LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
Every hunter needs a good rimfire rifle. They are excellent for inexpensive training and hunting, but which cartridges and loads are best?
Until 1960, when Winchester introduced the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire, the question had three simple answers. .22 Short, Long, or Long Rifle were a hunter’s main choices on the market. The .22 magnum changed the way hunters looked at rimfires. Before it arrived, people viewed these diminutive rounds as fit for either target practice or game no larger than a rabbit.
In 2002 rimfire stepped into a new universe when Hornady developed the .17 HMR, or Hornady Magnum Rimfire. Now hunters had some real choices, but with complexity comes confusion. People wondered which rimfire best suited a particular need. Can just one cover all possibilities?
What’s In, What’s Out
All the rimfires use bullets which have much lower ballistic coefficients than those found in center-fire cartridges. As a result, they all lose velocity at a rapid rate when they travel down-range. Although, some rimfires bleed speed more than others. With some exceptions, the .22 Long Rifle and .22 WMR use 30 – 40 grain lead or copper plated bullets, the primary difference in performance is the velocity at which each cartridge propels those bullets. The .17 HMR uses bullets half the nominal .22's weight to achieve its higher velocities.
The .22 Short and .22 Long are not included in this discussion as they are much less popular, available, and effective than the ubiquitous .22 Long Rifle (LR). Since spent rimfire cases are not reloadable, only factory velocities are used in this comparison.
In the Zone
The primary difference between the three rimfires comes down to their effective ranges. Game size is a secondary, but important, consideration, though. The effective range, or target engagement envelope, is divided into three zones: 50 yards or less, 50 – 100 yards, and beyond 100 yards. Game weight affects these zones; the larger the game the closer a hunter should get to ensure quick, humane kills.
- 50 yards or less: The original, and still the best place for rimfires. Even the fastest, most accurate ones will produce their best results in this range zone. In this zone, a hunter can take the smallest game and vermin up to turkey, beaver, fox, and coyote with any rimfire.
- 50 – 100 yards: The .22 LR gets left behind by the others past the 50 yard line. The .22 WMR and .17 HMR are adequate for all small game in this zone.
- Beyond 100 yards: Although there is some overlap with the .22 WMR between 100 – 125 yards, this is the .17 HMR’s neighborhood. Beyond 150 yards, though, even it is best suited to the smallest game such as squirrel, grouse, rabbit, and prairie dogs.
.22 Long Rifle
The traditional, and still most common Long Rifle load is a 40 grain bullet fired at 1050 to 1100 fps. The biggest decision here is whether to choose a solid or hollow point, and pure lead vs. copper plated bullets.
The answer boils down to one simple question. “Are you going to eat what you shoot?”
If you intend to eat the critter you shoot, copper plated, solid nose bullets are best. While pure lead bullets will work, the plated ones transfer little lead to the meat along the wound track. Eating lead is very--repeat very—bad for you, and you should limit how much is transferred to game.
Likewise with bullet nose configuration. The solid, round nose bullets will deliver just enough energy for a quick kill with a well-placed shot. Hollow points, on the other hand, will blow rather large holes in small beasts. A grouse I hit with a high-velocity, .22 LR hollow point on one occasion, came back almost in two pieces. They are just too much bullet even at Long Rifle velocities. Reserve the HPs for the larger vermin and predators where you need massive energy transfer.
Although their size may lead a hunter to believe a hollow point is better for turkeys, the solids are still best for maximum penetration on chest shots through those Kevlar-like feathers. In most cases, head shots on turkey are the best option with the Long Rifle round.
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Specs. for Selected .22 LR Loads
|Load||Muzzle Vel. (fps)||50 Yd. Vel. (fps)||Muzzle Ener. (ft-lbs.)||50 Yd Ener. (ft-lbs)||Drop @ 100 Yds. (in.) 50 yd. zero|
CCI std. vel. 40 gr. LRN
CCI subsonic 40 gr. SHP
Winchester 36 gr. LHP
Winchester M-22 40 gr. LRN
American Eagle Suppressor 45 gr. LRN
.22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire
The .22 WMR is a real wonder. It has almost no recoil, yet can put down even larger coyotes out to 100 yards, or so, with good placement. Even with solids, it may prove a bit much on squirrels, upland birds, or rabbit inside 50 yards. It comes into its own in the 50 – 100 yard realm and is a good choice if you hunt areas with mixed brush and meadow where a gun which reaches out a bit farther than the .22 LR is helpful.
As with the .22 LR, solids if you want to eat what you shoot, hollow points for the vermin. Except for turkeys. These birds are tough customers and will benefit from the hollow point's greater energy transfer if you shoot them in the chest. .22 WMR ammunition is a bit more expensive than .22 LR, but the extra reach justifies the cost.
Specs. for Select .22 WMR Loads
|Load||Muzzle Vel. (fps)||100 Yds Vel. (fps)||Muzzle Ener. (ft-lbs)||100 Yds Ener. (ft-lbs)||Drop @ Yds. (inches)|
Federal Game-Shok 50 gr. JHP
-3.3 @ 100 (50 Zero)
Hornady Varmint Express 30 gr. V-Max
-16.5 @ 200 (100 Zero)
CCI Maxi-Mag 40 gr. FMJ
.17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire
The .17 HMR has taken the rimfire world by storm. It is hyper-accurate compared to the others, shoots much flatter, and hits with authority out to ranges once reserved for the .223 Remington and .243 Winchester. Ammunition proved scarce in its early years, but now you’re more likely to find it.17 HMR on a gun store shelf than .22 LR.
This is a superb cartridge. It’s less expensive and easier to shoot than the smaller bore center-fires. It has a 1 MOA reputation in most guns which makes it perfect to reach out and touch paranoid prairie dogs at 150 – 200 yards without all the noise and bother larger rounds produce. It’ll also drop ‘yotes all day at 100 – 150 yards. Another tailor-made application is sniping squirrels across large meadows or picking off jackrabbits in open country.
Specs. for Select .17 HMR Loads
|Load||Muzzle Vel. (fps)||100 Yds. Vel. (fps)||Muzzle Ener. (ft-lbs)||100 Yd. Ener. (ft-lbs)||Drop @ Yds. (inches)|
Hornady Varm. Exp. 17 gr. V-Max
-8.5 @ 200 (100 Zero)
CCI Game Point 20 gr. JSP
Hornady Varm. Exp. 20 gr. XTP JHP
-9.9 @ 200 (100 Zero)
CCI 20 gr. FMJ
CCI 16 gr. Speer TNT Green
-0.7 @ 100 (50 Zero)
There are several loads for all the rimfires which merit special attention.
Subsonic loads have been available for decades. Sometimes known as “CBs”, these are great for use in noise sensitive areas and to reduce hearing damage. Velocities range from around 600 fps to just under 1000 fps, and some are designed for use in suppressed firearms. While they are about as quiet as a powerful air rifle, the ones with velocities above 900 fps are still quite loud. The reduced velocity also reduces effective range. Hollow point bullets will improve lethality and are a good choice on rabbit-sized game. They will deliver bad news to small vermin in a hurry, too.
CCI now offers a frangible bullet in their subsonic .22 LR line. This segmented bullet splits into three pieces upon contact which opens three distinct wound channels. It is yet another way to increase lethality for subsonic loads. It is a good choice for use near dwellings and equipment since its unique design should prevent over-penetration and/or ricochet.
Solid copper and copper-polymer composite bullets are now available in .22 LR and .17 HMR from CCI. These are a good choice if you are restricted by law to non-lead projectiles, or just want to eliminate lead transfer to your game. As with their larger caliber, center-fire brothers, they may foul barrels with copper residue after just a few rounds, so use them with caution until you’ve determined how they affect your particular gun.
While not a true frangible, the Hornady V-Max, available in both .22 and .17 caliber, expands with almost explosive speed when it hits a critter. It often shatters into multiple pieces which cause immediate, massive trauma to tissue.
All the rimfires are great to own. They have almost no recoil, there is good ammo availability, and they are just fun to shoot. They are a must-have for any hunter. As with center-fires, it is important to match the load to the intended game and range. Bullet construction is paramount. As a general rule, use solid bullets for edible game and hollow points for non-edible. As with any cartridge, bullet placement is the most important factor.
Despite the .22 WMR and .17 HMR’s increased performance, when all factors such as ammo availability, cost, and gun availability are considered, the .22 LR is still the best all-around choice in a rimfire. Inside its range envelop, and with the right bullet, the .22 LR will do anything the others can. Although I plan to take a much closer look at the .17 HMR someday, it is an intriguing round.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 LJ Bonham