In a culture that loves large-caliber firearms in the hands of its cinematic heroes (and villains), there seems to be virtually no room for small caliber guns. You won’t see Liam Neeson packing anything short of a 9mm or 12-gauge shotgun. Our collective mindset is that bigger is better when it comes to guns, but that’s a mindset birthed from action-packed movies and video games, and one that often works to our detriment since firepower doesn’t always equate to efficiency. But the life of the sportsman is one that’s more refined and event specific. And thus, we take into account the .22 Long Rifle: it fires a diminutive round at lower speeds and shorter distances than its big-bored brethren, but its popularity is virtually unparalleled in the world of long guns.
Take one look at a .22 LR (Long Rifle) caliber round, and you’ll wonder why someone handed you the metal equivalent of a piece of Good & Plenty candy. It’s small (22/100ths of an inch). So small, it almost seems that it could do about as much damage whipping it at someone with your bare hand as shooting it out of a gun. But fire that minuscule round from the long barrel of a .22 LR, and everything changes. What seems small and harmless is turned into an accurate projectile that generates next to no serious recoil, muzzle flash or noise. And, if aimed properly, the .22 LR can bring down game just as reliably as a larger firearm. But the gun is more than just a firearm: it’s a loved and respected icon of sport.
Before we delve into why the .22 LR is such a spectacular sportsman’s gun, we need to flash back to how the .22 round evolved (and subsequently led to the popularity of the rifle). Although conventional wisdom argues that the rifle should be obsolete based on the age of the round, it defies logic and exists as the only significant firearm ammunition that’s successfully transitioned from the 19th century to the modern age. The origins begin with the .22 BB Cap (Bulleted Breech Cap) in 1845 and then moved to the .22 short black powder rimfire round.
Rimfire vs. Centerfire
The .22 LR round is a rimfire cartridge, meaning the primer is located on the lip of the shell casing, where the priming compound is located. The firing pin makes impact with the rim, igniting the compound and propellant (earlier versions used black powder, while modern rounds employ a smokeless powder). Since the shell casing on a rimfire cartridge is a single piece of metal, it cannot be reloaded like centerfire rounds. But the rimfire’s single-piece casing makes it uniquely affordable among its ammo brethren. Never before have small and cheap come across as compliments.
The .22 Short cartridge dates as far back as 1857 and marks the first American-made metallic cartridge that was originally created for the first Smith & Wesson Model 1 revolver, a ridiculously popular gun that exploded in sales largely because of the outset of the American Civil War. Soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy purchased them for self-defense. The evolution of the .22 round then met its greatest iteration in the .22 Long Rifle by the Steven Arms Company of Massachusetts, and this is where the history turns from round to gun. The .22 LR’s impressive characteristics included higher velocities and flatter impacts, which aided in both accuracy and lethality. The result was near-instant popularity, which led to the creation of both .22 LR-compatible pistols and long guns (rifles) and has since made the .22 rifle one of the most popular firearms on the planet. Nearly all of the mainstream rifle manufacturers like Remington, Winchester, Ruger and Browning, along with smaller niche manufacturers, make numerous forms of the .22 rifle.
The .22 Long Rifle isn’t about huge firepower or intimidating designs that belong on the big screen, but it does signify a legacy of shooting that spans over a century.
A Standard Velocity .22 LR round fired out of a rifle attains a muzzle velocity (speed of the bullet when it leaves the gun) of approximately 1,125 fps (feet per second). The speed can vary based on the type of rifle used, but the maximum effective distance is around 150 meters. After that the bullet’s speed decreases rapidly and it loses accuracy at a drastic rate. Even a .22 High Velocity round that travels at a maximum speed of about 1,310 fps goes subsonic before it reaches the 100-yard range. There are higher velocity, longer range and harder hitting .22 rounds like the .22 Hornet and the .22 Magnum, but they tend to do more damage than good when it comes to small game.
The .22 rifle comes in myriad iterations, such as bolt-action, pump-action, lever-action or semi-automatic. Most commonly used as a field gun for small game hunting, the rifle is also popular as an all-around utility long gun used for self-defense, pest or varmint control, target shooting, training, and survival. And the round is tremendously affordable; a .22 standard velocity rimfire round costs about 1/5th of a 9mm centerfire round. In a time where ammo costs are rising, as is the cost of reloading centerfire cartridges, the affordability factor is downright refreshing.
In the arena of sports, the event known as Biathlon involves cross-country skiing and target shooting over distances approaching 12 miles and utilizes a straight-pull bolt-action .22 LR at all levels of competition, including the Olympic Winter Games. The reasons why the rifle is the gun of choice are threefold: it’s reliable in extreme weather, light enough to carry fully loaded in a long-distance competition and easy to fire in both standing and prone positions. Even the Boy Scouts of America use the .22 rimfire long rifle for part of their rifle merit badge qualifications because of its universality and its low fear factor (thanks to the minimal recoil and quieter operating noise levels).
And as a small game rifle, the .22 LR is an excellent choice. Taking down animals and varmints — squirrels, ground hogs, prairie dogs, foxes, deer and even wild hogs — at short to medium ranges (20-50 meters) is doable with a .22. A well-placed shot to the head or neck will almost always ensure a kill, as long as you don’t attempt a longer-range shot. The .22 LR is also the ideal starter rifle for beginners. With the low recoil (due to the small caliber), aiming and properly shooting the .22 is more easily refined, since bad habits are quickly brought to light.
The .22 LR isn’t about huge firepower or intimidating designs that belong on the big screen, but it does signify a legacy of shooting that spans over a century. Thanks to its remarkable utility, low price point, reliability and ease of use for beginners and advanced sportsmen, the .22 will continue to stand at the height of popularity among shooters. It’s a rifle you’ll find yourself returning to over and over again and one you’ll be proud to pass down to the next generation of sportsmen in your family.