.22lr for Home Defense

This is a guest post by Andrew Betts.22lr for home defense

Say you’ve got a loved one with arthritis, or maybe they are new to firearms and sensitive to recoil. So you decide that, at least in the meantime, they should rely on a .22lr firearm for defense. Your friend argues that .22lr for home defense is just going to enrage an attacker and provoke him to more violence (presumably it will make him more murdery, I guess). Your other friend counters that if your first friend thinks it’s no big deal, then he can “…just stand over there by that wood pile while I shoot at you with my .22lr pistol.”

This is the point where you decide both have had enough to drink and consider yourself fortunate that they didn’t decide to follow through on the experiment. It also leads you to wonder to yourself whether not wanting to be shot at with something, anything, is really a ringing endorsement of the utility of a given cartridge after all. I mean, I’m not going to volunteer to stand in your living room while you spit on me or fling canned tangerines at me, but I doubt anyone would recommend either as an ideal home defense strategy. Laying aside the problems associated with encouraging an untrained person to use a gun for defense, is .22lr “enough” to get the job done?

To answer that question we need to remind ourselves once again what is necessary to get a bad guy to stop trying to do bad stuff. There are three primary ways that an attack may be stopped. The first is a psychological stop and it’s mostly out of your control. A psychological stop is basically the “Oh crap I’m shot/being shot at! I’d better stop/get out of here!” sort of response. We cannot control or predict this response. It might happen at the mere sight of a starter pistol and it has failed to happen under a hail of .40 S&W and .223 Rem in an officer involved shooting .22lr for home defense(Warning, extremely graphic: https://publicintelligence. net/fbi-ballistics-brief- officer-involved-shooting- photos/ ). The second way that an attack is stopped is by damage to the central nervous system, particularly the spine, medulla oblongata (brain stem), and cerebrum. Even very light damage to these areas usually results in instant incapacitation. The third mechanism that can cause a bad guy to stop being capable of doing bad stuff is hypovolemic shock.In other words, they leak until there isn’t enough blood left in them to carry oxygen to the brain and muscles. If you’re good and lucky, you can get a hit to the CNS and even a .22lr will instantly incapacitate in that case.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for even highly experienced shooters to get a hit to the brain or spine when the target is moving quickly and trying to kill you. Misses don’t almost incapacitate, either. They’re just misses. So we generally advise people to shoot for the center of the upper chest first and only go for a head shot if they observe that hits to the chest failed to stop the threat. The upper chest is a larger target and is close to the center of gravity so it doesn’t move as quickly as the head does sometimes. It is also chock full of stuff that can leak a lot of blood. Hits in this area have a high probability of poking a hole in the heart, aorta, vena cava, or major pulmonary blood vessels. Additionally, you could get lucky and hit the spine. This is the first place that .22lr really falls short.


The ammunition in the test above is the most powerful, most effective .22lr ammunition that I know of. It performed extremely well… for .22lr. The problem is that even this ammunition pokes a smaller hole than almost any other handgun ammunition when fired from a pistol. It can expand when fired from a rifle, but still produces a wound that isn’t really any more damaging than round nose lead 9mm or .38 special. It does meet minimum penetration requirements, though, whether it is fired from the rifle or the pistol.

Let’s go back to the mechanisms that produce incapacitation. .22lr is one of the few cartridges that could actually fail to reach the brain if the .22lr for home defenseangle at which it strikes the head causes it to pass through a fair amount of soft tissue and bone. No, the toothless suspender guy at the gun counter is still full of it when he says that his buddy’s uncle’s stepfather-in-law got shot with a 10/22 at contact range and it “just bounced off.” But it is true that .22lr can lack the mass and velocity to get through a lot of bone and soft tissue.

It’s also true that if the round impacts the chest, it’s unlikely to have enough energy to get through a vertebra into the spinal cord after traveling through several inches of soft tissue. So, while it’s true that a .22lr can instantly incapacitate if it makes it into the central nervous system, .22lr has a lower probability of being able to get there due to the bony protection that humans have around our CNS.

.22lr will also take longer to cause incapacitation through blood loss because smaller holes leak slower than big holes. It’s not that .22lr can’t incapacitate, just that it has a higher likelihood of failing to stop, even with a good hit, when compared to centerfire ammunition.

There is another problem, though. Being a rimmed cartridge, .22lr does not feed very reliably in auto loading rifles and pistols. Sure, some are better than others, but none are as reliable as most centerfire auto loaders. The dirty powder, incomplete combustion, waxy bullet lube, and just trying to fit a small peg into a small hole during feeding all don’t help reliability.

You could use a revolver and eliminate all the feeding, extraction, and ejection issues, but you’d be left with the problem of the fundamental unreliability of rimfire ammunition. Rimfire ammunition has its priming compound in the rim of the case (hence the name). The damp priming compound is placed in the case and then the cases are spun in a machine such that centrifugal force pushes the priming compound against the sides of the case and into a groove inside the rim. This process occasionally leaves gaps, which result in “dud” rounds. While they are not very common, you will usually have a handful in a 500 round brick. Dud ammunition is far less common in centerfire ammunition.

That’s a pretty lengthy response to what seems like a simple question. To sum up, though: .22lr might be good enough but it doesn’t poke holes very deep and the holes it pokes don’t leak fluid very quickly and it also may not make it through bony parts into the central nervous system. On top of that, .22lr has some substantial reliability problems. That said, if it is the only gun you have you’ll have to make it work. It also offers a very good way to teach people how to shoot as well as a great opportunity to maintain skills for even accomplished shooters. The short answer as to whether .22lr is enough is “maybe.” The real question is whether “maybe” is good enough to bet your family’s life on.


Andrew Betts served with the Arizona National Guard for over 12 years, including a tour to Afghanistan.  Visit his YouTube Channel for more great shooting information.

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