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.22 WMR: misfit or marvel?

Did you ever get a headache and a sore shoulder from shooting a .22 rimfire? As strange as it may sound, I recently did, and I'm not exactly sensitive to recoil. The aching head came from peering intently into a scope for several days, trying to squeeze five-shot groups into the smallest possible space at 50 and 100 yards. My shoulder became rather sensitive, not from recoil but from holding a rifle at benchrest for so long a time.

During this bangathon, I used three rifles and evaluated seven loads from four companies. The ammo evaluations included 16 different lots of ammunition for a grand total of just over 3,000 squeezes of the trigger. My reason for all the effort was to see just how good a cartridge the .22 WMR (more commonly called .22 Magnum) really is. After all, it has been with us since 1959 and is available in several types of rifles-- bolt actions, autoloaders, lever actions and single shots. The cartridge has to be doing something right and it must be relatively popular, otherwise so many gun companies wouldn't offer such a variety of rifles chambered for it.

The three rifles used were an Anschutz Model 1522D Classic and two Kimber Model 82s. I chose these bolt-action rifles simply because they enjoy a reputation for outstanding accuracy. In other words, I wanted to see just how accurate the .22 WMR is in good, high-quality rifles. Three rifles were used for two reasons. First of all, I wanted to illustrate what we have long known to be true; two rifles most often have different tastes in ammunition. Second, I included two rifles of the same brand to illustrate that this rule not only applies to rifles from different makers but also to rifles from the same makers.

Presently, eight .22 WMR loads are available and I managed to include all but one. Winchester, CCI, Federal and RWS offer two each with jacketed hollow point (JHP) and full metal jacketed (FMJ) bullets. Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain the RWS FMJ load. And by the way, the RWS .22 WMR ammunition was only recently reintroduced to U.S. shooters.

As previously stated, we all know that, typically, different rifles often prefer different loads. What shoots best in your rifle may or may not shoot best in mine. Something we seldom see mentioned, however, is the fact that different lots of the same load, from the same manufacturer, quite often perform differently in various rifles. Thus my reason for including several lots of each load in the tests.

In these shooting sessions, The Anschutz rifle wore a Bausch & Lomb 6-24X scope, set at 16 power. The two Kimbers wore a Redfield 3200 and Weaver T-Model, respectively, both in 16X. Ideally, such an accuracy test as this should take place in an indoor range where wind cannot influence the outcome; but since such conditions are not at my disposal, I had no choice but to shoot outdoors. In an attempt to keep everything as even as possible, I was at the range during the early morning and late afternon on several consecutive days, when the wind was most calm.

Perhaps under more ideal conditions, the results of those tests would differ slightly, but I do feel that they are awfully darned close to being representative of what we can expect from the overgrown .22 rimfire.

One thing is certain, I have learned a few things about the .22 WMR--some long suspected but never confirmed, others that had never crossed my mind. First of all, this little cartridge is extremely wind sensitive, more so than .22 Long Rifle high speed loads and much more so than .22 Long Rifle standard velocity loads. Toward the end of one of the test sessions, the wind picked up and I decided to compare wind deflection between the RWS, .22 WMR load and RWS R-50 .22 Long Rifle match ammunition. Bullets fired from the .22 WMR veered off course two or three times more than those propelled by the .22 Long Rifle ammunition.

I'm not sure why, but in order to maintain top accuracy from a rifle in a .22 WMR, its barrel must be cleaned more often than is the case with the .22 LR. This could be because of the heavier charge of slow-burning powder loaded in the .22 WMR cartridge, or maybe metal fouling from the jacketed bullet is the culprit. Perhaps it's a combination of the two. At any rate, accuracy of the three miles began to deteriorate at an accelerated rate any time I neglected to scrub their bores with a solvent-laden brush after 50 to 75 rounds.

The results on target also raise a question or two about what we have long believed to be true about selecting the most accurate ammunition for a particular rifle. This became most apparent upon completion of my 50-yard accuracy tests.

Contrary to popular opinion (including mine prior to the tests), if a particular brand and lot of ammunition does well in one rifle, it can be expected to perform likewise in another rifle. The best load in one rifle may not be the best in another, but if it is capable of good accuracy in one rifle, its performance probably won't be shabby in another. By the same token, a load that performs poorly in one rifle is likely to perform the same in another. The moral of this part of the story is this: if you try a certain lot of a particular brand of ammunition and it works in your rifle, hock the old home place, or whatever it takes, and stock up on that ammunition. The next batch may not work so well in your rifle.

I'll have to admit to being rather surprised at the inherent accuracy of the .22 WMR. I had no idea that this cartridge is capable of minute of angle accuracy. While the combined, aggregate accuracy of all the ammunition used fell far short of minute of angle, two loads made it in the Anschutz and two others came awafully close.

Before leaving the subject of accuracy, I must make sure the air stays clear. It should be kept in mind that in order to find such accuracy, I had to try a number of loads until I was knee-deep in spent cases. Overall accuracy for the three rifles with all loads tested was more like 2 inches at 100 yards. In fact, while I was involved in this project, a friend tried four different loads in a bolt-action and lever-action rifle of another make. Both rifles averaged 2.5 MOA. The best load in one rifle averaged 1.24 MOA while the other averaged 1.68 MOA, all for five-shots groups at 100 yards.

With all of this in mind, I'd say that if your rifle is averaging 1-1/4 to 1-1/2-inch groups, it is nothing to be ashamed of. If it's a good quality rifle and averaging over 2 inches, you probably ought to shop around for other ammunition.

Now let's look at velocities. When introduced, the .22 WMR was advertised at a nominal muzzle velocity of 2,000 feet per second for its 40-gram bullet. Now its muzzle velocity is listed as 1,910 fps. CCI continues to list the old velocity figure but according to my test results, they too have throttled back on .22 WMR velocity. The Good Ol' Boys have probably been so busy they haven't had time to reflect this change in their catalog. Be that as it may, most of the loads tested fell short of factory claims, some by a small amount, others by a lot. However, this only applies to ammunition produced domestically. Since RWS ammunition exceeds 2,000 fps in the three rifles, I can only assume that they are still loading to the original specifications. In fact, several rounds of this ammunition clocked at just over 2,100 fps, but the average was closer to 2,050 fps. Obviously, RWS takes this cartridge quite seriously because not only was it the fastest load tested, it was also one of the most accurate.

Something else the results of my tests seem to shoot full of holes is our opinion about the relationship between accuracy and velocity spread. I don't know how many times I've written up load data for a cartridge and proudly listed a low velocity spread for some of my concoctions. Perhaps such information appears to be impressive in print, but now I'm not at all sure it's worth the price of typewriter ribbon. To illustrate what I'm saying, let's compare accuracy relative to velocity spread of the five best loads fired in the Anschutz at 50 yards.

As can be seen by turning to the charts shown herein, the load with the lowest velocity spread ranked next to dead last in accuracy. Enough said on this subject.

With a few good things said about the .22 WMR, I'll now flip over the rock and examine its other side. The first thing I see is the cost of ammunition. Each squeeze of the trigger will reduce your net worth by about 14 cents. High speed Long Rifle ammunition costs slightly over five cents per round. If you handload the smaller .22 centerfires, you'll spend maybe ten cents per shot. In other words, one could sit in the middle of a prairie dog town and have a little less fun for a lot less money with the .22 Long Rifle, or a lot more fun for a little less money with, say, a .22 Hornet or .222 Remington.

Opinions vary on how effective the .22 WMR is on small game. I've heard of hunters who use it on game up to the size of fox and coyote out to 100 yards. I've never bagged an animal larger than a groundhog with this cartridge, so I'm not exactly qualified to climb the mount and carve any hard and fast rules into granite. However, based on my limited experience with the .22 WMR, I feel that to take on animals weighing much over 10 pounds with the cartridge is asking a bit much of it, unless shots are restricted to the brain or spine.

When talking about cartridges for shooting groundhogs, Simpson's rule of thumb number 1116 goes like this: A) shots into vital areas, such as the lungs and shoulders, should deliver a minimum of 200 foot pounds of residual energy with a quick expanding bullet; B) shots into less vital areas, or "fringe" shots as varmint shooters call them, should deliver at least twice as much energy for quick, humane kills.

When .22 WMR performance is measured against my criteria, it is obvious that, at best, it is a 75 yard cartridge. For clean kills on shots around the fringes, you had best load all the punch you can get with the RWS load and "injun up" close enough to singe hair. All of this, by the way, may sound purely theoretical, but it is actually based on years of experience afield.

Moving on to more edible game, we have animals such as cottontails, gray squirrels and (where rifles are legal for taking them) turkeys. Friends of mine have taken these big birds with the .22 WMR and according to them, shot placement is super-critical and close-range shots are the rule. Even at that, they've managed to wound and lose a few of their quarry.

A mature gobbler often exceeds 20 pounds on the hoof, and he's clad with a thick coat of tough, resilient feathers. He can take a terrible licking and still escape the roasting pan. Truth is, the .22 WMR needs about ten more gains of bullet and at least 500 fps more velocity before it can qualify as a legitimate turkey cartridge.

The .22 WMR speaks with great authority when used on rabbits and squirrels--it snuffs out their lights like a candle in a hurricane. But, there s a fly in this bowl of soup, too. At ranges where most of these animals are shot, the cartridge is terribly destructive on the eating part. This includes both the hollow point and full metal jacket loads.

So, it looks like I've dug a pretty deep grave for the .22 WMR, doesn't it? Well, I'm not so sure it's quite ready to be buried yet. Before we shovel in the dirt, let's look behind the cloud and see if there's at least a tiny ray of sunshine in hiding.

Possibly, the .22 WMr is at its best for use on small game when fired in a revolver with a barrel six inches or longer. This reduces its velocity to that of the .22 LR fired in a rifle, and causes less meat damage. Actually, it appears to be a pretty good deal when one can pack rifle power in a more portable package. And it would be a good deal if the less expensive CCI Stinger ammunition weren't available. But it is, and when fired in a revolver it is faster than domestic .22 WMR loadings and delivers just as much energy to the target.

Believe me, I'm trying to find a logical place in the shooting scheme of things for Winchester's Magnum Rimfire; were I not, I would have ended this article several paragraphs ago. Since I seem to have exhausted all possibilities for the cartridge, let's now go the drawing board and see if the .22 WMR's salvation lies there.

Here's one idea to ponder. It would be nice to see the velocities of factory loads boosted to the original performance specs. This would be for the benefit of those who don't handload the centerfires and who need more punch from a rifle than the .22 LR offers. This would add a bit more appeal to the cartridge, but it would contribute nothing toward solving its real problem--cost and lack of suitability for shooting edible small game.

What would really be nice would be to roll back the calender some quarter-century and talk those Olin engineers into taking a different approach in their design of the cartridge. Rather than producing an extra-long version of the ancient .22 Winchester Rim Fire (22 WRF), which has a fat case and .224-inch bullet, we would simply go with an extra long, .22 Long Rifle. This way, one could fire less expensive .22 LR ammunition in a .22 WMR rifle. While accuracy with the shorter ammunition might not be tops, you would be surprised how many shooters are happy when shooting .22 Shorts in .22 LR chambers.

With fantasizing behind us, I'll now return to the real world and close this opus with a couple of ideas that I feel would bost .22 WMR popularity to heights it has never attained. Best of all, I won't charge our ammunition makers a dime for the advice.

Possibility number one is to introduce a loading with a lead bullet at a muzzle velocity similar to that of the .22 LR high speed. This would kill two birds with one load. It would make the .22 WMR much more suitable for shooting small game of the edible variety, but even more important, I see no reason why such a load should not be comparable in price to the .22 Long Rifle. Okay, so it does take a pinch more powder and a bit more brass to make the .22 WMR but, at most, it shouldn't be any more expensive to manufacture than the various .22 LR hyper velocity loads.

Or, the cat's hide could be removed another way. Simply bring back the old .22 WRF load, which can be fired in the .22 WMR chamber, but bring it back at .22 Long Rifle prices. In addition to serving the same purpose as plan "A," this would also give us something to shoot in the thousands of .22 WRF rifles and handguns hanging around needing to be used. As a small game cartridge, the .22 WRF with its 45-grain lead bullet at 1,450 fps takes a back seat to no other.

When either of these plans is initiated by one of our ammunition makers, I might even be one of the first to stand in line to buy a rifle chambered to .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire.
COPYRIGHT 1985 InterMedia Outdoors, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Simpson, Layne
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Jun 1, 1985
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