The 222 Remington - Falling in Love Again
By Russ Gould
The first centerfire rifle that I fired was a Sako Vixen chambered for the 222 Remington cartridge. Madison Avenue could not have conjured up a more seductive combination of wood, steel, brass and copper. It captivated my teenage eyes and mind. To a youngster whose whole rifle experience consisted of punching targets with a Martini 22 LR, the 222 cartridge seemed very large; its muzzle blast tremendous; and its “reach out and whack something” capability stupendous. The cartridges had a magical quality…I carried one in my pocket and at any opportunity, I would take it out and admire it. I made a key chain from a fired cartridge with a fresh bullet. And I would polish it frequently with brass polish, making it gleam like a jewel.
That rifle belonged to a friend a couple of years my senior, and he instantly became my BEST friend. The fact that he had a reloading bench equipped with the latest RCBS equipment was the icing on the cake.
The two of us were fortunate to be spending our teenage years living in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountain range, in what was then the Province of Natal, Republic of South Africa. The dairy and stud farms in the area were our stomping grounds. And stomp we did. Guinea Fowl fell to that little rifle, sometimes two in a single shot; the Christmas (Spurwing) goose was made in Finland; doves and pigeons were in mortal danger and more often that not cut in half by the speeding bullets we disbursed in their direction; Mynah birds were vaporized with regularity; hares ran all the faster as bullets kicked up dust at their heels; and the local Duikers and Reedbuck fell to the 60 grain reloads we concocted for the purpose. And when we weren’t shooting birds and game, we were whacking rocks on distant hillsides, just to marvel at the almost instantaneous smack of the bullet on stone.
Needless to say, as soon as I turned 16, the legal age required to own a rifle, I purchased an identical rifle with 3 boxes of Sako brand ammo at Kings in Durban with most of my life’s savings….about R140 (the SA Rand at the time was worth about a dollar). I couldn’t afford a scope right away so my first few outings were done with the iron sights. Saving furiously, I was able to mount a Weaver V4.5 (it was on sale) in a set of brand new Sako mounts on my pride and joy. The scope complemented the rifles trim lines. About that time I declared war on the crows.
Crows were the only real varmint available to us in any numbers in that part of the world. There were plenty of them. They were large, coal black, and loud. However, they were also very cunning and quite able to discern whether you had a rifle with you or not. If not, they would taunt you as you went about your business, yelling crow insults at you from the very top of one of the many fir or blue gum trees in the vicinity. However, as soon I ventured forth with my Vixen, the crows would take wing and leave in a hurry. This was so frustrating that I once downed one on the wing with the scoped rifle! I developed strategies to outwit them. One was to shoot them from a window. Our home was surrounded by tall pines, and every so often, usually just as the sun started to warm things up, a crow would perch on the top of one of the tallest pines and announce his presence to the world. My rifle was always close at hand and many a crow croaked his last croak from those trees.
Crows were also creatures of habit. I noticed that a pair of crows would alight on a particular blue gum tree each morning, along the road that bordered our farm on one side. This was at that certain time of the year when we would experience thick fogs each morning. Around 9, the sun would break through and the crows would alight on this tree to bask in the sun. One morning, I was lying in wait in the ruins of a mud and straw hut that was now no more than a circular berm surrounded by a patch of pricker brush. As the fog cleared, the crows arrived with a cacophony of caws and croaks. But they were smart crows: they did not alight on the uppermost branches where I had observed them, but first flew into the foliage near the top and sat silent for a few minutes, surveying the surrounding area from their lookout. Once they felt it was all clear, they hopped up to their favorite perch and started calling as loudly as they could muster. I snuggled down behind my rifle, using the berm as a rest, and in an instant turned crow no. 1 into a cloud of feathers.
I had learned by now that if you showed yourself, one shot was all you got. However, if you remained hidden, especially if you were sniping at a flock of young crows, when the first crow fell the others would kick up a huge racket, circling their fallen comrade and urging him to rise from the dead. If you let them carry on for a while, crows would appear from all four corners of the compass and pretty soon there would be dozens of birds flapping, circling, and perching on the nearby trees. This suited me fine. When crows were in this frenzy, I could take a half dozen or more provided I was well hidden. Once, while enjoying such a frenzy, I ran out of softs and had to used the solids I kept in reserve for edible game. The game only ended when a pair of larger and wiser birds made a pass over the area and, I presume, gave the “get the heck out of here” call, because the entire flock took off as soon as they had their say.
The 222 Remington was inextricably part of my adolescence, and unfortunately I sold it when I left for postgraduate studies at MIT. I then endured a longish period deprived of a rifle of any kind. Massachusetts, I learned, did not like guns at all. Neither did New York. And so I discovered bow hunting and forgot about rifles for a while.
During this time, the 222 Remington had fallen from grace. The sizzler that had put the Hornet out of business, was itself eclipsed by the 223 and the 22-250. So when I next was able to purchase a rifle (while living temporarily in Australia, a fine place for a rifleman to live, at least at the time), I got a 243 Sako Forester in Varmint configuration, along with a model 800 in 22 Hornet to keep it company. This pair never did satisfy me the way my 222 had. The Hornet was a disappointment in the accuracy department. In comparison to my first rifle, this round was weak, lacked the fine accuracy of the 222, and the cases didn’t reload very well. The 243 was impressive to look at, devastating on feral goats, feral pigs, and rabbits, but heavy to carry and you couldn’t observe your bullet strike due to the recoil, muzzle blast, and.a noticeable amount of smoke. The hornet worked OK on foxes but I could never reconcile myself to accept its mediocre accuracy, lack of reach, and the rifle itself, even though it was a Sako, was no Vixen.
I hung onto them and used both for Woodchuck in Pennsylvania, the next stop on my career journey. The hornet wouldn’t kill them unless you made a headshot, but that 243 did a fine job of turning woodchucks into a cloud of steam. This was settled country, however, so I usually left the Forester on the rack and made do with the little gun.
When these two rifles (along with a couple of other guns that I had added to my collection) were stolen from our home in Connecticut, next stop after PA, I was actually relieved. I had had items stolen before that, and have had stuff stolen since, and this normally makes me as mad as a snake. But this time, I was looking forward to receiving the insurance settlement and began to savor my options.
After some hemming and hawing, I bought a Winchester model 70 XTR in 257 Roberts, a caliber that I had read a lot about throughout these years in various gun magazines. I thought it was about time I had a decent deer rifle, although I was still putting meat in the freezer with my bow at the time, and enjoying it. But a trip out West with my 243 for Mule Deer got me thinking about the 25s, so when one came up in the local Nickel Ads, I bought it. I also purchased a brand new Ruger no. 1 again in 22 Hornet, because I thought it might have some collector value and I hoped it would shoot better than the last one.
Unfortunately, before I could put it to use. I was naïve enough to accept a work assignment in Europe, so those two guns ended up gathering dust for several years while I tried in vain to get the French, Germans, Italians, Belgians, Portugese, and Spaniards to cooperate in the name of profit.
Thankfully, that ended after a couple of years and I landed in Oregon, a place I had wanted to live since my PA days. Oregon is blessed with crows, as well as “sage rats” (ground squirrels) and of course coyotes. My Ruger no.1, which I had not shot since I purchased it five years prior, actually shot extremely well. One hole groups with Hornady 40 gr bullets. I liked it so much I bought a Ruger no 3 with a view to using that and “preserving” my no.1. Of course the No. 3 couldn’t be coaxed to shoot at all. It was essentially useless beyond 100 yards. So I went with the flow and got a Remington 700 VS in (what else) .223 for a varmint gun. Actually, I got two of them, one new and one used. The used one I put to use, the new one I kept in reserve. By now I had discovered Prairie Dogs and found the 223 to be too much for Sage Rats (which, for the most part, are shot inside 200 yards due to their size and the terrain); but too little for pasture poodles, which can be shot at any range you like, but they are the “right” size for 300-500 yard shots and the 223 just wasn’t up to that.
Out went the 223 and I got to work building a custom 240 Weatherby with a 26” heavy Shilen match grade stainless barrel and a muzzle brake so I could see where I was shooting. This plan was good on paper, and while I still have the rifle, I haven’t been able to get much better than moa out of it and that just doesn’t cut it beyond 300 yards. Part of the reason I haven’t found the rifle’s sweet spot is the fact that the brass is rather spendy so I don’t shoot it much. And the other part is I think the gunsmith that did the crowning job needs to go back to gunsmithing school.
Meanwhile my main quarry was and is sage rats. Prairie dogs are a good two and a half day drive from the Willamette Valley. Rats are just over the hill! I used an eclectic collection of rifles on them. A Ruger 10/22 with match grade barrel is deadly out to 80 yards or so. Longer shots were Hornet fodder, until I got tired of shooting and hoping with the infernal No 3. (The No 1 found a new owner, why oh why do I sell rifles that behave!). Then I came across the 218 Bee caliber, by way of the 22 Lovell, courtesy of the aforementioned gunsmith. I found what I thought was another Hornet on a Martini Cadet action, complete with Unertl 6x scope. I had it rechambered for the K-Hornet, another cartridge that has always fascinated me (and I will get to know it one of these days). When I fire-formed my first case, it was immediately obvious that something was very wrong. The gun was actually a 22 Lovell, a case that is very close to a Hornet at the head end, but much longer. So back it went and after a long wait the rifle came back as a 218 Bee. That was a stroke of fortune as this turned out to be one of the better rat rifles in my battery. The Bee is ideal on small varmints out to 200 and this rifle was shot to ¾ moa which was very adequate. I had a lot of fun with it and enjoyed the retro scope. The Martini action took me back to my school days. The only problem with it was that it would start to pierce primers after about 60 rounds. I still don’t know why…perhaps the pressure was just below the rupture point when the bore was clean, and after that many rounds it went critical. I was also using pistol primers since these gave the best accuracy, but they are not as beefy as rifle primers. Anyway, the gun went off to a new owner at some point so I had to find another medium range gun. Shooting 500 plus rounds a day at rats can get tedious so I like to liven things up a bit by using two or three different rifles. I found a vintage Stevens Favorite with a longish heavy barrel that had a very poor bore. I had Mr. Gunsmith reline it and rechamber it for 22 mag. I know some readers are throwing up their hands in horror at this point. The 22 WMR has the same SAAMI pressure as the 22LR, so that’s not an issue. And the gun was more dead than alive when I bought it, so it wasn’t ever going to be a collector gun again. I found a correct Lyman Expert 4x scope and found that the gun shot horribly with some brands of ammo and quite well with others. It proved to be quite effective (and a lot of fun) out to about 125 yards. I also use a TC Carbine with a custom 218 Bee barrel now that I am a convert to that delightful cartridge. I often wonder why the Hornet has staged a comeback while the Bee, which is a lot more cartridge and a much better reloading proposition, continues to languish.
So via this long and tortuous road, we come back to the 222 Remington. The one good thing that came out of our stay in Europe was our son Evan. By the time I was learning to like the Bee, he was old enough to shoot rats. His first shots were with my No. 3 Hornet, not at the rats but at the mounds. He liked to see the dust fly when he hit them (a chip off the old block). One day I was pounding rats in a stiff wind with the Martini Bee when he asked to have a shot. He had to tuck the stock under his armpit and twist his neck to look through the Unertl scope at a skinny rat at around 150 yards, at which distance the Martini was dead on. Bang-flop! I was amazed. Soon he was shooting his own Chipmunk 22 WMR, heavy barrel of course, at rats and enjoying it. After a couple of years with that rifle (which incidentally shoots moa groups with Remington green tip ammo), he was starting to outgrow it. So when my eye fell on a Remington 600 Mohawk in 222 Remington at a local gunshow, a light went on in my head. This was the carbine version, the perfect size for an 11 year-old. The fact that it had a variable scope on it, and a bolt that worked just like the sniper rifle on his favorite video game, made it an instant winner in his eyes.
Soon we were shooting the rifle at the range out back and blasting some chunks of concrete and the odd overripe pear in between targets. The gun shot well enough with the cat and dog ammo I scrounged up. It had no recoil, it wasn’t overly loud (as long as we had earmuffs on), and it hit where it was aimed. Evan loved the gun and we shot up everything I had on hand.
It just so happened that in addition to my son’s new Remington 600, I had a few more rifles in the same caliber in my inventory (I am a licenced dealer and sell varmint rifles via my website, vh2q.com). I don’t (can’t) shoot all the rifles that I buy although I periodically pick one out for load development just to scratch the old itch and, of course, this helps to sell the gun. Since I had to work up some loads for Evan’s gun with rat season around the corner, I wondered how these other guns would shoot. I wanted to get back to the 222 myself, after seeing how well it shot and remembering how easily it reloaded. If I could find a really accurate rifle/load, it would push my effective range out to 300 yards, which is all the range we can get at most rat fields. I was pretty happy with the 218 Bee as my long poke rifle for rats, and I still shot the 22LR and 22 WMR for close work. But if I had to fiddle with loads anyway, I thought it would be interesting to see how the other rifles shot at the same time. So on a rare sunny day in late winter, I lined them up: a Sako Riihimaki heavy barrel in a custom stock; Evan’s little Remington 600; and a Savage 842 that I had put on ice because I couldn’t get it to shoot. (I also had a Vixen Deluxe in 222 but I don’t like to shoot mint guns so I left it out of the exercise).
These three guns are pretty representative of what’s available. Unfortunately, no domestic maker currently catalogues the 222 Remington. The 223 is so popular that it has relegated the 222 to the used market. The good news is the 222 was a popular caliber for long enough that it’s not too hard to find one, and the prices are usually right. Consulting the 1982 edition of Gun Digest, I found the following rifles offered in that caliber: Remington 40XB and 700 ADL and BDL (and later the excellent 788); BSA; Sako; Savage 340; and Winchester 70. Of these, none are still offered in this caliber. The 223 has taken over at the performance end, and the Hornet has made a comeback at the tame end of the 222’s market.
The cartridge itself was introduced in the Remington 722 in 1950. It was an entirely new cartridge (one of the few “all new” cartridges that actually took hold in that era), and it was an instant success in the field and in the bench rest community. Virtually all of the ammo makers catalogued the cartridge. A quick sort through my stash of brass turned up headstamps by HP, Sako, Winchester, RWS, RP, Browning, FC, and Savage. It put the Hornet and the Bee to rest and had no competition until the 223 came out seven years later. Even then, it took the 223 a long time to kill the 222, which was a better reloading proposition due to the longer neck, efficient case, and superb inherent accuracy. The 223 had a strong foothold in the semi-auto market though and it soon appeared alongside the 222 in the bolt market. Shooters could not resist the higher numeral in the cartridge name nor the higher MV. Cheap 223 brass and cheaper surplus ammo convinced even the accuracy-oriented reloading fraternity to adopt it. By 1985 or so, the 222’s reign was over. Fortunately, due to the “installed base“ of rifles out there, inexpensive ammo is still offered by most of the major manufacturers, including Hornady who entered the ammo market long after the 222 fell from grace. Interestingly, the chambering has hung on in Europe and to some extent in Australia and South Africa, where the 223 was not adopted by the military, and rifles are still offered by some European makers such as Blaser and CZ but Sako, to my regret, has forsaken the 222 for the 223 and the 204!
The 222 is at home with 45-55 grain bullets with the 52 grainers being ideal for most rifles. The standard twist is 1:14 and that is marginal for 60 grain bullets, other than very blunt-nosed offerings. BLC-2 and IMR 4198 are the most commonly used powders, although any one of about 10 powders will work well in this case. The Hornet and the Bee, on the other hand, will digest a more restrictive list of powders and bullets, and some require a 223 bullet.
So much for theory. Being a practical type, I lined up the 3 rifles I had on hand, found a batch of cases (ironically made from 223 brass by some zealous person), and matched those up with two boxes of bullets that had been sitting on my bench looking for a rifle that would shoot them well. The first were ultra-modern Hornady 40gr V-Max bullets with bright red polymer tips; the second was a vintage Green card box of Sierra 50gr PSPs that I once tried in my Bee without success. For powder, I decided to use 760 BR for the simple reason that I had two cans and no immediate use for it and I had never tried it in the 222. It’s on the slow side for this cartridge, but it meters really well and the BR on the bottle (presumably for Bench Rest) looked promising. I couldn’t get much more than a mild load of 25 grains into the cases, due to the heavier walls of the 223 donor brass, which only a grain above the starting load in the Lyman manual for either bullet. This did not bother me as accuracy kills rats, not muzzle blast. For primers, I used CCI 550s (small pistol magnum), based on my earlier experience with the Bee and some reading.
I annealed the brass, trimmed it to the 2.700 maximum length, deburred the mouths and loaded up just 18 rounds: three for each rifle with each of the two bullets. I didn’t alter my powder measure to make things really easy, nor did I adjust the seater stem on the seating die. As a result, the V-max loads were longer due to the pointier bullets. The brass was neck-sized only, but it chambered fine in all 3 rifles and fit the magazines of the two clip guns (the Sako and the Savage…with no room to spare in the case of the pointy V-Max bullets).
The next afternoon, after doing some real work to relieve my guilt at taking the rest of the day “off” to play with rifles, I set my shooting bag on the flatbed that I use for a bench, and proceeded to shoot each one of the rifles starting with a dry clean bore. I put up a fresh target for each rifle and left the scopes along, except for the Sako which was bore sighted only for the V-max loads, and consequently quite low on the paper.
The Sako with its modest heavy barrel went first, of course. The bolt felt smooth, the trigger crisp, and the bench reasonably steady. The first two V-maxes went into just under .5 moa, with the third opening things up to .9” and that could have been me. Still, a very good group. The shots struck low so I adjusted the scope, a Vintage Weaver V8 with external adjustments, and then shot the 3 Sierras into a tight group measuring .4”. Wow!
I put that gun aside and took up Evan’s Remington. The V-max loads made a ragged .4 inch hole, and the Sierras just made the hole taller (two shots only, one misfired due to water in the case as I later discovered). This amazed me. The rifle has a shortish light contour barrel but it shot like my best heavy-barreled varminter! And two very different loads shot to the same point of aim, for all practical purposes. The gun ejected the cases with vigor, but I noticed that the V-max loads caused pinprick holes in the primers right in the middle of the firing pin impressions. This was not the case with the Sierras.
Finally, not expecting much based on some earlier spotty experimentation with the rifle, I took up the longest gun, Savage 842 (the Sears version of the 340). It had a good bore but just would not settle down, the last time I had tried it despite glass bedding. This gun has a unusual barrel band that acts as a front bedding point and I ascribed the problem to that. The best I could do was about 2.5” and most groups wre worse, with a variety of bullets and powders. So I wasn’t hopeful. The Hornady bullets shot low and poorly…two together but one (not a flier) over two inches away. I checked all the scope mounting screws and found the thumb screws not quite tight but not loose. I don’t know whether this was a factor but I was pleasantly surprised to see the Sierras plunk into a respectable group right measuring .9 inches, a little low in the bull.
Based on this quick and dirty tour of the world of the 222, I was very happy with the results. I was able to find an accurate (extremely so in two cases) load with only two tries, varying just the bullet. The guns were mild to shoot and muzzle blast was really quite tame. The Sako will be my go-to gun for rats this season, and Evan couldn’t have hoped for a better rat rifle than the little Mohawk. We’ll both shoot the same load, using the Sierra 50 gr PSPs, and those two bottles of powder will last us the whole season. One could say, in more ways than one, that I had come full circle. Evan is starting the journey I was completing….and yet were were journeying together.
Of course, the proof of any caliber is its performance in the field. To complete the story, Evan and I took to the alfalfa pastures of Central Oregon, each with his “new” rifle, and put them to test on the ubiquitous ground squirrels. It was not a contest. If one of use could see a squirrel, he was pretty certainly enjoying his last meal of green alfalfa sprouts. Beyond 250, we had to watch the wind and hold high, but no squirrel was safe, even at those ranges. The rifles were very pleasant to shoot, almost impossible to overheat, and thwacked the rats just as gratifyingly as any 223 or 22-250. A good deal of ammo went downrange, but not much powder was consumed. Hard to find fault with that.
I have to tip my hat to the Remington engineers who came up with this very useful cartridge. Hopefully it will rally again, and not be forgotten. The characteristics that made it popular at one time are still very much present. Here’s to the 222, may it yet live!
Three 222 Rem rifles, two loads, and a rare Springtime sunny afternoon in Western Oregon!
Sako Riihimaki Varmint, a rare bird, with period Weaver V8 externally adjustable scope
Sako Riihimaki Varmint
Remington 600 Mohawk Carbine with Tasco 3-7x, ideal boy's rifle
Remington 600 shot both loads under .5 moa to almost the same point of impact
Sako preferred the Sierra 50gr PSPs
Savage 840 with Bushnell 2.5-8x Special Edition, one of the few scopes that allow bolt handle clearance with the required side mount.
Savage did not like the V-Max but showed promise with the Sierra 50gr PSP
222s came in all sizes and shapes...although only European makers catalog them today.
Short skinny barrels can shoot! Remington was most accurate of the three rifles with the loads tested.
222 Ammo is still widely available, despite being overshadowed by the larger but shorter-necked 223 (at left).
Author used cases made from 223 mil brass (at right); capacity was a little tighter than commercial brass (center), so load data is not interchangeable.
Evan laying down fire in Central Oregon.
Shooting off the Varmint Hunter HQ Tow Hitch Bench.