Given the ever-increasing proximity of neighbors due to suburban sprawl and the boost in sales of .22 caliber sound suppressors for range and field use, it’s little wonder why subsonic .22 Long Rifle (LR) loads have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. In fact, MidwayUSA currently lists more subsonic .22 LR options than supersonic on its website. There are several reasons for this shift: Beyond maintaining positive relationships with nearby residents, subsonic .22 LR loads also don’t frighten livestock or game, and their use helps preserve one’s hearing—especially when coupled with a quality suppressor, and they’re often more accurate than their supersonic brethren, too.
To qualify as “subsonic,” the projectile mustn’t break the speed of sound, and that rate varies greatly. Depending on the temperature, humidity, air pressure and elevation, it’s reported to range between 1087 fps and 1129 fps. For extra “cushion,” I opt for loads with velocities at (or less than) 1050 fps. At such speeds, the ammunition doesn’t produce the associated “crack” of supersonic ammo across a host of climates and locations.
Within the realm of subsonic .22 LR ammunition, there exists a multitude of configurations, and not all are well-suited for hunting small game. Outside of a restrained marksman who can consistently make head shots on squirrel-size game, lead, round-nose subsonic loads should be relegated to range work. Even lethal hits will often result in a lost animal. This is particularly true of squirrels, which will quickly scurry into a nest or hole in a tree.
To counteract the loss of energy and terminal performance due to lower velocities, you need a bullet that maximizes the wound channel(s). The most lethal bullet designs for use at subsonic velocities will be a traditional hollow-point or specialized, segmenting hollow-point. I’ve experienced good results with both designs.
Beyond terminal performance, the loads must function flawlessly in the rifle, too. Due to their low velocities—and, at times, low bullet weights—cycling can be particularly problematic for semi-automatic rifles. Such is not the case with bolt-, pump- and lever-action rifles.
For this article, I selected six current, subsonic .22 LR loads suitable for small-game hunting and subjected them to a barrage of tests to evaluate relative sound, accuracy (five-consecutive, five-shot groups at 50 yards), functioning, velocity and terminal performance (in modeling clay at 25 yards). The rifle employed was a Ruger 10/22 fitted with a 16 ½-inch Tactical Solutions barrel with a YHM Mite suppressor, topped with a Weaver Grand Slam 4-16x44mm riflescope. In addition to the particulars of each load and the test results, I also identified the advantages and drawbacks, if any. Please keep in mind that these results are from a single rifle, and each rifle has different preferences. Nevertheless, hopefully this will ease your decision-making process.
1. Winchester Subsonic 42 Max
• Particulars: Manufactured in Australia, Winchester’s Subsonic 42 Max features—unsurprisingly—a cavernous, truncated-nose, hollow-point, 42-grain lead bullet propelled to 1065 fps. That equates to 106 ft.-lbs. of energy. MSRP: $5.39 per 50-rnd box; midwayusa.com.
• Test: Across a Competition Electronics ProChrono Digital Chronograph at five feet, Subsonic 42 Max loads averaged 1001 fps, and were fairly loud. I ranked them as the third loudest. Concerning accuracy, the Aussie loading was disappointing; for five consecutive, five-shot groups at 50 yards, the average was 1.63 inches—the largest of the batch. That being said, functioning in the semi-automatic test rifle was flawless, and the bullets delivered devastating terminal ballistics in the clay. Beyond a large cavity, the bullet traversed the full length of the clay block.
• Advantages: Noteworthy terminal ballistics, flawless cycling, reasonable price
• Drawbacks: Disappointing accuracy, fairly loud
2. Winchester Super-X 22 Long Rifle Subsonic
• Particulars: Available on a somewhat inconsistent basis, Winchester‘s Super-X 22 Long Rifle Subsonic load features a 40-grain lead, truncated-cone, hollow-point bullet propelled to 1065 fps. Also manufactured in Australia, the bullet has five less ft.-lbs. of energy than the abovementioned load. MSRP: $4.99 per 50-rnd. box; midwayusa.com.
• Test: Posting an average velocity of 1042 fps, Winchester’s Super-X 22 Long Rifle Subsonic load was the fastest of the bunch, and it was the loudest, too. Moreover, it produced the second largest groups; for 25 shots, the mean was an unremarkable 1.53 inches. There was one failure to eject. As for terminal performance, the 40-grain bullet created a massive wound channel and traveled nearly the length of the block of clay.
• Advantages: Impressive terminal ballistics, fast, relatively inexpensive
• Drawbacks: Unsatisfactory accuracy, loud
3. ELEY Subsonic Hollow
• Particulars: A true premium-grade .22 LR load, Subsonic Hollow is manufactured by ELEY in England and features a 38-grain lead, hollow-point bullet propelled to 1040 fps. Energy is 96 ft.-lbs. MSRP: $9.29 per 50-rnd. box; midwayusa.com.
• Test: With a mean velocity of 993 fps, ELEY’s Subsonic Hollow was third fastest, but second loudest. In addition to delivering flawless functioning, the load also proved to be the most accurate; in fact, five, five-shot groups averaged 0.89-inch. In a match-grade rifle, it’d be scary accurate. Despite a great showing in the accuracy department, its terminal performance was somewhat lacking. Although ample to deliver a quick, fatal blow to small varmints and game, larger species might travel a bit further before succumbing.
• Advantages: clean, accurate
• Drawbacks: expensive, smallish wound channel, somewhat loud
4. CCI Quiet-22 Segmented HP
• Particulars: Propelled to a modest 710 fps, what the CCI Quiet-22 copper-plated 40-grain segmented hollow-point bullet lacks in energy—45 ft.-lbs.—it makes up for in terminal performance. During penetration, the projectile breaks into three pieces to increase damage to vital organs and structures. MSRP: $5.93 per 50 rnd. box; midwayusa.com.
• Test: From the 16 ½-inch barrel of the 10/22, Quiet-22 Subsonic HP ammunition averaged a modest 664 fps—little wonder why it didn’t cycle in the semi-automatic rifle. Nonetheless, it was incredibly quiet—the least report of any tested—and acceptably accurate. For 25 shots, it had a mean of 1.30 inches. Concerning terminal performance, the Segmented HP created a large initial cavity before splitting into three pieces, each of which penetrated deeply. It’s a devastating design, and the sound it produces when striking is equally eye opening.
• Advantages: Remarkable terminal performance, reduced risk of ricochet and over penetration, copper-plated, good accuracy
• Drawbacks: Won’t cycle most semi-automatic actions
5. CCI Suppressor 22 LR
• Particulars: Designed for flawless functioning in semi-automatic rifles, CCI’s Suppressor 22 LR propels a non-plated, 45-grain lead hollow-point bullet to 970 fps. Energy is 94 ft.-lbs. MSRP: $5.12 per 50-rnd. box; midwayusa.com.
• Test: Despite propelling the heaviest bullet in the test, CCI’s Suppressor 22 LR load still averaged 931 fps, and its perceived report was the second quietest. As for accuracy, it was the only real competitor for the ELEY Hollow load; its mean was a respectable 1.17 inches. The 10/22 cycled without issue when loaded with Suppressor 22 LR. Moreover, the heavy bullet created a sizable cavity in the clay before exiting. This load has a lot going for it.
• Advantages: Excellent terminal performance, modest cost, quiet, reliable cycling, good accuracy
• Drawbacks: None
6. RWS Subsonic HP
• Particulars: Manufactured in Germany, RWS’ Subsonic HP load has a traditional-style 40-grain lead hollow-point bullet travelling 1033 fps, for 95 ft.-lbs. of energy. MSRP: $6.99 per 50-rnd. box; midwayusa.com.
• Test: With an average velocity of 977 fps, RWS Subsonic HP was middle-ground, and so too was its report. Accuracy wise, the round had a mean of 1.25 inches—not too bad. Cycling, however, was unreliable. While lacking in functioning, it was extraordinary with regards to terminal performance; in fact, this round produced the largest wound channel of all tested. Quarry won’t travel far (if not stopped outright).
• Advantages: Impressive terminal performance (largest cavity), mild report
• Drawbacks: costly, wax coating easily gets on hands, unreliable functioning in semi-automatic rifles
If you’re not using subsonic loads, you’re really missing out. Go ahead and give some of these loads a try when hunting small game, and if you’re like me, you’re likely to stick with them.