July 2013

22 Mag and 32 Mag Loads: Are They Enough for Self-Defense?

If our lives depended on it, we’d want more power than these loads provide. We nonetheless recognize some folks will use them anyway. So you might as well choose the best, yes?

A common thread among old-time shooters is the deadly effect of the 22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire cartridge. Long recommended as a woman’s cartridge, the WMR is seen as a better choice than the 25 ACP or 32 ACP. Also commonly known as the 22 Magnum, the round is hailed as a fine choice for anyone who cannot handle the recoil of a 38 Special revolver. The popularity of 22 Magnum NAA Mini Revolvers is based largely upon this impression. The recommendation for the 22 Magnum has been given so many times that it seems to be accepted without research to back up the facts.

Is the 22 Magnum a credible alternative to the 38 Special? Probably not, we thought, but then there is another alternative to the 38 Special aside from the 32 Magnum. There are drawbacks to either cartridge other than the lack of bullet width and bullet mass. The 22 Magnum demands a strong hammer spring to smack the primer hard enough to ensure rimfire ignition. As a result, the 22 Magnum revolver cannot be produced with an action as smooth as a comparable 32s or 38s. A female with less hand strength may find the 22 Magnum taxing. It kicks less, but guns chambered for it may be more difficult to manipulate. The 22 Magnum cannot be modified to a smoother action and retain reliable ignition. Also, 30- and 40-grain bullets used in many 22 Mag loads cannot disrupt much tissue. Instead, the long suit of the 22 Magnum is penetration, as our tests showed.

For 22 LR fans, the 22 Magnum is more resilient against water, oil, and solvent and is also less likely to be damaged in handling than the 22 Long Rifle. This is because the 22 Magnum uses a jacketed bullet that is crimped in place, while the shorter 22 LR uses a lead heel-based bullet that is wedged into the cartridge case. Another knock on the 22 Magnum is that the original loads were designed for use in a rifle, and since slow-burning powder is used, they are not optimum in a revolver barrel. One of our raters recalls clocking a 40-grain FMJ Magnum at only 940 fps from his 4-inch kit gun. But that was two decades ago, and we thought perhaps the modern crop would be better — and it was. The test had to be conducted with a revolver with a barrel length common to personal-defense handguns. Since none of the raters owned a 22 Magnum with a short barrel, we went to the pawn shops scrounging for an inexpensive 22 Magnum revolver with a short barrel. That isn’t an easy task. They tell us at the shops that 22 Magnum revolvers are always in demand. Our test gun wasn’t the type normally associated with personal defense, but it was a good compromise.

We found a Heritage 22 Magnum (with 22 LR cylinder) in a pawn shop on the cheap. Since it is the birdshead grip model with 3-inch barrel, it neatly split the difference between the short barrel found on NAA Mini Revolvers and the typical 4-inch barrel of 22 Magnum kit-gun-type revolvers. Also, it was large enough for good accuracy and to handle well during the test program. On the other hand, the barrel is short enough for a realistic assessment of the cartridge in short-barrel revolvers.

The primary focus of this test was the 22 Magnum, but we also included a number of 32 Magnum loads for comparison. Compared to the 38 Special, the 22 Magnum and 32 Magnum each offer six shots rather than the five shots of a 38 Special in a small-frame revolver. Each also offers low recoil. Both are popular alternate choices, but the 22 Magnum is far more widely used because of the availability of NAA Mini Revolvers. We realize such small guns are controversial for personal defense, and we want to be clear we’re not advocating 22 Mags for personal defense. But many people do use them for that, so it’s incumbent on us to see what the rounds can really do in our tests.

During the firing tests, the excellent control of the 22 Magnum was noted. One rater was able to fire the single-action 22 so quickly he was able to put three bullets into the jugs before the water drained, with the three bullets resting neatly in place at the bottom of the third jug. That is control! The little Heritage revolver was simply the platform for the test program, but all that shot it commented on the excellent trigger and great handling.

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