November 08, 2023
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.22 Long Rifle
The American gun company J. Stevens Arms and Tool Company launched the .22 Long Rifle rimfire cartridge (.22LR) in 1887. The .22LR was an evolutionary development of the 1845 vintage .22 BB Cap and the subsequent .22 Short, itself developed in 1857. Those early .22LR cartridges mounted a 40-grain lead bullet atop an extended .22 Long case originally pioneered in 1871. This created a cartridge that was slightly longer than the .22 Long while producing higher muzzle velocities and flatter trajectories. The .22LR employs a heeled bullet. This means that the projectile is the same diameter as the case. To load the cartridge, the base of the bullet is tapered slightly inward. Annual production of .22LR worldwide is estimated to be around 2.25 billion rounds.
The combination of decent downrange performance, minimal recoil, and low cost makes the .22LR ideal for training and recreation. Additionally, despite the cartridge’s diminutive dimensions and reputation for plinking, it remains quite lethal downrange. I have seen several people shot with .22s, and not one of them seemed happy. The .22LR doesn’t carry a great deal of energy downrange, but it has penetration aplenty. Those 2.25 billion rounds sport a variety of bullet weights and designs. Out of a rifle barrel, the .22LR round typically pushes a 40-grain projectile to around 1,200 feet per second. This makes the standard .22LR fired from a rifle barrel reliably supersonic and plenty accurate to 100 meters.
The .17 HMR stands for Hornady Magnum Rimfire. In coordination with Marlin and Ruger, Hornady introduced the .17 HMR in 2002. The .17 HMR was intended to be a hypervelocity small-caliber round that would be exceptionally flat-shooting. Cartridge developers at Hornady were attempting to mimic the performance of the obsolete 5mm Remington Rimfire Magnum in a platform that would be more affordable. To do so, they necked down a standard .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire round to accept a jacketed .17-caliber bullet. In doing so, they captured lightning in a bottle. Recall that most hobby-grade air rifles fire .177-caliber pellets. The .17 HMR bullet is the same diameter as a standard airgun BB, only way faster.
By starting with the established .22 WMR round, all that was required to create rifles to fire this hot new cartridge was a properly chambered barrel. Standard .22 WMR actions and magazines fed the new cartridge just fine. Out of a typical rifle barrel, the .17 HMR will push a 17-grain bullet to around 2,650 feet per second. In short order, CCI, Federal, Remington, Winchester, Hornady, PMC, and Sellier & Bellot were churning out these adorable little bottlenecked rimfire cartridges. I am the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammo plant in Oxford, Mississippi. I have seen these novel rounds being produced. The little jacketed bullets do indeed take a little effort, but actually loading the cartridges doesn’t seem to require any special talent or technique. Nowadays Armscor, Browning, CZ, Henry, Marlin, Mossberg, Ruger, Sako, Savage, Steyr, and Weihrauch offer either bolt-action or lever-action rifles firing the .17 HMR. Savage and Alexander Arms produce blowback-operated semiauto platforms as well. The Alexander Arms offering rides atop a standard AR-15 lower receiver and utilizes a magazine well adaptor.
.22LR vs. .17 HMR
So, on one hand, you have the cheapest per round ammunition known to man. The .22LR pushes bullets that are most often either raw lead or plated with or without a hollow point. Bought in bulk, .22LR costs about six cents per shot. By contrast, .17 HMR bullets are most often either jacketed hollowpoints or advanced polymer-tipped designs. Bullet weights are usually either 17 or 20 grains. These loads are marketed as precision rounds for target or varmint applications, and .17 HMR ammo costs about 30 cents a pop.
Most shooters begin on a .22 rifle. These handy little rimfire weapons are some of the most inexpensive and ubiquitous in the world. The MSRP for a no-frills Ruger 10/22, the most popular autoloading .22 rifle on the planet, is $389. The Savage A17 is the .17 HMR counterpart to the Ruger 10/22. This lithe little rifle also feeds from a 10-round rotary magazine and sports otherwise-unremarkable polymer furniture. The MSRP for this basic rifle is $559. These two rifles are about the same size and weight, and both guns essentially have almost no felt recoil.
But what really differentiates the two cartridges? While the .22LR is a popular plinking cartridge it is also an incredibly successful match and competition cartridge. The .22LR is used from small local matches to the Olympics. Accuracy wise, it is a highly capable cartridge. Simply mentioning the name “Anshutz” brings to mind two things, the .22LR cartridge and extreme accuracy. Since the 19th Century, it has also been extremely popular among small game hunters. The .22LR offers a useful blend of bullet diameter, velocity and payload on target, which when combined with its accuracy and economical nature makes it a winner.
While the .22 LR is best known for the standard 40-grain Round Nose Lead loading, it is available in a wide variety of loadings for various special applications. These include special subsonic loadings ideal for suppressed use, segmented HP loads from CCI and Winchester which dramatically improve terminal performance, and even special high velocity loads such as Aguila’s 30-grain Supermaximum which reaches 1,700 fps. The .17 HMR though offers dramatically higher velocity than the .22 LR is capable of. Where the .22LR tops out at 1,700 fps the .17 HMR can surpass 2,700 fps. It will explode a soda can like a bomb whereas a standard 40-grain RNL .22LR will simply punch a hole in it. However, the payload is smaller in diameter and weighs substantially less. Accuracy of the .17 HMR can be surprising, and it is capable of posting some surprisingly small groups at 100 yards and beyond.
In my hometown in rural Mississippi, there was a local poacher that would unlawfully shoot deer with a .17 HMR. Using a scoped bolt-action rifle, he would spotlight deer at night and shoot them from his vehicle. With a precise headshot, he was able to poach several deer with the .17 HMR cartridge. While it’s important to completely disavow his actions, and he was punished accordingly, the example does showcase what one can do with a rimfire cartridge.
For the recreational plinker, the .22LR will do most everything the .17 HMR will do only way cheaper. Ignoring gun costs, you can squeeze the trigger five times on that Ruger 10/22 for the price of a single shot through the Savage A17. The .22LR is just a much more economical cartridge to shoot. If you shoot suppressed, nothing beats a subsonic .22LR for reduced sound signature. And if you need a good combination of penetration and terminal performance on raccoon size animals, CCI and Winchester’s Segmented HPs provide outstanding performance. The .17 HMR is more expensive to shoot and louder when suppressed, but it is much flatter shooter, does better in the wind and offers impressive terminal performance on small game if you carefully select your projectiles. Kinetic energy is half mass times velocity squared. That’s not just a good idea, that’s the law. If you need speed in a rimfire downrange, then the .17 HMR might be a better tool. It’s all driven by the mission.
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