The .22 Rimfire – The Gateway Caliber

The .22 Rimfire – The Gateway Caliber

For many of us, our first experience with a firearm was probably pretty much the same. It likely involved a small .22 caliber rifle and a few rusty tin cans, or maybe even a dusty old bottle or two. The absence of any felt recoil and only the slightest crack of the round being fired from the breech, made it the perfect introductory firearm. Whether we were shooting a single shot Cricket or the semi-automatic Ruger 10-22, the .22 rimfire created an enjoyable experience that planted the seed for a lifetime of passion around the sport of shooting.

For generations shooting a little .22 has been sort of a right of passage for many young people. These firearms have made it easy for new shooters to learn, by helping to avoid any anxiety or flinching, that can often be developed by larger caliber firearms.

There is no doubt that a lot of people enjoy these small rimfires. It’s obvious because of the .22’s tremendous popularity. For those of us that grew up around guns, the .22’s have just kind of always been around. As kids we plinked our way through Sunday morning target practices, or toted them out into the woods for small game hunts, which helped hone our skills. For many of us this is how we learned to shoot. Sure not everyone’s story is exactly the same, but that small caliber probably was used more often than not.

But one can’t help but wonder when did this love for the .22 begin? We would almost bet that most folks don’t realize just how long that .22 caliber has actually been around, and may be surprised to know that it predates every other popular caliber stocked on store shelves today. In fact, it holds the distinction of being the first American metallic cartridge ever developed. It has stood the test of time as the top ammunition, while many other early calibers simply faded into obscurity.

The .22 caliber first appeared as a BB cap (Bulleted Breech Cap) in 1845 and was used for indoor parlor guns. Parlor shooting was once a popular past time. Party guests would plink targets across the living room, out of fireplaces, or anywhere that offered enough space for a suitable shooting range. Designed as a low velocity round, the .22 BB was simply a small lead ball tucked into the end of the casing and was propelled by just the force of a primer. No additional powder was used in these first .22 bullets, so the velocity and the noise produced were minimal. Nevertheless, could you imagine folks today standing around a house party shooting targets? Yeah probably not, but wouldn’t it be great if that was still socially acceptable?

Soon that little parlor round would inspire the invention of a number of more useful rimfire bullets. The .22 Short was first introduced with the Smith & Wesson Model 1 Revolver in 1857. That is at least 160 years ago for those not wanting to do the math. That first little case held about a 30-grain projectile with 4 grains of black powder. But as Americans often do, we needed to make it bigger and better.

The .22 Long appeared in 1871 with its longer case, which offered the ability to increase both projectile and powder. Shortly after that the .22 Extra Long was introduced. Again it was designed to accommodate a larger load, but that variation didn’t achieve the long lasting success of its counterparts and seemingly disappeared by the 1930’s.

Finally the .22 Long Rifle was introduced by the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company in 1887. This little rimfire gem remains the most popular rifle caliber to this day. The casing allows for an ideal combination of bullet and powder that enables a nice versatility in velocities.

There are so many rounds of .22 LR ammunition being fired around the world each year, that the amount produced annually is measured in the billions. Granted that this is partly because until very recently there has been no reloading market for the tiny rimfire cartridge, so all ammunition being shot around the globe each year is being produced in a factory.

But why did the .22 LR become and stay so popular when others failed? Is it the lack of recoil compared to other calibers or the minimal noise it creates? Could it be that it is inexpensive? It is surely a combination of all of these things, but it may also be that it is a very versatile round. Although by today’s standard it is not a suitable defense round, it is still ideal for many other applications. It is a great rodent and small game caliber, perfect for young or inexperienced shooters, training hunting dogs, skills training, plinking, whatever. And it seems that every gun manufacturer produces at least one gun chambered in .22 LR. Year after year new models of .22 caliber firearms still appear on store shelves. To top it off, many of these guns are relatively inexpensive.

The .22 LR is available in bolt actions, single shots, semi-auto rifles, pistols, and revolvers. If we were to open up the comment section below and ask each of you to state whether you own a .22 LR chambered gun, and if so, which model it is, we can almost guarantee that there would be hundreds of unique responses, because everybody has a need for the .22 rimfire in their collection.

Modern .22 LR ammunition is typically loaded with a 20 to 60 grain projectile and will leave the muzzle at a velocity of anywhere from 600 to 1,750 feet per second. Four classifications are used to identify the different velocities of .22 ammunition.

 To explain this we have borrowed the following excerpt from the .22 Long Rifle Wikipedia page*:

The variety of .22 LR loads are often divided into four distinct categories, based on nominal velocity:

Subsonic, which also includes "target" or "match" loads, at nominal speeds below 1100 feet (335 meters) per second.

Standard-velocity: 1120–1135 feet (340–345 meters) per second.

High-velocity: 1200–1310 feet (365–400 meters) per second.

Hyper-velocity, or Ultra-velocity: over 1400 feet (425 meters) per second.

Through the years, it seemed that the .22 had never lost the attention of gun makers and ammunition designers, especially those at Winchester. Of course the improvements to gunpowder have made the three main varieties of ammunition faster and cleaner, but many modifications to the round continued to be introduced. In 1890 Winchester produced the .22 WRF (Winchester Rimfire). In 1930 they came up with the .22 Hornet, and then in 1959 the .22 WRF (Winchester Magnum Rimfire). Each time they improved on velocity and knock down power.

The .22 was also turned into centerfire rounds such as Remington’s .222 caliber, which was first introduced with their 722 bolt-action rifle in 1950. It has been developed into specialty loads, like the .22 LR Rat-Shot. A design of a shotshell packed into a little .22 case.

The .22 is also used in the Olympic biathlon event, which requires athletes to shoot targets with a .22 LR caliber rifle. They shoot at a series of five targets four times during the race, twice from a prone position and twice from standing position. Their ability to aim and fire quickly is extremely important as any missed targets lead to time loss through penalty laps.

The .22 caliber is also one of the rounds used in the construction trade to drive nails and anchors into dense surfaces. Single shot Ramset & Hilte guns are available in any home improvement or hardware store. They load up short little .22 CW rounds of different velocities and are activated by either a traditional trigger system or by the strike of a hammer. Producing a focused blast down to the head of a nail and driving it into stone, concrete, or just about anything else.

With so many unique sizes and uses it’s very likely that we have not yet seen the last of .22 caliber based designs. The fact that reloading kits have recently hit the market is a testament that there is a shooting base that is determined to keep the .22 rimfire at the top of the ammunition heap. So if you are one of the few who has not yet added a little rimfire to your collection, you may want to check out what you’ve been missing. Because the .22 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and it has no real competition when comparing price, variety, and enjoyment.

On May 10th 1953, a tiny 63-year-old Cree woman from Alberta, Canada, killed a World Record grizzly bear with a .22 caliber rifle. Bella Twin was an experienced trapper with a reputation of being an excellent shooter. One day while out hunting with a friend along an oil exploration site just south of Slave Lake in Alberta, they encounter the massive beast. The story has become clouded through the re-telling over the years, but it is said that the bear was on their scent and that Bella was left with no other choice but to take the shot when it got too close. The gun used in the heroic tale was a Cooey Ace 1 single shot rimfire and the ammunition used was a CIL high velocity .22 long. She placed the first shot just in front of the bear’s ear, dropping it to the ground. Unsure if she had killed it or simply stunned the animal, she proceeded to reload and shoot the remainder of her ammunition into the same area of the grizzly’s skull. The gun and the bear’s skull have since found their way into museums as evidence of this miraculous feat.

*  " .22 Long Rifle" by Wikipedia is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License