Ask Foghorn: Is .22lr The Best for Self Defense?

Wade writes:

Foghorn, my Dad is planning on getting his CCW license, and is already thinking about the handgun to use. But he says that he is going to get a .22lr or something similar, saying that ‘accuracy is more important than force’. He has hunted his entire life, and is an extremely good shot with both rifle and pistol, but I think he is too cocky when he says “all you need to do is shoot someone in the head and the party’s over”. How can I convince him that he may not be able to hit what he’s aiming at in a high-stress situation, and that he needs to look into a more versatile caliber?

I’ve got some bad news — your Dad isn’t completely wrong. And, because I have nothing better to do today, we’re going to open up that whole can of worms . . .

Your dad is completely correct in that a properly placed .22lr round will take a man down for good. Despite the relative thickness of the human skull a typical .22lr round does have enough power to successfully penetrate and cause sufficient damage to kill a human from close range. And on the more fleshy bits of a human it is perfectly capable of inflicting some damage.

The issue we run into with the .22lr round, and one that you seem to have correctly identified, is that when you don’t hit a particularly useful organ it doesn’t do much immediate damage. The best example I can think of in this case is the wild hogs of Texas and the gulf coast, which have a nasty tendency to survive and escape if they’re not hit with a large enough caliber or in the right spot. Humans posess a similar ability to survive extreme punishment and damage without actually dying.

We could sit here all day long until we’re blue in the fingers discussing the relative merits of the different calibers, but the best solution is always the same: cold, hard data.

About a year ago Greg Ellifritz over at Buckeye Firearms concluded a pretty darn impressive analysis of gunfight data recorded over a 10 year period, the total count of incidents included in his analysis topping 1,800. It doesn’t give us a statistically significant look at murders in the United States, but the data is sufficiently large and normal to give us the ability to use his results to compare the effectiveness of different calibers.

Admittedly 9mm does take up a disproportionate percentage of the observations and .32 data is a little skimpy, but its good enough for our purposes. So, using his data, let’s take a look at how well the lowly .22 round does compared to other handgun calibers (and shotguns, just for comparison sake).

First things first, let’s see what percentage of observed gunfights ended in a fatality for the person on the receiving end.

The graph is pretty clear on this: .22 caliber firearms are just as deadly in a gunfight as any other handgun caliber. In fact, it beat the average (far right). Surprisingly, every caliber that begins with a 4 (.40 S&W, .45, .44 Mag…) performed worse than the .22 caliber firearms in terms of putting the opponent in the dirt for good.

The next thing I thought was interesting was the metric about how many rounds it took to incapacitate the opponent.

In case you were wondering, the smaller the bar in this example the better the round performed. And, in terms of performance in putting the opponent down, only a shotgun beats the .22 round. I get the feeling that in reality you can chop a round off the 9mm’s numbers, as the double tap has been trained into almost every shooter these days and probably means the numbers are artificially high.

Greg also includes something about a “one shot stop” percentage, but I don’t agree with his methodology on it and is not presented here. Go read up on it at the original site if you’re interested.

There’s a small fly in the ointment: the percentage of incidents where the opponent was not incapacitated.

Another chart where large bars are bad, and here the mouseguns aren’t doing so hot compared to the big boys. However, I get the feeling that this chart is somewhat deceptive with its results. Newer shooters have a tendency to get the smaller guns with smaller calibers, and also have a tendency to not be as well trained as those carrying the larger rounds. So, instead of this chart being an argument against the lowly .22 round I see it as an argument against poor training. As we saw with the last chart, IF you can hit the guy there’s a great chance he’s going down. But the issue is hitting him, and incorporating some of the accuracy results from the original study seems to back up my suspicions.

So, in short, what’s the answer? Is a .22 a good self defense round? According to the numbers, it looks to be among the best in terms of stopping the threat. Add in the fact that it’s lightweight, low recoil and uses firearms that are ridiculously easy to conceal and you can see where a .22 caliber firearm for concealed carry might be a winner.

So, in the immortal words of HAL, “I’m sorry Wade, I can’t do that.” According to the best numbers I could find, I can’t come up with a valid reason to convince your Dad to move to a higher caliber. Not only is it an effective round, but its size and weight means that your Dad is more likely to actually carry the gun instead of leaving it at home because it was too inconvenient to bring along. And, as we all know, its often the mere presence of a firearm that can save one’s life.

Does that mean I’ll be swapping out my Wilson Combat 45ACP 1911 for a Derringer? Hell no. But it doesn’t stop me from looking at some of those mouseguns for the hot Texas summer…

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