In 2002, the trio of Hornady, Marlin and Ruger did their market research and then rolled the dice on a diminutive looking cartridge called the .17 HMR. The cartridge turned out to be anything but a pipsqueak and took the shooting world by storm. Hunters and shooters loved the cartridge and I received many reports for everything from sensible shots such as taking out a fox or bobcat to outlandish stunts such as culling feral camels. Now, a new industry triumvirate of Savage Arms, CCI and Bushnell — all part of the Vista Outdoor family — have come together to leverage each others’ respective areas of expertise and are taking the cartridge to a higher performance level.
Savage’s contribution is the A17 semi-auto rifle. The company’s marketing director Bill Dermody calls it “the first high-performance semi-automatic rimfire specifically designed for the .17 HMR cartridge.” That said, this is hardly the first semi-auto chambered in .17 HMR, but the reason there have been only a precious few is because experience shows you cannot simply tweak an existing magnum rimfire design and have it work.
“Some of those old, adaptive designs even had safety issues,” cautions Dermody.
The problem with adapting existing magnum rimfire designs is that they’re usually blowback actions where only the mass of the breechblock controls its movement against the rearward movement of the cartridge case under gas pressure. If the breech opens too soon and pressure exceeds the yield strength of the brass cartridge case, the case can rupture, which is dangerous. If the breech opens too late, the gun can fail to cycle, which is a nuisance.
“The .17 HMR cartridge is just too hot for the straight blowback action,” Dermody said.
Instead, Savage started with a clean sheet of paper and designed the A17 not only around the .17 HMR cartridge, but specifically around an all-new A17 Varmint Tip load that its sister company, CCI, was likewise designing specifically around the A17 rifle.
“We had been throwing around this idea at new products meetings for seven years,” Dermody said. “The project finally kicked off in fall of 2012, and it took us two and a half years to finalize it.”
To overcome the problems with direct blowback, Savage designers turned to a delayed blowback design. The A17’s hard-chromed bolt has a small interrupter lug that mechanically locks the breech closed until peak pressure has passed and the action can safely open under lower pressure. However, it’s not so low as to cause a malfunction. The interrupter also serves as a firing pin block, which prevents out-of-battery firing.
The action type is not the extent of innovative thinking that went into the A17 rifle. Other features include barrel attachment in the same fashion as Savage’s super-accurate centerfire rifles where the chambered barrel is threaded down against a headspace gauge for perfect, consistent headspacing, and then locked in place with a barrel nut. Thought was also put into the detachable, 10-round rotary magazine that has individual cartridge “compartments” so the rims don’t hang up on each other during feeding.
The A17 even uses its own interpretation of “controlled round feed” as the extractor claw grips the cartridge rim as it strips from the magazine.
CCI’s contribution is an all-new A17 Varmint Tip round optimized for feeding and function in the A17 rifle. They also gave the load a 100 fps velocity edge over other loads firing the same weight bullet. With a muzzle velocity of 2,650 fps, CCI “embraced the opportunity to increase the velocity of the A17 .17 HMR rounds to make the final product even more attractive and desirable to rimfire enthusiasts,” explains CCI ammunition category director Rick Stoeckel. There were more benefits than just a velocity advantage, too.
“In the end, the higher velocity also optimized the A17’s delayed blowback system for flawless performance,” Stoeckel added.
Just because this load is optimized for the A17 rifle doesn’t mean you can’t experience its benefits in a different model of .17 HMR rifle — you can shoot this load in other .17 HMR-chambered rifles. Likewise, while the A17 rifle is optimized for the A17 load, you can also safely and reliably shoot any factory .17 HMR load in the A17 rifle.
From Bushnell comes a new Banner 17 3.5-10x36mm scope specifically designed for this gun and load combination. In addition to multi-coatings for brightness and a duplex reticle, the scope has adjustable parallax. Normally, the parallax on a rimfire scope is set somewhere between 50 and 75 yards, but since the .17 HMR cartridge has proven itself at longer ranges, the parallax adjustment makes sense. To make even better use of the adjustable parallax, the scope comes with three interchangeable dials for long-range shooting.
The first dial corresponds to the drop of most .17 HMR loads out to 250 yards. With it, you zero the scope at 100 yards and then insert the dial with its 100-yard setting visible through the turret window. If you’re presented with a shot longer than 100 yards, simply turn the dial until the distance to the target appears in the window. The second dial is calibrated in 1⁄4 MOA increments you can use with other rimfire chamberings detailed in the owner’s manual, while the third dial has a special surface you can mark for custom distances or any cartridge not covered in the owner’s manual.
Unfortunately, the scope shipped separately from the gun and did not arrive in time for range testing. Keen for some trigger time, I topped the A17 with a Trijicon AccuPoint 3-9x40mm scope instead and headed to the range. Accuracy with the A17 ammunition was good, averaging 0.64-inch for five, consecutive, 5-shot groups at 50 yards. The tightest group was 0.52-inch. In my opinion, and I rate it nothing more, the .17 HMR is suitable for predators up to the size of fox and bobcats and, with essentially 1⁄2-inch 50-yard groups, the A17 combo runs out of gas before it runs out of accuracy for that type of game.
One of the first things I noticed when handling the A17 is that while it is a very lightweight gun, it seems a tad muzzle-heavy. Depending on your shot, that could be good or bad. If you’re tracking a fox or bobcat through your scope as it comes in to a call, the muzzle heaviness will help you track smoothly. If you have a critter suddenly appear in your lap, however, I find a muzzle-heavy gun is a little slower to get into action for such a snap shot.
The magazine is a little tricky to load at first, but it fed flawlessly and loading becomes easier with familiarity. As others have reported, there was a tendency for the magazine to not fully seat — especially when I inserted it with the gun’s bolt closed. After the first 100 rounds, the magazine catch was a little better or it might have been that I had become more adept at seating it. Regardless, I’d still make it a point to insert the magazine only with the bolt open and then double check to make sure it locks in place.
There is no automatic last-shot bolt hold-open feature when the magazine runs dry. Instead, there’s a small lever in front of the triggerguard you press and hold while retracting the bolt to lock it open manually. Using it is very natural and the oversize bolt handle is easy to grasp.
As expected, the AccuTrigger was a dream. Its pull weight is user-adjustable, but the sample gun’s trigger came set at an agreeable 3.4 pounds pull, so I didn’t touch it.
I tested the A17 with Sergey Yastrzhembskiy, a wildlife documentary producer I met through Safari Club International. Yastrzhembskiy has hunted almost every legal big-game animal on earth, including more than 40 that rank in the top 10 of SCI’s record books. It was too early for us to go after prime fur, so instead Yastrzhembskiy politely accepted my invitation to try the A17 afield on jackrabbits — some of which grow as large as grey foxes.
Hunting jackrabbits is a lot like still hunting deer in that you slowly ease your way through the brush hoping to see big pink ears glowing in the sun before those ears hear you. If you bump it, the stalk is on and it can go for miles as the rabbits are good at giving you fleeting glances from long distances. Shots range from as close as 25 yards to more than 100 — it’s definitely not cottontail hunting.
Despite the unseasonable heat we experienced that day, we saw many rabbits early in the morning. They were “clever,” according to Yastrzhembskiy, with all of them giving us the slip right up to the end of the morning when he made a stealthy belly crawl within 50 yards of one and took it. While clearly not in the same league as taking an argali in Kazakhstan, hunting the Southwest’s “littlest big game” is a lot of fun and gave us some real field experience with the gun.
“It is a ‘wery goot’ gun,” remarked Yastrzhembskiy as he admired the A17 before sliding it into the soft case at the end of the hunt. I found it to be a very good gun, too. With a suggested retail price of $465, though, the A17 is in some new pricing territory for a Savage semi-auto rimfire. Consider, however, that the only other semi-autos on the market built specifically around the .17 HMR cartridge are in the $1,200 range. For shooters wanting the additional performance of the zippy .17 in a more affordable semi-auto platform, the Savage A17 combined with its stable-mate ammunition and optic make an innovative combination.