Where Hunting Happens, Conservation Happens™

The .22—Everyone’s Favorite!

Excerpt from Fair Chase Magazine
By Wayne Van Zwoll, regular contributor, photos courtesy of author

Zero recoil. One-hole accuracy. A cheap, quiet path to sure hits on big game. What’s not to like?

After long, costly days in a faraway place, success can hinge on your pre-season practice with a .22. Rimfire .22s date to the 1850s, the .22 Long Rifle to 1887. Now in many forms, the LR is still a hit!

More than 40 years ago in Mishawaka, Indiana, I snugged my sling for a go at a berth on the U.S. Olympic Shooting Team. Centered in the black disk that appeared as a fly-speck in my iron sights was the real target, a 10-dot the diameter of a finishing nail, inside a nine-ring slimmer than a .22 bullet. To reach the finals, almost all my shots had to erase the dot.

You might say that effort has little to do with hunting. In fact, it was part of a long apprenticeship—one I’ve yet to finish. No matter what manner of magnum you carry for big game, you probably learned much about shooting with a .22 rimfire. It is, arguably, the most useful family of cartridges ever; certainly .22 Long Rifle ammunition accounts for more civilian sales than any other type. 

Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson developed the first successful .22 round in 1857, after trying to adopt Flobert’s self-contained cartridge to the recalcitrant Hunt-Jennings lever rifle that would evolve to become the Henry, then Winchester’s first rifle, the 1866. Smith and Wesson’s rimfire, essentially the .22 Short, was fashioned then much as it is now. A disc punched from thin sheet metal was drawn into a tube with a closed end. A rim was “bumped” onto that end, and the fold filled with fulminate of mercury. The fulminate exploded when the rim was crushed against the rear of the barrel by hammer or striker. Smith and Wesson charged their .22 cartridge with 4 grains of black powder and chambered a revolver for it.

Not just a “kid’s cartridge,” the .22 helps riflemen hone shooting and field skills for results like this. 

The original Flobert round became the BB (Bullet Breech) Cap, launching a 16-grain bullet at 750 feet per second (ft/s). It was intended for indoor target shooting. Conical bullets replaced the original round ball before U.S. ammo firms stopped loading it. The CB (Conical Bullet) Cap arrived in 1888, a BB Cap with a pinch of black powder and the 29-grain bullet of the .22 Short. It is still loaded but seldom seen.

The .22 Long Rifle preceded the CB Cap by a year. Introduced by the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company, it launched a 40-grain bullet with 5 grains of black powder. It’s easy to think of the .22 Long as a hybrid: a .22 Short bullet with the Long Rifle’s case and powder charge. But the Long appeared in 1871, well before the Long Rifle. 

In the late 1880s, these rimfires evolved to take semi-smokeless powder. Smoke-
less loads soon followed. Remington announced its “Kleanbore” priming for the .22 Short in 1927, several years after the Germans came up with “Rostfrei” non-corrosive priming. Remington introduced a high-speed LR load in 1930. Between 1880 and 1935, a few companies loaded the .22 Extra Long, first with 6 grains of black powder in a hull a tad longer than the LR’s. Its 40-grain bullet clocked a modest 1,050 ft/s.

Among other early .22 cartridges that went public are the .22 Remington Automatic, developed in 1914 for that firm’s Model 16 autoloading rifle and dropped in 1928. Like the .22 Winchester Automatic, made until 1932 for Winchester’s 1903 self-loader, it used a 45-grain .222 inside-lubricated bullet. Cases for both were bigger at the mouth than the .224 hulls of .22 Short, Long and Long Rifle rounds, so it would not enter S, L or LR chambers. These two smokeless cartridges ginned up only about 1,000 ft/s.

Friskier—and longer, by half—was the .22 WRF made for Winchester’s 1890 pump rifle. It sent inside-lubricated 40-grain hollow-point and 45-grain solid bullets at 1,450 ft/s. Remington followed with an interchangeable round: the .22 Remington Special. 

By far the most popular, useful, and efficient .22 rimfire cartridge is the Long Rifle. For as long as I can remember, muzzle velocity for its high-speed 40-grain solids has been listed at 1,335 ft/s. That speed yields 158 foot-pounds of energy—twice what you’ll get with the Short; 60 percent more than you’ll wring from the Long. Zeroed at 75 yards, a rifle firing this LR ammunition puts bullets 3¾ inches low at 100. (Hike velocity from the traditional ceiling of 1,300 ft/s to 1,600 ft/s with lightweight hollow-points, and you get more violent upset on impact; but the arc is little changed.)

One of Wayne’s favorite .22s, the classic Marlin 39, hails from lever rifles used by Annie Oakley.

By the way, three brands of high-speed LR ammunition I’ve chronographed from a 22-inch barrel averaged 1,247 ft/s, or 88 ft/s shy of advertised speed. In truth and charity, I must add that the fast-burning powder in .22 loads gives bullets their quickest exit from 16-inch barrels.

Hollow-point loads for small animals had appeared by the time a kindly farmer let me borrow his Remington 121 to shoot barn rats. The rifle wore a J4 Weaver the diameter of a spark plug. Despite pond-water images behind a thick, hairy crosswire, many rats fell to the snap of that slide-action .22. Feeding it Shorts instead of LR ammo, I saved a few cents. Better sights, an able coach and a DCM Remington 40x later drew me to competition. After shooting on a university team, I bought an Anschutz 1413, a Redfield 3200 scope. Like the McMillan-barreled Remington 37 that followed, the Anschutz snared a state title. 

The variety and quality of .22 sporting rifles available to post-war youth was astounding. We in that era took both for granted. A Winchester 67 gathering dust under a dustier moose in a local hardware was tagged at $16.50—a bit steep for a single-shot, thought I, albeit Remington’s Nylon 10 cost $25.75, Mossberg’s 320 with receiver sight $27.15. Bolt-action repeaters and autoloaders brought more than $40. Winchester’s 61 pump, at $69.95, and Marlin’s 39 lever-action at $79.95, were pricey indeed. Youngsters lucky enough to have parents partial to shooting-sports (mine weren’t) learned about marksmanship and woodsmanship on weekend treks for small game into oak woodlots and along stone hedgerows.

But whether your rifle nips one-hole groups or ekes out minute-of-rat accuracy with the cheapest ammo you can find, you’re using the most popular, arguably the most versatile cartridge ever developed —and getting practice that should boost your odds on big game!

Hunting alone with borrowed .22s, I muffed many chances at game. But finding my way in the woods would have been harder—and more costly—with centerfire rifle in hand! Actually, in Michigan’s populous southern counties then, .22 rifles served for whitetails as well as for small game. “Deer rifles” were verboten. Hunters could carry .22s or shotguns with slugs, buckshot or cut-shells—shotshells scored so the front of the hull exited with the shot charge, keeping it together, crimp unopened. Up close, a cut-shell acted like a slug. But forcing hull and shot through bore and choke red-lined pressures! Though .22 bullets could be placed more precisely than any shotgun load, they were widely considered marginal for deer. A .22 hollow-point weighed 37 grains, a 12-gauge slug 437! 

In a pinch, the .22 LR will kill big game. I once tracked an injured whitetail and dropped it at 80 yards with an iron-sighted .22. An Africa hunter showed me a single-shot .22 with which he had killed his first kudu. In the Arctic, I met an aged Inuit with a similar rifle. It looked as if it had been snagged in saltwater and skidded home over sea ice. This stooped, nearly toothless hunter bore six caribou hides twine-tied to his back, all collected in one morning with that .22, its sight a soldered nail.

Whitetail hunters in rimfire-only country were blessed in 1959 with the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire pushing a 40-grain bullet at an advertised 2,000 ft/s. That claim proved optimistic, and published velocities for 40-grain WMR loads now hover at 1,900 ft/s. With poly-tipped 34-grain bullets, you’ll get 2,100 ft/s. These small-game missiles afford half again the reach of Long Rifle hollow-points, with better accuracy than the .22 Magnum offered early on. Incidentally, WMR bullets are jacketed, not heeled. 

A .22 Magnum rifle costs three or four times as much to feed as one in .22 LR, but falls well shy of the energy of traditional deer cartridges. The LR—even the .22 Short, still available with hollow-points —handily takes garden pests, fox squirrels and cottontails. Ballistic coefficients? At .083 for the 29-grain .22 Short and .115 for the 40-grain LR (solids), they are truly abysmal. Short, Long or Long Rifle, the .22 was intended for close shooting! 

Moment of truth on safari! If you’ve paid your dues with a .22, a killing hit is a trigger-touch away!

Among the .22 LR’s most endearing traits is its mild report. Ear protection makes sense indoors, but I don’t wear it while hunting with .22 rifles. (Handguns bark louder and warrant ear plugs). Recoil is so slight as to be negligible with the lightest of .22 survival rifles, some of which slide under the 3-pound mark! LR bullets yield readily to quarter-inch plate angled 45 degrees behind paper targets—a common set-up in basement ranges. The plate directs spent lead into beds of sand or sawdust. Lightweight steel spinners endure many hits from .22 bullets, while centerfire rifles soon shred heavier plate. As the cost of deer-rifle ammunition ratchets past a dollar a shot, you can still trigger a .22 for less than a nickel! And despite dire warnings of continued shortages, the supply of .22 ammo on the shelf is steadily increasing. “There never was a real shortage,” confided a fellow who works in a plant turning out .22 cartridges. “At capacity, we box several million rounds a day. So do our competitors. Ammo flew off shelves because shooters started squirreling it away. Rumor sparked a run. Store quotas to customers kept the rumor alive. Because .22 ammo is so affordable, it sells like candy at grocery check-outs.”

The variety and number of .22 LR loads have increased a great deal since 1977, when CCI broke the mold with its Stinger cartridge. It shared the LR’s overall length but spat a lighter bullet downrange at 1,680 ft/s. Winchester countered with its Xpediter, Remington with its Yellow Jacket. The pendulum is now swinging the other way. Eley’s new 40-grain subsonic hollow-points combine match-ammo accuracy with hunting-ammo lethality. The other day, in my CZ 455 sporter, this Eley load printed a .35-inch five-shot group at 50 yards; velocity: 1,085 ft/s. Keeping velocity below the speed of sound delivers the best accuracy—long the standard practice in the manufacture of match ammo. 

But whether your rifle nips one-hole groups or ekes out minute-of-rat accuracy with the cheapest ammo you can find, you’re using the most popular, arguably the most versatile cartridge ever developed —and getting practice that should boost your odds on big game!

Interested in More?






Support Conservation

Support Hunting

Support Conservation

Support Education

"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt