Not all .22 Ammo is created equal. Here are the top match, hunting and self-defense options for your .22 pistol or rifle.
What Are The Top .22 Ammo Options:
- Winchester 37-Grain Varmint High Energy
- Aguila SuperExtra 40-Grain
- CCI Quiet-.22 LRN 40-Grain
- Federal Small Game No. 12 Lead Birdshot
- CCI Velocitor 40-Grain Plated HP
- CCI Stinger 32-Grain Plated HP
- Aguila 60-Grain Sniper SubSonic
- Federal Punch Personal Defense 29-Grain
Never have you had so many ammo options. There’s a massive amount of variety in the rimfire world, and some ammo is better at certain tasks than others. While the .22 LR is not the most powerful, the most accurate or the most reliable, it has earned its spot in the limelight as a jack of all trades that has applications for virtually every corner of the shooting world—and beyond. There’s an almost unlimited number of uses for the world’s most popular rimfire, and we will be looking at the top three loads available for the top three most common uses people have for the cartridge.
The top three uses for the .22 LR are range shooting, hunting and self-defense. While it might seem that it’s more suited for plinking, this cartridge is a serious contender in all three of these arenas for a number of reasons … including some surprising ones.
It’s a fair bet that 99.9 percent of all .22 ammo made gets fired at the range. A common sight at most outdoor shooting ranges is a carpet of fired .22 brass that has turned brown and gray with tarnish and age. It lays so thickly in some places that parking your vehicle in a range bay can sometimes result in the cases getting stuck in the treads of your tires.
In the range ammo category, there are three winners in three range categories: match, pistol and bulk.
Best in Class: SK .22 LR Match 40-Grain
The Precision Rifle Series (PRS) is booming right now. It didn’t take long for a rimfire division to come out. Many of the rifles built for this division are as expensive and precise as their centerfire counterparts chambered in popular rounds such as 6mm and 6.5mm Creedmoor. SK Ammunition offers a specially designed long-range cartridge with a unique 40-grain bullet. This ammunition boasts performance out to 300 yards from these specially designed and built match rifles. Just because it’s meant for 100 yards and beyond, it can certainly be used in your own regular .22 at closer ranges.
Best .22 LR Pistol Ammo: CCI Pistol Match 40-Grain
This is another special target load designed for competition. It’s specially made to function in pistols but can be used in rifles as well. This load features a unique round-nosed bullet profile and is generally meant for shorter barrels. Common uses for this ammo would be pistol bull’s-eye and silhouette matches. The ammo comes in 50-round boxes. It’s my favorite when shooting IDPA-style matches for score using a rimfire and is also some of the best ammo for training in free-hand pistol shooting.
Best Bulk Range Ammo: Federal Champion 36-Grain
This common and popular load comes in boxes of as many as 5,200 rounds. While it lacks the general quality of high-end match ammunition, in terms of accuracy, it can certainly hold its own. The fact that you can get more than 5,000 rounds for just shy of $200 is a big plus, considering the cost of centerfire ammunition today. In my experience, this ammunition has had the least number of dud primers and the best general accuracy when compared to other inexpensive bulk options. I consider this a do-all cartridge, because it can be used for match shooting and for some small-game hunting. It doesn’t offer the benefits of dedicated ammunition, but it certainly could do worse.
More Rimfire Info:
- The .22 LR: Mini, Mighty And Many
- The .22 LR And Its .22 Rimfire Cousins
- Cartridge Debate: .17 HMR vs. .17 WSM
- Ammo: Evolution of the Red-Hot .17 HMR
- The .22 LR For Self Defense: Good, Bad Or Crazy?
One of the most common uses for the .22 LR is as a hunting cartridge for small game. While there have been stories of people downing bears with this small round, it should not be relied upon as the primary round for anything bigger than a coyote.
Varmint Hunting: Winchester 37-Grain Varmint High Energy
This ammunition boasts tremendous muzzle velocity and a deadly fracturing bullet. Rated at 1,400-plus fps, Winchester’s 37-grain bullet is specifically designed to impart all its energy into your target, ensuring a quick kill with minimal pelt damage. It’s excellent for coyotes, fox and medium-sized varmints (such as woodchucks). The ammo’s high velocity will give it a flatter trajectory, as compared to other, slower varmint hunting loads. This particular ammunition, while relatively new, is the preferred choice of several avid rimfire varminters I know.
Small-Game Hunting: Aguila SuperExtra 40-Grain
One of the best small-game loads out there is the Aguila SuperExtra. This bullet has copper plating and feeds very reliably in rifles and pistols. Many common ammunition offerings for this caliber have a waxy coating that can gum up a semi-automatic action. The copper plating featured in this load ensures the consistency and accuracy necessary for hunting, especially when a hunter is after small and fast game such as squirrels or rabbits. Its round-nosed design and high velocity make it an excellent choice for the pelt hunter. The bullets weigh 40 grains and move at more than 1,200 fps—a plus for the hunter who sometimes has to choose velocity overweight or vice versa.
Trapping: CCI Quiet-.22 LRN 40-Grain
Many trappers don’t want ammunition that’s overpowered when putting a shot through the wire of their trap. There’s no quicker way to ruin a good trap than to accidentally shoot it! For this reason, CCI’s Quiet-.22 ammo is an excellent choice: Not only is it suppressor-level quiet without a suppressor, it also has excellent bullet weight and a good bullet profile. The lead round-nosed design is excellent for a finishing shot to the head on virtually all trapped game.
Pest Control: Federal Small Game No. 12 Lead Birdshot
With the other positions in the hunting category being occupied by solid-construction projectiles, this entry is dedicated to a more niche variety of .22 ammo. This load from Federal does not contain a traditional bullet, instead having No. 12 lead birdshot that in total weighs 25 grains.
Being essentially very light bird shot, one should not expect this ammo to have an abundance of either range or power, but it does have advantages for the specific role it was created for: small game and critter hunting. While you shouldn’t think about using this ammo to deal with a coyote problem, if all you need it to do is dispatch some snakes, rats or similarly small pests, it will get the job done without causing too much collateral damage.
While placed in the hunting category, for hunting animals that you plan on harvesting meat or fur from, other options should be considered. The range limitations of birdshot loads like this relegate them more to the duty of pest control than sport or resource hunting, but that’s still a form of hunting nonetheless. Don’t forget about bird shot options like this if the next task for your .22 has more to do with clearing varmints from your barn than it does with putting meat on the table.
The topic of protecting oneself with this rimfire cartridge is hotly debated. Some believe it shouldn’t be used for protection in any circumstance. Nevertheless, it’s often one of the more common choices—no doubt due to its overwhelming popularity.
There are some schools of thought that look at carry ammunition as a one-shot deal. Hollywood has taught us that every bad guy is put down by one trigger pull, but this is clearly not the case. Many people who carry a gun decide to go with the largest caliber they are comfortable with carrying. This is a different type of person than someone who carries the caliber they are most comfortable shooting. All too often, the concepts of “stopping power” and “energy” put bullets that are too large into a hand that’s way too small.
Another school of thought avers that any gun is better than no gun. In today’s world of ultra-high-capacity micro pistols, it’s hard to see a place for a .22 when there are so many other options available. Advanced guns such as the Sig Sauer P365 have pushed many other pistols to the side—even pistols that are comparable in weight and size. Why should a person go with a .22 if there are objectively better things available?
The answer here comes down to actually having a gun in the first place. Many folks out there lack the wrist strength to load a full-sized automatic pistol or the fortitude of hand to hold onto a .357 Magnum. A small carry gun chambered for .22 LR is the choice for many people, because its recoil and noise are low and its control is quite high.
Self-Defense Ammo for Pistols: CCI Velocitor 40-Grain Plated HP
Despite being marketed as small-game ammo, this load is devastating from pistols, even those with short, carry-length barrels. Unlike many other loads out there, this diminutive titan packs quite a punch and is capable of delivering excellent expansion and penetration outside its class. What’s more, it’s an excellent choice—not only for automatics, but for revolvers as well. Many small revolvers are perfect platforms for this load. Ruger’s LCR and the Smith & Wesson J-Frame make great hosts. (It should also be noted that the “Velocitor” name sounds enough like “velociraptor” that CCI put a silhouette of that dinosaur on the box!)
Self-Defense Ammo for Rifles: CCI Stinger 32-Grain Plated HP
CCI has made quite a few appearances on this list. It should come as no surprise that the choice load for self-defense with a rimfire rifle would also come from this same company. This particular load features a blistering muzzle velocity rating of more than 1,600 fps. Despite being small and light, it’s devastating on tissue, especially from longer-rifle-length barrels. While it’s sold as varmint ammunition, it excels in a close-range/in-the-home situation, because it offers minimal blast and excellent penetration while keeping recoil to a minimum.
Self-Defense Ammo for the Woods: Aguila 60-Grain Sniper SubSonic
This is the heaviest load on the list. While it certainly won’t fell a bear the same way a .44 Magnum will, it offers a huge number of benefits to the backpacker and outdoorsman. The bullets, themselves, are much longer than a standard .22 bullet and are loaded into a shortened case, but they have the same overall length as normal ammo. It’s loaded to subsonic velocity and is best in a bolt-action or revolver. Because of the high bullet weight, this ammunition offers excellent penetration and can take game at medium distance. It’s relatively quiet—even without a suppressor—and has a muzzle velocity rating of 950 fps. This ammunition isn’t a true self-defense load for the field, but it offers a tremendous advantage if a .22 revolver is the only gun you’ve got.
It should be noted that another excellent use for .22 ammo in the woods is signaling. If you are lost and can’t locate a trail, three shots, spaced five seconds apart, is how you signal “SOS.” If you space the shots too closely together, people might assume you’re simply having a good time. If necessary, repeat the SOS signal every three to five minutes.
In addition, whereas larger loads might be bulky, .22 ammo is light enough to be carried in volume. Blanks are available, but they aren’t the first choice when it comes to signaling for help. Why carry blanks when you can carry real bullets?
Self-Defense Ammo For Short-Barrels: Federal Punch Personal Defense 29-Grain
One of the newer .22 LR self-defense loads on the market is Federal Punch Personal Defense. Packing a 29-grain, flat-nose projectile jacketed in nickel, Federal designed this bullet to meet FBI penetration standards in ballistic gel tests. The lower weight projectile is what enables its advertised muzzle velocity of 1,070 fps when fired out of 2-inch barrel handguns, and 1,650 fps when tested with a 24-inch barrel rifle. The bullet construction was also designed to minimize expansion, allowing it to penetrate deeply enough to meet defensive requirements and is what gives the round its “Punch” moniker.
Federal also went the extra mile to ensure the reliability of this round. While all rimfire ammo can have the occasional dud primer, Federal claims that the company rigorously tested this round and found its reliability to be satisfactory for defensive use. Further aiding in reliability are this load’s nickel-plated cases which reduce friction and aid in extraction.
The round’s advertised muzzle energy of 75 foot-pounds is less than some other .22 self-defense loads, but it should make up for it in terms of reliability and penetration.
Choice .22 LR Guns
Some of the best all-around guns are sometimes the ones that are overlooked. One of my favorite general-use firearms is the Smith & Wesson Model 317 Kit Gun. This is an eight-shot, double-action .22 revolver that features an almost entirely alloy construction. It’s so light that it feels as if it’s made completely out of plastic. The unloaded weight of the revolver is only 11 ounces—so light that many cell phones outweigh it by a good margin.
A benefit of the Kit Gun is that it comes from the factory already set up for use in the field. It has an adjustable fiber-optic sight and a rubberized, full-sized grip. The 3-inch barrel length offers a sight radius comparable to many full-sized pistols—which makes aiming quite a bit easier than with the fixed sights common on many other small revolvers.
Out of all the available .22 guns out there, why would I select something as simple and benign as the 317? The answer is that it does everything that could possibly be required of a .22—without sacrificing much of anything. It can be carried all day and all night without making one’s hip ache; it’s not loud enough to be a nuisance if one were to fire it in close confines; it’s target-grade accurate with most ammunition; and it’s very reliable. While it does not receive much fanfare, it’s one of the most useful firearms one could possibly add to their collection. It’s so useful, in fact, that it essentially falls in the category of “tool.”
Another excellent choice in .22 LR is a DIY option. Brownells has started making its own version of the Ruger 10/.22 receiver. The BRN–.22 is a completely customizable and well-thought-out receiver that’s offered in many different configurations.
The version I built is meant to be a military trainer for CMP competition. It’s styled to be the same size and rough weight as an M1 carbine. The rifle has iron sights—just like the originals. All the parts necessary to construct this rifle are available through Brownells.
The BRN–.22 is a rimfire enthusiast’s dream. It’s completely customizable and is fully compatible with the entire aftermarket of 10/.22 accessories. The configuration I built is an excellent competition and training gun; it’s also a very fast and accurate piece for small game and even close-range coyote hunting.
Many End Uses
There’s something in the .22 market for everyone. While many will discount it as not powerful or accurate enough, it certainly can’t be denied that it’s common enough. There are many end uses, and the ammunition and guns listed here might not be what you’re looking for. However, the odds are in your favor, because there’s very likely something out there that’ll suit your needs.
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
Editor's Note: Adam Borisenko contributed to this article.