The development of the .22 rimfire cartridge: Part 3
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- .22 WRF
- Not a magnum
- The .22 Winchester Automatic
- Corrosive priming
- High speed
We are back with the .22 rimfire cartridge. We left it in the 1890s, as smokeless powder was just starting to be introduced. I will talk about that in a moment, but I want to start with another cartridge that lasted for quite a while but is obsolete today — the .22 Winchester Rimfire, or .22 WRF.
This cartridge was introduced with the Winchester 1890 slide-action rifle that was also called a pump gun. I have owned 2 1890s in this caliber, and in the 1960s I thought this cartridge was the bee’s knees! It uses a 45-grain flat-nosed lead bullet that is not heeled like the .22 Long Rifle bullet. The diameter of the bullet is 0.224, so it’s also larger (.22 LR bullet is 0.2225”-0.223”). The barrel twist was increased to 1:14” to stabilize the heavier bullet.
There was also a .22 Remington Special that was identical in every way except its bullet had a round nose. Just like today, the major manufacturers did not play well together, but they had to cooperate on some things to stay in business.
At the time of its introduction (sometime in the 1890s), the .22 WRF was a more effective round than the Long Rifle when both were loaded with smokeless powder. However when the .22 Long Rifle cartridge got new powder that increased its velocity (.22 Long Rifle High Speed cartridges were launched just before WW II), the WRF was overshadowed. By the late 1960s it was obsolete.
Not a .22 Magnum
Don’t get the WRF cartridge confused with the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (.22 WMR) that came out in 1959. That cartridge is even longer than the WRF and considerably more powerful. Some people got the idea of rechambering their model 1890 Winchesters to accept the new WMR rounds, but that is extremely dangerous! The .22 Magnum round generates considerably higher pressure that will blow the breech of an 1890 Winchester open! My shooting buddy Otho tried it and had that result!
I will address the .22 Magnum in another report, because it deserves attention of its own. But we are still at the dawn of the 20th century and there is a lot more ground to cover before we get there.
The .22 Winchester Automatic
This cartridge is a side trip taken by both Winchester and Remington in the early 1900s. The .22 Remington Automatic is similar to the .22 Winchester Automatic, but dimensionally different, so each round is specific to only those rifles that are specifically chambered for them. Neither round will work in guns chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge, nor will Long Rifle rounds chamber in the rifles that are made for either of these two oddballs. I guess this was both companies’ attempt at “cornering the market” on ammunition — something that Sheridan tried again in 1947, meeting with similar lukewarm reception.
The Winchester 1903 was very popular. It used the special .22 Winchester Automatic, which today leaves a lot of fine rifles wanting ammunition.
The popularity of the Winchester 1903 kept the .22 Winchester Automatic alive long after everyone realized that it offered no advantage over the .22 Long Rifle. Unfortunately there are a lot of fine rifles today that are all but unusable because the cartridge is so hard to find. Fifty of them sell for about $40 plus shipping when you can find them.
This is the darkest chapter of the .22 rimfire’s long history. Black powder is very easy to ignite. Early smokeless powder was not so easy. So, manufacturers developed special hot priming compounds that were based on mercury (remember that from the dawn of the percussion cap?) to compensate. All of them did it, but I will concentrate on just one, because most older shooters will remember it.
You may remember that black powder had some advantages over the early smokeless powders, so the transition wasn’t immediate. Some makers like Winchester came out with a semi-smokeless round that included a small amount of black powder in the case. It was called Lesmoke, and it lasted for decades — or at least the name did. The problem was, the early Lesmoke rounds had mercuric corrosive priming that got into the steel of the gun barrels. You could clean the barrel one day and find it rusted two days later, because the corrosive priming salts would leach out of the barrel steel over time. Unless you cleaned several times over several days the barrel was sure to corrode!
It wasn’t the black powder that ruined rimfire barrels — it was the corrosive priming compound. That’s why almost no good barrels remain from that era (1900-1930). Winchester may have actually stopped using corrosive priming at some point but kept the Lesmoke name on the box, leaving shooters to wonder whether they were corrosive or not. So older shooters had a fear of Lesmoke ammo ingrained into them.
Winchester distanced themselves from this problem by renaming their .22 ammo “Staynless” — a nod to the non-corrosive priming compound. On their centerfire boxes they even said “non-mercuric” priming.
Winchester’s Staynless cartridge name alerted shooters that they didn’t corrode.
In the 1930s cartridge manufacturers came out with high speed ammo. In .22 Long Rifle as much as 300 f.p.s. was added. But it came at a cost. Not all guns could use it.
Perhaps the classic case of a firearm that could not digest the high speed .22 ammo is the early Colt Woodsman. In this case the hammer spring was too weak to retard the bolt from slamming into the back of the receiver and possibly damaging the gun. I still see warnings about this condition when these older firearms are offered on auction sites.
Of course today we have hyper velocity rounds that travel even faster than the high speed rounds that have become prosaic in the marketplace. I will address them in a later report. But now let me address a specialized round that was developed for one specific purpose. I refer to the .22 Short Splatter-Less gallery round.
These rounds were made with a 15-grain bullet that was metal dust compressed in wax that hardened to take a bullet shape. Their principal benefit was they did not ricochet from the steel backstops of shooting galleries, which was very important, since the galleries were not very deep. Shooters were close to the backstops, so these cartridges made the galley run smoothly.
One side benefit of the light bullet was it gave the cartridge a velocity of around 1,700 f.p.s. This was at a time when such velocity was unheard-of in a rimfire cartridge. So old BB bought a box of them for his Winchester model 67 single shot that had the 27-inch barrel. I figured the longer barrel plus the light bullet would give me an advantage in the field. The truth is, I never could hit anything with them, so I suppose the experiment failed. But my future as an airgunner with an unhealthy interest in velocity was established.
These .22 Short galley rounds shot a lightweight composition bullet at incredible velocity.
I will end this report here. We will return to talk about the .22 Magnum and .22 ultra high velocity rounds next. Stay tuned.