Subsonic .22LR ammunition – what’s the best type for your rifle?
Bruce Potts looks at .22LR rimfire subsonic ammunition from six different manufacturers for vermin control
Most shooters who have used a .22 rimfire have found it inexpensive and accurate for vermin.
A casual attitude?
However, the .22 is often ranked lower than a stalking rifle or shotgun – so sometimes the calibre suffers from being viewed with a casual attitude. I think this is a pity, because in order to achieve the best from your rimfire and for the rifle to achieve its potential, it takes a little time and methodical testing. Every rifle has an ammunition type that suits it best – although people frequently choose the cheapest or some recommended by a friend.
Accuracy and the performance of the bullet are essential for achieving a humane shot. Poor performance of penetration or expansion can mean less than perfect results.
With these goals in mind I chose six types of .22LR rimfire subsonic ammunition from varying manufacturers to ascertain accuracy and stopping power at normal vermin ranges.
I purchased some soap bars measuring 2in x 2in and cut to approximately 6in lengths to test the penetration of each bullet. The range test for these was 30 yards and the rifle used was a Ruger M77/22 rimfire.
Each brand of ammunition was sighted in at 30 yards and any differing point of impact noted and compensated for on the soaps, which were securely fixed.
The test was to measure the depth of penetration and the bullet expansion.
Of course soap is not the same as animal flesh but it does give a consistent basis to compare each bullet’s performance. The trick is to mount the soap in the same way on the range for each test. For every bullet, I shot two soap-bar tests and took the mean result. I also looked at each bullet design and weighed them to get a real bullet weight and measured a five-shot string over my chronograph to give a fuller picture of ballistics at the end of the testing.
Six different brands of ammunition
I chose six of the most popular .22LR rimfire subsonic ammunition available from Eley, Winchester, Remington, CCI, RWS and Lapua.
1. Eley Subs Xtra Plus
This has a newer, lighter wax lubricant covering. The bullet weighs 40.2 grains of hollowpoint design. This is intended to give superior stopping power. Its actual weight was 40.61 grains and it produced a velocity of 1,032fps and 95.1ft/lb.
2. Winchester subsonic hollowpoints
This weighed a measured 40.3 grains and gave a 1,065fps and 101.5ft/lb. There is a slight lubricant on the surface and the biggest hollowpoint cavity of all the bullets tested.
A relative newcomer in the subsonic rankings, weighing in at 38.7 grains. It is almost a clone of the Eley, except it is shorter and it has three lubricant bands rather than two. The velocity and energy figures over the chronograph were 1,029fps and 91ft/lb.
4. CCI ammunition
This has a measured 39.8 grains lead hollowpoint small cavity bullet, very different from the old hollowpoint copper washed bullet. The newer variety was fast for a subsonic at 1,077fps with 102.5ft/lb over the chronograph because it has a lighter bullet.
5. RWS 40.3-grain bullet
This was the slowest velocity ammunition tested with an average velocity of 991fps and an energy figure of 87.9ft/lb. This had a very thick wax coating and nice hollowpoint design of relatively soft lead when compared with the other bullet types.
A good pedigree from the target circuit and its subsonic .22LR shot a consistent 1,071fps with resulting 101.4ft/lb energy from the 39.8-grain bullet.
I found these results very interesting. I questioned what I wanted from a subsonic round. Their primary use is to despatch game such as rabbits as humanely as possible, but still produce good exterior ballistics such as flat trajectory, accuracy and stopping power.
At the same time, I do not wish for over-penetration or carry over, where the bullet’s killing power is lost. I always look for an accurate, consistent bullet that expands and has maximum stoppage within the quarry if possible.
- In the penetration test, the RWS produced the least penetration, while the Lapua gave the most.
- This can be explained as the Lapua was the second-fastest bullet tested and one of the lightest, which ordinarily would cause a rapid expansion, but the bullet was the hardest of all the bullets and therefore failed to expand well in these tests.
- The RWS had the shortest bullet path in length at 2.8in, which bodes well for effective transferral of its energy within the quarry. The expansion was 0.4in – the second largest of the bullets on test, with a broad 0.35in wound channel.
- Undoubtedly the soft heavy lead projectile travelling at the slowest velocity performed admirably in the tests. With its 40.3-grain bullet, the Winchester expanded well to 0.35in and penetrated 2.95in, allowing all the energy to be transferred to the target in the quickest possible time.
- The CCI penetrated 3.4in, just behind the Remington round, but the bullet expansion was larger at 0.35 in, probably due to the softer lead used and larger hollowpoint cavity.
- Eley Subs turned in some impressive results. It did not over-penetrate like some of the bullets and expanded to 0.45in at 3.25in depth with an impressive 0.5in wound channel. This was the best performance of the ammunition tested.
- The Remington, despite being lightest at 38.7 grains, gave the second-lowest velocity and energy figures but penetrated to 3.55in, more than the Eley, RWS, CCI and Winchester. This was probably due to the fact that, though the bullet exhibited the classic mushroom shape at 0.25in the same as the Lapua, it was made of harder lead and had a smaller hollowpoint cavity.
- For accuracy, this is paramount, as you may choose a particular type of bullet based on performance, but if it is not accurate in your particular gun then all your hard work will go to waste.
- Top marks went to Eley with a 0.45in five-shot group at 50 yards, with RWS and Lapua close behind with 0.5in groups. The Winchesters and CCI were next with a 0.55in spread, with Remington turning in the largest but still reasonable 0.75in clusters. This accuracy is from the Ruger tested and it is important to remember that every gun will produce different results.
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Your first choice should always be accuracy – there’s no point going for the fastest, best-expanding bullet if it does not connect with the target.
If you want a fast-expanding bullet that puts its energy into the target quickly and causes the largest wound channel without over-penetrating and has good exterior ballistic characteristics, the Eley Subs Xtra Plus or the RWS would be my choice.
The Winchester is hot on their heels it expanded quickly and gave good velocity and energy figures. The Lapua Subsonics were accurate and gave good velocity figures but did not expand as well as other bullets tested.
Finally, the CCI and Remington expanded the least and despite the CCI bullet being the fastest round tested, it seems to have less stopping power. Obviously, there are many varying factors to take into account: do you aim for a body or head shot? At what range will you shoot your quarry?
Whilst the soap does not behave in the same way as flesh and blood I hope that these tests might aid you in working out how your rifle and ammunition perform in the field. A little testing prior to shooting can give valuable insights, ultimately making you a safer and better shot.