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Centerfire .22s For Big Game

by Craig Boddington   |  January 4th, 2011 5

They’re legal for deer in many states, but should we use them?


Boddington shot this axis deer on the Y.O. Ranch with a Kimber .223. The bullet was a 60-grain Bear Claw and performed perfectly. He cautions, however, that shot placement must be very precise to take game this size with a .22 centerfire.

It was Walter Dalrymple Maitland “Karamoja” Bell who hypothesized that “10 grains in the right place” would do a whole lot more than many times that in the wrong place. He was, of course, absolutely and irrefutably correct. Neither bullet weight, nor bullet energy, velocity or performance in any combination can supplant shot placement.

Smallbore fans always cite Bell because he was the best-known (and possibly most successful) of the smallbore gurus. He used relatively light calibers for most of the 1,000-plus elephants he shot in the early years of this century: 7×57, .303 British, .318 Westley Richards.

However, comparing what we can do to what Bell did is sort of like comparing what we can do with golf clubs against what Tiger Woods does with them. Bell was an extraordinary marksman. He was also a student of animal anatomy. After some early failures he dissected and studied elephant skulls until he understood–and could visualize from any angle–exactly where the brain lay. Whenever you cite Bell, understand that he was not banking on bullet performance and he cared not a whit for foot-pounds. He shot only solids (“The barrel of my .275 Rigby has never been polluted by a softnosed bullet!”), and if the solid reached the brain he had his elephant. And this didn’t always work; he expected a failure rate–a wounded animal–due to poor aim or the bullet’s failure to hold its line.

That was in another century. We cannot accept a failure rate today. With that, let’s consider .22 centerfires for deer. The Bell analogy isn’t out in left field. Taking a big buck with a .22 is only slightly less optimistic than taking an elephant with a 7×57. Yes, you can do it, but you better know how.

Most states set some kind of restriction on legal arms for deer hunting. The most common, I think, is 6mm. I fervently believe this is the most sensible minimum–not all of us are Karamoja Bell. A smaller number of states allow .22 centerfires and a couple allow “any centerfire,” and a .17 Rem. is perfectly legal. I have actually seen a substantial whitetail flattened by a .17 Rem. It was a neck shot, no surprise, but I don’t recommend a 25-grain bullet at 4,000 fps for any deer hunting under any circumstances.

The .22s are a different story. They can be used effectively on deer. Nothing said herein is meant to suggest that I condone flaunting game laws. If a .22 is not legal in your area, don’t use one. Since they are legal in a number of states, many hunters are going to use them, so this is a worthwhile discussion.


Left to right: .222 Rem., .223 Rem., .22-250 Rem., .220 Swift. If you’re using a .22 centerfire for deer, these are among the choices that make the most sense.

There are three things you need to be concerned about: bullet performance, bullet energy, and shot placement (not necessarily in that order).

Bullet Performance
If Bell were to use his old .22 Savage Hi-Power on kudu, he would prefer to load it with a full-metal-jacket bullet. Then he would pierce the brain or skewer the heart with it. In the former case he’d walk up and collect his meat, in the latter he’d follow the tracks a little distance first. We can’t do it his way, since non-expanding bullets are illegal for big game in every jurisdiction I’m aware of. We must pollute our barrels with softnosed bullets. If you’re bent on using a .22, you must choose your bullet with great care.

Most .22 bullets are intended as varmint bullets; thin-jacketed and very frangible so they come unglued at the slightest resistance. This is just what you don’t want in a big-game bullet. You want expansion, sure, because it wrecks the vitals, but you must get the bullet into the vitals and that takes penetration.


.22 Centerfire Heavy-Bullet Loads
  Velocity (fps)/Energy (ft-lbs)
Cartridge Bullet Weight Muzzle 100 yds. 200 yds. 300 yds.
.222 Remington 62 gr. 2,887
1,148
2,457
831
2,067
588
1,716
405
.223 Rem. 64 gr. 3, 020
1,296
2,656
1,003
2,320
765
2,009
574
.22-250 60 gr. 3,600
1,727
3,195
1,360
2,826
1,064
2,484
823
.220 Swift 60 gr. 3,600
1,727
3,195
1,360
2,826
1,064
2,484
823
By Comparison
.243 Win. 100 gr. 2,960
1,945
2,697
1,615
2,449
1,332
2,215
1,089
.30-30 150 gr. 2,390
1,902
1,973
1,296
1,605
858
1,303
565

 

I admit I have taken a number of deer with a .22-250 and standard 55-grain loads. The res
ults can be spectacular. The problem is, the shots that can be taken are extremely limited. So long as you know that, and you’re Karamoja for a day, it’s okay. It is much better, however, to select bullets designed for the purpose. The good news is that there are several excellent .22-caliber bullets intended for use on larger game. They hold together, penetrate, and greatly expand the range of shots you can safely take.

Most of these bullets are very heavy-for-caliber, 60 grains and more, which also increases penetrating abilities. But be careful: A lot of heavy-for-caliber bullets are match bullets, either hollowpoint or full-metal-jacket, so make sure you select hunting bullets. I have the most experience with the 60-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, a bullet that expands, holds together and penetrates. I’ve used it with perfect results in my .223s on game up to axis deer in size. There is a good .22-caliber Barnes X as well, and brand-new 60-grain Nosler Partition, which should be a wonderful deer bullet as .22s go.

Bullet Energy
Since I’m not Karamoja Bell, I can’t overlook the basic requirements of bullet energy. No one can say how much, but Colonel Townsend Whelen was an awfully smart man, and I’m willing to accept his theory of 1,000 ft-lbs. at the game. This for small to medium-sized deer. Legal or not, in terms of energy this rules out the .17 Rem., .22 Hornet and .218 Bee; none of which offer 1,000 ft-lbs. at the muzzle. I’ve seen deer stoned by the .22 Hornet and the .17. Shot placement counts above all, but it’s too risky a business for me and I don’t want a built-in failure rate.

The accompanying table shows that none of the .22 centerfires are long on energy. What there is drops off very quickly because of the light bullets, so the .22 centerfires are not long-range tools for deer. The .222 doesn’t even make 100 yards; the .223 drops below 1,000 ft-lbs. just past 100 yards; the .22-250 and .220 Swift make it to 200 yards just barely. In other words, the fastest and flattest of the .22s have about the same effective range on deer as the .30-30.

Shot Placement
Although I know how to do it and have done it, I am not by nature a head/neck shooter. It’s just too risky. The slightest shooter error or the slightest last-minute movement on the part of the animal, and you’ve inflicted a horrible wound on an animal you may or may not be able to recover. I freely admit that Karamoja Bell was a better man than I’ll ever be. So I avoid the head/neck shot, even with super-accurate .22s, unless the range is quite close, the animal is unaware and I’m perfectly steady. It’s so ingrained in me to go for the heart/lung shot that I usually don’t even think otherwise, even if the conditions are right. There’s a difference between the heart shot and lung shot. With a .22 it’s a big difference.

To reach the heart from broadside you have to go through the shoulder. To do this with a .22, you must be extremely certain of your bullet. You can do it with the bullets I named and there are others that will also work. But you’d better be certain. The lung shot, right behind the shoulder and avoiding heavy bone, is much more certain and a whole lot safer.

There are also innumerable angles from which the heart and lungs can be reached-but not with a .22. If you decide to use the smallbores for deer, you must make a commitment to be extremely picky not only about shot placement, but also the acceptable shot presentation. Of course, there are deer and then there are deer. A 100-pound doe or yearling buck is not the same animal as a 300-pound northern buck; you have a bit more latitude in the shots you can take with the former. Because of this, in my mind the .22 centerfires are really not suited for the larger deer, nor for trophy buck hunting anywhere. Rather, they are their best when venison is the main goal, and with absolute priority given to shot placement and presentation. Used in this fashion, the .22 centerfires will take down deer like lightning striking. And somewhere Karamoja Bell will be smiling.

  • stephen winger

    I have a grandson who is 8 years old and has killed five deer with a 17 ballistic tips. His sister who is 10 killed a doe last year with the same gun. That is 6 deer shot at and 6 deer dead. The furthest one ran appro 30 to 40 yds. I am moving him up to a 223 this year shooting the federal 60gr nosler partition. All of the deer where shot in the lung area no head or neck shots. Last year I shot a large doe with my 280 rem with 140 gr and she went futher than the doe he shot with the 17. When I look at the ballistics on the 17 I do not know how it does such an effective job of killing deer but it does. I am confident that the 223 will have plenty of energy to effectively harvest deer within the 150 yd range. I find that most of the deer that I shoot with 140 to 165 gr bullets travel at least 30yds unless I break the large bones in the front shoulders.

  • Bruce Staley

    i have as well as my wife killed 6-8 deer with the 223 rem. using 55 gr bearclaws. the deer didn't even make it out of site. all shots were heart and lung. we live in n.c. so deer are not giants by no means but the bullets passed through no problem. the 55 gr bc has become unavailable in my area so last year i ordered 64 gr power points and assume they will be just fine. everyone makes fun of me using my ruger 223 but my wall full of horns speaks for its self. i say use it bullets and shot placement is everything i don't care what you're using. good hunting!!

  • andy

    i live in oh and ive killed more deer then i can rember
    with a 22 shoot them right between the eyes they will drop or shoot them right in the ear

  • Roy

    I'm with ya Andy. My dad and uncles have taken more deer with the 22 lr with shots at the base of the ear from under 75 feet than I think any three people I know with any other combination of cartridges. They drop where they're standing from the old (my perspective, to them these Ruger's are still plenty fancy!) 10/22's so long as the shot lands centerpoint from eye to ear, through the base of the ear, so they have proved time and time again. These days though their eyes aren't what they used to be, so they've stepped up to more common rounds.

  • f.d.brock

    you can kill a big hog with a 22 short if placed in the right place i have killed many with a 22/lr on a friends farm, if you dont scare them they will just stand there then drop right, my favorite deer rifle is a 243 with 95 grn b/t my second choice is my little mini mark x in 223 rem.. loaded with 60 grn speer s/p never had to track one out of sight of my stand. shot placement is the most important thing in hunting, we owe it to the animal to make humane clean shots.

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