Have you ever had a weird obsession with a particular cartridge, even though that obsession doesn’t make a lot of sense? I have, and it’s with 22 Magnum, properly named 22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR). It’s probably because my first rifle was a Marlin 25M in 22 Magnum, and my first handgun was an EAA Bounty Hunter…also in 22 Magnum. I gave the Marlin to my nephew and I still have the EAA Bounty Hunter. My son will get that some day. But the reason I told you all this is to help you understand my history with the 22 Magnum cartridge before I answer the question that brought you here: is 22 Magnum good for self defense?
Should You Use 22 WMR for Self-Defense?
The answer to this question is entirely situational, which if you’ve been following these stories for a while shouldn’t surprise you. Only the Sith deal in absolutes. Is the 22 Magnum a superior choice to a quality semi-automatic pistol chambered in 9mm using modern JHP ammo? No it’s not. But are there roles where a 22 Magnum, especially from a small revolver makes sense for self defense? Absolutely.
22 Mag Ballistics
Let’s start by examining the terminal ballistics of a 22 Magnum. There’re a couple of purpose built self defense loads for 22 Mag, the Hornady Critical Defense and Speer Gold Dot. Independent ballistics tests have shown that out of pistol length barrels, both those loads will expand to approximately 0.35 inches, however they won’t meet the FBI minimum of 12 inches of penetration.
Other, more traditional 22 Magnum projectiles, do meet the minimum penetration, they just don’t expand. The same tests showed the time-tested CCI Maxi-Mag 40 grain JHP penetrating almost 16 inches when fired out of a small revolver. It seems that like most pocket pistol calibers, the choice with a 22 Magnum is whether you want penetration or expansion.
Our Self-Defense 22 WMR Tests
We independently tested some of the Hornady Critical Defense loads with a small, Ruger LCR revolver and ballistic gelatin.
Our results mirrored what manufacturers claim about 22 WMR rounds for self-defense. Can they deliver a lethal blow to a threat? Absolutely. Are they as consistent in delivering penetration and expansion as larger rounds, such as 9mm? No. They aren’t.
Gel Test Results
We fired five Hornady rounds into gelatin covered with a 4-layer fabric barrier. None of our rounds traveled more than the FBI’s recommended minimum of 12-inches.
22 WMR’s expansion wasn’t much to write home about either. The bullets are just too small to deliver expansion that rivals larger rounds. We saw expansion close to .2-inches on average in our tests. A good 9mm round for self-defense will deliver almost double that.
Personally, I prefer a bullet that penetrates well but doesn’t expand over one that expands but doesn’t get to the vitals. Of course, that’s just one gun guy’s opinion which is why we often cite the FBI’s testing procedure and treat it as nearly gospel.
22 Mag vs Other Calibers
22 Mag vs 380 for Self Defense
It’s not hard to find better 380 ACP options for self-defense than 22 WMR. We did some testing of common 380 ACP ammo for self-defense. Nearly all options gave us better penetration than 22 WMR.
Good 380 ACP ammo choices offered 50% more expansion than 22 WMR as well.
So, if you base your self-defense decisions on the FBI’s protocol like most respected self-defense experts – it’s clear 22 WMR is less than ideal. (That said, it may still have a role. We’ll explain in a moment.)
What You Give Up with 22 WMR
It’s important to note again that a 22 Magnum as a defensive round is inherently a compromise. If you choose to carry one, you’re accepting that you’re not going to get the same terminal ballistics as you’d get from a 9mm. But, if you look at the terminal ballistics of say, a Fiocchi 40 grain jacketed soft point from a small revolver vs the ballistics of a 32 ACP FMJ, or a 32 Magnum…they pretty much do the same thing. Yes, the 22 Mag makes a smaller hole, but the depth is what matters, and all three of those sub-caliber rounds will penetrate deep enough to hit vital organs. This is why I think there’re two strong niches for 22 Magnum as a defensive round.
The first is as a deep concealment gun. I’ve previously mentioned the S&W 351PD, which is a scandium framed 22 Magnum revolver. It holds 7 rounds, which is a significant capacity upgrade over most 38 Special guns its size, and it’s light. It’s incredibly light, but because it’s chambered for 22 Magnum, shooting it doesn’t beat your hand up. You can shoot the 351PD until you get tired of pulling the trigger, and you won’t suffer the recoil fatigue that’s common with larger calibers. The light weight and tiny size make it the perfect gun for true undetectable carry. You’re not carrying a gun like this because you think you’re going to be in a running gun battle against cartel sicarios, you’re carrying a 22 Magnum deep concealed because you’re going somewhere that, if you’re discovered carrying a gun, could have very negative consequences for you.
The second real world case for 22 Magnum ammo is for people with genuine recoil/blast sensitivity. Some shooters can’t handle the recoil from even a 32 ACP, especially out of a gun like the small Kel Tec pistol, and so for them the 22 WMR becomes a sensible choice. The Ruger LCR in 22 Magnum offers six shots, again more than you get from a 38 Special, and manages to have a trigger that most people can manipulate. It’s one of the best revolver triggers on the market. And while I don’t normally advocate thumb cocking DA revolvers, the S&W 351PD and the LCRx have hammer spurs, so if a shooter lacks the hand strength to manipulate a DA trigger, then simply cocking the hammer for a single action shot is an option.
Like we said above, carrying a 22 Magnum for a defensive pistol is a compromise. It sacrifices terminal ballistics in favor of capacity and shootability; and most of the guns made for 22 Magnum are easy to conceal. My personal recommendation for ammo is to stay away from the “self defense” marketed rounds like the Hornady Critical Defense or Gold Dot. While those rounds will be accurate and reliable, they’re not going to penetrate enough, which ruins the 22 Mag as a defensive round. Instead, stick to your traditional small game rounds, the CCI Maxi Mags 40 grain JHP is a great one, or a Fiocchi jacketed soft point. Rounds like that won’t expand, but they’ll penetrate deep enough to wreck vital organs, and that’s what matters.