Handloading .22 WMR ammo is economical, simple, and offers gains in performance and accuracy over factory ammo.
When NRA Hunter Pistol silhouette competitors first began shooting the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR), they found they could hit far more targets with the round than with their .357s or .44s because the recoil was so much lighter. Unfortunately, the 40-grain WMR bullets wouldn’t knock over rams at 100 meters.
Experimenters started yanking slugs out of the rimfire cases and replacing them with heavier slugs to give the .22 WMR the punch it needed to slay the rams. It worked, and the handloaded .22 Super Mags, as they came to be called, became the rage. Shooters widely used the standard 40-grain factory loads for chickens, pigs, and turkeys, and 50-grain reloads for the rams.
Then, two things happened that made loading the .22 Super Mag passé for handgun silhouette. First, Federal came out with its 50-grain load designed just for silhouette shooting. The real death knell, however, was the approval of the .22 Hornet for Hunter Pistol competition. Those two factors convinced many shooters to stop reloading for the .22 WMR—it was more convenient to buy factory loads.
Nonetheless, .22 WMR reloads still offer more velocity and better accuracy over most factory ammunition, and Performance Shooters should consider them to be viable options for pistol silhouette and rifle field shooting. Harry Howell, a College Station, Texas, silhouette shooter and longtime fan of the .22 WMR, was one of the early experimenters who used the .22 Super Mag, and he still reloads for his T/C Contender. Here’s an inside look at how Howell reloads for the .22 WMR:
The Right Shell Holder
The first step is getting a shell holder that will hold the .22 WMR case. You can make one by modifying a .25 ACP shell holder by chucking an empty .22 WMR case in an electric drill and coating the rim with grinding compound. While the case is spinning, push the .25 ACP shell holder over the rim so the grinding compound will relieve the slot in the holder for the rim.
Some .25 ACP shell holders have enough clearance that this step is not necessary. The RCBS shell holder I used in the testing for this article didn’t require this step, although some cases were very sticky and others wouldn’t fit at all. This is actually an advantage, so I didn’t grind the shell holder open further. Howell said that with his modified shell holder, only about 10 percent of his Winchester cases would fit, and that most of his CCI cases worked fine. In my testing, only about 5 percent of the Winchester cases wouldn’t fit, and I haven’t found a CCI case that wouldn’t fit yet. Howell’s shell holder is clearly tighter, even after his grinding compound treatment, than my untreated one.
The reloaded ammunition generally shows real gains in accuracy over the factory loads. This probably can be attributed to two things. First, the more precisely-made, aerodynamic bullet is set out further in the case; and second, the .25 ACP shell holder is tight. The holder acts as a rim thickness gauge, segregating out brass cases that might cause fliers. Rimfire shooters have long measured rim thickness and weeded out those that varied from the norm, and the holder does this painlessly.
I would recommend that you have a box of .22 WMR ammunition with you when you buy a shell holder and test a couple to see if they will hold the cases. Some shell-holder brands will probably require the grinding process, while others won’t.
Pulling The Bullets
Next, you need to pull the bullets. You should use a collet-type bullet puller in a standard press with your ammunition held in your modified shell holder. It’s probably not wise to use an inertia-type puller. These are primed and ready-to-fire rimfire cases we are dealing with here, and most hammer-pullers use collets that hold on to the rim. That would be like hammering on the primer, so inertia-type pullers should be avoided.
Most silhouette shooters used Winchester ammunition for their reloads. In my testing, I tried Winchester, CCI, and Federal brands.
Using a standard Foster collet-type bullet puller, however, I found it impossible to get the slugs out of factory Federal 40- or 50-grain loads more than about one in 25 cases. The puller would mash the bullets to the point of pinching the soft slugs in half before they could be pulled out of the case mouth. I did not have this problem with either Winchester or CCI ammunition. The collet, when snugged down tightly, would pop the slugs out so nicely that I have saved the slugs for possible reuse in my .22 Hornet. The brass, with powder intact, could be set in a loading block to await new slugs.
Howell said that he was able to get the slugs out of Federal brass by using an inexpensive pair of slip-joint pliers with sharp serrations in the jaws. With no die in his press, he raises the case to the top of the stroke, then carefully grips the slug with the pliers so he has a tight hold on the bullet just above where it meets the case mouth. He then lowers the ram on the press until the pliers catch on the top of the press, then lowers the ram, pulling the bullet from the brass. Howell said the Federal brass was thicker than either the CCI or Winchester brass and would bulge slightly after a new bullet was seated, often preventing the chambering of the round in his Contender. For this reason, most Super Mag shooters stayed with Winchester and CCI brass for their reloads.
Seating New Bullets
Once you pull the bullets, and with the charged cases in a loading block, you can screw a .22 Hornet seating die into the press. A .22 Jet or .22 Cooper die can also be used, and you can also use an old straight-line Lee Loader. Remember to treat the cases gently as you seat the new bullet.
Howell said the Super Mag silhouette shooters settled on the Sierra 50-grain Blitz ahead of the standard factory powder charge after experimenting with different bullets and powder charges. For the testing in the chart that accompanies this article, I used a variety of slugs just to illustrate how the velocity and accuracy changed in my Ruger Model 77/22 heavy-barrel rifle.
When loading some of the longer, pointed bullets meant for the .22 centerfires, many of the unfired loads will not eject from some rifles, and the Ruger was one of those. This is because the cartridge’s overall length prevents the ejector pin from working. The pin hits the case rim and attempts to kick the case free, but the bullet catches on the edge of the chamber and prevents the ejection.
While this is certainly not a problem at the range, it can be an inconvenience when hunting. You should experiment at the range before taking new loads into the field. The Calhoun 37-grain bullets, which have become a favorite of mine in both the .22 magnum and .22 Hornet, can be seated deep enough in the magnum case to eject. They will even function in the Ruger’s rotary magazine.
Any gun tinkerer worth his salt immediately starts wondering how fast the .22 magnum can be made to scoot if loads are kicked up a little. Knowing guns like Contenders and Ruger 77/22s are capable of handling greater pressures than those SAAMI specifies for rimfire ammunition, you will weigh the factory loads and then trickle a little more powder into the case.
The mere act of seating a bullet that is 25 percent heavier over the same powder charge, as silhouette shooters do with the 50-grain slug on a 40-grain charge, is bound to kick pressures up substantially higher. Adding powder really will raise pressures.
The limitation in kicking the velocity up into the range of the .22 Cooper, a virtual centerfire version of the .22 WMR that gets around 2,400 fps with a 40-grain bullet, is the rimfire brass case, which is thin and will only handle so much pressure. The bottom line is that you can only get modest gains before you start tearing cases up.
In my testing, the Winchester 40-grain FMJ loads held a charge of approximately 7 grains of a fine ball powder. My initial tests with a 37-grain Calhoun slug were with 7.4 grains of this powder that kicked velocity up to right around 2,000 fps. The accuracy of this load was better than any of the higher-speed (30 grain) factory loads—or any factory load for that matter—and the performance in the field is probably about the optimum attainable for this rimfire case. I did not have any case failures with this load or the 45- and 50-grain loads seated over the Winchester or CCI factory powder charge that had been loaded behind the 40-grains slugs.
Longing for an even lighter .22 caliber slug for greater velocity, I called James Calhoun, the Havre, Montana, bullet maker, and he talked me out of going to lighter bullets. After extensive testing with the .22 Cooper, Calhoun said he found the 37-grainer was the lightest slug for this diameter than would maintain good accuracy. He has tested bullets down to 30 grains.
“The bullets just started to get too short and stubby to have any aerodynamics,” said Calhoun. “We found the 37-grainer was just about as light as you could go and still shoot.”
This mirrors what most .22 magnum shooters have found: that the 40-grain factory loads shoot much better than the high-speed 30-grain loads.
Reloading for the .22 WMR is simple. It takes far less time than regular reloading for centerfire cases, and it gives measurable gains in performance. What you get for your trouble are modest gains in velocity, accuracy, and knock-down punch that make the round competitive on steel targets.