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Old 09-20-2003, 11:17 AM

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A Short History of the Rimfire Cartridge *

Although it is not a completely documented fact, there is some agreement within the firearm industry about the origins of the .22 rimfire. It is generally believed that Louis Flobert, a French National, created the rimfire BB Cap in the early to mid 1800’s. Flobert took a 15 grain lead ball and pressed it into the mouth of a percussion cap. It wasn’t particularly accurate nor pretty, but it did launch the little ball and at the same time, it launched one of the most popular cartridges the world has ever seen.
Around 1857, the good people of Smith & Wesson made a significant improvement on the Frenchman’s first effort and developed the “S&W .22 Rim Fire,” which was the first cartridge for which their Model 1 tip-up revolver was chambered. Smith & Wesson started with the same basic principle but then stretched the length of the case and created a folded rim design in which the priming compound was contained only around the perimeter of the case head, between the rim’s double wall. And, while Msr. Flobert’s BB Cap was powered only by the charge contained in the percussion cap, S&W stuffed in 3 grains of black powder under the 29 grain, conical bullet. Behold, the first .22 Short! It not only started the rimfire revolution in the U.S., it also kicked off the era of self-contained metallic cartridges.

S&W’s radical new approach was quickly “borrowed” by others in the industry and within a very short time, rifles and pistols chambered for rimfire cartridges began to appear in great numbers and varieties of caliber. The largest caliber attempted was .58. But just as the rimfire industry was taking off, some creative people came up with the concept of the center fire, or “centrally primed” rifle cartridge. One of the very first centerfires was the .45-70 Government, which came on the scene in 1873. The ability to reload the fired casings was attractive to many, not just the government, and the centrally primed cartridges could develop and handle higher chamber pressures, which resulted in increased effective ranges of the projectiles. The relatively primitive rimfire ignition system and the correspondingly low-pressure limits to which it was restricted was quickly abandoned by the big bore community, but it thrived quite nicely in the smaller calibers. The .22 caliber is where it found a permanent home.

In the never-ending search for improved performance, the .22 Long was developed and appeared in the market place around 1871. Like the .22 Short compared to the original BB Cap, the basic case length was again extended. The bullet weight remained the same at 29 grains, but the longer case allowed a blackpowder charge of five grains, up two grains from that of the Short. As a percentage increase, that’s huge, and the Long was a vast improvement, ballistically, over the Short. In 1880 the Extra Long was created. Again, it boasted a larger powder charge (six grains) and a heavier 40 grain bullet. Over the years of development and tinkering, the Extra Long, using smokeless powder, was able to push its 40 grain bullet out the barrel at over 1,000 feet per second. The Extra Long was considered “hot stuff” in 1880, but it soon had to share center stage with yet another evolutionary/revolutionary rimfire cartridge.

The arrival of the .22 Long Rifle cartridge in 1887 was arguably the most important milestone in the development of the .22 rimfire since the BB Cap. Not surprisingly, there are conflicting stories about the origins of this important cartridge, but it research indicates that the U.S. Cartridge Co., the Union Metallic Cartridge Co., and old Joshua Stevens of the Stevens Arms & Tool Co., all had a hand in it. Regardless of what combination of creative people and businesses actually gave us the new cartridge, there were two elements that contributed to the markedly improved accuracy for which the .22 LR would become noted: 1) the 1:16" twist barrel which gave better stabilization to the 40 grain bullet; 2) crimping the cartridge case. The crimping of the case around the bullet provided much more efficient powder burning characteristics. The little round actually became predictable in its trajectory and overall ballistic performance!

Even though the Long Rifle round was clearly superior from the very start, the search for higher velocity (does this sound familiar?) prompted the introduction in 1890 of the .22 Winchester Rim Fire. Shortly after that, Remington came out with their very own ".22 Remington Special." Other than bullet shape, the two versions were identical and interchangeable. Unlike the Short, Long, Extra Long and Long Rifle in which the bullet's bearing surface and the outside diameter of the case is the same, the .22 WRF did not use a "heeled" bullet. The Winchester Rimfire was loaded like a centerfire cartridge with a jacketed bullet in which the bullet's bearing surface fit inside the case mouth. The .22 WRF was loaded with six grains of blackpowder and a 45 gr. solid bullet. A few years later a 40 gr. hollowpoint was added to the product line. Sadly, neither of the new offerings matched the accuracy of the Long Rifle. The search for increased velocity resulted in a differential of less than 100 fps. And as semi-smokeless and smokeless versions were produced, the WRF's tiny velocity edge shrank even more, so there was little market demand for the rounds.

It would take almost 70 years before a major firearms or ammunition manufacturer would introduce another rimfire cartridge. In 1959, Winchester introduced their .22 Magnum. When announced, the company made much ado over the “2,000 feet per second muzzle velocity from a 22" barrel.” The tale of the chronograph soon caused Winchester to lower their original computer estimates to a more accurate but still quite respectable 1,910 fps. Compared to the 1,265 fps of a high velocity .22 LR that utilizes the same 40 grain projectile, the WMR is a powerhouse. During its over 40-year existence the WMR has been loaded with bullets as heavy as 50 grains, and as light as 30 grains. Through field trial and error, however, the original 40 grain projectile proved to be the most versatile. The .22 WMR extends the maximum effective range a full 50 yards beyond that of the .22 LR, to about 125 yards. In my experience 50 yards seems to be the optimum range at which to zero a .22 LR, and I like my WMR’s zeroed in at 100 yards. When dead-on at this distance, the point-of-impact at 50 yards is about +1", and -2.5" at 125. I can easily deal with that type of predictable trajectory. Starting out with 325 ft./lbs. of energy, the 40 grain bullet from a .22 WMR has the same striking force at 125 yards as the .22 LR has at the muzzle. The magnum is potent enough to take large pests and predators like woodchucks, fox and bobcat on out to the limits of its practical range. I’ve heard claims by folks who think that even larger animals like coyote and javelina are not beyond the .22 WMR's capabilities at ranges under 100 yards. I, personally, would not care to take on a collared peccary with a .22WMR unless I was hovering over it in an Apache helicopter.

And now, here we are in the first quarter of 2002, and the long promised, long awaited .17 caliber rimfire is a reality. Hornady’s 17 HMR (Hornady Magnum Rimfire) ammunition is shipping as you read this article. How hot is it? According to the literature produced by Hornady, that little 17 grain, .17 caliber bullet comes screaming out of the barrel at 2550 fps! With this velocity and the ballistic efficiency of the V-Max, ballistic tipped bullet technology employed by Hornady, the 17HMR delivers considerably more terminal energy than its closest rival, the .22WMR, at both 150 and 200 yards. And, how flat is flat trajectory? Compared again to the fastest .22WMR loading available, at 200 yards there’s a 10 inch difference in trajectory! In a 10 mile an hour crosswind, there’s a 15 inch difference in wind drift! All the numbers are there, rimfire fans. Now it’s a case of seeing if this hot new offering can deliver in the crucial area of accuracy. All that heat and all that energy isn’t worth a thing if you can’t reliably put the little pill where it needs to go. If it performs as promised, it’s going to be a world beater and a dream come true for all of us who have developed an affinity for the rimfire cartridges! As of this writing, Ruger, Marlin and H&R were all planning on placing rifles in the new caliber in the market place before the end of the first quarter. Watch these pages for test and evaluations of all these firearms, and any more that become available over the next several months.

* The above article is from RimfireNews.Com. Visit the Site for more interesting items relating to rimfires....! !
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