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History of 22 Rimfire

Derek Landers gives a brief history of the .22 rimfire cartridge

Several years after celebrating its sesquicentennial (150th anniversary), the .22 rimfire cartridge shows no sign of diminishing in popularity. Little could Horace Smith (of Smith & Wesson fame) have realised that his invention of 1860 would eventually grow to become the most successful self-contained metallic cartridge of all time.

With the immediate acceptance of this cartridge it was obvious that others would seek to capitalise on its success, although S&W had the revolver market sewn up with the Rollin White patent, which prevented other manufacturers from making breech loading revolvers until 1869. The patent did not, however, cover rifles or small breech loading derringers, so these markets were opened up to the new ammunition. The small calibre weapons were ideally suited to the low powered ammunition but when chambered in the larger rifles and carbines, the thin case head of the rimfire design, necessary to detonate the priming compound, proved to be a hindrance by restricting the usable pressure, and thus performance.

While cartridges up to .58” calibre were produced, they were less powerful than their muzzle loading counterparts. There was also the expense of throwing away the once-fired cases, particularly for the military, and although some manufacturers achieved moderate success during the Civil War, the introduction of the Winchester Model 1873, with its centre fire, reloadable ammunition sounded the death knell for large calibre rimfires. 

The first .22R cartridges

Modern rimfire cartridges can trace their ancestry back to around 1845 when the .22BB (bulleted breech) cap was introduced in France for use in rifles and pistol known as saloon or parlour guns. Using what was basically a tapered percussion cap as a case, a .22” round lead ball and the priming charge only – although later American versions had a small powder charge – this ammunition was quiet enough to be used in, as the name suggests, saloons or parlours. Try doing that today without a range certificate and health and safety precautions!

Some years ago a modern version of this little number was still being produced by RWS in Germany and was said to be capable of penetrating 1” of soft pine at close range.

With their acquisition of the Rollin White patent for breech loading revolvers with bored through cylinders, Smith & Wesson introduced their First Model revolver in 1857,  a diminutive 7-shot pistol chambered for the .22 Short rimfire, essentially the same type of cartridge as used by today’s Olympic shooters. Originally loaded with a 29-grain lead bullet backed by 4 grains of fine black powder, by 1871 production of the .22 Short had reached thirty million rounds per year. There are a great many minor variations in the bullet style of this cartridge but since 1865 case dimensions have remained unchanged.

In 1871 came the first change when the .22 Long was introduced with a case length 0.2” longer than its 0.41” predecessor and with an additional grain of powder, but using the same bullet, giving an overall length of 0.88”. Although still produced, the .22 Long is not as popular as its predecessor or its bigger brother, the .22 Long Rifle, which is generally accepted as being developed by J. Stevens Arms & Tool Co. in 1887. This was no more than a .22 Long case with a larger, 40-grain bullet replacing the 29-grain but retaining the same powder charge. A page in the 1888 Stevens catalogue discusses the use of this “new” cartridge at the Creedmoor Range, quoting a score of 111 out of a possible 120 at a range of 200 yards. Few, if any, of today’s shooters will use the .22LR cartridge at this range other than for a little experimentation, although maximum range, with a barrel elevation of around thirty degrees, can be up to two miles.

Further developments

It was not until 1959 that the next step was made in the development of the .22 rimfire. That year Winchester announced their .22 Winchester Magnum rimfire (WMR) but it was 1960 before they offered a gun to use it, the slide action model 61. Both Ruger and Smith & Wesson had .22WMR revolvers on sale in 1959 and Stevens chambered their Model 24 combination rifle/shotgun over and under for the cartridge around the same time. The WMR uses a lengthened (1.055”) case with increased powder charge mated to a variety of outside lubricated, jacketed bullets ranging from 30gr to 50gr, the lightest of which can achieve a claimed MV in excess of 2000fps.

In an effort to improve the performance of the .22LR, CCI introduced their Stinger cartridge in 1977 and it was an immediate success, soon followed by versions from Winchester (the Xpediter), Remington (Yellow Jacket) and Federal (Spitfire). This group is termed .22 Hyper- Velocity, and give an extra 30 percent increase in muzzle velocity over the standard .22LR hollow point high velocity ammunition. Extra velocity was achieved by reducing the weight of the standard hollow point bullet by around 10% and filling the case with slow burning powder. In the case of the Stinger the original factory load propelled the 32-grain bullet at over 1600fps.

Not all successful

Despite the success of the .22 Short and .22 LR there have been one or two variations of the theme that have fallen by the wayside over the years. The .22 Extra Long was introduced around 1880 and used the same 40-grain bullet that was later employed in the .22LR but in a longer case (.75”) filled with 6 grains of black powder. Several rifles from various manufacturers were chambered for this cartridge, slightly more powerful than the .22LR but not as accurate, but ammunition has not been offered for sale since the mid-1930’s.

The .22 Winchester Rimfire (WRF) was introduced for the Model 1890 slide action rifle and used an inside lubricated bullet of 40 or 45 grains, rather than the heel type used earlier. With a case diameter slightly larger than the standard .22 rimfires, the killing power of the .22 rimfire was increased to around 75 yards for small animals with this cartridge. This ammunition can be safely fired from weapons chambered for the .22WMR (see below). Winchester did produce a couple of batches of this ammunition in the late 20th century but it has not been a standard item for many years.

Perhaps the strangest cartridge in this class in the .22 Winchester Automatic, developed for use in their first semi-automatic rifle, the Model 1903. Although smokeless ammunition was established by this time, there was still an abundance of semi-smokeless and black powder loads around, both of which would quickly gum up the works of a semi–auto. So the Model 1903 was built around this new cartridge to prevent the standard .22 being used. With a 45-grain inside lubricated bullet this cartridge cannot be used in any other rifle. Not to be outdone, Remington manufactured a similar cartridge in 1914 for their Model 16 Autoloading rifle, but the two are not interchangeable and this offering has not been available since the end of World War II.

Potent Big Brother

In 1959 Winchester introduced an elongated version of the above mentioned .22WRF in the shape of their .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR). The 0.950” case of the WRF was lengthened to 1.005” and standard bullets are a 40-grain jacketed type but 30-grain hyper velocity versions are available, along with a heavier 50-grain example. With the standard offering pushing its 40-grain bullet at around 1900fps it is a very effective small game or varmint cartridge out to 125 yards or so. For this extra performance shooters are charged a hefty premium over the cost of standard .22 ammunition.

With one or two exceptions rimfire ammunition has been produced with outside lubricated lead bullets, the odd ones being the jacketed bullets used in the high velocity cartridges. These lead bullets originally had a coating of sticky grease which was later replaced by the dry waxes used today. All of the lead bullets are of the heeled variety, whereby the main body of the bullet has the same diameter as the outside of the cartridge case, with a smaller diameter “heel” fitting inside the case.

Further reading;

Cartridges of the World by Frank Barnes (Ed. Stan Skinner)  Historical information, dimension data and some ballistics for current and obsolete cartridges.

The American Cartridge by Charles Suydam. An illustrated study of the rimfire cartridges of the United States.GM

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History of 22 Rimfire
History of 22 Rimfire
History of 22 Rimfire
History of 22 Rimfire
History of 22 Rimfire
History of 22 Rimfire
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