Gun Digest contributor Wayne van Zwoll explains why the .22 rifle deserves its place in gun history.
Far from the most powerful, the .22 Long Rifle is arguably the most useful cartridge of all time.
It dates to 1857, when Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson came up with a rimfire round while working on a lever-action rifle. That primitive Volcanic rifle would evolve into the Henry, the foundation of Winchester’s 19th century dynasty.
Meanwhile, Smith and Wesson would turn to another firearms venture. Their rimfire cartridge endured 30 years of development. Its progeny, the .22 Long Rifle, arrived in 1887, courtesy the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company. A black-powder cartridge with 5 grains driving a 40-grain bullet, it evolved later to take smokeless powder in a case with a crimp clutching the heeled bullet.
Remington claimed the first modern high-speed load in l930. Current .22 ammo includes friskier offerings, but they’re all sinfully pleasant to shoot. Feeding a .22 costs so much less than stoking a centerfire; you can almost keep Junior in college with the difference.
My love affair with .22 started on a fence rail, where I shot barn rats with a Remington 121 and .22 Shorts. Squinting into that J4 Weaver was like looking through dishwater.
I trained with iron sights on a Remington 40X .22 match rifle, then sold my soul for an Anschutz 1413 to join a University smallbore team. Eley Match ammunition nipped one hole at 50 meters. I won a state prone title, and then foolishly sold that rifle.
The scope, a Redfield 3200, sat next on a McMillan-barreled Remington 37. It snared a second state title. By the time targets got too fuzzy in iron-sight stages, hunting-weight .22s had filled a gun rack in my office.
Cooper, Kimber and Weatherby bolt guns joined the Marlin 39s, an autoloading T/C and a Remington 121 that’s as fetching as the rat rifle of my youth. A Ruger and a Savage in .22WMR, and a Cooper in .17 HMR offer more reach. The Cooper is obscenely accurate.
I should have kept the Browning BLR and Winchester 9422 that left for more responsible owners – and the 52 Winchester with 10x Fecker my wife used to thin ground squirrels near an Oregon farmstead.
I’m obliged to keep the Winchester 75 Sporter, an inheritance on Alice’s side. “It’s mine,” she says.
It’s fashionable in some circles to scoff at the .22 Long Rifle, as if it were OK for kids but not for real riflemen. Well, some real accomplished shooters have used .22s.
Phoebe Ann Moses was one. Born in a log cabin in Darke County, Ohio, she showed early talent with rifles when she started killing quail on the wing with a .22.
At a local turkey shoot she beat not just the local boys, but visiting sharpshooter Frank Butler. She was 15. Frank married her within the year.
She joined his traveling show under the stage name Annie Oakley, shooting tossed glass balls. Petite at 100 pounds, Annie had the endurance to hit 943 of 1,000. She’d cut one ragged hole in a playing card with 25 shots from a .22 rifle – in 25 seconds.
Once she shot a cigarette from the lips of a German crown prince. After he became Kaiser Wilhelm II and Europe entered the Great War, Annie allowed that with a flinch she might have altered world history.
Not long thereafter, a lanky Texan named Ad Topperwein began entertaining. He left audiences agape by shooting aerial targets as small as a steel washer. When the washer showed no reaction to a shot, Ad would turn to the crowd and deadpan that the bullet went through the hole.
Hecklers jeered – until Ad stuck a postage stamp over the washer, tossed it again and perforated the stamp with a .22 bullet. In 1894 he shattered 955 of 1,000 air-borne 2 ¼-inch disks.
Dissatisfied, he repeated, busting 987 and 989. It was said Ad could hit the bullet of a tossed .32-20 cartridge without tearing the case. In 1907 at San Antonio’s fairgrounds, he uncrated 10 Winchester 1903 self-loading .22s, tens of thousands of rounds of ammo and as many wooden blocks.
He endured 120 hours of firing before calling a halt. He’d fired at 72,500 blocks and missed nine. His longest run of hits: 14,500 straight!
The .22 Short once common at booths on the “midways” of state fairs is about gone. Winchester’s 1890 pump rifle, then a staple in shooting galleries, has become collectible. The mild BB and CB (Bullet Breech and Conical Bullet) Cap cartridges peddled as pest ammo in those days have faded away, too.
The .22 Long, with a 29-grain Short bullet in a Long Rifle case, never caught on. But the Long Rifle steams ahead, as popular as ever. The best target loads can deliver half-minute accuracy. High-velocity hunting bullets give you 90-yard point-blank range with a 75-yard zero. Bullets strike about an inch high at 50 and 3 inches low at 100.
I once shot a crow at a paced 145 yards. It must have been the bird’s day to die, as I was shooting a lightweight lever rifle with iron sights.
Sometimes a .22 is just shy of magic.