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.22 LR for Self-Defense?

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Why would anyone even consider the .22 LR for self-defense? Using the pipsqueak rounds when your life hangs in the balance may seem similar to the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” taking the approach that, “Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die.” That kind of thinking is unacceptable.

The fact is, .22 LR is, will and has been used extensively for self-defense—probably more often than you think. Rifles and handguns chambered for the rimfire cartridge are affordable, compact and the most common of all firearms. They have been the gun behind the door in American households for more than a century. They’re easy to shoot, don’t make a lot of noise and don’t cost an arm and a leg to feed.

Why are they often used for self-defense? Well, why do you pick your nose with your finger? It’s convenient at the time.

A .22 LR is the only gun some people own. That doesn’t mean it’s the most appropriate. I’ve driven nails with a crescent wrench and smashed my finger, used a knife as a pry bar and cut myself and even tried to move snow with a dirt shovel and been down in the back for a week. We can all agree there’s almost always a better choice for self-defense. The question is: When, if ever, is the .22 LR a good choice and just how effective is it?

I asked Ed Head, operations manager at Gunsite, for his opinion. He said, “Since the first rule of gunfighting is to have a gun, any gun is better than none at all. The little .22 LR may actually be better than some larger calibers, depending upon the ammunition selected. For example, I would think a high-velocity .22 cartridge like the Stinger might be a better choice than a .25 ACP loaded with FMJ rounds.”

According to the book “Stopping Power, a Practical Analysis of the Latest Handgun Ammunition,” by Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow, Head is right. Marshall and Sanow found .22 LR Stinger ammunition was 58 percent more effective at producing one-shot stops than any of the FMJ .25 Auto loads.

When selecting a defensive handgun Head’s wife could carry in her pocket, he choose the little Smith & Wesson J-frame Model 317 in .22 LR. Several things convinced him it was the right choice. For one, similarly sized revolvers in .357 Mag. and even .38 Spl. can be uncomfortable to shoot. Second, Smith & Wesson’s eight-shot 317 only weighs 11 ounces. Finally, and most important, with the 317 his wife can consistently put all eight rounds into a target the size of an eye socket at 5 yards. Head asks, “What more do you need?”

He also said, “Nobody wants to get shot with any gun. It’s been my experience people just don’t stand there and let you shoot them. The most common stop is psychological. Most people stop fighting quickly after having been shot. Although we tend to worry endlessly about knockdown power and about what bullet and load is best, fact is, people just don’t like getting shot, and unless facing the rare superhuman, even a .22 can get the job done.”

Head qualified his comments on the .22 LR as a self-defense cartridge by adding, “If you are going to use a .22, practice until you can reliably make central nervous system hits.” It’s hard to argue with the logic. After all, he does make his living training folks on how to use a firearm to stay alive at what might be the premier firearms fighting school in the world.

Like Head, I’ve tried to find a carry gun for my wife. She shoots, but she’s not a gun person. Every handgun I’ve tried to work into her purse or hand was ultimately rejected for excessive weight or recoil. I never seriously considered a .22, but my sister recently purchased a Beretta Bobcat in .22 LR to use as a carry gun. When my wife saw this cell phone-sized pistol she commented, “I would carry that.” Hey, I never said gunwriters knew everything.

Looking deeper, I figured an ammunition company might also teach me something. I contacted ATK, the parent company of Stinger manufacturer CCI. Tim Brandt, who handles media relations for CCI and Federal, told me, “We work hard to position our products by use. For instance, we don’t advocate using our buckshot 12- and 20-gauge hunting loads for self-defense. In fact, Federal just added shotshell loads for self-defense this year. Along the same lines, we also don’t want to suggest using our .22 LR loads for personal defense.”

I really wasn’t surprised at Brandt’s response. Just like automobile companies build specific vehicles for specific chores, ammunition companies produce different loads to perform different tasks. Even though you might pull it off, Chevrolet is not going to suggest you haul a new recliner home on a Corvette or that you’ll impress chicks driving around in a $12,000 Aveo.

The data in Marshall’s and Sanow’s book lists the effectiveness of six different .22 LR loads based on 4,483 actual street shootings. On average, the cartridge produced one-shot stops 31 percent of the time. Based on their sampling criteria, the .22 LR was found to be about half as effective as the .32 ACP. With data from 465 shootings, the CCI Stinger was the second-best .22 LR load with 38 percent one-shot stops. With only 10 shootings, the original .22 LR Quik-Shok HP load had the highest rating at 40 percent. Quik-Shok ammunition is now produced by CCI. It’s available as a 40-grain Subsonic or a 32-grain Hyper-Velocity load. Marshall’s and Sanow’s data is based on the lighter, faster bullet.

Statistics and predictions are interesting, but I like finding out for myself. While hunting, I’ve observed the effects of different .22 LR loads on a variety of animals. I’ve also seen a few humans who have been shot with a .22. Like almost every other cartridge, results varied. So I turned to ordnance gelatin. Using the Beretta Bobcat, a Smith & Wesson M&P15-22 and a Kimber Crimson Carry with a .22 LR conversion kit, I tested CCI’s Segmented Hollow-Point, the CCI Stinger and my favorite .22 LR hunting load, the CCI Velocitor.

Velocitor ammo penetrated the deepest, but did not expand out of the Bobcat. Stinger ammunition penetrated to a moderate depth and showed expansion regardless of barrel length. The real surprises were the two CCI Segmented Hollow-Point loads. Depending on the load, these bullets break into three pieces weighing between 10 and 14 grains each. Regardless of velocity, they always penetrated to almost 6 inches. About an inch or so into the gelatin, these bullets break apart, fan out and continue to drive on. They diverge from the centerline of the bullet’s path between 2 and 4 inches.

One-shot terminal performance tests are interesting, but what if you shoot a bad guy multiple times? Marshall and Sanow based their findings on one shot, but I’m not sure one shot is the best way to evaluate the .22 LR cartridge for self-defense. Why? Because it’s so easy to shoot fast and accurately. With the help of some friends I tested this hypothesis using a SIG Sauer P229 in .40 S&W and with a SIG .22 LR conversion kit. We found we could get twice as many hits in the same amount of time with the .22 LR. There were also fewer misses with the rimfire.

Make what you will of this data. What cannot be ignored is Marshall and Sanow examined almost 4,500 instances where a .22 LR was used for self-defense. In the same study they tracked the effectiveness of 16 different .45 ACP loads for a total of only 1,728 shootings. Yes, the .45 ACP was more effective, but what’s astonishing was that they had twice the number of shootings to evaluate with the .22 LR. This should dispel any doubts the .22 LR is frequently used in an attempt to stop bad guys.

So, what about stopping power? This term always comes up. For what it’s worth, consider that the first homicide I ever investigated, the perpetrator used a pellet rifle. Also, during my 13 years as a police officer, I pointed my handgun at a lot of bad guys doing a lot of bad things. In only two instances did it fail to make them stop. That’s potent stopping power, and the trigger was never pulled. I would add that none first asked me, “Hey, how big a gun you got?” Like Head said, nobody wants to get shot with anything. It’s a matter of perception and perception is important.

The public’s opinions on the .22 LR for self-defense is also interesting. With the help of my friend Shelby Murdoc, proprietor of the GunPundit website, a poll appeared on his blog. In four days he received 1,422 responses. It appears the average gun person is pretty sensible when it comes to personal protection. Most agreed a .22 LR was a better choice than a .25 ACP and that having a gun and being able to hit accurately and fast were primary considerations. A .22 LR handgun is about the easiest to get, carry and hit with. If it works!

Anyone considering the .22 LR for protection must realize duds are a reality with rimfire ammunition, mainly with the cheap stuff. However, I once fired a brick of Stingers during a prairie dog shoot without a single hiccup. That said, Stingers are not your typical .22 LR ammo; the case is longer and pressures are high. The same goes for the hyper-velocity Segmented Hollow-Point load. In some guns, these just flat will not work.

Another fact is handguns are not the only solution to personal protection and bad guys are not the only thing we need protection from. While attending the 2010 SHOT Show my wife called to tell me my son had been chased into the house by a rabid fox. My mother-in-law was at home with the kids and they were all, according to my three-year old, “Freaked up!” I told them to call the State Police. A Trooper friend arrived and smacked the fox with a .45 ACP. It took two hollow points to stop the fox.

In my closet you’ll now find a Smith & Wesson M&P15-22 with a magazine full of Stingers, with a SureFire weaponlight and a LaserLyte laser on the quad rail. My mother-in-law and my 10-year-old son can shoot the M&P15-22 accurately and they know what to do if accosted by another rabid anything. If something goes bump in the night, it might be the gun I grab. It’s terrifying how swiftly and accurately I can shoot this carbine.

Twenty-two in the closet or not, I generally carry a .45 ACP or a .327 Fed. Mag. In my office there’s a loaded, 16-inch-barreled lever gun also chambered for the .327. A .22 LR is a part of my self-defense plan—but it’s a small part.

The .22 LR cartridge is truly a member of the Light Brigade when it comes to self-defense. It may be easy to shoot accurately and fast and it might be the cartridge most frequently used for that purpose. It may even work better than you think. For those who don’t have another choice, don’t have the money to procure another option or the physical ability to use anything else, the old cliché seems to fit. It’s better than nothing.

If by intention or misfortune you end up relying on the .22 LR for protection, here are some good rules to follow: Use reliable ammo, shoot straight and don’t stop shooting until the threat no longer exists. That’s actually exceedingly good advice no matter what cartridge you choose.

Shooting Results

Terminal Performance Comparison

.22 LR loads Barrel Length Velocity Expanded Diameter Recovered Weight Penetration
.22 LR 40-grain CCI Velocitor 2.4 833 .22 99 14+
.22 LR 40-grain CCI Velocitor 5.0 1,061 .30 99 12.00
.22 LR 40-grain CCI Velocitor 16.0 1,260 .34 99 14.50
.22 LR 32-grain CCI Stinger 2.4 1,012 .36 99 8.00
.22 LR 32-grain CCI Stinger 5.0 1,283 .31 68 10.00
.22 LR 32-grain CCI Stinger 16.0 1,573 .25 45 9.50
.22 LR 32-grain CCI SHP 2.4 988 F F 6.00
.22 LR 32-grain CCI SHP 5.0 1,262 F F 7.50
.22 LR 32-grain CCI SHP 16.0 1,555 F F 9.25
.22 LR 40-grain CCI SHP 2.2 777 F F 5.50
.22 LR 40-grain CCI SHP 5.0 950 F F 5.75
.22 LR 40-grain CCI SHP 16.0 1,068 F F 8.00
Comparison Loads
.45 ACP 145-grain Glaser Blue 5.0 1,291 F F 6.75
.45 ACP 165-grain Cor-Bon +P JHP 5.0 1,264 .68 78 9.25
.40 S&W 180-grain Winchester PDX1 4.6 998 .83 100 10.75
.357 Mag. 125-grain Magnum Speer Gold Dot 4.0 1,360 .47 525 9.75
9 mm 124-grain Winchester PDX1+P 4.5 1,256 .62 100 10.50
9 mm 115-grain Cor-Bon DPX 4.6 1,262 .50 100 14.00
.380 ACP 90-grain Hornady Critical Defense 1.8 928 .45 99 9.50
.38 Spl. 110-grain Hornady Critical Defense +P 1.8 955 .52 100 10.00
.327 Fed. Mag. 115-grain Gold Dot 3.2 1,335 .54 100 13.75
.32 H&R 85-grain Magnum Black Hills JHP 3.2 945 .40 100 12.50
Recovered weight is represented as the percent remaining after being shot into 10-percent ordnance gelatin from 10 feet. F=Bullet fragmented.


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