The year was 1996. Upstate Vermont was in the adorable clutches of a red squirrel population boom. The outbreak got so bad that the little buggers started chewing through my house’s window screens to pilfer its contents. The poor dog almost had a brain aneurysm when he discovered a red squirrel stealing bread off the kitchen counter. It was time to stock up and find powerful 22 LR ammo to rid the family of this nuisance.

I was issued a single-shot bolt-action rifle, a box of 22 LR (22 Long Rifle) cartridges, and the order to terminate anything that chittered with extreme prejudice.

If every ten-year-old was told to shoot as many squirrels as they like, all squirrel-related issues would permanently cease within a week. I was like the Terminator out there, and the squirrels were bouncing off the branches like pachinko balls. Any that survived the fall still had to reckon with the dog, who cherished a particular vendetta against their kind after the intrusion that sparked The Great Vermont Squirrel Massacre of ‘96.

Why the 22 LR Is Great

It was no coincidence that I used a 22 LR rifle back in ‘96 and not my father’s 30-06. I was small back then (but much bigger now thanks to food), and the 22 LR is famous for its very manageable recoil. The small cartridge’s soft report didn’t rattle the windowpanes when I fired it next to the house. The 22 LR wasn’t overkill for such delicate game, and its price tag lined up with what my father was willing to invest in a campaign against squirrels.

Low recoil, low sound, low power, and low price: These are why the 22 LR is great. Obviously it isn’t the one cartridge to beat them all. Some shooters do use the 22 LR for self-defense – and we’ll get to why in a moment – but most hunters wouldn’t even attempt to bag a coyote with one. So when should you fire the 22 LR, and what kind of cartridge should you pick? Funny you should ask, because that’s exactly what I planned on writing. But first lets cover the 22 LR basics.

Brief History of .22 LR
Brief History of .22 LR
In 1887, J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company introduced the first .22 Long Rifle Cartridge. Drawing inspiration from prior variations of the cartridge, J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company combined the advantages of each type into one. 

  • Utilized the casing of the .22 Long cartridge (1871)
  • Included 40-gr bullet from the .22 Extra Long (1880)

As a result of the redesign, the .22 LR had length and muzzle velocity that was superior to previous designs and became the ideal cartridge for recreational shooting and small game hunting. Ideally, the .22 LR is great for novice shooters because of the low amount of recoil and noise. Thanks to advancements in firearm technology, .22 LR rounds can be used in handguns and other rifles through simple modifications. 

Performance and Power

Close-up-of-target-and-bullet-holesWhile .22 LR isn’t known for its overwhelming power, the right round in the hands of an experienced shooter can be very effective. Typically, .22 LR is used for teaching, target practice, or small game hunting; however, it has been used to accomplish a very impressive feat. In 1953, Bella Twin was credited with taking down a world record grizzly bear with a single-shot .22 rifle. 

There are a few factors that will influence the performance and power of the round and they include barrel length, action type, and load type.

For a baseline perspective, the .22 LR is generally effective up to 150 yards but is much more effective at less. With distances over 100 yards, the ballistics of the bullet makes it difficult to account for the drop at that distance. 

22 Long Rifle Bullet Drop

CategoryBullet Weight (Gr.)Muzzle Velocity (fps)Velocity at 100 Yards (fps)Bullet Drop at 100 Yards
Subsonic29770682-15.1 inches
Standard-Velocity401150974-6.4 inches
High-Velocity4012551016-5.5 inches
  • Barrel Length

In simple terms, a longer barrel will increase the accuracy of the rifle. The reason for this is because the inside of the barrel has helical grooves called “rifling” that cause the bullet to spin. The spinning of the bullet creates gyroscopic stability, which means that it flies straighter. 

To get a sense of this difference, we fired a Smith & Wesson 43C handgun with a short, snub nose barrel along with a Ruger 22 LR rifle with a 18.5″ barrel. The same ammo gave us very different results.

S&W Snub Nose Ruger Rifle (18.5″)
940 fps 1219 fps
955 fps 1161 fps
957 fps 1201 fps
932 fps 1218 fps
893 fps 1227 fps
944 fps 1204 fps
937 fps 1228 fps
957 fps 1192 fps
964 fps 1225 fps
966 fps 1202 fps

You can see in our testing, the longer barrel gave us about a 263 foot per second higher muzzle velocity than the snub nose revolver. In this case, it came out to be about 28% difference, which we believe is quite significant.

However, there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to the length of the barrel. Too long of a barrel and too much of the forward momentum will be converted into angular momentum and the bullet will lose velocity. Typical velocities for .22 LR range between 1000-1600 feet/second, and it depends on a variety of factors including barrel length, ammunition grain, etc. 

  • Action Type

There are five common types of .22 rifle actions and each one impacts the performance and power of the rifle a little differently. 

    • Bolt-action
    • Lever-action
    • Pump-action
    • Semi-automatic action
    • Break-action
  • Ammo Load

This is the most influential factor when it comes to determining the power of the .22 LR round. There are four main categories that .22 LR loads are broken down into:

    • Subsonic- below 1100
    • Standard-Velocity- 1120-1180
    • High-Velocity- between 1,200-1,310 ft/s
    • Hyper-Velocity- greater than 1,400 ft/s

Generally, subsonic is used in target shooting and competitions, while higher velocity loads are used for small game hunting. There is a rather large market for self-defense usage with .22 LR in handguns due to the fact that they are compact, lightweight, and easy to shoot. 

There are some civilians who do carry .22 LR but it is generally not recommended as a primary carry weapon. In most cases, the .22 LR chambered pistol would be seen as a back-up firearm in the event a larger caliber pistol could not be accessed for some reason.

The Most Powerful 22 LR Ammo

What is the most powerful 22 LR ammo? Theoretically the most powerful 22 LR round would combine the heaviest possible bullet and highest possible muzzle velocity. These would give the cartridge the highest possible muzzle energy, the raw measure of a round’s power.

The heaviest bullet you can find on a 22 LR weighs 60 grains. But as Aguila’s Sniper Subsonic round its muzzle velocity is only 950 fps, so its muzzle energy is a mere 120 ft lbs.

The highest muzzle velocity you can get from a 22 LR is 1,850 fps. This is CCI’s COPPER-22 round, but its bullet weighs only 21 grains – nearly half the average weight for its caliber. That lightning fast muzzle velocity only gives so light a bullet a muzzle energy of 160 ft lbs!

Currently the 22 LR ammo that strikes the best balance of bullet weight and muzzle velocity to achieve the greatest power is CCI’s Stinger 22 LR Ammo. This round has a 32 grain CPHP bullet loaded to a muzzle velocity of 1,640 fps. The hyper-velocity Stinger cartridge boasts a whopping 191 ft lbs of muzzle energy. It furthermore remains supersonic past 75 yards, so it delivers an impressively flat trajectory. Shoot a squirrel with a Stinger and it’ll stay shot.

But CCI’s Stinger isn’t necessarily the best choice for self-defense. For self-defense you would want a heavier bullet that retains the requisite momentum for deeper penetration. To that end CCI’s Velocitor cartridge serves better against human-sized threats. Its 40 grain CPHP bullet is loaded to a muzzle velocity of 1,435 fps for a muzzle energy of 183 fps. Not quite the Stinger’s power level, but the Velocitor’s heavier expanding bullet has a greater chance of penetrating to a depth where it can find a vital organ.\

With this information in mind, now you can make a more informed decision and answer, “what is the most powerful .22 LR ammo?” We’ll give you a few good examples of some popular categories, to begin with, and it’ll be up to you to do the research/shooting and figure out the best .22 LR round for your needs.

Other 22 LR Picks:

The 22 LR is one of the smallest rifle and pistol cartridges on the market. Its low recoil, soft report, limited power, and accessible price tag have all helped to make it one of the most popular rounds in the world. Optimal for target shooting, plinking, and varmint hunting, essentially anyone with functional arms can enjoy shooting the 22 LR.

Whether you small game hunt or you’re looking for the best ammo to teach your kids with, we have everything you’re looking for. Click here to see our large selection of .22 LR ammunition.