The Lowly 22 Long Rifle

Way back when I was five years old, I fired my first shots from the .22 Marlin bolt action that my Dad taught me how to shoot with. Back in those days, I considered the .22 Long Rifle to be serious weaponry. Of course, we all know that it isn’t, right? I mean, it’s a tiny pipsqueak that no one takes very seriously these days. Or is it? Let’s take a look at the history, use, and benefits of the lowly .22 LR cartridge.

Next to the .223, the .22LR is dwarfed.
Next to the .223, the .22LR is dwarfed. It’s amazing that such a tiny bullet gets to the velocities that it does! Sure the .223 moves out at around 3,000 FPS depending on the barrel length, but it’s huge compared to the .22LR.

How old is the .22 LR cartridge?

The first .22 LR was made way back in 1887 by the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company. It measured 5.6x15mm, with the case length measuring .613 inches, and when loaded, the overall length of the round measures about one inch. Information varies a bit, but from what I can gather, its predecessors were the .22 BB Cap (Bulleted Breach Cap) and the .22 Short, invented in 1845 and 1857, respectively.

S&W Model 1 showing hinged barrel
S&W’s first firearm chambered for the .22 was called the First Model, which was a small revolver that used a bottom-hinged barrel that tipped down so the cylinder could be loaded and unloaded. (Photo: Navy History & Heritage Command)

The .22 Long Rifle (LR) bullet is “heeled,” meaning that the bullet’s diameter is the same as the case it uses. It is also “Rimfire,” which means it does not have a conventional primer, but instead a ring of powder that goes around the base of the bullet, or within the rim. The firing pin hits the rim to detonate the main charge. 

.22 Long Rifle cartridge, showing the base.
Look, Ma, no primer! The .22 Long Rifle is a rimfire, meaning there is no primer to ignite the round.

Nowadays, every type of firearm imaginable is chambered for the venerable .22 LR—rifles in semi-auto, bolt action, lever action, pump action, and probably some I’m not even considering. I recall one company even making a Gatling Gun version! Pistols in semi-auto and revolver. Cheap ones, expensive ones, ultra-accurate ones, competition ones…you get the picture. Everything under the sun, literally!

.22 LR Projectile Construction

Most .22 LR rounds are made of solid lead. Some are made from exposed lead (often with a wax covering) and sometimes they are copper coated. For the most part, the bullets don’t fragment much, given their solid construction and comparatively low velocities, so they can be prone to ricochet. There are also hollow-point projectiles, along with bird or snake shot that has #12 BBs.

Unlike a few decades ago when the range of loads for .22 ammo was rather limited, these days a staggering array of different .22 LR ammo is available to choose from.

Box of CCI Stinger .22 LR
The CCI Stinger is one of the fastest .22LR bullets available.

As mentioned, there are low-velocity loads like the CB Caps and Shorts. Then we have subsonic loads, standard velocity, and hyper-velocity.

Box of CCI Velocitor 22 LR
CCI’s Velocitor is one of the hyper-sonic rounds on the market today. They’re difficult to find in abundance.

It has been estimated that two to two-and-a-half billion .22 caliber bullets are made annually. That should tell us something—the .22 is super-popular, and even that is a bit of an understatement!

Advantages of the .22 LR Cartridge

Let’s take a look at the many advantages that the tiny round offers. They seem to go on endlessly!

It’s Inexpensive

Compared to other rounds, the .22 is simply far cheaper to shoot, which equates to more practice time and more fun. At the time of writing, I can buy a 100-round pack of CCI Mini Mag at my local gunshop for $11.95. Consider that we are in the midst of a major ammo panic, so this is a higher price than if we were talking about “normal” times. Bricks of .22 are currently running between $35 and $55 dollars, depending on what sort of ammo we’re talking about.

Adaptability

Most manufacturers make conversion kits so that the .22 Long Rifle can be fired in their guns. 1911s, AR-15s, Glocks, and a ton of others all have kits that will allow their firearms to be modified to use the .22. Simply put, this allows more versatility and more training time because it’s cheaper to shoot the .22.

Volume

The inexpensive price (and smaller size of the round) allows us to store a larger volume of ammunition. We can buy more, so we can put more of it away for a rainy day. And given the current climate in our country and in the world, it appears that it may begin raining in earnest.

Acceptability

It can be used in indoor ranges that prohibit more powerful ammunition from being used. In many ranges, shooters cannot fire rifles in calibers from, say, .223 or other high-velocity rounds. However, most will permit the .22 to be fired.

Versatility

The round fits the bill for so many uses, it is mind-boggling! We will cover more of those shortly.

It’s Quiet

This is a great aspect for new shooters, who benefit by starting off with rounds that do not have lots of muzzle blast, noise, and recoil because it just scares them and makes them develop a flinch. Starting them off with the very mild .22LR is best to ease them into the concept. Look at it kind of like a “gateway drug” for shooting. Conversely, even experienced shooters sometimes enjoy shooting with a quieter round with low recoil.

Other aspects go beyond enjoyment when talking about a mild-shooting round, such as if you want to be discreet when shooting. An example that comes to mind is the Air Force Survival Rifle in .22LR. If you’re down behind enemy lines and need to make a comparatively quiet shot, the .22 is a good choice to use. Also, if you’re in a desperate situation where you have to take game quietly, the .22LR is the way to do it.

Portability

If “bugging out”, you can take a lot of .22LR rounds with you. Carrying 500 rounds in a pack would not add a terrible amount of weight to your load.

Easier on the Barrel

Because the muzzle velocity is low, barrels in .22LR tend to last quite a long time, assuming they’re made well. They will certainly last much longer than the barrels of comparatively high-velocity rifles like the .223/5.56mm. Aside from that, the .22 is not such a high-pressure round that it beats up the internal parts of guns either, so the overall longevity of the firearm is better with a .22LR.

Widely Available

You can find .22LR for sale pretty much at any place that sells bullets. It’s that popular and widespread, which is a huge plus in my book.

Aguila .22 LR
Aguila is a solid performer and is priced very reasonably. It has proven reliable in several different semi-auto .22s.

What is the velocity of .22 LR?

Below is a chart of some bullet brands and velocities. These are very general and taken from manufacturers’ literature, so velocities vary depending on barrel length and other factors. But this will give readers a general idea of how some of the ammo performs. Granted, this is a very limited list, but again, it’s just to give people an idea of some of the possibilities of the .22 Long Rifle:

  • CCI Stinger: 32 grains—1,640 feet per second.
  • CCI Mini-Mag: 36 grains—1,260 feet per second.
  • CCI Velocitor: 40 grains—1,435 feet per second.
  • Remington Golden Bullet: 40 grains—1,255 feet per second.
  • Remington Thunderbolt: 40 grains—1,255 feet per second.

When you look at the dimensions of this tiny cartridge, the fact that it achieves such velocities is really quite amazing! Looking at it, you’d not think it was capable of very much speed given its diminutive size.

As an aside, there are a number of subsonic rounds out there that are obviously below the threshold of the speed of sound and are usually heavier than standard rounds. I’m using a load from Federal currently that is 45 grains and seems to be very accurate from my Savage MK II FV-SR. When my daughter recently shot this rifle with that load, she was amazed at how little recoil and noise there was.

Armscor and Federal Subsonic .22 LR
Among the plethora of ammo available, the Federal Subsonic on the right is one of the more quiet shooters, as it does not exhibit that sonic “crack” when the bullet breaks the sound barrier.

One reason for the extra accuracy is likely because when a super-sonic bullet is moving back into subsonic speed, the bullet’s stability can be affected. Subsonic bullets will not have to go through that turbulence, nor is there a sonic “crack” to hear, so it’s quieter.

CCI Mini Mag
CCI is widely considered the “gold standard’ by which most .22 ammo is judged by.

What can .22 Long Rifle be used for?

I won’t pretend to know all of the various uses for the .22LR. There are so many, I’m not sure anyone really knows. I’ll try to scratch the surface here, and readers will undoubtedly be able to add far more than I can in the end. That said, it’s fun to try to think of as many uses for this amazing round as we can.

Hunting

Small game and pests are the main targets here, although poachers have been taking deer with .22LR for decades. It’s quiet, remember? Pests such as rats are also popular targets for the little rimfire. Squirrels, groundhogs, rabbits, raccoons, and possums are some other game commonly taken with the .22.

Target and Competition Shooting

Most competition target leagues use the .22LR for reasons already mentioned—everything from local and high school teams all the way up to Olympic athletes. The Boy Scouts also teach Marksmanship, and the .22 is one of their choices for such endeavors. I have fond memories of my time in the Scouts shooting.

Plinking and Recreation

Sometimes it’s just fun to spend some time enjoying the sport of shooting. All too often, I get caught up in doing never-ending shooting drills, and sometimes it’s nice to just relax and just plink at items on the range. Apparently, millions of people agree. And, an afternoon shooting tin cans, clay pigeons, or paper targets is a great way to introduce people to shooting sports.

Survival

Because of its low price and the ability to store and carry a lot of ammo, the .22 is a prime tool for survival. Yes, we want to also have larger rounds for such a task, but our ability to acquire larger caliber ammo might be limited. The .22 can be stockpiled in quantities that make it a serious contender for this task.

Henry Survival Rifle
The Henry Survival Rifle is extraordinarily compact and breaks down into the stock for compact storage. It is also surprisingly accurate and very light.

Training

We can do a substantial portion of training with this inexpensive round, considering we don’t always have to fire full-powered rounds. You might want to use the .22 for a large chunk of a range session, and then finish up with the full-powered caliber of your choice. Despite the fact that it’s “only” a .22, it still forces you to have good form and trigger control in order to make hits on target, so the fundamentals still have to be there. It’s always a good thing to reinforce the fundamentals.

Defense

Let’s not kid ourselves, the .22LR is likely not going to be our first choice for defense. It is not extremely powerful, and most of us want a more powerful round when our life is on the line. There are many far better choices for self-defense than the .22

With that said, make no mistake—the .22LR can definitely be lethal, which can be attested to by the fact that it has canceled out a lot of birth certificates over the decades. This isn’t a testament to the fact that it is any more lethal than other calibers, but more so because of its widespread use.

9mm cartridge next to .22 LR cartridge
The .22 is rather tiny when compared to the 9mm Speer Gold Dot hollowpoint. When you think about it, it’s amazing that it can reach the velocities that it does despite its diminutive stature.

Given the choice between having no gun for defense and having a .22, I’ll certainly take the .22! One area where it might be a real boon is if used indoors, given its low noise and muzzle blast.

Let me expound.

The Ruger 10/22 comes to mind. It is available with 25-round magazines, and I believe 25 rounds of .22 makes the rifle a serious contender for defense. Note that this is quite different than using a derringer with a few shots for defensive purposes; the 25-round magazine and rifle-length barrel of the 10/22 add volume and velocity, which are going to move the little caliber into a different realm. Is that derringer useless? I’d think not! But there’s good, and then there’s better.

Ruger 10/22 with a 25-round factory BX-25 magazine
The Ruger 10/22 with a 25-round factory BX-25 magazine can defend the castle. Indoors, the muzzle blast is far tamer than most other rifles of larger caliber, a consideration if the weapon will be fired inside the home.

With such a tiny bullet, shot placement is going to become absolutely paramount when using the .22LR for self-defense. If it’s all you’ve got, then go with it.

Some people might not be able to operate a full-sized handgun due to reduced hand strength stemming from injuries, arthritis, or other conditions. Perhaps they can’t rack the slide of a full-powered handgun. Or maybe they cannot handle the recoil of stronger calibers. For these folks, the .22 might be their only or best option, so it can fill a niche there.

What is the effective range of .22 LR?

Most shooters, even the optimistic ones, acknowledge that the effective range of the .22LR extends to about 150 yards, and that’s stretching it. Although I know a few fellows who will stretch it out to 300 yards, but that’s just for punching holes in paper. At that range, the ballistics are falling off pretty drastically.

For game, I’d say 100 yards is probably about as far out as one should try to reach with the tiny caliber, depending on what you’re shooting. Better yet, keep it well under 100 yards to make the most out of the ballistics.

After all, part of the magic of understanding any caliber is to learn its strengths and limitations, which makes you a better shooter and also makes the caliber you’re working with more enjoyable.

Who uses .22 LR?

Despite its drawbacks, the .22LR has seen service with various militaries throughout history. The Israelis have used it for riot control and also Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency) used it for assassinations. As well, I’ve heard reports that it was used in Bosnia and Chechnya as a sniper weapon for short-range urban engagements. I’m also aware that US forces in Vietnam used suppressed Ruger pistols to take out sentries.

Some police agencies and military units use suppressed .22s (very often the Ruger 10/22 with integral suppressor) for various tasks, including taking out lights quietly.

Which manufacturers make firearms for .22 LR?

Speaking of the Ruger 10/22, it represents one of the most popular .22 firearms in history, with over seven million having been produced since 1964. Another incredibly popular model by Ruger in this caliber is the Mark Series of Pistols (they’re now producing the Mark IV).

Ruger MK IV 22/45
The Ruger MK IV 22/45 is an outstanding .22LR handgun. The MK series has been out since 1949 and are reliable and accurate, being wildly popular with many shooters.

Aside from Ruger, I can think of few gun manufacturers who do not make a .22 caliber firearm. To neglect making a firearm in this caliber would be foolhardy and shortsighted.

Savage, Remington, Marlin, Henry, Ruger…the list is massive for who makes firearms in .22LR. The firearms that are listed here are by no means a complete list but are merely a few of the ones that I have experience with.

Savage MK II FV-SR
The Savage MK II FV-SR is a little tack driver! It is also very inexpensive. I shot a 7/8-inch group with this rifle the first time out using standard factory ammo at 50 yards. With Match-Grade ammo, results would definitely be better.

Yes, I’m a self-admitted addict to the .22 Long Rifle cartridge.

I make no apologies. With every trip to the local gun shop, I can’t help but buy some, whether it’s just a box of 50 or a brick of 500. It adds up over time, which is my intention.

If you’re reading this, you are most likely a shooter. And if you’re a shooter, you probably are familiar with the .22 Long Rifle. If you haven’t shot yours lately, maybe it’s time to dust it off and get reacquainted with it. You may just rediscover how much fun shooting can be! And if you haven’t yet delved into the .22 Long Rifle, you owe it to yourself to check it out, you’ll thank me later.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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