Can I Use .22 LR For Self-Defense?

By Suzanne Wiley

In short order…absolutely. Is it advisable if something else is available? No.

The NAA mini revolver in .22 LR requires practice in reloading and shooting, but it is concealable almost everywhere.
The author carried an NAA Mini Revolver for awhile.

When I began to conceal carry, I chose a North American Arms mini revolver in .22 LR. It was an excellent introduction to the concealed carry lifestyle. Since it was concealable nearly everywhere, never failed, was easy to operate and because I trained with it weekly, I was speedy at reloading and accurate—especially at distances that matter.

Currently, my CCW is a .380 ACP but I also still keep a .22 Magnum revolver at my bedside and a .22 LR Smith & Wesson M&P 15-22 in the closet. The .22 is an incredibly versatile round—it will stop an attacker, take down small game, is cheap to train on, easy and unintimidating for a new shooter and just plain fun for plinking—especially suppressed.

I have never bought into arguing over ‘my gun is bigger than your gun’ and have always encouraged anyone interested in carrying a gun for protection to carry what they feel comfortable with. Because, for real, any gun is better than no gun. But should a .22 LR pistol, revolver or rifle be your first choice?

Now, I know there are already readers out there shaking their heads, or maybe even their fists, just chomping at the bit to tell me what an idiot I am but if you feel it necessary to prove something by telling others their choice in caliber or gun is wrong, then you’re part of the reason why gun owners can’t have nice things. But I digress…

When choosing a gun for concealed carry or home defense, it is wise to pick one that you feel confident shooting well, is reliable based on testing and reviews and can stop a threat. Handgun experts and instructors agree that the minimum caliber recommended for self-defense is .380 ACP, yet many also will tell you that if .22 LR is the only gun you’ve got, then that’s the gun you rock. Retired Border Patrol Agent and legendary shooting school Gunsite Academy Operations Manager Ed Head says, “Most people stop fighting quickly after having been shot. Although we tend to worry endlessly about knockdown power and about what bullet and load is best, fact is, people just don’t like getting shot, and unless facing the rare superhuman, even a .22 can get the job done.”

The .22 LR is an extremely versatile round used successfully for hunting and even self-defense.
You do have a better chance at taking down a bad guy with a 9mm or .45 but that doesn’t mean you should shelf the .22 L.R.

Are any of us advising one to carry a .22 LR given a choice? No. There are obviously much more effective calibers out there—9mm, .38 Special, .40 S&W, etc.…even the .380! But if .22 is all you got, should you go ahead and carry it or will carrying a .22 LR get you killed?

To help answer that question, we need to look at the .22 LR’s performance, ballistics and history of its use.

As the most popular round in the world— it is reported that 2 to 2.5 billion rounds of .22 LR ammo are produced a year—there are lots of myths circulating about the .22 LR. I’ve always heard that the .22 LR is a nasty round that no doubt will kill a person because the bullet bounces around in the body shredding someone’s insides like a cheese grater, but this old wives’ tale isn’t necessarily true.

Stevens Arms Co. developed the .22 LR in 1887—using a .22 Long case with a 40-grain round nose bullet which carries more velocity than the .22 Long. .22 LR bullets now come in all different types in 30 to 40 grains. There is hyper velocity, subsonic and even shotshells. It is most effective from 50 to 100 yards with some loads reaching 150 yards.

The .22 LR’s design has a few limitations besides its ballistic data.

  • Its small case requires high energy powder that lights quickly and burns fast.
  • The case head is weak.
  • The diameter of the case dictates the bullet size, shape and weight.
  • Many semiautomatic handguns and rifles can be finicky what about .22 LR ammo they’ll shoot reliably.
  • Bullets can be deformed through the crimping process and even the cleanest-burning round shoots pretty dirty.

We can go back and forth all day long about what you think of the .22 LR but what we can’t argue is the ballistics. Here is the ultimate question: does the .22 LR have enough power to stop a threat?

The industry standard by judging whether a particular round is appropriate for self-defense is the FBI’s testing standard called the FBI Protocol. For ammo to be recommended to law enforcement and for personal defense, it must pass a few tests. The round is fired five times through bare ballistic gel, ballistic gel covered in winter clothing, two pieces of 20-gauge sheet steel and ballistic gel, wallboard and ballistic gel, plywood and ballistic gel and a laminated car windshield and ballistic gel. Penetration of the bullet in the gel must be between 14 to 16 inches. All shots are taken from 10 feet.

Most .22 LR rounds don’t pass muster on these tests, which should be an indication of its effectiveness. Yet, for those who do carry a .22, finding the most powerful .22 LR ammo is extremely important. For those interested, the CCI Stinger is a hyper velocity load with 32-grain hollow point bullet, travels 1,640 feet per second and penetrates ballistics gelatin 12 inches easily.

The .22 Long Rifle ammo CCI Stinger has a hyper velocity of 1,640 fps.
The CCI Stinger has a hyper velocity of 1,640 fps.

A study of 4,483 street shootings reported in the book, Stopping Power, a Practical Analysis of the Latest Handgun Ammunition, by Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow, found that 31% of shots taken with .22 LR were one-shot stops. For such a small round, this is an impressive statistic. Further, there are countless stories of armed civilians using a .22 LR to save their lives. You can read a few of those here.

Yes, you do have a better chance at taking down a bad guy with a 9mm or .45 but that doesn’t mean you should shelf the .22 L.R. It has the capability of a stopping a threat but like with any caliber handgun—whether a bad shot or bad luck—it may not stop an attack; in fact, multiple gunshot wounds from a .44 Special is survivable (true story.)

About the same time, a veteran patrol officer related the story of shooting an armed suspect four times in the torso with a .44 Special loaded with round nose ammo. The bad guy put down his gun, asked the officer not to shoot him anymore and sat in a chair while waiting for the ambulance. He was out of the hospital and in jail in a little over two weeks. —Guns & Ammo Magazine

There isn’t just one thing to consider when picking a concealed carry or protection gun. How or why an attacker goes down depends on many factors—caliber being just one of them. There is also type of bullet, distance, physical condition of the person shot, and most importantly—shot placement.

Whichever firearm you choose to carry, become familiar with it. Learn how to shoot it accurately and safely. Know how to clear malfunctions and how to maintain and clean it. And above all, don’t let anyone make you feel bad for choosing to carry a .22 LR if that’s what you’re most comfortable with.

Greg Ellifritz, one of the leading researchers on ‘stopping power’ says, “I’m open to an honest discussion about the relative merits of carrying a .22 in certain situations but I promise you that if I was to grab a gun right now, knowing I would be getting into a gunfight, my .22s would be very low on the list.”

How do you feel about using .22 LR for self-defense? Tell us in the comment section.