When the sun finally shines, a marksman’s fancy turns toward shooting a .22 Long Rifle. The array of .22 LR loads, though, turns a person’s head every which way. Subsonic target loads are the key to decisive accuracy on targets, while hyper-velocity cartridges provide striking bullet expansion on small varmints. In between, standard and high-velocity .22 LRs are loaded with a variety of bullet weights and styles for everything from small-game hunting, to plinking on a pleasant afternoon.
All testing conducted with a Cooper Model 57-M rifle, and Leupold VX-2 Rimfire 3-9x33 mm scope. Values are the average of two 5-shot groups.
My cousin refuses to believe my Cooper Model 57-M can beat his Winchester Model 52 at the local turkey shoot every fall. The rules are simple, with 10 contestants firing one shot apiece at a + in the center of a 1-inch circle at 50 yards and the closest shot to the + wins a frozen turkey. To soothe his ego, I tell Gene his Winchester is one of the finest .22 target rifles ever made and the CCI Mini Mag shells he shoots are great for shooting ground squirrels. But I don’t tell him my Cooper is shooting Lapua X-ACT cartridges.
Because the Lapua .22 LR cartridges fire 40-grain bullets slightly slower than the speed of sound, the bullets have a stable flight because they are not buffeted by a sharp increase in air resistance and deliver great accuracy. The amount of wind deflection of a .22 LR bullet is determined by loss of velocity during time of flight, not a shorter time of flight. The subsonic bullets retain a few percentage points more of their initial velocity than high-velocity bullets. So the slower bullets drift about half an inch less at 50 yards in a 10 mph wind than the Gene’s Mini Mags.
Recently, X-ACT loads shot over a chronograph registered an extreme spread of velocity of only 20 fps for 10 shots. A ballistics program shows that narrow velocity difference translates into only .6-inch of vertical spread between the fastest and slowest bullets way out at 200 yards. In contrast, 40-grain bullets loaded in Winchester Power-Point LRs registered an extreme spread of 70 fps. That velocity difference results in 2.3 inches of vertical span at 200 yards. Shooting both loads at that distance confirmed what the ballistics program stated.
Low-Speed .22 LRs
As their names indicate, CCI Quiet-22 and Remington CBee 22 Low Noise LRs create a report scarcely louder than an air rifle. CCI and Remington achieve this mild sound firing bullets at velocities somewhat over 700 feet per second.
Getting bullets to expand can be difficult at these slow velocities. The 33-grain Lead Truncated Cone Hollow Point bullet loaded in Remington CBee cartridges is essentially the same bullet loaded in Remington’s Yellow Jacket .22 LR shells, but with the addition of four shallow slits around its hollow point to initiate expansion. My son will tell you the bullets wreak ruin on ground squirrels out to 40 yards. CCI Quiet-22 40-grain Round Nose bullets fail to expand much. However, Quiet-22 40-grain Segmented Hollow Point bullets split into three pieces on contact when they hit ground squirrels.
Federal’s American Eagle Suppressor Subsonic loads were also fairly quiet. However, its 45-grain round nose bullets, with a muzzle velocity slightly slower than 1000 fps, did not expand in water-soaked paper.
For casual shooting, we expect .22 LR cartridges to dependably feed and fire through all types of actions, and with satisfactory accuracy to propel pine cones and crunch clay targets. However, we don’t want to pay all that much for shells. During the years of rimfire ammunition shortages, there was scant choice. We either paid the often exorbitant price when .22 shells were sporadically available—or did without.
Availability of ammunition has vastly improved, and with that come more choices, as every .22 LR rifle has its preferences. Shooting is the only way to determine which loads a rifle favors. All the loads listed under the plinking heading in the accompanying chart shot quite well through my Cooper rifle. Only three loads averaged over an inch, which is better than I can shoot while sitting and standing.
One pleasant afternoon I shot up an entire carton of CCI Blazers like a kid tearing open Christmas presents. Clay targets shattered and the pieces turned to nothing. A Champion DuraSeal with a rubber-like ground squirrel target spun around and around with each shot. The spinner target provided some movement, but it lacked the pursuit of hunting.
Varmints and Small Game
Since the .22 LR was introduced in 1887 and followed by high-velocity loads in 1930, new loads continue to boost .22 LR velocities. CCI increased the .22 LR a step faster in 1977 with its Stinger, using a case .10-inch longer than a regular LR case. With the extra powder and a lightweight 32-grain bullet, the Stinger was the .22 LR king of speed, boasting a velocity of 1640 fps.
Over the years, Remington countered with its 33-grain Yellow Jackets at 1500 fps and 36-grain Vipers at 1410 fps loads and Federal with its Hyper Velocity 31-grain bullet at 1550 fps. Aguila Super Maximum cartridge uses the same length case as the Stinger, but loaded with a 30-grain HP bullet at 1750 fps. The bullets clocked 1760 fps from the 20-inch barrel of a Ruger 77/22. Winchester Varmint High Energy shells fire 37-grain HP bullets at 1400 fps.
Some parts of the country require shooting lead-free bullets in the field. CCI Short Range Green 21-grain bullets are a mix of copper particles and polymer. Winchester’s Lead Free 26-grain bullet is formed from tin and its shape and length are similar to a lead 40-grain bullet. With a muzzle velocity over 1700 fps, these two bullets hit about 2 inches higher at 50 yards than regular, high-speed 38- and 40-grain bullets. The bullets have a flat trajectory, too. CCI states its Green bullet is on aim at 50 yards, drops only 1.5 inches at 75 yards and 5.2 inches at 100 yards. Both of the bullets tended to drill clear through ground squirrels, and ricocheted when they hit the ground.
Early last spring, I took the Cooper rifle for a stroll after ground squirrels (gophers). The climbing sun warmed the day. Gophers perched on their mounds and scurried through the short grass in the meadows. I stalked behind low ridges and crawled up behind sagebrush for cover, just like readying for a shot at a mule deer buck. At the shot a gopher rolled off its mound, and then another and another. After shooting a couple boxes of shells time had turned to afternoon. Sunshine reflected off thunderheads heaped up in the western sky, in an end to a perfect day.