Handloading The Hornet

Modern bullets and powders bring out the little .22’s full potential.

The early history of the .22 Hornet almost killed the cartridge in the decades after World War II. It was developed in the 1920s from the black powder .22 Winchester Center Fire at the US military’s Springfield Armory, using rechambered .22 Long Rifle 1903 Springfield training rifles. The rimfire barrels had a rifling twist of 1:16″, and a slightly smaller groove diameter than centerfire .22s.

The Hornet became so popular as a wildcat that in 1930 Winchester started producing ammo two years before any commercial rifle appeared, featuring blunt-nosed 45-grain hollowpoints and 46-grain “solids” at a listed 2,650 fps. Back then the Hornet was seen as filling the gap between the .22 Long Rifle and the .219 Zipper or .220 Swift.

After World War II, however, the .222 Remington (1950) and .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (1959) took a big bite out of the .22 Hornet’s market from both ends. The .222 shot 50-grain spitzers at 3,200 fps, and handloaders could use the same .224″ diameter bullets for other commercial .22 centerfires, instead of special smaller-diameter bullets produced for the .22 Hornet. The .22 Magnum came very close to Hornet performance, and ammo cost a lot less.

As a result the little cartridge started dying a slow death. According to my Gun Digest collection, a total of seven American and European .22 Hornets were offered in North America during the first 25 years after the war, but by 1970 no American company chambered the round, and the only import available was the Walther ZKW-465.

Luckily, over the next 25 years a few American manufacturers saw the light and started making Hornets with .224″ grooves and faster rifling twists. Spitzers could now be used, and newer powders raised velocities. The .223 Remington took over the .222’s role, creating a larger ballistic gap above the .22 Magnum, and the modernized Hornet filled that gap.

I bought my first Hornet in 2000, a carbine barrel for the Thompson/Center Contender. This turned out to have a left-hand 1:12″ twist, enough to stabilize spitzers up to 60 grains, though I planned to shoot 40s. A “literature search” of available load data indicated Hodgdon Li’l Gun worked just about perfectly, something Hornet fans already realized, providing the highest velocity listed in every data source. Maximum loads averaged a case-filling 13.0 grains, and full cases generally provide the best accuracy.
By John Barsness

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