CA Guns & Hunting: Rimfire

CA Guns & Hunting: The .22 performs as a rimfire or centerfire

BY STEVE COMUS/Cal. Guns & Hunting Guns EditorPublished: Jul 07, 2017

Twenty-two, you say? Rimfire or centerfire? Uses for the self-contained “two-two” just keep on expanding even 161 years after its debut.

The MSR (Modern Sporting Rifle, aka AR), with its modular design, may have altered forever the perception and array of uses for the .22. But really, it is merely another step in a seemingly endless journey for that caliber designation.

LONG RANGE SMALL game hunting invites use of the .22 centerfire cartridges. Here, author uses a Browning A-Bolt in .223 Remington on bipods to engage small targets at long range.

The diminutive .22 rimfire short cartridge started it all as the first commercially successful self-contained metallic cartridge. That was in 1856 – even before I was a serious shooter. From such humble beginnings, the .22 caliber has come a long, long way – now doing things only possible with much larger diameter bullets in the long ago.

But to get to where we are today, the pathway has been both long and winding. Since they came first, rimfires were “the” thing for a while. The .22 short was introduced in the S&W Model 1, and by the time the Civil War came around, some soldiers carried the S&W Model 2, chambered for the .32 rimfire cartridge.

Rimfire rifles used in that war included Henry repeaters chambered for the .44 rimfire and Spencers chambered for the even larger .56 rimfire. The larger rimfires, including .32 and .38, were used for hunting well into the 20th Century. But when centerfire cartridges were introduced a few years after that great Civil War, the game changed and the rest, as they say, is history.

Meanwhile, the .22 long rifle evolved as the most prolific of the .22 rimfire cartridges, with production annually in the billions of rounds. There also has been a .22 long, which essentially is a rimfire that has the bullet of the .22 short and the case of the .22 long rifle. Although the .22 long was popular decades ago, it pretty much has given way to the .22 long rifle.

THE .22 RIMFIRE lends itself to use as a way to introduce new shooters to firearms. Here, a youngster at the annual Youth Safari Day in Southern California learns to use a .22 rifle. Youth Safari Day, a joint effort of the Los Angeles and Orange County Chapters of SCI, is held at Raahauge’s in Norco each year in mid-July.

When it came to hunting, as the larger rimfire cartridges became obsolete, anything beyond small game fell into the centerfire arena, while the .22 long rifle ruled supreme with small game hunters.

That all changed a bit in 1959 with the introduction of the.22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire cartridge, which shoots a 40-grain bullet at more or less 1,900 feet per second, depending on specific loading. All of these developments, however, further entrenched the .22 rimfire in the small game arena – while extending the effective range with the “magnum” version.

During the early years of the 20th Century, however, the .22 centerfire world evolved significantly, starting with the .22 Hornet in 1920s/30s. Other .22s from that period began to expand the uses of the .22. They included the .218 Bee and .219 Zipper.

The .22 became much more widely used for deer size game, however, with the introduction in 1912 of the Savage .22 High Power cartridge that was chambered in the Savage 99 lever-action rifle.

One quick note here: Not all .22s are the same diameter. Some are .222-inch in diameter, some are .223/.224 and the Savage High Power is .228. Not enough room here to ruminate over such trivia even though it probably should be noted.

THE .22 SHORT, left, started it all. It compares with the .22 long rifle, center, and .22 magnum.

For a long time, the .220 Swift was lauded as the highest velocity round extant (nominal muzzle velocity just over 4,000 feet per second). It was introduced in the Winchester Model 54 in 1935 and is essentially the 6mm Lee Navy cartridge necked down to .22.

There were dozens of .22 wildcat cartridges developed over the decades. The one that has become most well known and standardized is the .22-250 Remington, which is a .250 Savage necked down to .22.

Although the .220 Swift and the .22-250 Remington have had at least cult followings since their beginnings, it was the .222 Remington, introduced in 1950, that revolutionized the centerfire .22 world and which served as a predecessor to the .223 Remington/5.56mm NATO – the round used in the MSRs.

Until relatively recently, however, the .22 has not been viewed as, and in many states not deemed legal, a caliber for the hunting of anything beyond small game or varmints.

Evolution of the 5.56mm in the military and among target shooters in recent decades, however, resulted in the development of heavier and heavier bullets for that cartridge. And, bullet construction continued to change. Now there are rifles to shoot very heavy-for-diameter, high performance bullets (bonded core and expanding homogenous solids). Some of those bullets hold together well at high velocities and penetrate into larger animals deeply.

cgh_comus_popularcenterfirePOPULAR .22 CENTERFIRE cartridges include, from left, .22 Hornet, .222 Remington, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington and .220 Swift.

So now it is becoming more common for centerfire .22s to be used on animals like deer and wild pigs where use of that diameter bullet is legal for hunting those species. Certainly the centerfire .22s are valid for coyotes. And when it comes to prairie rats, centerfire .22s pretty much own that world.

Shot placement in hunting is crucial, regardless what caliber is used. Badly placed bullets, even of large diameter, easily can result in wounded game animals that are not recovered. This is bad. And, the smaller diameter the bullet, the more critical it is for the bullet to be put in precisely the right spot – virtually no room error.

With that in mind, the .22 is by no means a universal hunting cartridge. But, it can be effective if used within the performance parameters of the cartridge, bullet and hunter. Then the question boils down to which is better for the game that is properly taken with the .22 – centerfire or rimfire?

Legal considerations aside, common sense should prevail. If it is small game like rodents, then distance is the likely determinant – 50 yards or less, .22 long rifle is great. From 50 to 100 yards, the .22 rimfire magnum is fine, and at greater distances, go for the centerfire .22 (although each of those cartridges is lethal at much longer distances, the object when shooting at game is to place the bullet precisely, which limits the effective range to something much less than its lethal distance – can’t count on a “lucky” hit). Or, there is nothing wrong with using the .22 centerfire at all distances.

The whole idea is to have fun, be effective and, most of all, be safe. Shoot well and often.

THE MSR, OR Modern Sporting Rifle aka AR, has contributed to rapid evolution in the applications of .22 centerfire cartridges – specifically the .223 Remington/5.56mm NATO.

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