December 14, 2018
Unlike many of my cohorts in this racket, my father was never much of a mentor when it came to guns. He was a fisherman, although he did own a .22 and a 12 gauge, both single shots, which he passed on to me when I was 14. He also told me, more than once, that when he was a teenager in the 1930s what he really wanted was a .22 Hornet.
Even by the 1960s, the .22 Hornet was passé, eclipsed by the .222 Remington and the like. Sophisticated teenager that I was, studying the gospel in Shooting Times, I considered the Hornet to be in a class with the Model T while the .222 Remington Magnum was the Ford Mustang of the shooting world.
It seems odd, then, that 55 years later the .22 Hornet is very much still with us, whereas the .222 Rem. Mag. is nearly obsolete and the revered .222 Rem. is on the endangered list.
The answer lies in the essential nature of the .22 Hornet. It’s not a woodchuck-blasting hotshot, nor a benchrest ace. Its effective range is about 175 yards on a good day. Typically loaded with a 45-grain bullet at a velocity of 2,650 fps, it is hardly a coyote cartridge. Its virtues are that it is relatively quiet, has little if any recoil, lends itself to every kind of rifle from a break-action single shot to an exquisite Ferlach double, and affords anyone the opportunity to learn to handload with a cartridge that repays the effort in spades. It is, paradoxically, both a beginner’s gun and a connoisseur’s rifle. And most important, it is probably the most fun to shoot of any centerfire .22.
The .22 Hornet was born at an unlikely time in the most unlikely way: the brainchild of Capt. Grosvenor Wotkyns at Springfield Arsenal in the late 1920s. Captain Wotkyns started with the old blackpowder .22 WCF, loaded the case with smokeless powder, and built an experimental rifle using a converted Martini rimfire action fitted with a Springfield 1922 training-rifle barrel rechambered from .22 Long Rifle. Thus was born the very first high-velocity .22 for varmint shooting. (The .22 Savage Hi-Power, from 1911, was primarily a big-game cartridge.)
Highly unusual at the time, Winchester adopted the .22 Hornet and began producing ammunition before any commercial rifle was chambered for it. That was not the Hornet’s only “first.” In 1940 Lysle Kilbourn had the bright idea of reaming out the chamber and fireforming brass to provide greater powder capacity and higher velocity. The result was the .22 K-Hornet, the first so-called “improved” cartridge to really make a mark.
Hercules 2400 powder, introduced in 1933, was so named because it delivered 2,400 fps in the Hornet with a 45-grain bullet. It is still with us and still a good Hornet powder.
At various times, factory-made .22 Hornet ammunition has been hard to come by, and during those times, it has been a purely handloading proposition with new empty cases only available from Europe (5.56x36R). In handloading for it, there are a couple of anomalies to keep in mind. One is that many older .22 Hornet rifles have bores that are 0.223 inch rather than 0.224, stemming from the first rechambered .22 LR barrels. Also, around 1950, .22 Hornet brass was redesigned to make it stronger, with thicker walls, less powder capacity, and, hence, higher pressures. Great care should be taken with any loading data from the 1940s and before; it can cause serious pressure spikes with modern brass. Combine those two factors and you’re asking for trouble.
Modern rifles available include the on-again off-again Ruger 77/22, the CZ-USA 527, and the Savage Lightweight Varminter. As it approaches its 100th birthday, the .22 Hornet is more vibrant today than it was in 1963 and is still just about the best centerfire around for taking the heads off fat squirrels intended for the stew pot or armadillos invading the back lot.
It’s a bit belated, perhaps, but it appears my father knew something I didn’t. Can you imagine?