Compared: The .22 Long Rifle and .25 ACP

By Chuck Hawks

The .22 Long Rifle is a rimfire rifle and pistol cartridge that was developed in the last decade of the 19th Century. The first firearm so chambered was, I believe, the Marlin Model 1891 lever action rifle, the grandfather of the contemporary Model 39. But almost immediately the .22 LR was adapted to handguns. Today it is the most popular handgun cartridge in the world, widely offered in both revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. It is used for small game hunting, plinking, target shooting, and even self-defense.

There is an excellent selection of .22 LR revolvers and semi-automatics, plus the occasional single shot pistol. These range from deluxe target types with long barrels and fully adjustable sights to tiny pocket pistols and mini-revolvers. Likewise, .22 LR ammunition is the best selling and most widely distributed caliber in the world. Practically every ammo company that can manufacture .22 LR cartridges does so.

The .22 LR is offered in a number of permutations including target, standard velocity, high velocity, and hyper velocity loads. The most popular .22 LR cartridges are the "high velocity" loads. These usually come with 40 grain, copper plated, round nose lead bullets loaded to a catalog handgun muzzle velocity (MV) of 1060 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 100 ft. lbs. More effective as a hunting or self-defense bullet is the high velocity load using a 36-40 grain, copper plated, lead hollow point bullet at a MV of 1085 fps and ME of 105 ft. lbs. from a 6" barrel (Winchester figures). Actual bullet diameter is .220-.222 inch.

The mid-range trajectory of the typical .22 LR HP load is about 4 inches over 100 yards. This relatively flat trajectory plus the .22 LR's outstanding accuracy and the fine pistols available in the caliber make the .22 LR a cartridge well suited to hunting small game. Head shots on squirrels with a target-type .22 revolver or autoloading pistol make for a challenging and rewarding hunting experience.

The .25 ACP is a rimless, centerfire pistol cartridge that came out of Belgium in 1902. The famous "Baby Browning" semi-automatic pistol, manufactured by FN, was introduced for the new cartridge. The .25 ACP has become, along with the .22 LR, one of the most popular pocket pistol cartridges in the world. Its popularity stems from the tiny, easily carried and concealed pistols chambered for the cartridge rather than its ballistic properties. Actual bullet diameter is .251 inch.

There is a good selection of pocket automatic pistols in .25 ACP and most ammunition companies that manufacture centerfire handgun ammo offer .25 ACP factory loads. The tiny .25 case can be reloaded, although few users bother to do so. Those who do can duplicate or slightly exceed the factory load ballistics.

.25 ACP cartridges in their traditional form use a 50 grain FMJ bullet at a MV of 760 fps and ME of 64 ft. lbs. (Remington figures). These are not impressive numbers for any purpose, so a certain amount of effort has been expended in attempts to improve the terminal ballistics of the .25 ACP. Perhaps the best known self defense offering for the .25 ACP is the Winchester Super-X load using a special 45 grain Expanding Point bullet at a MV of 815 fps and ME of 66 ft. lbs. from a 2" barrel. The 100 yard numbers are 655 fps and 42 ft. lbs.

The mid-range trajectory figure for that Winchester load is 7.7" over 100 yards. The low velocity of the .25 ACP results in a rainbow trajectory. I can remember attempting to bag enough squirrels for dinner with a borrowed .25 ACP Beretta pocket pistol. This was during a big game hunt when our camp ran out of meat, and it was a pretty frustrating experience. The miniscule sights, gritty trigger, rainbow trajectory, and inherent inaccuracy of the little pistol made hits a matter of chance rather than design. I eventually gave up on the .25 and used my .350 Rem. Mag. rifle to bag the squirrels! As a camp or "kit" gun a .25 automatic is next to worthless, while a compact .22 LR revolver is an excellent choice.

The most frustrating problem with the .25 ACP from the bullet designer's perspective is that its low energy makes it difficult to get any sort of bullet to expand reliably. The comparatively high velocity of the .22 LR makes proper expansion of its LHP bullet relatively easy to achieve.

Any ballistic comparison of the two cartridges is going to favor the .22 LR. It hits in excess of 50% harder at all distances, shoots flatter, and its LHP bullet offers more reliable expansion. The .25 ACP is about a 10 yard cartridge; the .22 LR is a 75-100 yard cartridge.

There is also a far better choice of handguns in .22 LR. Most of the .25 ACP pocket pistols are also available in .22 LR, but none of the fine hunting and target handguns offered in .22 LR are available in .25 ACP.

Small automatics such as the Beretta Model 21 and Taurus PT-22/PT-25 are the most common choice in pocket pistols. The Beretta 21 is typical of the type, and it is chambered for the .22 LR and .25 ACP. It has a 2.4 inch barrel (including chamber) and weighs 11.5 ounces in .25 ACP.

Worthwhile alternatives to the pocket automatics are the North American Arms mini-revolvers. These are available in .22 Short, .22 LR, and .22 WMR calibers with barrels as short as 1 1/8 inches and as long as 4 inches. In .22 LR their weight varies between 4.5 ounces and 10.7 ounces, depending on barrel length and configuration. Some models are even available with adjustable sights! My favorite is the 2 inch, heavy barreled version known as the Black Widow Convertible. This slick little 5-shot, 8.8 ounce, single action revolver comes with an ergonomic rubber grip and either fixed or adjustable sights that you can actually see. It is supplied with both .22 LR and .22 WMR cylinders. It is more accurate, more reliable, and easier to shoot than any .22 or .25 caliber pocket automatic I have ever tried.

Both the .22 LR and .25 ACP cartridges are widely available wherever guns are sold, but here again the .22 LR has the advantage. There is a much greater selection of individual loads in .22 LR than in .25 ACP. And, because it is a rimfire cartridge, the cost of a box of .22 LR ammo is a fraction of the price of a box of .25 ACP ammo.

Recoil is not a consideration with either caliber, although the attenuated grips of most pocket automatic pistols and mini-revolvers makes them hard to hold and difficult to shoot accurately. (The NAA Black Widow revolver's grip is far superior.) Most shooters will not notice a significant difference in kick between the two calibers.

The .25 ACP, unlike the .22 LR, was designed specifically for small autoloading pistols. It is a stubby, rimless cartridge, easily fed from a detachable box magazine. This makes it more reliable in such pistols than the comparatively long, rimmed, .22 LR cartridge, which was designed for manually operated rifles and revolvers. Feed reliability is the .25's big advantage over the .22 LR as a semi-automatic pocket pistol cartridge. In any other type of firearm the .22 Long Rifle is the better choice for virtually any purpose.

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Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.