The development of the .22 rimfire cartridge: Part 3

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

Part 1
Part 2

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • .22 WRF
  • Not a magnum
  • The .22 Winchester Automatic
  • Corrosive priming
  • High speed
  • Splatter-Less
  • Summary

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 I will talk about that in a moment, but I want to start with another cartridge that lasted for quite a while but is obsolete today — the .22 Winchester Rimfire, or .22 WRF.

.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.

Winchester 03
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.

Corrosive priming

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 Staynless
Winchester’s Staynless cartridge name alerted shooters that they didn’t corrode.

High speed

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.

Splatter-Less

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.

Short gallery
These .22 Short galley rounds shot a lightweight composition bullet at incredible velocity.

Summary

I will end this report here. We will return to talk about the .22 Magnum and .22 ultra high velocity rounds next. Stay tuned.

46 thoughts on “The development of the .22 rimfire cartridge: Part 3

  1. B.B.,

    All of the history is quite fascinating from a casual observers standpoint. I would suppose that (all) cartridges have gone through similar (and different) types of evolution over time?

    Good Day to you and to all,…. Chris


    • Chris,

      I think you’re right about many cartridges changing over time as refinements (evolution) comes along. At least the .22 had many permutations and stages of development largely based on attempts to improve performance and provide new features.

      I wonder how many slight differences were more like those of the early 20th century .32 round for revolvers, where the differences were out of brand pride and competition. .32 Colt (later .32 “Long” and “Short”) competing (and I think losing out to) with .32 S&W. I recall reading that S&W simply didn’t want to throw more business Colt’s way (can’t blame them, exactly).

      And the “Long and Short” of the Colt nonsense left .32 Police Positive Colt owners (and there were/are a lot of them) scratching their heads, even to this day, about whether or not mid-century .32 Colt were O.K. to shoot or not. No small detail. Nevertheless, it seems authorities on the matter are quite divided on that one. Obviously the Short would be more safe, but it is also often significantly more pricey.

      So first Colt comes out with a .32. Then S&W comes out with an incompatible (I THINK) and slightly more powerful (slightly less weak?) cartridge in .32. Finally, (in those pre .32 Magnum days) Colt comes out with its own slightly more powerful .32, which to this day folks cannot agree to be safe or not safe in old Colt .32 revolvers.

      Ugh. History is messy.

      Michael



      • Michael and Chris
        In order to add more confusion into the .32 mix. I have a box of 32-20 cartridges. They were for my father’s revolver that went away years ago.
        Gerald


        • Gerald,

          There you go! I had never heard of that. I just looked it up on Wikipedia (I know, not the most authoritative source), however.

          According to them it was “the .32-20 Winchester, also known as .32 WCF (Winchester center fire), was the first small-game lever-action cartridge that Winchester produced.[2] It was initially introduced as a black-powder cartridge in 1882 for small-game, varmint hunting, and deer.[3][4] Colt produced a single-action revolver chambered for this cartridge a few years later.[5]

          “The name .32-20 refers to the 32 caliber bullet of .312-inch-diameter (7.9 mm) and standard black-powder charge of 20 grains (1.3 g).”

          If that is it or not you will be able to determine by looking at the picture below, which has a .32 Winchester on the left next to a .32ACP on the right. Is that it or no?

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.32-20_Winchester

          Michael


        • Gerald,

          Is your father’s reevolver a Nagant or a French Modele 1892? The .32-20 can be modified so it can be ammo for those two, as the same articlle says:

          “The .32-20 has been used to create usable ammunition for the Nagant M1895. This is accomplished by removing .01″ from the rim thickness and sizing the case in a specific reloading die (Lee Nagant 3 die set). the ammunition produced is functional and easy to reload; however, .32-20 brass does not provide a gas seal as it is not long enough to protrude past the Nagant cylinder.[9] It can also be used to create 8mm French Ordnance ammunition for use in the Modèle 1892 revolver.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mod%C3%A8le_1892_revolver
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nagant_M1895

          Michael


  2. BB,

    You can buy .22 WRF now. I also have seen the return of the Remington 5mm Magnum a while back, although I think it has once again faded into the annals of history.


  3. B.B.,

    I didn’t pay attention to the Hatsan Flash QE earlier, but it sure has my attention now. Might you have plans to test one? :^)

    A few quick questions. I know that for these you might need to inquire and get back to us.

    Is the Fortitude’s Bolt dealer-switchable to the left side? Is there a price established for the Marauder trigger for a Fortitude?

    The Field & Target (finally got the connection to Town & Country) has a listed shot count of 80 shots. Is that with all shots taken at the lowest power level?

    Thanks very much,

    Michael


  4. B.B.,

    I’m puzzled by the name Lesmoke. I suppose their marketing idea was “Less Smoke”? (More like a detective novel sidekick, “Les Moke.”) Or “Le Smoke”? (The French smoke like chimneys.)

    I can’t help myself. I always pay attention to such things, as product names really have (or do not have) resonance. Consider how poorly Hydrox cookies always did against Oreos. Hydrox sounds like a drain cleaner!

    Michael


  5. The .22 Rimfire has always kind of fascinated me in a way.

    The vids showing people lightly popping off multiple rounds with it somehow creates the illusion that it’s a weak rifle. But it’s really not, is it.


    • Chris of England,

      There is always the old, “Well, it IS a gun. I wouldn’t want to get shot with one.” Sound reasoning.

      I read quite often how more people have been / are killed with .22s than with anything else. I think a lot of that must be chalked up to the sheer raw numbers. But there have been a surprising number of successful (sadly) political assassinations with the round. Sometimes that is attributed to a less-than-urgent approach to getting to a hospital (or, as you might say, “Getting to hospital.” :^).

      Michael




  6. I’m really enjoying this series on the .22 rimfire cartridge – the .22 is by far my favorite powder-burner.

    This sort of thing bugs me: “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”… I have a problem with manufactures that go out of their way to create their own “standard” at the expense of the average consumer. If a product is truly “new and improved” and doesn’t fit existing models then fine, create a new standard and I will adopt it if appropriate. If they create proprietary standard to control the market (then abandon their standard and leave the consumers with prematurely obsolete products) I will refuse to support that company in any way. There are no Apple or Sony products in my house hold – I don’t approve of their practices.

    Out of respect for the .22 rimfire, here is a ballistic chart I borrowed from Gunnersden.com as a point of perspective. Note that our “high power” .22 and .25 caliber PCPs produce about half the energy of a typical .22 LR cartridge.

    http://www.gunnersden.com/index.htm.rimfire-rifles.html

    Happy Monday all!!

    Hank


    • Hank,

      That’s NOT what is happening! The demand for standard .22 rimfire ammo is so great that companies are working 24/7, just to keep up. They have to shut down a line to retool for these oddball rounds, so they make them in batches and try to keep up with demand.

      B.B.


      • BB,

        I understand that there is a supply/demand issue for the standard .22 ammunition – seen the echos of that in the increased prices. Makes sense that you don’t interrupt production of a major product for a minor one.

        I should have used a different quote as it is this kind of marketing-maneuvering that bothers me:
        “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”

        I am a designer by trade, going with the flow is a good thing – spitting into the wind doesn’t benefit anybody. Best to play together nicely and rely on the quality and features of your product to earn customer $$$.

        I know that things become obsolete as new technology is developed – that’s life. Look at music formats – records, 8-track, cassettes, CDs and now memory chips. That is progress. But the buying public was not limited to a single source consumable that could be obsoleted at the whim of the controlling manufacturer.

        Guess my feathers are still ruffled by a company (won’t mention their name) who uploaded updates to their older (perfectly good) products that deliberately REDUCED the product performance so that consumers would be inclined buy new products. That sort of under-handed practice is a blatant scam and out and out theft – think that the involved executives should face jail terms for approving practice.

        Sorry if I am coming across a bit heavy – I get a little worked up when something upsets my sense of “fair”.

        Hank



        • Hank

          New technology vs> planned obsolescence ? Quite a subject there .
          Some of the new technology does not seem to be much of an improvement . But they shove it down our throats by doing away with the older and sometimes better stuff.
          Buy the newer stuff or go suck an egg, and do without . Itches my butt too .

          tt


          • Twotalon,

            Yes, quite a subject. And like religion and politics probably best avoided on this blog – no point in raising peoples blood pressure eh?

            “Buy the newer stuff or go suck an egg, and do without” LOL!! BTW, I am still running Windows7 and will stay there until I absolutely have to change.

            Hank



            • Vana2 & Twotalon,

              I’m with you 100% on running Windows 7 as long as you can. I stayed with Windows XP until last April. I still believe it to be the best Windows OS of all. I was forced to upgrade to Win 7 because my updated Quicken 2017 would no long run on XP. Quicken requires you to update every three years in order to download transactions from financial institutions. The dilemma is that I have some older programs which won’t run on Windows 10 either, but will run on Win 7. It get’s very complicated because the operating system has to match more or less the hardware that it was designed to run on. If you try to upgrade an older computer to Windows 10 you may run into problems. So then you have to buy a new computer or upgrade the hardware. I am still running an old computer that is ten years old on Windows 7 and it does everything I need it to do. But I know too that at some point I will be forced to go to Windows 10.


        • Hank,

          I couldn’t agree more. I also am chagrined regarding the publishing industry, especially text books. Now that the digital age has made it so much easier to revise and revise again, new editions of some text books arrive all too often. When they do, students who purchased the last edition can resell those books to the book store. The new editions are far from remarkable, but they cost more than the previous edition.

          I regret that customers are locked in an can’t rebel against a company that degrades something you purchased. Actually, in spite of how much you paid for it, said company does not recognize your ownership of anything except the physical part of the device, which you can always use as a paper weight.

          ~ken


          • Kenholmz,

            I taught college for a couple of years and hear you about the cost of the books. As you say, the new revisions weren’t that great – we used to stay at the same revision for a couple of years for that reason and just have a couple of addendums to cover the new content. Better for everybody (except the book companies).

            Being a family oriented blog I won’t express my feelings about the publishing industries practices in print 🙂

            I will point out that I think that the publishing industries practice of charging printed book prices for eBooks that use no paper or ink is “a lot less that fair”.

            While I am speculating, I am sure that the authors are still just getting a pittance by comparison to the money the publishers are raking in for doing next to nothing.

            Wish that the authors would band together and create their own eBook distributions channel and cut out the overhead.

            OK, done ranting 🙂

            Hank


            • Hank,

              It’s not only the publishers. One of my favorite purveyors of speculative fiction (Baen Books) used to have very permissive and inexpensive eBook options (available directly from the publisher’s website!) However, in order to distribute their eBooks via Amazon (and gain access to Amazon’s eBook system), they were required to “standardize” all eBook prices to match the price on Amazon.

              Not coincidentally, that was about when I stopped buying eBooks. Well, that, and my wife and I had kids, which has, um, changed my priorities.


              • Rocketsci,

                🙂 kids will do that! Enjoy them when they are young – they grow up fast!

                I am at the grandchildren stage in life… I get my granddaughter all sugared-up and give her back to her mom – payback is sweet 🙂

                Hank






  7. Thanks Tom. Definitely one of my favorite series.

    A minor typo to point out:
    “No all guns could used it.”

    We had some conversation about this “prepper ready” PCP with built in pump seen at the shot show. Following the links by Siraniko led me to learn about Macau, where it is produced. It’s Chinese, sort of. Interesting place.

    HP-M1000 Beta PCP with built-in pump
    Multi Pump PCPhttp://nova-vista.co/plus/view.php?aid=15

    I just thought I’d throw in this nice vid showing a “prepper air gun” dating back to 1780 (!!) produced in Austria and used as an assault rifle for about 10 years, then a sniper rifle, and carried by Lewis and Clark. I’d heard of it but had no idea just how advanced it was, nor how it was put to use. In my mind is a story of it taking a grizzly on the Lewis and Clark voyage. I’m guessing someone here might know. Of course Tom has reported on this weapon.

    The Girardoni air rifle
    http://thefederalistpapers.org/founders/jefferson/thomas-jeffersons-assault-rifle-the-girardoni-air-rifle


  8. I know I’m off topic but I have two old Crosman 38T pistols that spew out CO2 as soon as they are screwed down. One in .22 and one in .177 and I would like to know if you know someone who could bring them up to new condition or even modify them to shoot faster. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Tom. Doc Ralph

    It sure would be nice if one of these companies would put out a .22 caliber CO2 revolver with some power.


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