Editor’s note: As hunters and anglers, we don’t agree on everything. We’ve even been known to argue on occasion. That’s why this week is all about figuring out who’s right and who’s just plain wrong. Every day we’ll be posting stories to declare a winner on hunting and fishing’s most important debates—like 870 vs. 500, summer sausage vs. venison jerky, and fly fishing vs. spin fishing. Welcome to Versus Week.
In a perfect world, there would be a rheostat on the side of our rifles that let us dial in the ballistic performance we needed. Like a Star Trek phaser, if we needed to pop a bunny at 30 steps, we’d go with setting #1. If we needed to reach out to 150 yards to whack a rock chuck, setting #3 might be just right. Of course, that’s not possible, so we’re stuck picking a cartridge and sticking with it. It’s why we must contemplate comparisons like the .308 vs .30-06 and the .17 HMR vs .22 LR.
There is an endless collection of centerfire rifle cartridges to choose from but with rimfires, there are only five. The .22 LR is the most prolific and affordable. The .17 Winchester Super Magnum is the most powerful but the most expensive to shoot. Filling the middle ground, we have the .22 Magnum and the .17 HMR. There’s also the .17 Mach 2, but it is not and never has been very popular. It seems that most struggling to select a rimfire cartridge debate the .17 HMR vs .22 LR. Here are the similarities and differences between the two that will help you select the best round for you.
The .22 Long Rifle
This cartridge has been with us for more than 130 years. Over that time, it has been chambered in every type of firearm you can imagine, from derringers to tack-driving precision rifles. It is the cartridge most of us learned to shoot with and many of us first hunted with.
There are many different types of .22 LR ammunition, with bullet weights ranging from 20 to 60 grains. With standard loads, it will launch a 40-grain bullet to about 1200 fps. But there’s also high-performance .22 LR ammo like the CCI Stinger. The Stinger has a slightly longer cartridge case, but the overall cartridge length is the same. It will push a 32-grain bullet faster than 1600 fps. And then there are subsonic .22 LR loads that are as quiet as a whisper and even quieter when used with a suppressor.
The versatility of the .22 LR, combined with how affordable it is to shoot, is why it’s so popular. It has an effective range of about 100 yards, and inside that distance, it is ideal for plinking and good for hunting small game. Depending on the ammunition you choose, every time you send a .22-caliber bullet downrange, it will cost you between 10 and 50 cents. Additionally, there’s a wider selection of firearms available in .22 LR than for any other rimfire or even centerfire cartridge.
The .17 HMR
In 2002 Hornady shocked the world with the introduction of the .17 HMR (Hornady Rimfire Magnum). This rimfire cartridge, which fires a .17-caliber bullet, took the rimfire world by a storm. Bullets weighing 17 grains will leave the barrel of a .17 HMR rifle with velocities as high as 2600 fps and the 20-grain loads are a tad bit slower. This high velocity, combined with the lightweight bullets, means that by rimfire standards the .17 HMR shoots incredibly flat. If a .17 HMR rifle is zeroed dead-on at 100 yards, the bullet will only drop about 10 inches at 200 yards. With the same zero, the flattest shooting .22 LR ammunition will drop three times that much at 200 yards.
However, with this high performance comes added cost. The least expensive .17 HMR ammo will cost about 38 cents per shot. Also, there’s not a wide variety of .17 HMR ammo to choose from. The .17-caliber bullets loaded in .17 HMR ammo vary from only 16 to 20 grains. However, the cartridge is very popular and there’s a good selection of rifles and a few handguns available.
.17 HMR vs .22 LR: Target Shooting
The primary appeal of rimfire cartridges is affordability and fun. Rimfires are cheaper to shoot than centerfires, and because they’re quieter with minimum recoil, they’re more fun to shoot. Anytime cartridge comparisons are made, fun should be taken into consideration because having fun is at the heart of pulling triggers. For target shooting and plinking, the .22 LR is hard to beat because of its affordability and low report. With the .22 LR, you can blast away 500 rounds for about $50.00. If you shoot 500 rounds of .17 HMR ammo you’re going to have to throw down more than three times that much cash.
Matched with the right .22 LR rifle, the .22 LR can also deliver high levels of precision. With the best .22 LR ammo, you can expect 50-yard groups of a half-inch or less. The .17 HMR however can deliver that same level of precision at 100 yards, often with more affordable rifles. And, if you like plinking or target shooting at extended ranges, it’s much easier to do with the .17 HMR. One reason for this is because .17 HMR bullets remain supersonic out to nearly 250 yards. The fastest shooting .22 LR loads go subsonic at about 100 yards. This transition between supersonic and subsonic flight can negatively impact bullet stability and accuracy.
However, when it comes to plinking, most shooters want to be able to do a lot of it for as little as possible. Let’s say you want to shoot 1000 rounds a year punching paper, busting balloons, and making holes in pop cans. If you do that for 10 years with a .22 LR you’ll spend about $1,000. If you do that with a .17 HMR you’ll spend about $3,800. For that much money, you could shoot almost 40,000 rounds through a .22 LR. Even if you miss the target half the time, that’s a lot of fun on the range for not a lot of money.
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.17 HMR vs .22 LR: Hunting
Downrange precision carries over to hunting; you need to put bullets in the right spot to get your critter. The .17 HMR handily beats the .22 LR when it comes to reach and precision at extended distances. I once killed a prairie dog at 500 yards with a .17 HMR. It did take almost a half-box of ammo to get the first hit, and a couple more shots to get the second hit, but that’s something I could have never done with a .22 LR.
However, when it comes to hunting, it’s not all about long-range precision. For small, edible game like squirrels, you want to get the kill while damaging the least amount of meat possible. Any well-placed .22 LR hollow point bullet will handle any tree squirrel and not destroy excessive amounts of protein. Also, when hunting tree squirrels in the timber, shots typically do not exceed 50 yards. The .17 HMR will give you a lot more reach, but it also delivers a devastating impact. Shoot a common grey squirrel in the shoulder with a .17 HMR and none of that shoulder meat will make it to the plate.
When used inside 50 yards the .22 LR is more than capable of dealing with small game like squirrels, groundhogs, raccoons, and such. It can also be effective on larger game like coyotes. When he was only six years old my son hammered a coyote with his Ruger 10-22, but the range was only about 25 yards, and his rifle was loaded with CCI Stingers. Also, during a prairie dog hunt, I once fired a brick—500 rounds—of .22 LR ammunition in one afternoon. I killed probably 350 prairie dogs and it only cost me about $60.00. Had I been using a .17 HMR I’d have spent about $200.00.
Still, the reach and power of the .17 HMR cannot be overlooked by the hunter. Most loads will carry more than 100 foot-pounds of kinetic energy to 100 yards. The fastest .22 LR loads will be lucky to hit with 80 foot-pounds at that distance. While foot-pounds do not directly correlate with lethality, that energy is used to get the best terminal performance out of the bullets we shoot. Anything you can ethically kill at a certain distance with a .22 LR, you can ethically kill at twice that distance with the .17 HMR.
If high-performance ballistics is all that matters to you, the .17 HMR is the clear choice. When it comes to downrange velocity, energy, trajectory, and accuracy, the .22 LR cannot compare. If on the other hand money matters more to you than the ability to kill a fox at 200 yards, the .22 LR reigns supreme. You might need to get closer to make a lethal shot, but over the course of a lifetime, you’ll save a lot of money and maybe even have more fun.
What Are Some Other Options?
Shortly after the .17 HMR was introduced, some began predicting the end of the .22 Magnum. At that time there were only a handful of loads offered for the .22 Magnum, and most were loaded with a 40-grain hollow point or FMJ bullet. But ammunition manufacturers stepped up and began offering new and better performing .22 Magnum ammunition. Today there are twice as many .22 Mangum loads to choose from as there are .17 HMR loads, and bullet weights range from 25 to 50 grains.
CCI’s .22 Magnum Maxi-Mag ammunition, which is loaded with a 30-grain polymer-tipped bullet, won’t shoot quite as flat but it will hit harder at 100 yards than the .17 HMR. The bullet will also remain supersonic out to about 225 yards. And the cost per round fired is about the same as the .17 HMR. If a lot of plinking is what you want to do, you can also find .22 Magnum ammunition for as little as 28 cents per shot. That’s not as affordable as .22 LR ammo, but it’s 10 cents less per shot than .17 HMR ammo.
Don’t limit yourself to the .17 HMR vs .22 LR question, especially if you’re looking for a rimfire cartridge with general-purpose application. The .22 LR offers the most versatile array of ammunition and is the least expensive to shoot, but for hunting it’s best limited to about 50 yards. The .17 HMR shoots the flattest and is considered the most accurate, but it is expensive and ammunition options are limited. The .22 Magnum on the other hand offers a good balance of everything the .22 LR and the .17 HMR have to offer.
Q: What does rimfire mean?
A rimfire cartridge is a self-contained, metallic-cased cartridge that does not have a separate primer. With a rimfire cartridge, the priming compound is in the rim of the cartridge case.
Q: Is the .22 LR lethal?
Lethality, as it relates to ammunition, is a hard word to define. The .22 LR has been used to kill very large animals and even humans. However, for ethical use when hunting, the .22 LR is generally only considered lethal for small game.
Q: Is the .17 HMR good for squirrels?
Squirrels are not hard to kill and the .17 HMR is more than adequate for hunting them, even out to 200 yards. However, if you’re hunting squirrels and want to eat them, the .17 HMR can damage a lot of meat.