By Sam Fadala, GUNS Magazine
Still Buzzing 80 Years Later!
My grandparents lived in the “filet mignon” part of the city. We resided in the “hamburger/hotdog” section. I enjoyed sleepovers with the old folks because, although foreigners, today they would be called cool. Grandpa, a blue-ribbon chef, prepared special fare for me on request. I could order up a rack of lamb followed by Baked Alaska at any time. Down on the corner lived Jim Martin, older than I, and tolerant of my incessant and often ill-designed shooting questions. Jim allowed me to tag along on jackrabbit safaris.
One morning he showed up with a Winchester Model 43 bolt-action .22 Hornet. The Hornet was a ray gun compared to the rimfire I carried. Factory ammo blipped a jack right off of the radar screen—one shot. I had to have one. But practical overcame desire, and I got a Sako .222 instead. It would be a long time before I owned a Hornet.
There’s no question about it, whatever the little slope-shouldered pipsqueak accomplishes, the .222/.223 duplicates on Monday and improves on Tuesday. While the .223 flies high, the .222 and .222 Magnum tumble winglessly in near-disuse. All the while the little Hornet buzzes merrily along. The fact that this 1930 baby falls well behind the scintillating .22 centerfires is exactly why the cartridge has never died. The reason is simple but profound: the .22 Hornet fills a niche perfectly between the excellent .22 WMR and the hot-rock two-twos. It’s been chambered for over 80 years by numerous arms factories, and is available in pistol, revolver, sporting rifle, and even “survival” and multibarrel guns.
Having lavished praise on the little rascal, I admit it was not the cartridge that lured me. It was Lyman’s delightful Ideal Model on a scaled-down Sharps falling block design: 26″ barrel, 6 pounds, 42″ overall length, double-set triggers, 1:16″ twist, and a Custom Lyman Tang sight mated to the Lyman Globe up front with inserts, laser engraving, nice wood, making it easy to clean — historical aura. It’s slender as a serpent, light as a sparrow, and so keenly balanced I tote it without a sling, and I like slings. But what would I do with it? Plenty.
It would be my “front yard” rifle with cast bullets at ultra-low velocity. Consider, of course, that my front yard faces thousands of acres of uninhabited territory. But it’s still nice to have the relative quiet of the Hornet compared to the boom/crack! of the super-speed .22 centerfires. Add in pure shooting fun plinking with cast bullets and you’ve got a winner. Even when the lead is not “scrounged,” the Hornet is gentle on the wallet with handloads. But wait, there’s more.
The Hornet is perfect for mid-range varmints of all stripes. Small game can be taken with light ammo, and a wild turkey’s perfect as a great camp meat-maker. Informal target practice is fun. The Hornet continues to be superior for javelina, the pig-like musk hog. After all, Arizona allows the .22 WMR on peccaries, as does Texas, and one of my African outfitters has a cousin in Australia who relies on the Hornet for wild pigs and goats.
Across the highway from my Wyoming home, the little rifle will be on antelope scouting treks. Not antelope hunting, just scouting. The rancher who turns his spread over to me every year appreciates a decrease in livestock-eating coyotes. Since I scout on foot, I often get a close jump shot. At the same time, I’ll be ready for a cottontail supper by slipping out the “hot” load and installing a mild one, especially with a low-V cast bullet. Mountain birds, such as blue grouse, are also legal with rifle where I hunt. Light Hornet loads will turn these birds into delicious campfire fare. My other Hornet rifles (coming up) broaden the horizon of .22 Hornet application.
History of the Hornet
From whence came the Hornet (know as the 5.6x36mmR in Europe)? Puddlefoot wrote, “History is a lie agreed to.” My research of shooting history is never one of lies, but often of vast differences in information. The Hornet seems less victim of this problem than some cartridges. The literature across the board has Captain Grove Wotkyns, G.A. Woody, Al Woodworth and the legendary Colonel Townsend Whelen experimenting with the black powder .22 WCF (.22-13-45: .22-caliber/13-grain FFFg/45-grain lead bullet at 1,500 fps) at the Springfield Armory in the late 1920s.
Hornet Is Born
Winchester sees the result as feasible and begins building ammo in 1930 chambered for the—nothing. There was ammo, but no commercial Hornet rifle until 1932. Re-chambered Springfield 1922 .22 Long Rifles and newly barreled Martini single shots were the first Hornets (as far as I can tell). When Winchester brought the round out in its fine Model 54 bolt-action rifle, and later the Model 70, the Hornet had a real chance to shine. It also did well in the Model 23-D Savage showing in the1932 Stoeger catalog for $32.95.
For perspective, consider the exceptional 1932 Luna Single Shot Target rifle in .22 rimfire, Model 980 falling-block action, fitted with micrometer wind gauge rear sight, disc front sight, plus “perfectly adjustable rear sight,” with both sights removable with a key. This special rifle spawned a companion as the Luna 981 chambered for the “new Winchester .22 C.F. ‘Hornet’ cartridge.” Both rifles went for $120. Mucho dinero for 1932.