September 2013

17 HMR Bolt-Action Rifles: Browning and Ruger Square Off

These rifles find different paths to 1-minute-of-angle accuracy. The Browning takes the lighter route; Ruger goes ‘overbuilt.’

Truth be told, there is no shortage of good rimfire rifles. Bolt-action or semi-automatic, the majority of 22 LR and 22 WMR rifles are capable of delivering tight groups from distances of 50 yards or more. While such rimfire rifles may be plentiful, good 22 LR ammunition has, for some reason, become scarce. Nevertheless, many smallbore hunting devotees would rather be shooting a more powerful cartridge anyway. Enter, the 0.172-inch-diameter bullet and caliber 17 HMR or Hornady Magnum Rifle and a pair of bolt-action rifles from Sturm, Ruger and Browning.

The Ruger 77/17 follows the pattern of Ruger’s full-size bolt-action rifles. Our test rifle featured a laminate stock and scope mounts integrated with the receiver. Barrel length was 24 inches with a noticeable taper. The Browning T-Bolt Target Varmint fired from a shorter 22-inch barrel that was closer to a bull-barrel profile. Despite a mere 2-inch difference in barrel length, the T-Bolt seemed much more compact. Perhaps it was the Browning’s Monte Carlo walnut stock that gave us this impression.

Both test rifles fed from removable magazines that stored rounds in a rotary pattern, and that allowed them to fit flush or nearly so with the bottom of the stocks. The most obvious difference between the two rifles was their bolt-action designs. The Ruger worked from a traditional pattern that required a short throw upward, back, forward, and down. The Browning T-Bolt required only a straight pull rearward and then a straight thrust forward to cycle the action.

We had no trouble finding a variety of loads for the rifles, including one from Hornady Manufacturing that was topped with a 15.5-grain NTX (non-toxic) bullet. We also purchased Winchester’s 20-grain GamePoint (hollowpoint) ammunition. Finally, we chose Federal Premium ammunition that launched a 17-grain TNT hollowpoint made by Speer to represent the caliber’s traditional bullet weight. We wondered if the small difference in bullet weight would make a big difference in accuracy.

For optics, we chose the same Nikon 4-16X42mm SF Monarch scope that was used in our recent test of a CZ USA 204 Ruger centerfire rifle. As in that test, we found that 50-yard targets were no challenge at all. Rather than assemble accuracy data that would divide the two rifles by the hundredths of an inch, we posted targets on the 100-yard boards of American Shooting Centers in Houston. And, as we did with the 20-caliber CZ rifle, we planned to test the capability of each rifle on the 200-yard range as well by using the BDC (Ballistic Drop Calculator) reticle.

Given the few but starkly contrasting designs of our two rifles, we wondered if either design would prove to be more efficient than the other. Would the Browning’s straight-pull T-Bolt prove to be a gimmick, or would it provide a distinct advantage? And, given the variety of bullet shapes, specifically at the tip of each slug, would both guns be able to smoothly cycle all three choices of test ammunition and produce superior accuracy? Let’s find out.

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