Does Using 22 For Self Defense Actually Work? 

22 Long Rifle, or 22LR or just “22” for short, is one of the oldest cartridges in the world. First created in the early 1880’s and has been one of America’s most popular cartridges for decades. It’s great for hunting all manner of small furry animals, it’s terrific as a training round and is used for plinking and target practice by millions of people all over the world. 

But can you use a 22 for self defense? Can it do the job, or should you skip it all together and just go with a 9mm, 380 ACP or some other cartridge? For some, the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!” and any conversation about using a 22 for self defense is dismissed out of hand with words like “mouse gun.” 

Using 22 For Self Defense Puts You Behind The Power Curve 

Let’s begin with the obvious: 22LR is not a powerful cartridge. At the muzzle, a typical 22LR round will have a 40 grain bullet that leaves the barrel of your gun at around 1100 feet per second and delivers just over 100 foot/pounds of energy. Compare that to a round of 9mm, with a bullet weighing almost three times as much, traveling at over 1100 fps and punching out over 320 foot pounds of energy, and you begin to see the problem with using 22 for self defense. 

However, the power of the cartridge is just one part of the self defense equation. The most powerful handgun in the world does you absolutely no good if it’s not nearby when you need it. In addition to this, a powerful handgun that you can’t shoot well might be comforting to you, but it will have little impact on the bad guy trying to ruin your life. Turns out there might be something to the idea of using a 22 for self defense after all. 

Niche Guns, Niche Cartridges

Let’s talk about what that might look like in action. I live in Florida, and I spend some time teaching friends and neighbors how to shoot. Because I’m in Florida, a good percentage of people on the range are senior citizens. Their muscles and bone structure just aren’t what they used to be, and handing the recoil of a 9mm or even a 380 is just a bridge too far for them. Add in the force needed to manipulate the slide on most guns, and suddenly switching to using a 22 for self defense starts to make more sense. 

On top of this, despite our best efforts (and we have teams of people working on this every minute of every working day), the price of ammo is higher than it was forty years ago. Having a 22 caliber gun that you can rely on and practice with using less-expensive rimfire ammunition is a good idea as it keeps your skills sharp. At the end of the day, it’s our ability to make the shot when literally everything in our lives is on the line that will make the difference. A gun you know how to use and are comfortable with is going to be more comforting and will perform better in your hands than a gun you shoot only once a year. 

Learning For The Experts

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what renowned firearms trainer Massad Ayoob says in his seminal work, “In The Gravest Extreme: The Role of the Firearm in Personal Protection,” written in 1980. 

“Nevertheless, alone among small-caliber defense cartridges, (a .22) has a valid place as a self-protection weapon. This is because it is easy for gun-shy amateurs to shoot rapidly and accurately. There is no vicious recoil or deafening blast to make them cringe, close their eyes, and jerk the trigger; wild shots are therefore made less likely. There is a more subjective factor involved here. A person who is afraid of his gun will never be able to effectively defend himself with it in a gunfight. He won’t even be able to make a convincing threat, because the criminal he holds a gun on will probably sense his uncertainty.

The main reason most gun-carrying private citizens–and for that matter, so many policemen–are such lousy shots is that they don’t practice. Some are just disinclined, while others rely on the magic power of the gun to drop anything that is anywhere in front of it when it goes bang. But the main reason is, ‘I can’t afford twelve dollars a box to practice with every month!’ ‘Remanufactured’ ammo for .45’s, 9 m/m’s, and .38 Specials are available at as little as $5 per box of 50. By contrast, a box of 50 .22’s can be had for a little more than a dollar. This encourages practice, which is essential to one who wishes to be able to protect himself (both from armed criminals and from lawsuits by innocent bystanders hit by wild shots).” – “In The Gravest Extreme,” page 109.

New Bullets, New Guns, New Possibilities

Keep in mind this was written in 1980, before Glocks and bonded, jacketed hollow point ammunition became popular. At that time, a 1911 in 45 ACP or a revolver in .357 Magnum were considered the best defensive pistols you could buy. Yet here is Ayoob, a legend in the business back then, recommending using a 22 for self defense as a less optimal but still very viable alternative for people who can’t handle the recoil of a large gun. 

A lot has changed since then. There are now small 380 ACP pistols that are easy to shoot and easy to manipulate. In addition to this, modern computer models and high-speed photography have given us a better idea of how bullets behave when they hit the target. With all of that in mind, is using a 22 for self defense a good idea? Let’s find out. 

Issues Around Using 22 For Self Defense

22 defensive ammoTraditionally, the biggest problem with using a 22 for self defense is that the round is too underpowered to reach a vital organ and stop the threat. To see if that is still true, we’re going to shoot three common 22LR cartridges into ballistics gel through four layers of heavy cloth, using four different 22 caliber guns. 

The ammunition we’ll be using is: 

CCI Minimag 40 grain Copper Plated Round Nose
Federal 22 Punch 
Winchester Silvertip 

22 caliber defensive gunsThe guns in our test will be a Glock 44 pistol, a Smith and Wesson 43c revolver, a Ruger LCP LiteRack pistol and a Ruger 10/22 rifle. We’ll shoot five rounds of each type of ammo with these guns through four layers of heavy fabric into a block of ballistics gel. We’ll measure the penetration of each bullet into the gel and average the results. We will also measure the velocity of each round at the muzzle and use it to calculate the average muzzle energy of each combination of firearm and ammunition.


Ruger LCP Lite Rack 22 

Ruger LCP 22 LiteRackAvg. Velocity (fps)Avg. Muzzle Energy (ft/lbs)Min. Penetration (in)Max Penetration (in)Avg. Penetration (in)Results
40 gr CCI Mini-Mag902728.7510.3759.85LCP 22 MiniMag
29 gr Federal Punch1078751114.512.58LCP 22 Punch
37 gr Winchester Silvertip974789.7513.37511.8LCP 22 Silvertip

The LCP Lite Rack is very similar to the best-selling Ruger LCP2, except it’s chambered in 22LR instead of 380ACP. The pistol has a 2 ¾ inch long barrel, which means that there is a chance some of the ammo we’ll be testing didn’t reach reach the velocity it might have reached in other pistols with a longer barrel. 

The Federal Punch 22 was the clear winner for this part of the test. With over 12 inches of average penetration through the gel, it passed the FBI minimum standard for defensive ammunition, which is quite something given the short 2.75 inch barrel. 

Second best was the Winchester Silvertip, with 11.8 inches of penetration, which falls just short of the FBI minimum standard. In addition to this, the Silvertip bullets fragmented as they impacted the gel, leaving just a fraction of each pullet to penetrate into the target and reach a vital area. 

CCI Mini-Mags are very popular and a good choice for target shooting, pinking and small animal hunting. However, when we shot them in the LCP, they failed to come anywhere close to the FBI minimum penetration for a defensive round 

Smith & Wesson 43c Revolver 

S&W 43c Revolver LiteRackAvg. Velocity (fps)Avg. Muzzle Energy (ft/lbs)Min. Penetration (in)Max Penetration (in)Avg. Penetration (in)Results
40 gr CCI Mini-Mag9588210.2511.510.9743c Mini-Mag
29 gr Federal Punch10967713.62515.37514.4443c Punch
37 gr Winchester Silvertip974789.7513.37511.843c Silvertip

The 43c is an eight-shot snub-nosed revolver chambered in 22LR. It has a 1 and 7/8ths inch long barrel, which might also affect penetration..  Federal Punch also performed the best when shot from this gun and penetrated an average of 14.44 inches through four layers of heavy cloth and gel. This is a standard that some 9mm and 38 Special rounds can’t achieve, so the performance of this round in this gun and the LCP Lite Rack is quite exceptional. 

The Winchester Silvertip round also did quite well, with an average penetration of 12.43 inches. However, just as with the LCP, the round fragmented as it hit the gel, greatly reducing the mass of the bullet that drove through the gel. One round of Silvertip performed poorly, penetrating only 9.25 inches. 

The CCI Mini-Mag round shot from the 43c did not achieve the minimum 12 inches of gel penetration. This round is very effective for a lot of things, but self defense from a short barrel probably isn’t one of them. 

Glock 44

Glock 44Avg. Velocity (fps)Average Muzzle Energy (ft/lbs)Min. Penetration (in)Max Penetration (in)Avg. Penetration (in)Results
40 gr CCI Mini-Mag954819.7511.2510.58Glock Mini-Mag
29 gr Federal Punch10967713.51614.38Glock 44 Punch
37 gr Winchester Silvertip1074959.37513.7512Glock Silvertip

The Glock 44 is essentially a 22LR version of the very popular Glock 19. The 4 inch long barrel in this gun allows for more propellant to burn and push the bullet out at higher velocities, which may affect the penetration of the bullets into our testing medium. 

Once again the Federal Punch delivered the best results in our test. With every round penetrating at least 13.75 inches through the gel, and none going more than 16 inches, this is exactly the sort of results you want in a defensive round, regardless of caliber. 

The Winchester Silvertip ammo met the 12 inch standard, however, once again there was one round that failed to penetrate 12 inches, and by a significant amount. 

CCI Mini-Mags, on the other hand, once again stopped well short of the minimum penetration for a defensive round. However, as we shall see, it might work well in other guns.

Ruger 10/22

Glock 44Avg. Velocity (fps)Average Muzzle Energy (ft/lbs)Min. Penetration (in)Max Penetration (in)Avg. Penetration (in)Results
40 gr CCI Mini-Mag123613613.62517.514.63Ruger Mini-Mag
29 gr Federal Punch158616210.51714.4310/22 Federal Punch
37 gr Winchester Silvertip1074959.37513.751210/22 Silvertip

The longer barrel on the 10/22 clearly helped the Mini-Mag develop more velocity. As a result, Mini-Mags in the 10/22 have almost twice the muzzle energy of most other rounds in a pistol. This helped them penetrate over 14 inches on average, with one round going through the entire block and an inch and a half into the next one. 

Federal Punch also received a velocity and energy boost from the longer 10/22 barrel. That extra power, however, did not translate into extra penetration into the gel. It appears that the design of the Punch round is optimized for shorter barrels and yet still be effective out of a rifle barrel as well. 

The Winchester Silvertip round also did quite well from the 10/22, with all the shots either knocking on the door of 12 inches of penetration or going beyond that threshold. As with the other tests, the hollow-point Silvertip round fragmented on impact, leaving a smaller portion of the bullet to travel through the gel and achieve the FBI standard.  

Is Using A 22 For Self Defense A Good Idea? 

The answer to this question is going to depend on a lot of things. These results show that a 22 can be the minimum standard of effectiveness for a pistol, especially when using Federal Rimfire Punch ammo. Clearly, then, you can use a 22 for self defense. 

But should you? This is where the debate really heats up. 

Consider this: The introduction of Federal FliteControl buckshot revolutionized the use of the defensive shotgun. Federal changed how the shot pellets were packed inside the shotshell, creating a round that had the punch of #00 buck, but the accuracy out to 25 yards and beyond. This greatly increased the utility to the shotgun, so much that today, FliteControl is considered the standard defensive round for serious students of the defensive shotgun. 

In my opinion, Federal Rimfire Punch ammo does for using 22 for self defense what FliteControl did for the defensive shotgun. It takes what was once a marginally effective firearm and makes it a very real and very viable self defense tool for a number of different situations. 

It’s Your Choice

Should you use 22 for self defense? As a first choice, probably not. A  22 caliber pistol, even a little pocket gun such as the Ruger LCP or a S&W snubbie can make the target re-think their decision to attack you, and with the right ammo, you can get fast, repeatable his on the target that can go through to the vital areas of your assailant, stopping them from hurting those you love. 

You’ll note that we haven’t talked about bullet expansion, a defining characteristic of defensive ammunition like jacketed hollow point rounds. Instead, we are only talking about penetration, which is the ability of a bullet to reach a vital organ and shut down the attacker. An expanding bullet can cause more damage as it travels through the body, but if the bullet can’t reach the vitals, you’re going to hurt your attacker, not stop them. 22LR is not a high-powered round, so using 22 for self defense means prioritizing penetration over expansion in order to be effective.

As we said before, though, practice is the key. Do your dry-fire work. Go to the range and shoot drills to measure your progress. All the firepower in the world, no matter the caliber, does you no good if you can’t bring it to bear on the target when it’s really needed. Making your hits when it counts the most is the goal. What gun or caliber you use to accomplish this task is secondary to that fact.