Editor’s Note: This story was first published in November 2020, when finding a box of .22 ammo—hell, any ammo—was practically a fool’s errand. A year and a half later, the ammo-supply situation has improved—but some retailers still have limits on the amount you can purchase. Which means the hypothetical we put to four writers back in 2020 is still relevant today: If there were only one box of .22 ammo left in the world, what would you do with it?
My last box of .22 ammo? Setting the stage for that would mean some time travel, so let us now return to the early 1960s, when I attended a small-liberal arts college situated in the yowling wilderness that is upstate New York. The institution was then all male, and the powers that ran it had an astonishing tolerance for aberrant behavior. Boys will be assholes, was the prevailing attitude, and as long as we didn’t kill each other, anything went. This included the possession and use of firearms.
So, we shot and we hunted.
The countryside was farmland, and the pastures teemed with woodchucks. And if the woodchuck was not your rodent of choice, there were rats. For them, we drove to a hamlet that boasted a dump. Dumps, then, were places where stuff was left to rot or be scavenged or do whatever it pleased. Rats found dumps congenial, dug burrows in them, and lived out their lives gnawing on trash and making little rats.
Rats are intelligent, resourceful, courageous, and prolific. A female rat matures at nine weeks, and produces up to 70 pups a year. This meant you could shoot without guilt. You were not going to wipe out your breeding stock no matter how you blazed away. You didn’t have to gut them. They were challenging targets. They were not subject to game laws. No one took their side or objected if you shot them for amusement. The only drawback was the smell. It was, after all, a dump, and it bred all manner of frightful stenches. There were always smoky fires burning, and if you spent enough time there, you would acquire an aroma that even the dirtiest of your classmates would flee.
My rifle was a Remington Nylon Model 66 .22, and if there is a better rat rig around, you can beat me severely about the head and shoulders with it. The 66 had good iron sights, which was fortunate because I couldn’t afford a scope. You could pour ammo through it, never clean it, and it still worked. I traded the gun more than 50 years ago, and I hope that wherever it is, it is happy.
I graduated college, served in the Army, and fell into a career that I have enjoyed. I’ve hunted all over the world, and have endless memories that I treasure. But if I had that last box of .22 ammo, and by some miracle I could travel in time, there is no doubt where I’d go to burn through it. —David E. Petzal
Shoot Like a Kid Again
What a lousy thing to contemplate. Just one box of 50 rounds of .22 LR for the rest of my life?
My inner accuracy-freak told me every one of those shots needs to count. And my inner gun-collector told me this would be the perfect excuse to build the ultimate squirrel stalker. Something like Cooper’s Jackson Squirrel rifle, decked out in AAA Claro walnut and capable of putting 40-grain bullets into dime-size groups at 30 yards.
That didn’t seem quite right, though.
Crunching through a stand of hardwoods, looking for shell cuttings on the ground, and staring into the canopies while trying to pick up the telltale flicker of a squirrel tail is one of my favorite things. But the pressure of trying to make 50 perfect shots spread across who knows how many years didn’t sit well.
That’s not what shooting .22s is about.
My first rifle worthy of the name was a humble Marlin Model 60—a dirt-cheap semi-auto that was within my youthful means. I still have it. It isn’t much to look at, and it doesn’t shoot particularly well, and, truth be told, it is missing a piece or two that I haven’t gotten around to replacing. But it still cracks off a shot when the trigger is pulled.
Growing up in a suburban neighborhood, I invested in CB rounds so as not to alarm the neighbors. The quiet pop of those shells kept prying ears and eyes at bay while I stalked the wilds of my backyard and nearby woods.
Those bullets exited the barrel with the same enthusiasm that my bird dog exhibits when I try to get him into the tub for a bath. I’d set tin cans on the posts of the split-rail fence by the pond and, at 25 yards, would watch the bullets arc toward the target. That was my first lesson in hold-overs. I couldn’t tell you how many rounds I let fly in those years, but it was a damn sight more than 50.
When I taught my kids to shoot, I put together the perfect gun for youngsters pulling the trigger for the first time. I arrived at this through a process of trial and error: While developing the skill to shoot iron sights is essential, they aren’t the best thing for newbies to learn on. Between establishing correct sight alignment and the need for front-sight focus, there’s just too much going on. The same goes for scopes. It’s really hard for kids to get set up with proper eye relief while keeping their eye centered in the optic. Both types of sights are recipes for frustration.
A non-magnifying red dot is the answer. No parallax to deal with. Unlimited eye relief. Plus, the shooter gets to focus on the target, which adds to the fun. I mounted one on a Smith & Wesson M&P 15-22 with a collapsible stock, which is also critical. My kids’ dimensions seemed to change by the day and having a rifle that could adjust to them, rather than vice versa, made a huge difference. The fact that I could stuff 30 rounds into each magazine and let them shoot to their hearts’ content made for perfect days at the range.
So, with that 50 rounds of .22 LR, I’d find a kid who has never shot before and set him or her behind that S&W. We’d spend the first few rounds getting the basics down—gun safety, trigger control, follow-through. The usual. After that, I’d set up a shooting gallery of balloons and pop-up targets and other stuff that spins, pops, or falls over and let the kid have at it until those 50 rounds were gone. —John B. Snow
One Final Hunt in the Hardwoods
I’d pour all of those hollow-point rounds into the ratty velvet Crown Royal whisky bag I’ve used to carry .22 ammo since I was too young to drink the stuff. It replaced a rabbit skin bag with a leather drawstring that I bought in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with my paper-route money. The telltale purple-and-gold bag would go into the right-hand pocket of a camouflage hunting jacket, where I could finger the cartridges like a stash of lucky dice. A compass and a peanut butter-and-bacon sandwich would go into the other pocket—and with that, I’d pretty much be packed for the morning.
There are a couple of hardwood bottom creeks that are always good for late-season squirrels, and I’d pull off the side of the road as the first eastern stars fade with the coming daylight. There’s a ritualistic feel to what happens next: Scraping a half-moon of leaves from the wood’s floor up against a big white oak or hickory. Snapping off any saplings that might dig into my thighs. Settling down to snipe the early risers that suddenly appear, like fuzzy little ghosts, in tree crotches. But it won’t be long until my back aches and my toes get cold, so I’ll ease up and ease out, threading in and out of the creek in knee boots, using the muddy bottoms and wet leaves to quiet my steps, ducking low to sneak forward under the cover of the banks.
For so many hunters, stalking squirrels was the key that opened the magic book, but for a lot of us seasoned outdoorsmen, it’s where the awesome still happens. At 50 yards, giving a squirrel a 36-grain headache isn’t a beginner’s game. Breath control, a solid rest, a fingertip-squeeze—you have to put it all together. By late season, whatever squirrels are still in the woods have been harried by migrating hawks and binge-eating bobcats and plenty of other hunters bearing rimfires. And the bare woods turn creeping into a full-contact sport: I’ll belly-crawl to a log for a long-distance shot. Knee-walk under the creek bank to close the distance.
The hunting is easier early in the fall, when the squirrels are more active. But these late-season hunts in woods where the sun won’t shine till mid-morning seem to bridge my entire hunting experience. Each stalk feels rooted in the pages of those old magazines I kept by my boyhood bed, but each successful shot is built on a lifetime of taking each trigger pull seriously. That hasn’t changed over a few decades’ worth of wearing out the knees of my pants sneaking on squirrels.
Nor has the comforting feeling of that velvet bag full of hollow-points. I slip my hand inside my pocket every so often and finger the bullets like a talisman. I don’t know if I’m hoping for good luck as much as I’m grateful for the fact that a squirrel in the hardwoods is still something that gets me out of bed before sunrise. —T. Edward Nickens
The Gift of a Lifetime
What would I do with my last box of .22 Long Rifle? First, I’d ask that it be a 100-round, hard-plastic box of good high-velocity hollow-points, like 37-grain Super-X’s or CCI Mini-Mags. I won’t cheat and call a 550-round value pack “a box.” Then I’d put it away and write my son, Anse, a letter for him to read after he gets a little older:
Son, this is a curse. I had thousands of .22s to shoot up when I was your age, but you only get these. That’s a raw deal for someone with your interests and inclinations, but life’s full of raw deals. You’ll manage.
You can learn a lot with a .22 rifle and 100 rounds, so long as you don’t do something stupid with them, like shoot road signs or the old appliances laying in the creeks. Get a rifle to call your own. If there’s an old one of mine you like, I’ll give it to you. But don’t be afraid to shop for yourself. Nostalgia doesn’t make a rifle shoot, and in fact, I’ve seen plenty of old guns that weren’t worth a shit. When you get a really good rifle, you’ll know it. Until then, know that searching for it is one of life’s great pleasures.
When you have it, save your money until you can buy a good scope, otherwise you’ll spend just as much on two or three cheap ones that you won’t like. Get good mounts, too. With just 100 rounds, you can’t be fretting about your gun being off.
Don’t leave anything to chance when you check your zero. Get a good rest on a solid bench, on a range with no distractions. Just about every problem I’ve ever had sighting in a gun happened because of a shaky table or contorted shooting position. You don’t have many shots, son, so be sure not to waste them here.
Then, you know what to do: Wait until the last week in August or the first one in September. Head to the hardwoods. Any of the ridges we’ve always hunted will be fine. Go alone. Pick a sunny morning that’s calm and still and cool—maybe 12 hours after a rain so the leaves on the ground are soft and quiet. Don’t go if it’s been raining all night, though, because the droplets will still be falling from the canopy, and it’s hard to tell the difference in that sound and the sounds of squirrels cutting.
Look for the mature pignut and shagbark hickories. There’ll be one or two growing for every 10 oaks on a ridge, and you know what they look like. If you hear a hickory nut fall to the ground, it’s probably because a squirrel dropped it, since the mast around here doesn’t fall on its own until late September. Stand there a minute or two, and listen for teeth scraping on the nut. Then you’ll know for sure.
Sneak up on the sound. Watch for limbs shaking. Use the shadows to get close. If you spook a squirrel it’s OK, because there’ll be another one—but eventually you’ll learn how to get right under them, and almost never spook them. Find a sapling for a rest, one that’s several inches around so the trunk doesn’t flex and so that you’re solid, and shoot the squirrels in the head. Take no other shots but that. Clean every squirrel, and cook them for yourself or share them. Don’t ever waste one.
One hundred rounds of .22 won’t last long, but it’s enough, if you use a few each fall, to learn how to do this. And if you learn how to do this, you can go hunting for anything else, anywhere on the planet, and hold your own just fine. —Will Brantley