The first Of The Highly Accurate Post-WWII
Varmint Cartridges Still Has Much To Offer.
By John Barsness
The .222 Remington appeared in 1950, but thanks to the .223 Remington, most shooters don’t realize how revolutionary it was. Believe it or not, before the .222 appeared, every commercial American .22-caliber centerfire cartridge was rimmed or semi-rimmed.
Varmint hunting as we know it today started in the early 1900’s, because that’s when American big game populations were at their lowest. The first popular cartridges were rounds like the .25-20 WCF originating in black powder days for falling-block single shots and lever-actions. Rims were necessary for extraction in the single-shots and helpful in the levers.
The first smokeless .22 centerfire designed for varmint shooting was the .22 Hornet, a wildcat developed in the 1920’s. Townsend Whelen’s writings made the Hornet so popular Winchester started producing ammo in 1930, before any commercial rifles appeared. The first factory-produced Hornet rifles were bolt actions, but during the 1930’s Winchester also introduced the rimmed .218 Bee, (the .25-20 necked down) and .219 Zipper (the .30-30 necked down) in their Model 65 and 64 lever-actions.
In 1935 Winchester chambered the .220 Swift in the Model 54 bolt action and, the next year, in the Model 70. The Swift’s rim is the same size as the .30-06’s, but the case body is smaller, due to being based on the 6mm Lee Navy cartridge. In bolt actions the “semi-rimmed” case is often a pain. The one Swift I’ve owned that always functioned perfectly was a Ruger No. 1B, because it doesn’t have a magazine.
That’s how things stood after World War II, when millions of “war surplus” bolt-action rifles started being converted to sporters. Varmint hunting and benchrest shooting became even more popular with the hordes or returning soldiers, and while some early benchresters used falling blocks, most eventually realized bolt actions provided more accuracy potential.
One of those enthusiastic shooters was named Mike Walker, Remington’s Director of Research for many years, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 101. Today Walker’s primarily remembered for the controversial “Walker trigger,” but he also helped develop button rifling and designed the .222 Remington.
Walker decided the future of accuracy lay in a moderate capacity .22-caliber cartridge for bolt actions. No rimless case then available held the right amount of powder, so he developed one with a head about 3/8-inch in diameter. The gunwriters of the day often called the .222 a scaled-down .30-06, a comparison made thousands of times since, but in reality its proportions are closer to a scaled down 7×57 Mauser—but comparing a new American cartridge to an old German cartridge probably wouldn’t have been a good idea so soon after the war.
Rifles with full-length stocks aren’t supposed to be very accurate,
but John’s Sako .222 shoots very well.
The .222 made its debut in 1950, and in a chapter of the 1951 book The Ultimate in Rifle Precision put together for the Bench Rest Shooter’s Association by Townsend Whelen, Walker noted: “Groups of 1/2-inch were quite often obtained with factory ammunition in a heavy-barreled rifle…, Several people insisted, among them Warren Page, that some bench rifles should be made in .222 caliber and tried at Johnstown [Pennsylvania, the biggest benchrest match in those days]. Due to more pressing matters such as trout fishing and chuck and crow shooting, no rifles were made until two weeks before the shoot.” Walker placed second in the 100-yard match with his slapped-together rifle, and the .222 went on to dominate benchrest shooting for the next quarter-century.
By 1950 the .218 Bee, .219 Zipper and .22 Savage High Power were essentially dead, thanks to the transition to bolt actions, and the .222 also filled the varmint performance gap between the tiny .22 Hornet and the super-fast .220 Swift. The Hornet had always been handicapped by light, blunt bullets with poor ballistic coefficients, due to short magazines, and .220 Swift rifles kicked more and fried barrels quickly. The .222 seemed just right, and shot extremely well in Remington’s new Model 722 bolt action, becoming one of the major successes of the post-war era.
During the 1950’s, the US military started looking for a smaller cartridge for infantry rifles, since the 7.62×51 NATO (commercially the .308 Winchester) recoiled too much for sustained automatic fire, and required soldiers to carry relatively heavy, bulky ammo. Several rifle and cartridge designs were tested, and the .222 Remington and Eugene Stoner’s rifle got into the mix. Eventually it was decided to increase the powder capacity of the basis .222 case somewhat, for both functional and ballistic reasons, and in 1958 the M16 rifle in 5.56x45mm NATO became the US infantry rifle.
In 1964 Remington introduced a civilian version of the 5.56×45, the .223 Remington. The .223’s ballistics were a little zippier than the .222’s, and with lots of cheap military brass, .222’s sales started fading. In the 1970’s the advent of the PPC benchrest rounds almost killed it off—but not quite.
The .222 has been called a scaled-down .30-06 many times over the decades,
but in reality its dimension are closer to the 7×57 Mauser.
Five-shot groups were all John could ask for from a sporting rifle of this vintage.
Despite the practical advantages of the .223, some varmint hunters still find the .222 superior. Its lighter recoil often allows shooters to watch the bullet strike through a scope—not always possible in .223’s—and the smaller powder capacity and longer neck extend barrel life.
The present .223 trend is to faster rifling twists and heavier bullets, but the .222 originated with a 1:14-inch twist designed for maximum accuracy with 50- and 55-grain bullets—the same basic principle still used in 6mm PPC benchrest rifles. Consequently, the .222 performs best at ranges out to around 300 yards, where relatively light, fast bullets shoot flatter and don’t drift much more in the wind than heavier, high-BC bullets at lower velocities. And 300 yards is about as far as most shooters can hit small rodents in typical field conditions.
I’d owned several .222’s over the years, including an original Remington 722 sporter, but in the spring of 2014 I found a Mannlicher-stocked Sako L461 carbine on the used rack at Capital Sports & Western in Helena, Mont. The small-actioned Sakos have always been considered among the best-made and most accurate .222’s, so naturally it came home with me.
There wasn’t much time before that summer’s rodent season, so I threw together some loads with 40-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips and H4198, one of the standard powders for the .222 during its benchrest heyday (in fact Mike Walker used 21.0 grains and 53-grain bullet in the Johnstown shoot). During the winter of 2015 I tried a bunch of different bullets and powders, including some of the new Accurate powders LT-30 and LT-32. Like the present version of H4198 and H322 (another excellent .222 powder) they’re temperature-resistant, and have quickly caught on among benchrest shooters, due to consistent velocities in warm and cool weather and very low shot-to-shot variation.
The .223 Remington is the medium-sized .22 centerfire these days, but the .222 Remington still has advantages for shooters who search for every tiny edge at moderate ranges. You might be one.
Six of John Barsness’s 11 books are on firearms and shooting. Rifle Trouble-Shooting and Handloading was published in 2012 by Deep Creek Press, and is available through www.riflesandrecipes.com, P.O. Box 579, Townsend, MT 59644, (406) 521-0273.
.222 Remington Handloaded Ammo Performance
|(brand, bullet weight, type)||(brand)||(grains weight)||(fps)||(inches)|
|Barnes 30 Varmint Grenade||W296||20.0||3,948||1.24|
|Barnes 30 Varmint Grenade||H322||25.0||3,609||0.95|
|Hornady 35 V-Max||A1680||22.5||3,791||1.14|
|Nosler 35 Ballistic Tip LF||LT-30||21.5||3,411||0.52|
|Berger 40 Varmint HP||LT-32||22.5||3,387||0.44|
|Nosler 40 Ballistic Tip||H4198||21.5||3,397||0.71|
|Sierra 40 BlitzKing||A2015||22.0||3,416||0.60|
|Speer 43 TNT Green||RL-7||21.5||3,409||0.72|
|Hornady 50 V-Max||H322||22.0||3,073||0.71|
|Nosler 50 Ballistic Tip||TAC||24.0||3,016||0.87|
|Speer 50 TNT HP||LT-32||21.0||2,964||0.75|
|Berger 52 Target HP||LT-32||21.0||2,959||0.41|
|Nosler 55 Varmageddon Tip||H322||21.5||2,946||0.53|
|Sierra 55 HP||CFE223||25.5||2,988||0.77|
Notes: Handloads all shot from Sako L461, 20-inch barrel.
All handloads used Nosler brass and CCI BR-4 primers.
Velocities in 24-inch barrels would be about 100 fps faster.