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The .22 Magnum for Self-Defense

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Article first appeared at American Rifleman.

A practical personal protection plan should include a handgun, but that handgun should, without question, be one you’re comfortable with. As you become more experienced you’ll have the opportunity to further evaluate the situation and trade-up as your comfort and skill levels increase. For some, a .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR) might be the best place to start. It’s also affordable, readily available and relatively easy to shoot.

The .22 WMR is just one of many cartridges that comes in handguns sized for personal protection or concealed carry. A compact and light handgun like Ruger’s 16-ounce LCR is a perfect example of a carry-size .22 WMR revolver. For those who want to carry the smallest handgun possible, North American Arms’ less-than-6-ounces Mini-Revolvers, with 1-inch barrels, are about as small as small gets.

Many consider the .22 WMR too small for self-defense, but what do the facts and some common sense tell us? To answer this question we need to keep things in perspective. Unlike hunters, those who use a handgun to thwart violence don’t primarily intend to kill. The goal is to make the bad guy stop doing bad things. Handguns stop a threat in three ways. One is by causing enough pain that the bad guy submits or voluntarily decides further violent action is a bad idea. Another way is through incapacitation, which is an involuntary reaction on the part of the bad guy in response to being shot. Incapacitation can be instant or it can take a long time.

The third way handguns stop evil intent is through fear. No one wants to get shot with any gun. Law enforcement personnel will tell you that they point guns at bad guys much more often than they shoot them, and the most common response when a gun is pointed at someone is that they stop being bad and put their hands up or run. This voluntary surrender is the most common and effective way handguns stop crime, whether in the hands of police officers or citizens.

What we want to explore here is how effective a .22 WMR handgun might be at triggering these three outcomes. If just pointing the gun at the bad guy is enough, then caliber or cartridge is of no consequence—score one for the WMR. If a shot is required, will the .22 WMR be capable of causing enough pain to make the bad guy submit or voluntarily stop, and is it even capable of causing swift, involuntary incapacitation?

Terminal ballistics testing in 10 percent ordnance gelatin is about the only way we can gauge the potential effectiveness of any cartridge. By comparing how various .22 WMR loads perform in ordnance gelatin with how other, more trusted, larger-caliber handgun loads perform, we can hypothesize on the fight-stopping potential of the .22 WMR.

Make no mistake, velocity matters when it comes to terminal performance. It’s why .357 Mag. is more effective at stopping bad guys than .38 Spl. With the .22 WMR, velocity is just as, if not more, important because of its relatively small bullet. Interestingly, many .22 WMR loads are made for use in rifles, and the longer barrels result in substantially more velocity than if the same loads were shot through handguns. With that in mind, I conducted a series of tests with various .22 WMR loads fired from barrels as short as 1 inch to as long as 22 inches. The results can be found in the accompanying table, but before you try to digest all those numbers, let’s consider what these tests actually tell us.

Admittedly, 10 percent ordnance gelatin, as often as it is used and referenced, is not the same as a bad guy. It is simply a ballistic test medium which is thought to offer the same resistance to a bullet as would muscle tissue. It does not replicate skin, ribs, cartilage or fat and, in fact, very often the way a bullet performs in living tissue is quite different than how it performs in gelatin. Ordnance gelatin is merely a test medium that offers comparisons between projectiles on an even playing field.

So what you see in these results is how these loads compare to each other and to more powerful defensive handgun loads such as the 9 mm Luger and the .45 ACP. With those cartridges you can generally expect penetration in the 13-inch range. Interestingly, if we average the penetration of the .22 WMR loads tested from handguns with barrels ranging from 1 inch to 4½ inches we find they penetrated to just over 12 inches. Not much difference.

The average 9 mm Luger velocity from defensive handguns with varying barrel lengths runs about 1,175 fps. From a .45 ACP the average muzzle velocity is almost 1,000 fps. Averaging all the .22 WMR loads tested in all the different handgun barrel lengths we find the muzzle velocity to be about 1,050 fps. From a numbers standpoint, the velocity and penetration of the .22 WMR, when compared to a 9 mm or a .45, is not all that different.

The difference in the terminal performance of a .22 WMR when compared to a 9 mm or a .45 is mostly in expansion and energy. Expansion is important because if you have two holes that are the same depth, the hole that has the largest diameter will also be the one that is likely to do the most tissue damage. The average frontal diameter of recovered .22 WMR bullets is about 0.27 inches. That is substantially less than the average for the 9 mm Luger, at 0.55 inches, and the .45 ACP at 0.61 inches.

So, on average, you can expect a .45 ACP to damage about 3.79 cubic inches of tissue and a 9 mm Luger to damage about 3 cubic inches of tissue. The best .22 WMR loadings will damage less than 1 cubic inch of tissue.

Actually, statistics—if you can trust statistics—support the hypothesis that it’s the fear of getting or having been shot that most often leads to a fight being stopped. Of course fear and even pain will most likely have little influence on someone high on meth, crack or even adrenalin. In those instances it’s the involuntary incapacitation that must be relied upon. Instant involuntary incapacitation with any handgun is rare and, with a .22 WMR damaging four times less tissue and hitting with about a fourth the energy of a 9 mm Luger or .45, I think it’s logical to assume involuntary incapacitation with a .22 WMR cartridge is four times less likely to happen.

But what if you can’t be concerned with such numbers? What if a .22 WMR is the most powerful handgun you can shoot effectively? What if a .22 WMR is all you have? What ammunition should you choose for a .22 WMR defensive handgun if that’s what you are going to carry?

Based on the testing I conducted, two things were obvious: Barrels of about an inch in length did not generate enough velocity for reliable expansion with most .22 WMR loads. Terminal performance from barrels between 2 inches (1.8 inches) and 5 inches (4.6 inches) was, for all practical purposes, identical. It was also clear from the results, with the exception of four loads;Hornady’s Critical Defense, Speer’s Gold Dot, Winchester’s PDX1 and the somewhat surprisingCCI TNT load, no other .22 WMR load will expand from a handgun. The Hornady, Speer and Winchester loads, which performed well and even expanded through denim—except from the 1-inch barrel—seem to be the obvious choice, especially with penetration around the magic 13-inch mark. No surprise here; all of these loads were purpose-built for the defensive handgun. On the other hand, the 30-grain CCI TNT load was the only load that expanded from every firearm, in every test.

Even though these loads did expand, they did not expand much; 0.19 inches of expansion was the most recorded from any handgun, and bear in mind that is slightly more than 3/16 inches. The .22 WMR is drastically handicapped by power and energy—energy that’s needed to push through clothing, ribs and muscle. It might make just as much sense to use loads with non-expanding projectiles such as the 40-grain full metal jacket or common hollow point, which should penetrate slightly deeper.

Here’s another consideration. The Hornady, Speer and Winchester loads utilize flash-retarding propellants. That means that if you have to shoot in near darkness, you won’t be blinded by the light—muzzle flash. Even though the CCI TNT load expanded well in every test, the muzzle flash from it and the other loads was like a fireball. That might scare your attacker more, but it does nothing for your night vision.

I still believe any gun is better than no gun. I also believe there are a lot of cartridges better suited for personal protection than a .22 WMR. Still, as a deterrent, it’s probably as effective as anything else. As for being able to bring about voluntary submission it’s anybody’s guess how this cartridge should be rated; we simply cannot predict psychological reactions. Where the .22 WMR appears to fall short is in its ability to bring about instant involuntary incapacitation.

You’ll definitely need something that makes a bigger hole if that’s your goal.



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