By Greg Rodriguez
The .22 Hornet has been quietly taking coyotes, crows and groundhogs for over 75 years. Lately, the cartridge seems to have been lost in the hoopla over the little .17 rimfires and the .204 Ruger. That’s too bad, because the Hornet is far more effective on predators than either of the .17s. It’s also a heck of a lot quieter and easier on the pocketbook than the .223 Rem or the .204 Ruger.
The .22 Hornet is not a particularly flat-shooting cartridge, especially when compared to the .220 Swift, but it shoots flat enough out to its maximum effective range of about 175 yards. When zeroed at 100 yards, my favorite 45-grain load drops a hair over 2 inches at 150 yards and a little less than 8 inches at 200. Considering that most of the coyotes I call in are dropped within 100 yards of my stand, the .22 Hornet shoots plenty flat for me.
My favorite .22 Hornet factory load is Winchester’s 45-grain soft point. With a velocity of 2,690 feet per second and 723 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, this round is deadly on critters out to about 150 yards. It’s not quite as accurate in my Browning Micro Hunter as Hornady’s 35-grain V-Max load, but I have more faith in its ability to do the job on coyote-sized game.
Some other .22 Hornet factory loads I’ve had good success with are Winchester’s 35-grain hollowpoint and Hornady’s excellent 35-grain load, which launches a V-Max bullet at 3,100 fps. With a 200-yard zero, this load hits only 2.8 inches high at 100 yards and drops a manageable 17.1 inches at 300 yards. Neither of these loads set the world on fire, but both get the job done on smaller game like jackrabbits and prairie dogs.
In my opinion, the Hornet’s best qualities are its mild recoil and report. In fact, it is so quiet that I’ve never had a complaint when hunting coyotes at night with it on a ranch near my home on the edge of the city limits. I know this because I hunt with one of the local sheriff’s deputies (he likes the Hornet, too). He swears his department’s dispatcher has never had a single call about our nighttime predator hunts. While the fast .22s have their place, I see no need to use one when I can get the job done with less noise, lighter recoil and less-expensive ammunition.
The author’s Browning Micro Hunter really likes Hornady’s 35-grain V-Max load. Groups like this .48 inch one (left) are the norm on calm days, but ... the wind is hard on those light bullets. This 1.22-inch group (right) was fired with that same load on a windy day.
If there are any flies on the Hornet, it has to be inconsistent accuracy. My Browning Micro Hunter shoots sub-half-inch groups with Winchester’s 45-grain load and Hornady’s 35-grain V-Max, but in my opinion, it’s the exception to the Hornet rule. In fact, between my shooting partner James Jeffrey and I, we have owned nine .22 Hornets. Of those, only the little Browning was a tack driver. James had one that was a sure enough half-inch gun, but he traded it away a few years ago and has been kicking himself ever since.
The Hornet’s long neck and gently sloping shoulder do little to contribute to its accuracy, but in my opinion, the biggest problem lies with the fact that the difference between the minimum and maximum SAAMI-spec for the cartridge is too great. In my experience, if a .22 Hornet is to have a chance of shooting well, it must have a tight chamber.
Handloading is the best way to wring the most accuracy out of a Hornet. While there are a variety of useful Hornet powders, my favorite is Hodgdon’s Lil’ Gun. Originally designed for .410 shotguns, Lil’ Gun is so mild that I run out of case capacity before I see any pressure signs with my pet load. Nevertheless, when loading for the .22 Hornet, especially with other powders, work up slowly from minimum because the difference between minimum and maximum loads is small. To be safe, I increase my loads in .1 to .2 grain increments.
I use whichever standard small rifle primers I happen to have on hand, but if you really want to get fussy, benchrest primers may add some degree of accuracy. Some .22 Hornet fans swear by small pistol primers. Their theory is that the smaller primer ignites the powder more efficiently than the larger benchrest and small rifle primers. Small rifle primers work just fine for me, but by all means try something else if you aren’t getting the accuracy you want.
I believe 45-grain bullets are the way to go. Lighter bullets aren’t as effective on coyotes and do not deliver much energy beyond 200 yards; heavier bullets must be seated too deep and velocity suffers. My favorite .22 Hornet rifle likes Speer’s 45-grainer, though I’ve also used 40-grain bullets by Nosler and Sierra with great success. Be sure to choose bullets with thin jackets to ensure maximum energy transfer on small game. Bullets with thicker jackets do not expand well at Hornet velocities.
Another thing to keep in mind is not to run the fired .22 Hornet cases through a full-length resizing die unless you must. I’ve found that neck sizing produces the best accuracy. Fire-forming that long neck to a specific chamber can really tighten up a mediocre Hornet.
Finally, finish off your Hornet loads with a good crimp. It is commonly accepted among those who reload the Hornet that its thin neck doesn’t afford a strong enough purchase on the bullet. A good crimp will ensure that bullet is nice and tight and promotes consistent velocities from shot to shot.
The .22 Hornet may not measure up on paper to some of today’s hot new varmint rounds, but this mild-mannered cartridge has killed more crows, groundhogs, coyotes and Texas whitetails than I can imagine. And it’s a darn fine round for punching paper, too. It would not be my choice for whitetails, but its relatively low price and mild report make the .22 Hornet my first choice when walking the big pear flats near the camphouse in pursuit of rabbits or prowling the South Texas brush with my favorite predator call.
Reprinted from the September 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine