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)

  • Bilbo

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    Not to disparage any part of any statement in this article; one 22 round me & most of my constituents swear by is the CCI Stinger. At 1640 fps it packs a wallop. Even at the lesser velocity from a pistol. I’m curious to know some real life self defense statistics as well as test range results ( such as the one mentioned here). We have, in the last 3 decades, proven the accuracy & reliability of this round. It certainly will kill game larger than a racoon with a well placed shot. I agree that the presence of layered clothing can reduce its effectiveness although I’m not convinced a T-shirt would make any difference. We and our spouses are proficient; it is not a daunting thought to be reduced to head shots. Besides, if the first two double shots don’t thwart an attacker, the closer they get the bigger target the head is.
    Thanks for the expert advice!

    Reply

  • Sam

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    i carry a .25 cal Pheonix. Fortunately i haven’t been tested with it. i keep a .45acp close by as a backup piece. Both are cocked and locked at all times. i do subscribe whole heartedly to the premiss that being judged by 12 is far better than being carried by 6.

    The person who talked about situational awareness is spot on.At what distance is self defense out the window? A .22 in the ear really going to mess up somebody’s balance and a barrel up the nose shot will drain the attackers sinus.There is a problem though if you engage in a gun fight at 20 or more paces. The one with the firstest and mostest usually carries the day. Not really sure a .22 or my .25acp gonna bring home the bacon.

    Reply

  • Mark W.

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    Of course the .22 is the last best choice, but please know these two things; If it is the difference of caring verses not caring rests on other calibers being too much to cary, by all means carry a .22! ANY GUN IS BETTER THAN NO GUN! Second, so many people forget that a looney toons guy in 1981 Dropped a US Secret Service agent, a DC officer, Scrambled the brains of the White House press secretary and lastly almost killed a sitting president with what? Wait for it… A .22 revolver! by the way, this CAPTCHA program on this site needs to be fixed!

    Reply

  • Mark

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    Of course the .22 is the last best choice, but please know these two things; If it is the differance of

    Reply

  • Canis Lupus

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    I agree with the 22 LR reviews but it is better than nothing. The 22 WMR however is a great choice and is superior to the 380.

    Reply

    • Gary

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      Sorry, but totally wrong. Out of a typical handgun the wmr will not reach advertized speed by long shot. Expect 1100fps at best, Also the magnum rounds are not plated but actual jacketted bullets which won’t expand at that speed once the hollow tip is filled with t-shirt material. So you are using a round with the effectiveness of a 25acp. The modern 380acp hollowpoint will go 10 inches deep and expand perfectly. Check out Paul Harrell on youtube and you will see a lot of these myths dispelled by his realistic meat targets.

      Reply

  • Citizen John

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    As a boy I was squirrel hunting with .22 Shorts and shot a deer at close range. The deer dropped in its’ tracks, the bullet grazed the ribs going in, hit a rib on the other side and ricocheted in the heart/lung cavity, the heart was destroyed. No not a good idea but it happened. I recently shot a deer through the heart with a 7mm magnum and it ran 50 yards. There is no accounting for what happens with a ‘kill’ shot at times. How many times do we have to be told that the key is shot placement. .Many deer have had their leg shot off by poorly aimed High-Powered Rifles. 22’s are not the first choice for SD but if one missfires rack another one or pull the trigger again. Be cool, aim well !

    Reply

  • mrtoad

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    I’d have to say “yes”. We used them in Vietnam for assassinations and didn’t need but one round to do the job…quietly and effectively…of course they were “improved” bullets, not the standard .22cal round…

    Reply

  • Jeff

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    I would not hesitate if a 22 was all I had for protection to use it. But if someone asked what to buy for personal protection I would tell them to look at a 9mm and let them shoot mine. Many makers are offering a good firearm for a reasonable price in this caliber.

    Reply

  • Greg McMinn

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    I agree with comment on the killing and not wounding. I do not agree with shooting to stop and praying the perpetrator won’t sue you until you are penniless and you support his family instead of yours. Depending on where you live, a snowflake jury will ruin you. But, a dead perp can’t sue you. I read an article many years ago about an officer and a perp in a gun fight where the officer shot the perp three times in the chest with a 357 mag and the officer got hit below his vest with a 22. The perp lived and the officer died. Lucky shot?

    Reply

    • Chuck

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      I half agree on that comment, but you left yourself open to legal problems by stating kill instead of wounding. That would assume ‘Intent’ with most DA’s. In my State anything more than two bullet holes is considered excessive whether the perp lived or not. And if you managed to bump off the perp … yes, the surviving members of the perp’s family can sue you for wrongful death and drag you through the legal system for months on end. That’s why I got insurance with USCCA to offset the cost of that. Even if a Judge rules justifiable shooting with deadly force it still does not stop other members of that family from suing you for wrongful death.

      Reply

  • michael murphy

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    I was always taught to shoot until the threat is neutralized. What that result is to the victim is moot in the process as long as the ability to harm is halted. Center mass with a good 9mm, round, .40 S&W or a .45 ACP is likely to exterminate rather than only stop. Agreed, Bob, one should save the “I just wanted the perp to stop” reasoning for the judge.

    Reply

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