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

3 thoughts on “Good Things in Small Packages- A Brief History of the .22 Rimfire

  1. Kris

    Reading this was like talking to my 25 year old. He’s been sorting brasses for months, reloads, and watches numerous videos. He even makes some of his own, but they are for his entertainment only.
    I’ll try to get him to read this one. He sometimes will!

    Liked by 1 person

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