Crossovers from U.S. military cartridges, particularly the 30-06 and .308, have found sporting markets overseas because they’re there in massive quantities, not because they’re superior to other cartridges in their class. The .458 Winchester Magnum sees widespread use in Africa because the round and the rifles chambered for it are relatively cheap and available, despite the little belted magnum’s marginal performance. The fact is, most American cartridges, including our homegrown classics as well as our most modern introductions, are ballistic equivalents to German and British cartridges that were fully developed and proven decades earlier, so it is no wonder that the rest of the world is hardly impressed.
There is one American cartridge, however, that has a global presence based solely on its own merits, one that occupies a niche not easily filled by European or English cartridges, and that is America’s well-bred little .22 Hornet. From its inception in the late 1920s at the hands of Col. Townsend Whelen and others at the Springfield Armory and its subsequent commercial introduction by Winchester in 1930, the .22 Hornet was immediately welcomed by a worldwide audience and proceeded to make border crossings as easily as American jazz.
Based on the blackpowder .22 WCF (Winchester Centerfire) and known in metric countries as the 5.6x35Rmm, the Hornet was one of the very first smokeless-powder high-velocity smallbore centerfire cartridges ever made. It enjoyed popularity in single-shots and drillings on both sides of the Atlantic and, despite its rimmed configuration, in bolt-action magazine rifles of both American and European design. Initially loaded by Winchester with .223” bullets to match the groove diameter of the 1922 Springfield, a popular rifle at the time for converting from the rimfire .22 Long Rifle to the centerfire .22 Hornet, the world’s manufacturers quickly got beyond that provincial confusion and settled on barrels of .224" groove diameter which has been the universal standard ever since.
For many years the .22 Hornet reigned supreme in varmint and small game hunting which was its original design intent, target shooting and gentlemanly plinking. It even served our military during WWII chambered in aircrew survival rifles. Ever discreet and elegant in its effectiveness, there is a new realization that the Hornet is as good at these jobs today as it was in the past.
Traditionally loaded with 45-grain bullets at 2700 fps, the .22 Hornet can break the 3000 fps mark with 35-grain bullets (the same velocity a .223 achieves with 69-grain bullets), or push a 50-grain bullet at 2550 fps (the same velocity a .17 HMR achieves with its tiny 17-grain bullet). Occupying a performance spectrum between the hottest new rimfires and the world-standard 22-caliber military cartridge, the Hornet is as lethal as you could want on any varmint, predator or small game animal out to about 200 yards. If the rimfire magnums are marginal in power and the faster .22 centerfires too destructive, the Hornet is just right, easily achieving maximum performance with 10 to 13 grains of powder and going about its deadly business with an unobtrusive muzzleblast, low ricochet potential and minimum pelt or meat damage.
Shooters being a fickle lot and, it seems, inexorably drawn to newer rifles shooting bigger bullets at ever higher velocities whether there’s any real benefit to be gained or not, the .22 Hornet languished over time and seemed in danger of fading away entirely, at least in its homeland. At one point, the expensive precision-quality German Anschutz was the only factory bolt-action .22 Hornet rifle made.
Fickle though they may be, shooters always return to enduring value when their flings are over. Thus the renaissance of the .22 Hornet during the 80s and 90s. Accelerated by Ruger’s introduction of the excellent Model 77/22 Hornet rifle, Hornady’s groundbreaking work on smallbore bullets and factory loads and, I think, growing boredom with the ubiquitous .223, the precocious little .22 Hornet of the 1930s returned to the limelight having lost none of its stylish character or genteel lethality.
Hornets in the Woods
I recently spent a day in the forest with the .22 Hornet, as chambered in three quite different rifles: a custom Thompson Center Contender G2, a vintage Browning Medallion, and a brand new factory Ruger 77/22 Hornet.
The G2 sports a custom 20” stainless steel barrel in heavy varmint contour made by Gary Reeder of Flagstaff, Arizona (www.ReederCustomGuns.com). Reeder, who has done some fine work on all kinds of T/Cs for many years, started with a Shilen blank, put in a match chamber and a deep dish crown. The thumbhole rollover varmint stock is carved out of laminated maple/walnut by another T/C expert, Denzel Roberts of Houston, Texas (http://huntingsociety.org/gunstocks.html). Set up with a Swift 1.5-6x40mm illuminated reticle scope (http://www.swift-optics.com/), the rifle weighs in at seven pounds, 14 ounces and is steady as the proverbial rock.
The Browning Medallion is a finely fitted and finished rifle which is no longer manufactured but is available on the used gun market. The demand for this little jewel is quite high, as its functioning is as smooth as its looks are attractive. It has the substantial feel of a bigger rifle, and the only quirky thing about it is the magazine. What appears to be a conventional flush floorplate swings down to reveal a detachable magazine as is normally found on Hornets. The detachable magazine must then be removed from the inside of the floorplate for reloading. While the operation is not likely to set any speed records, it becomes less cumbersome with a little practice. The overall quality of the Browning makes up for it. I was not eager to return this Hornet to gunsmiths Russell and Chick Menard (firstname.lastname@example.org) from whom I had borrowed it for the day.
The first sensation I felt on picking up the new Ruger 77/22 Hornet was a sharp pain from a splinter in my finger from the American walnut stock. Ah, the joys of modern factory guns. This was the lightweight of the trio, weighing in at 6.25 pounds with its 20” blue steel barrel, and was a delight to handle. Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the Ruger is its six-round detachable rotary magazine that mounts flush with the stock. The magazine was quick to change, if not to reload, and the rotary feeding proved absolutely reliable. I’m sure Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher would approve of Ruger’s application of his invention.
Quite a variety of factory ammo is available for the .22 Hornet these days but I used what I had on hand, which was a couple of boxes of Remington and Winchester 45-grain softpoints. The Remington loads achieved the advertised 2700 fps over my Oehler chronograph while the Winchesters were loaded almost 200 fps milder, a difference you could actually feel in recoil. Both loads in all guns shot minute-of-squirrel-eye and that was as far as I cared to go in my accuracy tests.
Let’s Shatter an Icon
Besides being a lot of fun for even the most experienced rifleman to shoot, I believe the .22 Hornet is a far better training rifle for beginners than the rimfire .22 Long Rifle, another American cartridge of unquestioned international status.
Think about it. The .22 rimfire is not the universal learning rifle because it’s safer, because it isn’t. That itsy-bitsy sliver of lead can kill far beyond any point the eye can see, and is far more likely to ricochet off a rock and go flying over a hill toward a town or freeway than the faster, jacketed bullet of the .22 Hornet. Neither is a .22 LR the learning weapon of choice because its almost total absence of recoil makes it easier for a child to shoot. Kids don’t know they’re supposed to be afraid of a little harmless recoil, so they usually aren’t -– unless somebody tells them they should be. The .22 Hornet’s recoil is negligible by any standard, but it does tap lightly on your shoulder to remind you that it’s there.
Kids being kids, the rimfire’s lack of recoil and muzzle blast only encourages reckless handling. If it feels like a toy it will more likely be treated as a toy. A slightly bigger rifle, whose polite kick and centerfire bark leave no doubt in the young shooter’s mind that he is firing a deadly weapon, makes it easier to emphasize the life-and-death importance of safe gun handling. And I understand that what those new 35-grain Hornady V-Max loads at 3100 fps do to plastic milk cartons filled with water is as graphic as anything on your kid’s computer.
To be perfectly honest, the only real reason for the rimfire’s hallowed place as the foundation of the beginning shooter’s learning curve is simply that it’s cheap to shoot. If you can afford to start your son or daughter off immediately shooting large quantities of .22 Hornet, you can skip the traditional .22 LR phase entirely. And the beginning shooter will be better off for it.
Besides, anything the .22 rimfire can be used for can be accomplished much more effectively with a .22 Hornet. Ask anybody. Anywhere in the world.