.22 Long Rifle is one of America’s favorite, most versatile calibers and is widely accepted as the preferred round for training youth and first-time shooters. It’s used to plink and practice with, as well as shoot competitively yet still has a place in the hunting world for small game and remains the least expensive ammunition on the market. This tiny cartridge has withstood the test of time, but that’s not to say it hasn’t advanced over the years to remain relevant.
Rimfire cartridges are not the first metallic cartridges invented, but they are the oldest of the designs still in production today. In 1832, prior to the development of rimfire, Swiss gun maker Samuel Joannes Pauly, patented the first breech loading cartridge for shotguns using an external percussion cap. Twenty years later in 1832 Casimir Lefaucheux improved this technology with the pinfire cartridge. While these were a significant improvement from muzzleloaders, they left a lot of reliability and manufacturing simplicity to be desired. Fast forward another 13 years to 1845 in France, Nicolas Flobert develops a far simpler design, the .22 BB (Bulleted Breech) Cap also known as the 6mm Flobert; by combining a percussion cap with a bullet seated in the top of the cap. The low velocity, primer only cartridge, was used in “parlor guns” also known as “gallery guns” and are similar in power to .22 caliber air rifles. Since shooting galleries have disappeared into history, these cartridges have largely disappeared as well, but not without creating the legacy of the modern rimfire cartridge.
Right - An early Model 1, alongside it’s .22 Rimfire counterpart. Images via Mike Helms, Firearms Historian
Flobert’s cartridges inspired the development of America’s first rimfire metallic cartridge, the .22 Rimfire. Released in 1857 for the Smith & Wesson Model 1, Smith & Wesson’s first firearm. The .22 Rimfire cartridge had a 4-grain charge of black powder and 29 grain bullet. Designed as a personal protection pocket gun, and paired with the .22 Rimfire the match landed itself as the first commercially successful revolver to use rimfire cartridges. In 1871, the .22 Long was released with an extra grain of black powder (5 grains total) and then in 1880 the .22 Extra Long with 6 grains. With the release of the .22 Long, the .22 Rimfire became known as the .22 Short. Modern .22 Short is still produced and is the oldest cartridge still commercially produced today.
It wasn’t until 1887 that the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company introduced what would become the quintessential 22 rimfire cartridge, the .22 Long Rifle (LR). The .22 LR duplicated the performance of the .22 Extra Long in a shorter cartridge and went on to become the most popular cartridge in the world. The change to smokeless powder further improved the performance and today there are numerous variations of the 22 LR caliber manufactured all over the world. The .22 LR has been a long-standing staple of competitive shooting, from as early as the days of shooting galleries at fairs, using Flobert cartridges, the .22 LR has become widely used in many types of competitions around the world. Low recoil and affordable cost have made rimfire competitions popular for all ages and types of events throughout the ages.
.22 LR has had a significant impact in Olympic sports as well. The Biathlon, a race made up of cross-country skiing and off-hand rifle shooting, evolved from Scandinavian military drills. It was formally added as an Olympic event in 1960 with later standardizing to the .22 LR.
For those looking for a challenge, the Precision Rifle Series™ (PRS®) was created. In these challenges, shooters engage very small targets out to a couple hundred yards. The slow velocity and relatively low ballistic coefficient of the .22 LR adds additional challenges when shot at a distance since it’s easily affected by the wind. The ballistics of the tiny .22 LR effectively simulate the challenges of shooting larger calibers at much greater distances because of the limitations of the round.
With competitions like these, it’s safe to say the popularity of rimfire won’t be going away any time soon.
Follow Ava at:
IG: @avaflanell_ and @gunfunnypodcast