By John Buol
Although commonly viewed as just a plinker, shooting .22s can make for serious marksmanship training.
“The game of of the small-bore consists in shooting at ranges from 50 feet to 200 yards with .22-caliber rifles… It is the nearest possible approach to bringing rifle shooting to the front door of the average citizen who likes to shoot a rifle, but is still in full possession of his good sense and has other interests in life.”
– E.C. Crossman, Small-Bore Rifle Shooting
Every gun hack has written at least one piece on the benefit of rimfire shooting. These tend to emphasize fun, fondly-remembered days of the author’s youth or his child’s first shooting experience, when Daddy set up some tin cans and let Junior have a go with a real, cartridge-loading rifle as a right of passage for the future hunter. For serious shooters, rimfire rifles are more than casual plinking tools. Champion’s Choice lists the Anschütz Model 1907, a popular .22LR rimfire for International Rifle (Three Position) competition at the Olympic level, with a fully adjustable Model 1918 aluminum stock at $2,950.00. The Swiss-made Bleiker rifle used by 2012 Gold medalist Niccolò Campriani is more expensive still. Despite sharing the same chambering, these aren’t like your squirrel rifle. Thankfully, we can move the decimal point in that cost one place in our favor and still have enough rifle to suit our needs. A serious rimfire trainer doesn’t have to be expensive, provided the shooter understands the ballistic differences between centerfire and rimfire ammunition enough to accomplish the task.
History Of Smallbore
In 1845, while experimenting with the then-new fulminating percussion caps, Nicolas Flobert developed a .22 caliber rimfire cartridge by modifying the soft copper cap’s base with a rim and seating a small lead ball. These primer powered rounds became known as BB (Bulleted Breech) Caps. Power was upped by elongating the cap, adding a few grains of black powder and a conical projectile. Now known as the .22 Short, it is still available today. This was upped again with the .22 Long and .22 Long Rifle.
During this same time the Industrial Revolution made mass-produced rifles common and cheap enough for general issue. Where armies through the end of the Napoleonic era had previously viewed long guns primarily as bayonet platforms capable of a pre-charge volley, rifles offered a more than ten fold increase in effective range, at least to personnel trained to exploit it. Military and civilian shooting organizations began forming competitive events to learn and teach the best approaches to maximize their use. High power and fullbore shooting disciplines, shot with full power centerfire rifles out to 1000 yards or so, were the result.
Flobert’s invention was used for indoor target shooting for entertaining guests at fancy evening parties. Serious competitive rifle shooters originally referred to rimfires used competitively as miniature shooting. This rift – really just friendly ribbing – has remained to this day. Serious rimfire competition started as a minor affair, a sort of step child of the full power and distance shooting disciplines, but began making inroads in the early 1900s. Starting as indoor-only events at less than 25 yards and offhand-only Schuetzen competitions, savvy trainers recognized formal competition and training with rimfire rifles as an ideal learning tool. Marksmen such as Edward C. Crossman, then a US Army Captain, used smallbore rifle to teach recruits marksmanship fundamentals at reduced expense when ranges were scarce. Crossman used this experience and further pushed for more formal outdoor smallbore matches. By 1919 outdoor smallbore competition had its own series of national matches in the United States.
What began with miniature rifle clubs interested in shooting military rifles competitively at places lacking full distance range capability culminated into its own class of shooting discipline. The first international governing body for shooting appeared in 1907 after several national level organizations joined forces to form the Union International de Tir (UIT – known in English as the ISU.) The name changed in 1998 to the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF). Shooting has been featured in every Olympics since their 1896 reincarnation. In fact, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, was an active competitive shooter. Since then, rimfire disciplines have become a dominant part of international shooting.
“[T]he man who becomes a thoroughly good small-bore rapid and slow-fire rifle shot, has learned 90 per cent of rifle shooting – any kind of rifle shooting… The ambitious sportsman who wants to become a good game shot, and the equally ambitious military rifleman, both can learn their game better through the medium of the small-bore target rifle than with their own pet weapons to which they may graduate when they have learned first principles of trigger release, uniform aim, good holding, and the importance of small details.”
– E.C. Crossman, Small-Bore Rifle Shooting
Rimfires are cheap and fun to shoot, but how effective are they? Using scaled targets at closer distance provides the same basic marksmanship challenge regardless of firearm used. At 50 feet, a typical gallery and indoor course distance, multiply the actual target sizes in inches by six to find how many minutes of angle big they are. A one inch bull at 50 feet is six MOA, the same size bull used in Across The Course competition. An eight inch circle is eight, four and two minutes at 100, 200 and 400 yards, respectively. This translates to 1.33, 0.66 and 0.33 inches at 50 feet. A factor of four provides the same conversion when the targets are at 25 yards.
Appropriately scaled targets offer the same basic marksmanship challenge as full sized targets at distance, so spend plenty of time there. Note that at 50 feet a .22 caliber hole subtends about 1.3 MOA, the equivalent of a four inch hole at 300 yards and five clicks of windage on most optical sights. A shot that touches a scaled target at 50 feet would cleanly miss by at least two inches at full distance. Be certain to analyze groups with this in mind.
Up this close, especially indoors, wind and weather issues are eliminated but the marksmanship challenge is the same. Is shooting with lower recoil on scaled, short range targets beneficial? In Sustaining Rifle Marksmanship Proficiency in the US Army Reserve, a report of studies conducted by the Army Research Institute for proof of principle testing of Laser Marksmanship Training System equipment, it was found that by raising the minimum standard slightly when training with LMTS gear on scaled targets, qualification pass rates with live ammunition on a full range could be accurately predicted nearly 85% of the time. Note this is with dry fire and laser targets scoring the result, making even the minimal recoil and noise of a rimfire an even better simulator and predictor of marksmanship at full distance.
Wind condition changes constantly and, as some coaches put it, “it ain’t never not worth nothin’.” In team matches it’s said that elevation is the shooter’s responsibility and windage is the coach’s. In other words, given that the distance is already known the shooter should have no problem keeping shots centered vertically. Noticing and correcting for wind changes is much more challenging. At the top levels of long range precision shooting competition the consistent winners are the best wind callers. At that level everyone can point a straight shot. It’s how they handle the wind in a given match or a given string that determines the outcome.
Scaled targets indoors and/or up close eliminate this variable but learning to deal with it is important. Rimfire shooting helps us here, too. Lacking access to a full distance Known Distance range with target pits, shooting rimfire is a viable alternative. The A-25 used in rimfire competition at 100 yards has evenly spaced concentric scoring rings a minute apart starting at one MOA for the X ring. The MR-31, which scales the 600 yard MR-1 for 100 yards has slightly smaller rings (0.75, 1.75, 2.75 inches for the X, 10 and 9 rings) but with what was commonly called the “.30 caliber rule”, where all shots were plugged with a .30 caliber flanged gauge, makes these targets effectively the same size.
More importantly, the wind will affect smallbore bullets at 100 yards in a similar manner as match, sniper, top quality hunting and High Power bullets at 600 yards. For ball ammunition or hunting bullets with a lower ballistic coefficient, 100 yard rimfire shooting is closer to a 400 yard simulation. This will also depend on the type of rimfire ammo used. Although you wouldn’t think so, slower standard velocity is effected less by the wind than higher velocity loadings. Generally, given a full value ten mile per hour wind, standard velocity rimfire (40 grain bullet at 1050 feet per second) will be deflected 0.25″, 1.0″, 2.25″ and 4.0″ at 25, 50, 75 and 100 yards, respectively. At the same distances, high velocity rimfire (40 grains at 1260 fps) will deflect 0.25″, 1.0″, 2.50″ and 5.25″.
For standard velocity .22s, a full value 10 MPH wind moves the bullet about one MOA at 25 yards, two MOA at 50, three MOA at 75 and four MOA at 100. Standard ball ammo and bullets of a similar ballistic coefficient will use a wind constant of ten, yielding a minute of deflection per hundred yards. Standard velocity rimfire simulates wind effect this way at a quarter the distance. Check a ballistic program for your specific centerfire and rimfire ammo to confirm how they compare. Serious practice with rimfire offers the wind calling experience of shooting out to 400 yards and beyond even when limited to a 100 yard range.
As a hunter, you’ve probably noticed that game animals move. What’s more sad than the obviousness of that statement is how few hunters have done anything to prepare for it. How many ranges and hunter sight-ins have you been to that had a moving target apparatus available? Many big game species can sprint at 30 miles per hour with faster species like the pronghorn topping out at 60 mph. A hunter can decline shots at moving game, especially when they’re full blast. Of course, moving game isn’t always going all out and slower speeds are more common. Finding out what sorts of target speeds and distances are realistic make for better decisions.
Unless you belong to a range with active Running Target or Action Pistol (Bianchi Cup) events, you’ll likely have to improvise any sort of moving target. Rimfire shooting helps us here as well. Because the velocity is about a third of typical centerfire cartridges, the required lead is about three times as much. A training target moving five to six feet per second (about 3.5 to 4 miles per hour) shot at with a .22 rimfire (40 grain bullet at 1050 fps) requires a nearly identical lead as that same target moving at 10 MPH when shot with .308 ball (150 grain FMJ at 2800 fps.) Having to move the target only a third the speed makes working with moving targets easier. Add in the fact that a target scaled to a quarter the size and distance yields the same marksmanship and wind challenge as centerfire ammo, the smaller needed target frame and shorter range makes this easier still.
Working with your full power firearms is important but training with a rimfire overcomes many logistical burdens. Training and practice sessions that actually occur are always better than an ideal environment that never happens. Treat them as more than plinking toys and your rimfire rifles will help you become a better rifleman.