The .22 Long Rifle is 131 years old, yet it still holds the top spot as America’s favorite cartridge to shoot. Here’s why.
There is a reason the world consumes millions of rounds of .22 LR ammunition each year. The popular .22 offers almost no recoil, so it’s easy for both kids and adults to enjoy, it’s versatile enough to handle small-game hunting chores, and it’s a great cartridge to improve your marksmanship skills with because ammo is relatively inexpensive. But perhaps the most important reason the .22 LR is so popular is that it’s just plain fun to shoot. Whether you like punching paper targets or plinking cans, few cartridges offer as much shooting fun potential as the venerable .22 LR.
The first successful American, self-contained metallic cartridge was the .22 Short. It was developed in 1857 for Smith & Wesson’s First Model Revolver and was marketed for self-defense. And it’s still with us today.
Short of a zombie-chipmunk uprising, the idea of using a .22 Short for serious self-defense is a bit laughable by today’s standards. However, even though it was badly underpowered for the intended use, the .22 Short spawned a dynasty that evolved through many cartridge variations to get us to the .22 Long Rifle we enjoy today
The modern .22 LR uses smokeless powder and a non-corrosive primer compound, but other than that it’s not much different than the cartridge introduced in 1887. Except we now have machines capable of producing a million or more cartridges a day that are running constantly to feed the demand.
The modern .22 LR comes in several variations, the most common being: standard velocity, high velocity and hyper velocity. The latter often uses a slightly longer case and a lighter bullet. Common bullets are solid lead or hollow point. They might have a thin metallic coating. The bullets are lubricated, usually with a wax of some sort. The standard bullet weight is 40-grains while hollow points usually weigh in at 38-grains.
The hyper velocity bullets are lighter, usually 32 grains. Muzzle velocity can be pretty wide ranging as well. Low noise ammo runs about 700 ft/s where the hyper velocity ammo can hit 1,640ft/s. There are a multitude of variations in bullet weights from 30-grains to 60-grains.
Four Great .22’s to Consider
There are a great number of firearms chambered for the .22 LR. Rifle shooters can choose single-shot, bolt-action, lever-action, pump-action or semi-auto models. Handgun models include revolvers, semi-autos and single-shots. There are far too many guns chambered for .22 Long Rifle to ever consider listing, but here are a few I have tried and can recommend.
This semi-auto rifle is probably the most successful modern .22 LR rifle on the planet. The sheer number of aftermarket upgrades for the Ruger 10/22 is mind boggling. It’s fine right out of the box or if you are like me and unable to leave well enough alone, this is the ultimate kit gun. I have several 10/22 rifles, but I am partial to the takedown model as an easy transporting hunting gun. MSRP: Starting at $309.00
The Savage “A-Series” of semi-auto, rimfire rifles started with the .17 HMR, then the .22 Magnum and finally the .22 LR, which was released at the 2017 SHOT show. I have used them all, but find the A-22 the most versatile, simply because it’s chambered in .22 Long Rifle. I have used mine on several squirrel hunts and have found it to be accurate and reliable. MSRP: $281.00
Henry Classic Lever Action .22
There is something about a lever-action rifle that stirs up the cowboy in all of us. This rifle is perfect for hunting squirrels, shooting tin cans or holding off imaginary rustlers. MSRP: $378.00
Ruger Mark IV 22.45 Lite
This semi-auto pistol is a lot of fun. I fitted mine with a red-dot sight and have found it perfect for small-game hunting or just plinking at targets in my back yard. MSRP: $559.00
A modern centerfire cartridge has a primer fitted into a cup in the back of the cartridge case. There is a small hole in the case to allow the fire from the primer to reach the powder. Usually these primers can be removed and replaced, allowing the cartridge case to be reloaded. This is a much stronger case design that can utilize the high pressures needed for the performance expected from a modern cartridge.
With a rimfire cartridge the hollow rim is folded and shaped using the same thin material used to make the cartridge case. The priming compound is then spun with centrifugal force to fill the rim. Because there is no anvil for the firing pin to strike against, as with a centerfire primer, the priming compound in a rimfire will have something like ground glass mixed into the compound to help pinch the priming compound against the firing pin to ignite the priming compound. The rim’s metal must be relatively thin so the firing pin can dent it and fire the cartridge. That means that the pressures with a rimfire cartridge must be kept low as this is not a strong case design. Also, there is no practical way to reload a rimfire case.
Few cartridges can rival the .22 Long Rifle’s diversity. There are .22 LR target loads designed for precision accuracy as well as “plinking” ammo designed to keep the cost down. There are several hunting loads and even some .22 LR loads designed specifically for use in modern sporting rifles. There are low-noise loads, sub-sonic loads and even loads with bullets that segment on contact. If you live in a place where lead has been banned, there is no-lead .22 Long Rifle ammo to keep you legal.
There are even shot-shell versions used for pest control. At one time these were popular for shooting aerial targets using a smooth-bore rifle. The mild report and the safety of the low powered cartridge made it a favorite for exhibition shooters as well as plinkers.
Cost is a huge factor in the success of the .22 LR. It’s inexpensive to shoot as the price per shot is a fraction of the cost of centerfire ammo. Within any budget you can do a lot of trigger pulling with a .22 Long Rifle that is not possible with any centerfire rifle or handgun.
A quick check of the internet shows that name brand 9 mm pistol ammo costs about $0.18 per shot, while .223 Remington runs about $0.28 per round. The price per round of .22 Long Rifle is about four cents—big difference.
The .22 Long Rifle is an inherently accurate cartridge and is used in a wide range of competition and target shooting endeavors. From precision bullseye pistol shooting, to Olympic Biathlon through the newer Rimfire Challenge competitions popular today, this cartridge performs at a multitude of levels.
The .22 LR is well suited for small-game hunting for squirrels, rabbits, raccoons and similar size game. There are reports of the .22 LR killing an elephant, but trust me, it’s not an elephant cartridge. In fact, it’s not a deer cartridge, either. The .22 LR is an extremely effective small-game and small-varmint cartridge, meaning squirrels, gophers and, if they are close, prairie dogs. It’s a bit light for bobcats, coyotes or foxes but if you call them close and place the shot with precision, it will work. Woodchucks or rabbits raiding the garden are no match for a well-placed .22 hollow point.
Actually, the .22 LR s a great choice for pest control around a farm or rural home as the report is mild enough so the neighbors or livestock are not bothered. In fact, there are some that are some low noise, sub-sonic .22 LR loads designed just for that use.
Of course, the number one use for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge is just shooting for fun. The age old practice of lining empty cans up on the fence and knocking them off burns up a lot of ammo every year. Inexpensive commercial targets, like a dueling tree, can pit shooter against shooter for fun family competition.
The .22 Long Rifle has been around for a very long time and is not showing any signs of slowing down. Like most of my generation, my first rifle was chambered in .22 LR. My grandfather and my father both learned to shoot and hunt with a .22 Long Rifle and I think we can expect our grandchildren and great grandchildren to be to be introduced to shooting and hunting with a .22 Long Rifle. It truly is the king of cartridges and long may it reign.
About The Author: Bryce M. Towsley has been writing about guns for 36 years and has published thousands of articles in most of the major firearms magazines. He has hunted all over the world and is a competition shooter in several disciplines. Towsley has several books available on guns, shooting and hunting as well as an adventure novel, The 14th Reinstated. Signed books are available on his website.