Testing velocity of trail guns: .22 Magnum vs. .32 Magnum
by R.K. Campbell
Contributing Editor


Several expressions came to mind as I worked this report up. “A good big man will always beat a good little man” is one of these. But the one that is pertinent turned out to be “It’s not the size of the dog it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

The .22 Magnum has a lot of fight for its size and is among my favorite cartridges. It is no secret I am a big bore man when it comes to self-defense and hunting, but that is simply attention to detail and respect for reality. When it comes to small game and trail use, or the informal target practice we call plinking, I have far more latitude in choice. I have used many calibers, from the lowly .22 Short to the mighty .45 Colt but come back to light, handy, small handguns that are accurate and light to pack.

This article was a revelation in some ways as I explored comparative ballistics and performance. As a handgun enthusiast and hobbyist I have always preferred handloading centerfire ammunition to using store bought and felt that I could produce versatile, powerful, accurate and inexpensive ammunition on demand. That is true, but in this case I find that the factory offers a good selection in a readily available rimfire cartridge that makes more sense than hand loading. With more projects and less time on my hands, store bought looks good, especially when store bought and inexpensive are not mutually exclusive.

My experience with .22 Magnum and .32 caliber revolvers dates back over 30 years, before the introduction of the .32 H&R Magnum. My father owned a German-made .22 caliber revolver with interchangeable .22 and .22 Magnum cylinders and my grandfather owned several .32s. Each was fertile ground for experimentation. When firing either, my early impressions led me to favor the .32 Smith & Wesson (S&W) Long. My grandfather’s 3-inch barrel Rossi revolver and his Colt Detective Special with 2-inch barrel were easy to shoot well, accurately, and did not have the ear-splitting muzzle report of the .22 Magnum. They were more expensive to shoot, but then the Magnum was not inexpensive.

Among the first centerfire cartridges I handloaded were the .32s, on an old but useful Lee Loader. I purchased a supply of swaged wadcutter bullets from the now defunct Taurus bullet company and enjoyed good results. I used Unique powder in the majority of loadings. I took squirrels cleanly with the Colt. Little meat was damaged. I did not realize at the time my handloads produced perhaps 700 feet-per-second (fps) from the Colt. Pedestrian they were, but quite effective–matched to the game.

As I read widely I discovered I was using a cartridge introduced nearly 100 years earlier, for the first S&W Hand Ejector I frame pistols. The cartridge was widely used by American police forces, including the New York City Police Department. It was carried beneath the uniform tunic and officers noted it was light and quick into action. Accuracy and low recoil were good points. The gun was respected for its threat, with the truncheon used more often.

Few Bad Reports
Surprisingly I find little in the way of bad reports on the .32. Perhaps it is simply too old, as there is no shortage of criticism of the .38 police revolver, beginning in the 1890s. The .32 S&W Long was found to be an accurate cartridge and eventually chambered in full size target guns such as the K 32 Smith and Wesson. I have fired a few and they are very accurate, even with factory round nose ammunition. The latest example I fired grouped into one inch at 25 yards on demand with Winchester’s 98-grain round nose commercial load, which produced 690 fps from a 6-inch barrel. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the .32 S&W Long is an accurate cartridge.

As I added experience with the handgun I purchased a top quality .22 Magnum S&W and an interchangeable cylinder Ruger Single Six. When I used these pistols on small game, I was amazed. The .22 Magnum showed far more tissue damage than any .32 caliber bullet. When I eventually obtained a chronograph, I found that some of the CCI rounds clocked well over 1,300 fps from the 4∫-inch barreled Ruger–about twice the velocity of the .32. I was impressed.

College, police work and a growing family intervened and my pleasure shooting and small game hunting was curtailed. But I well remember the effect of the .22 Magnum on raccoon, possum and rabbit. I never had one walk away from a clean hit with a .32 either, but the Magnum was more effective.

In the intervening years I hunted little but did a great deal of range work. I no longer owned a .32 but fired the .22 caliber Ruger at long range, enjoying the flat shooting Magnum. No .32 could have matched this performance. Then along came the .32 H&R Magnum. The first revolvers were not interesting to my tastes, but when Ruger introduced a .32 H&R Magnum version of the Single Six my interest was piqued. Here was a light, handy, single-action revolver chambering a powerful .32 caliber cartridge. Somehow, I thought perhaps it would equal the grand old .32-20. I was wrong.

Experiments
The new Magnum jolted a 85-grain JHP to 1,110 fps from a 4 3/4 inch Ruger. I experimented with the cartridge and found that, despite a paper advantage in sectional density, the .32 did not offer a penetration advantage over the full weight .22 Magnum cartridge. This is why I condemned the .32 Magnum as a defense cartridge. Unfortunately a number of writers with no experience in personal defense continue to cite the advantages of this cartridge for the recoil shy, and in a market driven economy numerous small revolvers are manufactured in this caliber for the defense market. The .22 Magnum and .32 Magnum are small game guns. The advocacy of the .32 in personal defense is ill considered. This shift from the .32 as a field gun and it’s harping as a personal defense weapon soured my outlook on the gun but so did lackluster performance.

I recently elected to do a more comprehensive test of the .22 Magnum, the .32 Magnum, and my old favorite, the .32 Smith & Wesson Long. Interestingly, and if it is important, the .22 Magnum is also available as a long gun cartridge if the idea of a carbine and handgun combination is appealing. I also own .32 S&W Long inserts for firing this cartridge in the .30-06 rifle, so I have considerable experience with either. In the case of the .22 Magnum I do own a rifle in this caliber and also an insert for the .22 Magnum that works well in my .223 caliber Howa rifle. I have put either to work against crows and other pests, and find the .22 Magnum considerably more effective. This makes it a better small game cartridge than the .32. Since the .32 is not effective against larger game, then, I really have no need for the .32 Magnum. And the .32 Magnums cost more as factory ammunition, although with reloading factored in the cartridge can be comparable to the .22 Magnum in cost.

Beyond a doubt, the person who does not reload should choose the .22 Magnum. I have to admit I enjoyed firing the Ruger I borrowed to test the .32 Magnum. It is pleasant to fire and proved accurate enough for field use. There are a number of very nice revolvers made in this caliber, and that is a good selling point. The .22 Magnum and .32 Magnum revolvers were roughly comparable in all particulars, from accuracy to handling. Only at longer range did the flat shooting .22 Magnum take over and run away from the .32, but that was expected. The difference in performance was obvious. The .22 Magnum simply was the better cartridge, especially past 25 yards. And while the .32 Magnum offers the use of .32 S&W and .32 S&W Long cartridges as sub loads, the .22 Magnum can use a spare cylinder that chambers the mighty popular, inexpensive and useful .22 Long Rifle cartridge. It just doesn’t get any better. Of all the sub-caliber adaptions and wonderful pistols that use more than one cartridge only the 1911 with a sub caliber conversion unit is a neater trick. I’m sorry if I didn’t drag this test out and keep you wrapped up in expectation, but that is the sum of the matter.

Hard Look
Now, let’s take a harder look at the .22 Magnum. The .22 Magnum is a relatively young cartridge, introduced in 1957. I may be wrong but I believe the cartridge has proven more popular in handguns than rifles. One reason for this popularity is that you can easily interchange revolver cylinders and fire the inexpensive .22 Long Rifle round in the pistol. This is not possible in the rifle. You see the bore diameter of the .22 Long Rifle and the .22 Magnum is very close and the same bullet can be fired in the same barrel but the cartridge case is too different to be fired in a Magnum cylinder. Sure, some have done it but accuracy is poor and the case often ruptures or at least it will split. My friends at Dixie Shooter recently repaired a very nice High Standard revolver that had been abused in this manner. The .22 LR case was stuck in the Magnum cylinder.

Don’t do it!
The Magnum uses a modern seated/crimped bullet while the ancient .22 rimfire uses an outside lubricated heel based bullet. It works and works fine in everything from single-shot rifles to machineguns but the .22 Magnum design is far more reliable and safer in rough handling. When you purchase a Ruger revolver with a pair of cylinders you have access to ammunition ranging from the .22 Short Mini Cap up to heavy 50 grain Magnum scampers. That’s versatility! Oh, yes, and birdshot cartridges. Any revolver worth its salt must have the ability to use shot shells!

The Ruger Single Six is the home of the .22 Magnum in my house but I admit a number of Magnums look very good. I have fired several of the Taurus revolvers with barrel lengths from 2 to 4 inches in both .22 Long Rifle and .22 Magnum. While the double-action revolver is a dedicated Magnum, without the ability to use the .22 Long Rifle, it is a very nice trail gun. With a proper hold and care in aiming these Taurus revolvers are very accurate, feature 8-shot cylinders, and give fine accuracy. Let’s face it; they are this century and the single action is from the century before last! There are many problems in hand fitting and supplying a spare cylinder for a double-action revolver, as the trigger action both cocks and fires the pistol, and auxiliary cylinders will probably never be available for these pistols. But just the same ,if I were to purchase a new .22 Magnum I am certain the Taurus would get attention.

I have sung the praises of the .22 Magnum but where is the performance? I undertook a considerable firing test in working out the best of the currently available .22 Magnum loads. I provided comparisons to .22 Long Rifle ammunition and also a number of my favorite center fire .32 S&W Long and .32 H&R Magnum cartridges. There is little comparison, even though it took this writer perhaps 30 years to produce a definitive opinion. Perhaps certain other questions presented were more important at the time!

When firing at targets at 50 yards or more, the velocity advantage of the .22 Magnum is obvious. Also, and this is not scientific but clearly demonstrative, when firing at water-filled jugs the .22 Magnum produced more dynamic results. The jugs burst and were torn apart at moderate range. As for penetration, the small caliber hard jacketed .22 Magnum lead the way. Firing into soaked newsprint the magnum showed good expansion. Overall, I find the .22 Magnum a fine field cartridge. For anything larger than the game I take with the .22 Magnum I will jump to the .357 Magnum. That’s the end of that story!
Here are the test results:
Ruger Single Six .22 Magnum cylinder 4-3/4 inch barrel
CCI Maxi Mag 40 gr. JHP 1,250 fps
Winchester Super X 40 gr. JHP 1,239 fps
Winchester Super X 40 gr. FMJ 1,288 fps*
*For some reason the FMJ load has always been loaded a tad hotter.
Ruger Single Six .22 Long Rifle cylinder
CCI Mini Mag 36-grain 999 fps
Winchester Wildcat 40-grain 902 fps
Winchester 36-gr. HV/HP 1,011 fps
Rossi .32 S&W Long, 4-inch barrel
Winchester 98-grain lead 672 fps
Colt Detective Special with 2-inch barrel
Winchester 98-grain lead 605 fps
Ruger Single Six, 4-3/4 inch barrel, .32 H&R Magnum
Handload, 85-grain JHP 1,110 fps
Federal 85-grain JHP 1,050 fps
Black Hills 85-grain JHP 1,103 fps**
**The Black Hills load is quite accurate, making a good case for the cartridge on that basis alone.
Handloads
.32 S&W Long
Speer 100-grain JHP, Winchester 231, 1.8 grains 678 fps
Speer 100-grain JHP, Universal, 3.0 grains 701 fps
(Hodgdon warns not to reduce this load)
Winchester 98-gr. RNL, (Old stock, in yellow box), Winchester 231, 2.4 grains 753 fps
.32 H&R Magnum
Speer 85-gr. JHP, Universal, 4.3 grains 1,110 fps
Speer 85-gr. JHP, Unique, 4.0 grains 999 fps
Hornady 90- gr. XTP, Universal, 4.0 grains 1,055 fps
Winchester 98 gr. RNL, Unique, 3.8 grains 890 fps

Return to Archive Index