Frank C. Barnes, author of the now-famous “Cartridges of the World,” once said that the .22 Long Rifle (LR) has “established a place so secure it will be with us as long as guns are made.” That’s not surprising. The famous Double Deuce is without question one of the most popular cartridges in existence, and you can find a variety of load options at every sporting goods store in America.
You might be more surprised to learn that Barnes said the same thing about the .22 Short. The .22 LR’s stockier grandfather is far less common, but the gun writer nonetheless claimed that the .22 Short will “still be around as long as we own and shoot firearms.”
Why the confidence in the .22 Short’s longevity? The .22 Short is less powerful and more expensive than the .22 LR, but it’s managed to stick around since its introduction in 1857, a whopping 164 years ago. The .22 Short is the oldest American, commercial, self-contained metallic cartridge in existence, and we’re pitting it against the .22 LR to find out why.
Ballistics As a general rule, the .22 LR is more powerful than the .22 Short, but some .22 LR loads can be more or less comparable.
The most common .22 LR uses a bullet weighing between 36 and 40 grains traveling between 1080-1260 feet per second. However, some low-velocity loads travel much slower, like Federal’s American Eagle Rimfire Suppressor. This cartridge uses a 45-grain bullet traveling only 970 fps.
That’s in the same ballpark as the .22 Short, which most commonly uses a 29-grain bullet traveling 1095 fps. The slow-moving .22 LR delivers 94 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy at the muzzle while the Short delivers 77 ft.-lbs.
Barrel length can also make a big difference. Shooting a 29-grain .22 LR from a four-inch barrel reduces muzzle velocity below 900 fps, according to the excellent resource Ballistics by the Inch. Shooting a 29-grain .22 Short from a rifle-length barrel actually gives the power advantage to the older, smaller cartridge.
There is some straw-grasping in the above examples. The .22 Short is a lightweight—there’s no getting around it. Still, it’s important to keep the intended application in mind.
For small game, the .22 Short has more than enough juice to get the job done. Even after dismissing the .22 Short as just a “plinking” cartridge, Barnes admits that the Short is “quite adequate” for small game or bird hunting, though animals should be “not more than two pounds in weight.”
It’s unclear how anything can be “quite adequate” (it’s like saying “very mediocre”), and Barnes doesn’t elaborate on how he comes to his two-pound weight limit. But 77 ft.-lbs. of energy is over twice as much as many air rifles produce, which have shown themselves capable of dispatching squirrels and other small game.
So, while the .22 LR is without question more powerful from a scientific standpoint, in the real world, you’re unlikely to notice much difference on a cottontail within about 40 yards.
Winner: .22 Long Rifle
Shootability Neither cartridge produces enough recoil to be an issue for most small game hunters, so I will focus on the cost and availability of ammunition.
Availability lands squarely in the Long Rifle’s favor, and the ammo shortage has only exacerbated that inequality. While ammo companies focus on the most popular cartridges, offerings like the .22 Short have fallen by the wayside. Of the seven .22 Short options listed on Midway USA, none are currently available.
The .22 LR, by contrast, is available from a variety of manufacturers and includes loads for hunting, competition, and plinking. The 127 products available at Midway USA also prove that this imbalance isn’t limited to times of shortage. Even in the best of circumstances, .22 LR is more readily available.
The .22 LR also costs less, though this difference isn’t quite as stark. Short cartridges run between $0.14 and $0.16 per round, while the Long Rifle can be found for as little as $0.09 per cartridge. Right now, however, most in-stock .22 LR is closer to $0.15 per round.
If you can find it, the .22 Short won’t set you back much more than its younger counterpart. But that’s a big “if,” which is why this round goes to the .22 LR.
Winner: .22 Long Rifle
Versatility The .22 LR derives much of its popularity from its versatility—and vice-versa. The cartridge is so popular because it can be used in so many applications, and that popularity encourages manufacturers to continue producing more options.
Federal, for example, offers Double Deuce loads for personal defense, plinking, competition, and small game. You can find super-fast .22 LR loads designed for varmints and predators, and super-slow .22 LR options for use with a suppressor. CCI even offers .22 LR cartridges filled with #12 shot for use on snakes, rats, and other pests.
The .22 Short has enjoyed far less R&D investment. While modern options travel faster and hit harder than the original design, they still use the 29-grain bullet almost exclusively. Remington, CCI, Aguila, and Winchester all load .22 Short cartridges, but they all fly at the same velocity (1095 fps) and are designed exclusively for small game and plinking.
The good news for the .22 Short is that it can be safely used in any firearm chambered for .22 LR. And since gun makers have chambered virtually every action in .22 LR, Short fans have lots of options.
There’s just one caveat: the shorter cartridge may not be able to cycle a semi-auto action designed for the higher-pressure .22 LR. If you want to buy a gun for both cartridges, go with a bolt or lever-action gun.
Winner: .22 Long Rifle
And the Winner Is… This could be our first Caliber Battle sweep—and you probably weren’t surprised. While the .22 Short was the king of rimfires for the first century of its existence, the .22 LR proved to be more powerful and just as easy to shoot. Its popularity has propelled it past its predecessors, and today hunters enjoy a wide variety of options at very little cost.
Still, for a student of history, the .22 Short has its charms. It helped pioneer the self-contained metallic cartridges we all use today, and shooting America’s oldest cartridge connects hunters to a more distant past than most of our hunting gear. The .22 LR deserves the nod, but Barnes may be right that the .22 Short isn’t going anywhere.
Overall Winner: .22 Long Rifle