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A .22 Pistol for Self Defense?
A definite maybe
by John Glatthar
August 2020

This question comes up frequently: Would you recommend a .22 caliber gun for self-defense?  

Recommend? Over your bare hands? Yes, no question. I would much rather have a .22 caliber firearm than no gun at all. While rimfire pistols are seldom the top answer to defensive needs, let us not forget that a .22 caliber high velocity projectile is potentially deadly. Does any reader care to dispute that?  Some interesting stats on the usefulness and performance of 22 cartridge in self defense can be found at the Buckeye Firearms Association's An Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power. 

Pros and Cons

The “stopping power” issue has been re-hashed countless times, so I will not repeat those points. I will say, however, that I have seen a good shooter fire 12 rounds from s .22 semi-auto pistol in a matter of seconds inside 6-inch circle at 7 yards. The end result looked like a blast of #4 buckshot (.24 diameter lead balls) fired from a shotgun. When the gun and ammo work together, the results can be impressive. While no one is claiming that the small .22 will outperform a larger caliber, it is most assuredly something you'd not want to be shot with. Nor would anyone, including a bad guy.

As you consume studies and data on its stopping power or lack thereof, you may overlook other reasons why one might want to choose the diminutive cartridge, including one very real human aspect - weakened hands due to age, injury, or atrophy. I have had numerous students over the years who, for various reasons including muscle atrophy, weak hands and fingers, arthritis and other ailments, could not operate the slide of any common semi-automatic centerfire pistol. Nor could they pull the trigger on a modern, lightweight double action revolver, which are typically equipped with 12 pound triggers. Some were able to fire the revolver in single action mode, i.e. cocking the hammer with the thumb and pressing the trigger with the finger, but the felt recoil exceeded their tolerance level. It was just too much punch for them, and that resulted in a terrible flinch and miss on the second and subsequent shots. Firing a revolver in slow single action mode may be acceptable at a friendly shooting range, but that method would simply be too slow in a self defense situation where one may have to fire quickly and repeatedly into the center mass of a charging attacker.

When I reach the age of some of my elderly students, I may have to reach for that .22. Because a semi-auto .22 pistol has a "light" recoil spring and a very mild recoil, it can be operated by nearly anyone, and the above-described problems are not present.

One problem with rimfire cartridges is that they are not as reliable as centerfire cartridges. The industry failure rate for centerfire cartridges is 5 in 15 million. Close to zero, but not zero. Rimfire cartridge failures are significantly higher. I do not have industry figures for that, but anyone who has purchased a “brick” or bulk box of 500 rounds of .22 can attest to the experience of having 5 or 10 cartridges fail to fire. There are countless anecdotal stories on the web gun forums attesting to this. Sometimes you can re-chamber the cartridge and try it again, Or even a third time, before it fires. Or it doesn’t. This is frustrating nuisance at the range, but would be a terrifying failure in a life & death self-defense situation. Yes, you can (and should) opt for premium quality .22 ammunition, such as CCI match grade ammo to mitigate the possibility of failure, but It is still rimfire ammo and will not be as reliable centerfire ammunition.

Picky, picky

That brings us to the next point: rimfire semi-auto pistols (I am not discussing rifles here) are notoriously finicky when it comes to the ammunition they will digest. The gun's recoil spring, internal feeding mechanism, magazine spring and follower,  as well as the bullet's shape and its velocity all play a role in whether the gun will function reliably during its cycle of operation. When you buy a .22 semi-auto, buy several brands of ammo and test them. You may be surprised at what works reliably and what does not.

In the case of the Smith & Wesson M&P full size 22 semi-auto (the ones I use at the range), Remington Golden Bullet ammunition works very well. It is not premium or match grade ammo, but it is of acceptable quality, it is affordable (in normal times of supply and demand), and the gun digests it well. The gun and ammo just like each other.

I strongly advise against the use of non-jacketed (lead-only) bullets in the M&P 22, due to its rifling. Other semi-auto pistols and many rifles will digest lead bullets well, but not this gun. Such ammo will foul an M&P barrel quickly. In about 50 rounds or less, you will be shooting a smooth bore pistol (as if it had no rifling) and you will see your bullets leave “keyholes” on the paper target. It’s true! Lastly, you will have a very difficult time removing the lead from your barrel when you clean the gun. Trust me on this.

One interesting aftermarket accessory for the three most popular semi-autos (Glock, 1911s, and S/A XD series) are .22LR conversion kits, such as those sold by Advantage Arms. Ammunition sensitivity is still an issue with these kits, but they have done the testing for you and have developed specific ammunition recommendations. As an example, read the ammo conversion kit FAQ section for Glocks here.

As much as I like and enjoy my .22 revolvers, semi-auto pistols and rifles, none would be my first choice for self defense, but to reiterate my first statement, I would be happy to have a .22 firearm versus no gun at all. We do not, however, live in world where our only choices are none or a .22. Not yet anyway. 

At Semper Firearms Training we encourage you to buy a good firearm, get trained in how to use it, and continue your firearms training as part of a defensive lifestyle.

Please be sure to watch these two important videos and to send the links on to a friend:

Images courtesy of Oleg Volk

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Images courtesy of Oleg Volk