Pellet calibers — why .22?: Part 3
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
The diabolo pellet exists in four smallbore calibers.
This report covers:
- Huge deal!
The .22 pellet was the most popular caliber in the United States for many decades in the early 20th century. We haven’t looked at this series for a few months, and today we examine the .22 pellet, which is just as important as the .177 — if not as popular.
The .22 caliber pellet was brought out and developed about the same time as the .177, which was just after the start of the 20th century. It was called the number 2 load in the United Kingdom, and their airguns from that timeframe are marked that way — not with .22 caliber. It took a little while for the .22 to gain traction in America, but once it did it displaced the .177 until sometime in the late 1960s.
If the BSA spring-piston guns had been as popular in the US as they were in the UK the .22 would have caught on faster, but nobody imported them in any numbers until the 1930s. By then the American pellet gun makers Benjamin and Crosman were solidly on board and the .22 dominated the .177 in all their airguns. The .25 was scarcely ever seen in the U.S., though a few were made here.
From the 1920s until the end of the 1960s the .22 pellet dominated the American airgun scene. There were .177 airguns from all makers, but the sales were low in comparison to the .22. I see 10 Crosman .22-caliber 101 pneumatics for every one .177 model 100. And the model 104 repeater (.177) is as rare as can be, while the 102 (.22) is seen quite often.
Probably one thing that led to the .22 pellet’s popularity in the United States was that it shared a caliber designation with the .22 rimfire cartridge. Shooters were already very familiar with .22 rimfire and the fact that the .22 caliber pellet sounded the same gave them a lot of confidence. The thing is — the .22 caliber pellet IS NOT a true .22 caliber! It’s really .218 caliber.
This is no big deal because all pellet and airgun manufacturers know that, and everything they make fits. Call these pellets what you want, the industry knows the specifications. Over the years there have been some anomalies, like BSA guns that needed 5.56mm pellets, but some British pellet manufacturers like Eley accommodated them and everything was fine. Until now!
Today it seems that many of the people in the airgun industry do not have shooting backgrounds and mistakes are sometimes made. I have seen airguns made with .22 rimfire barrels. They don’t work! I’ve seen people buy .22 rimfire barrels and turn them down in a lathe to fit in a pellet rifle and then discover there is no accuracy. I’ve seen people try to shoot .22 pellets from .22 rimfire rifles and from AR-15 barrels which is even worse, because they are larger! I have seen people learn some costly lessons.
So yes — knowing the true size of the .22 pellet is a big deal. And then you have to apply it. This is why shooting pellets from special cartridges that allow primers to be used as propellant doesn’t work so well. The bores of the guns they are shot in (like the AR-15) just aren’t sized correctly for the projectile they are trying to shoot.
The .177/4.5mm pellet dominates the airgun world because it is either mandated for some uses like target shooting or it is highly favored for other endeavors like field target and silhouette, not to mention many other competitions for reasons of its size and its velocity.
In contrast, there are no exclusive shooting events for the .22. Unless someone specifies shooting only .22, there is no good reason to do so. However, there is one popular application that the .22 pellet excels at — hunting!
In B.B. Pelletier’s opinion, the .22-caliber pellet is the best hunting projectile that exists for airguns. It hits harder than .177 or .20 and it shoots flatter than a .25. Of course in saying all of that a great many different airguns must be taken into account. One airgun can’t do it all.
The thing a .22 does is open up a large wound channel in a game animal. One of the drawbacks of the hyper-velocity .177s is they tend to “acupuncture” their victims. The wound channel left by the pellet will close after the pellet passes through. Domed and pointed pellets cause this the most. Wadcutters and hollowpoints tend to do it less, but as the velocity increases the .177-caliber pellet tends to close the wound channel more with all types of pellets, in my experience.
Now, .22 pellets don’t do that, at least in my experience. So you get a good bleedout, which is the main way that pellets kill, unless there is a brain shot. However, I don’t have that much experience hunting with .22 pellets going faster than 1,000 f.p.s. because they haven’t been able to do that until recently. Today, though, there is no problem getting them going that fast and even faster. I think that gives the hollowpoint pellets a big advantage!
In a word — lead is the biggest drawback to the .22. Twenty-two caliber pellets use a lot of it and nowadays lead is getting pricy. Of course there is more to it than just the material they are made from, but if you look, you’ll see that lead pellets don’t often come in tins of 500 anymore. Where .177 pellets come in tins of 400 and 500, .22 pellets are offered with half that many in the tin. Oddly (or not) that number, one-half, relates closely to how much lead is in pellets of each caliber.
If you are in a quandary of choosing between .22 and .25 consider this. There are a great many more pellets made in .22 caliber, and that fact alone offers you greater choice. For years I have recommended getting the powerful pellet rifle in .22 instead of .25 for that reason, above all others. The .25 is coming into its own and, just because it is a bigger number, it’s attracting a lot of attention. But an accurate .22 pellet in the right airgun will do everything that’s needed from a hunting pellet.
After the huge writeup I gave the .177 pellet I’m sure you expected equal time for the .22. The truth is, the .22 is the second most popular pellet caliber but .177 is so far ahead that the .22 is in the dust. It is, however, my favorite caliber, all things considered.