Comparing the .22 Hornet and the .223 doesn’t take much effort if you only check the ballistic charts. Firing the same 35-grain bullet, the .223 is a vastly superior cartridge in velocity, energy, and bullet drop.
In one glaring disparity, the .223 has as much energy at 150 yards as the .22 Hornet has at the muzzle.
But, if shooting preference were only based on ballistics, we wouldn’t have so many calibers to choose from.
The .22 Hornet a Brief History
A century ago a pair of inventive ammunition designers began to work with the black powder Winchester .22 centerfire cartridge.
Grosvenor Wotkyns developed the cartridge, but early on he discovered a problem that haunts the .22 Hornet to this day, there weren’t many rifles designed to shoot it.
In the 1920s Townsend Whelen modified a Springfield rifle to handle the .22 Hornet cartridge and was amazed at the performance.
The modified Springfield, with a 45-yard soft lead bullet, roared out of the barrel at 2400 feet per second. Not impressive by modern standards, but in the 1920s the speed was unprecedented.
There were no small-caliber, high-velocity rifles available at the time. The .22 Hornet was a huge improvement over the .22 long rifle in varmint and small game hunting.
When tested at the Winchester lab, the .22 Hornet proved to be the most accurate centerfire rifle the technicians had ever tested to that date.
But aside from a few modified bolt-action Springfield models and a modified single-shot Martini Cadet, there was no weapon to fire it from.
The .22 Hornet got its big break in 1933 when Winchester introduced the Model 54 rifle.
Though the Great Depression was in full swing, the cartridge was so popular that other gun manufacturers began producing rifles to fire the new fast, accurate round, that had almost no recoil.
In pre-1950 America, only the 30-06 Springfield, and the .270 Winchester outsold the .22 Hornet. It even made it across the Atlantic where it was known as the 5.5x35mm.
Then serious competition hit the market in the Remington .223
The Remington .223 a Brief History
Innovation is often the result of demand created by necessity, that’s the case with the Remington .223.
In the late stages of World War II, German weapons manufacturers began working on a smaller automatic weapons round for infantry to carry.
The Germans led the world in automatic weapon design at the time, but the heavier rounds used in infantry rifles were hard to control in fully automatic mode.
They experimented with a precursor to the modern .223, discovering that it still had deadly ballistics, but soldiers could carry more of the lightweight round into the field, and more importantly, they could keep the weapon on target in full auto mode.
It was an interesting weapon for Allied forces to study after Germany surrendered, but the .223 had to wait a few more years to arrive.
Winchester released the .308 cartridge in 1952, it became an incredibly popular round, eventually evolving into the 7.62x55mm NATO military standard.
Soon after the .308 hit the market, Winchester engineers began experimenting with a necked-down version of the .308 case.
The numbers get a little confusing, but the .223 began as an experiment with the .222 Remington and was also known as the .224 Springfield. Remington eventually settled on the .223 and the rest is history as they say.
The .223 was developed for military applications.
Going back in time a decade to the German experiments with a similar round, the US military sent out bids with the specifications that the bullet was .22 caliber, exceeded the speed of sound at 500-yards, and that could penetrate a .135” steel plate also at 500 yards.
The .223 coupled with the power of a .308 case fit the bill.
By 1955 the .223 was in the test phase, and by 1957 it was introduced to both the civilian and military market.
It has become the caliber of choice for varmint hunting, small game hunting, marksmanship competition, and even deer hunting.
Which is More Accurate the .22 Hornet or the .223?
Accuracy is the deal-breaker in purchasing a rifle. If it’s not accurate, why bother? Accuracy was once achieved by long barrel length.
The Kentucky long rifle popularized by Davey Crockett comes to mind. The other method is rifling.
Those spiral grooves inside the barrel of rifles since the American Civil War spin the bullet, creating a more accurate trajectory than even the longest smoothbore barrels could produce.
The rifling in a .22 Hornet is mild in comparison with a .223. The .22 Hornet in rifles such as the Winchester Model 54 and the Winchester Model 70 have a rifling twist rate of 1:16 inches.
That means for every 16-inches of barrel length, the bullet spins one full revolution. That’s considered slow rifling when you compare it to modern AR-15s firing the .223 round.
Rifling varies between gun manufacturers in the .223 but you can find rifles with 1:7 and 1:9 on the market today. That equates to two or three full revolutions in the barrel on many AR-15s.
That rapid spin greatly increases accuracy.
The .22 Hornet with its slower rifling has problems keeping a bullet heavier than 45 grains stable. You’ll find most.22 Hornet enthusiasts shooting 35 and 45-grain bullets as a result.
Ruger has improved the twist rate to 1:14 in their .22 Hornet Model 77. It is a more accurate rifle than historic versions of the .22 Hornet as a result.
Improvements in ammunition have bridged the gap a bit between the .223 and the .22 Hornet as well.
Hornady advertises their Varmint Express Ammunition in 35-grain bullets with a muzzle velocity of 3100 feet per second. The 45-grain version of this ammo has a speed of 2665 feet per second.
Is There a Military Use For the .22 Hornet?
While the .223 and its metric equivalent are used extensively by the American military and NATO forces, the .22 Hornet had a military presence as well.
The US Army Air Force, which later became the US Air Force equipped their pilots and airmen with survival rifles in the event they were shot down or crashed in wilderness areas.
The survival rifles were folding stock over-and-under style weapons that had either a .22 long rifle over a .410 shotgun barrel or often a .22 Hornet over the .410.
Through my early teenage years, we lived on Air Force bases across the United States where my dad was an NCO crew chief on B-52s.
I handled these survival rifles a few times but was never allowed to fire one. They’ve fascinated me for years. The idea lives on with the Taurus Judge, a revolver that can fire both .410 gauge shotguns shells and .45 Long Colt cartridges.
How Does .22 Hornet Ballistics Compare to the .223?
The .22 Hornet can be hand loaded with heavier grain bullets, but standard ammunition is usually only available in 35 and 45-grain sizes. The .223 is available in 35 grain to 75-grain bullets, with the 55-grain version the overwhelmingly popular size.
For our ballistic comparisons, we’ll use the 35-grain bullet. It is the smallest available on the .223 and the most popular for accuracy with the .22 Hornet.
Muzzle Velocity Comparison Of the .22 Hornet and the .223 Remington
Reading the chart below, there is ample evidence that the .223 Remington vastly outperforms the .22 Hornet. At 100 yards the velocity of the .223 Remington is faster than the .22 Hornet at the muzzle.
The velocity of the .223 Remington is approximately double that of the .22 Hornet at 300 and 400 yards, the maximum range that many varmint hunters can successfully take coyotes.
Energy Comparisons Of the .22 Hornet and the .223 Remington
Velocity multiplied by bullet size is a crucial component of calculating the energy of a bullet over range. The energy differences between the .22 Hornet and the .223 Remington are the most striking of the three comparisons.
The .22 Hornet’s 392-foot pounds at 100 yards is less energy than the .223 Remington delivers at 300-yards.
Energy, as measured in foot-pounds is the killing capacity of a bullet in mathematical terms.
It should be noted that at .223 Remington firing a 35-grain bullet should never be used for deer or pronghorn hunting.
The ethical standard in foot-pounds to kill a moderately sized game animal is 1000 pounds. Move up to a 75-grain bullet with the Remington .223 and you’re within ethical parameters at deer or pronghorn less than 200 yards away.
Bullet Drop Comparisons Of the .22 Hornet and the .223 Remington
This is the one category that the .22 Hornet competes well against the .223 Remington. Both are flat shooting at 200-yards, with the .22 Hornet slightly higher at 2.9 inches than the Remington .223 is at .8 inches at 100-yards.
Since most game, big and small, along with varmints are taken at 200-yards or less, this means both are accurate at the most common distances.
The .22 Hornet begins to fade quickly beyond 250-yards. At 300-yards the drop is 17.5 inches and by 500-yards the 35-grain .22 Hornet bullet has dropped over 12-feet. At that range, it has only 50 foot-pounds of energy and is effectively just a spent bullet.
After comparing the dominating performance of the .223 Remington compared to the .22 Hornet the obvious question is why bother with the .22 Hornet at all?
The answer is accuracy within the 200-yard limit, limited recoil, or almost no recoil since the .22 Hornet resembles the almost non-existent kick of the .22 long rifle.
The .22 Hornet is a step back in time for hunters, shooters, or collectors, wrapped in nostalgia from the 1930s and 40s. It is a gun that is often passed down through the generations.
The .223 Remington is the most popular round in America for AR-15 enthusiasts, varmint hunters, and small game applications.
It’s a taste of the past, versus a look into the future.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a squirrel, rabbit, coyote, or groundhog though, each of these does the job if they’re within a couple of hundred yards.