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The .221 Fireball Cartridge: The Little Round that Can

The .221 Fireball is a nice, mild, “Goldilocks” cartridge that is “just right” for informal target shooting, hunting varmints, and eliminating pesky garden-raiding rodents.

The .221 Fireball Cartridge: The Little Round that Can

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In 1963 Remington shocked the shooting world by introducing the XP-100 bolt-action pistol. Recall that in those days there weren’t such firearms—except in a few arcane custom guns. The famous Wyoming elk guide Les Bowman introduced the gun to the world in the 18th annual edition of Gun Digest that same year. While extolling the accuracy of the new pistol, Bowman did not call it a “handgun.” Instead, he termed it a “holster rifle.” Another writer later christened the XP-100 a “hand rifle,” and that name seems to have stuck for guns of this ilk.

Remington’s new gun caused quite a stir. Some of it was due to the shooting public either loving it or hating it. Some of the to-do was about the unique new cartridge that the XP-100 brought forth. It was—and is—called the .221 Fireball.

The .221 Fireball is based on the .222 Remington, predating what would become the .223 Remington by a year. For the Fireball, the .222 Rem. case was shortened by 0.30 inch, but the general body configuration and the 23-degree shoulder angle were retained. It is a cute little case, and handloaders took to it like, well, you know. Despite its moniker, bullet diameter is 0.224 inch. The cartridge is accurate, efficient, and economical. What’s not to like?

Some “pistol” cartridges are of dubious value but make terrific rifle cartridges, and the .221 Fireball is one of the best. Unfortunately, in the early days, there were darn few rifles made for it. The original Kimber of Oregon Model 84 and the CZ Model 527 were chambered for it, and in 2002 Remington produced 3,567 Model 700 Limited Edition Classic rifles chambered for it.

Box of .221 Fireball Cartridges and Remington Model 700 ADL Rifle
The .221 Remington Fireball is a terrific cartridge out of a sporter rifle. Steve’s rifle is a Remington Model 700 ADL that was re-barreled by Pac-Nor.

I got into the Fireball game almost by accident. In 1993 I was browsing in a very small gunshop when, low and behold!, I saw on a shelf a used set of RCBS .221 Fireball dies. The price was only $10! Of course, I bought them, never mind that I didn’t have a rifle or an XP-100 chambered for it. Heck, I didn’t even know that my life would not be complete without a Fireball gun of my very own.

The scarcity of guns did not deter me. I started with a Remington Model 700 ADL in .222 Rem. and had it re-barreled to .221 Fireball by Pac-Nor. I added a Timney trigger and a Gre-Tan Rifles firing pin assembly, and it blossomed into a wonderful shooter.

At first, only Remington made factory ammo and empty cases for reloaders, but as the petite round gained traction, other companies soon came on board. The recent availability of Lapua cases is a welcome addition to the reloader’s repertoire, as the great quality of Lapua cases is well known. One can make .221 Fireball cases from .22 Rem. and .223 Rem. brass, but it’s hardly worth the effort.

Top-down view of cartridge filled with smokeless powder
The .221 Fireball’s small case results in full-case loading density, which promotes uniform ballistics.

Easy to Load and Economical

Handloading the .221 Fireball is easy, fun, and economical. Load data are available in most of the major reloading manuals, and there are dozens of loads listed on the online Hodgdon Reloading Center for free. All the major manufacturers make reloading dies, and since the rim diameter of 0.378 inch is also retained, the shellholder (RCBS #10) is the same one used for other members of the .222 Rem. family, e.g., .223 Rem., .222 Remington Magnum, 6x45, and many wildcats.

Another plus is there are .22-caliber bullets by the zillions—of all types, shapes, and weights—within the Fireball’s range of capabilities. The .221 Fireball’s standard twist rate is one turn in 14 inches, so (usually) bullets 55 grains or heavier at .221 Fireball velocities aren’t spun fast enough to stabilize and shoot accurately. However, the 1:12 twist in my rifle handles bullets up to 55 grains quite well.

Because the usual targets of a .221 Fireball firearm are LFCs (little furry critters), the typical 1:14 twist is of little consequence, and there are plenty of lighter-weight .22-caliber bullets that spell doom for those LFCs. The pelt hunter can choose bullets with heavier construction or use a monolithic solid for furbearers. Just keep such a solid or tough-jacketed bullet at full throttle so that it will penetrate straight through and not tumble and ruin the pelt.

Comparison of various .221 Fireball cartridges

In addition to being extremely accurate, the .221 Fireball is downright stingy on powder. In fact, most charges are around 17.0 to 17.5 grains, and that means a pound of powder will load at least 400 rounds. There are many suitable powders that can be used in the Fireball.

Recommended


In a nutshell, one should look for what we might call “really slow” pistol powders or “really fast” rifle powders. However, the .221 case is rather small, so you can run out of case volume before you get enough powder in the case for the bullet to reach cruising speed. The limited case volume means that most loads shown in my chart are compressed. In fact, in many loads, the case is lippin’ full, right up to the mouth. Benchmark, IMR 8208 XBR, and Reloder 7 fall into this category. No problem. Just carefully seat the bullet to the proper cartridge length, and you’re good to go. Faster-burning, fine-grained powders like spherical propellants work well in the Fireball and flow through a drum powder measure very uniformly.

I have tried literally hundreds of load recipes in my rifle, and those shown in the chart are just examples of combinations that “fit” in the case and delivered good ballistics and accuracy in my rifle. The loads that I fired in my rifle averaged 0.77 inch, with most under 1 inch. The mild report and absence of recoil are additional virtues of the .221 Fireball, as they make shooting a delightful pleasure rather than a pounding chore.

I’ve also included several loads in my chart that came from my colleague Lane Pearce. He fired those loads in his 10.75-inch-barreled XP-100. I don’t own an XP-100, so I’m glad he contributed this information.

The careful observer will notice that the bullet weights in the chart include 52-grain and 53-grain bullets, and they shot well in my rifle. One “tough” bullet was included, the Norma 55-grain bonded Oryx. It is short enough to stabilize in my rifle, but if you want to use it, check it out on the range to see if the bullet holes are round and not oblong. A caution: I have tried some longer, 55-grain Spitzer boattails, and most did not shoot well because they are just too long. But as I noted earlier, this is no problem because the delightful little cartridge certainly carries its own weight in the field and on the range. Actually, I think the compromise of using 50-grain to 53-grain bullets is worth the trade-off of velocity for downrange energy, and I use more 50-grain bullets than other weights.

Hodgdon’s Lil’Gun with Remington No. 7ó primers is the author's pick for all-round powder for the .221 Fireball
If Steve had to pick just one all-around powder for the Fireball, he’d choose Hodgdon’s Lil’Gun, sparked by Remington No. 7ó primers.

Handloading Hints

Okay, let’s talk specifics of handloading the .221 Fireball. Probably the most important point to keep in mind is that this cartridge is not a magnum and trying to make it into one will end in frustration. The .221 Fireball is a nice, mild, “Goldilocks” cartridge. It’s not too big, not too small, but is “just right” for informal target shooting, hunting varmints, and eliminating pesky garden-raiding rodents.

As I noted earlier, in the early years, only Remington made cases, but these days other firms, such as Lapua, make them. Even with new cases, it is a good idea to full-length size them to make them as uniform as possible.

Then there is the question of primers. It is almost an article of faith that one should use “mild” primers, i.e., the Remington 6½, CCI BR-4, and similar caps. Could be, but at least in my rifle, I had good ballistic uniformity and accuracy with both the Remington 6½ and “hotter” primers, such as the Remington 7½ (referred to as a “Small Rifle Magnum” primer). All I can say is try both types and see what’s best in your rifle.

When it’s all said and done, the .221 Fireball reloader can get by with just a few powders for most loads. A good example is Alliant’s Reloder 7, which works great with 40-, 45-, and 50-grain bullets. It meters uniformly, and it fills the case for good loading density—just be careful moving a charged case from the loading block to the shellholder, as you don’t want to spill any kernels. The Nosler 40-grain Ballistic Tip likes 18.0 grains for a sizzling 2,930 fps. A charge of 17.9 grains with the Hornady 45-grain Hornet bullet clocked 2,746 fps and averaged a hair over a half-inch. And the Hornady 50-grain Spirepoint over 17.8 grains gave a velocity of 2,722 fps with groups averaging 0.68 inch.

Several other propellants work well, too. As shown in the chart, Accurate 1680 and 2015 have their sweet spots, as does IMR 4227. These are a nice fit. Another pair is IMR 4198 and H4198, although they really fill up a case in a hurry and are also a bit bulky for the case.

As for performance in the field, I confess that I have never addressed a prairie dog town with my .221 Fireball rifle, but I have, shall we say, “relocated” several grape-eating raccoons from my vineyard to “the great beyond.” A 50-grain Spitzer works especially well here.

221 Remington Fireball Accuracy and Velocity Chart

I hate to pick a “best” powder, but Lil’Gun from Hodgdon is a real star in the Fireball and is hard to beat with almost all bullet weights. With the Hornady 35-grain V-Max, a charge of 15.5 grains of this spherical powder gave a velocity of 3,495 fps. Lil’Gun also worked well with the Hornady 53-grain V-Max, with 13.5 grains generating 2,962 fps. I also used Lil’Gun for my “heavy bullet” load with the Norma 55-grain Oryx. A charge of 14.2 grains produced a velocity of 2,828 fps and grouped into an inch. I’m not saying this is a “deer load,” but if one is after a larger, edible critter or a prime pelt, it might be just the ticket—if the gun will stabilize it.

The .221 Fireball is a versatile cartridge, and one can duplicate other ballistic notches, if necessary. The grand, old .22 Hornet launches a 40-grain or 45-grain bullet at around 2,800 fps and 2,650 fps respectively. A charge of 17.0 grains of H4198 gives the Sierra 45-grain Hornet bullet a velocity of 2,665 fps, duplicating the .22 Hornet to a tee.

Another “niche” load is the Speer 52-grain TNT over 16.4 grains of Accurate 1680. The velocity is 1,790 fps—almost exactly the same speed as the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR), which is a perfect turkey rifle cartridge if there ever was one. In states where hunting turkeys with rifles is legal, I have used this load with great effect. At this speed, the TNT bullet doesn’t explode, meat destruction is very minimal, and it’s quiet.

As for bulletseating, accuracy bugs dote on the old axiom of 0.010 inch off the lands, and this can work well. However, depending on the throat/leade length, such seating can limit bullet contact with the case neck and affect bullet pull. That’s an important accuracy component, so I seat bullets in the .221 case so that the base of the bullet is at the start of the neck for full contact. If this harms accuracy, I haven’t noticed it. In actuality, the .221 Fireball is a forgiving round that seems to shoot just about any appropriate combination of primer, powder, and bullet pretty darn well.

A couple of specialty tools will delight the gadget guys. I should mention that several firms make tools like the ones described here, and these are simply the ones I use.

Target with .221 Fireball grouping
The .221 Fireball is capable of fine accuracy. This excellent sub-MOA five-shot group was made by the Hornady 50-grain Spirepoint over 17.8 grains of Reloder 7 at an average velocity of 2,722 fps.

The Hornady Lock-N-Load O.A.L. Gauge is a nifty tool for quantifying bullet jump. It’s easy to use, precise, and not expensive. A specially modified .221 case (#A221) is available for it.

Setting the resizing die to reduce wear and tear on cases is important. And, yes, there’s a tool for this, too. It’s the Headspace Comparator, also from Hornady. Use it with a dial caliper to set the sizer to reduce the cone-to-head length by a minimal amount, say 0.002 to 0.003 inch to avoid ammo with excessive headspace. Then there is always the neck-size only die, which works great for bolt guns and eliminates the possibility of setting the case shoulder back too much.

Case length is important, but the mild-mannered .221 case doesn’t seem to grow much, so trimming to a length of 1.393 inches is only occasionally required. Sinclair International makes a unique gauge with which the reloader can measure the actual length of the chamber, knowledge that’s handy for determining proper trim length.

As for load testing, I frequently break a cardinal rule here. I have run side-by-side comparisons of the sizes of three-shot and five-shot groups in my rifle, and there is very little difference. So during load development, I often find it worthwhile to shoot three-shot groups in the interest of barrel life and component availability.

When it’s all said and done, the XP-100 may not have set the world on fire, but Big Green did shooters a big favor in developing the .221 Fireball. It is a delightful rifle cartridge for the walking varminter, small-game and hide hunter, and anyone who appreciates accuracy, adequate power, and terrific economy.




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