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.22 rimfire shot loads: are they any good?

* I remember the incident clearly...almost like it was yesterday. In the summer of 1950 my dad bought me a Winchester bolt-action .22; it was a Model 67 single shot, used, but in good shape. Being only ten at the time, my old man didn't dare leave the gun in my possession so he resurrected it from its secret hiding place only on those far-too-few occasions when we'd go out in the country.

I thought about that gun constantly, wondering where it was hidden, and dreaming of what I could do with it if I found it. More than that, I looked for it whenever I had a chance to rummage through the house. It took weeks but I finally did find it. My dad had dismantled the little Winchester and stuck the stock and barreled action into a cold air return of the furnace duct work.

Determined or not, this city-bred boy knew shooting a .22 in the back yard of our urban Cleveland home was too dangerous to contemplate. Even .22 Shorts were out of the question. But what about those .22 shotshells I'd heard about? They weren't supposed to make much noise, didn't riconchet and didn't travel very far.

Perfect! I'd be able to sneak a few shots every now and then when the parents were gone and not get the neighbors' noses outta' joint. After all, I had enough problems with them already, what with their squealing to my mon or dad whenever they saw me pop a sparrow with my slingshot.

I had it all figured: I'd keep the muzzle a couple of feet inside a slightly opened window to reduce the noise to where it wouldn't alert my nebby neighbors.

When the opportunity came, I was ready. I had managed to glom a box of Western shotshells from a buddy of mine whose dad owned a sporting goods store. I set out the bait--a broken-up slice of bread--on the lawn maybe 15 yards from my window, and waited for the sparrows to appear.

It didn't take long. Within seconds one of the little beggars flitted down ... then another ... and another. This was gonna be great! Why settle for one, I thought, chuckling to myself like a demented fiend. I'll let 'em get in atight cluster and get five or six with one mighty blast from my trusty Winchester.

Instead of the smoking, three-foot crater I expected, with bits of grass and feathers lazily floating back to earth, I saw my quarry fly to nearby perches on the wires and fence where they just sat there like nothing happened.

I was crushed! Had my Winchester failed me? Maybe the shell was defective. Or maybe I just choked--the ol' "sparrow fever" that besets all hunters sooner or later in a crisis situation.

Within a few minutes the "sputzies" were back at the bread and again it was the same. They all flew away when I shot. There wasn't even a blood trail to follow into the rhododendrons.

Really puzzled, to say nothing of disillusioned, I repaired to the basement where I filled a large cardboard box with old newspapers. I then fired into it from a distance of ten feet. The tiny holes made by the No. 12 shot seemed to be everywhere. Though back then I knew nothing about pellet desity, percentages, and all that other good stuff, it din't take a gun expert to see that the pattern looked pretty deadly.

I taped a newspaper over the box, backed up to 20 feet, and fired another shot. That's when it all fell apart. At that distance there were places in the "pattern" where not a single pellet could be found withint he silhouette of a pigeon, much less a sparrow. No wonder that at over twice that distance I couldn't hit even a cluster of sparrows. And even if I had lucked a pellet or two into one of 'em, velocity had dropped to where it wouldn't even have mattered.

I'm sure many of you readers out there have experienced similar incidents the first time you tried a .22 shotshell. You aimed at some pest bird, rat, or whatever, pulled the trigger and nothing happend--at least not what you expected happened. Simply stated, experience quickly proves that no matter how little we expect of them, .22 shotshells still fall short.

In theory, the idea of a "tiny shotgun" as it were, is kinda' neat. Think about it; an ordinary .22 which, by simply changing ammo, becomes a gun capable of taking pesky rodents, birds, or bats, at rest or on the wing, at modest ranges. The report is light enough so as not to disturb the entire neighborhood, and its effectiveness, even under optimal conditions, is such that its payload of some 150 tiny pellets measuring .050 inch in diameter is relatively harmless after traveling 25 to 30 yards. But theory, alas, is often far removed from reality. The fly in the ointment, of course, is the fact that conventional .22s have rifled barrels and rifling plays havoc with a charge of shot as it races down the bore. Virtually all the pellets contacting the bore (more than half the total payload), are slurred and deformed by the edges of the lands and grooves as the rifling tries to spin the shot charge. The result is that all those deformed pellets become fliers just a few yards from the muzzle. Those pellets that do make it through with their spherical form still intact are subjected to a "pin-wheel" effect that virtually assures blown patterns.

After my first experience with birdshot it was many years before I tried it again. What prompted the second sampling was CCI's introduction of its plastic encapsulated Mini-Mag Shotshells back in 1974. Instead of using the traditional crimped brass case, CCI chose to use a plastic capsule which in silhouette looks very much like a conventionally seated bullet atop a standard .22 LR case. The capsule is hollow, of course, and as such contains about half the charge of #12 shot, the other half being down inside the case sitting atop two over-powder wads of thin cardboard. The base of the capsule has a slight belt about 3/32-inch wide, the front surface of which provides a crimp lock, again much like a conventional .22 rimfire bullet with its enlarged bearing surface.

Anyway, it seemed that the CCI approach made more sense, if for no other reason than its plastic capsule should protect a good portion of the pellets from being deformed by the rifling.

I tried the new Mini-Mag Shotshells and, though they proved markedly better than the old crimped type, they still did not make for very effective wingshooting of bats and pest birds beyond 20 feet, and rats at half that distance. It seemed to me that, despite the improved performance of the CCI stuff, it sill didn't transform a .22 rifle into an efficient enough "shotgun" to be taken seriously. The problem was still the same; shot through a rifled barrel just doesn't work very well, whether it's semi-encapsulated or not.

The solution is obvious: build a smoothbore .22 specifically designed to handle shotshells. Brilliant . . . but hardly a new idea; Remington, Winchester and Mossberg, to name three, have sporadically produced such guns over the years, the most recent of which was Remington's Model 580 SB (Smooth Bore) last offered in 1978.

Actually, such guns go all the way back to 1891 when the old Union Metallic Cartridge Co. listed a Short and Long version of a rimfire shotshell. Both were produced on and off over the next 40 years, along with appropriately chambered guns, but by the mid-thirties the newly introduced Long Rifle version had superceded the others.

In an effort to increase the versatility of the smoothbore, Mossberg, for example, borrowed from the Rutledge patent whereby the rear section of the bore was rifled, the forward section not. Others tried the reverse, while others still offered screw-on smoothbore extensions. None were commercial successes.

Though I knew such smoothbore .22s existed, I must admit I never had a burning desire to fool around with one, until recently. What whetted my interest was the report I got from a gunsmith friend of mine, Olie Olson. Seems that Olie, who is plant manager at E.R. Shaw, Inc., the gun barrel manufacturer in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, was having trouble with bats in his attic and chimney (bats are known to carry rabies), chipmunks in his basement, and starlings all over the place. His neighbor had even more of a pest problem, with the bats especially. Living in suburbia, however, neither could consider using conventional .22s or a .410 shotgun.

So Olie started experimenting with smoothbore .22s. With no preconceptions he began working on a couple of old clunkers he had lying around. Instead of rebarreling he had lying around. Instead of rebarreling he decided on going the liner route, i.e., drilling out the existing bore to 1/8-inch diameter (.375) and inserting a like-size steel tube. He experimented with various bore diameters from .222 to .216 before settling on .217 as providing the best patterns using the crimp-style cases of Federal and Winchester, and CCI's Mini-Mags.

"You just won't believe how well this smoothbore shoots," he told me. "Bats and starlings at 12 or more yards from the muzzle. It pounds 'em. Chipmunks, even rats, at up to ten yards. I'm telling ya' it's incredible what a smoothbore does for the performance of those shotshells, especially the old crimped brass type."

Being one of the most skilled gunsmiths I know, plus having the usual cynicism that goes with being in the business for almost 25 years, Olie is not one to get exicited about anything pertaining to guns. But his enthusiasm about the smoothbore was genuine, so much so that I figured I had to look into it.

Olie furnished me with an old Stevens Model 53C turnbolt single shot, but for test purposes he provided two barrels, one the original rifled tube that came on the gun, and a second replacement barrel he made from scratch, then sleeved in the manner already described. I could therefore switch tubes back and forth and compare pattern results. Like most .22s the Stevens' barrel was slip-fit into the receiver and locked with a crosspin. I simply had to drift out the pin, pull one barrel off and replace it with another.

Since there are only three current makers of rimfire shotshells, I figured I should try all three, even though both the Winchester and Federal types were ostensibly the same, i.e., 25 grains of #12 shot in a crimped brass case at a nominal muzzle velocity of 1,050 feet per second (fps). CCI's Mini-Mag shotshell is listed as having a muzzle velocity of 950 fps. According to my samplings the Mini-Mags held an average of four grains more payload than Federal's and two grains more than Winchester's. If all three brands had uniform shot sizes, it would translate directly into CCI having approximately 13 more pellets than the Winchester load and 26 more than the Federal. Uh-uh. Though the Winchester shell averaged a 27-grain payload, there were only 120 pellets to a case, which is a whopping 32 percent fewer pellets. Obviously, Winchester's shot was larger--closer to #11 than #12 size shot.

Federal's shot, on the other hand, was even finer than CCI's #12 and as such, a 25-grain payload had an average of 170 pellets per case.

It's interesting to note that the original CCI Mini-Mag shotshell introduced in 1974 was based on a standard length .22 Long Rifle case but in '77 it was changed to utilize the slightly longer Stinger case, hence its edge in payload.

Anyway, having rounded up the three types of ammo, I proceeded to do some preliminary fooling around in the back yard by "patterning" the rifled barrel into my pond. That decidedly unscientific procedure helped determine at what ranges to do my real testing. After all, it's not like I was patterning a conventional shotgun using the sacred 30-inch circle at 40 yards. Based on the results I got shooting into water, I decided to shoot from two distances, 12 and 24 feet. Using equally arbitrary reasoning (with a little common sense thrown in), I settled on a ten-inch circle as being a reasonable area to expect such sparse pellet numbers to cover adequately. The paper size was 14 inches square, enough to show mild but not radical fliers.

Using the original Stevens 53C rifled barrel I proceeded to fire five shots, each at a fresh target, using each brand of ammo, from the 12-foot distance. Averaging the five shots of each brand gave the pattern percentage.

At first glance the figures look pretty impressive, especially the Federal and Winchester stats. Keep in mind though that that's at a mere 12 feet through a rifled barrel. Anything from a rat or pigeon on down would be in a heap of trouble if they got in the way of those patterns. But then how often do pigeons or other pest birds fly within 12 feet of you?

Moving back to a more realistic 24 feet, it was obvious that some drastic things happen over that next four yards. Again, five shots of each brand were averaged 24 feet from the muzzle.

Even the best-performing stuff, Winchester's, could hardly be called impressive, what with a 31 percent pattern density in a ten-inch circle. The others were just pitiful . . . but quite representative of the kind of performance one can expect shooting birdshot from a rifled barrle.

Switching to the smoothbore tube at 12 feet was indeed a revelation . . . like picking up a totally new firearm and load. I mean, there were patterns of 99 percent for the Federal and CCI stuff, and 100 percent for the Winchester fodder!

Moving back to 24 feet the pattern were just starting to open enough to be really us-able on small winged critters. Again, Winchester with its larger #11 shot, showed the highest pattern percentages but bear in mind their fewer numbers.

If the third-column figures for CCI look a bit strange, you're right. About every third shot the plastic capsule would not fall away from the string but would make it all the way to the target. Whenever there appeared a large hole indicating such, the percentage of pellets not reaching the target were unusually high--as much as 31 percent, and that when there were relatively few fliers out of the circle. I could only deduce that when the capsule stayed intact, it also retained a good percentage of the pellets within, thus acting as a single projectile. If fired four series of five shots with the CCI stuff just to be sure the first series was not a fluke. It wasn't. Each succeeding series had at least two such occurrences. The figures reflect those results. When there was no sign of the capsule penetrating the target, the pattern densities were noticeably higher, almost on a par with the other two.

So what does all this pellet-counting prove? Well, nothing that hasn't been known for a long time . . . but it's been known by far too few. There's a lot of fun to be had with a smoothbore .22. Not only can it provide inexpensive fun in the form of informal, back yard wingshooting practice, it can be a remarkably potent "mini-shotgun" for rodents and pests on out to 30 feet or more.

According to my tests, the Federal and CCI shells should be quite effective on pest birds on the wing at ranges up to ten yards. The Winchester load with its larger, heavier pellets extends that range by a couple more yards.

I mentioned before about the safety factor and that birdshot becomes relatively harmless beyond 25 to 30 yards. My test showed the CCI and Federal loads failed to fully penetrate one layer of corrugated cardboard at 25 yards. The Winchester load did penetrate, however, on out to a 30-yard distance before pellets started sticking in the cardboard.

To my knowledge no one is currently makign a smoothbore .22. And I can understand why. Whenever they were being made, the makers seemed to pride themselves on keeping it a secret. I mean, did you know Remington offered at least one smoothbore .22 from 1936 to 1978? Then too, whenever a kid comes up with the money for his first .22 he wants a real .22, one that shoots "real bullets," not an eye-dropper full of iddy-biddy BBs.

As years pass though, the first .22-usually a simple, inexpensive gun--is relegated to a closet somewhere to eventually be replaced by something fancier. If that sounds familiar, you're not alone. There are tens of thousands of seldom or no-longer-used .22s lying around which, if converted to smoothbores, could be rejuvenated. At least that's what Olie at E.R. Shaw thinks. He's got his barrel lining procedure down to where he can convert virtually any .22 to a smoothbore for under 50 bucks. "We hope that price tempts at least a few folks into having the conversion done and thus breathe new life into a gun that otherwise wouldn't see any use. Once they see how well a smoothbore performs, they'll be glad they made the modest investment."

For more information write Olie at E.R. Shaw, Inc., Thomas Run Road, Bridgeville, PA 15017.
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Author:Sundra, Jon
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Apr 1, 1984
Words:2906
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