Gel Test: 22 LR for defense — the little round that could?

Several years ago, I lived near an older couple at the edge of the Louisiana swamp. Politics and guns were often the talk of our morning coffee chats and it came as a treat when they showed me their house pistol — the gun that was in the nightstand in case of trouble. The gun was a nameless single action revolver in 22 LR. Not long after, I gifted them a box of CCI Stingers for Christmas and ever since that time I got to thinking about how well a 22 LR round would work for self-defense.

It was great for squirrel and the troublesome coyotes that plagued our neighborhood, but what about human predators?

A perennial favorite

The 22 LR is often considered a pistol cartridge today, but in 1887 when it was first developed, it was meant for small game hunting out of a rifle. Like many early metallic cartridges, it used a heeled bullet and a thin rimfire brass case. It used a 40 grain lead bullet with a velocity of about 1080 feet per second — adequate for small game and pest control.

22-1

The highly recommended S&W Model 43C is aimed at the ballistics gel at close range. Velocity is greatest at the muzzle and I did not want to embarrass myself by missing the block. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Fast forward to today, and the 22 LR is probably the most popular cartridge out there even in countries with stricter firearm laws. Billions of rounds are produced annually and just about every firearm manufacturer has at least one offering in 22 LR. It is also one of the few rimfire rounds left standing, and the round’s accuracy, lack of recoil, availability, and appropriate power make it a cartridge familiar to new and veteran shooters alike, even amongst those who aren’t gun enthusiasts.

Who would ever use a 22?

We live in a dangerous, but diverse world and many people feel the need to have a firearm handy for personal and home defense. Some are avid shooters, but some are not. There will always be people who don’t like firearms. Others may only want to dip a toe in into gun ownership because they feel the need to keep a gun loaded and around for use. Some people don’t want a gun to be complicated. They want it to be easy to shoot, inexpensive, and comfortable to handle.

There is also the problem of arthritis and hand-strength issues that can be encountered at any age. For example, my grandfather loves to shoot rifles and he has some proficiency with handguns. He favors a small 22 pistol because the recoil on his 9mm became increasingly snappy. He also found his 9mm was too inconvenient to put in his pocket and likewise there are also those who carry a 22 pistol because it is convenient to carry when other guns just won’t fit.

DSCN1110

A 9x19mm case stacked next to a 22 LR shows just how much bigger the 9mm is, comparatively, as well as how they are ignited. The rim of the 22 LR is what holds the explosive charge that detonates the round, whereas a central, separate primer is used in the 9mm. Though 22 LR ammo has come a long way, centerfire is still more likely to go bang. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

But I think perhaps the most overlooked reason to think of a 22 as a defense option is that the sheer fact that 22 LR handguns and ammunition are so plentiful ensures that they will be used for self defense. So, in the face of this reality, what will a 22 do to a hostile target? Before that can be answered, I think it’s wise to weigh the pros and cons of the round.

Why a 22?

As mentioned before, 22 LR ammunition is plentiful and there exists a 22 handgun model to suit any need. They are also inexpensive, which is great for those starting in shooting or those on a budget. The round’s very low recoil is a bonus. The uninitiated won’t be frightened or pained by the recoil and the lack of recoil allows for lightning fast follow-up shots, if needed. The 22 LR round is quite small, therefore, handguns that fire it can be made very small — smaller than even the smallest 380 ACP pistol. I couldn’t possibly get away with a 380 in my jogging pants, but my NAA 22 can go anywhere.

I might be making the 22 LR sound like the holy grail, but it is hard to embrace the round’s disadvantages.

The 22 LR uses a heeled bullet that is flush with the outside of the case. The case itself uses a rimfire ignition that requires the priming compound to be packed uniformly into that little rim so that it will be crushed and thus, setting off the round. The heeled bullets will collect grit more readily, especially problematic if you are running a small automatic pistol.

The rimfire ignition is fine until you get a click — not a bang.  Even with the best ammunition, the firing pin will strike a round and it may not go off. This is especially prevalent with cheap, bulk-pack ammunition you may be tempted to buy for practice. Good ammunition, like CCI, is extremely reliable, but still not quite as good as centerfire ammunition. The round’s power is comparable with some pistol cartridges when fired out of a rifle, but out of a small handgun, the 22 LR doesn’t pack much punch — at least on paper.

DSCN1100

A Remington 22 LR round. The rim has been struck, but the round failed to fire. Cheap 22 LR ammunition could get you killed, especially in an auto-loader. In a revolver, you lose one round, but you can pull the trigger again to fire the next. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

And that gets to the heart of the matter: most of the problems the 22 LR suffers from as a defense round are due to the fact that it was meant to be used out of a rifle. Perhaps the least talked about consequence of this is how dirty 22 LR ammo is in a pistol. The powder is meant to burn cleanly out of a rifle and the heeled bullets don’t do this any favors, taking up gunk with ease. Residue cakes up a handgun readily which could be disastrous in a small semi auto.

The picture gets a little brighter when we are talking about revolvers.

Choosing a handgun and ammunition

There are 22 LR handguns for everything from recreation to small game hunting to concealed carry. While you might use that Ruger Bearcat or Mk. IV autoloader for self-defense, I went with the worst-case scenario. The pistol I opted to use in the test was a Smith & Wesson Model 43C. This eight-shot revolver will surely cut bullet velocity to its lowest as it sports a barrel of only 1.875 inches long.

The fact that this is a revolver platform helps mitigate some of the problems of the 22 LR round, especially potential misfires from subpar ammo. If a dud were to occur in a bad situation, all you have to do is pull the trigger again to cycle onto the next round. It beats feverously clearing a dud round out of a tiny autoloader. The pocket autos are sensitive to the kinds of ammunition you put in them and are more vulnerable to grit and gremlins in general.

Can the 22 LR really stop a threat?

Without a doubt, the 22 LR will kill. It makes holes that we as humans are not born with. But that does not necessarily make it fine for personal defense. There is too much eyerolling conjecture out there about how the 22 has killed more people than any other round. There are no statistics to prove whether that is true or not, but I wouldn’t doubt it given how available and accepted the lowly 22 is, especially for non-defensive purposes. But this ignores the truth of the matter. Killing doesn’t count in self-defense. As a matter of circumstance, some criminals are shot yet are still able kill their victims before dying on the surgeon’s table. Trained professionals know, you shoot to stop the threat.

DSCN1011

Though no expansion, the CCI’s Stinger, with its slightly better velocity potential, made it past the FBI standards. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

No handgun is a death machine, but if for whatever reason a 22 is your go-to weapon, how much damage can it do? What are the chances that it could stop a fight — not in 20 minutes, but immediately.

The test

To test this, my shooting partner and I dragged out some 10 percent calibrated ballistic gel blocks — the best possible simulate of human tissue in my opinion. The FBI’s extensive testing shows that a handgun round is effective if it can get between 12-18 inches of penetration in such gel after penetrating four layers of denim which is used to simulate clothing. This penetration might seem like a lot, but this is to take into account bone which can damage or even stop a bullet if it does not have enough power. The four layers of denim are also a little much, but it is a good simulate of winter clothing. Defensive hollow-point ammunition is often affected by clothing. Most criminals don’t run around naked (at least we hope not).

The test gun is the excellent Smith & Wesson Model 43c — one of the many good 22 revolvers out there. What I wanted most out of this gun is its very short 1.875 inch barrel. That is pocket gun length and the absolute worst-case scenario. Penetration, velocity, and power are amputated without a long barrel. We aren’t testing hiking guns or your plinking rifle but something you might have in your pocket or desk drawer.

19897841_10207469011642298_2063396746_o

The Winchester 36 grain hollow-point upset the gel quite a bit, but landed short at 10.5 inches. The CCI Stinger made it a bit further to 13 inches. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

I decided on two different types of ammunition for the tests, both hollow-points. The CCI Stinger is one of the hottest 22 LR rounds on the market today and it is my personal choice for my 22 LR handguns. This is good ammunition, but it might not be on every shelf. You might be tempted to buy a big box of bulk ammunition to practice with, so I went with Winchester Western 36 grain hollow-points as a good representation of a high velocity bulk offering. It is a personal favorite for plinking work.

With the general round selection done, we had to see just how much velocity these rounds lost in such a small handgun. At 10 feet with the trusty Caldwell Chronograph, the results were somewhat surprising.

Brand                        Bullet                      Advertised Velocity                   Actual Velocity

CCI Stinger       32 grain hollow-point               1640 fps                                     1071 fps

Winchester        36 grain hollow-point               1280 fps                                     1036 fps

In a rifle, the difference between those two rounds would be dramatic, but out of a pistol, the cheap Winchester ammunition was nearly on par — velocity wise — as the famed CCI Stinger. For a handgun, these are moderate, not low, speeds, but the bullets are light, even in the 22 LR category. Their performance on target was quite different.

We covered our gel blocks with four layers of denim and shot both rounds at very close range to meet the block as squarely as possible.

22-2

Handicapped by a short barrel, the Winchester 36 grain hollow-point still made a terrible upset in our gel after traversing the four layers of denim. At lower velocity, this round did not expand, but it appears the drag of the flat-nose profile let it carve quite the cavity. Still, it only went 10.5 inches. While it will work when put to the neck or head, center of mass hits with standard bulk ammo is going to be dicey out of a little handgun. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Both rounds traversed the denim and penetrated the first gel block. The Winchester round tumbled end-over-end several inches into the block leaving a horrific stretch cavity about .380 of an inch in diameter and 3 inches in length, before settling down but still leaving a cavity through to the 8–inch mark before stopping 10.5 inches in the gel. It never left the first block.

The CCI Stinger produced a modest, straight wound, not as dramatic as that of the Winchester 36 grain round. It did leave a smaller diameter stretch cavity at the same point as the Winchester round, extending from the 2 inch to the 7 inch mark. The Stinger’s wound track is lost at the 10-inch mark but picks up again before leaving the first block and just piercing the second block before coming to rest.

The Winchester round looked downright painful, but it failed to meet the minimum standard of 12 inches of penetration. The round was just short at 10.5 inches.

The CCI’s Stinger, with its slightly better velocity potential, went to the 13-inch mark with ease. That does meet the standard. Both bullets did not expand and both retained 100 percent of their weight.

DSCN1013

The stretch cavity from the top of the first block, where the most obvious damage always occurs. There is little actual difference between the CCI Stinger (bottom) and the Winchester Western round (top). (Photo: Terril Herbert)

Will the 22 LR reliably stop an attack when it happens? Like the test, the answer is complicated.

Final thoughts

Shot placement! The end! Right? Well, it is true that shot placement does trump caliber. Where those rounds land matter more anything. A hit to the heart or the head with a 22 LR trumps a 45 ACP through the shoulder — or worse — a complete miss by a shaken-up victim. In this sense, this is where the 22 shines. It is easy to shoot very well, which is why it is a cartridge for new shooters. Some shooters may move on to larger calibers. Others never do — be it because of arthritis in the hands, fear of recoil, or economy.

The 22 might be right for you. Others still may find that shooting is not be the hobby they enjoy the most, but that 22 they started with might be the only one they have lying around when the balloon goes up. Personally, a 22 handgun was at times in my life the only handgun I had handy for any use.

The 22 LR’s ease of use and great economy are massive benefits that ensure many will use it to defend themselves — even if it is not ideal. The gun you are comfortable with will be the one that decides the day. Even so, with the right ammunition, the man or woman armed with a 22-caliber handgun is far from defenseless.

DSCN1012

Reliable follow up shots, like those fired from a revolver like SW’s Model 43C, and effective shot placement can turn the humble 22 LR into a fearsome defense round. (Photo: Terril Herbert)

The test shows that rounds like the CCI Stinger can end a fight on their own despite being relatively weak on paper. It meets the standard that some larger caliber offerings fail. Small caliber, low velocity guns are dicey when it comes to hollow-point ballistics. 22 LR hollow-points are designed to expand… out of a rifle’s long barrel. There are plenty of fine 25 ACP, 32, and 380 hollow-points that will expand and cause great damage, but will not penetrate deep enough. In a small caliber gun, penetration is key and the 22 LR has real potential. Even inexpensive practice ammo like the Winchester Westerns we tested is nothing to sneeze at. At the end of the day, we found ourselves leave the scorching sun behind with a new respect and reasonable confidence in the 22 LR as a defensive round.

If you are looking or own a good 22 caliber handgun, rest assured in the fact that you are far better armed than you may think you are.