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)

  • pigpen51

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    I have been carrying with my ccw in Michigan for quite awhile now. When I first began to carry, I only had an H and R 9 shot revolver in .22 caliber. That is what I carried, as I didn’t have enough money to just go and buy another gun, even something as cheap as a HiPoint. Was that the best choice of carry guns? Of course not, by a long shot. But the thing is, if that is all that one has at the time, then you use it. I realize that the round is not known for it’s quick incapacitation of a bad guy. Often you hear the people talk about how many have been killed by the .22. That is probably true, but that doesn’t mean that they were stopped from their attack on the good guy before they could cause him harm.
    On the other hand, when I took my training to qualify for my ccw, the instructor told us about a case from only a couple of months before, where a person who had been shot 9 times with a 9mm walked into the hospital on his own two feet. That was not a typo, 9 times he was shot, and still was on his feet.
    This is just to illustrate that shot placement is critical, and that you cannot count on any handgun to have so called stopping power.
    While I carry either a Taurus G2 in 9mm, or a 1911 commander length in .45 ACP, if I was forced to sell them and go back to a .22, I would not consider myself totally unarmed. Under armed, perhaps, but remember, we all do what we must do, and it is not always by choice. I know that many people, one of my sons included, carry one of the small new .380’s and with the modern bullets, are considered well armed. I myself don’t feel that way, simply due perhaps to my own prejudices. But for me, if I can carry a gun big enough and strong enough to shoot a .380, then I figure that a 9mm is not going to be that much bigger and the round is enough better to go with the 9mm over the .380.

    Reply

  • Onederer

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    .22 long rifle, naw! However, using the same caliber as a .22 mag, would make more sense, since the cartridge size has more pushing power.

    Also, the .22 rimfire cartridges, have a greater chance to produce dummy rounds which will fail to fire, as opposed to the greater reliability of a center fire cartridge.

    Reply

  • Brad

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    I resent you saying “the felon” instead of say the intruder or attacker. What if it was the attacker has never been convicted of a felony. I have known some fine people who have been convicted of a felony. And it was for a bad check. I also know some fine “felons” who have changed their ways. How can anyone be a ex-felon if people keep judging them for a past act instead of what they are today.
    OK enough of that. I do know from experience that a 22 will drop a 150 deer with 1 shot. I have killed over 100 in my life that way. It is all about bullet placement. On most kills if the deer wasn’t spooked he will fall right over. I hope in the future you think about who you may offend.

    Reply

    • OldGringo

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      Brad: The author is a former cop. Cops are trained to believe that when another person is in the process of causing serious bodily harm or death to another person, those acts are a felony crime. Now a lawyer comment, having been a cop and later an attorney and prosecutor, my comment is that before a person is charged with a crime, the DA looks at the elements of the crime, step one, two, three, etc. At the point where the alleged bad guy commits the last act in the process, such as being in somebody else’s home at night, with a gun in hand… the felony is complete, even before he fires a shot. So, my point is, the intruder is then a felon. It makes no difference whether he gets killed and never gets convicted or gets away and never gets caught. He is a felon at the point he has committed the elements or steps of the crime. OK lawyer speak, but you get the idea, it has nothing to do with somebody else who may have been convicted of some other crime some other time and place. Just trying to explain, why his use of the term is technically correct. FWIW

      Reply

  • Roy C

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    Great article! I’d welcome an additional one about the .22 mag with similar information seen in practical experience, ballistic performance, etc.
    Thank you, Bob!

    Reply

  • William Bolden

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    Not a 1st choice for me either. Having said that I know that (other than wat) the .22 have killed more people than ANY caliber in existence. That should put to rest any doubts of leathality. A well placed .22 to the temple, liver, lung, heart or several other areas beats a glancing shot with .357 to arm or leg any day. Placement is God!

    Reply

  • OldGringo

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    Not to disparage anybody’s thoughts or opinions, but in my life I have worked 4 law enforcement jobs and have observed dead folks from 22 pistols. I have harvested well over 100 deer, pronghorn, and a couple elk. I have applied finishing shots to maybe 20 or so animals including a couple deer hit by cars. It is common to kill cattle with a 22 rifle, with little bullets moving 1,200 fps. Problem is pistols are just really slow. I have chronographed many from 2, 4 and 5.5 revolvers. Most will not get much over 900 fps, that is like a 22 pellet rifle. I have several 22 revolvers, SW, Ruger, Charter, Taurus, etc, and several semi autos that I sues with a suppressor Love them, but here is the problem. Having arrested many, many bad guys, what I know is they do not stand still. The idea that you are going to get off more than one shot, while they stand there with their 15 shot 9mm, is well, nuts. More realistic is you get your 3 shots with the 22, and they get their 3 shots with their 9mm. Or what if they have a 45 or 10 mm, or maybe 12 gauge with buck shot they just stole and your still get your 3 shots with your 22 and they het their 3 shots with their 12 gauge?

    Reply

    • rk

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      Excellent comments and on the point!

      Reply

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