Handloading The .17 Fireball And .17 Remington.
In the late 1960s, Remington turned two old wildcats into factory rounds. Both the .22-250 and .25-06 sold well, and by 1971 Remington decided enough interest existed in .17 caliber wildcats to bring out their own. They used the .223 case with the shoulder pushed back a little, to avoid problems with existing rifles chambered for the wildcat .17/223.
The .17 Remington had the smallest bore of any commercial rifle cartridge, and with a 25-grain bullet at 4,020 feet per second was only the second factory round to break 4,000 fps, 36 years after the .220 Swift. Reaction was mixed. Elmer Keith firmly stated that he’d never own a cleaning rod or even look through the barrel of a rifle under .22 caliber, and many hunters who bought .17 Remingtons reported the tiny bore fouled very quickly. However, some prairie dog hunters appreciated the extremely flat trajectory, and fox and coyote hunters liked the tiny holes .17-caliber bullets made in pelts.
Over 30 years passed before Hornady introduced another commercial .17, at the time the only other major company to offer .17 bullets to handloaders. The cartridge was the .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire, the .22 Magnum necked down, and it quickly became very popular.
Two side effects of the “Hummer’s” success were a more favorable view of .17s and lots of skinny cleaning rods. Both caused the market to grow, and soon Hornady and Remington introduced new .17 rounds, Hornady’s .17 Mach 2 (the .22 Long Rifle necked down) and the .17 Remington Fireball (the .221 Fireball necked down, known to wildcatters as the .17 Mach IV). The Mach 2 never became anywhere near as popular as the .17 HMR, but the .17 Fireball did OK.
Eileen Clarke checks out the prairie dog capabilities of the .17 Fireball
and .17 Remington on a May day in Montana.
Like many shooters, my first .17 was the HMR, and my new cleaning rod provided an excuse for more .17s, especially after going on a Remington prairie dog hunt and shooting a .17 Fireball considerably. I really liked the super-flat trajectory and light recoil, allowing me to spot my own shots through the rifle’s scope.
The rifle never got cleaned over the 2-day shoot, and despite lots of rounds down the barrel kept shooting minute of prairie dog. By the end of the shoot I started to wonder about the .17 Remington’s reputation as a super-fouler, since the factory Fireball load was a 20-grain “AccuTip” (green-tipped Hornady V-Max) bullet at a listed 4,000 fps. My fate was sealed when the Remington folks presented me with a leftover case of .17 Fireball ammo they didn’t want to ship home.
An Internet search found a slightly used, synthetic-stocked Remington 700 sporter. With no modifications other than a trigger adjustment, it averaged 0.6-inch for 5-shot groups at 100 yards with the factory ammo, and the bore didn’t copper foul much. After a thorough cleaning, I treated it with Dyna Bore-Coat and made a search of available loading data.
Ramshot TAC looked perfect, and a case-filling charge of 19.5 grains behind the 20-grain V-Max matched the factory load’s accuracy and 3,950 fps velocity in my rifle. TAC is a cleaning-burning ball powder with a de-coppering agent. Not only did it flow easily into the tiny necks of the cases, but on one prairie dog shoot the rifle was fired 332 times without cleaning and still consistently hit PD’s 300+ yards away.
By then I had to see if rumors about the .17 Remington’s fouling were true, so purchased a slightly used Remington 700 BDL made in 1973. Some people claimed the original Remington .17-caliber barrels were rough, but I’d began to suspect the problem was primarily caused by the dirty-burning ball powders of the era, used in the factory ammo and many handloads.
While TAC will work in the .17 Remington, it’s a little fast burning for top velocities. After some research I decided to try Hodgdon Benchmark and Ramshot Big Game, both very clean-burning powders with small enough granules to flow through the tiny neck. Ramshot didn’t have .17 Remington data for Big Game, but its burn rate is similar to Hodgdon H414, so I used H414 data for starting loads and my Oehler 35P chronograph as a relative pressure indicator.
It’s easy to duplicate the fine performance of Remington’s .17 Fireball ammo
with handloads, partly because of the green-tipped AccuTip V-Max from Hornady.
Foul Out Interval
I cleaned the .17 Remington’s barrel to bare steel before starting load development, and accuracy didn’t deteriorate until over 110 rounds had been fired without cleaning, indicating dirty-burning powder was indeed part of the .17 Remington’s early reputation for bore-fouling. After the initial testing I also Dyna Bore-Coated the .17 Remington’s barrel, and it went 200+ rounds between cleanings before groups opened up.
Shortly thereafter Hodgdon introduced CFE 223, like TAC a clean-burning ball powder with a de-coppering agent. It’s somewhat slower-burning so I recently tried it in the .17 Remington, where it worked great. I’ll be testing it in the field this summer to see if my .17 Remington will now go as long between cleanings as my .17 Fireball.
Fear of fouling is no longer a valid reason to avoid centerfire .17s, so today more people shoot them—including the .17 Hornet, another Hornady introduction I haven’t yet tried. As a result, in 2012 Nosler entered the .17 market with 20-grain plastic-tipped and hollowpoint bullets in their inexpensive Varmageddon line. Hornady’s 20-grain V-Max is a fine bullet, but now handloaders (and our rifles) have a choice between two .17 plastic-tips. Both expand much more violently on small rodents than any hollowpoints, but hollowpoints are preferable for shooting fur-bearers.
Hornady also makes 25-grain hollowpoint and plastic-tipped .17 bullets, and until recently Berger made hollowpoint 20-, 25- and 30-grain .17s, but cut back to the 25-grain, due to high demand for their bigger bullets. Several smaller makers also produce .17s, and some enthusiasts really like Todd Kindler’s handmade bullets from 21 to 30 grains. Original .17 Remingtons had 1:10-inch twists, so normally won’t stabilize bullets heavier than 25 grains, though I included some 30-grain data from Berger’s new loading manual. All .17 Fireball factory rifles have 1:9-inch twists, so will shoot 30-grain bullets.
My Fireball produces slightly less velocity than listed for Remington ammo and handloading data, not unusual in factory barrels since they’re often not as tight as test barrels. After my first year of shooting the rifle my supply of TAC ran out, and I obtained another 8-pound jug. It proved to be slightly slower than the first, and I upped the charge with 20-grain bullets to 20.5 grains for just under 4,000 fps. The .17 Remington produces more velocity than most loading data, sometimes close to 100 fps. This isn’t due to a magic “fast” barrel, but a tighter bore and chamber, and might be why the rifle often shoots most accurately with charges about a grain under maximum.
Both rifles were easy to get to shoot accurately, even with their sporter-weight barrels, no doubt because there’s so much steel around the tiny bore. I tend to prefer the Fireball for prairie dog shooting, due to its minimal recoil, but the .17 Remington is definitely more rifle on larger varmints.
While writing this Winchester announced its new .17 Super Magnum rimfire, with a 20-grain bullet at 3,000 fps. Elmer Keith would not be pleased at this .17 proliferation, but today’s varmint shooters are!
By John Barsness
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