So is the .22lr a viable round for defense?
If asked whether or not a .22lr [Editor: .22 Long Rifle, .22LR] pistol is an ideal defensive firearm, most firearm experts will give you a resounding "no." There is however, a rather large market when it comes to rimfires and no small part of that is people who buy a gun just to have a gun. Some people choose .22lr out of ignorance, some for plinking, and others out of necessity. For many people with physical disabilities or severe arthritis the choice is often the latter. After all, even a relatively weak firearm is still a powerful deterrent and equalizer when it comes to physical attacks by a more powerful person or even an enraged animal. All experts seem to agree on one point though, a gun is better than no gun.
So you are recoil sensitive and can't use a larger caliber for self defense. People pressure you to buy a .25 auto instead but you can't bring yourself to pay the exorbitant prices for such an unimpressive round when most people tell you that .22lr produces practically the same ballistics at about a quarter of the cost. This makes practice with the .22lr much more likely because of the simple reason of affordability. For academic purposes I'll compare the two rounds at various points throughout the article in order to address low recoil defensive use. A well trained shooter with a .22lr is probably better off than a poorly trained .25 automatic owner who fires their gun once a year due to the ammunition being the upside of $20 per box. In my opinion if cost is not a barrier the .25 acp is a better choice because it has a jacketed bullet and centerfire priming. These two things will make it considerably more reliable than the .22lr.
So let's go ahead and assume that you've considered this and decided to use a .22lr for defense but you don't really know much about firearms or why people steer you away from such an economical round that has been used by so many over the years.
So what are the downsides to the .22lr as a defensive round?
First off there is the frequently argued issue of whether or not a rimfire is reliable enough to be considered trustworthy in a defensive firearm. Unlike most calibers where there is a primer in the center of the casing that helps to ensure consistent ignition, the rimfire, as it's name implies, is fired when the firing pin strikes the rim of the casing.
The manufacturing process is different because a priming compound is injected into the casing and it (hopefully) spreads evenly around the rim. The problem is that the compound sometimes doesn't correctly spread around the rim and it ends up creating failures to fire. This condition is especially common with inexpensive "bulk pack" ammunition packaged in large boxes in which both priming and powder charges can be hit or miss. Different manufacturers use different processes to create their ammunition with varying degrees of effectiveness.
As a rule, the design and loading process makes rimfire cartridges inherently less reliable than their centerfire cousins, although the right firearm with the right rimfire ammunition can be very reliable in ignition and function.
So what should I consider before choosing to use .22lr as a defensive round?
Among the first things to consider is cost, which is considerably lower than every other round in current production. Even rimfire ammunition considered by shooters to be the most reliable and effective is still normally exponentially cheaper than the lowest cost centerfire pistol rounds. To put it in perspective, a 50 round box of premium .22lr is around $5-6. A box of 50 rounds of 9mm runs at around $13-15 for basic FMJ. Defensive ammunition runs considerably higher.
The next thing to consider is the performance of the .22lr in short barrels. The marked velocity on boxes of .22lr is optimized for and tested from a rifle barrel rather than a pistol barrel and the shorter the barrel the more unburned powder is wasted. In turn, that wasted powder translates into lost velocity. From a short barrel, run of the mill .22lr and the .25 auto are very similar in terms of ballistics with a small nod going toward the .25 auto for having a jacketed case. The previously noted expense however negates this benefit of the .25 auto for many, not excluding myself. The case can also be made that some premium .22lr loads, such as some by CCI and Aquila actually put the .22lr slightly above the .25 auto in terms of velocity and performance even from short barrels.
[Winchester Super-X 40gr. Hyper-Velocity penetrated to 11"]
[Winchester Super-X 40gr. Hyper-Velocity retained all of its weight]
[Winchester Super-X 40gr. Hyper-Velocity expanded 30%]
Possibly most important thing to think about is that smaller .22lr pistols with tight tolerances tend to be less reliable. Finding the right ammo to work with the tolerances of your specific firearm may or may not be difficult depending on the design. One size does not fit all, even with two examples of the same model, the same ammunition may not work reliably in both. After all the entire reason that the .25 auto was created was to surpass the performance of the .22lr in terms of reliable feeding and ignition. In larger pistols I have personally found that this is not normally as large of a problem, although research of each individual design is important. For instance the Ruger MK series is known for it's reliability whereas the ill fated (still produced but Sig no longer wants their name on it) Sig Mosquito is infamous for it's ability to choke on a great many different types of ammunition with ease. Ignored by some, there is one way to completely negate both the unreliability of rimfire priming as well as the inconsistent powder charges that cause failures to eject in semi automatics. This is to buy a revolver. Preferably one that has a double action function. If you have a failure to fire you can simply pull the trigger again to advance to the next cylinder, bypassing the defective round. This also makes .22lr shotshell use viable whereas each round must be hand fed into a semi automatic.
But is it big or powerful enough?
This is something debated by a great number of people. There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to whether or not the minuscule size of the .22lr is acceptable for defense. The first of which is that the bullet is so small and light that, despite being fast, it often fails to produce a significant enough wound to stop an attacker. The second school, to which I subscribe, is that the low recoil of the .22lr makes you considerably less likely to flinch when firing which in turn makes it easier to place multiple shots into a small area with accuracy because of the incredibly low recoil.
Even the fastest .22lr ammunition is still easy to manage even for the most novice shooters and the right ammunition will penetrate and expand in ballistic gelatin when fired from a pistol. From a rifle it is even more impressive.
From my standpoint, since the tiny round costs less than every other round on the market and is less likely to intimidate new shooters or hurt shooters who have disabilities when firing, it is a good choice for some people. Although I recommend buying something larger and chambered for a centerfire round if possible, there are lots of reasons that a .22lr pistol makes sense for many people and ultimately it is a decision that is left up to the individual buying the gun. Like anything else in life, just do do the research and make an educated purchase.
But I need high capacity...
In a world of pistols with 15-19 round capacities the average .22lr may seem to be at a disadvantage but have no fear, new pistols/rifles have been pushing the round count of magazine fed rimfires steadily upwards for years. The Ruger Charger for instance can accept the 25 round 10/22 magazines. The Charger is too large? How about the S&W M&P-22 coming in at 12 rounds or the Beretta M9-22 with 15? Much like the race for a higher capacity centerfire pistol, it seems that the rimfire market is pursuing the same goal.
[Smith & Wesson M&P-22, 12 round capacity (stock image)]
In my opinion, with the right firearm and the right ammunition the .22lr is adequate for defensive use. For the average shooter there are better, more reliable options available, which shouldn't be a shock to most people. The selection of ammunition and function testing the firearm you've chosen is important with any firearm but is absolutely paramount when it comes to using the .22lr as a defensive firearm. You'll want to ensure that the ammunition fires, ejects, and reliably cycles in your chosen firearm. If you want to use high or hypervelocity ammunition, which is a good idea, make sure that you buy a firearm that can safely be used with it. For me? I've used both the .22lr and .25 auto as a primary weapon before and felt comfortable with that choice. I know the limitations of the weapons I choose for defense and work around them.
As always, never use a type of ammunition that your firearm is not rated to fire, stay safe, and do your research before making a decision on anything!