Is the .22 LR Suitable for Defense?

CCI .22 LR Velocitor ammunition box with bolt action rifle

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.

Sale ends July 28, 2019

Sale ends July 28, 2019

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 (89)

  1. When it comes to the .22 Mag, it’s not really the velocity here, but your get more projectile options. Polymer tip, fragmenting, premium hollow points, that gives it much advantage over the L.R. round, especially out of shorter barrels.

  2. I would think the CCI Stinger .22 LR would test fairly well? It’s 36 grains, but rated at 1600 FPS instead of 1435 FPS like the 40 grain CCI Velocitor. As you know, increasing velocity has a much greater effect in increasing overall energy. Of course the rated velocity of any bullet would lower as barrel length is decreased.

  3. While a .22 LR might not be the optimum choice, the ultimate question is, what caliber do you want to be shot with? The other question is, will you let someone shoot you with a .22 LR?

    If all you have is a .22LR, use it.

    There have been many stories of those who have been shot multiple times and kept fighting, including one who had been shot in the heart, fatally, and kept fighting for a period of time before collapsing and of course the famous 1986 Miami Shootout.

    If all you have is a .22LR, if the event you are attending or the clothing you are wearing makes a .22LR the best option pistol to carry, do so.

    The old caliber debate. The sad thing is, with all the criticism of the .22LR, it is simply overlooked how good the round can be, and if it is all you have, it will work.

    A .22LR, .32 ACP (used by European militaries and police for many decades), .32 Mag, .380, .38, 9mm, .357, .40 and .45 are all good, and while a .25 ACP might be weak, if it is all you have, use it.

    The old caliber debate never ends, and there will always be those who simply criticize anything under a .38 or 9mm. Remember, a .380 is a 9mm short.

  4. The .22 may be all you have in which case it is better than nothing….however, it is a poor ‘choice’ if you are choosing it over a larger caliber.

  5. I have worked in EMS, law enforcement and fire services in my life. After all that my only conclusion is that any caliber can be used. The main point is to know your caliber’s limitations, strengths and weaknesses. Know your self and your firearm.

  6. Somebody always asks about 22 Magnum (.22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire / .22 WMR) in any .22 LR conversation. Here is a chart of recorded velocities from a whole range of barrel lengths measured by the inch. It’s a handy website that some folks might want to bookmark for future reference purposes:

    Generally speaking, the shorter the barrel, the slower the round. (There are exceptions: For the CCI Gamepoint 40 gr. JSP _and_ a few others, an 18″ barrel nets a slightly higher velocity than a 19″ barrel. All caliber bullet / powder recipes will reach maximum velocity at some certain barrel length and going beyond that adds nothing.) But as the charts generally show overall, when you get down to concealed carry length 2 and 3 inch barrels, even the super speedy .22 WMR is going slower than typical average fps velocities for comparatively much bigger 9mm. (You can look up typical 9mm velocities at the same website above.) If you have a full sized house handgun with a 4, 5, or better yet 6 inch barrel (or longer), then you might get enough velocity to penetrate a little better and get the job done, but a rifle length barrel would obviously be far more ideal. A 40 grain projectile approaching 2000 fps is going to have much more energy to impart than the same thing going well under 1000 fps. (Just remember, a 55 grain .223″ projectile going well over 3300 fps would be worlds better. Ask any combat veteran!)

    But if you simply just have to use .22 WMR for home defense, then go with a carbine style rifle or at the very least, the biggest handgun with the longest barrel length possible. No guarantees with minimal calibers when larger more powerful ones don’t always give the needed results, of course. This is all just food for thought. 🙂

  7. Put up a couple of 2 liter plastic bottles filled with water.
    Shoot one with an ordinary 22 LR
    Shoot the other with a CCI Stinger.
    The results are night an day.
    Sure an 9mm or 38 cal is better, but I think the
    Stinger is plenty potent.
    I would sure hate to be shot with one.

  8. Never bet your life on rimfire. Sure, use it to train and to teach the kids, but buy yourself a real gun, it’s cheap insurance.

  9. While a .22 may not be the weapon of choice, let’s not forget the damage done when Hinckley shot Reagan, Brady and the SS agent. That was with a .22 revolver. He only hit Reagan with a ricochet but it still almost killed him. So is a .22 ideal? No. Is it better than nothing? WAY better!

  10. My brother in law was a Marine coming back from Vietnam. He said that in a firefight guys would get hit with incoming Kalashnikov rounds and not be slowed down. I suppose a lot more were severely wounded or died than kept on fighting, but adrenaline is a mighty powerful deterrent to giving up your own defense; no matter the caliber.

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