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Making the Hornet Sting
It was a Winchester Model 54 .22 Hornet. There had been holes drilled all over the left side of the receiver where previous owner(s) had at one time installed a Lyman type peep sight and then at some other time, a side mounted scope. Cosmetically, this gun was uglier than Manuel Noriega.
By Jim Waddell
No other caliber I’ve ever owned, or developed loads for, has been more frustrating or given me more pure satisfaction than this little cartridge that was new when Calvin Coolidge was in office.
It was somewhere around the turn of this century (Y2K….Remember that doomsday event that wasn’t?) when I decided I wanted a .22 Hornet. I started reading about the caliber in gun magazines and in the various loading manuals.
Aside from my newest favorite hunting venture being at least one annual trip to Nevada and Oregon for ground squirrels, I was having problems with the destructive little creatures here at home where I grow almonds.
When I purchased this property over 20 years ago it was well away from the closest community but here in the central part of California, nothing that’s considered rural stays that way. The nearest city continued to creep closer until now the city limit is just across the road from my property.
It’s still legal to shoot here but with a very popular dog park across the road, with many of its inhabitants being animal lovers, I envision future problems if I don’t tread carefully in my shooting activities.
With that thought in mind I knew I needed a rifle that wouldn’t make the neighbors tremble when it went off, hence the hornet with its relatively mild report. A .22 WMR would have done the job but it wasn’t for me. I don’t do rimfires. I love working up loads for new rifles and calibers as much as I do shooting.
I purchased a Ruger No 1 single shot keeping in mind the general consensus around our gun club; this model can either be a shooter or a dud. I decided to take the risk as I was unable to find anything else at the time.
Starting off, I purchased several boxes of Winchester 46 grain factory loads and after installing a Weaver Classic scope, I headed to the range. I wasn’t very satisfied as I couldn’t get any five shot groups with this loading to print any better than two inches at 100 meters. Most groups were three inches or more.
My next step was to stock up on dies, primers, powder and bullets. I believe the first bullet maker to come out with the ballistically superior polymer tip was Hornady with their V-Max. If this bullet was on the market at the time I wasn’t aware of it and I first bought the traditional bullet for this caliber which was a rather blunt soft point, the 45 grainer made by Sierra.
At my bench, I assembled an assortment of loads to test, using three or four different powders. I didn’t fare any better with these loads than I did with Winchesters. I started wondering about that Ruger rifle and was contemplating all the things I could do to make it shoot better. I saw where the gun store had some Remington 45 grain pointed soft points so I grabbed a box to see if it would make a difference. It didn’t. At the range the Remington load performed about the same as the others. I decided to shelve this project and think about it awhile.
Less than two weeks passed when I got a call from an acquaintance who owns a gun store in a neighboring community. (I had previously put the word out I was looking for a hornet, new or used). He told me he scored big on an estate sale and purchased several older rifles and other shooting supplies. Among them was a bolt action .22 Hornet. I told him to not let it out of his sight until I got there.
Less than 45 minutes later, I was holding what some folks would consider one of the ugliest rifles they had ever seen. As I checked the action, I had visions that this rifle and I could become great friends if it hadn’t been “shot out” or damaged other than its appearance.
It was a Winchester Model 54 .22 Hornet. The bluing was so-so, the stock had as many dings and dents as you would expect on a rifle that was made in the late 20’s or early 30’s and had been carried in a scabbard on horseback or bouncing around in some rancher’s pick-up for 20 or 30 years. There had been holes drilled all over the left side of the receiver where previous owner(s) had at one time installed a Lyman type peep sight and then at some other time, a side mounted scope. Cosmetically, this gun was uglier than Manuel Noriega.
All of this “ugliness” told the shop owner the rifle was probably going to take up needed space in his rifle rack. I said I might be interested and asked him how much. He said, “make me an offer.” Jokingly, I said, “fifty bucks.” He came back, “how ‘bout seventy?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Even if this rifle was by now a smoothbore, it was worth a lot more than that so I acted like I was tentative and waited a few seconds then said, “Ok, I’ll go seventy.”
After all of the shooting, reloading and shooting some more with that Ruger, by now I had a nice supply of brass on hand. I had read that hornet rifles made prior to World War II all came with .223 diameter bores and that those manufactured after had .224 diameter bores. With the .224 being the diameter of most, if not all modern .22 caliber center fire rifles, finding .223 bullets could be a challenge.
Having read earlier, Sierra was and I believe still is the only major bullet maker offering that diameter bullet and it’s made specifically for the older hornet rifles. I asked Joe, the owner of that particular gun shop if he had any of the Sierra .223’s. He did, he had one box that had been on the shelf for a long time, judging by the cardboard container with the metal, rivet type edges that were characteristic of Sierra’s packaging prior to coming out with the plastic boxes they have now.
So, home I went, accompanied by my new/old Winchester rifle and a box of Sierra bullets. I had several different powders on hand that were suitable for this caliber. Mostly they were the same ones I had been using for years for high performance jacketed bullet loads in the .357 and .44 Magnums.
As I went to seat the first bullet, it practically dropped into the case with zero resistance or bullet pull. Scratching my head as to why, it dawned on me my dies came with a .224 diameter expander ball and I was trying to load .223 bullets. I would have to find something else to do until RCBS sent me the correct expander.
I didn’t have to wait long as the folks at RCBS are big on customer service. In less than a week I was back at the loading bench with the correct set-up. I assembled several loads with Winchester 296, Alliant 2400 and IMR 4227. At the time, I had not been introduced to the Accurate or Ramshot line of powders.
After mounting a scope and bore-sighting it, I brought the scope close to zero using a few factory loads I had left over from the Ruger experiment. As I shot a couple, I became a bit apprehensive as the first two shots were about two inches apart. I adjusted the scope and got it sort of where I wanted it when I ran out of factory loads. It was close enough to start working on my handloads for accuracy.
The first three-shot group was somewhere between three and four inches. My heart sank. “Ok, maybe it doesn’t like that powder.” The next group practically duplicated the first with another powder. “Maybe it doesn’t like that powder either.” So I tried a third. All of these first loadings, I weighed just over the minimum listed in whatever loading manual I was using at the time. My thought in doing it this way was there might be a chance one particular powder might jump out at me as the one this rifle preferred. That didn’t happen and the third three-shot group was all over the place.
“It’s the primer, has to be.” I wasn’t ready to believe that ugly old rifle was all used up. So I played around with some more loads and switched to another primer. I was using the common brands of standard small rifle primers. Back out to the range and it was the same old story. All of the groups I shot were no better than 3 inches, tops.
The next logical step was to have the bore examined and have it checked for floating and then have it bedded. I thought I just might cork a few cases with some .224 bullets I had on hand for my .22-250, not expecting anything positive to come out of that little experiment. I used the lightest weight bullets I had left on the shelf which were 50 grain Sierra spitzers. When I went to seat the first bullet, I succeeded in smashing the case like an accordion. I had forgotten to stick the .224 expander ball back in the sizing die and the .22 Hornet, like the .44-40, has a very thin-walled case neck.
Realizing the twist of this Model 54 Winchester was 1 in 16″, I figured a 50 grain bullet was just too much for the rifling to stabilize. I tried it anyway and guess what……… the three shots were right at one inch. This was just too good to be true so I tried it again, this time with five shots–just a tad over MOA.
Full of encouragement, I went shopping for some more bullets. As I was looking at my choices, I spotted the Hornady 40 grain V-Max. I had recently read about that revolutionary new bullet design that was really increasing the ballistic capability over the older pointed soft points.
Purchasing several boxes of the V-Max bullets, I ran that old rifle through the wringer. Using the powders listed earlier, none of the three-shot or five-shot groups I put through the gun measured over an inch. Several groups were well under an inch. I would find the groups starting to spread out the longer I sat there at the bench so I attribute that to my age and weariness more than anything else.
Ultimately, the rifle likes the slower burning powders. For several years I shot the V-Max with IMR 4227. It didn’t seem to matter what primer I used. It performed nicely with the CCI 400, Winchester Small Rifle or Federal Small Rifle.
Then I read an article on the hornet where the author got the best results with small pistol primers. In his opinion, they were milder and did not tend to start the bullet on its way before the powder charge was fully ignited. He claimed this was necessary as the extremely thin walls of the hornet’s case did not keep the bullet in place long enough to ensure complete ignition.
I read somewhere else that the Remington 6 ½ is the mildest small rifle primer so I tried some of them. I got very favorable results and still use that primer today. I compared my top load sparked with the Remington primer against a Winchester Small Pistol. Shooting ten shot groups with each, I was amazed at the difference. The load with the pistol primer grouped around three inches. The load with the small rifle primer stayed under MOA. Maybe the author’s theory worked for him but not in this rifle.
Since I started using the Hornady V-Max a decade or so ago, Sierra and Nosler have both been producing their versions of the polymer tipped bullets. This old Winchester 54 doesn’t particularly care which of the three I use. Awhile back I ran a test using my time tested load of 11.5 grains of IMR 4227, comparing it with Hodgdon’s Lil Gun and Accurate 1680. I haven’t used a chronograph as I don’t really concern myself with which load clocks the fastest. I want the best accuracy. If I can keep my groups under an inch at 100 yards then my hit percentage on squirrels at 200 yards will still be very high with this caliber.
The results of this last test were pretty clear. Accurate 1680 will consistently keep my groups under .5 at 100 yards. Lil Gun is a close second.
I recently took the old 54 and had the barrel checked with a Hawkeye bore scope. There is a spot of pitting just ahead of the throat that according to the custom riflesmith, was probably caused from moisture in the burnt powder left in the barrel. Until recently, I would shoot this rifle all day for days on end without cleaning it. Cleaning it seemed to spread the groups out, or so I thought. When I mentioned that to the riflesmith he just looked at me like I had poisoned the well at the senior center and didn’t say anything other than, “if you want to keep this rifle shooting like it does, you had better start cleaning the bore. If nothing else, run a dry patch through it as burnt powder will bring moisture.”
The question of bore diameter of this old clunker still puzzles me but one thing is for sure. You can’t argue with the results. It looks very much like it’s the original barrel but I suppose anything is possible. I’ve been planning to return to the gun shop where I purchased this old gem from Joe and tell him what a beauty it turned out to be but I’ve been too busy loading and shooting. Maybe one of these days….
Jim Waddell is a retired law enforcement officer and graduate of the FBI National Academy. 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.