and the more powder we burn in a particular bore size, the more often it must be cleaned in order to maintain top accuracy. These two rules apply to any caliber, not just the .17.
Usually, group size will begin to increase noticeably with a good varmint rifle in .222 Remington after some 30 to 40 rounds, while rifles chambered for cartridges with larger appetites, like the .22-250 and .220 Swift, beg to be cleaned every 12 to 15 rounds. My .17 Kimber R2 (an experimental cartridge) burns about 11 grains of powder and will digest at least 40 firings before protesting its dirty bore. On the other hand, my .17 Mach IV burns around 20 grains of powder and prefers to be cleaned after about 25 to 30 shots. The even larger .17 Remington shoots best if the barrel is scrubbed every 12 to 15 rounds, although some rifles will go several more shots between cleanings.
However, we're talking abolut top accuracy here and tiny groups like you carry in your billfold. With any caliber, accuracy will continue to deteriorate as we squeeze more and more rounds down the barrel without cleaning, but this is not to say that accuracy will not be sufficient for shooting varmints. When after prairie dogs, I occasionally stop shooting and clean barrels but only if its convenient and I'm in the mood, otherwise I keep on blasting away and take care of the chore back home. This, by the way, includes the .17s. Paul Marquart tells me that he cleans his .17 Javelina about once a year--or about every 600 rounds. This would probably amount to taking a good thing too far in some rifles but it does tend to prove that .17s are really no different in this respect than larger calibers.
Back in the 1960s, one experts proclaimed long and loud that once a .17 caliber barrel is badly fouled, it is ruined and can never be restored to its original accuracy. This may very well have been true then, but today we are much more educated and sophisticated in our bore cleaning techniques, plus we have new bore cleaning products that have completely eliminated the problem. One of my .17s is a good example of why I know this to be true.
In early '83, I bought a .17 Mach IV, built by the O'Brien Rifle Company of Las Vegas, Nevada. Since H&R bought the manufacturing rights to Vern O'Brien's neat little rifles in 1967, mine was probably built several years prior to the acquisition. Never have I ever seen a barrel so badly fouled. Although the rifling appeared bright and sharp to the eye, when I pushed a patch through the bore it felt as if it were lined with sandpaper all the way out to within about four inches of its muzzle.
Accuracy was difficult to determine because most bullets completely missed the paper at 100 yards. At that point I could have rushed home, manned the typewriter and picked up a few bucks with another article on the trials and tribulations involved in shooting the .17. But I didn't because I've had the same experience with larger calibers, mainly the .22s and 6mms. Nor did I cuss and sweat for hours, or increase the size of my bicep three sizes by scrubbing the little rifle's bore for days on end; I simply plugged the muzzle with a cork, filled the bore with OMC Engine Tuner solvent and let it sit for a week.
The first soaking dislodged a great deal of the fouling but it didn't do the whole job so I plugged the muzzle again, filled the bore with Marksman's Choice solvent and let it soak for another week. Now the rifle averages .600 inch with its favorite load, and the only thing I do to keep it shooting so we is clean it thoroughly with Marksman's Choice after every 20 to 30 shots. I also leave a thin film in the bore between shooting sessions. I've yet to experience fouling problems with this rifle.
I know several people who had a tremendous amount of experience with the .17s, one who never uses a bore brush when cleaning. His rifle, a .17 Jet, has several thousands rounds through it and its bore never feels a brush. He cleans it about every dozen rounds with patches saturated with OMC solvent and shoots the tiniest groups you ever saw. Actually, I don't believe we're far away from the day chemicals make abrasive-type cleaners, including wire brushes, completely obsolete.
I believe it was Ed Shilen who said that accuracy is more often destroyed by improper cleaning methods that by shooting. This is particularly important to remember when cleaning .17 caliber barrels because the grooves are only some .002 of an inch deep and the slightest slip of a cleaning rod can do much damage. A cleaning rod guide should always be used when cleaning any rifle, regardless of its caliber.
And while I'm on the subject, use nothing but one-piece steel rods--no sectional rods and certainly none made of brass or aluminum. Both can become imbedded with grit and ruin the best of barrels in short order. I strongly recommend the steel rod from Saunder's Gun & Machine or the plastic-coated steel rod make by Parker-Hale.
Just as important as the availability of .17 caliber-size equipment are bore cleaning solvents and methods of using them, taught to us by benchrest shooters. Another of my rifles in .17 Remington recently celebrated the firing of 2,000 rounds, and its bore has yet to be ravaged by a brass brush. After every 20 to 30 rounds, I simply clean it by pushing two patches soaked with OMC solvent through its bore, followed by a couple of dry patches. Before placing the rifle back in its rack, I clean its bore a final time with Marksman's Choice and leave the bore wet. Just prior to the next shooting session, I push a wet patch through the bore, dry it thoroughly and then commence to shoot the living daylights out of it. The rifle shoots five shots into less than 3/4-inch consistently with many groups awfully close to half a minute of angle.
I'm sure there are those who turn away from the .17s because of an extremely limited choice in bullets. Like a lot of other folks, I'd like to see these tiny bullets made by Speer and Sierra but from a practical standpoint we don't need any more than we already have. Twenty-five grains has long been considered the optimum weight for this caliber because lighter bullets have poor ballistic coefficients, while a substantial increase in weight results in considerable velocity loss. The truth is, I have yet to develop loads for a .17 caliber rifle that didn't learn to like the Hornady bullet if I tried hard to make it happen. This little jewel is absolutely capable of half minute of angle and less when combined with a powder type and charge weight that is compatible with a particular case size.
The only other .17 caliber bullets that are readily available are the Hi-Precision. They're in 25 and 26 grain but will soon be gone for good since there were only about a million when southern Ammunition bought the last lot. The last I heard, they have less than 100,000 left.
Now let's look at .17 caliber performance. the exterior ballistics of .17 caliber bullets launched at various velocities no longer remains a mystery, thanks to Hornady's fine loading manual. According to Hornady, their 25-grant hollow point bullet has a BC of .190 as compared to .191 for their 45-grain .224 caliber bullet. In looking at Speer bullets, we see .224 caliber bullets of comparable ballistics coefficients, 45-grain at .167, and the 55-grain full metal jacket at .189. Sierra has a 45-grain semispitzer rated at .212.
Simply stated, when bullets of like ballistic coefficient exit the muzzle ay the same velocity, their trajectories and wind deflection will be virtually the same-regardless of the caliber. Some fans of the .17 will argue this point by swearing that the .17 Remington shoots flatter and bucks wind better than the .22-250, while the other side touts the .222--remington as superior to any .17 when both are shot into the wind. Both opinions contradict the laws of exterior ballistics.
I've shot the .17s and .22s, side-by-side, from a benchrest out to 300 yards and according to the results, the Hornady trajectory data is quite close to what actually happends in the field. A comparison of bullet deflection is a bit more difficult because in real life, breezes tend to shift direction and their velocities aren't constant.
During my trajectory tests, I placed a wind flag adjacent to the target and squeezed the trigger only when wind conditions appeared to be the same. Admittedly, this test left a great deal to be desired since it's most difficult to detect a slight change in wind velocity with this method, and a slight shift can push a bullet farther off course by a substantial amount out at 200 and 300 yards. Also, one wind flag at 300 yards does not tell us what mother nature is doing between shooter and target.
Scientific or not I've drawn this conclusion; if .17 and .22 caliber bullets of similar form leave the muzzle at similar velocities, the differences in their trajectories and wind deflection wouldn't make a down payment on a cup of cold coffee.
Even more debated than trajectory and wind deflection is the killing power of .17 caliber bullets. Years ago, I read an article wherein the author left one with the impression that the .17 Remington's effective range on rockchucks was less than 200 yards. This came as quite a surprise for this reason; first of all, I know the chap who wrote the peice and am convienced that he calls it exactly as he sees it, meaning, if the .17 Remington failed on chucks at 200 paces, it did exactly that. r However, my reason for surprise upon reading his opinion was because the fellow's report so contradicted my onw experience. For example, only a few months prior to my reading the article, a friend and I had stumbled onto one of those rare, virgin hotspots where one can sit in one place all day long and shoot at woodchucks. We had to rifles; a Model 700 in .17 Remington with factory loads, and a Remington 40-XBBR that had been converted to .220 Swift. My Swift handloads were pushing the .55-grain Sierra spitzer boattail to about 3,800 fps.
Shots were alternated between the two rifles and the maximum range was aroung 350 yards. Regardless of the range, each and every chuck shot with the .17 died just as quickly as those shot with the Swift, and not a single animal was wounded and lost with either cartridge. This is typical of my experience with the .17 Remington.
Another story that comes to mind described how coyotes shot at extremely close range with the .17 twitched their tails and ran off to join their mates. Again, I know the fellow who wrote this piece too and if he told me that the sky would fall tomorrow, I'd run like the wind to the nearest cave. The largest animals I've killed with the .17 are red and grey fox and have yet to loss one, but they are much smaller than coyote. However, I do know people who use nothing but the .17s for shooting big varmints.
Pete Grisel, the custom metal man, takes about 100 coyotes each year. Since he's a gunsmith, obviously, Pete could choose any cartridge available but guess what he uses exclusively? Yep, the .17 Remington 25-grain Power-Lokt bullet makes a tiny hole going in, wreacks havoc inside and doesn't exit through the far side. This is perfect performance when we consider that fur buyers don't like big holes in hides. This, by the way, is why Remington sells more Model 700s in .17 caliber to Australian fox hunters than they sell in the entire U.S.A. Grisel also claims to have made clean kills beyond 300 yards in front of witnesses, like Chub Eastman of Leupold, and during his years of fur hunting has wounded and lost very few coyotes--they just fold up in their tracks, as Pete puts it.
Former benchrest shooter Dick Saunders of Mainchester, Iowa also hunts for the fur market and when after fox uses nothing but the .17 caliber. Since he's also a gunsmith and set up to cut his own chambering reamers, Dick probably has more experience with various .17 wildcats than anyone actively shooting today. He likes single-shot rifles, and leans toward rimmed cases like his favorite, the .17 Jet. Saunders uses the hornady bullet and praises the teenybore as absolutely devastating on foxes; however, he does not consider the .17 as a coyote cartridge--not enough punch at long range.
So, different experiences, different stories and different opinions. How do we explain it? Darned if I know. According to Grisel, the Remington bullet which, unfortunately, is not available to handloaders, is the key to his success on coyote. Perhaps, and I can only speculate, the jacket hardness and thickness of bullets varies from lot to lot and we don't notice the effect of these variations until we get to lightweight bullets of extremely small diameter. Actually, your guess is as good as mine. I do know this to be true; the .17 Remington in my hands will make consistent kills on groundhogs out to 300 yards (when I hit them) but beyond that range it rapidly starts running out of punch. In my book, 300 yards is a right fur piece.
Needless to say, shooters of yesteryear expects too much from the .17, just as some continue to do today. It was praised as the caliber of the future, one that would eventually replace the .22s for varmint shooting but, of course, it was no such animal then, just as it isn't now. It has also been said that the .17 is not a practical caliber but in the shooting world as we enjoy it today, who's to say what is practical and what isn't? If we all were so practical minded, everybody would own a .22 rimfire, a .22-250 and a .30-06, and gunwriters would have to seek honest work, while all other cartridges withered away to obsolesence. The .17 is too much fun for us to allow it to suffer such a fate.
A fellow buying or building a .17 caliber rifle is getting a lot of joy in a small package for his money. And, if he treats it just like any other cartridge and ignores what might have been true decades ago but no longer is, he'll have a ball with it.
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|Publication:||Guns & Ammo|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1985|
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