Reloading .22 rimfire cartridges: Part 5
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Why reload rimfire?
- The real reason for shooting .22 rimfire
- No ammo!
- Loading the primed case
- The bullets
- The powder
- Static electricity
- Insert the bullet
- Crimping the bullet
- Try the cartridge fit
- Experience grows
Today we will complete the reloading of the 28 .22 long rifle cartridges we have now primed. Reader GunFun1 says he’s been waiting for this one and so have I. Lotsa pix and lotsa talk. Let’s go!
Just as a reminder, this series was inspired by reader Yogi, who asked about reloading rimfire cartridges several months ago. As I have done for the 26 years I’ve been writing about airguns, I puffed up my chest and was about to bellow, “Rimfire cartridges cannot be reloaded.” However, in an uncharacteristically intelligent move, I went online, just to be sure. Lo and behold, not only can rimfire cartridges be reloaded, people have been doing so almost from the inception of the first .22-caliber rimfire cartridge by Smith & Wesson in 1856.
Why reload rimfire?
As airgunners we might ask why anyone would feel the need to reload .22 rimfire. We now have pellet rifles that produce over 100 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle and pellet rifles passed rimfires for accuracy out to 50 yards many years ago. The only drawback a good pellet rifle has is actually one of its biggest benefits — diabolo pellets don’t carry nearly as far as bullets. But the .22 long rifle cartridge we are talking about reloading is usually restricted to shots of less than 100 yards, and in the limits of that domain it only surpasses the accurate and powerful pellet rifle between about 50 and 100 yards.
The real reason for shooting .22 rimfire
The real reason for shooting .22 rimfire is the size of the support tail. A good rimfire rifle and 500 cartridges can be carried easily. An equally good pellet rifle can weigh almost the same as the firearm and, while 500 pellets are certainly lighter than a brick of long rifle cartridges, it doesn’t end there. Spring-piston guns and CO2 guns are not competitive in this arena. Only precharged pneumatics can play, because of their power and accuracy. That means there also has to be a means of refilling them. A hand pump is the lightest and most convenient way to replenish high-pressure air over the long haul, with a small carbon fiber buddy bottle coming next — because it only holds limited air.
A hunter can put a box of 50 rimfire cartridges in his pocket and be out for an entire day. An airgunner might get 20 good shots from a powerful AirForce Condor or an AirForce Escape and then he has to top off. While 20 shots are probably all he needs for hunting, the small box of 50 long rifle cartridges is dwarfed by the salami-sized buddy bottle. I can understand why a nice .22 rimfire is still respected so much. There is just one problem.
It’s very hard to find .22 long rifle cartridges in the United States right now. That won’t change with the new administration, either. If anything, it will get worse. So reloading rimfire that we once thought impossible and then, when we learned it could be done, we wondered why anyone would go to the trouble, has taken on a whole new perspective. You may be sitting on a few bricks of long rifle cartridges and if so, good for you. But don’t expect to replace them easily any time soon. The only rounds I found for sale are selling at 56 cents EACH! At that price a box of 50 rounds costs $23 and you can add a zero for a 500-round brick. So, if you want to shoot a lot, this may be the best and most affordable way real soon.
Loading the primed case
To load a primed case you must do two things — put in a charge of gunpowder and load a bullet. The instruction sheet sent by Sharp Shooter, the company that made the reloading tools, gave several gunpowders that might be used. One of them was Hogden’s Pyrodex P — a replica black powder that’s equivalent to FFFG, which is pistol powder. While most smokeless gun powder is currently unavailable, Pyrodex is still being sold and I bought a pound of it for this series. But as a replica black powder Pyrodex produces a lot of smoke and I didn’t want to stink up my office. So I used Bullseye gunpowder that I had plenty of. When you see how little was used you will appreciate that I can get about 7,750 cartridges from one pound of powder.
The other thing you do is push a bullet into the cartridge case and crimp it. That proved to be a problem. The bases of all the 38-grain bullets I had cast had flashing on their bottoms. It had to be removed before the bullet would slide into the case. I used a combination of my fingernail and a small pen knife to do this.
All the 38-grain bullets had flashing (arrow) around their base that had to be removed. This wrinkled bullet will be used to test velocity. I don’t usually accept bullets that are malformed like this but I still have to get the bullet mold working correctly.
Most of the 25-grain bullets had very little flashing on their bases. One, though, had a lot and it all had to be removed before the bullet could be loaded
This 25-grain bullet is also unacceptable and will only be used to test velocity. All that flashing at the base had to be removed.
It took longer to prepare the bullets than to fill the case with powder, so the bullet was the first thing I did and then I loaded the powder. I loaded one cartridge at a time. My first cartridge probably took me five minutes to complete, but by the end of the session I was loading each round in about a minute and a half, give or take.
To verify the accuracy of the powder scoop I used a digital powder scale that’s made for measuring gunpowder. The same scoop I used for the priming powder was used to scoop out the Bullseye, that was in the same shot glass I used to mix the four priming powders (see Part 4). The small scoop picked up 0.6-grains of Bullseye, and the large scoop picked up 0.9 grains.
The large scoop that came with the rimfire reloading kit measured 0.9-grains of Bullseye gunpowder consistently.
I scooped and measured many scoops of powder and it was consistently 0.9-grains — never more. One time it was 0.8-grains and then crept up to 0.9-grains, so I felt the charge was on the lower end of 0.9-grains. I became confident that the scoop was always picking up the same amount of powder. So I stopped measuring and started reloading.
The large scoop consistently gathered 0.9 grains of Bullseye powder.
Here we are looking down inside the cartridge after powder has been put in. It fills about the bottom third of the case. But of course the bullet will take up some space inside, as well. With smokeless gunpowder the case doesn’t have to be full for safety reasons like it does with black powder.
The gunpowder has some static electricity and some of it sticks to the inside of the plastic funnel after the cartridge is loaded. I used a brass cleaning rod swab holder to push the stray flakes down into the spout of the funnel when tapping the side with a finger wasn’t enough.
Static electricity held a few flakes of gunpowder to the side of the funnel. They were pushed into the spout by a brass fixture.
Insert the bullet
Now the bullet can be inserted into the case. If the bullet base was cleaned of flashing it goes right in and stops at the right place — hopefully. The first 38-grain bullet I loaded didn’t go into the case far enough and was crimped in the wrong place. But I learned from that and didn’t make that mistake again with that bullet.
The bullet has been put into the case.
Crimping the bullet
The last step in reloading is to crimp the case mouth into the side of the bullet, to hold it steady. The bullet mold that came with the reloading tools has a case crimper built into it. It is sized for long rifle cases, which means it will also work with longs but not with shorts. However a short case can be crimped if you come in from the other side (which is the top) of the crimping tool.
The cartridge is put into the crimping tool and the case mouth is crimped to the bullet.
On the first cartridge I discovered that it takes a little fiddling to get the cartridge into the crimping tool correctly. The first one I tried was put in too deep and I almost crimped the rim of the cartridge! That could have set the cartridge off! But I played with it and got the cartridge in correctly.
This is how deep the cartridge fits into the crimper.
This is how far the 38-grain bullet sticks out when the case is loaded into the crimping too correctly. The shorter 25-grain bullet sits deep inside the tool and doesn’t stick out like this
When the cartridge is all the way inside the crimping tool, squeeze the handles hard and the crimp is made. It doesn’t look that deep, but it really does hold the bullet tight in the case.
The crimp at the top of the case mouth holds the bullet tight.
Try the cartridge fit
After reloading the first cartridge I tried inserting it into the chamber of the rifle I plan to test it in. The cartridge with the 38-grain bullet went about halfway into the chamber. I was able to close the bolt all the way on that cartridge but when I opened it again, the bullet was pulled out of the case and remained stuck in the barrel.
The cartridge with the 38-grain bullet went this far into the rifle’s chamber before it stopped. The bolt shoved it in all the way.
When I opened the bolt to extract the cartridge, the bullet remained in the barrel.
I pushed the bullet out of the barrel with a .22 cleaning rod and reloaded it into the cartridge, but first all the powder had to be removed and refilled.
When I loaded the 25-grain bullet into a cartridge and crimped it, it went deeper into the chamber, but not all the way. I didn’t force this one into the chamber with the bolt. When the cartridge was removed the bullet remained in the case. I believe the crimping step is making the case out-of-round just enough to affect it this way.
As I reloaded the cases I got faster and better at it. By the time I loaded the five 38-grain bullets for the accuracy test and the 25-grain bullets as well, I was under a minute and a half loading a cartridge.
This is the first time I have ever done this, so there was a lot to learn. But now that I’ve done it, I know what to expect and things will go more smoothly.
If you add together all the time it took to cast the bullets (Part 2), mix the priming powder and prime the cases (Part 4) then load the cartridges (today), I probably spent about six hours loading 28 long rifle cartridges. Don’t think that’s how long it takes, though. I was doing many other things like taking pictures, plus learning how this all works. I think my estimate of 1.5 minutes per loaded cartridge (starting with a primed case) could be tripled and you’d have a rough estimate of the time it takes to cast and sort the bullets, prime the cases and load the cartridges. A box of 50 cartridges would take 225 minutes (at 4.5 minutes per cartridge, total), which is 3 hours 45 minutes.
A 38-grain cartridge.
These are the nine 25-grain bullet cartridges I loaded for the velocity test. The arrow points to one whose bullet is seated too deep.
Three months ago I didn’t even know it was possible to reload .22 rimfire cartridges. Now I am finishing Part 5 of a series on doing it, and my first 28 cartridges are loaded! Most definitely there is a long road ahead for me as I refine each aspect of what I’ve reported so far. But this is something I’m interested in learning and, from what you have told me, you are too.
I know this is a blog about airguns and that the .22 rimfire cartridge certainly does not qualify, but in these perilous times when ammunition is difficult to find, shooters need all the help they can get. Many are either not yet informed that pellet rifles have come as far as they have (shooting one-inch groups at 100 yards and killing whitetail deer at 200 yards with one shot) and it’s my job to inform them.
Others are not yet ready to give up their beloved rimfires simply because ammunition is not available. They may know a lot about airguns and may even own several, but they still love their rimfires. Well, bless their hearts! Perhaps I can help them as we all learn about this fascinating niche in the shooting sports together.