The .22 Winchester Magnum, Still Improving

By Barr H. Soltis

.22 WMR
.22 WRM Maxi-Mag ammunition. Illustration courtesy of CCI.

On the state game lands where I hunt in Pennsylvania, the rabbit population has dwindled to the extent that I am absolutely convinced that I would have better luck panning for gold in the Delaware River than finding a rabbit in the field. Back in the day things were different, but now I take to the woods because it really doesn't mater much to me if I get skunked, although it would be nice to occasionally come home with something other than empty water bottles. However, for me, any day in the woods is a great day in the woods.

Don't get me wrong, rabbits abound throughout my neighborhood and never seem to stray far from my vegetable garden. They have become fearless, grazing fewer than 20 feet from the boundary lines of my invisible fence that keep my two bull terriers at bay. I can even find them bouncing about at the Boulder Valley Sportsmen's Association rifle range, but ironically, they can never be found on state game lands during hunting season.

With successful rabbit hunting opportunities fading by the minute, I decided to take advantage of our growing population of foxes. As a matter of fact, just last month my wife saw two adults and four pups in the same place on our property where the rabbits antagonize my dogs, all multiplying and living in harmony. They are smart little critters, indeed.

As a small game hunting cartridge, most of us will concede that the .22 LR is the queen of rimfire rifle calibers. It has been around since at least 1877 and in addition to being fun and economical to shoot, it makes a fine 50-100 yard match cartridge. Launching a 37 grain HP bullet at around 1330 fps (Winchester figures), it is just about perfect for hunting squirrels, rabbits and small varmints at close range. I have four .22 LR rifles, but I feel that even with hyper-velocity loads the .22 LR is a trifle bit light for shooting foxes out to 100 yards and beyond.

When hunting game several essential issues need to be considered. First, there has to be something to shoot, second, you have to be able to hit the target and third the caliber and the bullet's external ballistics need to match the game.

When I started looking around, most gun store clerks touted the .17 Hornady Magnum Rifle (HMR) as the greatest thing since peanut butter and sliced bread and far superior to the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR). There were plenty of .17's in stock and I seriously considered it.

The .17 HMR was designed in 2002 and is based on the .22 WMR case necked down to accept a .17 caliber bullet. It projects a frangible, flat-shooting, 17 grain V-MAX bullet at 2550 fps, a load that provides outstanding accuracy with devastating effects on small game and varmints. Its MPBR is about 165 yards (+/- 1.5") with 90 foot-pounds of remaining energy.

I next considered the parent .22 WMR, introduced almost 50 years ago. The .22 WMR is known for its high velocity (originally a 40 grain JHP bullet at 2000 fps) compared to the .22 LR and it has been used to hunt everything from mice to deer (the latter primarily by poachers), but it is at its best as a short range varmint, turkey and small predator caliber. The .22 WMR hits harder than the .17 HMR out to about 120 yards; beyond that the sleek little .17 bullet retains more kinetic energy.

Based on my analysis, I concluded that the .22 WMR fit my needs better than the .17 HMR. There always seems to be a trade off in life and this is no exception. In this case, the sacrifice would be the MPBR, but with a selection of bullet weights ranging from 30 to 50 grains and even a shot shell offering, the .22 WMR seemed to be more versatile and well worth the sacrifice.

I could not justify spending the same kind of money for a small game hunting rifle that I have spent on target and large game rifles, so I focused on two inexpensive rifles manufacturers with solid reputations, Marlin and Savage. I ultimately selected the Savage Model 93G. Manufactured in Canada, this 5-shot, bolt action Savage sports a nicely finished, checkered, hardwood Monte Carlo stock and a modest price tag. At 5.75 pounds, it comes with a 20.75 inch barrel and the famous AccuTrigger. I mounted an inexpensive Simmons 22 MAG 3-9x32mm scope on mine.

The next step was a trip to the rifle range to test some ammunition and see how well my new rifle would shoot. The rifle was stabilized with Caldwell’s “The Rock” with ProtekTor front and rear bags. Targets were 1.25 inch neon red color coding labels affixed to 8.5x11 inch sheets of white paper at 100 yards.

I was able to achieve 5-shot, 100 yard groups that averaged about 1.2 inches with CCI 40 grain MAXI-MAG HP cartridges. The best group measured .84 inch and the largest group measured 1.49 inches. A 1.21 MOA average group size is not too shabby and I consider this a good all-around ammunition choice for my rifle.

The CCI MAXI-MAG HP+V is loaded with a 30 grain jacketed hollow point bullet with a reported velocity of 2200 fps and 322 foot pounds of energy from a presumed 24 inch test barrel. At 100 yards, this bullet is traveling at a reported velocity of 1375 fps and strikes with about 126 pounds of energy. However, at the range I was very disappointed with the performance of the CCI MAXI-MAG HP-V from my rifle. The tightest group measured 2.76 inches and the widest 3.65 inches. The average group size was 3.26 inches.

The V-Max bullet is loaded in both Hornady and CCI ammunition and the only difference between them is the color of the polymer tip. The 30 grain V-MAX is a rapidly expanding bullet that makes it ideal for eradicating groundhogs and the like. Because this is a frangible bullet, it is also a preferred loading for use in semi-populated areas, where ricochets can pose a danger to humans and livestock.

Hornady claims that their 30 grain .22 WMR V-MAX bullet (with a ballistic coefficient of .095) leaves the muzzle at 2200 fps with 322 foot pounds of energy. At 100 yards this bullet is traveling at 1421 fps, 46 fps faster that the CCI MAXI-MAG+V, and strikes with 134 pounds of energy, exceeding the CCI bullet by 8 foot-pounds. Hornady's catalog trajectory looks like this: -1.5 inches at the muzzle, 0 at 100 yards and -16.5 at 200 yards. Zero in 1.5 inches high at 100 yards and you can reasonably expect a MPBR of at least 137 yards.

Although the Hornady V-MAX did not prove to be the most accurate load in my rifle, it performed well. The best group measured 1.2 inches and the worst measured 1.5 inches, center to center. The overall average 5-shot group measured 1.4 inches, a credible performance.

Each of my test loads produced different results and their points of impact differed significantly. I had expected the 30 grain offerings to be the most accurate, particularly the V-MAX bullet with its aerodynamic pointed tip. However, it was the 40 grain MAXI-MAG HP at 1875 fps that ultimately gave the best performance.

These tests have demonstrated a few things. First, the .22 Magnum is not the lame duck some shooters believe. Admittedly, it has never enjoyed a reputation as a tack-driving, sub-MOA cartridge. However, if you are diligent and spend a few bucks to test different types of ammo at the range, you may change your opinion about this versatile cartridge.

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Copyright 2008 by Barr H. Soltis. All rights reserved.