Is the .22 LR Suitable for Defense?

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition, Safety and Training

When it comes to personal defense, many of the students that go through my class have their head on straight. They wish to avoid using the firearm at almost any cost. The bottom line is that they will use the firearm only to save their life or that of a loved one.

CCI .22 LR Velocitor ammunition box with bolt action rifle

The results in actual cases with a rifle are far superior to the handgun.

I try to impress situational awareness and thinking on these students. If you do not do drugs, frequent rough bars, associate with prostitutes or gangs, or run off at the mouth at the worst possible time, then you might be pretty safe in America. There is always the predator wanting you to be his victim, but if you have situational awareness and a positive demeanor, the perpetrator may often choose another victim, and you will not even know it. Many of us dodge the bullet due to training and awareness.

Most victims meet the perpetrator half way through some action of their own. Some students want to qualify with the .22. That’s ok for beginners as the .22 is the most excellent training cartridge we have. But using the .22 Long Rifle cartridge for defense requires quite a stretch.

While any firearm is useful as a threat and will dissuade many, motivated attackers or assailants bent on harm, rape, or murder may not be so easily turned. We need a firearm with sufficient wound potential to stop the threat. The .22 is good for small game about the size of a squirrel to that of a possum or raccoon. It isn’t suitable for use against men that may be about the same size as a deer. The 9mm and .38 Special are a realistic minimum for personal defense.

40-grain .22 after recovery from water jugs compared to a 155-grain .40 JHP

This is a 40-grain .22 after recovery from water jugs compared to a 155-grain .40 JHP

That being said, there are many incidents in which the .22 caliber rimfire has been used in personal defense. When there is nothing else available, good folks have prevailed. Others have failed. I am going to concentrate on the pistol in this report. I have, on file, several incidents with the .22 rifle in which a total of four dangerous felons were stopped with a single shot. Two died on the spot.

In each incident, including one that involved a frightened young teen and a home invasion, good shot placement and penetration carried the day. In another, a home invader took 15 peripheral hits—none to the vitals. He was taken to the hospital and while being wheeled to the examination room in a wheelchair, rose up, grabbed the chair, and threw it at the doctors.

With the pistol we do not have the advantage of the easy handling or the practical accuracy of the rifle. As an example, a relative was murdered along with a friend in an unfortunate domestic incident in which the attacker was armed with a shotgun. The defender fired six .22s into the chest of the attacker with no effect. The murderer survived without complications.

In another case, a homeowner fought back against a home invasion with her Ruger Standard Model target-grade pistol. She fired nine times and hit every time, causing three armed felons to flee. She was brave and lucky—one felon expired the rest recovered, and all were captured. Results with the pistol are poor compared to the rifle.

40-grain .22 LR bullet left,  upset .40 caliber JHP right

The 40 grain .22 compared to a .40 caliber JHP

The argument is often made that the .22 is all that some shooters can afford or that it is all the recoil some can handle. The existence of specialized modern handguns such as the Smith and Wesson Shield .380 EZ and Springfield 911 which are easy to rack and offer low recoil, are a counter argument.

Recoil is subjective, but I believe that anyone who may handle a .22 can probably handle a full-size .380 ACP pistol. Not that the .380 ACP is a powerful handgun, but it is superior to the .22. Then there is the option of a .38 Special revolver loaded with 148-grain wadcutters. This is a classic ‘widow’s load’ that offers much greater wound potential than the .22 or .32. But that is common knowledge; let us let the .22 stand on its own merits.

As a deterrent, the .22 is as good as any firearm and sometimes the presence of a handgun is enough to stop a fight before it begins. However, there are times when a felon needs to be shot to defend your person. Not long ago, a pastor in a nearby town was stabbed during a home invasion and shot the assailant four times with his .22. The assailant turned, collapsed, and expired.

1 gallon water just filled with water

Standard water jugs were used for testing.

However, some felons take a lot of shooting. Some are shot once and stop the attack, others must be shot until they have lost enough blood to drop. Even with the 9mm and .38, multiple shots are needed at times.

The felon may change his mind and realize he has made a bad choice in victim selection. The felon may faint upon being shot. He may not. A shot to the nervous system is chancy as even heavier calibers sometimes fail to penetrate the skull. A 9mm or .38 with a round-nose bullet may skip around on the edge of the skull.

While eye socket shots sound like they would do the trick, this is a very difficult shot to perform under stress and goes against the rule of firing for center mass. Center mass is the center of the target that you see. The .22 has another advantage in this regard, given it is an accurate handgun that you have practiced with. You will be able to fire eight or nine accurate shots in the time it takes to fire three or four directed 9mm rounds. The .22 makes up for a lack of practice just as the 9mm is easier to achieve good results with quickly than the .40 or .45. That’s physics.

.22 lr cartridge that failed to fire

Even the best quality ammunition in rimfires sometimes fails to fire. This one took a good hit from the firing pin.

We are not shooting to kill but shooting to stop. Shooting to kill isn’t morally acceptable, we are only firing because of adversary’s actions are so terrible that he must be stopped. It cannot matter morally or legally if he dies as a result of being stopped. Even if hit with a heavy caliber, the dying part may take quite a few minutes. The problem of stopping a felon is a severe problem for a tiny bullet. Let’s consider this, does the .22 have the necessary penetration to reach vital organs? The answer is yes and no.

Range Test

I used my standard test material, water jugs, and fired a number of loads into the water jugs, with 12 inches pegged as the minimum acceptable level of penetration. The Fiocchi 40-grain HV load and the CCI Velocitor were dead on the money for acceptable penetration. Bullets lighter than 40 grains, bullets designed to break up into pieces, and the quite and suppressor loads fell far short, with some penetrating only five inches. That’s fine because they were designed to kill pests and small game. They are not designed to wound humans.

As for the myth of the .22 bouncing in the body, I can find no evidence of the .22 bouncing or tumbling in any media I have used. As a young officer I went to the hospital more than once to take reports on folks shot with a .22. I saw several through and through wounds. In one case, the entrance and exit wound were perfectly lined up on this skinny guy that seemed nonplussed in my interest. He was taped up and given antibiotics.

.22 hits and .40 hits on a standing target

.22 hits and .40 hits on a standing target.

The .22 may bounce off bone but any RNL bullet may. I will mention the head shot or the face shot again. Many years ago the famous New York City detective, Frank Serpico, was shot in the face with a .22. While the wound was severe, he survived and despite his wound, returned fire, and wounded his assailant.

We now come to the crux of the argument and a stern warning against using the .22 for personal defense. First, revolvers are more reliable than selfloaders some say but the .22 rimfire demands a hard blow to the priming compound to properly ignite the primer. As a result most .22 revolvers have a stout hammer spring. This means that the action is actually heavier than a .38, so hand strength is taxed.

The Ballistics Argument

Here is the problem with the .22 that renders the ballistic arguments mute. The .22 isn’t reliable enough for personal defense. How often have you fired a brick of 500 rounds of .22s? No matter how reputable the maker, chances are you will have a misfire along the way. This is why there are no surviving .32, .38 and .44 rimfire cartridges. They are not reliable as center fire cartridges. The priming compound will not ignite from time to time.

.22 LR pistol with a stovepiped round

The author feels that the .22 rimfire will never be reliable enough for home defense use. Even the best devices malfunction more than centerfire firearms.

Second, the bullet isn’t crimped in the case. The heel of the bullet juts into the cartridge case. Occasionally, on feeding, this bullet will be turned and cause a misfeed. Even the famously reliable Ruger Standard Model will misfeed more often then a Ruger American 9mm, as an example—a lot more. The combination of ancient priming technology, and a tendency of the bullet to be loose in the case, make the .22 LR unsuited for serious use.

As an example the greatest single amount of .22 Long Rifle high velocity I have fired without malfunction spread among three handguns was 1,600 rounds. That is a lot of ammunition to some—but not the 30,000 rounds fired by Glock during the FBI test program or the 700,000 rounds fired by SIG pistols in the French police testing program. .22 Long Rifle handguns are well made of good material in some cases. But the ammunition itself is fractionally as reliable as centerfire ammunition. The Army decided this in 1873 with regard to rimfire ammunition.

If the .22 is all you have, practice often. Load a high velocity 40-grain bullet. Clean the pistol thoroughly, and keep it well lubricated. Shoot straight, and pray the day never comes when this will be your first, or last, line of defense.

What is your opinion of the .22 LR for self-defense? What is the minimum caliber you would recommend? Why? Share your answers in the comment section.

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Comments (63)

  • VieteranGunsmith

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    “Even the best quality ammunition in rimfires sometimes fails to fire. This one took a good hit from the firing pin.”

    I don’t know who calls that a good hit – as a gunsmith with 3 decades of experience I would call that a very light firing pin strike.

    A few commenters here have all had good points in that the comparison of .40 caliber pistol ammo to .22 LR – there is no comparing them. A 12 gauge 00 buck load will certainly prove more deadly than that .40 caliber round, so why not compare them ballistically? Because such a comparison is nonsensical.

    I don’t think many people would choose .22 LR for defense as a general rule, but the fact it can be and is deadly when used for defensive purposes speaks for itself. There have been many such cases where criminals have pressed the attack against a person armed with the .22 LR and many of those resulted in the attacker achieving ambient room temperature.

    Is .22 LR ideal for this purpose? Of course not, Can it be used in an emergency when there is no alternative? You bet. There are many dead men who thought that the little 22 wouldn’t hurt them.

    I have also seen a lot of people reference the unreliability of the 22 LR round, and yet no study with the observed statistics is ever referenced, which tells me that the number of failures is well below what some are reporting. It is much more likely that the weapon has an issue than the ammo. Duds are bound to happen with any caliber of factory ammo, but the firing pin length, depth of the strike and the condition of the breech face are critical with .22 LR. – If you have ever dry fired your .22 it is just a matter of time before you start having problems, But that isn’t the fault of the ammo or the caliber, that is a mechanical issue with the firearm.

    Reply

    • Derrick Flyr

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      Well written and informative response. I like what you said and how you said it. I wish you lived in my area, Carlsbad, CA, to take care of a trigger job for me.

      Reply

  • Jason B

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    When I read the title to this piece I was hoping the author would touch on .22lr in an actual rifle not strictly handguns. I’m quite confident I could send 3-4 rounds center mass from my Core-15 AR with its dedicated .22 upper before the bad guy knew what hit em. I could always swap the .22 upper out for either my .556 or 7.62-39 uppers but I cant get the thought of blasting holes clear through my house into the surrounding neighborhood out of my head.

    Reply

  • Treeman

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    I would not advertise what you have uncle Sam is watching I have seen first hand if they want to come and get your guns their going to get them you might not be here any longer that would depend on how far your willing to go just saying I have seen it

    Reply

  • no1treeman

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    Ilike the22 I know a guy who hunted deer with one and said that’s the only gun he would use he said he had not lose one yet I know he’s hunted that way for many years he said 22 hollow point by CCI is all he will use I’m pretty
    Much the same way I have had good luck with Winchester xx those two don’t jam In my 22s wether rifle or pistol I have had to track deer for ever when me or my son have bow hunted I think I would prefer a 22 over bow hunting any day according to this guy who hunts with them and said maybe150-200 feet is the furthest he’s had to go to find them I have walked a mile and then some I think a22 would be good know where your shooting make sure your gun is clean and lubed good and I would want a target gun or the longest barrel for accuracy

    Reply

    • Getitright

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      Geez-la-farking-weez, have you ever heard of a thing called punctuation?!

      Reply

  • sls

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    I can’t argue with the conclusions on 22lr as a defensive round. I did for a time carry a little Raven 22 just because it was so concealable. Though I have shot 1911s a great deal, and am not adverse to recoil, one of the least pleasant handguns I have ever shot was a Walther PPK in .380..It had a very snappy kick and yhe small grips didn’t suit me at all. If you choose to live armed, find the best fitting tool for you and practice, practice….

    Reply

  • Jim Hovater

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    Just like any other round, shot placement is paramount. If carrying a .22, I’d try my best to aim for the eyes for a STOP. Shots to the torso may very well kill, but they seldom stop an attacker.

    Reply

  • Jason

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    While I certainly agree a .22 lr leaves much to be desired for defense, I’m not impressed with the tactics chosen here to illustrate that. Comparing the expansion of a 9mm hollow point to a .22 solid tip is…cheating. Likewise, comparing the reliability of a cheap 500 bulk pack of rimfire to a quality FBI load is also not fair. I’ve had misfires using cheap 9mm and .45acp ammo, yet never a single one through tens of thousands of rounds of CCI Minimags. And please, the picture of the “good hit from the firing pin” looks pretty shallow to me. I have .22’s that I know have weaker firing pins and aren’t reliable with cheap ammo, and they still leave deeper imprints than that picture shows. If you’re trying to build a case against the .22 for self defense, at least do so fairly.

    Reply

  • OldGringo

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    Having been in law enforcement on and off spanning 40 years, I have seen lots of dead people, most from 22s and 38s, not many exotic rounds. I suppose 9mm is the favorite today and what I carry in my little Gock 43 at 18 ounces. I am also fond of the little KelTec pf9, at 11.7 ounces without mag. Fantastic little gun. That said, I have killed well over 100 deer, antelope and elk. Seldom does anything fall in it’s steps, and that is hitting them with 1,500 to 2,500 foot pounds. A 22 pistol is about 120. I have chronographed many 22s and 22 mags, and do believe a 22 mag handgun with the new short barrel rounds is near as good as a 38. Example, I did a penetration test. I took 5 one inch pine boards and stacked them with 2 layers of cardboard between each board. Then I placed them on a 5 gallon bucket full of water, read that again…. The I fired one round of CCI 22 mag from a 4 inch Smith and Wesson. To my surprise, it went through 5 inches of wood, 10 layers of cardboard and about 18 inches of water, and blew a chunk of concrete in my shop floor. Idiot! Anyway, out of a 2 inch barrel the Win brand will break 1,400 fps with a 40 grain bullet from my chrono, the 22 only gets to about 1,000. So, 22 mag maybe 22 LR, no way. Last thing, if the bad guy has a 9mm or 45 acp, do you really want to shoot him with your 22?

    Reply

  • Richard Endress

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    Your example of a “good hit from the firing pin. misfire” is not impressive. With enlargement I could barely see a firing pin strike. Guess I am spoiled by the strike I get from my Winchester M52b and c rifles and my Anschutz biathlon rifle.

    Reply

  • ka3ffy

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    i carry all ypes of firearms from 22lr ( hot hot summer time) to a 1911 45acp. my mother at age 85 can not hold her bersa 380acp. we had to downsize her to the 22lr. it is all about shot placement. 22lr works great at very close range, specially out of my ruger mark III 7″ barrel? target model.
    this is the caliber a lot use to execute people with. best placement is upwards in to the neck and head. misfires? well this is when practice and spare mags come in to play. in home invasions or armed robberies etc, we are talking about 5 feet. remember center mass is great unless they are wearing body armor. shooting someone with your handgun under their arm, neck, head are better ways to take down any human.

    Reply

    • jk wrangler

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      not a carry .22 but for a home defense gun the old tec model with a 30 round mag and a front hand grip could be acceptable . It’s a fun gun to plink with—encouraging practice and trying for best accurate brand of ammo. another home defense choice would be a Marlin camp carbine in .45 esp in a folding stock …it uses the same mag as a 1911 so you can get up to a 30 round mag. just a couple of unusual choices

      Reply

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