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The .221 Fireball — A Keeper
By: Jim Waddell
My affinity for .22 caliber centerfires began a bit more than 30 years ago. Before that most of my shooting experience had been with shotguns and handguns used in my law enforcement career.
I had just obtained access to several hundred acres of prime ground squirrel turf in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and I immediately realized I was starting off with a handicap as my .22 rimfires proved too anemic. Having started my law enforcement career at the height of the Dirty Harry/.44 Magnum craze, it didn’t take long to realize that the Smith and Wesson Model 29, although it worked wonders at cleaning up the streets of San Francisco via Hollywood’s scriptwriters, was totally unsuitable for that purpose in real life, due to its size, recoil and muzzle blast. So off I went to the local liquor store that doubled as a gun shop to see the nice old gentleman proprietor who was as crazy about guns as me.
I told him I was in the market for a Remington Model 700 in .22-250, and asked if he would he be interested in taking my .44 in as trade. I didn’t expect him to have one in the store and asked him if he would order one for me. He just happened to have one on the rack, behind the counter next to the Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker. It wasn’t new but had obviously been well taken care of and from the looks of things, was little used. We agreed to a straight across trade and he even threw in a set of RCBS dies.
I had been a handloader starting when I was 15 and got a Lee Loader, a bag of shot, a can of Hercules Red Dot and a box of cardboard wads for making my own dove loads. I couldn’t afford store bought shotgun shells. Shortly after that I graduated to loading for a .35 Remington, followed by a .270 and then handguns when I became interested in police work. With this background I had some pretty good experience in working up loads. In no time at all, I had developed a very accurate load for that .22-250, using 50 grain Sierra spitzers, on top of a moderate load of Winchester 760.
I used that .22-250 for years, having put somewhere around 9,000 rounds through it with a very high percentage of hits on squirrels out to 400 yards, in some cases, but most shots were 300 yards and closer.
Just about 12 years ago, I started going on an annual hunt for squirrels in an area where they were thicker than fleas on a ‘coon dog. I mean, you could set up a shooting table and easily shoot 400 rounds a day or more if you didn’t care about your barrel getting too hot. The more experienced shooters had more than one rifle for just that purpose. It didn’t take long before the hits from that .22-250 started getting fewer and fewer. It was obvious that gun’s best days were behind it and quite frankly, I was surprised it lasted as long as it did. (A recent trip to a custom barrelsmith in southern Oregon confirmed through his Hawkeye borescope, that the throat looked like a dry lake bed.)
When you shoot that caliber that many times in a day, even with a heavy barrel that keeps recoil manageable, you still get a bit jumpy and start flinching. And it had just enough movement where I couldn’t see my hits through the scope but I learned what it sounded like when that 50 grain bullet at better than 3600 feet per second got a solid hit on a squirrel. It was unmistakable.
There were other guys in the area, shooting just about every .22 centerfire there was, including some wildcats. These were the days just before the 17’s and 20’s starting coming on the scene. I had seen and heard about others out there getting some decent results from calibers less than mine.
That’s when I started toying with the idea of a .22 Hornet or something similar. I had some experience with that caliber in two different guns. At first, the results were frustrating but after persevering in working up loads, I found a dandy. It’s a good story but this saga is about the .221 Fireball – which I’m taking too long in getting around to talking about.
First of all, I didn’t need to reach out into the next time zone when the targets were plentiful at more moderate ranges. I realized I could get a lot more shooting, using a lot less powder, creating a lot less wear and tear on the rifle with the smaller cartridges.
One day when I was looking through one of my loading manuals I saw data for the Fireball and became instantly intrigued. From the ballistics tables it looked like the perfect fit for what I wanted. I didn’t want a .223 as everyone and his Uncle Homer had one and I had to be different. It was also too close to the .22-250 in all the areas I was trying to avoid. I wanted smaller.
The .221 Fireball was introduced in 1963 by Remington and was chambered only in their revolutionary XP-100, bolt action, single shot pistol. Gun writers have done many articles on this subject and most feel that had Remington chambered this cartridge in a rifle first it probably would have caught on better and could have had a long and popular following.
The Fireball, when introduced back in ’63, came out only in the 50 grain loading and even to this day, it’s still the only bullet offered in a commercial loading of which I am aware. With today’s modern, plastic tipped bullets with very high ballistic co-efficients, anyone owning and using this caliber is short changing himself if they only use the factory loading.
Any of the 35 or 40 grain polymer tipped bullets offered by Sierra, Hornady and Nosler, combined with today’s modern, more efficient powders, will make this cartridge perform well beyond what it was originally designed to do. It will produce about 80% of the ballistic capability of the .223 Remington, using about 1/3 less powder. All of these factors make for less recoil, a relatively mild report and a longer barrel life which is important for varmint shooters due to the high volume of rounds fired through their rifles. Even with sporter weight rifles, it’s a dream to shoot and on a bench with a bipod. Recoil is mild enough to allow me to see my hits (and misses) in the scope. An added benefit is when you do miss; you can clearly see where you missed to make corrections.
Back when Remington started coming out with their “700 Classic” series, they would produce that rifle in calibers that had been discontinued but still had some popularity. I read where one year they came out with that rifle in the .221 Fireball. In checking further, I saw where CZ had made some. I called their custom shop in Arizona and was told they were not going to make any more and wished me luck finding one.
My only hope was to try to find a 700 or have one custom made. Fortunately, an internet search found one, new in the box which I promptly purchased. Before the rifle arrived, I managed to lay in a good supply of brass which wasn’t easy. That I live within reasonable driving distance from Huntington’s Die Specialties in Oroville, CA, a company that was founded by Fred Huntington of RCBS fame, helped considerably.
When the rifle arrived, I was ready. I had a bunch of test loads all set and waiting to put that rifle to work. I started with 40 and 50 grain bullets. I preferred 40 as I was after a flatter trajectory and longer distance isn’t that important to me. I tried the 50 grainers and found right off that this gun does not like that bullet. It didn’t matter the brand, they all grouped no better than 3 inches at 100 yards with 5 shot groups.
Following the advice of most custom barrel makers, I went through the recommended break in procedures, shooting one, then cleaning, shooting another, cleaning and so on. Saving you the boring details of an exhaustive search for the perfect load – I didn’t find one. I tried 40 grain bullets from Hornady, Sierra and Nosler. I tried various loadings using Li’l Gun, IMR 4227, H322 and Accurate 1680. Whenever I would get a 5 shot group that looked promising, as in one inch and under, I would tweak the load up and down a few tenths of a grain. Then the groups would open up again.
I checked to make sure the barrel was free floated, it was. I have a buddy who has taken some classes in bedding and he played around with it but still nothing seemed to work. I went through cleaning regimens suggested by gun writers in a few of the popular gun magazines and that was fruitless. I was frustrated. The rifle stayed home during the following squirrel season, leaving me armed with only an aging Model 54 Winchester .22 Hornet and a Sako sporter .222 Remington. Both rifles worked well enough but I still wanted a .221 Fireball and wasn’t going to be satisfied with one that wasn’t accurate.
I saw that Cooper made one but I wasn’t overjoyed with their price tag. From all I’ve read and heard, Cooper rifles are worth every penny but it just wasn’t in my budget at the time. I decided to place a call to Pac-Nor, a custom barrel maker in southern Oregon. I told them of my problem and they said they didn’t do accurizing but told me to contact Ernie at Gunner’s Sport Shop in Brookings, Oregon. I called Ernie and right off he asked how I cleaned my rifles.
I told him the usual routine of removing powder fouling to expose and access the copper fouling, using one or more of the copper removers, both with and without ammonia. I assured him I was meticulous and all the copper fouling was removed. He said he would be happy to check it out.
I could have shipped him the rifle as Brookings is a good day’s drive but decided I hadn’t been up that way in a long time and the northern California coast is picturesque to say the least. (Brookings is just 6 miles into Oregon from the California line). As I was loading up, I threw in the old .22-250.
I walked into Gunner’s Sport Shop, dragging my new Fireball, my old .22-250 and a look of hope on my face. After the pleasantries were exchanged, Ernie came out with his Hawkeye borescope. It reminded me of a recent colonoscopy. He examined the Fireball first and told me the bore was dirty. I told him I had cleaned that rifle so long and so thoroughly, nothing could be in that bore. Ernie had me look through the scope and I saw what looked like a puddle of ink in the throat area.
After shooting varmint rifles for over three decades, I thought I knew what I was doing when it came to cleaning rifles. The lesson I learned that day was carbon fouling can build up, basically sealing the copper fouling underneath. I was really paying attention to what I was being told as Ernie possessed some pretty solid credentials. He had worked for quite a spell at Pac-Nor, and was now on his own installing barrels and doing accuracy work. He told me there aren’t many things that work on carbon if you clean barrels using conventional methods.
I saw Ernie looking at my .22-250. I told him my history with that rifle and asked him to check it out with his Hawkeye. The results were not good as I mentioned earlier. I saw in his scope what he was talking about, it was sad indeed.
We discussed things and came to the agreement, he would take my old Remington .22-250 in trade for some future barrel work and I would leave him the Fireball to do a thorough cleaning and bedding.
Ernie said he uses a mild abrasive compound to get the carbon out. He said to use an old, worn out bore brush, worked the paste into a patch and wraps the patch around the bore brush. With that combination, go through the bore at least 20 or 30 times and that should remove the carbon build up as well as the copper underneath. It would be a good idea to then soak a patch with any of the ammonia based copper removers to make sure the copper is out.
Ok, lesson learned. I returned home and waited patiently for my prized problem child to get shipped back in time for me to go through the load development thing again before the squirrel season began.
I can happily report the rifle is now shooting very well and will hold groups well under MOA, as long as I do my part. I settled on a load of 19.0 Grains of Accurate 1680 with a Remington 7 ½ primer in Winchester cases, corked with Nosler 40 grain Ballistic Tips.
This last squirrel outing was a huge success with the .221 Fireball claiming several hundred ground squirrels. Since then, I took possession of a Sako .222 Remington I had Ernie re-barrel with a spanking new tube from Pac-Nor. Tomorrow morning, that rifle will take its maiden voyage to the rifle range for a whole new adventure. The barrel will be well cleaned once I get home. See Ernie, I got it.
Jim Waddell is a retired law enforcement officer. In his nearly 40 years of service he worked for two sheriff’s departments and was a chief of police. Jim is a firearms instructor and competed in many statewide pistol matches. He lives in central California where he grows almonds.