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Alexander Arms’ new .17 HMR is a rugged rifle that can tackle pest control problems out to 200 yards, or snipe squirrels at most ranges encountered in thick woods.

Over the past few summers I’ve noticed a trend with the local wildlife agency, to regularly publish press releases alerting residents to the dangers of rabies among the urban wildlife populations. Skunks and raccoons seem to be the major carriers, with the occasional rabid fox thrown in for good measure. Less than a mile from my home just south of Nashville, Tenn., I’ve recently watched motorists nearly wreck their cars to avoid a hydrophobic raccoon staggering down the middle of a busy street during rush hour. Suburban skunks are earning a reputation that now goes beyond just wandering around asking folks to pull their finger.

When a pair of striped stinkers decided to take up residence under my cabin, I decided it was time to do a little personal pest control. I learned a long time ago while running a trap line that skunk dispatching is a simple, yet careful, task if you don’t want to set off a “stink bomb.” Shot placement is key or you will have to vacate the area for a few days. Heart-shot skunks behave differently than head-shot skunks. One rimfire bullet behind the shoulder and through the heart greatly reduces the likelihood of the little buggers releasing their smelly act of final revenge.

About the time I discovered the little pest problem on my farm, I got the editor’s nod to test and review a new rimfire AR produced by Alexander Arms. When I learned that it was chambered in .17 HMR instead of the .22 LR, I started to get curious about several things.

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The AR platform rifle is so massively overbuilt in comparison to other .17 HMR autoloaders that case failures won’t destroy the rifle.

When I began discussing the .17-caliber topic with Bill Alexander, I had my eyes opened to several things related to this cartridge and the guns that shoot them. With a well-established reputation for building AR rifles in .50 Beowulf and 6.5 Grendel, I was curious as to why he would want to chamber his new rifle in .17 HMR. “When you design rifles you go from peaks to bloody lows,” Alexander said. “I had just finished the Grendel and started looking at the .22 rimfires. I built my own .22 long rifle AR. Then I went to Walmart and bought some .22 ammo. When I shot at 50 yards and 70 yards it did very well, but when I shot at 100 yards the groups went to hell when the round went subsonic. I asked myself, ‘Why not shoot a .17 HMR to extend the range?’ It was the first pick because it had good performance and customers wanted it.”

Since the .17 HMR was introduced in 2002, a wide range of guns have been chambered for the popular round. The .17 HMR was the first new rimfire cartridge since the ill-fated 5mm Remington launched in 1970. Previously, the last successful rimfire cartridge was the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire in 1959.

A Winning Collaboration
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Alexander Arms’ little 17 showed a preference for 20-grain bullets, with the Hornady load topping the list.

When Hornady developed the .17 HMR, they worked with rifle makers Ruger and Marlin to seek the fastest rimfire cartridge that could produce accurate reliability and economic manufacturing. Some of their parameters included performance beyond that of the .22 WMR in trajectory and velocity and be less susceptible to wind drift. Similar noise levels were to be maintained, as well as operating at the same case pressure. Frangible bullets that weren’t as susceptible to ricochet were also specified. All of this was packaged in a cartridge that was designed to shoot under a minute of angle or better. A lesser known requirement was that the cartridge would produce between 23,000 and 29,000 CUP (copper units of pressure).

To assure success, the new cartridge was required to be adaptable to existing rimfire rifle designs, so settling on the .22 WMR case was the best option. In a little more than eight years, the .17 HMR cartridge roared onto the shooting scene. Loaded with Lil’ Gun powder, this diminutive cartridge produces velocities over 2,500 fps with 17-grain load and 2,375 fps for the 20-grain bullets. The combination produces a terminal performance that is deadly on small varmints slightly beyond 150 yards, and up to 200 yards on a calm day.

Of course, Marlin and Ruger were quick to launch their bolt-action rimfire rifle versions to fit this new cartridge. CZ and Savage quickly followed by chambering bolt-actions for the .17 HMR. New England Firearms, which is owned by Marlin, offers a break-action, single-shot, with Savage/Stevens, Thompson/Center and Winchester following suit by introducing their own single-shot versions. Then Remington adapted their Model 597 autoloader to the .17 HMR… and that’s where the trouble began. The .17 HMR’s pressure and thin case didn’t adapt too well to the Remington 597. First designed to handle a .22 long rifle, the 597 used a steel bolt in a blow-back mechanism. No problems here. When the .22 WMR design was adapted to .17 HMR, Remington engineers opted for a heavier tungsten/nickel/iron matrix bolt to retard the speed of the blow-back mechanism. But, tungsten, though heavier than steel, is more brittle. Another problem with tungsten is that it has an inherent variability in specific gravity that makes a final part’s hardness a moving target. It was just a matter of time until something went wrong.

By its very nature, rimfire ammunition is rather dirty. We all know that rapid shooting heats up a rifle barrel, too. Combine the two issues within the confines of a .17 HMR case and it’s to be expected that pressure will spike, and occasionally a case will fail. When a .17 HMR case ruptures in a Remington 597 catastrophic failure occurs. The hot propellant gases ride the cuts in the tungsten bolt and shatter it, which have led to shooter injuries and lawsuits. “The AR is so massively overbuilt that it just keeps on ticking,” Alexander said, “whereas the 597 blows up.” Other stronger semi-auto designs seem to be withstanding the pressure.

Remington was quick to issue a total recall of their Model 597s chambered in .17 HMR. Ruger has also stopped making available their 10-22 magnum .17 HMR versions. On the other hand, Volquartsen hasn’t stopped making their TF-17 semi-autos. They must feel that their semi-auto design is built to handle the .17 HMR without problems.

Now, along comes Alexander Arms with their new AR in .17 HMR. Since I was the recipient of the first test rifle released from the factory, my assignment was to ferret out any bugs or create them through hard use and abuse. Armed with a new rifle to test and a litany of horror stories about the powerful little cartridge, I was determined to see for myself what the hullabaloo was all about.

The Little Cartridge That Could
I’ve been a fan of this cartridge since its introduction. It is utterly devastating on smaller pests, and it’s deadly accurate. I’ve shot everything from ground squirrels, bushy-tailed tree rats, rabbits by the wagon load, and even a couple of coyotes and wild turkeys. What I learned in the process is that game heavier than 12 pounds deserves a heavier caliber and cartridge for reliable game-killing performance.

To prepare for the testing, I acquired an ample supply of CCI, Hornady and Winchester .17 HMR ammo. My experience with .17 centerfire rifles has taught me that accuracy suffers when the bore gets dirty. As few as 20 shots can warrant a cleaning to keep accuracy up to standards. Gumming up a semi-auto action would be rather easy, so I wanted to learn just how many rounds it would take to bring shooting to a halt. If I had a cartridge case fail, I wanted to learn what would happen as well. To say that I abused the Alexander Arms .17 HMR is an understatement. I ran this rifle hot and kept pouring the rounds down range. Along the way, I found out what happens when a case ruptures.

It doesn’t take long to heat this rifle up. Firing the 17-grain Hornady loads across a Shooting Crony, my first 10 rounds averaged 2,654 fps. The next 10 rounds climbed in velocity to an average of 2,678 fps, and by the time I ran the third magazine full through the chronograph it averaged 2,703 fps. As best I can determine, the chamber acts as a heat sink, and when rounds get chambered they heat up quickly. When the hammer drops on a heated case velocities and pressures rise. It didn’t help that my shooting sessions were conducted on days that the temperature hovered around the century mark, either.

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Langston fired more than 450 rounds through the Alexander Arms .17 HMR before the dirty chamber kept it from running in semi-auto mode.

After 300 rounds down range as fast as I could fire, load and change magazines, the gun was both dirty and hot. Case heads started blowing on the case rim on at least three rounds. It “stove piped” the blown cases and the gun spewed smoke through the ejection port. Several magazines later I had a full-blown case rupture that lodged a bullet in the barrel. The magazine suffered from the experience, but I didn’t. The plastic on the magazine’s feed lips took a beating, which reduced the feeding reliability of the magazine. Pieces of the magazine also fell in the trigger well preventing the trigger disconnector from working properly. Removing the offending debris quickly solved the problem. The extractor took a beating, too. It was bent up and locked the bolt back. A quick field stripping got the magazine well insert out of the gun. Some minor surgery with a Gerber Multi-tool bent the extractor back into position. Since I didn’t have a .17-caliber cleaning rod at the range, I had to wait to dislodge it from the barrel.

The following day I telephoned Bill Alexander to report my progress in wrecking his new rifle. Always the inquisitive engineer, Alexander suggested that he make a “house call” to inspect the rifle, and bring me another one to wreck in the process. And wreck it we did. The day Alexander arrived we went to the range and ran the gun fast, hot and dirty. (By the way, Alexander Arms suggests that their .17 HMR rifles be cleaned after 200 shots to keep it functioning properly.) We got the gun to repeat its cartridge failures without any major mishaps. Blown cases had the penchant for bending the ejector bar, but this was fixed on the range with a pair of pliers.

When the round count got to approximately 450 without cleaning, case extraction and feeding became so sluggish that it was reduced to a single-shot.

Dirty Accuracy
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Out of curiosity, I decided to shoot some groups while the gun was good and dirty. My 3-shot groups with the CCI 17-grain ammo averaged 2.031 inches. Winchester’s 20-grain ammo didn’t fare much better when it printed a 1.223-inch average at 100 yards. When I switched over to Hornady 20-grain loads, I got a pleasant surprise. I fired two successive 5-shot groups that measured .442 and .619. I couldn’t wait to see what this gun could do with a clean, very broken-in barrel.

After getting the rifle back to my shop I gave it a thorough scrubbing and lubing. I mined copper from the barrel for 45 minutes, alternating between swabbing and scrubbing with copper solvent. During the cleaning session I would take a break and let the solvent soak for at least five minutes, which seemed to work better than constant scrubbing.

A later session at my range with a clean gun provided some slow, steady and fun shooting. For the testing I used a Bushnell 10X scope. I was pleased with the results at 100 yards, firing several 3-shot and 5-shot groups that you can cover with a nickel. A dime could even cover a few of them.

What the Alexander Arms .17 HMR taught me was that this cartridge case can fail. And, when it does, I want a strong action and chamber surrounding this cartridge. Another thing I learned is that rimfires like to be lubed, and keeping the chamber scrubbed out makes them run reliably. This rifle fits the bill for ruggedness. It’s fun to shoot, deadly accurate and easy to repair if something goes wrong.

If you’re wondering what happened to the two skunks that invaded my cabin, well, suffice it to say that it was an inglorious reduction of the population. With the Alexander Arms .17 HMR in hand, it was a quick duel at sundown and they never got off a shot.

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