Can A .22LR Kill A Deer

Can A .22LR Kill A Deer?

by

John Wise
February 23, 2022
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Most firearm enthusiasts worldwide will likely have had their first shooting experience with a .22LR weapon. Despite not being legal to use for hunting deer across most States, the versatility and low cost of the ammunition make this the caliber of choice for small game hunting, self-defense, and formal target shooting disciplines for thousands of enthusiasts.

The .22LR can kill a deer at close range. Careful shot placement is key, given that the bullet is tiny and made from soft lead. A shot to the deer’s brain stem, brain, or the heart-lung area will kill the deer reliably. Be careful to avoid hitting any large bones to prevent bullet deflection.  

Hunting deer using any rimfire cartridge is illegal in most states in the USA and many other parts of the world. Hypothetically you could find yourself in a situation where a deer needs dispatching, and all you have at hand is a .22LR. Can it get the job done? Let’s explore this together.

Can A .22LR Kill A Deer?

The 22 Long Rifle cartridge is amongst the most underestimated cartridges globally in down-range performance. The .22LR cartridge is inherently accurate, produces minimal recoil, and generates less noise than centerfire cartridges.

It is well-documented that more game animals, including deer, have been killed with weapons chambered for the .22LR cartridge than any other. What makes the .22LR illegal for deer hunting is that unscrupulous people push the boundaries in terms of the .22LR’s capabilities, resulting in a wounded animal.

The .22LR is popular with poachers as the rifle can easily fit a suppressor and shoot sub-sonic ammunition, making the shot almost inaudible.

Is The .22LR A Lethal Round?

The .22LR is a lethal round. In 2013 a CZ .22LR was used to kill a fully grown elephant cow in Thailand. Four well-placed body shots brought down the elephant. Shooting the elephant was highly illegal and unethical but did offer a practical example of what the .22LR cartridge is capable of in skilled hands.

Using the .22LR cartridge against humans, the most famous person assassinated with a .22LR was most likely Bobby Kennedy. According to my research, the .22LR ranks second only to the 9mm Luger regarding the number of people killed per annum.

Ronald Reagan was also fortunate to survive an assassination attempt when a .22LR bullet narrowly missed his heart. The .22LR cartridge has one of the highest bullet weight to penetration ratios of all cartridges and can easily reach the vital organs if no major bones are encountered.

As a self-defense weapon, the .22LR would not be my first choice as the primary aim when faced with a life-threatening situation is to immediately disable the attacker before he can lay hands on you. Larger calibers are better at this task.

However, lacking knock-down power does not mean that the .22LR is not lethal. What the .22LR lacks in knock-down power it makes up for in lethality. Interestingly, many .22LR shooting victims take a little longer to pass on after being shot, but they do.

During my research, I reviewed many one-shot stop statistics where the .22LR was involved in shootings.

On average, twenty to thirty-five percent of the targets were stopped with a single .22LR shot. Keep in mind that most of the shootings involved handguns that deliver lower velocities than when the same bullet is shot out of a rifle.

The average 40-grain .22LR high-velocity bullet delivers about one hundred and fifty-foot pounds of energy, a 9mm Luger has about twice that. For perspective, a hunting compound bow does well to deliver eighty-foot pounds of energy and is considered sufficiently lethal for use on big game.  

An interesting phenomenon often found with a .22LR bullet wound is that the reduced bullet energy is not enough to pass right through a victim but is sufficient to cause the bullet to bounce around in the brain cavity or even with the human torso. For this reason, surgeons prefer larger caliber wounds as there’s only one wound channel to repair, rather than multiple small ragged ones.

.22LR For Hunting Applications

The .22LR is legal for use in most states for small game hunting. A .22LR, forty-grain bullet head delivers about eighty-five-foot pounds of energy at one hundred yards which is ample to kill the small to medium-sized game reliably. Quarry includes squirrels, rabbits, porcupines, coyotes, and even hogs in some states.

The average bullet weight for the .22LR is between thirty-five and forty grains (seven thousand grains in a pound). Hypervelocity ammo weighing as little as twenty-six grains is available. On the heavy end of the scale, a few manufacturers offer sixty grain .22LR ammo which offers excellent penetration.

The below gives a breakdown of the vital statistics of some popular .22LR ammo types. Rifle zeroed at fifty yards.

The bottom row shows the 22 Hornet centerfire information for comparative purposes.

Type .22LRBullet Weight (Grains)Muzzle Velocity (fps)Muzzle energy (ft-lbs)Bullet Drop 100 Yards (Inches)Muzzle Velocity 100 Yards (fps)Energy 100 yards (ft-lbs)
CCI Stinger321640191-3.8106581
CCI Velocitor401435183-4.31084104
Remington Cyclone361280131-5.5101082
Remington Game Load361280131-5.5101082
Remington Golden Bullet401255140-5.5101092
Winchester XT22LRS1401300150-5.1103695
Winchester X22LRH371280135-5.4101484
Winchester X22LRHLF261650157-4.1101960
22 Hornet452550650-0.72011404

As can be seen above, the lighter the bullet, the faster the bullet exits the muzzle. Higher velocity generally reduces bullet drop for hunting purposes, making it easier to shoot accurately.

Well, only up to a point, take note of the Winchester X22LRHLF bullet drop. Despite starting at a blistering 1650 fps at the muzzle, the bullet drop is 4.1 inches at 100 yards. Compare this to the CCI Stinger that drops slightly less but starts at a lower muzzle velocity.

The difference, of course, is the bullet head weight. The additional weight of the 32-grain stinger bullet gives the bullet higher momentum, which assists in countering the effect of wind resistance and gravity. The lighter 26-grain Winchester is more prone to these factors. In short, the heavier bullets’ momentum is better.

Now for adequate penetration on a deer when using a .22LR, we need to strike a balance between velocity (shooting accurately, minimum bullet drop) and momentum, the bullet’s mass multiplied by velocity.

For the current purpose, the formula to calculate momentum is not essential. Still, it shows that bullet mass or weight of the bullet and velocity are dependent on each other to ensure adequate penetration on a deer.

On average, a forty-grain high-velocity .22LR bullet penetrates between ten and fourteen inches of ballistic gel. A whitetail deer’s chest is around twelve to fourteen inches in diameter, so reaching the vitals with an appropriately heavy and well-constructed bullet is easily achieved, provided no heavy bone is hit.

Why Is A .22LR Such A Great Caliber?

The .22LR is just fun to shoot. The .22LR is mild-mannered, having almost no recoil, whether fired through a handgun or rifle. The ammo is relatively cheap, which promotes more shooting. The .22LR is an inherently accurate cartridge.

The cartridge is offered in weapons that are either bolt action, semi-auto, single shot, pump-action, and are even available in combination guns such as a .22LR paired with a .410 shotgun barrel.

The ammunition choices are also staggering, with literally hundreds of different options available worldwide. Most manufacturers offer ammo that falls into the following categories.

  • BB Cap
  • Sub-Sonic
  • Standard Velocity
  • High Velocity
  • Hyper Velocity

Most of the above ammunition is also available in solid or hollow-point configurations of different bullet weights.

The cartridge is offered in various weapon types, making the .22LR chambered weapon a great candidate for both young and old. The relatively cheap ammunition, low recoil, low noise, and relatively light weapons make the .22LR a great introductory gun for novice shooters.

Given that the .22LR chambered weapons are physically similar to their full-sized counterparts, this caliber weapon is great to practice during the off-season or in preparation for the next hunting season.

Without worrying about recoil, shooting techniques such as breathing and trigger control can be perfected. A pesky flinch developed from shooting heavy kicking weapons can be systematically overcome by going back to the basics using a .22LR chambered weapon.

Conclusion

A .22LR chambered weapon can kill a deer. The tiny cartridge can fully penetrate the skull of an adult deer and can reliably reach the vital organs as long as hitting the heavy bone is avoided. Precise shot placement is critical when engaging a deer with a .22LR. Keep the shooting distances short, ensuring proper penetration.

References:

John Wise

John Wise has a rich background in the use of firearms and has also worked in building construction, particularly designing and installing soundproofing systems for homes and offices. Over the years, he has acquired a ton of experience in sound dampening techniques, technologies, and equipment. Leveraging that rich experience, John Wise now dedicates a chunk of time to show just about anyone how to drastically minimize noise pollution in their spaces, whether at home or workplace.