The .22 Long Rifle

By Chuck Hawks

.22 LR
Illustration courtesy of CCI.

The .22 Long Rifle (LR) is the most popular and the most highly developed cartridge in the world. The major ammunition producers have put more research and development dollars into this modest little cartridge than any other. It is used at the highest levels of match target competition, including the Olympic Games. Strange, when you think about it, as the .22 LR is also, along with its predecessors the .22 Short and .22 Long, the most antiquated of cartridges.

The rimfire principle was used to create the first successful self-contained metallic ammunition. Rimfire cases are constructed with the priming compound spun inside the rim of the copper or brass case, which is crushed by the blow of the firing pin to ignite the main powder charge. This damages the case so that it is useless for reloading and the rimfire design requires a far weaker case rim than the solid head cases used for centerfire ammunition. The permissible maximum average pressure (MAP) for rimfire ammunition is much lower than possible with centerfire cartridges. Yet, the .22 LR endures and prospers, outselling all other sporting cartridges by a large margin every year.

All current .22 rimfires (except the relatively recent .22 WMR) are ancient black powder designs and use tapered heel bullets. If you examine a .22 S, L, or LR cartridge you will see that the case and bullet are the same diameter. The part of the bullet inside of the case (the heel) is reduced in diameter to allow it to fit inside of the case. Such bullets are also called "outside lubricated," because they are ordinarily waxed or copper plated. In all other modern cartridges, the bullet shank is of constant diameter and the case is slightly larger than the bullet to allow the heel of the latter to fit inside. This old fashioned term for this design is "inside lubricated," as the lubrication grooves of lead bullets are inside of the case.

The .22 Short is a development of the BB cap using a 29 grain round nose (RN) bullet in a lengthened case (compared to the BB Cap). It was originally powered by 4 grains of fine black powder (about FFFFg). Strange as it sounds today, the .22 Short was originally developed as a self defense cartridge for use in a handgun. Today, CCI loads their .22 Short Target ammunition to a muzzle velocity of 830 fps for rapid fire pistol competition.

The .22 Short is a pretty anemic round and in 1871 a longer case of the same diameter was developed for the 29 grain Short bullet. This became the .22 Long cartridge, still occasionally seen, but obsolescent, today. The .22 Long was once chambered in a large number of pistols and rifles. It was originally loaded with 5.0 grains of very fine black powder and offered about 100+ fps greater velocity than the .22 Short.

In 1887, the Stevens Arms Co. developed the ultimate in .22 rimfire cartridges, the .22 Long Rifle. This used the .22 Long case with a 40 grain RN bullet loaded to higher velocity than the 29 grain Long bullet. It shot flatter and hit harder than any of the previous .22 rimfires, except the earlier .22 Extra Long, whose performance it essentially duplicated in a shorter case. The .22 LR proved to be more accurate than that cartridge and therefore replaced the .22 Extra Long, which has been obsolete for a long time.

The .22 Long Rifle caught on, was adapted to both rifles and pistols, and became the most popular sporting and target shooting cartridge in the world. After the advent of smokeless powder a High Velocity version of the .22 LR was introduced, which further extended the .22 LR's superiority as a small game hunting cartridge.

Modern .22 LR target ammunition is loaded to a MV of about 1085 fps with a 40 grain RN bullet. .22 Long Rifle High Velocity cartridges drive a 40 grain copper-plated bullet at a MV of 1255 fps and ME of 140 ft. lbs. from a rifle barrel.

For small game hunters, most manufacturers offer a 36-37 grain copper-plated lead hollow point bullet at about 1280 fps (Remington figures). This load expands nicely and makes for quick kills on small game, given proper bullet placement. The maximum point blank range (+/- 1.5 inches) of typical .22 LR High Velocity loads is about 90 yards when fired from a rifle with a telescopic sight mounted 1.5 inches above the bore.

Because of its popularity there are many permutations of the .22 LR cartridge. One of the least common is the .22 LR shot cartridge, which fires a pinch of very fine #12 ("dust") shot. This load is used, among other things, to collect very small creatures, mice and the like, for museum displays when fired from smooth bore barrels.

Far more useful are the Hyper Velocity .22 LR loads, pioneered by CCI in the form of the Stinger. These generally use lightweight hollow point bullets at increased velocity for flatter trajectory and dramatic expansion. Remington followed suit with their famous Yellow Jacket load, and the idea was subsequently picked-up by most other manufacturers. The CCI Stinger drives a 32 grain GLHP bullet at a MV of 1640 fps with 191 ft. lbs. of ME.

CCI .22 LR
Hyper Velocity .22 LR hunting cartridges. Illustration courtesy of CCI.

The .22 LR Hyper Velocity cartridges are the varmint loads of choice for those hunting sand rats, gophers, rats and the like with their .22 rifle or pistol. They kill quickly, but are likely to do excessive damage (unless only head shots are taken) to edible small game. The Hyper Velocity loads are also the best choice for anyone using a .22 LR firearm for personal protection, as they have demonstrated more stopping power than traditional High Velocity loads.

For small game hunting with both rifle and revolver, I prefer the .22 LR High Velocity 36-37 grain copper plated HP loads from CCI (Mini Mag), Remington (Golden Bullet) and Winchester (Super-X). I have spent a great many enjoyable hours in the woods carrying my old Marlin Golden 39-A Mountie. That lever action carbine and I have harvested no end of squirrels together and provided many a meal on camping and hunting trips.

Somehow, I have managed to wear out two firing pins (easily replaced in a Marlin 39) over some 50 years of small game hunting with that old take-down rifle, but it is still a deadly shooter. Manufactured sometime in the 1950s, it had already seen plenty of use when I traded a hunting partner out of it. He had his heart set on a Kodiak .22 WMR rifle I happened to own. However, that is a story for another time.

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Copyright 2004, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.