The .22 Hornet is an old school varmint hunting cartridge that, despite being something of a niche caliber, has managed to persevere through today.
When the .22 Hornet was originally designed in the 1920s, it was one of the first high-velocity .22 caliber ammunition’s to use smokeless powder. Nowadays, it’s the smallest center-fire cartridge that is commonly available.
But why has the .22 Hornet managed to sustain its popularity for almost a century? Why choose the .22 Hornet over similar rounds like the .22 WMR or .223 Remington?
Let’s talk about it.
.22 Hornet Development
Like many older cartridges, the exact origins of .22 Hornet aren’t entirely clear.
We can’t be sure who first developed the round, but we do know that it started as a wildcat cartridge in the 1920s.
Credit is most often given to Grosvenor Wotkyns, a member of the Ordnance Department at Benicia Arsenal in California, and while we can’t be sure he was the first to load the round, we do know he’s the one who got the .22 Hornet off the ground commercially.
Inspired by Wotkyns’s work with .22 Hornet (though it didn’t carry that name yet), Colonel Townsend Whelen, renowned soldier, outdoors men, and riflemen, took an interest in the new round. With the help of his Army associates, G. A. Woody and Al Woodworth, Whelen converted three Springfield Model 1922 rifles to use with the round, then began testing and improving it.
The three men began by producing their own rounds, using DuPont 1204 powder and .223 bullets with jackets that they crafted from .22 Rimfire cases. These rounds proved quite successful; when Whelen tested them using his modified 1922 in a machine rest, he saw groupings of ⅞” at 100 meters and 2” at 200 yards… very impressive for the time.
Whelen thought he could do better with a different propellant though. He talked to some colleagues at Hercules Powder Company and got them to develop a new powder, which they called No. 2400 because it could propel a 45-grain bullet 2400 feet/second when used in Whelen’s cartridge.
.22 Hornet Success
In 1930, Whelen, Woody, and Woodworth took their experimental rounds out for another test run, this time varmint hunting. Woodworth had the first success, managing to nail a woodchuck from 150 yards.
Whelen told his friends of the round’s abilities, catching the interest of one friend in particular: A Winchester executive who ordered that a test rifle using the Model 54 action be built for what Whelen decided to call the .22 Hornet.
Upon testing, Winchester’s technicians found that the round was the most accurate centerfire cartridge that had been tested until that point and by the end of the year, Winchester had adopted .22 Hornet. However, guns produced for the cartridge weren’t commercially available until 1930.
Despite competition from rounds like .223 Remington, and .22 WMR, .22 Hornet has managed to hold on to its popularity through today. Pretty much all major ammunition manufacturers produce .22 Hornet, and many mass-market firearm manufacturers produce rifles chambered for .22 Hornet.
You can also find .22 Hornet revolvers and even the occasional .22 Hornet pistol. Of course, you take a hit in terms of velocity and muzzle energy when shooting the round from firearms with shorter barrels.
Factory .22 Hornet bullets are generally 34, 35, 45, or 46 grains and either hollow point or soft point. When fired from a rifle, these bullets manage to achieve velocities of 2,500 to 3,100 ft/s and muzzle energy ranging from around 900 to 1200 J.
Compared to modern varmint rounds, those numbers might make .22 Hornet seem a little bit weak and sluggish, but .22 Hornet actually has an impressively flat trajectory and is still powerful and accurate enough to take down just about any varmint or small game at distances up to about 200 yards.
The round was designed in a time when scopes weren’t nearly as common as they are now and it was intended to allow shooters accurate shots on small targets about as far away as their skill with iron sets would let them.
But the real reason that .22 Hornet has been able to keep its hold on the market nearly a century after it was first developed is the same reason it gained notoriety in the first place: reloaders. .22 Hornet has always been especially popular among those who load their own rounds and there’s no sign of that ending any time soon.
Sure, .22 Hornet doesn’t have the same degree of popularity that it once did due to competition from the more powerful modern varmint hunting rounds, but it has managed to carve out a niche and there it’s holding strong.
Speaking of which, let’s move on to talk about what all .22 Hornet can be used for these days.
.22 Hornet Uses
I’ve already said that .22 Hornet was created as a varmint round, so it should come as no surprise that varmint and small game hunting is still its primary use today.
The round is also very quiet (well, for a gunshot), making it a great choice for dealing with varmints without disturbing your neighbors.
It’s perfectly suited for small game and varmints such as gophers, groundhogs, and even coyotes, but it’s not quite sufficient for larger game such as deer. In fact, it’s illegal to hunt deer with a .22 Hornet in most states, so stick to something a little bit bigger if you’re going after anything larger than a coyote.
.22 Hornet is also a common choice for the pistol category of IHMSA and NRA metallic silhouette shooting competitions.
Part of the reason that .22 Hornet is so popular for varmint hunting and metallic silhouette shooting competition is that it has an incredibly gentle recoil, while maintaining that awesome velocity.
This, combined with the round’s quiet report, also makes .22 Hornet an excellent training round for helping inexperienced shooters get used to shooting centerfire ammunition. In fact, .22 Hornet has actually been used by Australia and New Zealand as a cadet training round during times of compulsory military service.
.22 Hornet Rifle Options
While .22 Hornet was designed as a rifle round and is still far more widely used for rifles, you can now also find handguns, both revolvers and pistols, chambered for .22 Hornet. Since handguns are pretty rare, I’m just going to talk about rifles here.
Rifles chambered for .22 Hornet generally fall in one of two categories, either bolt action or single shot rifles.
Both bolt action and single shot rifles are accurate and reliable, but bolt action rifles are far more popular for hunting and competition than single shot rifles because being able to fire off a few rounds without reloading is way more convenient than having to reload between shots.
Single shot rifles aren’t without their own appeal, though. For one, they’re just fun, classic rifles, but they’re also great training guns.
When you only have one shot, you’re forced to take it more seriously. Training with single shot rifles is a very effective way to get impatient shooters, especially kids, to slow down and take the time to make sure they’re aiming accurately before they pull the trigger.
Either way you go, you can find a rifle you’re happy with, so let’s go ahead and start with my recommendations.
1. CZ 527 American (or CZ 527 Lux)
The CZ 527 is a great rifle platform in general, but only the American and the Lux are available chambered for .22 Hornet.
The two models are very similar, and both are great rifles. There are two primary reasons I recommend the American over the Lux.
First is the stock. The 527 American has a, well, American style stock, which American shooters will probably prefer the look and feel of, while the Lux has a Bavarian style stock.
The second is sights. I don’t know this for sure, but I’m going to guess that most varmint hunters and competition shooters these days are using scopes. Both rifles have integrated 16mm scope mounts, but the Lux is even less comfortable to shoot with a scope.
On the other hand, the Lux has iron sights while the American does not.
Both rifles are similarly priced, available between about $650 and $700.
2. Ruger 77/22
The Ruger 77/22 is exactly what you’d expect from a Ruger varmint rifle.
It has Ruger’s famous quality with integral scope mounts, a three position safety, sling swivel studs, and a precise, cold hammer-forged barrel engineered for accuracy. It doesn’t have sights though, so be prepared to use a scope or add your own irons.
I prefer the model 7201, with the American walnut stock, over the model 7204, with the green mountain stock, but that’s just my tastes.
The 77/22 is usually available for about $800, but I’ve seen the model 7201 as low as about $720.
3. Ruger No. 1
Since single shot rifles are so much less common than bolt actions, I’ve only included one recommendation for a single shot rifle, but it’s a good one.
You probably already know the Ruger No. 1’s reputation as a outstanding rifle, so I won’t go into it too much here. Suffice to say that it’s a beautiful weapon that looks and feels like a pioneer gun, but has the strength and durability of a modern firearm.
One heads up though: the Ruger No. 1 can be found all over, but chambered for .22 Hornet, it’s a Lipsey’s exclusive.
It’s also a good deal more expensive than the bolt action rifles above. Expect a new one to set you back about $1,500-$2,000, but you can find used ones for several hundred less, depending on their condition.
Whatever firearm you go with, you need good ammo and when it comes to .22 Hornet, you’ve got plenty of options.
Fiocchi and Federal Ammo both have great budget ammo lines. Sure, they’re not as good as some higher end manufacturers, but they’re plenty suitable for plinking.
Remington makes higher quality .22 Hornet rounds, but they’re also a good deal more expensive, so I’d save these for small game hunting or competition rather than casual range time. Same with Hornday.
Last, I can’t leave Winchester, the company that started it all, off this list. Winchester is similar to Remington in both utility and pricing, so try a few ammo types from each to figure out which you prefer.
You can also load your own .22 Hornet rounds, which can be a great money saver and is a great way to experiment with your ammo. I’d recommend trying out some factory ammo first, though, to get a feel for the round, especially if you aren’t an experienced loader.
That’s a wrap on .22 Hornet.
Though still well-loved in certain circles almost 100 years after it was first developed, .22 Hornet is still underrated in much of the firearms community.
But they don’t know what you now know: .22 Hornet is a great little round with remarkable accuracy and range, yet low recoil and a soft report.
So whether you want a .22 round for hunting, competition, or just killing time at the range, take .22 Hornet for a spin. You might just find you don’t want to put it down.