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The .22 Hornet: What Your Grandpa Used, and You Should Use Too

If you need centerfire varmint rounds, the .22 Hornet makes an ideal choice.

Now that spring has sprung it’s time to start thinking about varmint cartridges.

To get things started we’re going to take a look at the granddaddy of all centerfire varmint rounds, the .22 Hornet. This little cartridge has been crawling around as a wildcat since the 1920s, and was finally legitimized with factory ammo in the 1930s.

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The paternity of the Hornet has always been a little hazy, although most people now give the late Colonel Townsend Whelen most of the credit for drumming it up. This first of the .22s was designed to allow pre-scope hunters to stretch their range out as far as iron sights were capable of hitting varmints (about 150 yards), while keeping recoil low and powder consumption to a minimum. In these respects it completely fills the bill.

Say what you like about the Hornet, it does allow the handloader to stretch a pound of powder for years and it will never give you a bruise on your shoulder. The fact that this nearly hundred-year-old cartridge does all this while still offering excellent accuracy is just icing on the cake.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Hornet is that it has not faded into obscurity. The Hornet has suffered just about every catastrophe that can occur in the life of a cartridge and has weathered them all to emerge as a perennial favorite.

To begin with, the Hornet had a hang up back in the 1930s when it became a factory cartridge. Many of the original Hornets were created by simply reaming out the barrels of .22 Long Rifles. This made the bore for the original Hornets .223, while the factory guns all had .224 diameter bores. Normally, this difference would be enough to kill off any cartridge, with shooters being unwilling to slug a bore before purchase, but nobody seemed to mind much.

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The next hiccup occurred when the Hornet’s claim to superior velocity was first beat just a little by cartridges like the .218 Bee ,and later beat by a lot with cartridges like the .222 Remington.

Traditionally speaking, shooters gravitate towards the cartridge that gives them the best combination of low price and high velocity for varmint shooting. The Hornet, by all rights, should have been relegated to the dust bin, but once again American gopher hunters stuck with it.

Finally, and this has been a problem from the start, the Hornet has a very thin, very fragile case mouth. Handloaders discovered early on that if a great deal of care wasn’t taken when seating bullets, crushed cases were the result.

Fortunately, the advent of boattail bullets have made living with the Hornet a lot easier and have only added to its popularity.

Due to the Hornet’s rather small case capacity, its performance hasn’t really changed much over the years. It can push 35gr bullets up to roughly 3000 fps, and heavier bullets like the 55gr up to about 2400 fps. This seems a little slow to most people familiar with modern varmint guns, but it tends to satisfy the needs of the shooter once they’re out in the field.

Since Winchester adopted the Hornet in 1932, just about every American rifle manufacturer worth its salt has offered the Hornet at one time or another.

Currently, very nice Hornets can be had from companies like Savage, Ruger and several European manufacturers.

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It would appear that while the Hornet has been obsolete on paper for a long time, the practical, price conscious varmint hunters out there will be keeping it alive for a long time to come. In all likelihood the Hornet will still be buzzing long after many newer cartridges are gone.


Featured image via Wikipedia

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The .22 Hornet: What Your Grandpa Used, and You Should Use Too