The recent introduction of new .17 caliber cartridges has brought with it a rebirth of interest in this often misunderstood, and often ‘misabused’, caliber. During the last few years, we have seen a .17Mk2 and a 17HRM rimfire, and in the centerfire family the .17 Firefox and the long-suffering and barely surviving .17 Remington.
The real question is, why are the .17 calibers still with us? The .17Mk2 rimfire must compete against the .22 long rifle rimfire, which with over 100 years of development, and discount store specials, make that caliber the favorite of both younger and older shooters. In contrast, the .17HRM is expensive to shoot compared to its .22 caliber sibling, but try to find a used Savage with the AccuTrigger in this caliber and you will soon realize how popular this combo is with ground squirrel shooters. The new .17 Firefox is still a bit young and has yet to solidify its place in the marketplace, while the .17 Remington has been with us for over 40 years now, but has never set the shooting world on fire.
Be that as it may, the .17 Remington is still the hottest factory cartridge available, whistling a 25-grain bullet across hyperspace at the impressive velocity of over 4000 feet per second. Those of you who still remember when men danced with women, and cars used tanks full of 25 cents per gallon gasoline, may have pleasant moments of déjà vu with images popping into one’s mind of the works of P.O. Ackley from the mid-1940s and ’50s. This grand old man took almost every cartridge case available and shaped it to hold a .17-caliber bullet. He adopted the .17 caliber projectile to the .22 Hornet case, the .218 Bee case, the .30 Carbine case, the .222 Remington case, and even the .250/3000 case. Being as creative as he was, he probably designed dozens more that he was too cautious to list in his loading manuals for fear of ridicule.
One thing is evident; Ackley was a strong believer in the merits of the .17 caliber. His tales of lightning kills on four-footed game still give shooters endless evenings of material for discussion and argument.
First, let me state that I am a firm advocate of big bore calibers for hunting in Africa. Trophy animals are far too rare and, considering the current economic conditions in the world, too expensive to risk failure solely on the matter of inadequate bullets or brute horsepower in your caliber of choice. On my first trip to Africa, I shot everything from gemsbok to duiker with a .338 Winchester and 250-grain bullets. Of course, this did the job superbly and I was bitten by Africa as the epitome of hunting challenges.
Since those earlier days, I have had the luxury of making several return trips and have been fortunate enough to take several superb trophies. This experience, combined with the maturing of having too many years pass before me, has made me realize that I enjoy the challenge and opportunity of using and testing a variety of different calibers as my lighter back-up gun rather than just using the big guns.
Don’t get me wrong; I still bring over my .470 Searcy Double, with an extra set of .375 H&H Flanged barrels, in the hopes of having the opportunity of using it on something really large and dangerous. However, my choices for a second general-purpose gun have changed from year to year. I have harvested African game with a .300 H&H, a .270 Winchester, a .257 Roberts, a .243 Winchester, a .223, and several other light-to-mid calibers. They have all been a joy to shoot and have proven themselves adequate if I did my part and did not try to push them beyond their performance envelope.
This last year, I got an invitation from Johan Botes of Ubathi Game and Hunt in Kimberly, South Africa to join them in a week of game culling. For those of you who are not familiar with the broader spectrum of hunting in Africa, most of the hunting in South Africa is done on ranches solely devoted to raising game animals. For every trophy book animal harvested, there are hundreds of non-trophy animals that are harvested to provide the markets of Europe with African game meat.
This puts bread and butter on the table for the majority of these ranches but it is the trophy animals that put their children through college. The laws are very strict on how these animals are to be harvested. Health regulations ensure that these animals are dispatched humanly and the meat processed in a rapid and sanitary manner. Most of the harvesting is done by a select group of professional shooters, who may harvest thousands of heads of game a year. Even though the average hunter may question the choice, the primary calibers are the .223 or the .22-250. The cardinal rule is that no animal must be allowed to suffer and that all shots must be fatal and instantaneous. This treatment of the animals is often much better than that given to some of the meat products you see every day in your food market.
I had the privilege to be invited on several of these shoots in the past few years, and have always regarded it as a complement to my shooting to be asked to join one of these groups of professional harvesters. Your shooting skills are really under the eye of these shooters and if you cannot perform you won’t be asked back again.
Last year I acquired from CZ USA one of their varmint-weight Model 527 rifles in .17 Remington caliber. This rifle is made in the Czech Republic and is a mini-98 Mauser action featuring a true long claw extractor, an exceptional single-set trigger, and features a superbly done hammer-forged barrel. The CZ/Bruno brand is well known in Africa, but due to the many years of US separation from the Eastern Bloc nations, has not been really appreciated in the United States. Since acquiring this gun, I have taken this little gem on numerous ground squirrel shoots and found that while using either Hornady or Berger bullets, the odds are on my side for any squirrel out to about 325 yards.
Ground squirrels are pretty small creatures here in California, and just seeing them requires a good set of optics. This is equally important both in the area of spotting scope and binoculars along with a good optical package rigidly mounted on the gun. Even the most accurate rifle and cartridge combination is useless on these small targets if your scope is unable to do the job.
My favorite setup on this little Bruno is a Leupold 3.4x12x40 with an objective lens adjustable for parallax. This particular scope features the fine duplex cross-hair system and can easily pick up the image of a ground squirrel lifting its head out of its entrance hole at three to four hundred yards. Hornady manufactures 25-grain open-point bullets that are a favorite with this gun. Berger Bullets also make a 25-grain open point that also loves this barrel, along with a 30-grain moly-coated version which beautifully falls into play when the wind starts to bend the grass.
With the invitation in my hands, and a full varmint season using the .17 Remington behind me, there was no question in my mind about which gun would be my companion as a second gun for the African season.
October is not the most popular month of the year for hunting in South Africa. Often it is the doorway between the cool, dry season and the wet, warm period. On this last trip, I was fortunate enough to have the pleasure to spend almost an entire month hunting and seeing the sights of South Africa.
Of course, Murphy’s Law stepped in, and with my luck the ‘weather spirits’ decided to take back all the good features that had highlighted the earlier hunting season. They had their fun, and let the cold, wet winds from the Antarctic play their way across South Africa. It started to look gloomy the day I arrived in Kimberly, and five days later as we headed southeast, it started to rain. After a day of driving and meeting up with the other shooters, we arrived at the game ranch. This was one of those old family farms that are measured in tens of thousands of acres, or hectares as they are measured in Africa. The farm building had been built in 1902 and had been a British outpost during the Boer Wars. Rain turned to icy rain and then to sleet.
Culling is usually done at night with the aid of powerful spotlights. African nights are as black as the inside of a coal mine. The cloud cover blocked out even the luxury of starlight. All harvesting is a team effort. The area was so big that several shooting teams will be working at the same time. A shooting team is made up of the driver of the ‘bakkie’, as it is called, along with two shooters in the open bed of the vehicle and a spotter using a mega-power spotlight. This shoot required the harvesting of several hundred Springbuck during the next four nights. The weather would calm down during the daylight hours but returned with a vengeance just as we would load onto the trucks for another night’s go at it. The spotter would work the area over with the light as the truck tried to shake itself and us apart while rocking over the open landscape. I now know why the Africans pronounce their word for a truck (bakkie) as ‘bucky’.
Four nights later the harvest was over and the meat was in refrigerated containers and on its way to Europe. I am proud to report that the little .17 Remington placed me as the number two shooter of the group, with all headshots surgically placed, and no second shots required; in fact, on a couple of occasions I had to back up the shots of one of the other shooters who, out of fatigue or poor shooting angle, failed to make a clean one-shot kill. After a cold night of shooting, it was a real treat every morning to crawl into bed for a mid-day sleep and a chance to thaw out.
The remainder of the month gave me the opportunity to try the .17 Remington on a broad spectrum of African game. One day was spent shooting springhares (Pedetes capensis) while walking the open fields of another ranch. The fields had been recently harvested and the grass was just short enough to give us some fast-action shooting of these interesting critters. This animal is a cross between an Arizona jackrabbit and an Australian kangaroo.
Next, there came the chance for a day of working the rocky kopjes (pronounced ‘koppies’) that dot so much of the African terrain for rock rabbits (Hyrax capensis). This was so much like being at home shooting prairie dogs in the rockslides, that I felt I had never left home. Spotting these little critters in the rocks is a real challenge, and the ranchers love it when you take the time to clear some of them out.
Actually, the owner of the ranch on which we were hunting enjoyed the day of shooting rock rabbits so much, that he insisted I come back the following year and bring my .17 Remington with me. Also, the fact I was able to clear out a family of monkeys that were tearing up his fields of corn was appreciated. This family group would sit out at 300 yards or more and run over for a stalk of corn, pushing the fact that they were safely out of range for most shooting. They had never had to face a .17-caliber bullet before. The boys at Hornady gave them a sense of inadequacy real fast.
Before leaving South Africa, I also had a chance to use the .17 Remington on a blue wildebeest bull. I have shot several of these beautiful animals in the past with a variety of larger calibers and I learned that these are not easy animals to put down. Before trying the .17 Remington on an animal of this size, I ensured that I had a backup shooter ready in case I made a poor shot or the caliber was inadequate to get the job done. One shot in the back of the eye from the side of the head and the animal dropped like a ton of bricks. I do not recommend the .17 Remington for the normal taking of an animal this large, but Ackley must have figured that if you put the bullet in the right place the job will be done.
By the time I left South Africa, I had enjoyed the opportunity of harvesting over 22 heads of different smaller game animals. This was above the harvest count of the culling shoot. Never once did I need more than one hit to bring the animal down. However, I have to admit that there were a few clean unexplainable misses on rock rabbits. They can sometimes be as frustrating to hit as a California ground squirrel while hopping from rock to rock. They also share the same quality of looking exactly like pieces of the landscape. When you decide that what you are looking at is just another rock, is exactly when they decide to run away. The only drawback of the entire trip was that I never got to use my double rifle, but the local shooters had a great time shooting up all my double rifle ammo.
Current travel restrictions sometimes limit the number of guns you can take with you on a modern African safari. If you have already taken most of the plains game and want to bring something extra along for pure fun, try a couple of days with your favorite varmint rifle at the corn fields of your nearby village. This will usually endear you to the local farmers and can also make your professional hunter into a real community hero.