Using the .22 for Self Defense

by Greg Ellifritz

Since my handgun stopping power study was published last month in American Handgunner Magazine, I've received several questions from readers about my data. I expected to be castigated by all the big bullet aficionados for reporting honest data about the "mouse gun" calibers. That wasn't what I received.

All the email that I got was from .22 advocates telling me that I misinterpreted my data and that the .22 is the best defensive cartridge ever invented. Really? I'm open to an honest discussion about the relative merits of carrying a .22 in certain situations, but I promise you that if I was to grab a gun right now, knowing that I would be getting into a gunfight, my .22s would be VERY low on the list.

Here's a summary of the data I reported and the heart of the controversy:

Caliber % stopped after 1 shot How many shots to stop % that did not stop
.22 (short, long, long rifle) 60% 1.38 31%
.25 acp 49% 2.2 35%
.32 (acp and long) 72% 1.52 24%
.380 acp 62% 1.76 16%
9mm Luger 47% 2.45 13%
.38 spl 55% 1.87 17%
.357 magnum 61% 1.7 9%
.40 S&W 52% 2.36 13%
.45 acp 51% 2.08 14%

The .22 required the least number of shots to stop an attacker as compared to the other cartridges. Some folks used that number to bolster their choice of the .22 as the best defensive sidearm available and criticized me when I stated that I don't believe that's true. Here is one of the emails I received:

"I am surprised that you did not accept the "fact" evident in the data that the lowly .22 is actually more effective than the high power cartridges: 9mm, 40sw and 45 acp! Your statement "those are likely psychological stops rather than physical incapacitations" is not supported by any data you offer. Rather, it appears to be a purely prejudicial statement which spoils your excellent efforts at conclusions based upon data. In fact it is very counter-intuitive. You are proposing that "mouse gun" is more intimidating than a 45 ACP so it scares more people off than the very big opening in a 45 barrel!

If you have data supporting this counterintuitive conclusion, please share. My conclusion is that you are doing a disservice by not acknowledging that average folks are much better off carrying .22's for their own personnel safety. Inaccurate shot placement of high power cartridges might just get us Joe average citizens injured during an attack."

First, let me make myself perfectly clear. Shot placement is vitally important. If you can’t hit with your chosen carry gun, pick something else. You should certainly be able to pass Gila Hayes’ five rounds, five seconds, into a five inch circle, at five yards test cold, every time you shoot. I would prefer even better performance than that.

If you can't meet that standard with one of the common service calibers and can do it with a .22, I would prefer that you carry the .22. No problem at all with that decision. But most of us don't have a physical limitation and can learn to handle a bigger caliber with a minimal amount of training.

The reader asked me to explain why I considered the .22 stops to be more likely "psychological stops" as opposed to physical incapacitations. That's easy to explain...and it doesn't have anything to do with the size of the muzzle.

There are only two mechanisms for physically incapacitating someone with a handgun. The first is a shot to the central nervous system (CNS). A bullet placed into the brain or the upper spinal cord will usually stop someone instantly. Can the .22 do that? Certainly, but I think a brain or CNS shot is less likely with the .22 than with a larger caliber.

Arguably, the .22 is more accurate and controllable than a centerfire pistol. That would make brain and CNS hits more likely (if one was aiming there). The problem is the historic lack of penetration in the .22 round. They are notorious for failing to be able to penetrate the skull. I had a doctor in my class last weekend who told me about a patient he treated who had eight .22 bullets under his scalp and none had penetrated into his brain! The patient was conscious, alert, and asking for a beer!

Most .22 rounds also lack the ability to penetrate deep enough to reach the spinal cord on a front to back shot on an average human male. It's for these reasons that I doubt the .22 stops were the result of brain or CNS hits.

The only other mechanism for physical incapacitation is through blood loss. On average, a bullet that penetrates deeper and/or makes a larger hole will create more blood loss. We already established that the .22 doesn’t penetrate very deeply and it certainly doesn’t make a big hole. That takes blood loss out of the equation.

If the .22 bullet doesn't cause CNS disruption or extensive blood loss, it won't physically incapacitate an attacker. That's why I commented that the .22 stops are likely to be more psychological in nature.

The data is what it is. I can't change that. My study showed that people were stopped with fewer shots from the .22 than with any other caliber. Does that mean the .22 is the best choice? Not necessarily. There could be other factors that caused the smaller number of shots until incapacitation...

I’m just pulling numbers out of thin air, but let’s just postulate that it takes five seconds after a person is shot for him to realize he is hit and abort the attack. The average number could be higher or lower, but it doesn't matter. It will still take a few seconds for the bad guy to process the fact that he is shot and decide it’s in his best interest to escape before being shot again (a psychological stop).

If we are dealing with psychological stops and not physical incapacitations, firing additional rounds at the attacker during this five second time frame isn't likely to influence his behavior quicker. The processing takes the time that it takes. Anything that will slow the rate of fire will reduce the number of rounds that the attacker soaks up before he aborts his attack. In other words, the small number of rounds until incapacitation could be more the result of slower firing rate than superior cartridge performance.

Is the .22 likely to have a slower firing rate? In handguns carried for defensive purposes, yes. Most .22 defensive handguns are of relatively low quality. They are extremely small and difficult to shoot quickly. Compare the rate of fire between a NAA Mini revolver in .22 and a 9mm Glock. Which do you think you could shoot faster?

The .22 rimfire round is also more prone to malfunctions than any centerfire round. A malfunction will also decrease the rate of fire. Rate of fire wasn't factored into my study and could have caused the low numbers for the .22.

Another fact that many people haven't considered is the difference between police and armed citizen gunfights. My friend Claude Werner often points out that when a criminal is involved in a gunfight with the police, the stakes are higher. The criminal knows that the cops won't stop until he's dead or in jail. That’s not true with a gunfight against an armed citizen. The armed citizen just wants a break in the fight. If he can cause the criminal to flee, he wins and stops shooting.

When criminals fight the police, they are likely to fight harder and take more rounds before giving up, because they know giving up equals a long prison sentence. Giving up and running away when fighting an armed citizen has no such negative consequences.

Many of the gunfights involving 9mm, .40, and .45 calibers in my study were police gunfights. Very few of the .22 data was from police gunfights. The very nature of the differences between the victim characteristics in the different gunfights could also account for the smaller number of rounds taken by those hit with the .22.

Here's the good news for the .22 carriers...

In Claude's lifetime study of defensive gun uses, he has yet to find a single case where an armed citizen was killed by a criminal after the criminal had taken at least one .22 round. In the case of civilian defensive gun usage, the criminal almost always flees after the first hit. I have been unable to find any gunfights that prove Claude wrong.

But take a look at the third column in the table above…

That's the statistic that most .22 advocates choose to ignore. It’s the percentage of people who were not physically incapacitated after any number of rounds. It's roughly three times higher with the .22 as compared to the service caliber cartridges.

Yes, the criminals fled, but they were not incapacitated. They could continue to fight back if they choose to. If you were to face the rare motivated criminal who presses the fight, would you want a .22 or something else? Encountering the motivated criminal who presses the fight against an armed citizen is exceedingly rare, but it is a possibility. Should you prepare for the statistical norm or the statistical anomaly? In my view, I think it’s best to prepare for the worst possible outcome, rather than the most likely. Statistically, you are unlikely to ever need a gun at all, yet most of my readers want to prepare for the worst, so they carry a gun. Why wouldn't you use the same logic when choosing an appropriate defensive sidearm?

My best advice to you is to carry a gun that is reliable and shoots well. If your preference is a .22, it will probably serve you well. My preference is to carry something a little larger whenever it's convenient.

Greg Ellifritz is the full time firearms and defensive tactics training officer for a central Ohio police department. He holds instructor or master instructor certifications in more than 75 different weapon systems, defensive tactics programs and police specialty areas. Greg has a master's degree in Public Policy and Management and is an instructor for both the Ohio Peace Officer's Training Academy and the Tactical Defense Institute.

For more information or to contact Greg, visit his training site at Active Response Training.

Help us fight for your rights!

Become a member of Buckeye Firearms Association and support our grassroots efforts to defend and advance YOUR RIGHTS!

Subscribe to our FREE Newsletter

Get weekly news and instant alerts on the latest laws and politics that affect your gun rights. Enjoy cutting-edge commentary. Be among the first to hear about gun raffles, firearms training, and special events. Read more.

We respect your privacy and your email address will be kept confidential.


Buckeye Firearms Association is a grassroots organization dedicated to defending and advancing the right of citizens to own and use firearms for all legal activities, including self-defense, hunting, competition, and recreation. Read more.