No one, myself included, would recommend a .22 caliber handgun as the ideal defensive weapon. For that matter, I wouldn’t recommend any handgun at all as the ideal defensive weapon. We carry handguns because most of us find it a tad inconvenient to carry a tactical shotgun, or main battle rifle as we go about our daily lives, and most folks tend to get a little upset when you get on the bus with one. If I knew a fight was coming my way, my preference would be a crew-served weapon, preferably with the ‘crew’ in tow. So, a handgun, any handgun is at best a compromise. But then, we’ve all been around long enough to understand that life is a never ending series of tradeoffs.
I will not debate the .22 vs. 'whatever' for self defense. If, by choice or circumstance, your only viable option should happen to be the .22 rimfire, so be it. I have no problem with my students who choose the .22 for self defense, regardless of the reasons. They all know that I advocate using the largest round you can handle easily, afford to practice with, and shoot well. But, we do not live in a perfect world.
Rule #1 of gun fighting, is to bring a gun, and any gun will always beat no gun. I will spare you all the inane arguments, wives' tales, urban legends, and witticisms. Suffice it to say, the little .22 rimfire has been a heart breaker, and a life taker for more than 150 years.
Shot placement will trump caliber, every single time. Since no one in their right mind wants to get shot with anything, fast, accurate, multiple hits with any bullet, including the .22 (which is the easiest round for anyone to shoot quickly and accurately in a close quarter engagement), will take the fight out of anyone. The most common stop is psychological, not physical. Most miscreants will cease their aggressive behavior after taking a well placed hit, or two, or three. With a lighter caliber, such as the .22, the heaviest, fastest bullet will usually produce the best results. The short barrels of most handguns employed in this role will not generate the velocity necessary for reliable expansion of most hollow points, since these cartridges are primarily designed for use in rifles. Penetration then, must be the primary goal, combined with rapid, multiple, well placed hits.
A 40 grain bullet making around 880 to 900 feet per second (FPS), or more from a 2" barrel (and there are several excellent choices available) will consistently produce penetration depths of twelve to fourteen+ inches in tissue after passing through 4 layers of denim. Most heavier .22 bullets will begin to tumble in the medium they’ve entered following impact, creating a larger wound channel. It matters little whether the round is a solid, or hollow point, since as noted in many previous articles, the velocity is insufficient to cause reliable expansion.
Function trumps form. Choose a heavy for caliber (40 grain) round that functions flawlessly in your gun. .22 firearms are notoriously finicky about the ammunition you feed them. Bullet design is secondary. A perfectly mushroomed round which penetrated five to seven inches will rarely be as effective as a round that didn't expand, but penetrated to two, or three times that depth. Very fast and light bullets are impressive on small game and in gelatin tests, but the lack of penetration limits their usefulness in a defensive role. Therefore, I would not recommend any of the hyper velocity, or super fast light bullets that are so popular for small game, since they tend to disintegrate before they can penetrate to a depth of any consequence, and don't provide the weight/mass to penetrate as deeply if they hold together. They were designed and intended for use in rifle length barrels, and will probably not meet your expectations from a short handgun barrel.
According to the FBI Ballistic Test Protocol, the performance standards are simple. A handgun bullet must consistently penetrate a minimum of 12 inches of tissue in order to reliably penetrate/strike/damage vital organs within a human target, regardless of the angle of impact or intervening obstacles such as arms, clothing, etc. More than twelve inches is even better, and multiple wound channels will always beat a single wound channel.
Let's put it all in perspective: A triple tap to center mass with a proper (40 grain) .22 caliber bullet would be the equivalent of being run through to the hilt 3 times in rapid succession with a 14 inch screwdriver, or taking three quick bolts from a powerful crossbow. Think about that for a minute. These are, at the very least, debilitating, and often, life ending injuries. That's three chances to pierce the heart and/or lungs, or to nick or pierce a major artery, or to strike the spine. All of these hits have proven to be fight stoppers.
A fast, controlled triple tap with three 40 grain .22s will result in putting 120 grains of lead, and about 220 collective foot pounds of energy on the target virtually simultaneously, with 3 separate wound channels and penetration sufficient to damage/destroy vital organs, and/or the central nervous system (CNS)--in the case of the spine. Were they not sufficient, a second string in the face of your attacker, where the bone is thin and fragile, could result in central nervous system strikes, and bring an immediate end to the altercation, or at the very least, cause him to reassess his rapidly dwindling options. We tend to worry, and argue ad infinitum about knockdown power and one shot stops, but the truth of the matter is, people just don’t like getting shot, especially more than once. The secret to increasing the effectiveness of any bullet in multiples of 100% is as simple as firing another one. So unless you’re facing Sasquatch, even the diminutive .22 can, and does, get the job done quite well, as long as you do your part.
Learning, and practicing to shoot strings of triple taps quickly and accurately at 7 yards or less with a .22 and the correct ammunition is very easy to do, and will provide a great deal of comfort to those who, for a myriad of reasons, have chosen, or been limited to the .22 for self defense. [JWR Adds: While I'm definitely in the "use enough gun: camp and tend toward .45 Automatics, I've had two consulting clients with wrist problems that precluded them from shooting anything more powerful than a 5.7 x 28 or a .380 ACP. My advice: If you are thus limited, then make up for it with the very best training that you can afford (be willing to travel to do so) and and practice very frequently, to achieve masterful speed and accuracy.]
Almost every maker of firearms has one or more .22 caliber semiautomatics, or revolvers in their line, and for good reason. This little cartridge has been going strong for 154 years. .22 rimfire handguns are for the most part, relatively inexpensive, lighter in weight, smaller in the hand, and easier to manage than their centerfire counterparts. Most reputable dealers sell their firearms for twenty, to twenty-five percent less than the MSRP, and well-cared for used guns are abundant and fairly priced. Although many .22 semiautomatics are usually less expensive than revolvers, users may not have the strength to manually cycle the slide to chamber a round, or clear a malfunction on a semiautomatic due to physical limitations, or disabilities, which is the reason they’ve gone to a .22 in the first place. The elderly may have weak hands from arthritis or other conditions, and these folks are generally the ones who are most likely to need a dependable, low recoiling, easy to operate defensive weapon. Human predators, like all predators, target those whom they perceive to be weak and easy, and therefore the weak are more likely to suffer at their hands. For these people, the double action revolver is usually the better choice. Modern .22 double action revolvers chamber from 6 to 9 rounds depending on the size and manufacturer. Generally speaking, the higher quality the revolver, the lighter, and easier to use the double action trigger will be, although rimfire revolvers usually have heavier trigger pulls than center-fires due to the need for a heavier hammer drop for reliable ignition. The lightest and smoothest double action trigger I’ve found to date, is on the new Ruger LCR-22. Your mileage may vary. Revolvers have no slide to cycle, no magazine to break or lose, no manual safeties, levers, or buttons to operate, save the cylinder release latch. They can sit unattended in a drawer for 20 years, and will perform as needed when called upon by simply acquiring the target, and pressing the trigger.
There are two options available in the semiautomatic format that provide an end run around the problem of having to cycle the slide in order to chamber a round. The Taurus PT-22 (double action only, available with both alloy and polymer frames), and the Beretta 21A (double action/single action), both employ tip-up barrels, and allow the loading of the chamber without having to cycle the slide. However, should a failure to fire, failure to feed, failure to eject, or double feed occur, the slide will have to be cycled to clear that weapon, and therein lies the rub. If you should own one of these two, and it runs flawlessly with the proper ammunition, it may be a viable alternative to the revolver. Magazines can occasionally be the cause of malfunctions. Always have at least two spare magazines on hand for any semiautomatic. Having more magazines than that is better.
Never put a semiautomatic handgun into service in a self defense role without first having broken it in, and/or checked it out, with 200 to 300 rounds, regardless of the caliber. No one should ever bet their life on an unproven gun. If problems develop during the break-in period, and do not rectify themselves before it ends, the prudent choice would be to repair, or replace that gun.
We must balance power, weight, size, and recoil before deciding upon the ideal, or at the very least, an acceptable handgun. A handgun must always be within reach, it must be easy for the owner to operate, and it must be comfortable and easy to shoot well. A .22 in the hands of a skilled and practiced operator is far more deadly than a .357 Magnum being wielded by someone who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with it. For the price of 100 rounds of centerfire, you can put 500 rounds of rimfire downrange in training. That familiarization and training is a priceless asset when your response must be instinctive and immediate.
Bear in mind, .22s are dirty rounds and it is imperative that you always keep your gun clean and lightly lubricated. A dirty, or over lubricated gun may fail you when you need it most.
Cheap practice ammunition .22 rimfire is notoriously unreliable. If your life is going to depend on the gun going bang every time your press the trigger, I would urge you to purchase the highest quality, most dependable ammunition you can find that will run flawlessly in your gun. You may have to try a number of different brands before you find the one your particular gun loves. When you do, stick with it. In my experience, CCI Velocitors and Mini-Mags are manufactured to a very high standard and have never failed me. Aquila Interceptor rounds are Eley primed, are even faster, and have proven to be equally dependable. There are a number of other excellent rounds as well. Do not be concerned with 25+ yard accuracy. These rounds are for self defense, and that means an engagement at 7 yards or less, usually much less. Keep your gun clean, start slowly, and practice, practice, practice until you are able to place those strings of 40 grain triple taps into a 6 inch circle at 5 to 7 yards very quickly. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Start at the beginning, and in time you will become a force to be reckoned with.
The .22 Magnum cartridge is a more powerful, and therefore more effective choice (generally, a heavier, faster bullet) if you have the option of choosing. The difference in operation between the two on any given platform is for all intent and purpose, identical. The number of semiautomatic handguns chambered for this round is limited. The Keltec PMR-30 with its 30 round magazine is worthy of your attention. There are quite a few excellent revolvers available. The S&W 351PD is a gem, albeit very expensive. The difference in perceived recoil is negligible. The cost of the ammunition is higher, but it is, on average, manufactured to a higher standard, more powerful, and offers a higher reliability factor. Collectively, three excellent attributes. In longer, rifle length barrels the difference between the Long Rifle and Magnum can be dramatic, in short, handgun length barrels, not quite so dramatic. The major difference is the fact that several companies offer .22 Magnum rounds specifically designed to be used in short handgun barrels (Hornady Critical Defense comes to mind, and would be my first choice). These jacketed hollow point rounds are designed to both penetrate and expand at the velocities provided by short-barreled handguns, and are therefore a superior choice in a self defense encounter. On average, they are putting more foot pounds of energy on the target than a .22 Long Rifle from a short barrel, without the attendant recoil of a centerfire.
If you already have a .22 rifle in the loop (and you should), then moving to another caliber may not make financial sense to you if your have a substantial inventory of ammunition on hand (and once again, you should). You must however, resist the urge to use inexpensive, bulk pack ammunition in a self defense scenario. The higher quality ammunition recommended will function fine in your rifle, and will offer you the maximum chance of prevailing in an encounter with a handgun.
Both the .22 Long Rifle and .22 Magnum will serve you well as long as you understand their limitations, and learn to do your part without hesitation.
Above all, do not be discouraged by the armchair commandos decrying the virtues of the .22 as a defensive round. Most of them will probably pass away in their Lazy Boy with a beer in one hand and the television remote control in the other. They know not of what they speak. If, due to finances, disabilities, age, ailments, recoil sensitivity, or other circumstances, you find yourself limited to a .22 handgun as your only viable option to defend your life, and the lives of those you love, then learn to use it quickly and well. Maintain that weapon as if your life depended on it, because it does. Sleep soundly in the knowledge that you have done what you can to provide the means to preserve and defend innocent life as God intended.
Always remember, your gun is not the weapon. Your mind is the weapon. Your body and your gun are simply the tools your mind uses to bring your acquired skills into the fight. It will never be the gun... It will always be the gunner.
Practice equals competence. Competence equals confidence. Confidence equals winning. Make 'em count.
A Viable Centerfire Solution
Should you, or a loved one already own a centerfire revolver that can no longer be used due to recoil issues, that gun can be brought back online with ultra-light recoiling ammunition. I would urge you to consider the .32 Long wadcutter for all those old .32’s that have been sitting around forever in drawers, boxes, and attics. Several companies offer this light, mild shooting, and effective loading. These 98 to 100 grain wadcutter bullets can be fired from any five, six, or seven shot revolver chambered for the .327 magnum, .32 H&R magnum, or .32 Long. The recoil of this mild target load is about on a par with the .22 magnum in a steel framed gun. The bullet is on average, twice the weight of a .22 magnum with a 30% larger diameter, and at least the equivalent foot pounds of energy on the target when leaving the barrel around 700 to 750 FPS, and they will penetrate to at least the depth of the best .22’s. These advantages combined with the reliability of a centerfire cartridge, provide a viable option for individuals who cannot deal with standard, or high velocity loads, and already own a revolver chambered in .32.
If you already own a .38 revolver, but cannot handle even the lightest reduced recoil loads, Mastercast in Pennsylvania produces a 100 grain .38 Special wadcutter load that is the exact ballistic equivalent of the .32 Long wadcutter referenced above (100 grains at 750 FPS from a 2 inch barrel). The recoil of this round in a steel framed .38 revolver is virtually nonexistent.
If you know someone who foolishly purchased an ultra-light, or air-weight alloy frame centerfire revolver without ever firing one because it was just so darn light, but then found that they couldn’t hold onto it, or control it when firing, even with reduced recoil rounds, the cartridges being discussed here might be the answer for getting that gun back in the loop as well. These rounds offer no expansion capability. They are designed to punch clean, caliber sized holes in whatever they hit, and they do it perfectly every time. These bullets cut instead of pushing a wound channel, and that’s a good thing. Their saving grace is penetration, which runs far out of proportion to what one would expect given the velocity at which they’re running. Prior to the advent of the hollow point design, those in the know replaced their round nose cartridges with wadcutters for social work. They knew even then, that the design just plain works for self defense.
Although these rounds would not be my first choice for the centerfire calibers being discussed in a self defense encounter, they offer us the opportunity to bring a gun that may already be owned, but cannot be used, back online. Any day you can convert a paperweight into an effective self defense tool, is a good day. When recoil is above all else, the determining factor in what is, and is not acceptable, then we must embrace the compromises that allow us to adapt the gun in question into a manageable, and viable alternative. A firearm suitable for self defense by someone who otherwise would have to remain unarmed, unprotected, and afraid.
Are the huns that I've described the perfect solution? No, but, few things in life are. The line between suitable, and perfect is very narrow indeed, when lives may be saved, or the quality of a life may be improved exponentially by adding a means of self protection, and a little peace of mind, for those souls who previously had neither.
There are few of us without elderly, or infirm family members, or friends in our lives who cannot be helped with these options. The confidence and peace of mind that comes with self reliance is something to which we are all entitled, and if that gift of empowerment is within our capacity to give, we must exercise that responsibility whenever, and wherever we can.
Should you take umbrage with my observations, opinions, or conclusions, then I would urge you to re-read Rule One.
Be well and stay safe.