December 21, 2020
By Payton Miller
In terms of .22 rimfires, any discussion of the relative merits of the Winchester Magnum Rimfire (a.k.a. .22 Magnum, .22 WMR) versus the Long Rifle (LR) is heavily freighted—in terms of popularity and longevity—in favor of the .22 LR. It was introduced in 1884. As many as 2.5 billion rounds are produced annually in spite of intermittent—and aggravating—shortages.
The .22 Magnum? Well, it was introduced in 1959 as a bumped-up improvement of the .22 Winchester Rimfire (created in about 1890 and was roughly 400 fps faster than original loadings of the .22 LR). The .22 Magnum has managed to hold its own commercially—and then some—despite brutal competition from Hornady’s phenomenally popular .17 HMR, which was developed around 2002. Before that, the hotshot .22 Magnum has also faced rivals from various amped-up hyper-velocity .22 LR offerings that started cropping up in the late 1970s.
Its real handicaps are that it is more expensive, noisier, and more destructive on edible small game than the .22 LR. On the upside, its explosiveness and higher velocity make it a superior rimfire for hunting varmints. It’s also effective out to 150 yards—not .223 Remington yardage, but nearly twice the effective reach as any .22 LR loading. And it’s still usually less expensive round per round than any centerfire .22.
No, it’s not as inherently accurate as a match-grade .22 LR, provided you’re using a serious target rifle or pistol, but in a good gun the .22 Magnum is way more than accurate enough for its purposes: hunting.
The “Hyper” Emergence
Back longer than I care to remember (hint: Ronald Reagan was in his first term as President of the United States), I did a bit of rimfire fooling around. The idea was to compare the then-new breed of “hyper-velocity” .22 LR ammo with the .22 Magnum offerings of the time. The hyper .22 LR ammo included CCI Stinger, Remington Yellowjacket, and Federal Spitfire. All the hyper ammo used bullets ranging from 28 to 32 grains and usually pushed them along at speeds around 1,500 fps to more than 1,600 fps (that’s from a rifle).
Remington’s Yellow Jacket, one of the earliest hyper-velocity offerings, pushed a very effective truncated-cone hollowpoint bullet at 1,500 fps—more than 200 fps faster than the company’s High Velocity 36-grain HP. Speed was the thing back then, and few of us were immune. I fell instantly in love with the Yellow Jacket (and later with the slightly slower, non-HP Remington Viper). Of course, the fact that both grouped fairly well out of my vintage Ruger Single-Six Convertible revolver and my Winchester Model 58 bolt-action rifle might have had something to do with it!
My .22 Magnum choices were less varied weight-wise. I remember using CCI Maxi Mag and Winchester Super X, both featuring 40-grain HP bullets. Winchester had (and still does) an FMJ version for less meat damage on small, edible critters.
I also tried some imported (and outrageously expensive) RWS ammunition that was amazingly accurate from an Anschutz rifle I was lucky enough to borrow. But from my handgun they generally ran well south of the claimed 1,500 fps from a 6.5-inch revolver and, maybe, within spitting distance of 1,900 fps from a rifle.
That Was Then, This Is Now
But that was then, and this is now. For this report I gathered up as wide a variety of current .22 Magnum and .22 LR ammo as I could (yes, I know how tough it is to get any ammo now, but I’m nothing if not devoted to calipers and chronographs).
Eventually, makers of .22 Magnum ammo took a leaf from the “hyper velocity” book and started using lighter bullets than the original Winchester 40-grain loads. One of the most notable examples is Hornady’s 30-grain V-Max Varmint Express, which pushes the .22 Magnum’s velocity envelope to 2,200 fps. On the other hand, Hornady also offers a “weightier solution” in its Critical Defense line. It’s an excellent 45-grain .22 Magnum load featuring the FTX bullet. It’s designed for short-barreled defensive handguns with a velocity of 1,000 fps from an 1.875-inch barrel. As I found from a recent chronograph session, it does quite a bit better from a 6.5-inch revolver (1,326 fps) and even better from a 22-inch-barreled rifle (1,621 fps).
Federal offers a 50-grain JHP at 1,530 fps designed specifically for small game. And while a five- or 10-grain increase in bullet weight might not be too impressive when dealing with larger centerfire calibers, it really is quite a proportional bump when you’re talking .22 rimfire.
Of course, cost is as much a factor as I remember from the mid-1960s. It’s simply been exacerbated by inflation and period “panic hoarding” shortages. At last check, a 50-round box of Winchester .22 Magnum Varmint HE JHPs will set you back about $30.
So as not to compare apples and oranges, I’ll say that Aguila’s excellent 60-grain Sniper Subsonic .22 LR loading was listed in the same discount-ammo ad at around $19 a box of 50 rounds. But it was going for $10 a box, at least until the current monster demand and resultant shortage skewed the pricing structure to hell and gone. And that imported super-premium Eley target ammo is going to cost more. In short, if your fond memories include “5 bucks a brick” .22 LR ammo, well, those sunny childhood days are lost and gone forever!
My shooting buddy, Thomas Mackie, and I decided to make a chronographing day of it after rounding up as much .22 Magnum and .22 LR ammo as we could. In the interests of ballistic fair play, we used two rifles for testing everything over a Shooting Chrony chronograph. One was a late-’70s 22-inch-barreled Marlin 783 in .22 Magnum. The other was a vintage 27-inch-barreled Winchester Model 67 in .22 LR. The handguns were less complicated. I used my 1961-vintage Ruger Single-Six Convertible with a 6.5-inch barrel. All I had to do to change chamberings was change cylinders.
The Numbers Game
Considering the “extreme ammo drought” conditions at the time, we put together as varied an ammo menu as we could, including some of the current hyper-velocity .22 LR stuff and some of the newer high-performance .22 Magnum ammo. Because of the ammo shortage, we even included a lone “out of print” .22 Magnum load: PMC’s 40-grain Predator. What follows is a breakdown by load, first handgun, then rifle. Velocity and Extreme Spread (E.S.) figures are derived from a five-shot average.
- CCI Maxi-Mag 30-Grain TNT; Handgun: 1,629 fps (86 E.S.); Rifle: 2,149 fps (119 E.S.)
- Hornady 30-Grain V-Max; Handgun: 1,727 fps (23 E.S.); Rifle: 2,229 fps (87 E.S.)
- CCI Maxi-Mag 40-Grain HP; Handgun: 1,379 fps (161 E.S.); Rifle: 1,950 fps (33 E.S.)
- PMC Predator 40-Grain HP; Handgun: 1,369 fps (73 E.S.); Rifle: 1,790 fps (40 E.S.)
- Winchester Super-X 40-Grain FMJ; Handgun: 1,275 fps (173 E.S.); Rifle: 1,813 fps (61 E.S.)
- Winchester Supreme 34-Grain JHP; Handgun: 1,700 fps (64 ES); Rifle: 2,110 fps (51 E.S.)
- Hornady Critical Defense 45-Grain FTX; Handgun: 1,326 fps (81 E.S.), Rifle: 1,631 fps (43 E.S.)
.22 LONG RIFLE
- Aguila Super Maximum 30-Grain HP; Handgun: 1,365 fps (86 E.S.); Rifle: 1,774 fps (70 E.S.)
- CCI Stinger 32-Grain HP; Handgun: 1,253 fps (62 E.S.); Rifle: 1,601 fps (62 E.S.)
- Winchester “555” 36-Grain HP; Handgun: 1,138 fps (82 E.S.); Rifle: 1,363 fps (52 E.S.)
- Winchester Wildcat 40-Grain HP; Handgun: 1,018 fps (34 E.S.); Rifle: 1,265 fps (42 E.S.)
- Aguila Sniper Subsonic 60-Grain LRN; Handgun: 756 fps (80 E.S.); Rifle: 904 fps (37 E.S.)
Making the Call
So, in the final analysis, which would I prefer: the .22 Magnum or the .22 LR? Let me hedge a little and offer up the following for consideration.
As far as rifles go, I think I’d take the .22 Magnum only if the rifle was scoped so that I could take full advantage of that 50- or 60-yard increase in effective range—or if I envisioned tackling predators at any distance. Otherwise, I just don’t think the extra velocity justifies the higher price (generally speaking), not to mention the noise level.
That being said, I think the .22 Magnum is the greatest high-volume ground squirrel cartridge of all time. Back in the day, I saw it used very successfully on coyotes—although, to be honest, it was a call-in deal where the actual shooting ranges were around 50 to 60 yards. Again, from a rifle it still tops everything in the rimfire category (and I’d still prefer it to any .17-caliber round). But it’s a specialized item, and the last time I checked, very few fathers were using it to train their children. And for edible squirrels and cottontails, I don’t think it justifies its freight. From a rifle, that is.
Handguns? Well, I think Ruger’s single-action Single-Six Convertible and Taurus’s 992 Tracker switch-cylinder double-action revolver are excellent solutions to the .22 Magnum versus .22 LR dilemma. You can have ’em both in one gun.
Truth be told, I like both cartridges. But for the old day-in, day-out, the .22 LR is it. Until, of course, I find myself in a situation where the difference between bullet weights and velocities make a big difference in my rimfire world.