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The Ultimate Varmint Rifle?

By Keith Deed

It was a few years ago when my wife asked me what I wanted for my 50th birthday. As this was a significant birthday milestone, the budget was quite generous.


I thought for a few days and the decision was easy. At this time, my son and I had been hunting together for a couple of years as he was at that wonderful age whereby, he wanted to do the same thing I did when I was at his age.


We had been taking over night hunting trips from Auckland down to a friend’s ‘runoff’ block close to the DOC land behind Waihi. This block had all we could ask for - rabbits, hares, possums and feral goats. We had a cheap Stirling .22, and a pump action shotgun during these trips and we were having some success on most trips.


After 18-24 months we were both looking for more. We wanted more punch and more range. I grew up in a household where hunting and shooting were regular past times.


The .22LR compared alongside the .17 Hornet. Note the Hornet's rimmed case.


Having been taught by my father how to hunt ducks and trap shoot, I moved into centrefire rifles for a short time before moving away from hunting once I had my own family.


Now with my own son, and we were having a ‘blast’ on our monthly trips to Waihi. So, as mentioned, after a couple of days of thought, the decision was made. I was going to build the best varmint rifle I could.


I knew that my thoughts, reasons and objectives would not suit everybody, but I was determined to build one rifle that would be my ‘go-to’ rifle for all future varmint hunting.


This is where the fun started. I trolled the World Wide Web for months. I reviewed all the standard typical calibres, .22WMR, .22 Hornet, .222, .223 and the new .204. My thoughts went around and around for months.


Just when I thought I had made up my mind, I changed it. I had reached a point of frustration and decided to document my objectives to help me narrow the range of calibres to make my final decision.


My key objectives

  • Flat shooting. I wanted an accurate round that could easily achieve kill shots to 300m
  • Small but effective. I wanted to recover the animal for dog food
  • High impact. Plenty of impact energy to drop a hare at 250m
  • Heavy barrelled bolt action. You should only need one bullet
  • Ideally a centrefire round that would allow for reloading


I did some significant research on the .17 Remington. This appeared to have everything I wanted however, there were two concerns I had. 

  • The hunting videos online showed complete annihilation of all varmint sized animals
  • Some reviews stating the high speeds and hot loads tended to burn-out barrels at a young age.


This was not worth the risk, so I went back to basics and reviewed my own thoughts as to what I really wanted. From a simplistic perspective, I wanted the muzzle energy of a .22LR, (131 ft/lbs) but I wanted this at 300m.


This would be enough energy for a quick kill, out to the maximum range that I would shoot. These objectives ruled out all the rimfire calibres quickly from a non-reloading perspective, but the centrefire calibres mentioned previously created to much damage on impact.


Finally I read an article of a relatively new calibre of the .17 Hornet. The more research I did, the more I had to have one. Once I compared the data, the decision was finally made.

--- Article continues below ---


The .17 Hornet is the old .22 Hornet, necked down to .17, and the case has been reshaped to improve effectiveness. With options of 17gr, 20gr, 25gr & 30gr projectiles, travelling at speeds of 3000-4000fps. There have been several excellent reviews written about the development of the .17 Hornet, they are all well worth reading. 


It was time to go shopping. I was convinced this cartridge was going to be perfect. Scouring Auckland for a .17 Hornet rifle, I had three choices which were the CZ 527, a Savage or a Ruger. 


In a very short period of time after calling sport shops and wholesalers I had the decision made for me due to no stock of either the Savage or the Ruger, with any resupply up to 12 months away. I found the CZ 527, and it was in stock.


The CZ 557 in it's original stock. CZ have a reputation for manufacturing solid and reliable, wood and blued steel rifles.


One week later I had purchased a heavy barrelled CZ 527 .17 Hornet. I topped it off with a Bushnell Trophy 3-9x40 DOA scope, MAE suppressor, and a Harris bipod. I was excited with my new purchase however I needed to purchase reloading dies ASAP, as factory ammunition for this calibre is expensive.


We couldn’t get to Waihi fast enough. Within an hour of arriving we had it sighted in at around 120m. The groupings produced from the outset were impressive. Using Hornady factory ammo, 20gr projectiles were travelling at 3600-3700fps. This was a sub-MOA setup from day one.


We hunted possums that night, but the fun began the follow morning. We were up early, sleeping in a tent in Waihi in August is not something you want to do every weekend. We found out that the sooner we got up and started moving, the warmer we would feel. 


“The .17 Hornet is the old .22 Hornet, necked down to .17, and the case has been reshaped to improve effectiveness. With options of 17gr, 20gr, 25gr & 30gr projectiles, travelling at speeds of 3000-4000fps. There have been several excellent reviews written about the development of the .17 Hornet, they are all well worth reading.”


We were excited by the thought that we were no longer restricted by range. For a long time we had been restricted to .22 range. I have shot the .22LR out to 100m, but they lack the impact energy for a large hare unless the shot placement is perfect. We soon found a group of hares on the opposite hill, 4 in total so we found a shooting position and started to make a plan.


After watching these hares for a couple of minutes we quickly determined they had other things on their minds. As there were 3 ‘boy’ hares making moves on the ‘girl’ hare, this made things easy for us.


We timed things right and made the first shoot, satisfied with a large sounding thwack, the first hare dropped, instant death. Shots 2 and 3 also hit their targets, by this time, the forth had made cover before we could finish the job. We checked the ranges at 127m, 156m & 221m, very impressed.


At distances between 100 and 250m, this calibre and rifle combination is lethal.


We quickly agreed we made the right decision with the .17 Hornet, an amazing gun to shoot, not to mention very effective. After a couple of boxes of factory ammunition, I had enough brass to start my reloading.


At the time of purchasing this calibre it was only 24 months old hence there wasn’t a lot of information regarding where to start. The best start point for me was from ADI in Australia, feedback via email was prompt and accurate.


I started my loading for AR2205 powder and a Hornady 20gr Varmint tip projectile. I started with full resized polished cases, all trimmed and chamfered.

--- Article continues below ---


The challenge with the .17 Hornet is the narrow powder weight limits. Depending on the powder used there is as little as a 0.5gr-1.0gr range from minimum to maximum load.


With this in mind, all powders loads were individually weight checked. Considering that most digital scales have a 0.2gr margin of error, safety was always front of my mind.


Starting at the minimum load
AR2205 Projectile Four round groups @ 100m
9.3gr (Start Load) Hornady 20gr 0.786
9.5gr Hornady 20gr 0.563
9.7gr Hornady 20gr 0.678
9.9gr Hornady 20gr 0.465
10.1gr (Maximum Load) Hornady 20gr 0.698


The loading data from ADI showed the above loads with factory velocities of 3200-3400fps. I have found an amazing consistency when reloading the .17 Hornet. I have used alternative projectiles and powder. They all seem to have similar effectiveness across all my hunting requirements. 


As the powder measure is approximately 9-10gr of powder, a 500gm bottle will allow for 700+ reloads from one bottle. The same can be said for the cases, as the powder charge is small, some of my cases have achieved 10 reloads before any visual cracking. These small savings all add up to the reason why this rifle has become my go-to rifle for varmint hunting.


“...this rifle is still my ultimate rabbit gun. I have shot everything from geese, feral peacocks, goats and even a fallow deer. I have also upgraded my scope to a Bushnell Legend 4.5-14x44, now it’s time to stop; this is now the perfect rifle for my needs.”


After hunting with my Hornet for 12 months I found myself wanting more. I found the standard 527 stock a little small for my build, so start researching alternative stock options. The best option for my CZ was a GRS. This was a little over-kill for such small calibre, but this gave me the pull and riser adjustment I was looking for.


Now 6 years later, this rifle is still my ultimate rabbit gun. I have shot everything from geese, feral peacocks, goats and even a fallow deer. I have also upgraded my scope to a Bushnell Legend 4.5-14x44, now it’s time to stop; this is now the perfect rifle for my needs.


For such a small calibre the .17 Hornet has a surprising amount of ‘punch’. It’s great for dropping hares past 100m, however shooting rabbits at less than 100m can get messy.


These hare’s were all shot in the same paddock at ranges between 150-170m. The benefit of the suppressor is they can’t determine which direction the danger is coming from. This allows for follow-up shots.


This is less than ideal however it was purchased to extend my range. The only downside to this calibre is the wind drift. As with the .17HMR, the .17 Hornet is prone to wind drift, there’s not a lot you can do about it but over the years I have learnt to manage it. It is more of a problem at ranges over 150m.


This calibre is not for everyone. These rifles and ammunition are expensive compared to the standard .22LR. However, when varmint hunting is your true passion, as it is for me, this calibre ‘ticks-all-the-boxes’. 


One thing is true about calibre selection, everybody is a self-confessed expert, and we all just like what we like. I truly believe I have found my ‘Ultimate Varmint Rifle”.




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