Not everyone can shoot powerful centerfire guns. For a person with wrist damage, even a mildly recoiling 9mm service pistol would be too much. A person with little upper body strength would be hard-pressed to handle an AK or an M1 carbine, though they feel very light to most shooters. Shoulder damage would make recoil of a .223 feel excessive. Many turn to rimfire guns as the best alternative, counting on landing a greater number of hits to make up for the lower power of the round. Is that prudent?
Let’s look at the home defense application first. The reduction of power from the oft-recommended 12ga or 20ga shotgun to a .22 rifle is drastic. A typical .22LR bullet weighs 40 grains, same as a .30 caliber #1 buck pellet. A single round of buckshot contains 16 of them, more than a typical rimfire magazine. Penetration is very similar at 10″ to 14,” with 40gr hollow points expanding to about .30 caliber in gelatin when fired from rifles. While rifle bullets retain velocity further downrange, that’s irrelevant for the typical in-house defensive use. Due to insufficient penetration, 30-grain varmint rounds are less effective against human-size attackers.
By this comparison, we can expect a magazine dump from a sporting semi-auto .22 rifle to have an effect similar to a single shotgun blast. A rimfire rifle has no muzzle flash and much less pronounced report compared to a shotgun. Given the minimal recoil of such rifles, good practical accuracy is actually quite typical in home defense situations. For the same reason, diligent practice is possible even for those who cannot handle the recoil or the weight of the bigger rifles.
The downsides to using rimfire used to be the reduced reliability of the ammunition, the awkward rimmed cartridge shape for autoloaders and the limited magazine capacity. Fortunately, these problems are now largely imaginary. Let’s consider them one by one.
“Everyone knows” that rimfire ignition is less reliable than centerfire. That is certainly evident with bulk ammo. Some brands and lots may have a misfire every 20 rounds. This lack of reliability is most certainly not an issue with the higher grade cartridges. A CCI competition shooter has recently reported a million rounds fired without a single misfire. While not up to a million rounds, I’ve had zero malfunctions over tens of thousands of such defense-oriented types as CCI Mini-Mags and Velocitors, or any of the Eley-primed types.
Rimmed cartidges are indeed rather tricky to fit into magazines. Fortunately, we’ve had well over a century to perfect the feeding devices. Straight box magazines can hold up to a dozen, tube magazines up to 18, curved box magazines up to 32. They all work fine. Some people prefer the smaller flush-fitting box (or rotary in the case of 10-22) magazines, others like the higher capacity and the additional leverage at reload time afforded by the extended models. Rimfire drums can hold 50 rounds but keep only the few rounds in the feed tower under spring pressure. The remaining 40-odd cartridges are supported by the individual cogs. That solution drastically reduces the friction inside the rotary magazine and also eliminates possible deformation of the unjacketed lead bullets. 275-round pans for the American 180 submachine guns remain a less practical curiosity. The plus side of the rimmed design is the simplified headspacing which permits looser chambers and thus greater tolerance for fouling.
The sporting background of the traditional rimfire rifle makes it a bit challenging to operate under pressure, especially when reloading is required. Fortunately, a large number of rimfire clones of fighting rifles are now available. These mimic Sig 556, AR-15 and SU16 carbines in all but the caliber and the weight. Most use polymer lower and sometimes upper receivers to shave off a pound or two of weight, with almost another pound saved by the lighter ammunition. These guns have familiar oversized controls, accessory rails and tend to be fairly robust. When recoil is a concern but weight isn’t, rimfire conversion kits become an option.
Peter Grant, a friend who has trained many handicapped shooters, favors .22LR in very few cases, mainly when centerfire is just not an option. He said that the low cost of the ammunition and the minimal wear on the shooters allowed his trainees to hit a rolling ping-pong ball reliably after expending hundreds and even thousands of rounds in practice. Three of his students used laser sighted rimfire pistols to fight muggers, all with the same outcome: dead thugs had their faces cratered by multiple .22 slugs. With the same rounds being notably more energetic when fired from rifles, there’s no doubt that they can be adequate for self-defense. A 12-gauge shotgun or a centerfire rifle may be the choice for most Americans, but the lowly rimfire rifle is far from inadequate. In many cases, it gets pressed into defensive service simply by being closer at hand than a dedicated fighting rifle. In any case, it’s worth knowing what it can and cannot do in combat.