The .22 Rimfire for Self Defense

I was listening to Tom Gresham’s GunTalk where he got a call from someone asking about using .22 rimfire guns for self defense. Naturally Tom gave the gentleman the correct information but I wanted to look a little closer at the dynamics of using this round for self defense. But first, why would someone want to use a .22 rimfire? There are several reasons. .22 pistols are often very small and light making them very attractive for concealed carry. The recoil from a .22 pistol is extremely mild. People of small stature and strength find it easier to shoot and in the hands of a skilled shooter the light recoil should make it easier to get rapid and accurate shots off. There are some guns that hold a lot of ammunition like the KelTec PMR-30 (30 rounds!). Finally, many people believe, quite correctly, that the .22 can kill.

Let’s deal with the .22′s lethality first. The .22 has killed. I remember in police academy watching the very sad video of the sheriff deputy who was shot by a dirt-bag maggot with a .22 magnum from a small revolver. I was told that the bullet ricocheted off the deputy’s upper arm bone (humerus) and entered his chest cavity just above his vest where the bullet proceeded to puncture his heart. It was a one in a million shot. I was told that if it had happened on an operating table the surgeons could not have saved him. The reason I relate all this is that while the deputy did die he continued to fight for upwards of 40 seconds. When you are shooting to protect yourself you are not shooting to kill the threat but to stop it. That is not some clever, lawsuit-safe, gutless turn of phrase. That is the way you operate if you want to live. When someone presents a threat you want it stopped NOW not dead later. The .22 does kill but it does not reliably incapacitate quickly.

Working backwards we come to the ammunition capacity. While the KelTec PMR-30 holds 30 rounds most .22 pistols have a capacity in the 10 round range. That is more than say the Ruger LCP with its 6+1 but those .380 rounds are going to do a lot more damage than the 10+ .22 rounds. Even with the PMR-30 that capacity won’t help that much. If you were able to shoot with 0.1 second splits (the time between shots) you would need 3 seconds to make use of all that ammo. And if you need the extra capacity to stop a threat, and you would, that means you will be much slower responding to multiple attackers.

Without question the .22 is an easy gun to shoot but it really doesn’t matter how comfortable it is to shoot if it won’t get the job done and as we’re beginning to see, we can’t count on the .22 to stop the threat. This brings us to a very valid point I’ve heard used in support of the .22 rimfire cartridge, “It’s all about shot placement.” Truer words were never spoken. The only reason a bullet has a positive impact on a threat is by damaging some important part of the threat’s body. I remember one of my instructors chanting, “Fast is fine but accuracy is final.” As Travis Haley pointed out in The Art of the Tactical Carbine this does not mean speed is unimportant but the bottom line is you cannot miss fast enough to stop a threat. Yet when we look at the .22 we find that even when a bullet finds it’s target it does not have a dramatic effect on it. The example of the mortally wounded deputy I cited above illustrates that. Our man there was able to bring the fight to the bad guy for well over half a minute. In a gunfight that is an eternity. And not only is the effect on the target not dramatic when you place your shots well but with the .22 you have fewer targets. The sternum is large and strong enough to deflect a .22, especially if the bullet comes at an oblique angle. The pelvic girdle is simply not a structure in your threat’s body that you will be able to destroy with a .22.

So, ending where the list started, it doesn’t matter how small, light, and easy to conceal your .22 is. The .22 is simply a very poor tool for the job we are forcing it into. However, if I was presented with the choice of going unarmed or legally carrying a .22 I would pack that .22 without a moment’s hesitation. If a threat sees his choice is between leaving me alone or getting shot he may choose to leave me alone. If he doesn’t I’ll remember the limitations of the gun and ammo I’m carrying. Shooting center mass of the body will likely be unproductive. My productive targets are likely to be mostly in the head. I will probably want to aim for the eyes and for up close the ears, the base of the skull, and like George Hill says I can use the .22 in front like “nasal spray.” However, in the end there are so many solid alternatives to the .22 that with a few very specialized exceptions I can’t see the point of using a .22 for a primary weapon.


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