The question is “Can you go deer hunting with a 17 HMR rifle?” The answer is a categorical no you can not hunt deer with a 17 HMR. Only a criminally negligent poacher would take a shot at any animal larger than a coyote with a .17 HMR.
A 17 HMR is woefully inadequate to take a deer ethically. If you were to shoot any animal, including rabbits at a range of more than 100-yards with a 17 HMR you’ll likely just wound it, leaving it to suffer a horrible, lingering death.
A 17 HMR is a varmint rifle, a rifle used to shoot rabbits, prairie dogs, squirrels, and occasionally a fox or coyote if they are at close range. All a 17 HMR will do with a whitetail or mule deer is wound it.
Every game and fish agency in all 50 states is clear on the minimum required cartridge to hunt deer or other big game with and the .17 HMR is never allowed.
Can a 17 HMR Kill a Deer?
The general rule for hunting large game animals, beginning with whitetail deer and moving up to larger species in success like pronghorn, Big Horn sheep, mule deer, black bear, elk, and finally moose, is that it takes a minimum of 1000 foot-pounds of energy at impact to ethically harvest an animal.
The 17 HMR only delivers 137 foot-pounds of energy at 100-yards. Even a perfect head shot would likely bounce off the animal’s skull.
A heart or lung shot might not pierce the hide, and if it did would likely result in the minuscule 15.5-grain or 20-grain .17 HMR bullet being lodged in the rib cage or muscle of the unfortunate buck or doe that was illegally hit with this round.
As a comparison, slaughterhouses don’t use the .17 HMR on their killing floors, with hogs, sheep, and cattle even though they’re shooting the animals at a range of six inches since the power is so limited with this small caliber weapon.
Can a .17 HMR kill a deer? Yes, poachers kill them occasionally with a .17 HMR but it’s not the resounding kill shot you get with a Winchester .25-06, Marlin .30-30, or the venerable 30-06.
The animal is hit with the .17 HMR bolts from the sting of the impact then dies a few days or a few weeks later from either blood loss or a severe infection.
The animal is killed but in a horribly painful way.
Is it Legal to Shoot a Deer with a .17 HMR?
The answer is no, you can’t legally shoot a deer with a .17 HMR. It should be explained that “shooting” and hunting are vastly different things.
Hunting a game animal requires stalking, preparation, the proper license, hunter safety training, and landowner permission to hunt on private land, or the proper area tag to hunt on public land.
None of these apply if you’re using a .17 HMR. From the Florida Everglades to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, there is no place that .17 HMR is legal to hunt deer.
Shooting an animal is only a tiny, minuscule portion of hunting an animal. It signals a new phase of a hunt when you shoot an animal.
The act of shooting should always be limited to a single “kill shot.” One shot, the animal drops where it stands, and you proceed to tag, skin, process, and pack out the carcass.
A .17 HMR will not produce the desired one-shot, one-kill procedure.
A similar, but larger caliber .22 long rifle is an example of what poachers have done for over a century in pursuit primarily of whitetail deer.
Since it gained popularity in the 1890s many hunters have illegally taken deer with a few shots from a 22 long rifle.
The 22 long rifle in a 40-grain variety is twice the weight of the largest 17 HMR bullet, but it doesn’t deliver as much energy as the 17 HMR since it has a much slower muzzle velocity.
Proponents of shooting with smaller, lower energy calibers always point to the 22 long rifle, a cartridge that has undoubtedly taken more whitetail deer than any other, albeit with every harvested animal an illegally, poached doe or buck.
It’s not a question of whether a smaller caliber weapon can kill an animal, but whether it has the power to kill one humanely.
For all the deer taken with a 22 long rifle, there are many more who suffered before dying an agonizing death or carried a painful bullet for the remainder of their lives. The .17 HMR produces the exact result when a deer is hit with one.
Why Can’t You Hunt Deer With a 17 HMR?
When asking why you can’t go deer hunting with a 17 HMR you soon learn why, you can’t when comparing what is legal in other common, smaller caliber hunting cartridges.
The 17 HMR is only a sixth the size of a Winchester .270 bullet. Even though the muzzle velocities are almost the same for a .17 HMR at 2375 feet per second and the Winchester .270 at 2460 feet per second, the energy differences are tremendous.
The .17 HMR delivers a paltry 137-foot pounds at 100-yards compared to the “stop in your tracks” 1605 foot-pounds of the Winchester .270.
At 200-yards, the 17 HMR has only 72 pounds of energy remaining. That might kill a rabbit, but if you hit a deer with it at that range, it might not even break the skin, leaving just a bruise on the deer as it darts away.
The reason it is illegal to hunt a deer with a .17 HMR is in the ballistics of the cartridge. A 15.5 grain or 20-grain bullet just isn’t big enough to do the job of killing a 100 to 300-pound animal.
For comparisons, a dime weighs 35 grains, that’s over twice as large as a 15.5-grain bullet and almost twice as big as the largest .17 HMR round you can shoot, the 20-grain.
To kill a deer you have to deliver a bullet at 1000 foot-pounds of energy, not at the muzzle of your rifle, but when it strikes the animal.
To achieve this with a 20-grain bullet you’d have to fire it at the impossible speed of 6000 feet per second. Even if you were able to do that, friction would melt the bullet before it traveled 100-yards.
A combination of science and ethics prevents allowing a .17 HMR as a legal caliber for hunting deer.
First, the science of ballistics doesn’t allow the .17 HMR to have the killing power to knock down a deer on impact, and second, you’ll only wound the animal, creating unnecessary pain, that’s the ethical portion.
The .17 HMR was never designed as a big game weapon, and shooting at deer with one is a bad mistake.
You’ll only wound and injure the buck or doe, and if you do we can only hope a game warden is nearby so you lose hunting privileges.
The .17 HMR has its place as a varmint gun, and a flat shooting small game platform. You can take a lot of rabbits with a .17 HMR but you should never attempt to take a deer with one.