Shooting: Lethal hunting of small game beyond 25 yards

Shooting: Lethal hunting of small game beyond 25 yards

Consistently placing lethal headshots while hunting longer than 25 yards with your .22 rimfire takes more than you think. (Photo by Richard Mann)

When it comes to small game, nothing beats a .22 rifle. Not only is it virtually recoil free, but it’s also not excessively noisy. And, with the right ammo, it’s capable of small game up to 100 yards or so. A major online retailer lists over 100 different loads for the .22 LR. Obviously, hunters will be concerned with things like energy, bullet impact, and penetration, especially depending on the animal being hunted. Conversely, if the squirrels are shot in the head, any bullet will do. What matters most in that scenario is how close the bullet will land to your crosshairs.


I recently ran a test to find out what the most accurate shooting .22 LR load was in my favorite rifle. I wanted to know what loadout would give me the best chance of headshotting a squirrel at about 50 yards. I tested 20 loads ranging from 947fps to 1740fps. The most accurate load averaged 0.61 inches for five groups of five shots at 50 yards. The least accurate load averaged 1.99 inches. The average of all loads tested was 1.09 inches. Figuring that any average load of less than 3/4 inch at 50 yards would suffice, I found five of the 20 that met that standard.

However, even though the initial velocities of those five charges were very similar, they all had a different point of impact at 50 yards. This meant that I would have to perfectly zero my rifle for just one of the loads and then stick to that load exclusively if I wanted to be able to get consistent headshots at squirrels at that range.

This got me wondering at what distance does ammo selection, with respect to point of aim vs. point of impact, become critical with a .22 rifle? So, I ran another test. Using my New Ultra Light Arms single shot .22 rifle, I took those same 20 loads I had already tried and fired groups at 25, 50 and 100 yards. But each group at each distance consisted of a single shot with each load, for a total of 20 shots in each group. I also shot a control group at each distance with the CCI 40-grain Mini-Mag segmented hollow point load, which was the load that had given the best accuracy in my rifle.

The main question I wanted answered was, at what range could I just grab whatever .22 LR load I had lying around and use my rifle to headshot a squirrel? The test answered that question, but I think what is just as important is how the test showed the wide variation in point of impact of .22 LR ammunition versus point of aim at various distances.


A lot of plinking with .22 rifles is done at a reasonably close range, usually around 25 yards. At 25 yards, the control group with the rifle measured 0.324 inches. The group of 20 shots shot with 20 different loads measured 1.71 inches, with 95 percent of the shots (19 of 20) grouped within 0.806 inches. A single shot landed about 1.25 inches from the center of that group. I’m not sure what load produced the outlier (it would be easy enough to find out), but for the purposes of this test, it doesn’t really matter. Clearly, at 25 yards, differences in ammunition make very little difference to point of impact. I rely on grabbing just about any .22 LR load and attempting to headshot a squirrel at about 25 yards with my rifle.

Most of my small game .22 rifle shots range from 20 to 60 yards. At 50 yards, the single control group measured 0.779 inches, which was 2.4 times larger than at 25 yards. The 20-shot group shot with 20 different loads and measured 4.332 inches. Once again, there was a single outlier that hit about 3.5 inches from the center of the pack. That pool was 2.53 times larger than the 25-yard pool. Discounting the outlier, the remaining 19 shots clustered at 2,030 inches. Although this isn’t enough accuracy for headshot squirrels, with my rifle I should be able to hit a soda can or push a possum through the lungs at about 50 yards or so, regardless of the load used.

At this distance, the five-shot control group measured 1.821 inches, which was 2.34 times larger than the 50-yard group. This is well beyond the range of making a likely shot to a squirrel’s head. The increase in group size of 20 shots was almost identical. It went from 4.332 inches at 50 yards to 10.5 inches at 100 yards. The 100-yard pool was 2.42 times larger than the 50-yard pool. It goes without saying that if I intend to hit anything smaller than a two-liter soda bottle at 100 yards with my rifle, it needs to be zero for the load I’m shooting. And I must know the trajectory of that charge to more than 40 meters or so.

.22 Small Game Rimfire
Within 25 yards, headshots can be achieved with most .22 LR ammunition, if your rifle is capable. Beyond that range, stick with the one load that fires best on your gun. (Photo by Richard Mann)


What can this data say about you and your rifle? I think one of the most important reveals of this test is how much the group size will increase with distance. Conventional wisdom has always suggested that group size or accuracy increases proportionally with distance. For example, if your rifle shoots 1-inch groups at 25 yards, it should shoot 2-inch groups at 50 yards. Double the distance, double the group size, right? Taking into account human and ballistic error, this estimate turned out to be close but not exact. In this test, when the distance to the target was doubled, the size of the groups, on average, increased consistently by 2.42 times. Keep this in mind when shooting from a distance with a .22 rifle.

Of course, you will have to find the load that your rifle likes. I fired five of the loads used in this test on three rifles, including the one (Rifle No. 1) that I used to get the data. The No. 1 rifle averaged .81 inches for five groups of five shots with all five loads at 50 yards. The No. 2 rifle averaged 1.50 inches and the No. 3 rifle averaged 1.51 inches. The best shot load on the No. 1 Rifle was the second best shot load on the No. 2 Rifle and the worst shot load on the No. 3 Rifle. Conclusion: Ammo preferences vary greatly between .22 rifles. They really are finicky creatures.

However, if you’re shooting around 25 yards with any .22 rifle, chances are the ammo you use won’t matter as much. If your rifle offers enough accuracy to headshot squirrels at that distance on a single charge, it will probably do so with most charges. There just isn’t enough variation in point of impact to matter. On the other hand, if you’re shooting small targets at ranges between 25 and 50 yards, you’ll probably have to pick a loadout and stick with it to hit often. To shoot beyond 50 yards, you’ll not only need to zero for the load you’re going to use, but you’ll also need to be intimately familiar with its trajectory.