The .22 Long Rifle cartridge is the most popular cartridge in existence. Every year, billions of .22 LR cartridges are purchased and shot. It is popular for both target shooting and hunting and is used by many for self-defense. It has been used by the military establishments of most countries, mostly as a training round but also in combat. The .22 LR has been used to kill most animals, from the smallest, including some insects, up to elephants.
The .22 Long Rifle is derived from the .22 Short cartridge; both are rimfire cartridges that use a heeled bullet that is lubricated on the outside. The .22 Short was introduced by Smith & Wesson in 1857. The .22 Short was for their first cartridge revolver, the Number 1, a seven-shot bottom break revolver. The .22 Short, derived from the .22 BB cap, is a primer-powered cartridge that shot a round ball and was added to what had been a percussion cap, was introduced in 1845. The Short used a 29-grain pullet and 4 grains of fine black powder. The .22 Long used a longer case, five grains of black powder, and the 29-grain bullet. It was introduced in 1871.
All four cartridges, the BB cap, the Short, the Long, and the Long Rifle, survive and can be purchased today.
A fifth cartridge, the .22 Extra Long, contained six grains of fine black powder and used a 40-grain bullet. It was introduced in 1880. It enjoyed commercial success for a few years. The Long Rifle used a 40-grain bullet from the Extra Long Rifle, the lengthened case of the Long, and five grains of fine black power. It was introduced in 1887 by the Stevens Arms company for their single-shot pistols and rifles. It was an instant success, more accurate than the Short, more powerful than the Long, and as powerful as the Extra Long in a more compact and less expensive package. The Long Rifle is said to be somewhat more accurate than the Extra Long.
The Stevens Arms Company was a premium brand in 1887. Its rifles and pistols were highly thought of and used in many competitions. The .22 Long Rifle was developed by Stevens from 1886 to 1887. It was quick to jump the Atlantic and find favor in England, where shooting was a popular sport, often practiced inside houses. Those of you who read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series may recall that Sherlock Homes often practices shooting a revolver in his rooms at 221b Baker St.
On February 7, 1889, Shooting and Fishing, an English publication, furnished a lengthy and thorough review of the new .22 Long Rifle cartridges. The article gives us a window to see what the first .22 LR cartridges could do. They were produced by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. From the 1889 article:
It is the unanimous opinion of every rifleman who has shot the long rifle cartridge, that it is certainly the most accurate rim-fire .22-calibre cartridge which has yet been produced. The charge of powder in this cartridge is five grains of powder and a bullet weighing 40 grains. The charge is well proportioned, which contributes much to the accuracy.
There is also another point which makes the bullet a true flyer, which is it is uncrimped in the shell. The writer witnessed some very fine shooting done with the ordinary short cartridges when uncrimped, and feels this is a very important factor towards making this cartridge an unusually accurate one, but while it contributes to the accuracy, it is to a certain extent objectionable, as it forbids the removal of the cartridge from the chamber of the rifle without leaving the bullet in the rifle. This causes the powder to spill from the shell and prevents the use of the cartridge in a repeater.
A hobbyist found some old UMC black powder Long Rifle loads with copper cases, where the bullets were heeled but not crimped. This confirms the early cartridges were not crimped.
A crimp was added to the cartridge rather quickly. It is more important when used in repeaters than in single-shot pistols and rifles.
Two different sources, American Rifleman and John Walters, give the velocity of the black powder .22 Long Rifle with a 40-grain bullet at 1095 fps and 1103 fps, an inconsequential difference of 8 fps. Smokeless powder Remington Standard Velocity ammunition, manufactured about 1956, produced an average velocity of 1099 fps, exactly in the middle of the above. It was likely designed to duplicate the black powder load. The average groups for the 1956 Remington, adjusted to 40 yards, were .904 inches.
A test of recent CCI Standard Velocity ammunition from a stock Rossi RS22 rifle two years ago, gave average five shot groups of .502 inches at 25 yards, extrapolated to .802 inches at 40 yards. The CCI 40-grain Long Rifle was tested at 1073 fps.
The black powder .22 Long Rifle load performance is duplicated by modern smokeless powder, non-corrosive primed, Standard Velocity ammunition.
Today, 40-grain Long Rifle cartridges can deliver velocities of 1400 feet per second or are loaded down to 700 feet per second for reduced sound and range. This could not be done with black powder because the powder has to fill the case, preferably a bit compressed, to give consistent ignition. Black powder cartridges generally had only one load. Adjustable sights were far less common. Stevens rifles and pistols were known for target shooting. Many of them had state-of-the-art iron sights from the period. With the best iron sights, groups can be obtained, as well as with a low magnification scope, although the iron sights need good lighting conditions for top performance.
The .22 Long Rifle cartridge has seen improvement over the years, with smokeless powder, non-corrosive priming, and a greater variety of loads. The basic performance is very close to the original 1887 Long Rifle cartridge introduced and promoted by the Stevens Arms Company.
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About Dean Weingarten:
Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.