This week’s Caliber Battle pits the old school against the new.
The .22 Long Rifle (LR) has been around since your grandfather’s father was cutting his teeth on squirrels and rabbits. Developed by J. Stevens Arms & Tool Co. in 1887, it’s become the most highly developed and widely used rimfire caliber in existence. You could think of it as the Baby Boomer of rifle cartridges.
Introduced in 2002, the .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire (HMR) is the new kid on the block—the Gen Z of small-game calibers. Among the fastest rimfires commercially available, it’s the go-to caliber for many varmint hunters due to its range, velocity, and versatility.
Whether you lean Boomer or Zoomer, both options have lots to offer the small-game hunter. The .22 LR and the .17 HMR are two of today’s most popular rimfire chamberings, and we wanted to match time-honored against the modern to see who emerges victorious.
.22 LR Ballistics vs. .17 HMR Ballistics
At first blush, the .17 HMR has the .22 LR beat on the ballistics front.
Federal’s Varmint and Predator load throws a 17-grain projectile 2,530 feet per second at the muzzle and maintains a supersonic velocity beyond 150 yards. Frank C. Barnes’ “Cartridges of the World” points out that Hornady designed the .17 HMR for 200-yard varmint hunting, and current iterations of the original design are dead-nuts accurate.
The .17 HMR bullet also benefits from a high ballistic coefficient. “Ballistic coefficient” is a technical term better explained by qualified physicists (or your local gun-store clerk), but generally speaking, it refers to how the shape of a bullet helps it cut through the wind. Federal’s Varmint and Predator, for example, uses a Speer TNT Hollow Point bullet with a .110 BC, which keeps the projectile within 10 inches at 150 yards even in a 10 mph crosswind.
Anyone who has tried to shoot a .22 LR beyond 75 yards with even a breath of wind should be able to recognize the superiority of the. 17 HMR in this regard. Travelling only about 1,200 fps at the muzzle, a standard 36-grain .22 LR drops all the way down to 930 fps at 150 yards. The stubby, rounded bullet keeps it from cutting the wind and causes it to drift more than 12 inches at 150 yards with a 10 mph breeze.
Also, unlike the .17 HMR which drops only about 3 inches at 150 yards, a .22 LR drops more than 11. This makes it reliable for hunting small game only out to 75 yards, depending on your gun, cartridge, and hunting situation.
Fast and flat shooting is usually better for hunting, but not always. While the .17 HMR is a better choice for coyotes or foxes, it might be a worse choice for smaller animals. The .17 HMR’s high velocity causes more meat damage than the .22 LR, making the .22 is a nice option for squirrels, rabbits, and other similarly sized game. Headshots can mitigate meat damage but they aren’t always feasible, especially when shooting squirrels in trees from a standing position.
As with most debates in the hunting world, everything depends on the situation. But in terms of sheer ballistics, the .17 HMR has the .22 LR beat.
Winner: .17 HMR
.22 LR Shootability vs. .17 HMR Shootability
“Shootability” (once again, if you read the last Caliber Battle) is a broad term we’re using to mean “how available is this caliber and how comfortable is it to shoot?”
Comfort is a draw. Both rimfire cartridges offer very little recoil impulse and limited report. The .17 HMR sounds slightly louder, of course, but with hearing protection or a suppressor it’s tough to tell the difference.
Availability is a little more complicated. Pandemic panic buying has hit the most popular calibers hardest, and the .22 LR is no exception. Federal doesn’t list any of its 17 varieties of double-deuce as “available,” while all three .17 HMR options are in stock.
Still, the pandemic won’t last forever, and in normal times the .22 LR is far more common than the .17 HMR. After the Great .22 Shortage of 2008 to 2012, manufacturers stepped up their games and 36-grain and 40-grain varieties of America’s favorite cartridge have been easy to find.
The .17 HMR is still widely available but somewhat less common. Federal only lists three varieties on its website, and other major manufacturers maintains similar stocks.
Cost is also a major differentiating factor. A box of 50 .22 LR cartridges costs about $4, while the same number of .17 HMR costs over four times as much (about $17). There’s a reason some people see the .17 HMR as a rich man’s gun. Shooting doesn’t cost quite as much as centerfire hunting calibers, but it’s not exactly a plinking caliber, either.
Winner: .22 LR
.22 LR Versatility vs. .17 HMR Versatility
While the .17 HMR clearly won the ballistics battle, the .22 LR takes the versatility matchup in a landslide.
There are a wide variety of options if you have a firearm chambered in .22 LR. You can find cartridges using bullets as light as 31 grains, like Federal’s Small Game 22 LR, and as heavy as 45 grains, like Federal’s Rimfire Suppressor 22 LR.
Since the .22 LR naturally hovers around the speed of sound, it’s also easy to find both supersonic and subsonic varieties. Hunters can use the supersonic for varmint and small game hunting and the subsonic for super quiet shooting with a suppressor.
In addition, many manufacturers load a .22 LR cartridge with birdshot for use on snakes, rats, and other small animals. Federal’s Small Game .22 LR, for example, is loaded with 25 grains of No. 12 bird shot, which would be great for any pests you might have running around the homestead.
The .22 LR is also one of the most commonly-chambered cartridges in existence. Semi-auto .22 LR rifles are among the best-selling rifles of all time, and most major manufactures make rifles in bolt action, lever action, and pump action (though this last is less common).
The .17 HMR usually only comes in one bullet weight: 17 grains. While manufacturers use different kinds of bullet constructions, there’s only so much versatility available. You can find many bolt and lever guns chambered in .17 HMR, but semi-autos are far less common.
Winner: .22 LR
And the Winner Is…
This is a tough one, obviously. If you’re looking for accuracy, velocity, and range on coyote-sized animals, the .17 HMR is the way to go. But if you just want a squirrel gun—and you don’t want to pay $17 for a box of rimfire cartridges–I’d give the nod to the .22 LR. You can find tons of rifles chambered in the double-deuce, and the ammunition is (usually) readily available. It’s a great caliber for beginners, veterans, Boomers, Zoomers, and everyone in between.
No one has unseated the rimfire king yet, and I’m not about to start.
Overall Winner: .22 LR