The .22 LR is among the most popular rounds ever devised. But is the rimfire a wise choice for self-defense?

Consideration concerning a self-defense .22 LR:

  • To stop an attack, an assailant must change their mind or involuntarily surrender.
  • Involuntary surrender is elicited in four ways: nervous system damage, structural damage, involuntary collapse and death.
  • The .22 will most certainly cause pain, which can be decisive in stopping an attack.
  • Given .22s are easier to shoot, they can deliver this pain multiple times.
  • Most concealable guns, regardless of caliber, do not cause involuntary surrender.
  • While it might not be the top choice, a .22 is better for self defense than no gun at all.

The gun you carry is really only a small part of an overall self-defense plan. It’s the gun guys who obsess over the type of gun you carry the most. Truth is, if you go about your life in the proper readiness condition, and exercise due caution when necessary, the chances of actually employing a gun in a self-defense situation are small. Even smaller is the need to actually shoot that gun once you introduce it into a situation. Still, when you really need a gun, nothing else will do … and a .22 LR is certainly better than no gun at all.

Ballistically, these three .22 LR loads performed well, even out of this sub-compact semi-auto. However, from a terminal ballistics standpoint, the internal damage they are capable of causing is minimal.
Ballistically, these three .22 LR loads performed well, even out of this sub-compact semi-auto. However, from a terminal ballistics standpoint, the internal damage they are capable of causing is minimal.

What we are concerned with here is if a gun chambered for the .22 Long Rifle is advisable or sufficient for life-saving duties. Most will immediately tell you it’s not. Some will allow its use for the elderly, poorly trained or those weak of arm and hand.

I’ve often thought this odd. If a .22 is good for those folks, how is it not good for everyone else? It’s kind of like the old deer rifle cliché where a lesser cartridge is considered allowable for kids or those of a small stature. Um … if a kid can use a rifle to kill a deer, shouldn’t a big ol’ boy be able to kill a deer with the same gun?

Let’s cut through all the preconceived notions and expert opinions and take an objective look at the .22 LR for personal protection from a pure ballistics standpoint. But first, let’s acknowledge the fact that just having a gun is sometimes enough. As a police officer, I responded to many calls where a citizen had pointed a gun at a bad guy, and that was all it took to thwart the attack. This proves that just having a gun might be more important than what type of gun it is, or even if it’s loaded.

This segmented .22 LR bullet only penetrated about 6 inches. While it might be great for rodents and such, it’s not so much for self-defense.
This segmented .22 LR bullet only penetrated about 6 inches. While it might be great for rodents and such, it’s not so much for self-defense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you use an unloaded gun to protect yourself; I’m just stating facts. Nobody likes to have a gun pointed at them, and fewer folks are willing to risk getting shot.

Thing is, however, you might have to shoot. Sometimes a shot fired — even if it hits nothing — is all that’s needed to stop an assault. Sometimes, when a bad guy gets hit — anywhere, with any bullet — that’s also enough to end hostilities. When we get down to whether your gun can instantly incapacitate a felon, we’re dealing with a last case and least likely, worst-case scenario.

The Four Fight Stoppers

Let’s consider the ways a bullet from a handgun can bring about instant incapacitation. Wounds that hurt can bring about voluntary surrender or, most often, a change of mind. But, what I’m talking about are wounds that bring about an involuntary physiological response. This can happen in one of four ways.

When it comes to the .22 LR, penetration is more important than expansion. Even fully expanded, a .22 LR bullet is not as big as a bullet from a 9mm.
When it comes to the .22 LR, penetration is more important than expansion. Even fully expanded, a .22 LR bullet is not as big as a bullet from a 9mm.

1. Damage to the central nervous system — a bullet to the brain — generally brings about instant collapse, and often death. No, not just a head shot; sometimes a headshot can lead to only superficial wounds.

2. Support structure damage will likely put a human on the ground. A bullet that breaks the pelvic support or severs the spine can put a fiend down either due to bone or nerve damage. But, just because they’re down doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous, especially if they have a gun, too.

3. Involuntary collapse might be the most hopeful outcome of a shot you place on an attacker. The problem is we don’t completely understand why involuntary collapse occurs. It could just be the body’s reaction to pain, a subconscious or neurological reaction. Either way, it’s unpredictable and not something to rely on.

4. Death. Death has a way of making bad guys permanently not bad anymore. Death from a bullet wound takes time. It has to cause hemorrhaging, and the body has to lose enough blood to deprive the brain of activity. On the short side, this could take maybe 10 to 20 seconds, on the long side, 10 to 20 minutes.

Getting The Job Done

This MP5 clone, chambered for the .22 LR, offers high reliability and a high rate of fire. It’s also compact and light enough that anyone in your home can handle it.
This MP5 clone, chambered for the .22 LR, offers high reliability and a high rate of fire. It’s also compact and light enough that anyone in your home can handle it.

So the ballistic question is: How effective can a .22 LR be at causing one of these four reactions and ultimately saving your life? The FBI, in its infinite wisdom, specifies a bullet from a handgun should deliver at least 12 inches of penetration to be considered suitable for use by their field agents.

Can a .22 LR deliver 12 inches of penetration from a handgun or a rifle? I tested four different loads to find out. One of those four loads, the CCI 40-grain Velocitor hollow-point achieved that benchmark out of a rifle with a 16-inch barrel, and out of handguns with a 2.4- and a 5-inch barrel. Penetration depths were 14.5, 15 and 12 inches, respectively.

Another higher velocity load — the CCI Stinger — penetrated between 8 and 10 inches from the same firearms. CCI’s 32- and 40-grain segmented hollow-point loads only penetrated between 5 and 10 inches. However, the segmented hollow-point splits into three projectiles during penetration, so the wound cavity — though shallow — is three-pronged in its approach.

(Above) A .22 shot shell is not very powerful and will likely not cycle the action of a semi-auto firearm. However, at 6 feet it will deliver a potentially fight-stopping — painful, if not permanent — wound.
(Above) A .22 shot shell is not very powerful and will likely not cycle the action of a semi-auto firearm. However, at 6 feet it will deliver a potentially fight-stopping — painful, if not permanent —
wound.

Essentially, if penetration is your goal, you’ll want to select medium- to high-velocity 40-grain bullets for the .22 Long Rifle. But, that might not be your best option, and/or you might have an aversion to potentially killing another human. After all, when you use a handgun to stop a violent attack, your goal is to stop the attack. Your desire to do anything beyond that would be considered with malice, and that has a way of sending folks to the big house — for a long time. That’s why devices such as pepper spray and stun guns are so popular, and they’re effective because they cause pain.

Imagine shooting an attacker in the face with a load of .22 shot from a handgun. At a distance of about 6 feet, this load, when applied to the eyes and smile of a goblin, has a very small chance of being lethal, but a very high chance of delivering a high dose of pain and temporary if not permanent blindness. Any of the three outcomes should suffice to bring about that change of mind or the involuntary surrender you’re looking for.

For that matter, imagine shooting an attacker in the face with any .22 LR load. It might not be the same as a bullet from a .357 Mag., but it will hurt. By golly it will hurt worse than a sting from a ball-faced hornet! Could that potentially make the bad guy even “badder” or madder? Yep, for sure. But, there are things outside of ballistics to consider.

All four of these .22 LR loads were tested in ordnance gelatin. The results seem to suggest that standard or high-velocity 40-grain loads are the best option for personal protection.
All four of these .22 LR loads were tested in ordnance gelatin. The results seem to suggest that standard or high-velocity 40-grain loads are the best option for personal protection.

Handguns or rifles chambered for the .22 LR have almost non-existent recoil, and most people find them easier to shoot more accurately and faster. You can fire 10 accurate shots from a semi-automatic .22 pistol or rifle in about the same time you can fire five or six shots from a centerfire handgun or rifle. In other words, you could shoot a bad guy nearly twice as many times, in the same amount of time, using a .22 LR as you could with a 9mm handgun or rifle.

Parting Shots

So where does all of this leave us? With regard to defensive handguns most often carried for personal protection, they’re mostly pain delivery devices. In other words, your best bet when shooting a handgun to save your life is that it will cause enough pain to make the attacker stop attacking. It’s just a matter of ballistic fact that concealable handguns that can be comfortably carried long term, are just not that effective at causing instant incapacitation. They do, however, perform rather well when it comes to convincing someone to cease and desist hostilities.

A .22 Long Rifle handgun would not be my first choice when it comes to an every day carry, personal protection handgun. Your ability to inflict pain increases with caliber and is improved with the modern high-tech bullets now available for cartridges such as the .380, 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 Auto.

If you do not feel comfortable with a .22 LR for self-defense, don’t overlook how a rimfire conversion kit, like this one from Sig, can help you practice with your defensive handgun at a much-reduced cost.
If you do not feel
comfortable with a .22 LR
for self-defense, don’t
overlook how a rimfire
conversion kit, like this one
from Sig, can help you practice with your defensive handgun at a much-reduced cost.

At the same time, I’d rather have a .22 LR handgun for personal protection than I would a stun gun — which requires you to be very close — or pepper spray — which is a bit dependent on the wind blowing the right direction. After all, there’s a good chance when I point that .22 LR handgun at the bad guy, he’s going to do what most bad guys do when a gun gets pointed at a human, and that’s — at least momentarily — stop whatever they’re doing. Few things are a better attention getter.

Let me leave you with this food for thought: The gun in my closet is an S&W M&P15-22. It’s loaded with a full magazine of CCI Velocitors, has a compact reflex sight and a Crimson Trace light/laser combination fore-grip. Everyone in my home, from the 10-year-old up, can operate this little carbine. And, with it they’re capable of delivering accurate fire, at a fast pace, across any room in my house, and even out to the fence that surrounds it. (It’s also great for rabid foxes — we’ve had two at my house — and the raccoons that seem to think my garbage cans are their own personal buffet.)

A .22 LR might not be the best choice for personal protection, but that does not mean it cannot be a good one.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Concealed Carry 2018 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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2 COMMENTS

  1. I shoot .22LR firearms of all types, most of the time I go to the range. I love the caliber, for fun. But for self defense it is a non-starter. It has nothing to do with the caliber, the velocity or the ballistics. It simply because it is a rimfire cartridge. In my experience, all rimfire cartridges are prone to misfires. The only rimfire ammunition manufacturer that I have not yet had a misfire with is CCI. I have been told by others in conversation that they have experienced misfires with CCI. That is enough for me. In all my years of shooting, I have only ever experienced one centerfire cartridge misfire. That turned out to be firearm related, not actually the ammunition.
    When the SHTF, I would not trust a rimfire cartridge.

  2. Would a .22lr be a good choice for self-defense? No, not it wouldn’t. That being said, would I carry a .22lr if that was the best I could get? YES I WOULD!!! I’d carry a pellet gun if that was the best I could get. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I’d carry it. In well over 90% of all self-defense cases involving a gun no shots are fired. Just having a gun is enough, and the bad guy doesn’t need to know what caliber it is for this to work. I’d very much prefer a good centerfire handgun to any rimfire (other than the .25ACP, in that case I’d just hang on the to the .22 thanks), and if I had to carry a rimfire I’d much prefer a .22WMR, but several .22lr slugs in the right spot will still take care of business most of the time.

    Back when I was a pizza delivery driver we were barred from carrying any weapon. Even a pocket knife was grounds for dismissal, and this was before Kel-tec (not Ruger) ushered in the new breed of ultra-concealable, micro .380’s. When I was on delivery a NAA mini revolver in .22WMR was my constant companion. If all they wanted was the money, they could have it. It wasn’t mine anyway, but if they wanted more than that they were going to have to pay a painful, .22 caliber price for it. Thankfully I never had need of it, but it was there just in case.