Browning T-Bolt Target Varmint Stainless in .17HMR - test & review
PUBLISHED: 10:28 14 September 2017 | UPDATED: 10:28 14 September 2017
The accurate Browning T-Bolt Target Varmint Stainless showed superb build quality & smooth magazine feeds, but Chris Parkin did encounter one issue during its test
LIKES: Smooth magazine feed seems to help 17 HMR accuracy; Superb manufacturing quality; A different approach that offers benefits
DISLIKES: Length of pull is too short; No left handed option; I haven’t found a full length Picatinny rail add on anywhere for NV mounting options
VERDICT: I liked the 17 HMR version of the T-Bolt where its inherent large magazine capacity and smooth presentation of the rounds to the chamber assist accuracy on this tiny round. However, the length of pull is too short and the scope is uncomfortably close to your eyes because of this and the action bridge/scope base positioning
Overall length: 875mm/35 ½”
Magazine capacity: 10 round double-helix
Trigger: Single stage, 3lb pull
Barrel length: 405mm/16”
Scope mounting: Twin Waver Bases supplied
Muzzle thread: ½” UNC
After trying Browning’s .22 rimfire variant of the T-Bolt design, and rather liking the unique operating system, I was keen to venture out with a .17 HMR version. The longer ranges I associate with springtime rabbit shooting on my land suit this calibre perfectly, but any failings in consistency are frustrating. Browning were generous in supplying me with Winchester’s 17gr V-max HV ammo for the full test, so I got plenty of trigger time.
The stainless barrel shows a recessed crown in front of a ½” thread at the 18.5mm muzzle, with the barrel swelling gently from 405mm/16” back to the round action. Like the barrel this shows a bead-blasted matt finish, with twin Weaver scope-mounting bases screwed to the two action bridges either side of an open-topped 40mm ejection port. A 40mm teardrop bolt handle stands out perpendicular to the action, directly above the trigger, and is the fun part of this gun’s speedy action. Just pull the bolt straight back to unlock the toggled linkages, which part two studs either side of the bolt, previously locked into the circular abutments either side of the action. The bolt slides straight back with twin extractor claws drawing the brass case towards a fixed ejector nestled below the shaft, emerging from the face to flick the brass from the action, which is as enthusiastic as your cycling speed warrants. All rounds feed particularly smoothly on this gun from a 10-round polymer magazine with a double helix shape laying flush to the underside of the stock. I’m a big believer in smooth magazine feed on the tiny, delicate .17 HMR round – it being a serious accuracy benefit – and it seems to be so here. Spare mags are available and drop cleanly into your waiting palm as your index finger presses the catch to the front of the well in the bottom ‘metal’.
Unlocking the bolt for removal is a little tricky until you remember the sequence required. You need to unlock the bolt handle as if you are about to cycle the gun, but leave it just unlatched, not withdrawn. Set the gun on safe with the two-position safety on the tang and then, with a fingernail, click down the bolt release catch just behind the bolt shroud. The bolt can then be drawn all the way out of the gun. It’s tricky in gloves but not a task you need to do all that often, and I like the security it offers. At only 40mm long, the bolt handle stays out of the way when carrying the gun, and the safety does not lock it in closed. I found this .17 HMR version a bit slicker than the .22 model, and it didn’t show that gun’s tendency to bounce on the forward loading stroke. Below the action, the gold-coloured trigger is smoothly curved and 10mm wide for a comfortable hold/reach from the straight-hand stock’s grip. It’s a single stage, breaking at 3lbs, and although you can feel minimal creep when really searching for it, you don’t notice it in the field. There is plenty of space in the polymer trigger guard of the bottom ‘metal’ for gloved fingers as the blade itself sits very rearward with little overtravel after firing.
Laminate stocks are tough and offer a very solid-feeling gun with central balance. The barrel is fully floated within the stiff beavertail fore-end, with neat chequering to aid grip here and at the ambidextrous grip. The finish is weather- and cleaning solvent-resistant, with a smooth sheen that won’t untowardly reflect light. A plastic butt plate at the rear is a shortcoming, though, as when coupled with the 340mm/133/8” length of pull it leaves the gun and its optic far too close to the eyes. The action is itself quite short at less than 175mm/7” with a minimal scope-mounting length of 109mm/4¼”, so when you have a short length of pull too, it’s just too short (and Browning tell me no spacers are available). I could partially forgive this on the .22 rimfire as a shorter range ‘truck cab gun’ or plinker, but on a rifle more likely to have its hunting ranges extended by another 100 yards beyond the .22, I want to see more attention paid to ergonomics. On a straight-pull rifle where you push and pull the gun away from your shoulder, I find length of pull can be even more noticeable than a typical bolt-action, and I think a clunky great rubber pad will spoil the looks of the gun, though it will help it stay more firmly anchored in the shoulder.
The stock was, otherwise, very well-proportioned and the gun a very enjoyable hunting tool. Accuracy hovered within the usual variability of the ammunition, with 10-round groups staying sub inch for 70% of the string; two or three shots always seemed to stray a little, but that’s .17 HMRs for you and can be blamed on the ammo not the gun. Sixteen inches is perfect for the barrel on a rimfire with delightful handling and pointability, and little loss in the velocity advertised on the box. This T-Bolt showed an average of 2,531fps for a five-round string versus the advertised 2,550 HMR standard. I found the barrel noticeably easier to clean too, and although it was too small to borescope, the first 30 rounds fired showed very little copper fragmentation from unfired, and the next 50 showed none at all until I got past the 75-round mark and decided to clean again; accuracy didn’t seem to diminish over the longer than normal cleaning intervals. The action was quick to bed-in for smooth and quiet operation, with a preference for placing my index fingertip on the front of the trigger guard and squeezing the bolt lever closed with my thumb to minimise noise. It also assisted in keeping the short gun in my shoulder pocket. There is a painted-on red indicator for a cocked action on the top of the bolt on the firing pin and, being painted, it just flakes off within the first 100 rounds, so I’m not sure why Browning bother unless to assuage the curiosity of over-intrusive legal types. Bipod/sling studs were shown front and rear and solidly anchored, and with a Barton Gunworks sound moderator screwed on the muzzle I was reminded just how effective the .17 calibres are for springtime paddock clearances. The Barton’s moderation levels seemed similar to a SAK from the firer’s perspective, but noise downrange was marginally quieter and that’s very important for me – I have a lot of nosey semi-urban neighbours surrounding said paddocks with 999 on speed dial while they try to live the good life.
Having plenty of ‘meat’ in the fore-end to get a solid grip on was appreciated when shooting from improvised positions, rather than from a bipod, and especially so if you had rapid fire in mind. Having a handful of chequered laminate to grip with relaxed hand without constantly keeping your fingers and thumbs off the barrel allowed very rapid reloads with the gun pulled into the shoulder. I just wish Browning had specified a 14” length of pull as a minimum. Head position with a relatively short bolt stroke was perfect, with a lovely slender comb that suited the required ring height for a 50mm objective lens scope, and a slight Monte Carlo drop. No left-hander is available, which is a sad fact, but shooting a right-handed gun in a prone situation is often faster for lefties. Fit and finish of the whole gun makes its asking price look more than reasonable, with distinctive character no other plain turn-bolt action can match. I just wish so badly that Browning had left the stock longer, as it would have been very close to perfect with a great compromise between multi-positional shooting and prone precision.
Browning UK www.browning.eu 01235 514550
Kite Optics KSP HD2 2-12x50 Riflescope £1,130
Winchester Varmint HV 17 HMR Ammunition, 17gr V-Max
Barton Gun Works/MaccTec 17 Calibre sound moderator £312
Edgar Brothers www.edgarbrothers.com 01625 613177