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.22 LR Self-Defense Ammo Testing

By: Warren Gray

“What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog
in the fight — it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

– President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1958.

Many people mistakenly think the .22 Long Rifle cartridge is not a suitable self-defense, pistol round, so we need to take a harder look at its actual, ballistic potential.

Okay, it’s definitely not my first choice for defensive carry, but what if that’s all you have at the moment? There have been abundant stories in the media about hikers or campers being attacked, and even killed, not just by wild animals, but by people, in very remote areas where there is no law-enforcement presence.

Often, that small, .22 LR trail gun that you packed in case of snakes, wild dogs, or rabid raccoons suddenly becomes your primary weapon against an armed assailant who is an immediate danger to yourself and your loved ones. A recent example of this was the murder of one man and felonious assault with intent to commit murder by knife-wielding (17-inch, survival knife) attacker James L. Jordan, age 30, on the Appalachian Trail in western Virginia just last year, on May 11, 2019.

A .22 LR may not be ideal for self-defense against humans, but it’s certainly much better than a rock, a stick, or any other makeshift tool that you may pick up in the forest. No one wants to be shot, and an armed felon will usually flee the scene as soon as a law-abiding citizen draws a pistol, but in that very rare instance in which he or she stands his or her ground, your trail gun will have to suffice.

Believe it or not, there are actual military units that employ .22 Long Rifle pistols, both defensively and offensively. Within the British Special Forces, for example, the former 14 Intelligence Company, now absorbed into the élite, Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), currently includes some small-framed, female operatives who carry the Walther PPK in .22 Long Rifle (or .32 ACP, or .380 ACP) as their primary weapon, or sometimes as a backup weapon.

In WWII, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agents and commandos often used the High Standard HD pistol with an integral suppressor for very quiet, covert operations, and the CIA, which later replaced the OSS, has used the Walther PPK, Walther TPH, and more-recently, the Walther P22, all in .22 LR, with suppressors, because they are extremely quiet, and plausibly-deniable as American weapons, since they are German-manufactured.

The U.S. Navy SEALs and Force Recon Marines have widely employed the excellent, stainless-steel, Ruger/AWC Amphibian II and Amphibian-S pistol series with integral suppressor for covert action such as quietly eliminating enemy sentries or guard dogs. And Russian OMON special riot police were photographed at least once using the Baikal/Margolin MCM .22 LR target pistol during demonstrations in Moscow.

In any gunfight, shot placement is usually the decisive factor, and the .22 LR, with very light recoil, definitely provides the best-possible opportunity for a smooth, well-placed shot against either animals or humans. Remain as calm as possible and focus on the front sight of your weapon for the best shot placement. Squeeze the trigger gently.

At this point, discussing the relative stopping power (RSP) of a .22 versus a 9mm or .45 ACP is pointless, because the .22 is all you have. Whatever muzzle velocity and kinetic energy are usually desired for stopping an adversary are now purely academic, and shot placement becomes crucial. Bullet penetration and expansion are still important, however, with 12 to 13 inches of penetration being ideal against a human assailant, and as much expansion as your tiny, .22 LR bullets can manage.

Be prepared to fire as many times as necessary to incapacitate the attacker. Even little, .22 bullets hurt, a lot, and stopping-power studies from 1,800 actual shootings have proven that felons hit with a .22 LR were incapacitated by just one shot to the torso or head 60 percent of the time, primarily due to better shot placement, compared to just 47 percent for a 9mm bullet, or 51 percent for a .45 ACP, so don’t underestimate its stopping power. But a word of warning here: 31 percent of felons were not incapacitated, no matter how many times they were hit in the torso with a .22 LR bullet (head shots are another matter), so the failure rate is higher than with centerfire ammunition.

In a human, upper torso, you need about 10 to 15 inches of bullet penetration, with a minimum of nine inches, according to the FBI, and with 12 to 13 inches being the ideal range for reaching vital organs. However, if two quick torso shots don’t work against your attacker, you’ll need to consider a head shot to decisively end the incident. The head is a much smaller target, so it takes very calm, careful aim. This method, two rounds to the chest, and one to the head, has been taught to many military, government, and law enforcement agencies (including the Los Angeles Police Department) since 1974, and is known as the “Mozambique Drill.”

Mike Rousseau, a Rhodesian mercenary during the Mozambican War of Independence, was armed only with a 9mm Browning Hi-Power pistol, and he rounded a corner at Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) Airport and came face-to-face with an African guerilla armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, less than 25 feet away. Rousseau double-tapped his adversary with two quick shots to the sternum, usually enough to kill or incapacitate a person, but the guerrilla kept advancing, so the mercenary took a deep breath, attempted a head shot, and struck the guerilla at the base of the neck, severing his spinal cord and ending the deadly encounter instantly.

As for the .22 LR’s ability to penetrate a human skull, I can only relate an incident in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1991, when a fellow, military officer and I were testing a variety of guns in a remote area of the forest. We both fired at a thick, metal-based, three-hole punch (discarded, office equipment) from a range of about seven feet, at the same, downward angle.

His fire-breathing, Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver dented the metal impressively, but failed to penetrate, while my very modest, Ruger Mk. II Target pistol (with 5.5-inch barrel) in .22 Long Rifle drilled a neat, round hole all the way through the metal base just two inches to the right of his massive dent. The much-smaller cross-sectional area of the .22 works to its advantage in cases like this, and yes, my bullet was a CCI Stinger, one of the lightest and fastest of all .22 LR loads.

With these grim considerations in mind, I tested seven different, .22 LR rounds from a Walther P22Q Military target pistol, which is my own trail gun, with a 3.42-inch barrel. This is fairly typical of the weapon size that most people might carry for hiking or camping, while perhaps not expecting heavy-duty, anti-social trouble.

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I’ve sometimes heard the early P22s maligned as rough and unreliable pistols, despite being German-made with high precision. If you search the Internet, you’ll very quickly find the “Walther P22 Bible,” which shows you in exacting detail how to smooth out some of those rough edges for flawless functioning and reliability. If you don’t do anything else, smoothing and polishing the feed ramp at the chamber mouth of the barrel will improve feeding with all types of bullets. My P22 functions perfectly, every time, and it works best with high-velocity ammunition, so that’s what I always use.

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These are the seven loads that I tested in wet, natural, clay blocks, which approximate the consistency of the human body:

Águila Interceptor 40-grain, copper-plated hollowpoint (CPHP.)
Browning BPR 40-grain, CPHP.
CCI Mini-Mag 36-grain, CPHP.
CCI Small-Game Bullet (SGB) 40 grain, flat-nose lead (FNL.)
CCI Stinger 32-grain CPHP.
Remington Viper 36-grain FNL.
Remington Yellow Jacket 33-grain hollowpoint (HP.)

Most of these loads have already been tested in ballistic gelatin, so we have an idea of what to expect in terms of velocity, weight, energy, penetration, and expansion. Firing each of them into wet, natural, modeling clay can provide a reasonably accurate measurement of bullet penetration and expansion and is certainly useful for comparing one load against another to see how they stack up under actual shooting conditions.

Clay-block testing is worthwhile because of its consistency under controlled, identical conditions, and because it allows us to accurately measure the temporary wound cavity, which is the stretch cavity caused by hydrostatic-shock effect as a hollowpoint bullet mushrooms inside the clay. This shows us the instantaneous, shock effect as tissue and vital organs are violently displaced by the bullet’s rapid expansion, and clay blocks readily retain the size and shape of the temporary cavity, for comparison purposes.

All .22 LR ballistic testing was recently accomplished indoors near Knoxville, Maryland, 465 feet above sea level, with an air temperature of 67 degrees, using digital calipers to measure bullet expansion. Here are the candidates:

Águila Interceptor 40-grain, CPHP:
Águila means “Eagle” in Spanish. This was the fastest, hottest, heaviest load from the Walther pistol, achieving 1,123 fps muzzle velocity (Mach .994, almost supersonic), and 112 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. They are manufactured in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, to very high standards, and the company is one of the world’s largest producers of rimfire ammunition.

Actual, clay-block, test results: Temporary cavity = 2.4 inches wide, penetration = 12.2 inches deep, and bullet expansion = .361-caliber. This bullet mushroomed very nicely, with excellent expansion and a moderate, temporary cavity.

Browning BPR 40-grain, CPHP:
BPR stands for “Browning Performance Rimfire.” This round exactly duplicates the ballistics of the more-famous, CCI Velocitor cartridge, so the test results may be considered essentially identical for both. From the small Walther, it achieved a respectable, muzzle velocity of 1,010 fps, but a mere 91 foot-pounds of kinetic energy.

Actual, clay-block, test results: Temporary cavity = 3.25 inches wide, penetration = 10.6 inches deep, and bullet expansion = .382 caliber. My initial reaction upon firing this load into the clay was an audible and wide-eyed “WOW!” The temporary cavity was instantly quite impressive, as large as that of some 9mm rounds, and indeed the very largest of the test group, with adequate penetration, great expansion, and a ragged, gaping, entry hole. This would be an excellent, self-defense choice.

CCI Mini-Mag 36-grain, CPHP:
The Mini-Mag is a very conventional, high-quality, standard-weight, hollowpoint bullet. In early, unmodified models of the Walther P22, this was reported to be one of the only loads that fed reliably, however, the newer, P22Q pistols are greatly improved, especially if you smooth and polish the feed ramp. Attained velocity was 1,007 fps, with 81 foot-pounds of energy, and in ballistic-gelatin testing, it has penetrated to 10.3 inches and expanded to .27-caliber.

Actual, clay-block, test results: Temporary cavity = 2.75 inches wide, penetration = 11.0 inches deep, and bullet expansion = .370-caliber. The bullet expanded well, but fragmented into two sections, achieving excellent penetration and the third-best temporary cavity observed.

CCI SGB, 40-grain, flat-nose lead (FNL):
As the name implies, the flat-nosed, Small-Game Bullet (SGB) was specifically designed for hunting small animals for food, and minimizing damage to the meat by expanding just slightly, but not fragmenting. Muzzle velocity was 967 fps, with 83 foot-pounds of energy.

Actual, clay-block, test results: Temporary cavity = 1.8 inches wide, penetration = 13.0 inches deep, and bullet expansion = .221-caliber. This is essentially a solid, non-expanding, small-game bullet, exactly as the name implies. Penetration depth was the deepest of all tested bullets, and ideal, but there was literally no expansion, and the temporary cavity was by far the smallest of the sample group. This is not well-suited for self-defense purposes.

CCI Stinger 32-grain CPHP:
This is one of the fastest-available, .22 LR loads on the market, rated at a blazing, 1,640 fps from a long-barrel rifle, or a much-more-modest 1,112 fps (Mach .984, not quite supersonic) from the Walther P22Q pistol, which equates to 88 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. It comes with an extra-long (1/10th of an inch longer than standard), nickel-plated case for smoother, more-reliable feeding into the chamber, and a lightweight, hollowpoint bullet. Previous testing in ballistic gelatin has demonstrated an average penetration depth of 9.8 inches, with bullet expansion to .34-caliber or larger.

Actual, clay-block, test results: Temporary cavity = 3.125 inches wide, penetration = 8.5 inches deep, and bullet expansion = .403-caliber! The famous, Stinger load proved itself to be quite formidable, with an instantly-impressive, temporary cavity, rivaling some 9mm bullets, the second-largest of all tested rounds, evoking yet another stunned, “WOW!” response from me, and the second-best expansion of the group. Penetration was slightly weak at just 8.5 inches, but this would equate to about 9.5 inches in ballistic gelatin, which is certainly adequate in a human torso, according to the FBI. Overall, it’s another great choice for defensive ammunition.

Remington Viper 36-grain FNL:
The Viper is a solid, hypervelocity (1,410 fps from a rifle) round with a truncated-cone (flat-nose) bullet designed for small-game hunting. Like the CCI SGB, it’s intended to penetrate well, without damaging too much meat. It achieved a muzzle velocity of 977 fps, with a fairly low, 76 foot-pounds of energy, and typically penetrates 10.5 inches in ballistic gelatin.

Actual, clay-block, test results: Temporary cavity = 2.5 inches wide, penetration = 12.0 inches deep, and bullet expansion = .315-caliber. This solid, flat-nosed bullet penetrated quite well, and the nose mashed back and expanded slightly. There was even a respectable, temporary cavity, due to the speed and shock factor of the flat nose.

Remington Yellow Jacket 33-grain HP:
If looks alone could do the job, the hypervelocity, Yellow Jacket hollowpoint would be the clear winner, with its aggressive, truncated-cone design and deep nose cavity. This is Remington’s answer to the hot-loaded, CCI Stinger, slightly heavier and slower, but still quite an imposing sight. During previous, ballistic-testing sessions in 2004, the Yellow Jackets expanded quite dramatically, to at least .44-caliber, double their original diameter. Muzzle velocity was 1,019 fps, with 76 foot-pounds of energy.

Actual, clay-block, test results: Temporary cavity = 2.75 inches wide, penetration = 6.5 inches deep, and bullet expansion = .468-caliber! Surprisingly, this load displayed very shallow penetration, quite disappointing, actually, but its temporary cavity was excellent, and expansion was by far the absolute best of the test group. Still, the notable lack of penetration is a major concern. The Yellow Jacket may be decisively effective for a last-ditch, head shot, but it remains marginal for a more-likely, torso shot.

In conclusion, they were all readily-available, reliable loads, but in a sudden, self-defense situation, where all you have is a .22 LR pistol, every small advantage counts, and your ammunition choice could be a decisive factor. Of the seven rounds tested, if I had to defend myself again an armed, human assailant with only my trail gun available, my first ammo choice would be the Browning BPR (or the almost-identical CCI Velocitor), followed closely by the CCI Stinger, which expanded even better.

The CCI Mini-Mag and Águila Interceptor are also decent loads, with slightly better penetration, but not the same dramatic effects as the BPR and Stinger. Knowing exactly how each load is likely to perform is definitely a confidence booster, so choose wisely for your defense on the trail.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism, and is an NRA member. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.