Tactical .22: The Little Cartridge That Could

Editor’s Note: The following is a syndicated article by author John Calie that first appeared in USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine Volume 11, Issue 5, July 2014 under the title, “Tactical .22: The Little Cartridge That Could.” 

The .22 LR is without a doubt the most ubiquitously manufactured cartridge of all time. But how does the .22 rimfire fit in the world of those who carry firearms for self-defense?

Since its introduction around 1887 it has been phenomenally popular, both here at home and around the world. It is utilized in a wide variety of rifles, revolvers, and pistols, and has been popular for everything from match target competition to small game hunting.

It is likely that more people first learned to shoot with a .22 than any other cartridge. When it comes to developing shooting skills, with its negligible recoil, low noise, and still relatively inexpensive cost, the .22 LR is hard to beat.

Over the years, many trainers and gun owners also discovered the usefulness of the .22 LR cartridge in training for self-defense. As a result, some firearm manufacturers have offered rimfire versions of their larger-caliber defensive handguns, the Colt Ace model of the famous 1911 pistol being one of the earliest examples.

Firearm makers and aftermarket manufacturers produce .22 LR conversion kits for popular large-caliber centerfire defensive handguns, from the aforementioned 1911 to others like the SIG P226. These clever devices allow the owner of a fighting pistol to practice for a fraction of the cost of their regular ammunition. There are even kits to convert your AR-15 to shoot rimfire ammo.

Training for self-defense is obviously more critical than target shooting; it’s about saving your life or someone else’s. As a result, preparing for a lethal-force encounter requires significant repetition to develop the particular skills needed to function in a high-stress situation, and the lower cost and more manageable recoil make the .22 a good choice.

Whether practicing yourself or working with students who use a rimfire gun (or conversion kit), we strongly encourage everyone to intersperse their training routines with sessions using their regular carry gun and full-power ammo. But more trigger time is always better and using the .22 can increase your range time at a more reasonable cost than might otherwise be possible.

My students who intend to carry for self-defense run the gamut from 20-somethings to senior citizens. So far, the oldest student I’ve ever had was 83 years of age. (I should mention that he was an extremely fast and accurate shooter and had no trouble with any aspect of operating his SIG P220.)

But many elderly people have physical issues such as arthritis that make it difficult for them to perform various firearm operations. Some simply no longer have the strength to deal with the heavy trigger pull of most revolvers, because many rimfire revolvers have heavier trigger pull-weights than the centerfire versions of the same gun. The reason is that a rimfire cartridge requires a very solid strike to ensure that the priming compound is detonated.

SEE ALSO: S&W Shield EZ: EZ-iest Shooting Centerfire Pistol on the Planet

More than a few women, even younger women, have the same problem. They just don’t have the hand strength. Many can overcome this with finger strength training and dry-fire practice, but others cannot. Every student is unique. I remember one older woman who couldn’t pull the trigger on either a revolver or a DA/SA pistol. But she had no trouble with striker-fired autos, which have relatively long — but light — double-action triggers.

When it comes to autos, many of those with limited hand strength have difficulty loading double-stack high-capacity magazines, which can have very stiff springs. Some people can also have trouble racking the slide, though recoil springs vary quite a bit in stiffness. Ironically, many of the compact and subcompact guns that are popular for carry have very heavy springs. This is simply physics: with a given caliber, the smaller and lighter the slide, the stiffer the recoil spring needs to be to absorb the energy.

For instance, a typical full-size .45 caliber 1911 with a 5-inch barrel has a 16- or 17-pound recoil spring, while a mini-9mm like the Kahr MK9 has a 23-pound spring, a real problem for those with weaker grip strength. On the other hand, the recoil spring on a .22 pistol is almost always quite light. (I often remark that the springs in .22 autos feel like they came out of a ball-point pen.) I have yet to find a single student, male or female, who couldn’t rack the slides on most rimfires.

OK, the potential benefits of using a .22 for training purposes is clear. But there is also a place for them in self-defense. After all, having any gun — even a .22 — is better than having no gun at all.

Small, easily concealed rimfire guns for self-defense are nothing new. The Beretta Bobcat in .22 LR is a perfect example of a self-defense semi-auto; it is simple to load and operate, easy to handle and conceal. Other firearm manufacturers have responded, producing guns designed expressly for personal protection.

Ruger’s all-steel SP-101 revolver (.357 Magnum/.38 Special) is also available in .22 LR, and their LCR ultra-lightweight snub-nosed revolver is available in both .22 LR and .22 WMR. The recoil in this gun firing .38 Special loads is considerable, and a real handful in .357 Magnum. But the .22 LCR can easily be controlled by all but the weakest shooters (provided they can handle the relatively heavy trigger pull, as mentioned above).

Ruger has also redesigned certain versions of their tried and true “Mark” series, most notably their .22/45 models, with more “tactical” features like 1911-style grips and fixed combat sights in place of target sights. The compact, 4-inch bull barrel version is a decent option for someone unable to handle a centerfire gun.

Sig, Walther, and others offer compact rimfire guns clearly designed more for defensive purposes than target shooting, and Kel-Tec’s PMR-30 is a full-size combat style handgun that boasts a 30-round capacity in .22 Magnum. Check around and remember to ask a trusted trainer or other professional if the gun you are considering has any history of problems.

A notable offering is the Smith & Wesson M&P22, a replica of their combat pistol in .22 LR. It is the same size as its centerfire big brother and functions identically. It also features a 12-round staggered magazine design that allows it to feed those rimmed cartridges extremely well.

Another thing I like about the M&P22 is its “deterrence quotient” or (in simpler terms) its “scare factor.” Unlike some of the more diminutive .22 pistols, when viewed by a would-be attacker the M&P looks like a “real” gun. This may not seem important, but when faced with what looks like a full-size combat handgun, any assailant is more likely to think twice.

In fact, after finding that the M&P22 was the only gun they could reliably load, charge, and fire, several of my students chose it as their regular carry gun.

Ammunition Choice Is Critical

The .22 LR as well as the more powerful (and more expensive) .22 Magnum are rimmed cartridges that work fine in revolvers or lever action rifles but were never designed to be used in auto-loading firearms.

For revolvers, any good high-velocity hollow point in the 36- to 40-grain range will suffice. I am less impressed with the loads that use much lighter (27- to 32-grain) bullets just to get a slight velocity bump. My personal preference is the CCI Velocitor. It has a jacketed 40-grain bullet, and chronograph tests show it exiting even short-barreled guns at about 1,000 feet per second. It also provides better penetration than the ultra-lights.

For autos, the same recommendations apply, but make sure you use only JACKETED hollow points. Unjacketed, bare-lead bullets leave particulate lead in the chamber mouth that accumulates and causes feeding problems. Also, be sure to fire at least a hundred rounds of your chosen defensive ammunition before carrying it to be certain it functions reliably in YOUR pistol.

For .22 Magnum revolvers or autos, I’d stick with the 40-grain jacketed hollow points like CCI’s Maxi-Mag or the Hornady 45-grain Flex-Tip Expanding bullet. Again, if intended for use in an auto, test for functional reliability.

Obviously, most of us prefer to carry something more powerful than a .22. But the cold hard truth is that if someone cannot reliably handle a centerfire revolver or pistol, it is far better for them to carry a .22 that they can operate easily and safely than a gun they can’t handle, or worse, for them to go about completely unarmed.

Discover how you can join nearly 300,000 responsibly armed Americans who already rely on the USCCA to protect their families, futures and freedoms: USCCA.com/gunsamerica.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Archangel March 2, 2019, 11:12 pm

    I picked up a Colt style single action in 22lr and 22 magnum and it holds 10 rounds so would not too bad if I had to use it.
    The other one I got was a 6 shot in .45 Long Colt, and they both fit the same holster.

  • Kane March 2, 2019, 6:53 pm

    I have met some “shooters” who talk like the .22 is beneath them. Fools.

    I love the ,22 especially several Ruger pistols in both revolver and semi auto.

    I just bought a “AK 47” style .22 and also have 2 “MP5” style .22’s and a “UZI.”

    Lots of really cool .22’s are out there.

  • JohnL March 1, 2019, 10:41 pm

    Think of a ,22 as an ice pick that really penetrates! I really like the magnum LCR revolver it would really wet their knickers!

  • Shane March 1, 2019, 4:49 pm

    I don’t believe there are ANY jacketed projectile 22lr cartridges out there. There’s copper plated bullets, but that’s all I know of.

  • R Cros March 1, 2019, 2:51 pm

    Ronald Reagan was shot with a 22 and lived. Robert Kennedy was shot with a 22 and died.

    • Kane March 2, 2019, 6:46 pm

      How many times was Kennedy hit?

  • Lenny F March 1, 2019, 1:47 pm

    Better than nothing, I suppose, but I have seen small caliber bullets lodge just under the skin and did not stop anybody. Your worst case scenario is where you shoot but don’t stop your target.
    I have taught many people how to shoot, and I myself learned with a .22 Browning T-Bolt, but after you learn the principles, you have to move up.
    Forget pistols. For a person dealing with a trigger-pull, racking a slide is near impossible. Stay with a revolver and fire single action if you must, but you must still practice. With a pistol, you will need a lot more practice and strength. You have to instinctively rack the slide immediately to clear a misfire or a stove-pipe.
    Perhaps relegating this caliber to a pistol would better be left for people who use a lot of range time and cheaper ammo, but for self-defense, you need a bigger caliber and reliability. If you go too small, you risk getting your gun taken away from you and placed where it hurts.

  • Kevin Baxter March 1, 2019, 12:41 pm

    My favorite 22 LR round is the CCI Stinger. I use it exclusively for hunting (squirrels & rabbits), but if I were to use a 22 for self defense, it would be loaded with Stingers. The terminal performance of Stingers is incredible. Head shots on squirrels, chipmunks, and similar animals results in simple disappearance of the head: DRT. Hitting a 2 legged varmint would certainly not be show stopping like a 357 or 45, but I for one, would not want to be on the receiving end.

    • Ejharb March 12, 2019, 7:01 pm

      I used 22 stingers in a 4.75inch ruger mk1,thought I was good to go.then I hit a deer and tried to euthanize it after 9 stingers I used a single .32 and it mercifully died. Now if I use 22 it’s 40gr solids and practice 3rd hammers.

  • Mike in a Truck March 1, 2019, 12:30 pm

    Picked up a M&P 22 compact to help train new shooters. FDE color.Threaded barrel. S&W hit a home run with this one.Everyone, every new shooter loved it. Im at the point where I dont care if anyone is insulted.If you are training a brand new shooter and expect them to become proficient with a centerfire pistol you have no business training anyone.Start em with a .22 just like most of us started years ago.FUN is the objective here.They can become first tier operators later.

  • Steven March 1, 2019, 8:17 am

    Speer Gold Dot 22WMR Personal Defense & CCI Subsonic segmented hollowpoint 22lr will make very nasty (and fatal) wounds.

    • Michael A Keim March 1, 2019, 10:17 am

      Yep

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