August 23, 2006
By Layne Simpson
The .22 Hornet was once the most accurate centerfire cartridge going. The good news is that it's more alive today than ever before.
Development of the cartridge we know as the .22 Hornet is usually credited to Grosvenor Wotkyns, who at the time was a member of the Ordnance Department at Benecia Arsenal in California. Inspired by Wotkyns's work with the then-new cartridge, Townsend Whelen and a couple of his Army buddies, G. A. Woody and Al Woodworth, decided to convert three Model 1922 Springfield rifles to handle it.
They made their own .223-inch bullets by using jackets formed from .22 Rimfire cases. Whelen tested his rifle in a machine rest and reported groups measuring as small as 7/8 inch at 100 meters and two inches at 200 meters. Even though this was darned good accuracy in those days, he was not totally satisfied with the DuPont 1204 powder he was loading in the cartridge. He convinced his friends at Hercules Powder Co. to develop a new propellant. It was called No. 2400 because of its ability to push a 45-grain bullet along at 2400 fps when it was loaded in the experimental cartridge Whelen was so excited about.
During spring 1930 Whelen and his two friends headed for the varmint fields with their converted Springfields. Woodworth was first to bag a woodchuck with the new cartridge at 150 yards. Among Whelen's circle of friends was Winchester executive Edwin Pugsley who gave orders to build a special test rifle on the Model 54 action for the "22 Hornet," as Whelen decided it should be called.
As fate would have it, the new cartridge produced the best accuracy of any centerfire cartridge tested by Winchester technicians up until that time. Winchester introduced the .22 Hornet in late 1930/early 1931 in two loadings: one with a softnose bullet, the other with a hollowpoint, both at 2500 fps.
When the .222 Remington was introduced in 1950 it stole the show from the .22 Hornet among varmint shooters, but history has proven it to lack the staying power of the mild-mannered little Hornet. You have to look long and hard these days to find a new rifle in .222 Remington, but rifles in .22 Hornet are quite common.
They include the Anschutz Model 1730, Ballard Model 1885, Browning A-Bolt Micro Hunter, Browning Model 1885 Low Wall, BRNO ZBK 110, Cooper Model 21, CZ Model 527, Ruger 77/22H, Ruger No. 1, New England Handi-Rifle, Thompson/Center Contender Carbine, Savage Model 40, and the Savage Model 24F combination gun with its .22 Hornet rifle barrel and 12-gauge shotgun barrel. The old cartridge is more alive today than it has ever been.
Older rifles, such as the Winchester Model 54 and Model 70, have a rifling twist rate of 1:16 inch while those of more recent production, such as the Ruger Model 77/22H and Savage Model 40, have a quicker 1:14 rifling pitch. Some rifles of foreign make still have the older twist rate, and those built by Anschutz are good examples.
As a rule, the 1:16 twist is too slow to stabilize bullets heavier than 45 grains, and some slow-twist rifles I have shot would not stabilize anything heavier than 40 grains. My Griffin & Howe Krag shoots the relatively short Nosler and Sierra 45-grain bullets quite accurately, but it scatters the longer Hornady 45-grain Spirepoint all over the paper. On the other hand, my Winchester Model 54 also has a 1:16 twist, yet it shoots the Hornady bullet like a house afire. My Kimber Model 82 Super America has a 1:14 twist, and it is quite accurate with bullets as heavy as 55 grains.
A Snap To Handload
Best choices in bullets for the .22 Hornet are the Speer 33-grain TNT and 40-grain Spirepoint, Sierra 40- and 45-grain softnose, Nosler 40-grain Ballistic Tip and 45-grain softnose, and Hornady 35- and 40-grain V-MAX and 45-grain Spirepoint. Weight alone should not be the deciding factor. Sierra offers two 40-grain .224-caliber bullets, a softnose for the .22 Hornet and a hollowpoint for faster cartridges like the .22-250 and .220 Swift.
The thicker jacket of the hollowpoint bullet won't allow it to expand as explosively as the softnose bullet on varmints at .22 Hornet impact velocities. The same applies when the two 45-grain bullets available from Sierra are compared. It is also important to note that 40- and 45-grain Hornet bullets made by Sierra are available in two diameters, .223 inch for older rifles and .224 inch for more modern rifles. Slugging the bore of a rifle will reveal which of the two bullet diameters should be used in it.
Handloading the .22 Hornet is a snap, but the thin wall of its case is easily collapsed during bulletseating unless the inside edge of its mouth is lightly beveled with a chamfering tool prior to the first loading. Several propellants work quite well here, and one of them is Hodgdon's Lil'Gun. Its relatively low bulk density makes it less than ideal for 33- and 35-grain bullets, but it does a great job when teamed up with bullets weighing 40 and 45 grains.
The same can also be said of AA 1680. Best powders for use with all bullet weights in the Hornet are H110 and W296. The small powder charges used in the .22 Hornet call for relatively mild primers, such as the Winchester WSR, Remington 6 1/2, CCI 400, and Federal 205M.
Maximum overall cartridge length for the magazines of most rifles in .22 Hornet is usually around 1.800 inches, and that's what I seat the Hornady
40-grain V-MAX and Nosler 40-grain Ballistic Tip to. I measured the overall cartridge lengths for the other bullets I included in this report, and they are: Speer 33-grain TNT, 1.690 inches; Hornady 35-grain VX, 1.750 inches; Sierra 40-grain Hornet, 1.735 inches; Speer 40-grain SP, 1.740 inches; Sierra 45-grain Hornet, 1.740 inches; and Nosler 45-grain Ballistic Tip, 1.750 inches.
Hornet cases are quite thin, and it is not unusual to see excessive stretching of the primer pocket when they are used with some of the maximum loads I see published by various sources. Restricting speeds in the neighborhood of 2900 fps for 33- and 35-grain bullets, 2800 fps for 40-grain bullets, and 2700 fps for 45-grain bullets will usually result in acceptable case life. Those who need higher velocities should consider choosing a bigger cartridge.
Factory Fodder Abounds
More .22 Hornet factory loads are now available than at any other time in the history of the cartridge. Winchester, the company that started it all back in the 1930s, now offers the most options: a 34-grain hollowpoint at 3050 fps and a 45-grain softnose and a 46-grain hollowpoint, both at 2690 fps.
Remington offers 45-grain softnose and hollowpoint bullets at 2690 fps. Hornady advertises its 35-grain load at 3100 fps, but I find it to be even faster in some rifles. The Winchester 34-grain load also has a tendency to exceed its velocity rating; it clocked an average of 3144 fps in the 24-inch barrel of a Savage Model 40 I worked with.
I prefer to zero the .22 Hornet two inches high at 100 yards. Depending on the load used, the bullet will strike a 200-yard target anywhere from dead-on point of aim to an inch or two low. Plastering the crosshairs on the shiny nose of a standing groundhog will place the bullet somewhere in its vital area out to about 225 yards. Retained energy at that range usually exceeds 300 foot-pounds (ft-lbs).
The most consistently accurate rifle in this caliber I have ever shot is a Winchester Model 54. It left the factory around 1934 and was later restocked. Sure, there are more modern rifles than my Winchester Model 54, and there are faster cartridges than the .22 Hornet. But no combination I have found is better suited for easing along eastern hedgerows and picking off varmints without greatly disturbing my neighbors.
NOTE: All load data should be used with caution. Always start with reduced loads first and make sure they are safe in each of your guns before proceeding to the high test loads listed. Since Shooting Times has no control over your choice of components, guns, or actual loadings, neither Shooting Times nor the various firearms and components manufacturers assume any responsibility for the use of this data.