In a previous article we took a closer look at using .22 LR pistols for self defense. The conversation was inspired by the release of new rimfire models that look and carry like center-fire models. However, the second most popular rimfire rifle cartridge in the United States, the .22 WMR, has also been pressed into service as a low-recoil defensive option. More commonly known as the .22 Magnum, or just .22 Mag., this rimfire cartridge is carried more often than some folks might expect since it doesn't get much time in the media spotlight. In fact, unlike the .22 LR, some ammunition manufacturers offer .22 Mag. loads specifically designed for short-barrel handguns including Hornady Critical Defense and Speer Gold hollow-point loads. (Shown: A typical .22 LR cartridge (left) shown next to a .22 Mag.( right) hollow point handgun defense load.)
More Handgun Options Than You Think (But Mostly Snubbies)
A little research reveals some interesting handgun models for this potent rimfire cartridge. The Kel-Tec PMR-30 is a semi-automatic pistol which accepts a proprietary 30-round magazine. North American Arms makes an extensive series of diminutive Mini single-action revolvers that are carried as backup guns or when the smallest possible handgun fits the bill.
The Smith & Wesson 351 PD Airlite shown with a smooth rosewood compact grip.
But the most common concealed-carry handguns made for this round are short-barrel, double-action revolvers. This year Taurus USA re-launched the previously discontinued 8-shot Model 942. This snubnose revolver series includes all-steel and aluminum-frame models chambered in .22 LR and .22 Mag. But Taurus is not the only option available. Smith & Wesson's 7-shot 351 PD Airlite J-Frame has been a steady seller for several years. Ruger offers the 6-shot, polymer-framed LCR with a concealed hammer or the LCRx with an exposed hammer that can be manually cocked for single-action fire. Like the Taurus models, the Charter Arms Pathfinder series includes steel or aluminum frames. Perhaps the most unusual .22 Mag revolver currently available is Standard Manufacturing's S333 Thunderstruck. This double-barrel handgun fires two rounds out of its 8-shot cylinder with each pull of the trigger.
Ruger’s lightweight LCR has a frame made of aluminum and polymer.
Advantages of .22 Mag. Handguns
Although some folks don't care for the long, heavy double-action trigger pull of small revolvers, they do have some advantages, including a simple design and easy operation. If you pull the trigger and the cartridge does not go off, you don't have to go through a clearance drill like you do with a semi-automatic pistol in order to get the gun back into action. Just pull the trigger again to fire the next round in the cylinder. Over the years, I've worked with the Smith & Wesson, Taurus and Ruger models and found them all to be well-made reliable options.
At first glance the .22 Mag. cartridge looks like a stretched version of the .22 LR., but that's not actually the case. It's a much newer cartridge that was introduced by Winchester in 1959 as an upgrade to the older .22 Winchester Rimfire (WRF) cartridge. The .22 Magnum has a longer case, thicker case walls, and an ever so slightly larger bullet diameter. While .22 Mag. is less expensive than most center-fire pistol ammunition, it costs noticeably more than .22 LR. In most cases, the cost of .22 Mag. ammunition rests somewhere in between that of .22 LR and semi-automatic pistol cartridges.
One advantage that shouldn’t be overlooked is the fact that these snubnose revolvers are built using the same frames, barrels and grips as their respective company’s .38 Spl. models. As a result, a wide variety of holsters is readily available and easy to find, like the Galco Scout 3.0 holster shown here.
The .22-Caliber Rimfire Cartridge That Packs More Punch
Designed primarily as a small-game hunting load for use in rifles, this cartridge generates much higher levels of pressure than the .22 Long Rifle. Cartridges topped with 40-gr. bullets can launch them at over 2,000 f.p.s. when fired from a rifle-length barrel. Shortening the barrel to around 2" in length causes the bullet's velocity to drop to somewhere between 1050 f.p.s. to 1260 f.p.s., depending on the ammunition used. Although recoil is mild, it can produce an unexpectedly loud report along with a bright muzzle flash that seem out of proportion with the cartridge's size.
Stick with 40 grain or heavier bullets for the best performance with snubnose revolver
How does the performance of .22 Mag. revolvers measure up to other concealed-carry options? Like other short barrel handguns, it produces solid defensive accuracy at ranges of 7 to 10 yards. The following list shows the muzzle energy ranges for the Ruger LCR and the Taurus 942 along with test results for two .22 LR pistols. I've also included short barrel center-fired pistol and revolver results for comparison:
.22 WMR: 1.87" Barrel = 113 to 126 ft.-lbs. (Ruger LCR Revolver)
.22 WMR: 2.00" Barrel = 98 to 116 ft.-lbs. (Taurus 942 Revolver)
.22 LR: 2.00" Barrel = 67 to 75 ft.-lbs. (Ruger LCP II Lite Rack Pistol)
.22 LR: 4.00" Barrel = 79 to 113 ft.-lbs. (Taurus TX22 Pistol)
.380 ACP: 2.50" Barrel = 163 to 174 ft.-lbs. (NAA Guardian Pistol)
9 mm: 3.20" Barrel = 277 to 300 ft.-lbs. (Taurus G3C)
.38 Spl: 2.00" Barrel = 296 ft.-lbs. (Ruger SP101)
Useful for Self Defense?
Small double-action revolvers chambered in .22 Mag. are comfortable to carry, they produce modest levels of felt recoil, similar to those of a .22 LR pistol, while packing more of a punch than .22 LRs do. A 4" barrel .22 LR can be loaded to produce results at the low end of the .22 Mag. snubgun's performance levels. But when loaded with 40 gr. or heavier bullets, .22 Mag. revolvers can more consistently meet FBI standards for effective penetration depths in gel tests (see Richard Mann’s test results here). In my experience, .22 Mag. ammunition on the whole, is more reliable than .22 LR ammunition with fewer bad primers and more sophisticated bullet design. (Shown: Speer’s Gold Dot bullet is specifically designed to expand when fired from short revolver barrels.)
That being said, the .22 Mag. is still a .22-cal. rimfire cartridge. Statically speaking it’s more likely to fail to fire than a center-fire round. Although its performance can sneak up into the .32 ACP pocket pistol ranges, it simply can't compete with the performance of a .380 ACP pistol or a snubnose revolver loaded with reduced recoil .38 Spl. loads.
Based on results, this gun and ammunition combination can get the job done. However, it's not an optimal choice. If your health and shooting skill level are such that you can work with handguns chambered in a more potent center-fire cartridge, then moving up to a larger cartridge is a good idea. If you are considering a defensive handgun chambered in .22 Mag. for self-defense, then I would make the same recommendations as I did with .22 LR pistols. Keep the gun properly cleaned and lubricated. Test the ammunition you plan to carry thoroughly. In this case, ammunition with 40-gr. to .45-gr. bullet weights are better performers with short barrels. And remember to practice so as to be mentally and physically prepared to fire follow-up shots if needed.
The Taurus 942 all-stainless steel version