July 27, 2021
By Layne Simpson
Varmint shooters across our great land and in other countries have been celebrating the .22 Hornet’s 90th birthday. It is actually a bit older.
The story begins during the 1920s, when several gunsmiths and tinkerers decided to see what could be done to improve the performance of the .22 WCF (a.k.a. .22-15-45 Winchester as it was known when introduced in 1895 and charged with blackpowder). It was loaded with a 45-grain, 0.226-inch lead bullet at a velocity of around 1,550 fps. Realizing a lead bullet would not handle the velocities they sought, some made 45-grain lead-core bullets with jackets formed from fired .22 Short cases. The barrels used were originally in .22 Long Rifle with a 1:16 twist and groove diameter of 0.223 inch, so bullets were sized accordingly.
The .22 WCF stayed in production until 1935, but when Winchester decided to introduce a “new” varmint cartridge in 1930, the headstamp on .22 WCF cases was changed to read “.22 Hornet,” and it was loaded with 0.223-inch jacketed bullets. The .22 Hornet case was eventually beefed-up a bit to strengthen it, and due to the reduction in capacity, some of the early load data is excessive for today’s cases.
The barrels of Winchester Model 54 and Model 70 rifles in .22 Hornet have a 0.223-inch groove diameter and a 1:16 twist. The groove diameter of later rifles is 0.224 inch. A quicker 1:14 twist eventually became more or less standard for the .22 Hornet. My Kimber Model 82 Super America built in 1985 has it, while my Anschutz 1730, also built during the 1980s, has a 1:16 twist. The barrels of rifles in .22 Hornet now being built by Ruger, Anschutz, and Savage have 1:14 twists. Cooper rifles have a 1:12 twist, and CZ rifles have a 1:16 twist.
One of the rifles I used to shoot data for this report is a Ruger 77/22H customized in 1995 by the late Jim Clark Jr. of Clark Custom. Its Lilja stainless-steel barrel is 20.75 inches long and measures 0.920 inch at the muzzle. The action was glass bedded, and headspace was reduced by shimming the bolt to remove some of the slop between its front and rear sections. If the ghosts of prairie dogs taken by the little rifle through the years could somehow rise up from their graves and bark in concert, the earth would surely tremble. I included it because thousands of rifles sharing its combination of 0.224-inch groove diameter and 1:16 twist are still in use.
The production Ruger Model 77/22 I used is the current heavy-barrel version with a stainless-steel barreled action and Green Mountain stock of laminated wood. The stock has quick-detach sling-swivel posts and a thin rubber buttpad. Length of pull is 13.5 inches, and overall length is 37.75 inches. The six-round rotary magazine has an interior length of 1.80 inches. The 18.5-inch barrel measures 0.750 inch at its muzzle, and it has a 1:14 twist. The bedding of the rifle is much improved over the first one I shot back in 1994. Actual weight of the rifle is 6.75 pounds, and suggested retail price is $1,069.
Whereas the barrel used to slip into the receiver and was retained by the same V-block design as on the Ruger 10/22 semiautomatic .22 rimfire rifle, it is now threaded and screwed into the receiver. Considerable slop between the two sections of the bolt is still there, but headspace was tightened by making slight dimensional changes to the locking lugs. The difference is easily felt when closing the bolt on a chambered round. An occasional dab of Shooter’s Choice High Tech grease prevents locking lug galling.
Averaging 6.5 pounds, trigger pull is a bit heavy for a varmint rifle. Spring kits that reduce it to 2.5 pounds or so are available, but I prefer to replace the factory trigger and its spring. I installed a Rifle Basix RU-R trigger kit, and it has a claimed pull weight adjustment range of from 14 ounces to 2.5 pounds. The design of the Ruger trigger is as simple as dirt, and replacing it takes only a few minutes. Switching triggers on the test rifle reduced pull weight to a crisp 21 ounces with no creep or overtravel. It drops in with no modification to the rifle required.
Through the decades I have shot more Speer 40-grain Spirepoints in the .22 Hornet than all other bullets combined. It remains a favorite, but modern tipped bullets have an edge in some departments.
An issue with 40-grain tipped bullets is cartridge length restrictions of various magazines. SAAMI maximum cartridge length for the .22 Hornet is 1.723 inches, and while ammunition loaded to that length should be compatible with the magazines of most rifles, some will accept longer. Shorten cartridge length for those magazines, and the mouth of the case hangs over the ogive curve of the bullet. Few rifles will feed the ammunition.
Going lighter does not always mean getting shorter. For example, some 35-grain bullets are actually longer than their 40-grain cousins. A solution used by many shooters is to load long and not use the magazine. The .22 Hornet case has a much longer neck than it needs and trimming it shorter is another option, but it is a pain when a large quantity of cases is needed for high-volume varmint shooting.
Of the tipped bullets I rounded up for this project, the Nosler 35-grain Flatbase Tipped is the all-around best choice for the .22 Hornet. It is quite accurate from 1:14 and 1:16 twist barrels, and the mouth of a case does not overhang its ogive curve when seated to cartridge lengths compatible with the magazines of various rifles. Equally important, the other tipped bullets in my handloads are constructed to withstand higher velocities from the .22-250 and other faster cartridges, and when encountering the slowed-down .22 Hornet speed, they don’t expand as explosively as the Nosler 35-grain bullet and other thin-jacketed bullets constructed specifically for the Hornet.
All powder charges for my handloads were thrown with a Redding Competition Pistol/Small Rifle measure. As for powders, W748 and H110 for many years have been the ones to beat in the .22 Hornet. Loads published by Hodgdon show Lil’Gun pushing 40- and 45-grain bullets faster, but the 13.0 grains maximum charge for those bullet weights fills a case to the brim, and spillage rules out loading on progressive machines used by many serious varmint shooters. This is not a problem when using a drop tube and loading on a single-stage press. Hodgdon’s pressure barrel revealed that Lil’Gun produces lower chamber pressures, and that may extend case life. VihtaVuori N110, Alliant Power-Pro 300-MP, and Accurate 1680 are also popular choices.
Due to its small capacity, the .22 Hornet is an excellent candidate for reduced-velocity handloading. Editor-in-Chief Joel Hutchcroft asked me to duplicate the .22 WMR for this report, and 8.2 grains of IMR 4227 behind the Speer 40-grain Spirepoint got close enough, with an average velocity of 2,016 fps. Note that I fired that load at 50 yards, and its accuracy averaged 1.23 inches for three, five-shot groups in the standard Ruger 77/22H.
I also included my favorite load for plinking and shooting small game for the pot. It consists of the Lyman No. 225438 44-grain cast bullet pushed to 1,520 fps by 6.8 grains of IMR 4227. That duplicates the velocity of the old .22 WCF load and is only a bit faster than the .22 WRF rimfire load. Damage to meat is slight. I have two sizing dies for a Lyman 4500 sizer/lubricator, 0.224-inch for barrels with 0.223-inch groove diameters and 0.225-inch for 0.224-inch barrels. Cast of scrap wheelweight metal and wearing its Lyman gascheck, the bullet’s actual weight is 46.8 grains. When loaded to early .22 Hornet velocity, it is also an excellent choice for inexpensive plinking.
Neck-sizing cases rather than full-length resizing often improves accuracy and most definitely increases case life. Turning the die out to resize only about 0.230 inch of the neck retains a close neck-to-chamber fit for positioning a bullet in better alignment with the bore. A bushing-style die is nice to have when searching for the most accurate load by varying case neck tension on a bullet. It can also reduce velocity spread. Depending on the case used, cartridge neck diameter with a 0.224-inch bullet usually runs from 0.240 to 0.241 and 0.001 inch less with a 0.223-inch bullet.
Probably due to the small charge of powder burned, rifles in .22 Hornet sometimes indicate a preference in primers. Years ago, Remington developed the 6½ primer for the .22 Hornet, .218 Bee, .25-20, and other small-capacity cartridges, and through the years I have used many thousands of them.
The most unusual .22 Hornet rifle I have is an M4 Survival Rifle built in the 1950s for the United States Air Force. It has a 16.5-inch detachable barrel, a retracting wire stock, and a detachable magazine that holds three cartridges. An aperture sight attached to its receiver was made by Lyman. In addition to being a 90-year survivor in the varmint fields, the .22 Hornet is also a military veteran.