There are a handful of reasons — or excuses — people have for counting on the small rimfire cartridge. Two big reasons people say .22 is adequate are that shot placement is key, not caliber, and more often than not, the display of a gun is enough to stop an attack. Naturally, both of these reasons ring of truth.
Remember the guy who shot himself with a .22 and didn’t notice for days? It’s safe to say that lucky shot placement played a part in things, but the .22-caliber bullet went unnoticed. And as it turns out, smartphones make really handy .22-catchers. From a self-defense perspective, if you can connect with a shot anywhere and it has no effect on your target, then the ammo should be scrutinized.
But the main reason people continue to use .22 for self-defense is … it works sometimes. A lot, actually. By the numbers, .22 is one of the most popular and arguably effective cartridges used in America. A few years back Richard Mann looked into the realities of .22 for self-defense and came to a surprising conclusion, and in the end, went so far as to set up a .22 rifle for home protection. (Not as a primary, but rather a rifle that anyone in the house can use for protection from smaller animals.)
“If by intention or misfortune you end up relying on the .22 LR for protection, here are some good rules to follow: Use reliable ammo, shoot straight and don’t stop shooting until the threat no longer exists,” wrote Mann for Shooting Illustrated. “That’s actually exceedingly good advice no matter what cartridge you choose.”
Then there’s the ever-relevant Greg Ellifritz shooting study that found, in the right light, that .22 might possibly out-perform more powerful centerfire cartridges. For instance, shootings involving .22 LR required fewer shots on target to incapacitate than 9mm Luger, the most popular duty cartridge for handguns in the world.
But on the flip side, .22 LR had one of the highest overall failure rates to incapacitate targets altogether, rolling in at just over 30 percent of shootings. According to the Ellifritz study, nearly one-third of people were not stopped by .22 LR no matter how many times they were shot.
“The results I got from the study lead me to believe that there really isn’t that much difference between most defensive handgun rounds and calibers,” wrote Ellifritz. “None is a death ray, but most work adequately … even the lowly .22s. I’ve stopped worrying about trying to find the ‘ultimate’ bullet. There isn’t one.”
It’s an interesting look from a hands-on perspective based on real-world shootings. If you haven’t read it, you should rectify that.
And then there’s one last reason to use a .22 for self-defense: it’s what you have. There are a lot of shooters, new and old, who picked up a trainer rifle to get into shooting with the intent on moving up from there later … and it’s still not later yet. For financial reasons or otherwise, sometimes .22 is the only option.
A person can become very proficient with a .22. Cheap to own and operate, these firearms shoot the cheapest ammo and are welcome at any gun range, indoors or out. With that in mind, there are some .22s that are … less bad … for self-defense than others.
BUDGET GUN: RUGER 10/22
Proven, inexpensive, and ubiquitous, the Ruger 10/22 is popular and easy to get nation-wide. It has a lot of aftermarket support and good provisions for optics and improved sights. With a 10/22 you’ll get the most out of any power charge for the most effective shots.
Realistically, any proven semi-auto .22 will fit here, but the Ruger stands out for its reliable magazines. No matter what you pick, make sure it feeds reliably and in the case of a dud cartridge, you know how to clear it fast and get back on target.
Shop for 10/22s on GunsAmerica.com: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=10/22
BETTER BUDGET GUNS: MOSSBERG MAVERICK 88 AND HI-POINT CARBINE
Pump shotguns are harder to use, hold fewer rounds in general than most .22 rifles, and don’t benefit from self-loading, but for self-defense on the cheap, they can’t be beat. If you’re looking at .22s for self-defense solely because of budgetary constraints, stop now and start shopping for a cheap pump-action shotgun.
Alternatively, 10, 15 or 20 rounds of 9mm trump the same number of .22 LR every time. Hi-Point carbines aren’t pretty but they work. They’re easy to shoot, self-loading, and have an excellent warranty in case of any problems. One thing to keep an eye out with Hi-Points are the magazines, though. If the magazines are damaged or not in spec, they can cause reliability issues. But that’s an easy problem to solve with a little precaution and preventative maintenance.
Shop for Maverick 88s on GunsAmerica.com: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=maverick%2088
Shop for Hi-Point carbines on GunsAmerica.com: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=hi%20point%20carbine
FOR A LITTLE MORE: SMITH & WESSON M&P15-22
The M&P15-22 series brings all the handling characteristics and features of an AR-15, just dedicated to the .22 LR cartridge. They have a lot of good magazine options and some come standard with 25-round magazines, considerably better than most other .22 LR options (though there are plenty of high-cap mags for the 10/22 and other less expensive .22s).
They’re available in a variety of configurations but they all come with nice sights and free-floating handguards. From a self-defense perspective, they’re easy to upgrade with lights and red dot sights and anything else that would be at home on a self-defense AR-15.
Shop for M&P15-22 carbines on GunsAmerica.com: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=m%26p15-22
BETTER FOR A LITTLE MORE: A CENTERFIRE AR-15
Why settle for .22 when you can have .223? Assuming you can own an AR-15 it’s hard to make the case for .22. ARs chambered for .223 Remington/5.56 NATO are extremely affordable now with a lot of good budget options that don’t compromise on reliability. Too many, in fact, to list here.
Centerfire ARs have many inexpensive, reliable magazine options and for defense one AR-15 is better than a pile of .22s ready for New York reloads. The trade-offs are that they are a little more expensive to shoot regularly, and they are louder and have a little more recoil. If that’s a deal-breaker there are options. If 5.56 and .223 are too much for you subsonic 300 AAC Blackout and 9mm ARs might be better for you.
And for anyone “behind enemy lines,” so to speak, other .223/5.56 rifles are still on the table. A Ruger Mini-14 is hard from hard to shoot and just as effective as an AR-15.
Shop for AR-15s on GunsAmerica.com: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search/Family/2/1/AR15-Rifles.htm
Shop for Ruger Mini carbines on GunsAmerica.com: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=ruger%20mini
HANDGUNS: A DOUBLE-ACTION REVOLVER
If you’re looking for a .22-caliber handgun, I can’t recommend a semi-auto for this. Totally reliable self-loading .22 pistols are like the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. Everyone’s heard about them, and some people swear they’ve seen them in the wild, but I don’t believe they exist. (Well, maybe Bigfoot. But not a dead-nuts reliable semi-auto .22 pistol.)
Even though the bulk of reliability problems .22 pistol shooters encounter are ammo-related, it’s a lot easier to resolve a failure-to-fire with a revolver than with a semi-auto pistol. You just pull the trigger again. Charter Arms, Ruger and Smith and Wesson have good .22 options at all price points.
Ideally, you want a handgun with a longer barrel to make the most of the .22 cartridge, but most .22 revolvers have short barrels. But this is making the best of a bad situation, and it’s true: the first rule of gun fighting is to bring a gun. And a snub-nosed .22 is definitely a gun.
Shop for revolvers on GunsAmerica.com: https://www.gunsamerica.com/revolvers.htm
BETTER HANDGUNS: A BIG, HEAVY DOUBLE-ACTION CENTERFIRE REVOLVER
One of the more common reasons people decide to get a .22-caliber handgun for protection is that they think they can’t handle a centerfire revolver. Short of a health problem, I don’t really believe that. But for the recoil-adverse, there can still be a mental hurdle shooting centerfire handguns.
Shooting low-power .38 Special loads from a full-size handgun is only marginally harder than shooting a smaller .22 revolver. From there it’s easy to step up into hotter loads or make the move to a semi-auto handgun. If you’re looking for a decent first gun for the recoil-sensitive, it’s hard to say no to something like a Ruger GP100, or any number of other decent options, especially used.
Ultimately the only good reason to go with .22 for self-defense is that it is your last, best, and only option. And the truth is that it’s rarely the only option — if you’re on a tight budget, there are still alternatives. If you’re worried about muzzle blast, there are also alternatives. You don’t have to jump straight to .22.
And if you ever do find yourself in a situation where all you have is a .22, no matter what, use premium ammo. Because when it comes to rimfire, the quality of the primer is even more important than the quality of the gun.