Hunting Squirrels: Which .22 is for you?

Lever, single shot, bolt action, semi-automatic and pump. When we imagine a .22 caliber rifle in our mind, one of these traditional weapons will surely appear. However, a new style is emerging as a great sports tool. Lately, .22 caliber rifles are being built into tactical rifle frames. These guns may look very different, but when it comes to putting a round in a squirrel’s ear, they all work the same way.

With squirrel season in full swing in the Midwest, what better time to take a look at America’s favorite caliber of rifle. Literally billions of rounds of .22 caliber rimfire ammunition are fired every year. Most are shot while hunting squirrels and rabbits, although small vermin such as woodchucks are also hunted with rimfire weapons.

Mike Roux shootign style AR .22 rifle

For paper or plinking, non-traditional .22s are a lot of fun. (Photo by Nancy Roux)

Almost all rimfire ammunition in common use today is .22 caliber, with only a few limited exceptions. However it was not always so. One of the most sought after “Yankee” weapons of the Civil War was a Spencer carbine. An incredibly large magazine capacity and the fixed cartridge it used made it a highly desirable rifle, but the cartridge used in the Spencer was an approximately .52 caliber rimfire cartridge. There were also many rimfire pistols around this time, for example the .30 and .38 caliber ones. Even the .44 caliber Henry rifle was a rimfire pistol.

Other than this, the rimfire ammunition in use today is mainly as follows:

.22 short, .22 long, .22 long rifle, and .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire. There are a number of variations including standard velocity, high velocity, solid and hollow point bullets. One or more of these variations may be found in a single cartridge: for example, a .22 long rifle, high velocity, hollow point.

(As a side note to 5mm fans: The 5mm Remington Magnum never caught on, and it’s probably not unfair to say that, while a relatively recent introduction, it’s already a dying cartridge. The other, rimfires most popular will surely be with us as long as we have the right to bear arms).

The useful life of the various .22 caliber rimfire rifles is ensured by their comparatively low cost, low noise level, good accuracy, and enough power to catch vermin and small animals at ranges of up to 50 yards. Under certain circumstances, ranges can be extended to 75 or 100 yards, but the use of any rimfire cartridge at ranges beyond 100 yards falls into the category of acrobatics and will generally result in the loss of a large amount of damaged game. .

Of course, the ability to practice almost anywhere with a .22 is reason enough to guarantee its longevity for another century. In these areas, there are several special rarities of .22 rimfire ammunition: the short .22CB and the long .22CB. These are nothing more than a .22 Short or Long loaded at a slow rate of about 675 fps. These cartridges allow the use of the .22 on indoor shooting ranges, where the low-velocity projectiles ensure the noise level will be similar to that of a high-velocity airgun, and the relatively modest rear brakes will be adequate. These weapons are a favorite with trappers because they do very little, if any, skin damage.

Now let’s take a closer look at the most popular .22 caliber cartridges:

.22 Short

The .22-Short Standard Velocity with a standard lead bullet is the ideal plinking round. Its low cost, good accuracy, and low noise level add up to make it the perfect practice cartridge. There is a drawback, however. Extensive use of the short case on weapons chambered for a long rifle load will eventually cause some erosion of the chamber in front of where the short case ends. After this erosion occurs, it becomes difficult to extract a long rifle case after it has been fired. For this reason, I do not recommend excessive use of the .22 Short in guns chambered for longer .22 ammunition.

For small game use at distances of 25 or 30 yards, the .22 High Velocity Short Hollow Point will work well. Even in this setup, the Short should never be used on anything larger than squirrels and rabbits, and only at the ranges I’ve mentioned.

.22 long

The long round still holds despite there being very little reason to use it. At one point the Long was discontinued by one of its major manufacturers. The Long is a cross between the short and long rifle cartridge. Uses the 29-grain bullet from the Short and the scabbard from the Long Rifle. The Long’s starting speed at high-speed charge is 1240 fps. However, due to the light weight of the bullet, the energy level is substantially below the long rifle.

.22 long rifle

Mike Roux with rifle holding fox squirrels

The author poses with his Colt chambered in .22 Long Rifle, which he uses to hunt squirrels and other small game. (Photo by Bryan Dralle)

Without a doubt, the .22 Long Rifle is the most popular .22 rimfire cartridge ever designed, and it will survive as long as shooters shoot. The high velocity hollow point versions can be used at 50 or 60 yards on varmints as large as marmots if you stick to headshots. Body shots should never be attempted on such hard or large animals, regardless of range. The cripples do not win us anything. For squirrel hunting, headshots are preferred to avoid damaging too much meat. Some squirrel catchers will not use hollow points for the same reason.

The Long Rifle cartridge is a favorite for almost any small game, as vermin as large as a fox can be successfully harvested with it. With that said, the .22 Long Rifle is certainly a hunter’s ammunition, forcing you to stalk your prey carefully to ensure the hunt is swift and humane. The low cost of ammunition gives almost anyone the chance to become an “expert” marksman.

Many long range varmint shooters, who have lost the thrill of the hunt, find themselves returning to varmint hunting with the .22 long rifle. With low noise levels, hunters find they are welcome in places that centerfire rifle shooters find impossible to enter.

.22 Winchester Magnum rimfire

With more energy at 100 yards than any long rifle cartridge in the muzzle, the .22 WMR is the powerful round in the .22 caliber rimfire family. Useful for all hunting purposes of the .22 Long Rifle, the .22 WMR can extend a varmint hunter’s range to 100 yards and, with good equipment, possibly 125 yards. Despite promising power levels at ranges beyond this, WMR is not practical beyond 125 due to accuracy limitations.

However, the largest range of the round is not free. While still much cheaper than any centerfire ammo, the cost is a bit high for plinking and is considerably more than long rifle ammo. It is a cartridge for the serious rimfire hunter who is willing to purchase gear that allows him to take advantage of higher energy levels at longer ranges.

The noise level of the .22 WMR is noticeably above the Long Rifle, but nowhere near objectionable, except perhaps when used too close to residential areas. There is a hollow point version for hunting and an all-metal box variant for situations where minimal skin damage or meat destruction is important.

In closing, let me say that no shooter should be without a .22 caliber rimfire firearm. Inexpensive practice, plinking fun, serious hunting, or target shooting can be enjoyed almost anywhere with a .22. It truly is the most valuable recreational rifle or pistol ever designed.