By Clair Rees
The .30-06 has long reigned supreme as the No. 1 choice of North American deer and elk hunters. While this century-old cartridge has long been the centerfire others are measured against, it doesn’t even come close to the popularity of an even older hunting round.
With more than four billion sold each year, the .22 Long Rifle rimfire is the world’s best-selling cartridge - and by a wide margin. No other sporting round comes even close.
What makes the ubiquitous rimfire so wildly popular? Although it’s unsuited for deer and larger game, many consider the .22 Long Rifle the most useful cartridge you can buy. Inexpensive, soft-spoken and highly accurate, the double-deuce rimfire is the ideal training round for shooters of any age. I can’t imagine learning to shoot with a hard-kicking centerfire. Who wouldn’t develop a world-class flinch when his or her first rifle was a 7mm or .300 magnum?
In addition to being a top training, target shooting and plinking round, the .22 Long Rifle has many other virtues. Every hunter I know began by gunning rabbits, squirrels and other small game with a .22 rimfire. During the Great Depression, game harvested with a .22 kept countless families from starving. Squirrel stew and fried cottontail is still considered tasty fare by those lucky enough to have tried it. The ingredients are invariably supplied courtesy of some .22 marksman.
Not only is the rimfire .22 the best-selling round in existence, but it’s also our oldest self-contained sporting cartridge. In the 1830s, Louis Flobert, a French gunmaker, added a rim to the common percussion cap and inserted a .22-caliber lead ball. Propulsion was provided by the fulminate primer, with no other powder added. Thus the BB (bulleted breech) cap was born.
A few years later, a conical bullet replaced the round ball; the result was the CB (conical bullet) cap. Both rounds were used for indoor parlor shooting, which was highly popular in Europe at the time. Dynamit Nobel still produces these mild-mannered rimfires (firing them won’t startle a sleeping cat). The BB Cap’s Lilliputian 16-grain ball leaves the muzzle at 750 feet per second, packing just 20 foot-pounds of punch.
From left, BB Cap, CB Cap, .22 Short, .22 Long, .22 Long Rifle and .22 WMR (Magnum) cartridges.
You can still buy BB and CB cap ammunition. While these are a fun novelty, fumbling one of these diminutive cartridges into a .22 rifle’s chamber can be a challenge. They’re easier to load in revolvers.
The .22 BB Cap was the forerunner of the .22 Short cartridge Smith & Wesson announced in 1957, chambering it in the company’s equally new First Model Revolver. Believe it or not, this low-powered round was promoted for self defense.
In 1871, the .22 Short case was lengthened to form the .22 Long rimfire. Loaded with a 29-grain bullet and 5 grains of black powder, it gave only marginally better performance than the .22 Short.
Sixteen years later, the J. Stevens Arms and Tool Co. replaced the 29-grain projectile with a 40-grain bullet. This was the first of many variations of the .22 Long Rifle round destined to become the world’s most popular cartridge. Today, .22 Long Rifle ammo comes in astounding variety. High-velocity, hyper-velocity, standard-velocity, subsonic and many different target loads are available. Plated and unplated round-nose, hollowpoint and truncated cone-shaped bullets are available ranging from 30 to 60 grains in weight. Shot-loaded cartridges can turn your pet .22 into a short-range scattergun. That’s not even counting .22 magnums, which take rimfire performance to a whole new level.
The first rifle I ever fired was my father’s Model 74 Winchester autoloader. At 3 years old, I was too small to hold it by myself, so Dad sat and rested the fore-end on his shoulder. A few years later, I prowled Granddad’s ranch with his single-shot Winchester Model 67 and a pocketful of .22 Shorts. After I shot a few of the desert jackrabbits that were plentiful on the ranch, I encountered my first predators. Grandma had been complaining that skunks had been at her chickens, so I was tickled to run across a mama skunk and a half-dozen of her offspring ambling through the sagebrush.
Staying well out of spraying range, I dispatched all seven of the odiferous varmints as quickly as I could. Then I hurried to Grandma’s house, proud to have saved her chickens.
The killing ground had been upwind of the house, so the news of my accomplishment preceded me.
“I’m really happy you killed them skunks,” Grandma said. Then she handed me a shovel. “Now go back and bury ‘em!” The odor that wafted into the kitchen before Grandma got the windows closed lingered through the following day.
In those early days, I fired .22 Shorts as a matter of economic necessity. Back then, a box of Shorts cost 15 cents less than the more potent Long Rifle rounds. Occasionally Granddad gave me a half-empty box of .22 LR loads, which I reserved for the colony of rockchucks I regularly tried to stalk. The chucks seemed to know they were in little danger from the bullets I lobbed at them from more than 100 yards away. When I tried stalking closer, they disappeared underground.
The days of bargain-priced .22 Short ammo are long past. Economies of scale mean today’s .22 Shorts are more costly to shoot than full-sized Long Rifle loads. Why use Shorts? While .22 LR loads have very little kick, Shorts produce even less recoil. That’s why some premium target pistols chamber the pint-sized round.
Shorts are also quieter to shoot, so they do less damage to your hearing. Even so, good ear protection is still recommended. The relatively mild report of .22 LR and Short ammo won’t make you flinch and reach for a pair of earplugs. That’s why .22 rimfires probably inflict more permanent, long-term damage to a shooter’s ears than louder centerfires do. Hearing loss is accumulative, so shooting a .22 rifle or pistol without ear protection is a bad idea.
I confess to doing just that for many years. As a teenager, I didn’t even know what hearing protection was! My ears didn’t ring after shooting a .22, so I figured everything was fine.
Several years ago, I was testing a brace of .22 rifles for accuracy, firing them from a sandbagged bench. Eight different loads were used in the test, so a lot of firing was involved. A half-hour into the test, I developed a low-grade headache. Correctly guessing this was caused by rimfire muzzle blast, I put on a pair of muff-type ear protectors. I was amazed when group sizes shrunk by half, becoming even smaller as the headache receded. As inoffensive as the .22 report appeared to be, it was apparently causing me to flinch. The experience drove home the fact that shooting .22s was harmful to naked ears. Ever since that time, I’ve made it a point to wear ear protection when testing .22s at the range. I also wear ear plugs or muffs during plinking sessions, and insist that my children and grandchildren wear similar protection.
I admit I don’t always wear earplugs when hunting desert jacks or squirrels with a Long Rifle .22. There, targets are relatively few and far between - but I’m aware of the hearing risk every time I pull the trigger. When I hunt with noisier .22 magnums or .17 HMR rimfires, you can bet my earplugs are in place.
I’ve taken a lot of prairie dogs and ground squirrels with .22 rimfires, but long ago decided 100 yards was pretty much the maximum effective range of the Long Rifle cartridge. A Montana prairie dog hunt changed my mind. I was happily targeting grass-guzzling dogs 300 and 400 yards away with my .223 Remington, when one of the other hunters handed me a bull-barreled 10/22 autoloader with a Shepherd scope attached.
“Try this,” he said. “This rig makes a .22 rimfire effective at surprising ranges.”
The scope’s strange-looking reticle sported a series of circles of descending size along the lower leg of the crosshair. Each circle corresponded to the size an erect prairie dog looked at 50, 100, 150 - all the way out to 500 yards! Each circular aiming point was calibrated specifically to the rainbow trajectory of high-velocity 40-grain .22 LR loads. I later learned that with a 50-yard zero, a .22 LR slug dropped 128 inches at 300 yards. At 500 yards, the drop was more than 40 feet!
I was frankly skeptical until I started shooting. Resting the rifle on a Steady-Stix bipod, I was soon dropping prairie dogs with regularity at 200, then 300 and 350 yards. I didn’t hit with the first shot every time, but the low-recoiling autoloader let me see the puff of each bullet strike. It was a simple matter to “walk” succeeding bullets into the target. Even at 350 yards, it seldom took more than three or four rounds to make a kill. It doesn’t take much punch to put a p-dog down for keeps, and the little 40-grain bullets proved adequate for the task.
I now own three .22 rimfires (one a magnum) fitted with Shepherd scopes. Whenever I head for prairie dog country, one of these rifles is included with the .22 centerfires I carry.
I couldn’t possibly count the number of critters I’ve taken over the years with various .22 rifles and handguns. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure how many .22 rimfires I currently own. They include three Anschutz bolt rifles; three Kimbers; a bolt-action Cooper; Remington’s recently introduced bolt-action Model 504; lever-action .22s made by Winchester, Marlin, Ruger, Browning and Henry; two Volquartsen autoloaders; three Ruger 10/22 autoloaders (including one with a lightweight Christensen Arms barrel and fancy stock); three Remington autoloaders; and a Henry AR-7 takedown survival rifle. Rimfire handguns include a highly customized Ruger Mk II, a custom Volquartsen pistol, two S&W revolvers, a Taurus revolver, a vintage M999 break-top H&R .22, and both Ciener and Kimber kits that convert any of my Model 1911 .45 pistols to .22 rimfire use. That collection gives you some idea of how much I value .22 rimfires.
These guns don’t simply languish in my safes. All get regular use for hunting desert jacks or when I take my grandkids for a fun day of plinking. In addition to paper targets, we shoot at candy wafers, lollipops, soda-pop cans and other items that react to a hit (we always police up the detritus afterward). Visit the produce department of your favorite grocery store early in the day, and you can often score overripe oranges, apples and other fruit that explode spectacularly when hit (appreciative wildlife will clean up the mess). Reactive targets make plinking a lot more fun.
While the .22 Long Rifle rimfire is considered strictly a small-game cartridge, it has accounted for a number of outsized critters. While requiring good marksmanship, a well-placed .22 slug can kill quickly.
I was 13 years old when my uncle asked me to help slaughter cattle at his desert ranch. My job was to stand in the corral as each steer was led past, then place a .22 rimfire bullet between the animal’s eyes at point-blank range. If I did my job properly, the 400-pound animals died on the spot. That gave me a greater appreciation of how potent these little rounds could be.
Larger, more dangerous animals have also succumbed to the lowly .22. Years ago, a good friend of mine was hiking toward the fire lookout tower he’d man that summer when he rounded a bend in the trail and came face-to-face with an equally startled black bear. Reflexively, Alan drew his Colt Woodsman and fired. The bullet penetrated the bruin’s skull, dropping the bear instantly just 6 feet away.
While small in size, the .22 Long Rifle cartridge deserves serious respect. It also deserves its enormous popularity.
Reprinted from the November 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine