Not all rimfire ammo is created equal. We test and evaluate .22 LR, .22 Magnum, .17 HMR and .17 Winchester Super Mag factory ammunition so you can pick the right load for your needs.
What Rimfire Cartridge Did We Evaluate:
With regard to the terminal performance of centerfire rifle and handgun ammunition, the written word has probably used up enough paper to deforest a national park. Not only is it a favorite topic for gun writers to pontificate on, it fuels a lot of gun counter conversations and campfire arguments. Why isn’t there the same interest in the terminal performance of rimfire ammunition?
I think this is partly because a lot of critters shot with rimfire ammunition are relatively small, not life threatening or not considered a trophy, at least in the same sense a mature mule deer buck might be. Proportionally and for what it’s worth, the power-to-game-weight ratio is very similar between centerfire and rimfire cartridges, with a maximum practical limit of about 2 to 2.5 ft-lb of energy for every pound of game weight. Put another way and in the vaguest of terms, if a 1,000-pound animal—a moose—is considered the maximum practical limit for the .308 Winchester, then a 40-pound animal—a large coyote—would be a reasonable maximum limit for a .22 LR.
The point is that if the terminal performance of a bullet matters with a 308 Winchester, then it matters just as much with a .22 LR. And, it matters whether you’re shooting a fox squirrel for supper, a raccoon in your trash can or a coyote in your chicken coop. What might surprise you is how different various rimfire loads perform. It’s a good idea to know what the bullet you’re shooting will do when it hits a bobcat or a bad guy.
.22 Long Rifle
Used most often for plinking and target shooting, the .22 LR is the premier small-game cartridge. It has fed families and made marksmen. Benchrest shooting legend Walt Berger told me about growing up and hunting groundhogs on a neighbor’s farm. The farmer would pay him 10 cents for every groundhog he killed. Walt would save half the money and buy a few rounds of .22 LR with the rest. In those days, you could buy .22 LR ammo by the single cartridge.
The .22 LR can be effective on larger critters like coyotes and some even rely on it for personal protection. Poachers even use the .22 LR on game animals as large as deer. I don’t support poaching, and I don’t think the cartridge is ideal for coyotes or bad guys, but regardless of what you plan to do with a .22, you should choose a load that’ll amplify your chances for success.
In my opinion, the best all-around .22 LR load is the 40-grain CCI Velocitor. Out of a rifle, it’ll penetrate deeper than a foot and expand to almost 1.4 times the original bullet diameter. It’s death on small game, works well on groundhogs and similar-sized critters, and if I was going to shoot a coyote or a criminal with a .22 LR, it’d be my load of choice. Surprisingly, this bullet will even expand when fired from handguns. If you cannot find the Velocitor load, the 40-grain Winchester HyperSpeed Hollow-Point is almost as good.
Though with the recent acquisition of the Remington Ammunition by Vista/Federal, we’re unsure what munitions will remain cataloged. Two Remington loads of note are the CBee22 and the Yellow Jacket. What makes the CBee22 unique is its subsonic velocity, low report, and the bullet’s ability to still expand. For vermin control around the home or small game at close range, it’s an interesting option. Because of its high velocity and fragmentation, the Yellow Jacket load is ideal for ground squirrels, prairie dogs and even critters like rock chucks, raccoons and such.
More On-Target Rimfire Info:
- Ammo: Evolution of the Red-Hot .17 HMR
- The Return Of The Red-Hot .17 Mach 2
- Cartridge Debate: .17 HMR vs. .17 WSM
- .22 WMR Vs .22 LR: Application Defines This Rimfire Rumble
- The .22 LR And Its .22 Rimfire Cousins
Though a rimfire, the .22 Magnum is in a different category than the .22 LR because velocities can be as much as 50 percent faster with the same weight bullet. For smaller edible game like squirrels and rabbits, some .22 Magnum loads can be devastating and damage a lot of meat. For critters like foxes and raccoons, the .22 Magnum might be the ultimate cartridge. With the right loads, it can even be very effective on larger animals like coyotes and badgers. And, if someone is of the mind to use a rimfire cartridge for self-defense, the .22 Magnum is the best option.
If you’re looking to blast prairie dogs, the explosive .22 Magnum loads like the Federal and CCI Speer 30-grain TNT offerings are best. For edible small game more conventional loads like the 40-grain JHP and TMJ loads from CCI are lethal without a lot of meat damage. Because of their ability to penetrate deep, these loads also work well on larger critters like coyotes. Another great coyote load is the 40-grain CCI Game Point, which will expand to about double diameter and penetrate deeper than 16 inches.
For an all-around .22 Magnum load, I like the Remington 33-grain AccuTip. It offers decent penetration and dynamic expansion. Another load that performs very similar to the AccuTip is the 30-grain Hornady V-Max load. Both have proven to be very accurate out of a variety of .22 Magnum rifles they’ve been tested in, and they’re my go-to loads for the .22 Magnum.
For self-defense, the Hornady Critical Defense and Speer Gold Dot loads are the best options. They’ll both expand well, even from barrels as short as an inch, and penetration in 10 percent ordnance gelatin hovers around the FBI’s minimum of 12 inches. Though these loads are intended for handguns, if they shoot with precision from your rifle they can also serve as general-purpose loads for just about anything.
Shortly after it was introduced, the .17 HMR seemed like it was going to put an end to the .22 Magnum. It was faster and incredibly accurate. However, hunters soon began to realize that the .17 didn’t offer the versatility of the .22 Magnum. While it explodes prairie dogs and tree squirrels, it didn’t have the bullet weight or penetration needed to anchor larger critters without ideal shot placement. Almost all of the .17 HMR loads—at least of the 17-grain variety—create massive wound cavities by rimfire standards, but penetration is limited to less than 6 inches.
If you’re looking for a rimfire for prairie dogs or ground squirrels at distance, the .17 is the ideal cartridge. It’ll also work well on rock chucks and groundhogs out beyond 200 yards as well. And yes, you can take a coyote or a badger with the .17, but you best take a head shot or a good broadside shot; those explosive bullets will just not drive deep enough to shoot through the paunch or a lot of muscle tissue. The FMJ and Game Point loads from CCI are much better at penetrating, and if the larger of the small game is what you’re after, the Game Point load from CCI seems to be the best all-around option.
The .17 HMR is a fantastic cartridge, and I’ve used it a lot on prairie dog towns and even for groundhogs. I once killed a prairie dog a few yards past 500 with the .17 HMR. No, I didn’t hit it on the first shot, and the critter didn’t die straight away. Regardless, the ability to hit a Coke bottle-sized target at 500 yards with a rimfire rifle is notable, even if it did take a half-box of ammunition to do it.
.17 Winchester Super Magnum
Winchester’s .17 Super Magnum shoots flatter and hits harder than the .17 HMR. However, from a terminal performance standpoint, penetration is only marginally increased. Unless you’re trying to drastically extend your range, it’s questionable if the cartridge is worth the extra cost. In fact, .17 Winchester Super Magnum ammunition costs about 25 percent more than .17 HMR ammunition. Both the 20- and 25-grain loads perform similarly but surprisingly, in the penetration category, the lighter bullet has the edge.
The old saying that “velocity kills,” does have some truth to it. When lightweight bullets are driven at high speed, they tend to create massive wound cavities, though in some case these wound cavities are shallow. That’s pretty much the case with the .17 Winchester Super Magnum. Because of the higher-impact velocities, the bullets will damage lots of tissue and should deliver fast incapacitation for anything up to about 20 to 25 pounds. However, if a large coyote is the target, a hunter would be wise to take care to place the bullet in the engine room and avoid raking shots if they want a clean and quick kill.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.