A sub-MOA, semi-auto rimfire built for modern shooter sensibilities, the Alexander Arms .17 HMR is a varmint’s nightmare

by Rob Reaser

We are now 21 years into the life of the .17 HMR, developed and introduced by Hornady in 2002 as a rimfire cartridge to exceed the renowned .22 WMR in several benchmarks — most notably velocity and trajectory. What the diminutive projectile lacks in mass, it makes up for with devastating terminal performance due to the rapid expansion of bullets like the Hornady’s V-Max (the bullet designed for the .17 HMR) and the frangible copper alloy NTX.

Suffice to say, the .17 HMR has become, over the last two decades, the halo rimfire cartridge of varmint busters everywhere. That is due not only to the cartridge’s standout ballistics and terminal performance, but also to firearm manufacturers quickly adopting the chamber in their various rifle platforms. The .17 HMR, in other words, never languished from the “chicken or the egg” dilemma that so many newly introduced cartridges have suffered in the past.

What it did suffer was firearm manufacturers trying to get the mighty mite cartridge to work reliably with a semi-auto action. Many tried in the early days. Some successfully, others not so much. Much of the problem had to do with maintaining proper case support in the chamber in time with the bullet exiting the bore and the bolt extracting the case. Given the thin-wall construction of the .17 HMR case (essentially a necked-down .22 WMR case) and the load pressure, this proved to be a real challenge for the gun makers.

Bill Alexander, though, never met a challenge he didn’t like. Alexander built his firearms company, Alexander Arms, on the premise of doing the hard things to achieve next-level performance. His most noted creation was the .50-caliber Beowulf — a heavy-hitting straight-wall cartridge intended for specialized close work via the AR platform. Learned AR shooters also know Alexender as the developer of the 6.5 Grendel, another AR-centric cartridge introduced in 2003 that significantly broadened the platform’s use in defense applications as well as hunting.

Naturally, when the .17 HMR hit the scene, Alexander liked what he saw, but rather than tweak around the edges to make the cartridge work in the AR, he opted for a “start from the beginning” approach — specifically, creating a blowback bolt system that is hefty enough to manage the cartridge’s pressures, delivers an expertly timed cycle of operation so the case maintains full support during the firing sequence, and incorporates a finely-adjusted extractor that won’t damage the rim on extraction.

Alexander Arms .17 HMR Standard

All of that to say, the .17 HMR and the Alexander Arms AR platform chambered for the same are nothing new. The cartridge came out in 2002, as mentioned, and Alexander’s variant debuted eight years later in 2010. Since then, the Alexander Arms .17 HMR has seen several variations, mostly in terms of component composition to meet assorted consumer applications.

Today, Alexander Arms offers seven AR-platform models chambered for the .17 HMR. I recently took the company’s base-level rifle for a spin, figuring that whatever the entry model could do, the up-level variants could do even better.

Well…that turned out to be a high bar, indeed, because the AA .17 HMR Standard model proved itself to be the proverbial tack-driver. Can it be better? Maybe, but I’d argue not by much.

For our Shoot On test, we chose Hawke Sport Optics’ Vantage 30 WA SF IR 4-16×50 riflescope. This is the company’s “value-priced” scope series (MSRP $439) that uses a .17 HMR-calibrated reticle. To bridge the scope to the rifle’s Picatinny rail, we went with our favorite mount — the Weaver Premium MSR Optic Mount.

While we typically roll in the performance results of a gun test after providing a thorough rundown of the firearm’s “whats, whys, and wherefores,” I’m not going to do that here. Instead, we’ll get to the good stuff right up front.

This gun can shoot!

Right out of the box (no barrel swabbing, bolt lubing, or anything), I installed the Hawke scope and headed for the range with a stash of Hornady 17-gr. V-Max and 15.5-gr. NTX ammo in tow. Following a quick 25-yard sight-in, I went straight for the 100-yard mark.

After shifting between the 17- and 15.5-gr. bullets, it became undeniable that the gun trended toward the lighter load, with five-shot group sizes favoring the 15.5-gr. ammo by about a half-inch. With both loads, though, the rifle proved its accuracy.

The challenge was being consistent with those groups. What I learned was this gun/cartridge combination is extremely sensitive to your hold. It demands a firm mount into your shoulder, solid grip, and an attentive pull of the trigger. It’s nothing you wouldn’t ordinarily do when shooting any rifle, but if you’re slacking at all on your form, those groups will let you know it’s time to start paying attention. Setting the rifle in the rest to its natural point of aim also proved an important factor. I noticed that whenever the natural point of aim was a bit off and I had to pull the rifle in to the target, my groups would open up or string out.

By the end of the range session, the .17 HMR Standard consistently delivered sub-MOA five-shot groups. My best recorded group was .568 inches with the 15.5-gr. Hornady NXT at 100 yards.

Of course, I’m used to working guns that can deliver 3/4- to 1/2-MOA performance, but these tend to be longer-barreled bolt-actions with a solid stock or chassis system and a premium trigger. The Alexander .17 HMR Standard boasts none of those advantages.

The barrel is 18 inches and fluted. Certainly not a heavyweight, and the muzzle is dressed with a standard A2 flash hider. That said, the barrel construction obviously hits the high-quality mark. The twist rate is 1:10, which is on par for the 17- to 20-gr. .172 caliber HMR but perhaps a tad fast for the 15.5-gr. bullets. Nevertheless, the lighter bullets proved ideal for this particular barrel.

The .17 HMR Standard’s key interfaces — the stock and grip — don’t stand out yet they deliver the necessary function. The EFX stock offers a plush rubber butt pad that fits comfortably against the shoulder, and its multi-position adjustability is certainly welcome. As for the grip, it’s an A2. I’ve never liked them on anything beyond a defensive-oriented AR (and even that is with reservation), but it did not prove to be an obstacle with this setup.

The only real black mark I can give the .17 HMR Standard is its MILSPEC trigger. These are not conducive to precision shooting by anyone’s definition, and the one installed on the test rifle did nothing to negate that claim. The sear engagement wasn’t gritty, but there was a noticeable drag and a distinct catch right before the sear break. After several shot strings, I got used to pulling the trigger back to the catch and then acting as if it were a slightly more precise single-stage trigger with a short pull. Had it performed like most MILSPEC triggers I’ve shot (stubbornly long and crunky to the end), I have little doubt that my groups would have been a bit less impressive.

On the plus side, Alexander Arms does offer a Velocity Classic AR Trigger as a $159.95 option for the .17 HMR Standard. In my opinion, it would be worth the added cost.

One of the components Alexander Arms counts as standard on this rifle but is not offered on its other .17 HMR models is its branded LAR handguard. Made with a machined-in, full-length Picatinny rail, it has an exquisitely clean look that most handguards lack, yet there is real function built into the form.

This is basically the Widebody Hand Guard made by Luth-AR, but it sports the AA logo. It has a roughly triangular profile with a flat bottom that comfortably sits in the support hand. Given the .17 HMR Standard’s hunting intent, this is a good thing because the flat bottom promotes a positive field rest support, which you’re going to want unless you plan to use a bipod.

Speaking of bipods, this handguard is M-LOK compatible, with slots on the upper sides and three along the bottom so you can easily attach auxiliary rails for needful accessories.

As an AR-platform rifle, the .17 HMR Standard field-strips as you would expect. The only difference between this and the AR-15 is that the charging handle need not be removed or pulled back to remove the bolt.

Being that the bolt is of the blow-back design, there is no bolt carrier. This system also doesn’t use a rotating bolt or bolt head for lockup. This is a robust, yet simple bolt design that, according to the manual, requires no further disassembly for maintenance.

The .17 HMR isn’t a new game, but with a fresh generation of shooters and hunters having come on-board since its inception and manufacturers continuing to refine the breed, it does command the ongoing attention of veterans and new fans alike. And for those who favor fast-paced, high-volume action with great accuracy potential, the Alexander Arms .17 HMR Standard should definitely be your first stop.

Alexander Arms .17 HMR Standard Specifications

  • Chamber: .17 HMR
  • Action: semi-auto, blowback
  • Barrel: 18 in., straight flute
  • Rifle Twist: 1:10
  • Muzzle Thread: 1/2-28 RH
  • Muzzle: A2 Flash Hider
  • Grip: A2
  • Handguard: Alexander Arms LAR
  • Trigger: MILSPEC
  • Stock: EFX
  • Charging Handle: standard
  • Finish: black anodized
  • Magazines: 2 10-round
  • Weight: 7.5 lbs.
  • MSRP: $1,531.95

Shoot On Editor-in-Chief Rob Reaser is a lifelong outdoorsman, former magazine editor, columnist, and contributing editor to numerous national publications in the automotive and outdoor segments. He has also authored and co-authored several DIY gun building books. His shooting and hunting passions cover everything from traditional archery and big-game bowhunting to the latest in handguns, rifles, and reloading. Rob has a troublesome habit of pulling guns and things apart to see how they work; occasionally, he manages to get them back together...

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