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)

  • Stephen Thomas

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    It’s been about 50 years ago… There was this stupid woman in our area that wanted to scare off a 17 year old boy courting her daughter. She aimed her .22 rifle and shot him in the butt as he was running away. The bullet hit his hip bone and bounced into his heart ending his young life.

    Also, the .22 is the preferred caliber of the mafia hit man, or so I’ve heard.

    Notwithstanding the foregoing, I appreciate your article because i keep a 9-shot .22 revolver on my night stand. You have encouraged me to upgrade to a Taurus Raging Judge.

    Reply

    • Bob Campbell

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      Good story
      A college student in my home town shot himself in the arm for sympathy he was very messed up in the head, and his arm was destroyed and shriveled the rest of his life]
      As for hit men that myth dies hard. Beginning with Capone hit men carried two guns and at least .38s, more often .45s, and had ordered to empty both guns into the mark
      The Mossad is a different story. They used the .22 Beretta with a silencer because it was quite –but there is an important distinction between a murder gun and a defensive gun

      Reply

  • GeneG

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    Aguila mfr’s. 22LR, 30g, not FMJ and JHP with 1750 Mv, = 203.9 Ft Lb Me.
    Problem is)?), what was the Test barrel length?

    I’ve suggested Liberty Ammo to Specify their Amm’s Test barrel lengths, no response as yet?
    Wouldn’t it be great if all Ammo Mfr’s added that to their Boxes along with the Velocity?

    Reply

  • Harry

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    Why not compare the .22 hollow point in your photos ? Why, because they would shoot your theory to pieces. The .22 hollow point will flatten out and even break apart and move around inside cutting blood vessels and tissue. All you have to do is to look at what Hinkley did to President Reagan and his security team and he did it wit a six shot revolver. Personally, I think you’re full of Sh#T.

    Reply

    • RKC

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      Harry

      Leary some manner.
      Normally I remain civil but you would never, never say such a thing to the authors face I assure you. As for your ignorant reasoning a .22 HP at best goes to about .28 in ballistic media. ]

      Reply

  • jaywarrenclark

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    The .22 cartridges we have today, for example the mini-mags and the 40 grain Velociters, are not the clunky lead bullets I shot as a boy in the 50’s! Those old bullets would kill things, mostly innocent things, but some of the modern .22s are startiling in their velocity and effect.
    As an aside, in my .22 mag revolver most of the heavy bullets aren’t better than the faster .22 long rifle bullets, but the 30 grain v-max get a respectable 1400 (plus) fps over the Crony.
    Out of a rifle the CCI Velociter is a pretty impressive round. And it holds its energy down range much better than the lighter Stinger.
    JWC

    Reply

  • Retrocon

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    Recent critters…Three coyotes, all one shot drop, surpressed .22lr, subsonic 40 grain. 20-30 yards

    One coyote, 220 grain 300 blk Suppressed, 20 yards, 40 yard sprint before collapsing.

    Shot placement.

    Of course, .45 acp or 9 mm for carry, but anything can work

    Reply

  • Rick

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    I grew up on a farm and a .22 Cooey loaded with hollow point,(or mushroom), longs was what we used for slaughter day. Worked fine,but just like anything else,shot placement is the biggest concern. If you want to know how to use a tool,you practice with it. That’s all a gun is is a tool. You couldn’t hit a nail with a hammer if you never tried to,same apllies to a firearm.

    Reply

  • Rob

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    So much overlooked. The .22 has less recoil which allows you to refocus quicker and get more shots on target. Affordable ammo allows you more practice, making you a better shot. If a .22 bullet, or 5 .22 shots center mass doesn’t stop someone, a 9mm or .38 in those same holes very well wouldn’t either. Because you missed vital locations otherwise the .22 would have stopped them.
    When I watched the video of the deputy who put 5 shots in to the chest of a criminal from a .357, who lived, but was killed by a single shot from a .22, that was enough for me.
    I don’t carry a .22, but I definitely trust it for my wife as her home defense weapons. I built her a Ruger 10/22 charger with the ATI stock conversion, and bought her a Kel Tek PLR22. Both are small and light, she can hold with 2 hands yet they are short, and have mounted lights, red dots, and laser. And still light and easy to hold. Both have 25 round mags. Gives her a lighted firearm with plenty of rounds, no scary recoil, fun to practice with, and laser to make her a good shot. Break in, and she will light you up.

    Reply

  • Darrell

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    I have over the years 1960’s thru 1980’s on the farm I had to put down many animals who were sick with disease, broken backs, legs or injuries from the farm. I used a .22 long rifle round. One shot- One kill. Cow, horse, bull, did not matter. I would not hesitate to use a .22 long rifle in defense.

    Reply

    • oink

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      I agree, IF the animal is still. I’ve done the same. I’ve also expended numerous rounds trying to put down on old feral cow that was on a trot that I didn’t want expiring in the middle of a highway. Yeah, the .22LR works amazingly well with perfect shot placement and not worth darn without it.

      Reply

  • Sloop

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    .22 or a .50, if it puts a hole in you it can’t be good for you.

    Reply

  • Bob

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    This article is BS. Period.
    A CCI .22 Stinger hollow point will stop and kill a human being.
    There is much evidence backing this statement. It is not an opinion but simple fact.
    More importantly, the morality question on killing is rather useless if you carry a gun.
    If you are not prepared to kill to defend yourself, do not carry a gun.
    Guns and their deployment are for killing. Not wounding.
    Anything anyone else says is simply PC BS.
    You can say what ever you want in court, but if you are not ready to take a life to save your own or someone else’s by using a firearm, the hesitation that a moral question induces during a time of stress will get you killed.

    Reply

    • Jim

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      I agree that the .22 can be lethal, however in a situation that requires the actual use of a weapon, you are trying to STOP a bad guy period. While the .22 in the hands of an experienced shooter can be lethal, it DOES not provide the necessary stopping power in a life threatening situation. The .45 ACP formally used by the military was an excellent round, in my opinion, with better stopping power than the 9 mm. Caliber debates can go on forever and resolve nothing. For personal defense, carry what you personally are comfortable with.

      Reply

    • oink

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      .22LR is an onion field gun and nothing more as far as self defense is concerned. I love .22s and have too many of them but they’re not for defense. On the job I always had one in my trunk for dispatching wounded animals or ferals or animal killing dogs. However, for defense 9mm is the MINIMUM unless in jogging clothes then the little .380 goes along. And no I’m not going to be shooting to kill. I will be shooting to stop with the understanding that I am using deadly force.

      Reply

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