Several years ago, my son and I responded to a request for assistance from a farmer friend: “My pasture is completely over-run with gophers, and I hate to use poison. Will you guys thin them out for me?”
Every hunter knows these requests are usually too good to be true, but this one was for real. When we arrived, the pasture was truly a beautiful sight for a varmint hunter’s eyes. The place was literally crawling with the little grass-munchers. Because our friend’s pasture was quite remote, the gophers had never been bothered. They were perfect candidates for a fast-paced rimfire hunt.
We parked my truck and started unloading guns and ammo. Two days later we left for home—after having fired 3,000 rounds! Our Ruger and Thompson/Center rimfire rifles had done an incredibly effective job, and our landowner friend was amazed at the results. The little pests were now nowhere to be seen.
A Continent Of Plinkers
Through the years I’ve collected many wonderful memories courtesy of my rimfire rifles as critters ranging from gophers to coyotes have fallen to the little bullets. And more than a few skunks and crows have also bit the dust, as well as nuisance beavers and muskrats.
I still own my first rimfire rifle, a wonderful old Anschutz single-shot, which shows a lot of wear, but still shoots well. Every so often I leave the tricked-out Rugers and super-accurate T/C Benchmark at home and go plinking with that 50-plus-year-old rifle. I hope to give it to a grandson some day.
Rimfire rifles are the most popular firearms in North America, and more rimfire ammo is shot in a year than anyone can really comprehend—after all, numbers are only numbers once they exceed 652 bazillion (or some such term). Let’s just say trainloads of rimfire ammo are shipped to waiting customers every year.
Of the handful of rimfire cartridges on the market today, the most popular by far is the .22 long rifle (LR). In recent years, a pair of .17 caliber rimfires have also come on the market. The one thing all rimfire cartridges have in common is the case has a priming compound located in a fold inside the rim. The firing pin hits the outer edge of the case rather than a centrally located primer—hence the term “rimfire.”
As a youngster, my major purchases occurred after I’d saved up a few dimes and nickels to buy a box of .22 Short ammo for my single-shot rifle. In those days ammo in the pocket was all it took to go hunting. My friends and I rarely shot .22 LR ammo because it was too expensive. I killed countless rabbits and gophers with those little bullets, and one well-placed shot from very close range did the job. We didn’t waste ammo by plinking—after all, who’d shoot an expensive bullet at a tin can when there were so many gophers to be shot for a penny a tail?
Nowadays, the .22 LR cartridge has pretty well displaced the venerable .22 Short of my youth. Today, we can choose from pure lead or plated bullets in match, standard or high-velocity .22 LR loads. I’ve found ammunition is extremely significant in determining how accurate a .22 rimfire rifle shoots. It pays to buy several different brands of ammo and test them individually in a new rifle. Some rifles shoot better with Brand-X while others prefer Brand-Y.
No discussion of .22 rimfire shooting would be complete without considering the .22 Magnum (also called the .22 WMR for Winchester Magnum Rimfire). The .22 Magnum’s longer case allows more powder to be loaded, and the result is approximately 40 percent more velocity. Through experience I’ve learned it shoots very accurately, kills better than standard long rifle rounds, but costs approximately three times more per shot. A .22 Magnum case is slightly wider than standard .22 rimfire ammo so it can’t be mistakenly fed into a .22 LR chamber.
A few years ago, Hornady Manufacturing Company necked the .22 Magnum case down to .17 caliber and inserted a 17-grain red-tipped jacketed bullet. The results were astounding, and the .17 HMR took the shooting world by storm. Rifles and ammo went out of gun shop doors as fast as the shelves and racks could be filled. Within a couple years every major rifle and ammo manufacturer had jumped on the .17 caliber bandwagon. Why? Because the little cartridge is extremely accurate and fun to shoot. In addition, the .17 HMR carries enough energy to kill varmints and predators at longer distances than other rimfires. Happily, the supply pipeline is catching up so today’s shooter shouldn’t have a problem finding .17 HMR rifles and ammo.
Last year another .17 caliber rimfire was announced by Hornady—the .17 Mach 2, which is simply a necked down .22 LR case. The result has to be experienced to be appreciated, as it’s one hot little load. Once again the distinctive red-tipped 17-grain jacketed bullet is used, although velocities are down a bit from the .17 HMR.
I recently asked Steve Johnson, marketing communications manager for Hornady, why someone should buy a .17 Mach 2. “It’s fun, simple as that,” he said without hesitation. “The Mach 2 is a pleasure to shoot, and it surprises people with its performance. And don’t be fooled by its small size—this is a 125-yard rimfire cartridge that’s amazingly accurate.”
After 4 hours of benchrest shooting the new T/C R-55 semi-automatic rifles in .17 Mach 2, I completely agree with Johnson. Fifty-yard groups were frequently one ragged hole about the size of a dime. As a matter of fact, I had no problem making the 1/2-inch aiming marks on the target completely disappear with a few 10-shot clips of rapid-fire action.
When I shot the .17 HMR for the first time I was impressed with its accuracy, as well as the fact I could see every bullet hit. When I first shot the .17 Mach 2 my reaction was “This little cartridge really cracks!” How Hornady got so much performance out of such a small package is simply amazing.
You’ll notice in this column I’ve chosen not to focus on the ballistics of various rimfire cartridges. That information is readily available from catalogs and the Internet. I believe aside from competitive shooters, most rimfire rifles are purchased for plinking.
So what do I recommend? If you want to shoot a bunch, go with a .22 LR because ammo is significantly cheaper (see chart on page 100). If you want to experience what very fast little bullets can do, then buy a .17 caliber. Which .17? That’s dictated by which rifle you prefer, how much money you want to spend and how much you shoot. Keep in mind .17 HMR bullets travel approximately 20 percent faster than .17 Mach 2 bullets, but the ammo is more expensive.