Big-case .22 Centerfires

Ahead of their time?
5

Browning A-Bolt chambered for the .223 WSSM cartridge with Sightron scope.
The cartridge never really caught on despite impressive ballistics.

Big-case .22 centerfires have fallen out of favor in recent years. My subjective definition of a big-case .22 is those with water capacity starting at around 40 grains. This category includes the .224 Weatherby (38 grain), .225 Winchester (40 grain), .22-250 Remington (44 grain), .220 Swift (47 grain) and .223 WSSM (55 grain). The list illustrates the sad state of affairs for big-case .22 as most of these cartridges are dead or dying. About the only one still able to sit up and take nourishment is the .22-250 Rem. Fortunately and all things considered, it’s probably the best in its class.

The handsomest .22-250 Dave ever owned, a Kimber 84M. With spectacular
walnut and a fluted, stainless steel barrel, it sports a 8 – 25 x 50 Leupold. Barrel
twist is 1:14, unsuitable for longer, heavier bullets.

History

Varmint shooting and varmint cartridges really got going in the 1930s, sparked by the .22 Hornet. For wildcatters it was a heady time as hardly a month went by without a new wildcat being announced. Winchester shook up the boys with the .220 Swift and its astounding velocity claim of 4,140 fps with 48-gr. bullets. Frankly it was too much too soon and the poor Swift got more bad press than good.

Maybe as a reaction, the .250 Savage case necked to .22 became highly regarded, with seldom a critical word heard. It was as close to a standard as a wildcat could get. In the early 1960s Browning chambered its fine Safari grade rifle in .22-250 even before factory ammunition was available. It was almost an anticlimax when Remington made it a factory round in 1964.

Small, medium and large case .22s (above, left-right): .221 Fireball, .223 Rem., .22-250 Rem., .223 WSSM. The large case cartridges have fallen out of favor for varmint shooters. Ruger 77 Target model in .204 Ruger (below). The .204 is an excellent cartridge combining medium case capacity with high velocity.

Changes

From about the early ’80s to the present day, varmint shooting has changed significantly. You don’t hear much about eastern groundhog shooting; apparently those lucky enough to have access to such shooting are also smart enough to keep it to themselves. Coyote fur prices seem to have recovered somewhat but there doesn’t seem to be much participation in coyote calling.

Maybe it is a matter of keeping a low profile. Mention coyote shooting these days and you can count on a lecture about the balance of nature and how dare you kill something you don’t eat. I imagine some of the more sensitive readers haven’t recovered from the mention earlier of shooting eagles and hawks. Personally I’ve never done either but I can recall a time when it was both legal and practically a civic duty.

This little critter — call him pocket gopher, ground squirrel, picket pin, squeaky or what have you — introduced high-volume varmint shooting and the demand for smaller, more-efficient varmint cartridges and a trend away from big case .22s.

Gopher Switch

Varmint shooters are more likely to shoot over vast colonies of pocket gophers, ground squirrels, “squeakies,” call them what you will. They seem to be especially prevalent wherever ranchers irrigate their grass, and the numbers have to be seen to be believed. In such cases 500+ rounds a day are routine. Barrel heating, barrel life, ammunition cost and even recoil become factors.

For such shooting I haven’t seen a .22-250 in use for years. The barrel heats so quickly it just isn’t practical. Even the .223 Rem. is considered a bit much. The .221 Fireball, .22 K-Hornet, .17 Fireball, .204 Ruger and various wildcats such as the Tac Twenty all have a following. In a really busy town I’m just as happy with a .17 HMR or .22 WMRF.

Back To The Future

The interest in longer-range shooting and the development of longer, heavier, more ballistically-efficient bullets has given big-case .22s a new lease on life. More shooters are giving cartridges such as the .22-250 serious consideration as deer cartridges. There’s nothing new about the concept — people were hunting big game with Swifts back in the ’30s and ’40s. What is new is better bullets and a desire among many shooters to hunt with light rifles with light recoil.

The main issue in using longer, more efficient bullets in .22-250 is barrel twist. Of course with a custom barrel one can specify twist, contour, throating to exactly suit your needs. The typical rifle buyer doesn’t want to go to this trouble so what is available off the rack? According to data I found online, twist rates for the .22-250 cartridge are all over the map: Remington, Sako, Tikka, Weatherby Vanguard and Winchester use a 1:14 twist while Kimber, Savage, Thompson-Center use 1:12. The Ruger American uses 1:10 and the Browning X-Bolt, 1:9.

Tikka reportedly did a short run of T3s in .22-250 with 1:8 twist at the request of a distributor but apparently not a large number and those have long since been sold. To its credit, Tikka offers a choice of twists in the T3 in .223 Rem. My own stainless .223 has a 1:8 twist and I have seen others marked as having a 1:12 twist. I’ve heard of but never seen a 1:10 twist option.

I’m thinking a 75-gr. .22 bullet at 3,200 fps would be a very useful, flat-shooting and light recoiling deer rifle. When I finally buy or build one, I’ll report the results.

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