The .22 Hornet

By Chuck Hawks

.22 Hornet
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .22 Hornet is based on the old .22 WCF black powder cartridge. Winchester modernized their .22 with smokeless powder and offered factory loaded cartridges for the .22 Hornet in 1930. A couple of years later Savage offered their Model 23-D bolt action rifle in .22 Hornet, and a year after that Winchester offered the .22 Hornet in their Model 54 bolt action rifle. This was the beginning of the modern era of high performance .22 varmint cartridges. Most modern shooters do not realize that in its day this modest cartridge was a ring-tailed wonder.

The smallest common centerfire rifle cartridge, the Hornet is still a nifty 175 yard varmint and small game cartridge. It has a rimmed case very adaptable to single shot rifles (and pistols). The SAAMI maximum average pressure (MAP) for the .22 Hornet is now 43,000 cup, which means that actions for it need to be strong, but not as strong as those chambered for high intensity cartridges like the .223 Rem. In earlier years the Hornet's MAP was 46,000-47,000 cup, so old reloading manuals will usually show higher velocities than the latest editions.

Hornet factory loads are offered by Hornady, Remington, and Winchester. The Remington and Winchester factory loads use 45 grain pointed soft point or hollow point bullets at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2,690 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 723 ft. lbs. A typical 45 grain .224" bullet has a ballistic coefficient of only .191 and a sectional density of .128 (Hornady figures). These are not impressive numbers, and explain why the little bullets shed velocity fast and are quite succeptable to even mild crosswinds. Set up to strike dead on at 150 yards, the Hornet's 45 grain spitzer bullet strikes 1.4" high at 100 yards, and 4.3" low at 200 yards.

Hornady offers a factory load using their 35 grain V-Max bullet at a MV of 3100 fps with 747 ft. lbs. of ME. The Hornady trajectory figures for this are as follows: +2.8" at 100 yards, 0 at 200 yards, and -16.9" at 300 yards.

Because most .22 Hornet barrels are rifled with a 1-in-16 twist, they do not adequately stabilize bullets heavier than 52 grains. It is worth noting that some older Hornet barrels were designed for .223" bullets; I believe that all current Hornet rifles are intended for use with standard .224" diameter bullets. Hornady, for example, offers 45 grain Spire Point bullets of both diameters to Hornet reloaders. Hornet brass is rarther thin, and should be inspected for incipient head seperation after every use.

Another point of interest for reloaders is that the SAAMI maximum cartridge overall length for the .22 Hornet is 1.723". This means that most 50-52 grain bullets must be seated pretty deep in the case to work through the magazines of repeating rifles, and some (like the 50 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip) cannot be used at all. Of course, single shot guns are not so limited.

Due to the low MAP now allowed the .22 Hornet, powders must be chosen very carefully to maximize velocity. I have read that Accurate 1680 and Hodgdon Lil'Gun are among the best performers.

The Speer Reloading Manual shows a MV of 2749 fps with a Speer 40 grain Spire Point bullet in front of 12.5 grains of AA 1680 powder. The 45 grain spitzer bullet in front of 12.5 grains of AA 1680 achieved a MV of 2651 fps. The Speer 50 grain bullets achieved a MV of 2495 fps in front of 12.0 grains of AA 1680, and the 52 grain HP bullet hit 2395 fps in front of 11.5 grains of AA 1680 powder. Speer found that Accurate 1680 powder was by far the best propellent for the .22 Hornet, and all loads were held to a C.O.L. of 1.723" and should feed through the magazines of bolt action repeating rifles without a problem.

The .22 Hornet's mild recoil and soft report endear it to those who must hunt near human habitations. Primarily for this reason the Hornet, which not long ago was chambered in only one production rifle, is making a comeback. Winchester had the Hornet in fifth place on their sales list for 2000. (Remington and Federal did not list the Hornet in the top 10.) It is also chambered in single shot handguns like the T/C Contender, where it makes an outstanding long range pistol cartridge.

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Copyright 2002, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.