By: Randy Tucker
It was hot for a Wyoming afternoon, hot even for early August under the clear blue, cloudless skies of the Cowboy State.
My son Brian and I had just finished loading a couple of our trailers with small 80-pound hay bales from a field I was leasing 20 miles west of our place outside Riverton, Wyoming.
It was the last load we’d do together that summer before he drove back to Dickinson State University in Dickinson, North Dakota for pre-season football practice with the Blue Hawks. I’d pull bales off that stack all fall and into the early winter on my way back home from work a few miles to the southwest at Ethete, Wyoming.
A few weeks before, I’d purchased a bolt-action Savage .17 HMR from Rocky Mountain Sports in Riverton.
Brian had a Ruger .204 on his wish list, a rifle he’d pick up a few years later. Checking the ballistics on the .204 to the centerfire version of the .17 displayed similar results. As a kid who grew up on .22 rifles, the thought of a caliber that small in a centerfire cartridge seemed a little incongruous.
The choice of a .17 HMR was two-fold. We were experiencing the first of what now seems like a cyclical shortage of .22 ammunition. Long rifles were available, but being sold one box per customer at stores all over town. They ran out quickly.
That was hard to take for a guy who as a kid paid a penny a round -- that’s 50 cents a box – at a dozen or more places around the county. In the early 70s, all the way to the mid-90s, grocery stores near our place sold .22 shells, along with 12 and 20 gauge shells.
Yes, the times were different not so long ago.
With those thoughts in mind, I wandered into Rocky Mountain to check out ammunition prices.
The section of the store dedicated to .22 ammo was empty, but next to it was a pile, that is several big boxes, of .17 HMR.
It wasn’t a penny a round, but it wasn’t a bad price at less than four dollars for a plastic container of 100.
It was the push I needed. I paid cash for the lightweight Savage .17 HMR. It came with a fixed power scope, and the guys at the store had already bore sighted it. A dozen or so rounds had it shooting one-inch patterns at 100 yards.
But, back to the hayfield.
I had the .17 on the back seat of my Chevy Silverado that afternoon.
If you’ve ever loaded small bales onto a trailer in 100-degree heat, you know what it means to sweat.
We finished with four tons on each trailer, 100 bale loads, and took a water break.
I took the .17 out of its case, set it on the hood of my truck, and sighted in on a sunflower about 70 yards away. Brian just watched as I squeezed the trigger. A shower of bright yellow petals filled the air. I hit a couple more before Brian came over and took his turn.
He gradually moved out to about 100 yards, hitting the heads each time on that hot still afternoon.
As competitive fathers and sons often do, the shooting became a challenge.
We both hit the three-inch-wide flowers repeatedly.
We decided on a new challenge, hitting the neck of the sunflower just below the head. If you hit them cleanly, they fell to the ground just like they’d been snipped with a pair of lawn clippers.
We didn’t hit this much smaller target every time from a hundred yards away, but we did hit a few. It was a testament to the flat shooting, tiny bullets the rimfire .17 caliber can produce.
The centerfire version of the .17 can reach velocities of 4000 fps, but the +/- 1850 fps from the rimfire cartridge works just fine for my purposes.
A look back at a ballistic chart produced a surprise, the .17 has similar energy and power to a .22 long rifle, in spite of the smaller size.
Coyote and fox hunters prefer the .17 because of the small entry wound that greatly reduces damage to valuable pelts.
I’m not a trapper or much of a varmint hunter, but the .17 has been fun when .22 ammo wasn’t available.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.