Ammo History: The .22 Rimfire
It’s a 160-year-old cartridge with puny ballistics that’s no good as a self-defense round—yet the .22 continues to be one of the most popular gun chamberings ever. Here’s why.
Before the AR. Before the Glock. Before even the legendary 1911 was the .22 rimfire. The tiny cartridge remains Lilliputian when compared to many of today’s popular sporting, self-defense, and recreational shooting cartridges, but by many other metrics, it casts a huge shadow across them all.
What the .22 rimfire lacks in size is more than made up for in versatility and performance. And unlike many cartridges that had a here-today-gone-tomorrow existence, the venerable .22 rimfire has stood the test of time—160 years, to be exact.
And, the popularity of the .22 rimfire has exploded over the past decade, for many reasons.
Firearm diversity is one. Hundreds of firearms have been chambered for the .22 rimfire over the years, and there are dozens and dozens on the market today, from AR platforms and lever actions to autoloading pistols and revolvers. Conversion kits designed to transform a .223 AR platform into a firearm capable of shooting .22 LR rounds have also contributed to this popularity. (The cost of a .22 round is much less than that of a .223, which means you get more bang for your buck.) The bottom line is there’s a .22 rimfire for every age, every skill level, every pocketbook—and every interest.
Born from a Muzzleloader
What does “rimfire” mean, anyway? Unlike centerfire cartridges, which use a self-contained separate primer unit to ignite the powder charge within the casing, a rimfire round has a priming compound encircling the inside base of the case. Pressing the trigger releases the firing pin, which crushes the soft brass edge or rim of the case and starting the powder ignition process.
That may sound modern, but it’s actually old technology. It’s believed the forerunners to today’s .22 cartridge came about in the mid-1800s when a Frenchman, Louis Flobert, placed a small lead ball in a percussion cap, used to ignite a powder charge in a muzzleloading firearm. The results were neither impressive nor accurate, but Flobert’s experiment certainly did start the ball moving, as it were. In 1857, Smith & Wesson developed what we now know as the .22 Short—a 29-grain bullet seated overtop four grains of black powder. It was the first metallic cartridge in the United States.
Two decades later, the case was lengthened and the powder charge increased to five grains, with this new round being called the .22 Long. Ten years more, and the 29-grain bullet was replaced with a 40-grainer, and the powder charge upped once more, this time to six grains. This was the .22 Extra Long, discontinued around 1935. Come 1887, the folks at the Stevens Arms Company developed and introduced the .22 Long Rifle cartridge.
This 40-grain smokeless cartridge gained popularity, and quickly became the most popular cartridge on the planet.
Today, bullet weights for the .22 LR range from 30 to 40 grains, with the 40-grainers being most common. Other variants include the .22 Winchester Rimfire (WRF) and the very popular .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR).
It’s been around in a variety of configurations since 1964, but this semiautomatic, easily modified, fun-to-shoot rimfire is still a top gun.
The .22 LR is a comparatively short-range cartridge; that is, best used within 150 yards. Some shooters say that 50 yards is the maximum. The firearm, ammunition, optics, and, perhaps most significantly, the skills and experience of the shooter are all factors when it comes to maximum range. With the proper combination of gear and shooting skills, the cartridge can be extremely accurate.
For the record, .22 LR ballistics aren’t all that disparate. For instance, a trio of the most common 40-grain standard velocity (i.e. around 1,200 fps at the muzzle) rimfire rounds will exhibit very similar characteristics:
|Brand||Bullet Weight||Muzzle Velocity (fps)||Muzzle Energy (ft.-lbs.)||Energy @ 100 yds. (ft-lbs.)||Drop at 100 Yds. (50 Yd. Zero)||Drop at 150 Yds. (50 Yd. Zero)|
|Federal Premium Hunter Match||40 gr.||1200||128||86||6.1″||21.1″|
|Remington 22 Target||40 gr.||1150||117||85||6.4″||22″|
|Winchester Wildcat||40 gr.||1255 fps||140||91||5.5″||19.5″|
source: manufacturer data
Hypervelocity .22 LR rounds, however, are going to be a tad quicker and a bit flatter-shooting:
|Brand||Bullet Weight||Muzzle Velocity||Muzzle Energy||Energy at 100 Yards||Drop at 100 yards (50-yard zero)||Drop at 150 yards (50-yard zero)|
|CCI Stinger||32 gr.||1640 fps||191 ft.-lbs.||81 ft.-lbs||3.8″||15.2″|
|Remington Yellow Jacket||33 gr.||1500 fps||165 ft.lbs.||85 ft.-lbs.||4.1″||15.7″|
source: manufacturer data
Most .22 LR rounds aren’t going to get anywhere fast, and they won’t bulldog their way through a forest of ½-inch pine boards. Hypervelocity rounds are indeed quicker out of the gate and shoot roughly 2 to 2-1/2 inches flatter out to 100 yards compared to standard velocity rounds, but even these greased lightning .22 LRs will drop back to an average of 85 foot/pounds of retained energy once they reach the end of that football field.
The .22 in Use
So what does all this mean? There’s a lot that the .22 can’t do, but a whole lot that it can do, and at a much lower cost than centerfire ammo.
A plinker. A hunter. A trainer. A target rifle. A backup concealed carry piece. A poacher. And a next-to-the-nightstand comfort. Over the last 50 years, the .22 LR, and versions of it, have been used in a variety of situations and for multitudinous reasons:
Plinker – Informal shooting at an almost infinite list of targets, both natural and otherwise, is one of the best reasons to get a .22. Fallen pine cones, fallen apples, dandelion heads, cattail tufts, milkweed pods spent shotgun hulls, pieces of clay pigeons, scraps of paper targets. The list is endless. As fun as it is, plinking is practice, and practice makes poor shooters good and good shooters better. With the .22 LR, plinking is affordable.
Hunter – For small game and varmints inside 100 yards, the .22 LR packs enough punch to effectively dispatch game up to and including large raccoons and fox (with proper bullet placement). For squirrels, cottontails, jackrabbits, woodchucks, and other small game, the .22 LR is the perfect choice.
Competitor – Accuracy, easy-of-use, and affordability—here are those same qualifiers again. The same elements that make the .22 LR an all-round shooter also make it the traditional choice for many local, state, regional, and national rifle competitions. Events such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s (NSSF) Rimfire Challenge (nssf.org/rimfire) are an excellent way to get shooters of all ages and experience levels involved in the firearms arena.
Savior? While having a .22 LR pistol or revolver is preferable to being unarmed, the little rimfire doesn’t get the nod as a self-defense caliber. Make no mistake—a .22 can kill, even someone a mile away—but in most cases does not have the ability to stop someone intent on attacking. (Frank C. Barnes, author of “Cartridges of the World,” wrote years ago that “Humans shot with the 22 Long Rifle often show little immediate distress, survive without complications for several days, then die suddenly.”)
The typical .22 LR bullet, at 40 grains, is small—very small. Even a .380 Auto, what many consider the smallest self-defense/concealed carry caliber, throws a bullet more than twice the weight of a .22 LR, and with more than twice the muzzle energy. Here’s how the .22 LR compares to five common defensive handgun calibers:
|Caliber||Bullet Weight (grains)||Muzzle Velocity (fps)||Muzzle Energy (ft.-lbs.)|
|.380 Auto +P||90||1,175||276|
|.38 Spec +P||129||950||258|
It’s basic ballistics. In a self-defense scenario, the object is to stop the threat as quickly as possible. And in 99 percent of the situations, the .22 LR just isn’t going to get that done.
Poacher – Unfortunately, what makes the .22 rimfire great for hunters also makes the little rifle the perfect weapon for poachers, particularly those seeking deer. Quiet, deadly accurate, and possessing adequate energy to dispatch spotlighted animals with carefully aimed headshots, the .22 LR has figured in numerous wildlife agency legal cases.
Trainer – In addition to being often incredibly accurate, the .22 LR has helped teach hundreds of thousands of shooters the fundamentals of firearms. “User-friendly” is perhaps the best phrase to describe the .22 LR in terms of its role as a training device, for several reasons.
The latest iteration of the classic .22 semi-auto brings a gun with World War II origins solidly into the present. Here’s how it operated, handled, and shot.
First is recoil. The rimfire round does generate recoil, but the push you feel is negligible. For instance, a 40-grain .22 LR bullet moving at 1,165 fps generates 0.2 foot/pounds of recoil energy. In comparison, a .223 Remington (45 grain/3,500 fps) has roughly 2.5 foot/pounds. Even the tiny .410 caliber shotgun posts a surprising 10.5 foot/pounds of recoil energy. With such light recoil – and a low noise level – the .22 LR is a joy to shoot, even for extended periods and by those of smaller statures and physical abilities.
Most .22 LR rifles weigh less than five pounds and are relatively short. Ruger’s popular 10/22 measures just 37 inches overall, making it comfortable and easy to handle.
The same goes for handguns chambered for .22. With negligible recoil, a .22 handgun such as the Ruger Mark IV or Smith & Wesson Victory allows shooters to spend a lot of time at the range, without spending a lot of money on ammo. That’s because ammunition for the .22 LR is affordable, which translates directly into more rounds rounds sent downrange.
For example: a box of 50 rounds of Federal Champion .22 cartridges cost $2.49, which works out to a cost of about a nickel per shot. Compare that to a 50-round box of American Eagle 9mm cartridges. The $17.49 retail price comes out to 35 cents a round.
That means you can practice real-life shooting skills at the range without spending a lot of money on ammo.
That is, if you can find the ammo to begin with.
The .22 Shortage
Finding a .22 rimfire rifle or handgun is easy, but finding ammunition is a different story. “There has been an ongoing shortage of .22 LR for many years now,” said Slaton White, editor of SHOT Business, a trade magazine for the firearm and ammunition retail industry. “Consumers who wanted to spend the day at the range began using more .22s, which drove up demand. Smelting capacity (within the manufacturing community) is another issue. Factories are capacity constrained in what they can (physically) produce. If they make more of one type of ammunition, they’re making less of another.
The company’s addition to it’s popular A-Series line promises to eat all kinds of ammo and has an aftermarket 25-round magazine.
“Also, the shooting sports have seen a lot of new shooters come on board in the past 10 years,” White pointed out. “These aren’t hunters, but shooters. And that means they want to shoot a lot.”
White suggests two more reasons behind the difficulty in locating .22 LR ammunition: distribution and hoarding.
“These days, the big box stores seems to have plenty of .22 LR, but smaller independent operations often say they have trouble getting .22 ammo. One retailer I spoke with said he felt the large ammunition manufacturers simplified their distribution chain (and lowered costs) by only shipping to the big-box outlets. Instead of dealing with thousands of FFLs, they only have to deal with a half-dozen major players.”
The new .22 semiauto takes part-swapping to a whole new level—all you need is an Allen wrench—but does it shoot? Here’s what we found.
Hoarding, White claims, is a second variable. “There are people out there who believed that under the Obama Administration, the federal government was trying to corner the market for (.22 LR) ammunition. That led to panic buying. In a way, it’s been a perfect storm of economic, political, and social issues.”
.22 Rifles and Handguns
As many as there are stars in the heavens, ‘tis the number of .22 LR handguns and rifles, both new and not-so-new. That’s to be expected after nearly 16 decades of existence! In the coming weeks we’ll take a look at the best .22 handguns ever made, the best .22 rifles…and some creative ways to have fun with them.