Can I use a .22 for self-defense?

By: Joshua Gideon

I recently had a short discussion with a young man on Facebook. I speak to so many people online that I would have passed this off as insignificant, but I think there are some lessons to be learned from this encounter. This particular gentleman was a staunch .22 supporter for self-defense. (Which I don’t have an issue with, under certain conditions.) The wordings of his posts about the .22 as a self-defense round however were very absolute. He commented, “Any gun was better than no gun.” And “Any gun will work.” Although I understood that he meant he would rather someone have a gun than not have one, I unsuccessfully attempted to make a point to him that we have to be careful how we word what we say.  We do not live in a world of absolutes and statements like “any gun will work” can be misunderstood to mean something we do not intend. This particular young man was stuck in his black and white world and segmented the group in the conversation as being for .22 as a self-defense round or being against it. In an unsuccessful attempt to tell him where I stood (somewhere in the middle), he labeled me as an anti-.22 zealot and proceeded to blast me personally until I was forced to block him.

So what about the .22 for a self-defense round? For the record, I do believe it has the potential to be an acceptable self-defense round under certain conditions. This was the point I was trying to make to the young man, but the point was lost. As I said before, nothing in this world is absolute! I can’t make a blanket statement that the .22 LR round is acceptable for self-defense. That’s just not true in all situations. It can be a great home protection round in the hands of a fairly inexperienced shooter, for instance from of a Ruger 10/22 rifle with the right hollow point ammunition. The velocity of some .22 ammo from a rifle like the Ruger 10/22 does allows for proper expansion without over-penetration. In some cases (again with the right ammo selection) it can come close to passing the basic penetration and expansion requirements of the FBI Ballistic Testing Protocol. The low recoil of the round from a Ruger 10/22 rifle allows a fairly inexperienced person to obtain high center chest hits on a man sized target within the distances of the average home. You can see an example of the CCI Stinger round from a Ruger 10/22 rifle in this video:

This is true with many other gun/ammunition combinations, regardless of caliber. I have seen rounds of all calibers fail to meet FBI Ballistic Testing Protocol and rounds of many calibers meet them under certain conditions. It would be foolish for us to make a blanket statement like “All .45’s will get the job done” or “the .22 can’t be used for self-defense.” These absolute statements are simply not correct.

So under certain gun/ammo combinations, the .22 LR can be an acceptable round for self-defense. With that said, we must be honest and accept its limitations as well. So what are those limitations?

  • Poor expansion from short barrel .22 handguns. Although I do believe that ammunition manufacturers could produce a .22 LR round that could perform well and get expansion from say a Ruger SR22 handgun with a 3.5” barrel, it just has not been a priority. Ammunition manufacturers build current .22 LR for use out of rifles with 16” barrels. The ammo is tuned to perform within those specifications. When that ammo is shot out of a shorter barrel, velocity suffers and expansion is rarely achieved. In most cases, HP .22 LR out of a pistol acts as any other FMJ bullet would and over penetrates.
  • Traditionally, .22 LR handguns were used for small varmint hunting, target shooting, and skill practice. They were built to lower standards than many dedicated self-defense firearms. It was not uncommon to have magazine or other mechanical issues with those handguns. Reliability was not a concern for most people. Reliability has improved greatly in some modern .22 LR handguns, however the selection of self-defense reliable handguns in .22 LR is limited.
  • Along that same thought process, many .22 LR handguns (and even rifles) are setup for target shooting and not self-defense. Sights that may work well when shooting from a bench rest may not work poorly in a low light self-defense situation. Lightweight target triggers, target grips, etc. all can be detrimental in a self-defense situation.
  • Although rifles like the 10/22 have large capacity magazines available, round count is significantly limited with most .22 LR handguns. Many are only capable of 10+1 rounds. This may be sufficient for the threat level of a trip to the post office or a jog around the block, however it may not be sufficient for walking out to your car from the mall at night with four guys standing around your car.
  • Most people who know me are aware that I am a supporter of revolver carry in some environments. There are several reliable and accurate revolvers that shoot .22 LR. My biggest issue with them is the ability to quickly reload them in a high stress situation. There are some after market .22 speed loaders, but in my experience they fail more of than they work. They certainly are not as reliable as their larger caliber brothers. I have also experienced more stuck cartridges that failed to extract from .22 revolvers than any other caliber.
  • The lightweight .22 LR round traveling at nearly sub-sonic speeds from most short-barreled handguns does not have consistent barrier penetration capabilities like out of a 16” rifle. Due to the weight and speed in which the projectile is traveling, it does not take much to deflect it off target. I have yet to find a good video or write up of intermediate barrier ballistic testing from a .22 LR handgun. From my unscientific experience, penetration through automotive glass from a 4” .22 LR revolver produced inconsistent trajectories and shallow penetration in objects behind the intermediate barriers.
  • The .22 LR can also be used as a crutch to neglect proper training. Many people who have no desire to get training can get by with a .22 LR. It’s strength at being low recoil and forgiving can also be a negative for those with poor technique. Their problems are not as evident, so they are seldom pointed out and fixed. In a good training course, barring some physical limitation, the average person can be taught to efficiently shoot and operate larger caliber firearms. My 9 year old daughter weighing in at a whopping 60 pounds can handle the recoil of a Glock 19 in 9mm and still place self-defense accurate shots on target at self-defense distances.
  • It would be improper if I did not mention Greg Ellifritz and his research on this subject. In his article titled, “Using the .22 for Self Defense” he makes several good points supporting some of the good qualities of a .22 LR as a self-defense round. He does fairly point out, “It’s the percentage of people who were not physically incapacitated after any number of rounds.  It’s roughly three times higher with the .22 as compared to the service caliber cartridges.” He continues stating, “Yes, the criminals fled, but they were not incapacitated.  They could continue to fight back if they choose to.  If you were to face the rare motivated criminal who presses the fight, would you want a .22 or something else?” The entire article can be read here:

As defensive firearms owners, we need to have the most efficient gun/ammo combination we can carry. At the same time we must understand that the context in which a gun/ammo combination works for you may not work for someone else. I don’t have a hardline recommendation for gun/ammo combinations that work for everyone. Each person is unique and likely has a unique gun/ammo combination that works for them. As an instructor, my job is to help my students find the balance that works for them. Sometimes that IS a gun/ammo combination in 22 LR.