Good Things in Small Packages- A Brief History of the .22 Rimfire

It all started in about 1845, when a French guy named Flobert (flow-bare) crimped a musket-cap onto a .22 caliber lead ball. The detonation of the priming compound was sufficient to drive the ball fast enough to be useful for target shooting and pest control. This was among the first self-contained metallic cartridges, and it had the advantage of making ammunition that was consistent, reasonably weatherproof and, importantly, the expanding cartridge completely sealed the breech on firing, preventing combustion gasses bleeding from the gun, which reduced the velocity of the shot, was unpleasant and potentially dangerous.

German target pistol in 6mm Flobert, mid 19th Century.

These were quite popular in Parlor Guns, guns designed for indoor shooting, often in a dedicated indoor range or even simply the parlor or drawing rooms of the houses of the well-to-do. In 1888 the 6mm Flobert (also known as a BB Cap) was fitted with a 20gr. conical bullet, producing the .22 CB Cap. Both cartridges are now known in Europe as 6mm Flobert, and the term is used interchangeably for both ball and bulleted ammunition.

6mm Flobert loaded with a lead ‘BB’

6mm Flobert loaded with a conical bullet. Adorable, aren’t they?

Next to come along was the .22 Rimfire, introduced by Smith and Wesson in 1857 for use in their new revolvers. These used a longer case that could accommodate a 29gr. bullet and four grains of FFFg black powder. This represented a dramatic increase in power over the 6mm Flobert. While the older cartridge could be placed in the category of a dangerous toy, the .22 Rimfire, while anemic by modern standards, could genuinely be lethal at close range.

.22 Rimfire, now known as .22 Short

.22 Rimfire rapidly gained in popularity, not just for handguns but also for rifles used for target shooting and small game. It was often felt that a more powerful cartridge would be useful for hunting, and in 1871 the .22 Long was introduced. This used a longer case with the same 29gr. bullet over 5gr. of black powder. In 1880 the .22 Extra Long was produced, which used a still longer cartridge and a .40gr. bullet, and a number of manufacturers offered rifles in this caliber. It remained in use until the early 20th C., but production had largely ceased after World War 1. Rifles chambered for this cartridge remained useful, as they would still chamber and fire .22 Long Rifle.

Left: .22 Long Rifle Right: .22 Extra Long

This brings us to what became, and remains, the most popular rimfire cartridge in the world. In 1887 J.Stevens Arms and Tool Company hit the ‘sweet spot’ when they introduced the .22 Long Rifle. It combines the case of the .22 Long with the 40gr.bullet of the .22 Extra Long. It was able to equal the performance of the .22 EL by use of a finer grade of black powder (FFFFg rather than FFFG) and it quickly became the standard. At this point people were referring to the original .22 Rimfire as .22 Short, which name it retains until this day.

The conversion to smokeless powder at the end of the 19th century helped spur the development of semi-automatic sporting firearms, as the cleaner burning propellant wouldn’t foul the works and render the weapon inoperative. At the beginning of the 20th century Winchester and Remington both introduced similar- but not interchangeable- .22 Auto cartridges for use in their new semi-auto rifles. While all previous .22 rimfires had used a heel-base bullet (where the bullet is the same diameter as the outside of the casing and a reduced ‘heel’ section is secured in the case) these cartridges used a conventional inside-lubed bullet that fit inside the casing.

As it turned out it was easier to convert .22LR to smokeless powder then it was to convince the public to invest in an entirely new cartridge that duplicated its performance, and the .22 Auto cartridges died out- though Aguila and perhaps others occasionally still produce runs of it.

Modern production Winchester .22 Auto. Only the Winchester 1903 semi-auto rifle was ever produced in this caliber.

While the auto cartridges died on the vine, the idea of an inside-seated .22 rimfire lived on. Winchester had already introduced a round of this type in 1890- the Winchester Rimfire. This used a significantly longer case than previous .22s and was substantially more powerful. Remington introduced their own version of this, the .22 Remington Special. The two cartridges are fully interchangeable. The .22 WRF is still produced by CCI and occasionally Winchester does a run of it as well.

.22 Winchester Rimfire, introduced in 1890. Not to be confused with .22 magnum

Typically these are loaded with a 45gr. bullet, and as it offers significantly higher velocity than the .22LR these bullets are jacketed to prevent excessive leading.

This cartridge led directly to the last major player in our story, when in 1959 it was stretched still further into the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire. These also use jacketed bullets, and with muzzle velocities that can exceed 2000 fps from a rifle they are necessary! This is an excellent hunting round for small game. though sometimes it is excessively destructive. It is increasingly finding use in the self-defense role as well, though when fired from a pistol many find the muzzle blast excessive.

The .22 WRF can be chambered and fired in firearms made for .22 Magnum, in much the same way that a .357 magnum will chamber and fire .38 Special rounds. They are sometimes favored for hunting because of their lower muzzle blast and reduced destructive power.

Today .22 rim fire cartridges are as popular as ever, and nearly every .22 rimfire cartridge ever in widespread use is still in at least limited production. 6mm Flobert- loaded with ball or a conical bullet- is widely used in Europe for target shooting and pest control and is readily available even in the US- though surprisingly expensive. .22 CB caps are still produced by a number of companies in the US, though these are typically a .22 Short with no powder charge rather than a true CB Cap. These are popular because of their soft muzzle blast and low penetration for indoor shooting and urban pest control. They are also favored by collectors of antiques that want to fire their ancient guns, but don’t want to risk using modern .22 Short ammunition in them. .22 magnum remains popular and widely produced as well, though it is now often comparable in price to center-fire pistol ammunition.

.22 Long-rifle, however, remains the undisputed king. A bewildering variety of loads are available- subsonic rounds for suppressed firearms, high-velocity rounds for hunting and self defense, shot cartridges, hyper-accurate Match ammo… the list goes on and on. I dare say that I think there will be .22 LR for as long as there are firearms; it’s too useful for too many things, too adaptable and too inexpensive to make it worth the effort to replace it.

Recently I have been trying out .22 Colibri, made by Aguila. This is essentially a 6mm Flobert in a .22 LR case. With a muzzle velocity of around 350fps. and a 20gr. conical bullet these are excellent for indoor shooting. And quiet? The sound of the bullet hitting the board behind the target is louder than the muzzle blast! This makes them great for test-firing guns that I am working on in my shop, or even just a little recreational short-range plinking. Be warned, though- from a pistol these will not imbed their bullet in a normal board; it will bounce unpredictably and might pose a vision hazard. A layer of foam over your back-stop handles this problem nicely.

.22 Colibri is recommended for revolvers and single-shot pistols only, by the way; the bullets can actually become stuck in longer rifle barrels. For rifles it is better to used .22 Super Colibri- the same cartridge, but with an advertised muzzle velocity of 500 fps.

We haven’t even delved into emerging rimfires like the .17 HMR, 4mm Flobert or larger calibers like the 9mm Flobert shotgun rounds, not to mention obsolete large-bore rimfires. Honestly this is the subject for a book rather than a blog post, but I’ve done my best; forgive me if I have missed a few.

One thing is abundantly clear- .22 rimfire is here to stay, and no matter what your need- within the limits of sanity- there is a cartridge tailor-made to fill it.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 24 Feb. 2019

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Thinking Inside the Box

Over the holidays I picked up an 1858 Remington reproduction that came in a case with a powder flask, nipple wrench, some percussion caps etc. I converted the gun to fire .450 Adams cartridges and gave the percussion accessories to a friend, and I was left with this nice wooden box. It occurred to me to convert the case to fit the gun in it’s new, cartridge firing form.

I rummaged around and came up with a couple yards of cotton velveteen, and there’s always plenty of 1/4″ Poplar scrap in the shop leftover from my ‘day job,’ so I stripped the case and relined it with the velveteen, made new dividers out of Poplar with the fabric contact-cemented to them. I found a random chunk of wood and bored it to hold cartridges, added some cleaning accessories and patches. With just an evening’s work I had the case refitted, and liked the results.

The 1858 Remington, with a ‘Bisley-style’ modified grip-frame, custom Curly Maple grips and a five-shot cartridge conversion to .450 Adams.

It occurred to me that this was actually a pretty practical thing; I’ve got pistols stacked all over the inside of the safe in various gun rugs, holsters etc. Cases like this are stackable, protect the gun and are just a classier way to store a gun.

I got on Amazon and ordered some hinges and latches, then hit the local Goodwill looking for more boxes. I walked out with case #2 for the princely sum of $3.99. The box was square and a little deeper, and after much deliberation I decided it would house The Outlaw, and 1960 Army with a Kirst gated conversion in .45 Schofield and the .45 derringer that was my first scratch-built gun. It’s actually chambered for .45 ACP, but these days I shoot .450 Adams through it; much easier on both the gun and my hand!

This case holds ‘The Outlaw’ and 20 rounds of ammunition, Nameless, my .45 derringer and five rounds of .450 Admas. Also has a basic cleaning kit and some patches.

I was kind of on a roll now, and the next weekend found me back at Goodwill again, once again leaving with a nice wooden box for under $4.

This one I set up for a gun I call ‘Southern Comfort,’ a brass-frame Navy revolver, modified with a mish-mash of features from Confederate Colt knock-offs, a custom grip-frame, Curly Maple grips, a snub barrel and a Long-Cylinder conversion to .38 S&W (with a barrel-liner for the smaller-diameter cartridge.) This time the finish on the box wasn’t as good, so I stripped, sanded and refinished the box. I happened to have an Ideal Reloading Tool for .38 S&W so I made space for that, a punch and de-priming block and a custom brass powder-dipper that holds exactly enough Unique for my favorite .38 S&W load. I also included a block for fifteen rounds of ammunition and some custom accessories.

Accessories- an Ideal Reloading tool for .38 S&W, a de-capping block and punch,
handmade brass powder dipper, cleaning rod, screwdriver and ejector

As you can see I’m on a roll, so after I finished the rolling-block carbine project I was casting about for another project and got to eyeing my pile of scrap Poplar again. It occurred to me there was no reason I couldn’t make my own boxes, fairly small ones at least. Over the course of a couple evenings I put together a 10″ x 5-1/2″ box, stained it with Fiebing’s brown leather dye and fitted it up to hold ‘The Cherub,’ an 1949 Pocket reproduction that I converted to .22 the other year. I partitioned the box, made a Maple cartridge block to hold thirty rounds of .22 and made a cleaning rod, screw-driver and ejector-rod for the little gun.

My second-ever home-made wooden box
The Cherub in its new home
Hand-made accessories- An ejector rod, a screwdriver and cleaning rod.

This gun got it’s name from Linda- when I first showed it to her I told her it was styled after a type of gun known as an ‘Avenging Angel.’ She snorted and said, “It looks more like an Irritable Cherub.” I’ve called it ‘The Cherub’ ever since.

I guess I have a new hobby. Because I totally needed a new hobby. Well, what the hell, right? It’s relatively inexpensive, kind of classy, protects the guns, and the boxes are certainly neater to store than rugs and holsters. It also uses up all those little scraps of antler that have been cluttering up my bench for the last 2-3 years. Sounds like a win-win to me!

Michael Tinker Pearce, 10 Feb. 2019

.22 Rolling-Block Carbine- My First Rifle Build!

For some time around here people have been buying Ruger 10/22 rifles and immediately replacing the perfectly good barrel with something… I dunno. Fancier? More tacti-cool? Whatever, it meant that for some time the barrels could be had quite inexpensively. I bought two for $15 each. One of them I turned down into barrel liner and a pistol barrel. The other I saved for an eventual project.

As chance would have it I came across some 3/4″ x 2-1/2″ brass for dirt cheap, and decided the time had come to build a rifle. But what kind of rifle? I know the various ways that guns work, and I mulled over several options. My first time ought to be a simple single-shot. I considered variations of bolt-actions, a lever-action falling block, a tilt-breech, even a trap-door. In the end I settled on a rolling-block as the simplest ‘real’ breech mechanism.

I had no actual plans drawn up, I just headed in the shop knowing what I wanted. I’d just figure it out as I went… The one goal (aside from making a functional rifle) was that I didn’t want the end result to look like some schmuck made it in his garage.

I decided on a carbine, so I cut the 10/22 barrel to 16-1/4″. I wanted to preserve the front sight assembly so I cut it from the breech end, then turned the end down to fit into a receiver and ran a chamber reamer in to cut a new chamber. Next I set up a ‘working block,’ just a bar of steel to set up the basic geometry of the parts.

The basic breech-block and hammer, hammer-down.
Breech-block open

On a Remington Rolling Block part of the hammer blocks the breech from opening when the hammer is down. I opted for a simpler version of this that allows the mechanism to be more compact. When the hammer is down the breech is locked, and when the breech is open the hammer is unable to drop.

Once I had that set up I set to work on the brass. I opted for brass because I thought it would look nice and, more importantly, I was pretty sure I could mill it on my drill press with a milling vice. Turns out I was correct, and I transferred the breech-block and hammer to the new receiver. The barrel is closely fitted to the receiver, and glued in place with glass-filled epoxy.

The fully-shaped hammer and breech-block. There is a flat-spring that holds the breech in the closed or open position. You can see the projection on the hammer that prevents the breech from rotating when the hammer is down. This also shows the first mainspring, which didn’t work out and needed to be replaced.

The breech in the open position, where it blocks the hammer from falling.

The breech rides on a pin screwed into the frame. In the pictures the hammer is shown mounted on a bolt, but this was replaced with the same sort of blind pin that the breech uses. Once this was all working satisfactorily I added the trigger-

There is a ‘safety notch’ and a full-cocked notch on the hammer. The breech will only open when the hammer is fully cocked, but then the hammer can easily be lowered onto the safety notch.

At this point I drilled the breech-block for the rebounding firing pin. This has a 3/16″ shaft narrowing to a bit over 1/16″ where it passes through to strike the cartridge rim. There is a short section of spring (liberated from a ball-point pen) to return the firing pin when the hammer is cocked. The hammer-end of the firing pin is slightly reduced in diameter and the breech-block is staked with a punch to hold the pin in place. Time to test!

I had some .22 blanks on hand, and fiddled with things until it would fire those reliably, then I moved up to CB Caps. Problem- while it had no problem with the copper-case blanks the brass cases of the CB Caps were too much for it. The spring just couldn’t accelerate the hammer fast enough. I tried several different springs with different thicknesses and geometry before arriving at one that worked without rendering the gun too hard to cock.

This is a much thicker spring, but much more efficient; it’s actually easier to cock than the original.

The new spring worked a treat with CB Caps, and then with .22 Long rifle. I made a side-plate for the receiver, and a trigger-guard, then is was time for the stock and fore-stock. I had a piece of Quilted Maple allocated for this and gor things cut out on the bandsaw. I fitted the tangs into the stock, then shaped it to what I wanted. I soldered a block of brass to the barrel. A screw passed through the forestock and engages a threaded hole in this block to retain the fore-grip. It’s very solid! After shaping the wood bits with the belt-sander, I stripped all the parts out of the receiver and shaped it to match.

I finished the wood with multiple coats of Fiebing’s Light Brown leather dye, then applied a hand-rubbed Carnauba Wax finish. I finished the internal parts and screws with Van’s Instant Blue and assembled it. Looks very rifle-like at this point!

The action with the breech closed. The three grooves cut into the breech make it very easy to flip the breech open or to close it.

and open. There is no extractor, nor is one needed. Though it’s not pictured here I relieved the receiver on the right side of the chamber, making it very easy to flip the empty casings out with a fingernail.

I Still needed sights and a butt-plate. As it turned out I had a front-sight, and it was easy to mount in the existing dovetail. I ground a small flat on the barrel just ahead of the receiver, then filed a dove-tail for the rear sight, donated from a Kimber 1911a1. Most likely I’ll replace these sights with something more precise eventually, but they’ll do for now.

Testing with CB Caps at three yards it put five into one hole precisely at the point-of-aim. I’ll get out to the range soon and see how it does at 25 yards with .22 LR ammo.

The ‘finished’ carbine with sights. It could still use a butt-plate, but that’s not critical.

As it sits the carbine is 33-1/2″ overall with the 16-1/4″ barrel. It weighs 4.65lbs. It balances dead-center of the action; it’s a pretty handy little package for small game or target shooting.

I’m pretty jazzed about this project; it’s gone very well with fewer bobbles than many previous projects. The polished brass receiver looks good and the wood is gorgeous. With more coats of wax and polishing it will be spectacular. I can hardly wait to get it out to the range.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 7 Feb, 2018