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THE SAVAGE A17 – The Perfect Pill for too Many Rabbits

By Jim Waddell

Sometime back I wrote a piece on the .22 Hornet and if my memory is still working, I commented that I loved that caliber because it would take ground squirrels in my almond orchard without waking the dead or the surrounding neighbors.  The Hornet is of sufficient power, velocity and accuracy to take these critters up to 150 yards and more with the right loads but what I liked most of all was the fact it’s a centerfire and I enjoy developing loads almost as much as I do shooting.

I think I followed that statement by saying “I don’t do rimfires” because they can’t be reloaded.  The crow I’m eating doesn’t taste all that bad being smothered in gravy.  This is because I broke away from my self-imposed rule and forked over a few hundred bucks for a new Savage A17.

The A17 is the first semi-automatic sporting rifle in the .17 HMR caliber that’s showing success. This after other manufacturer’s attempts to produce a semi-auto HMR failed due to the chamber pressure of the round not being compatible with the typical blowback action of rimfire rifles.  Savage designed a delayed blowback action that seems to have taken care of that issue.  As I write this, I see where Alexander Arms of Virginia claims to have a successful semi-auto .17 HMR based on the AR-15 design.

To explain why I went to this rifle and caliber combination, I’ll go back about 17 months when some very close family friends closed a huge real estate deal up in the northern part of our state.  This family is in the organic dairy business and it was getting more difficult each year to locate hay in sufficient quantities and quality to satisfy their needs.

They purchased a huge amount of acreage that had some existing alfalfa fields and now they’re developing more fields out of the sagebrush that is prevalent in that area.  Sagebrush is home to jack rabbits.  Lots of jack rabbits.  The previous owner of this property didn’t do any varmint or predator control, nor did he allow any outsiders to come in and hunt.  Chemical control of varmints/rodents is prohibited due to the large raptor population, AND, because this is California where regulation of everything except criminals is the ruling party’s top priority.  Enough about that.

I don’t know what Jack rabbits living in sagebrush eat when there’s no alfalfa around but it became immediately clear what they eat when there is alfalfa.  The ink wasn’t dry on the escrow papers before they started asking for help shooting rabbits.  A problem in taking these critters is it has to be done at night when they come out to feed as they lay low in the bush during the daylight hours.

I got a call from Gary, the ranch foreman whom I’ve known for many years.  He wanted to know how soon I could get there as the rabbits were consuming unbelievable quantities of alfalfa.  I called my two shooting buddies, Julio and Vernon.  Explaining the problem was all it took to get them on board.  They packed their Ruger 10/22s and were ready to go in record time.  As I searched through my ammunition inventory (because I didn’t do rimfires), about all I had in quantity for several nights of rabbit control were a few hundred rounds of reduced loads for the .44 magnum Marlin I keep on my ATV.  This rifle has no scope and with a lead semi-wadcutter coming out around 850 FPS I thought it would be a fun combination.  I realized finding and saving spent cases would be a problem riding around a 500 acre hayfield in darkness but I wouldn’t be too bothered if I lost a few since I had a whole lot of .44 brass on hand, much of it having been loaded several times.

Losing a few is an understatement.  When Gary said I would find rabbits so thick it would be difficult to keep from running over them, I naturally thought he was exaggerating.  He wasn’t.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a sea of rabbits as far as the lights would shine and when the light beams hit the bunnies, they became confused and as often as not, would run right at the lights so a good percentage of our shots were literally in spitting distance.  (We actually did run over a few, more by accident than by design as hearing and feeling them squish under the tires wasn’t my idea of a sporting event).

It was also a new experience shooting at targets that are running TOWARD you.  Most of us who’ve done much hunting for game or varmints have experienced moving targets but how many of those targets are coming at you?

Each of us had our own ATV and we worked out a system of driving the field where we wouldn’t interfere with the other shooters or inadvertently ride into another’s field of fire.

The Marlin .44 Magnum holds ten in the magazine and I started with it full.  Once the shooting started it took less than a minute to empty the rifle.  I remember thinking how the guys in the old west must have felt when a bunch of Kiowas or Comanches were bearing down on them with arrows zinging by their heads while trying to stuff rounds of ammunition in the loading gate of their Winchesters.  It seemed to take forever to fill that tube when the rabbits were everywhere.

A rabbit round up Circa 1900.

My buddies, with their Ruger .22’s were getting all the shooting while I was doing all the loading.  When we stopped for coffee they were both complaining about how many rabbits they were missing.  With it being dark they were unable to see where their bullets were hitting but the rabbits would just sit there or run off.  Vernon shot one he knew he must have hit as it was only a few yards away.  It was his last shot and while he was changing magazines I watched the rabbit.  It started to walk away then fell over dead.

We finally realized all the rabbits he and Julio thought they were missing had actually been hit, many of them several times but those sage jockeys were taking good solid hits and running off to die in the bushes.

After the first hour or so my right thumb was so sore from loading shells into the Marlin it was getting difficult to continue doing so without wrapping it in a piece of cloth and we had at least two more nights ahead of us.  Granted when those 240 grain bullets hit a jackrabbit, even at modest velocities, it left no doubt whether or not I scored a hit.  The solid thumping sound it made was enough evidence of a hit, even if the eyes missed seeing it.

Bushnell Trophy red-dot scope.

There had to be a better rifle out there for this task and after we got back home from taking hundreds of jacks in three nights of shooting, I started checking out my options.   I wanted more than a .22 after seeing the problems my pals had with their bullets not anchoring the rabbits.  The conditions were obviously not favorable to recovering spent brass so it was coming to me I had to consider what was out there in the .17 HMR.

As I said in the beginning, the little .17 in a semi-auto rifle had not enjoyed much success until Savage got creative and came out with their A17 Model in 2015.  The reviews I saw on the internet looked good and the chatter around our gun club was positive from the few who had any experience with this rifle.

It didn’t look like the rabbit problem up north was going to go away anytime soon so I bought one.  In my limited experience using scopes with artificial light, I decided to start with a battery operated dot sight.  This was a Bushnell that came with several different options for reticles and degrees of brightness.  It had red dots for daytime use and green for nighttime.

When I read the literature that came with the rifle, it was strongly recommended we use the .17 HMR round that CCI developed specifically for this rifle.  In fact it’s labeled as the A17 round and it has a 17 grain polymer tipped bullet.  CCI says this number exits at 2650 FPS which is about a 100 FPS faster than other brands of 17 grain bullets including CCI’s original loading in this weight.  This particular round is supposed to shoot with more reliable functioning than the milder loads.

When I read this advice, I kept in mind CCI and Savage are both owned by the same parent company.  Suspicious of marketing ploys I wondered if this was really the case however in reading a couple reviews by known gun magazines it seems there is something to this and the higher chamber pressure in the A17 round does make the combination perform better.

My first range session was a pleasant surprise for the most part.  When I mounted the Bushnell sight on the Weaver mounts that came with the rifle, it required only 3 shots to get it zeroed at 30 yards.  Most of the rabbit shooting will be at that distance and less with a few maybe out to 40 or 50 yards tops.

I shot several groups, some 3 and some 5 shots.  All grouped very nicely inside an inch which I’m more than happy with since there’s no magnification and my aging eyesight is not what I would like it to be.  The disappointment came with the Bushnell sight.  Whenever I made changes to the reticle or the dot size, or going from red to green, it changed the point of impact.  It wasn’t significant enough to dump the sight for something else, at least not at the time as the rabbits were waiting and it would still hold all the shots inside minute of jackrabbit.

Even so, I made a call to Bushnell and was told I could expect minute changes whenever I changed settings.  I talked to some friends on the local police department who’ve been using this type of optic on their AR platforms.  They did not experience these issues.  They use the Aimpoint brand and paid a whole lot more money for theirs than I did for mine.  I guess it’s still true you get what you pay for.

During that range session I also had some issues with the magazines.  Two came with the rifle and I purchased two more from Savage.  All held 10 rounds.  In loading these magazines, the first round in went smoothly.  After that it became difficult to depress the follower for all of the subsequent rounds.  I had to wiggle and manipulate the round to get the follower depressed.  Considerable force was necessary to get the cartridge in the magazine.  This happened on all four of them.   After repeated use, it did get easier to load the mags but only slightly.

The only other drawback had to do with the magazines staying attached.  A couple of times on the range during the firing process, the mags plopped out onto the table as if they had not been fully seated.  I know they had been in battery or the rifle would have jammed or failed to feed.  In one of the reviews I read the person testing that A17 had the same issues.  I’m confident Savage will rectify this minor problem in subsequent productions.

Armed with my new Savage A17 it was time to head back to the alfalfa fields.  Due to other obligations, my window of opportunity to make this trip was limited which caused me to have to deal with some weather issues.  A cold and wet pattern was developing but we made the trip anyway.  I had no idea if the rabbits would still be out feeding or not but there was no turning back, I was anxious to get after those bunnies with my new rig.

This time my hunting partner was Dan, my son in law from Seattle.  They happened to be down visiting and the timing was perfect for him.  It was just 6 months after he had a second, double lung transplant but you would never know it.  He handled the weather and the shooting like nothing had ever happened.

We hunted for four nights.  Each night was either raining, windy or both.  My question about whether or not rabbits would be out in the weather was answered immediately.  They were everywhere.  As miserable as the weather was, we got all the shooting we wanted and that Savage rifle was up to the task.  I had an issue with one of the Butler Creek 25 round magazines but other than that, we got so many rabbits it was impossible to count.

I was further disappointed with the dot sight.  Rather than gather light during hours of darkness, this optic was actually a little darker than the surrounding area.  I was still able to get as much successful shooting as I wanted but next time out the dot sight is coming off, probably to be replaced by a good low power scope.