September 26, 2022
By Richard Mann
When it comes to small-game hunting, nothing beats a .22 rifle. Not only is it virtually recoil free, it's also not excessively loud. And, with the right ammunition, it's small-game capable out to 100 yards or so. A major online retailer lists more than 100 different loads for the .22 LR. Obviously, hunters will be concerned with things like energy, bullet upset and penetration—especially depending on the animal being hunted. Conversely, if you're head-shooting squirrels, just about any bullet will do. What matters most in that scenario is how close the bullet will land to your point of aim.
I recently conducted a test to discover what the most precise-shooting .22 LR load was in my favorite rifle. I wanted to know which load would give me the best chance of head-shooting a squirrel out to around 50 yards. I tested 20 loads ranging in velocity from 947 fps to 1,740 fps. The most accurate load averaged .61 inch for five, five-shot groups at 50 yards. The least accurate load averaged 1.99 inches. The average for all loads tested was 1.09 inches. With the notion that any load averaging less than 3/4 inch at 50 yards would be sufficient, I found five of the 20 that met that standard.
However, even though the muzzle velocities for those five loads were very similar, they all had a different point of impact at 50 yards. This meant I would have to perfectly zero my rifle for just one of the loads and then stick with that load exclusively if wanted to be able to make consistent head shots on squirrels at that distance.
This got me to wondering at what distance ammunition selection—regarding point of aim verses point of impact—becomes critical with a .22 rifle. So, I conducted another test. Using my New Ultra Light Arms single-shot .22 rifle, I took those same 20 loads I'd already tested and fired groups at 25, 50 and 100 yards. But each group at each distance consisted of only one shot with each load, for a total of 20 shots in each group. I also fired a control group at each distance with the CCI 40-grain Mini-Mag Segmented Hollow Point load, which was the load that had delivered the best precision in my rifle.
The primary question I wanted answered was, at what distance could I just grab any .22 LR load I had lying around and use my rifle to head-shoot a squirrel? The test answered that question, but I think what's just as important is how the test showed the wide variance in .22 LR ammunition point of impact versus point of aim at various distances.
A lot of plinking with .22 rifles is done at reasonably close range, generally around 25 yards. At 25 yards, the control group with the rifle measured .324 inch. The 20-shot group fired with 20 different loads measured 1.71 inches, with 95 percent of the shots (19 out of 20) grouping inside .806 inch. A single shot landed about 1.25 inches away from the center of that group. I’m not sure which load produced the outlier—it would be easy enough to find out—but for the purposes of this test, it really does not matter. Clearly, at 25 yards, differences in ammunition make very little difference regarding point of impact. I’d be confident grabbing just about any .22 LR load and attempting to head-shoot a squirrel out to around 25 yards with my rifle.
Most of my .22 rifle shots at small game range between 20 and 60 yards. At 50 yards the single control group measured .779 inch, which was 2.4 times larger than it was at 25 yards. The 20-shot group fired with 20 different loads measured 4.332 inches. Again, there was a single outlier that hit about 3.5 inches from the group center. That group was 2.53 times larger than the 25-yard group. Discounting the outlier, the remaining 19 shots grouped into 2.030 inches. Although this is not nearly enough precision for head-shooting squirrels, with my rifle I should be able to hit a pop can or poke an opossum through the lungs out to about 50 yards or so, regardless of the load used.
At this distance the five-shot control group measured 1.821 inches, which was 2.34 times larger than the 50-yard group. This is well beyond the distance of making a probable head shot on a squirrel. The increase in the size of the 20-shot group was nearly identical. It went from 4.332 inches at 50 yards to 10.5 inches at 100 yards. The 100-yard group was 2.42 times larger than the 50-yard group. It’s readily apparent that if I intend to hit anything smaller than a two-liter soda bottle at 100 yards with my rifle, it must be zeroed for the load I’m shooting. And I must know the trajectory of that load at anything much beyond 40 yards or so.
WHAT IT MEANS
What can this data say about you and your rifle? I think one of the most important revelations from this test is how much group size will increase with distance. Conventional wisdom has always suggested that group size or precision increases proportionally to distance. For example, if your rifle shoots 1-inch groups at 25 yards, it should shoot 2-inch groups at 50 yards. Double the distance, double the group size, right? With allowances for human and ballistic error, this estimation proved to be close but not exact. In this test, when the distance to the target was doubled, group sizes—on average—
consistently increased by 2.42 times. Keep this in mind when shooting at distance with a .22 rifle.
Of course, you'll have to find the load your rifle likes. I shot five of the loads used in this test in three rifles, including the one (Rifle No. 1) I used to obtain the data. Rifle No. 1 averaged .81 inch for five, five-shot groups with all five loads at 50 yards. Rifle No. 2 averaged 1.50 inches, and Rifle No. 3 averaged 1.51 inches. The best-shooting load in Rifle No. 1 was the second-best load in Rifle No. 2 and the worst-shooting load in Rifle No. 3. Bottom line: Ammunition preferences vary a great deal between .22 rifles. They really are finicky creatures.
However, if you're shooting at about 25 yards with any .22 rifle, odds are that the ammunition you use won't matter that much. If your rifle delivers enough precision for head shots on squirrels at that distance with one load, it will probably do it with most loads. There's just not enough variance in point of impact to matter. On the other hand, if you're shooting at small targets at distances between 25 and 50 yards, you're probably going to have to pick one load and stick with it to get frequent hits. For shooting past 50 yards, not only will you need to zero for the load you're going to use, but you'll also need to be intimately familiar with its trajectory.