In praise of the .22

Squirrels and .22 rifles simply go together.   I would be willing to bet that the majority of readers took their first game using the ubiquitous cartridge that sits prominently in most American gun racks.  If you haven’t at least considered pulling out the old rifle and chasing a few bushytails around the woodlot during the cool mornings of October, federal law requires that you sell all your firearms and take up golf.

The .22 Long Rifle rimfire cartridge as we know it has been around since 1887 when the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company took the casing from the older, existing .22 Long cartridge and combined it with a 40 grain bullet.

The new .22 Long Rifle cartridge proved to be a great combination of performance, accuracy, negligible recoil, minimal noise and low cost.  Today almost every arms manufacturer makes at least one model that utilizes the cartridge.  It is likely that there are more firearms chambered for this cartridge in the world today that any other.

The .22 rifle is a great round for small game up to 120 yards.  Beyond that range, the bullet goes subsonic, the trajectory resembles a melting rainbow and accuracy decreases exponentially.

Accuracy of the .22 is reasonable for such a low-cost cartridge.  Any shooter with a decent rifle and a bit of practice should be able to hold 1” groups at 50 yards from a stable rest.   A good shooter/rifle/ammunition combination can often keep three shot groups under one inch at 100 yards.

Most knowledgeable .22 shooters sight in their gun at 75 yards.  If you are using the popular flat-shooting CCI Stinger, this translates to a .7 inch rise at 50 yards and 2.3 drop at 100 yards.  For standard velocity 40-grain offering, the numbers are typically double.

There is an untold variety of .22 rounds available.  The selection ranges from target rounds that will set you back at least .25 cents per shot to bulk packs of lead-nosed bullets that come in under $3.00 per box.

Cheap .22 cartridges from major manufacturers are good, even excellent.  More so than other calibers, individual .22 rifles will have very decided preferences for certain rounds so with the low cost of ammo there is nothing stopping you from finding the exact round that makes your rifle a tack-driver.  In many cases of sporting arms, the low-cost Winchester, Federal or Remington standard rounds are typically as accurate as the pricy target cartridges and offer better performance at the target.

We highly recommend sticking with the well-known ammunition makers.  Perhaps in .22 more than any other caliber, low-quality rounds of questionable offshore heritage are frequently junk.  There are perhaps two dozen manufacturers from several countries who make good stuff; so far, China isn’t among that group.

For small game and pests, virtually any reasonable hit will bring down the animal as you essentially shooting it with, relatively-speaking, a bowl-ball-sized projectile.  Once you begin shooting raccoon-sized game, bullet-placement becomes critical.  If you plan on shooting coyotes, it would exceedingly optimistic and ethical questionable to plan on a clean kill at ranges longer than 60 yards.

There are several high-performance cartridges on the market, typified by the CCI Stinger, Remington Yellow Jacket and others.  Essentially, these are rounds with a slightly lighter bullet and a longer-burning powder to tweak more velocity from the round.  They do bump up the performance specifications and offer higher bullet energy while shooting significantly flatter trajectories.

On small and medium-sized game, these rounds are devastating.  The range is somewhat shorter as the lighter bullets shed energy quicker downrange but if you properly place one of these bullets in a varmint under 100 yards, the results are dramatic.

Keep in mind that in short-barreled weapons, these rounds won’t have an appreciable performance increase while dramatically increasing muzzle flash and blast.

It is interesting to note that though the high-speed rounds offer higher downrange energies, the standard-velocity round nose lead cartridges often penetrate the deepest in ballistic gelatin tests.

Another interesting round that has drawn much attention is the CCI Quick-Shok pre-fragmented bullet.  In essence, the bullet immediately breaks into three equal pieces upon hitting the target.

Though we haven’t personally put these rounds through the paces, correspondence and media reports suggest that they are spectacular in small game such as squirrel and rabbit, essentially exploding upon impact.  In fact, increased meat damage has often been noted.

However, things change when you are dealing with bigger critters.  I would not attempt to use this round to put down a coyote but there are even some who believe the round has potential for self-defense.

After review of ballistic gelatin tests, we can quickly put that argument to rest.  The small bullet fragments that essentially “grenade” in small targets quickly lose energy as they travel through solid material and overall penetration in calibrated gelatin only averages around five inches- certainly not sufficient for medium game and not anywhere in the ballpark for two-legged attackers.

If you haven’t dragged out the old .22 in a while, make arrangements to spend a pleasurable hour on the range or in the woods.  You will be surprise how quickly that long-overlooked rim fire will take you back to a simple time, the days when the smell of smokeless powder wafting through the golden leaves of an October forest make some of the most indelible memories of a young hunter’s life.