Let’s face it: there’s not much I can say that has not been said about the .22LR, so I won’t try to avoid it. Instead, I will try to focus on the cartridge from the standpoint of training, and how its regular use will make you a better shooter.
The cheap-as-chips price point of the .22LR is well-known in the shooter community, yet due to its diminutive projectile energy, it is has been largely derided as a caliber. Recently, however, the prohibitive prices of larger, more powerful calibers have pushed the average shooter into looking for other options for keeping sharp. Firearms manufacturers, nothing if not keen to the needs of their customers, quickly responded to this need. Over the past several years, several companies have pushed a glut of .22-caliber training options onto the market – some good, some not-so-good (more about that later).
.22 training with the proper weapon can, in all areas except for “recoil management”, properly train you on operation and use of your primary weapon, and at roughly 18% the cost (depending on caliber). This means, for the same money spent, you can afford to run through a course or exercise 6 times for every 1 of the actual caliber. Of course, this is not meant to say that you should entirely replace your training with .22. There is no substitute for the real feel of the recoil, but when it comes to controls operation, clearing malfunctions and keeping sharp on iron sights, the right .22 can readily stand in for your go-to platform, and give you 6 more repetitions while doing it.
I keep clarifying my stance with “the right rifle”. I make this distinction for good reason. As I mentioned earlier, gun manufacturers responded to a groundswell of support for “body kit” .22 rifles, which were little more than 10/22s, dressed up to look like this platform or that rifle. While a novelty, (and I mean no slight against the venerable 10/22,) these kits are little more than playing dress-up with the rifle. The controls, iron sights, magazines and handling remained the same as the base weapon. I consider the use of things like this for training doubly damaging: not only does practicing with such a gun not promote familiarity through repetition, it actually damages your existing muscle memories by promoting different ones on a platform that otherwise feels similar. Fortunately, there are many other, more appropriate options that can truly make a difference in your training:
The next level up from body kits is the series of .22 ARs put forth by Colt, originally manufactured by Umarex. Sure, these platforms are a remarkable improvement from body kits, but they are still missing critical pieces of operation – namely a functioning bolt stop – so the issue of muscle memory remains. “Pretending” to press the bolt stop can only go so far, especially if your primary platform employs a BAD lever, or something similar. One additional bit of information: Umarex made their bones on airsoft and airguns. Call it a stigma, call it what you will, but I was not entirely comfortable knowing that the manufacturer of my firearm was made by the same folks who make airsoft guns. This is not meant as a rant against Umarex, it is specific to my personal airsoft experience as a whole, which was that my airsoft guns were broken more than they worked. I have no doubt the M4 works for its owners more often than not, but I was not able to move past the stigma gained from my personal experience.
Enter the peak (in my opinion) of standalone .22 rifles, the Smith & Wesson 15-22. I can speak on the use of the rifle from experience, and given sufficient popular request, I could be convinced to do a full review of it. In short, the $450 S&W skimps on nothing. All controls are present and functional, the magazines are roughly STANAG proportions, and aftermarket parts fit in to the right places. This means you can get your training rifle as close to your primary system as possible. Unfortunately, in a “what were they thinking” move, I do not believe that the barrel shroud is in any way interchangeable, so you would have to get it “roughly right” here, as I have done with my personal rifle. As for its capabilities, I am able to consistently hit a 5-inch plate at roughly 100 yards, so any typical training regimen will not suffer for accuracy. If you are an AK user, don’t fret! Many AK options also exist, though I cannot speak to their quality.
There is another option apart from standalone rifles: though it is on the most expensive end of the scale, there is an option to purchase a dedicated .22 upper receiver for your main AR. Employing a dedicated upper has the advantage of keeping everything on the lower receiver – most importantly the trigger pull – the same as in your original setup. Depending on your brand choice, the advantages of this setup often do not outweigh the price difference, despite the relatively small (10%) difference. As a personal choice, I prefer to have a fully purpose-built rifle for training than have to continually switch my uppers for what I consider to be “marginal benefit”. I hate to throw the cop-out “your mileage may vary” at you, but this is one of those times where preference is a deciding factor. Neither the S&W nor a (reputable, quality) dedicated upper hold a clear advantage.
I will pause here to note that I have specifically avoided “drop-in” bolt carrier groups. On the surface, they would seem like the best option: keep everything on the rifle consistent, switch out the bolt, and save, save save. While these kits serve a purpose – for example, allowing a new shooter to get the feel of the weapon without the recoil of a 5.56 – I do not believe these kits have a place in my personal training regimen. Besides the fact that the remarkably dirty .22 rounds pack carbon and lead (from the non-jacketed bullet) into your gas tube, there’s the problem of twist rate and bullet stability. The average .22LR needs a 1:16 (minimally 1:12) twist rate to properly stabilize. Trying to shoot them out of 1:7 or 1:9 barrels common on 16-inch ARs is going to result in some questionable results. If you’re training to properly use the optics on your rifle – which is a given – not only will it need significant re-zeroing, but it may not actually be impossible to truly “zero” beyond a certain distance. But don’t take my word for it – a quick Google will show highly mixed accuracy results, and “mixed results” is not something I want from my equipment. As a final thought on this option: most of the kits’ included magazines are the most non-standard out of any of the options listed here. Although this problem is fixed by buying aftermarket magazines, it is an added and unnecessary hassle to save a few hundred dollars, when you are already doing something to save money to begin with. Again, a purpose-built weapon is preferable to a band-aid.
The training does not just stop at rifles – there are a growing number of makes and models of pistols, most built to the exact specifications of their real-caliber counterparts. Like their longarm counterparts, pistol options are numerous and varied, from slide replacements to dedicated .22 trainers of all shapes and types. To date, the only two companies who have released .22LR versions of their firearms are Colt and M&P. If you are a Glock fan, your only option is a conversion kit. Of course, there are others – Ruger, Walther, and such; but for the “big three”, your options are coming out of the woodwork daily.
The real saving power of .22 training comes from the combination of rifle and pistol. Combining any rifle option and a pistol option will get you out and training with your full setup for cents on the dollar, while keeping even your ancillary equipment and features (holsters, magazine pouches, slings, optics, sights, etc.) the same. Keeping everything consistent with your primary setup is the crux of getting the most from your investment. I have even gone so far as to run 3-gun scenarios with .22 weapons, and target load in my shotgun. Total cost per run? $3.10. With my primary system, that number jumps to $25.50. Hard to beat that – the initial investment of $825 would be recouped in about 35 sessions, an easily-achievable single day’s worth of shooting, or a few weeks, for those of us who get out less often than we should.
So, if this interests you, where should you look next?
Well, I would encourage everyone to double-check what I’ve said here, and find out if .22 training is really worth your investment for your shooting style. While I have provided you with what I hope to be a new opinion, it should never supersede your own own research. This is the method that I employ, and will employ whenever possible. Perhaps you too will come to appreciate the versatility of the .22 as a training tool. While you are out doing your research, let us know how you train by commenting on our facebook page, or tweet at us!