.22 Centerfires for Deer

by Ron Spomer

.22 Centerfires for DeerYou can shoot elk in Idaho with a 22-250 Remington, but you can’t shoot a whitetail in Wyoming with one. What’s the problem: isn’t the whitetail big enough?

The hodge-podge of state regulations restricting various cartridges and calibers for hunting is more social engineering than biology/game management. Should we really trust biologists and politicians to determine what rifles and bullets are effective on deer?

The truth no one addresses is that bullets play a much, much bigger role than cartridges in terminating whitetails. Centerfire .22s can be deadly on big game, if used with the right bullet. Plenty of states like South Dakota have allowed .22 centerfires for big game and their deer herds have not crawled off to die as cripples.

I swallowed the anti-.22 line once, but began to see the light when a South Dakota biologist told me his favorite antelope rifle was a .22-250 Remington “Kill’s ‘em deader than any .300 magnum I’ve ever seen. Does the same to deer,” he said. I’ve since taken a half-dozen pronghorns and whitetails with the .22-250 and concur with the biologist. However, not everyone has had such success.

Robert Ruark, a famous writer in the 1950s, shot a hyena nine times with a .220 Swift without killing it. He then condemned the Swift loudly in print. His problem was probably the 50-grain varmint bullet he was shooting. A frangible bullet isn’t designed to stay together and punch through large muscles and bones when delivered at high velocity. Tougher .224 slugs like the Barnes X, Swift Scirocco, Nosler Partition and Trophy Bonded Bear Claw are deadly effective on big game. Tests have shown that a 53-grain Barnes X from a .22-250 penetrated farther than a traditional 250-grain soft-point from a .338 Winchester Magnum. Bullet construction and placement are more important than caliber.

These days some game departments rank cartridges by energy levels rather than just caliber. This isn’t foolproof, but an improvement over caliber bias. The traditional “24-caliber or larger centerfire” regulation permits use of such anemic cartridges as the .25-20 Winchester (86-grain bullet at 1,460 fps generating a puny 406 ft. lbs. of energy at the muzzle); the .30 Carbine (110-grain, 1,990 fps, 967 ft. lbs. that dwindles to just 600 ft. lbs. at 100 yards); .32 Ideal (150-grain, 1,330 fps, 596 ft. lbs.) and many others. Heck, the puny little .222 Remington steps out at 3,140 fps and churns up 1,094 ft. lbs. with a 50-grain bullet. At 100 yards, that bullet is still packing 827 ft. lbs., more than double the .25-20 Winchester at the muzzle. Yet, the latter is legal.

These days nearly everyone realizes bullet construction and placement are more important than bullet caliber, energy, speed or shape/size. A little bullet in the heart/lungs beats a massive slug in the paunch every time. This is why the .223 Remington is such a popular deer round in Texas. Women, children and anyone with a flinching problem can aim and fire that mild cartridge with precision, resulting in thousands of clean kills every season.

What can you honestly expect from a .22 centerfire? Minimum recoil, flat trajectory, excellent accuracy (varies by rifle, of course) and sufficient energy for clean kills to 200- or 350-yards, depending on the cartridge and bullet. You’ll maximize this potential by using the fastest .22s with the heaviest, sturdiest bullets. The .22-250 Remington will throw a 60-grain pill at least 3,600 fps. Sighted dead-on at 200-yards, it will drop just 5.4 inches at 300-yards and still be packing 816 ft. lbs. That’s 300 ft. lbs. MORE than the 30-30 Winchester with a 150-grain flat-nose.

The biggest stumbling block to the .22-250 and .220 Swift as big game tools is their factory-standard 14-inch twist barrels. Faster twists, such as 10- and even 8-inch, often available in .223 Remington rifles, stabilize long bullets as heavy as 75-grains. With their extremely high ballistic coefficients and sectional densities, those bullets retain more downrange energy and penetrate like tank busters. For the ultimate .22 centerfire, put a fast twist barrel on a .22-250 Improved, .223 WSM, .220 Swift, .22-6mm or .22-243 wildcat and load up some 75-grain Sciroccos or 70-grain Barnes Triple Shocks. Spectacular.

Let’s crawl out of the black-powder era and legalize centerfire .22s for deer hunting.

Ron Spomer

Ron Spomer shot his first whitetail in South Dakota in 1968 and has since pursued them in 10 western states, three western Canadian provinces, and in Mexico. Since 1976 Spomer’s photography and writings have appeared in more than 125 magazine titles and many books including The Rut, The Hunter’s Book of The Whitetail, and Advanced Whitetail Hunting. Spomer currently hosts Winchester World of Whitetail on the Outdoor Channel. His hunting and instructional videos can be seen on YouTube, and he can be reached at ronspomeroutdoors.com.