A .22LR is a small cartridge that most shooters use only for plinking or small game hunting such as squirrels. However, we’ve all wondered at some point if you could down a deer with a little 40 grain hollow point.
A .22LR cartridge is capable of killing a deer if shot placement is accurate; however, a .22LR is not a legal cartridge for hunting deer in almost all US states because it does not have enough power to ethically hunt a deer and ensure a quick kill.
Still, let’s investigate what would happen if a .22 bullet were shot at a deer.
IS THE 22 LR A LETHAL ROUND?
The .22 LR is a lethal round, that even killed one of the largest bears on record https://survivalcommonsense.com/world-record-grizzly-killed-with-22-caliber-rifle/ . In 1953, Bella Twin and her partner were hunting small game in Alberta when approached by the bear. Believing it to be a threat, she dispatched it successfully—with her .22LR. In Thailand, a 10 year old elephant was killed by several shots from a .22LR.
Though not a first choice, the .22LR is an often underestimated round that, when used properly, can be successfully used for hunting, although considerations would need to be made. Currently, it is not legal to hunt with .22LR. Despite its size, every big game animal in the United States has been killed by a .22LR.
22 LR FOR HUNTING?
As a round used specifically for hunting, however, the size and velocity of a .22LR is a poor choice. However, for dispatching, it is extremely common, especially for vermin. Meat processors often use .22 blanks for their captive bolt guns as a humane way to process animals. (https://vetmed.iastate.edu/vdpam/about/production-animal-medicine/dairy/dairy-extension/humane-euthanasia/humane-euthanasia/gunshot-or-penetrating-captive-bolt).
Often discounted and treated as a less powerful round by regular hunters, the .22LR is still a staple for many farms and homesteads because of its versatility and affordability, but it begs the question of if it could be used to kill a deer. And while the short answer is, indeed, yes, the actual answer is a bit more nuanced than that.
When looking at the .22LR round for deer hunting specifically, it is important to know that it is illegal in almost all US states to hunt deer with a .22LR. However, it is possible to kill a deer with this round.
The size of the round makes it essential to be familiar with deer anatomy, to insure a clean, ethical kill. While .22LR is often used for smaller vermin like rats, chipmunks, and squirrels, a deer is much larger and is trickier to hit the central nervous system when longer distances, strong bone, and indirect angles come into play.
In the past, people have been able to successfully kill deer with a .22LR by being skilled at deer hunting, knowing their target, and being well versed in deer anatomy. To kill a deer with a .22LR round, there is a fair amount of skill and often experience needed.
REASONS WHY YOU MIGHT CONSIDER A .22 LR.
Many of those seeking an answer to the question, “is it possible to kill a deer with a .22LR?” are often survivalists looking into the .22LR as their everyday choice for their around the farm rifle.
In our hypothetical case, it would be a situation where someone would be hunting out of necessity. Someone traveling long distances or doing a lot of walking would likely choose a .22 LR because it is a lighter weight round and easier to carry larger round counts longer distances.
If that is the case, the person carrying the .22 LR might not be an experienced hunter, and they may not be in an area that they are familiar with. If the ammo shortage of 2020 has taught us anything, it is that even rounds like the .22 LR can wind up becoming limited in supply, which might be a disadvantage to someone seeking to use that as their main rifle.
Where a single shot of a center fire may finish the job, it may take several with a 22 LR.
Someone that doesn’t have a lot of experience hunting deer might not get a clean kill with their first shot, thus wasting ammo, causing unnecessary suffering to the deer, and expending a lot of extra effort for a deer they might not physically be able to or have the skill to track.
In more densely covered forests, such as the Appalachian mountains or the Rocky mountains, a .22 LR would be a more difficult round to use because visibility is low and it is very easy for deer to disappear and hide. With low visibility and a very small kill box, you’re more likely to waste ammo hitting twigs and leaves or hit a deer without killing it.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO KILL A DEER WITH A .22 LR?
For the average skilled hunter, .22LR will not give you an ethical kill. Beyond 50 yards, it is down to a fraction of a percentage of people who are capable of effectively killing a deer with a .22LR.
The kill box for a deer with a .22LR is around two inches or less, before accounting for skull deflection angles. The deer require a shot directly to the core of the brain stem to drop it ethically. That target is protected by some very tough bone.
There is always the chance that the shot just won’t penetrate the skull, regardless of the skill level of the hunter. Attempting a heart/lung shot with a .22LR may very well critically wound it, but with the small size and lack of trauma, the deer could run farther than a person could track. This would lead to days or weeks of suffering or even slowly being eaten alive by coyotes.
While the .22LR might be the first choice because of its light weight, ease of use, and accessibility, in the end it could really make things more difficult if you were to find yourself trying to hunt a deer with that round. It would be far more beneficial to choose a more powerful round. Any short action center fire cartridge or larger is going to be capable of making a clean, ethical kill.
For now, it isn’t legal to hunt deer in most places with a .22LR, though yes, you can kill a deer with that round. Most US states have made it illegal and it likely will not change any time soon.
If you are curious about what cartridges are legal, you can check with your local game warden or the laws in the state that you intend to hunt in. As always, be sure to follow the rules for your state, apply for the proper licenses.
.22LR is a great round to use for many things, but deer hunting is probably not the best use of this cartridge. Without everything lining up right, you are more than likely to wound the deer for a coyote while you go hungry that night.
EDIT 11/17/2021: In order to keep this article as factually accurate as possible I changed some phrasing “all US States” to “Almost all US States”. There is a state, that I did confirm with their enforcement branch, where it is legal to take all game animal with any rifle caliber. I still highly recommend against taking large game with a .22 LR unless you must to survive, or are extremely skilled.