The poorly understood 221 Fireball is stuck in the middle, shaded by family members exponentially more popular.
If you don’t know the 221 Fireball, don’t feel left out. It hasn’t the star power or name recognition of the 222 Remington and especially not the upsized 223 Remington. It might even be less well known than some of its own offspring like the 17 Fireball and 300 Blackout. What the 221 Fireball does have is great efficiency and surprising performance for its size, which is 1/3 of an inch shorter than the already short 222 Remington. COL of the 221 Fireball? Just 1.830 inches. To put that in perspective, COL of the “short-action” 308 Winchester is 2.81 inches.
If you’re surprised by all these cartridge connections, don’t fret. Millions of hunters and shooters don’t care where cartridges come from so much as what they do. Someone just shapes a tube of brass, sticks a bullet atop it, chambers a rifle for it and there you go. Have fun.
221 Details For Cartridge Aficionados
More inquisitive shooters scratch their heads, notice a few similarities in body shape or head size, snoop around a bit, and learn some fascinating details about the fabrication (some might say bastardization) of one cartridge from another. That’s what we’re doing here.
Most modern, centerfire cartridges stand on the shoulders of others. The 308 Winchester — essentially a shortened 30-06 — was necked down to make the 7mm-08 Remington, 260 Remington and 243 Winchester. It was necked up to make the 338 Federal and 358 Winchester. The 30-06, as most of us know, was rearranged to become the 270 Winchester, 280 Remington, 25-06 Remington, 338-06, 35 Whelen and others.
On and on it’s gone. A whole lot of necking (not the kind we did in high school,) stretching, shortening and lengthening.
Shortening was the route Remington took to create the 221 Fireball in 1963, lopping 0.30” from their 222 Rem. case. The question is why? Why cut down one of the most efficient, most accurate, most beloved 22 centerfires in the world to gain less velocity? And the answer is the XP-100 bolt-action pistol.
Pistol Whipped and Wild Ray Gun
A bolt-action pistol? Talk about wild and crazy. This was in conservative 1963. The Beatles and Stones hadn’t yet rocked the U.S. music scene. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were as all shook up as rock-and-roll had gotten. Pistols were 1911s and Lugers or revolvers. The break-action Thompson Contender handgun was still five years in the future. Pistols just weren’t built with bolt-actions (although Winchester had a 22 rimfire prototype in 1902.)
Remington’s XP-100 changed that, pronto. Honestly, this pistol was wild enough to interest plenty of shooters, especially varmint hunters. With its bolt handle well behind its pistol grip, a brown nylon stock (Remington’s nylon stocked 22 rimfires were popular at this time,) and a 10-3/4” barrel, the XP-100 looked like a kid’s fevered vision of a 1950’s SciFi ray gun.
Turned out the 221 Fireball shot a bit like a ray gun, too. The stubby little round pushed 50-grain bullets from those 10-3/4” pistol barrels 2,600 fps. Chamber it in a 22-inch rifle barrel and, according to the Nosler Reloading Guide 8, just 17 grains of Hodgdon 4198 powder will nudge it 3,034 fps. That’s fast enough for a point blank range of about 235 yards on a 4-inch target. Zero 1.8 inches high at 100 yards and the 50-grain projectile peaks 2 inches high at about 135 yards, falls 2 inches below POA at about 235 yards. That takes in most coyote calling work and a heck of a lot of rodent shooting at minimum cost, recoil, and blast.
221 Fireball, 50-grain Bullet Trajectory
Of course you can extend range at the sacrifice of a smidge more wind deflection with lighter bullets. You can drive a 40-grain Ballistic Tip 3,250 fps to extend MPBR to about 260 yards. Wind deflection increases just a quarter inch at 250 yards. No big deal.
221 Fireball, 40-grain Bullet Trajectory
For even more Maximum Point Blank Range yet negligible increase in wind deflection, go with a 35-grain spitzer at 3,550 fps. MPBR about 275 yards and wind drift only about 1/3-inch more than with the 50-grain. This could be your huckleberry.
221 Fireball, 35-grain Bullet Trajectory
The Low Down on Energy
As for downrange energy, there isn’t much from any of these bullets. But 400 foot-pounds at 275 yards are plenty for paper, steel, varmints, and marauding predators up to coyote size. I once shot a 221 Fireball on a Texas hunt. It kicked about like a 22 Hornet. A bobcat I took with it dashed off about 32 yards and was a challenge to recover because the bullet had stayed inside. No blood trail. But perfect pelt. More surprising was the 80-pound feral hog that fell to the little 50-grain AccuTip. The pig was dashing across a field about 150 yards away when the bullet struck just behind the shoulder, punched through the lungs, and lodged against the far side hide, looking like a perfectly mushroomed cup-and-core deer bullet, the expanded lead loose in the jacket. The hog had flinched just slightly at the hit, ran another 40 yards or so, and expired. This doesn’t recommend the 221 Fireball as the ultimate hog eradication round, but highlights the penetration potential of even a frangible varmint bullet when downrange energy drops to about 650 f-p.
221 Fireball Evolution by Necessity
By all reports, Remington didn’t set out to engineer the 221 Fireball. They initially wanted to chamber the XP-100 for their popular 222 Rem., but it’s pile of powder couldn’t be completely burned in that short barrel. Muzzle blast was judged excessive too. So they shortened the case, knocked about 5-grains capacity out of it, and came up with that memorable name. Who could ignore a new varmint cartridge with a scintillating title like Fireball? As for that 221 designation, it’s neither fish nor foul. Yes, the 22 refers to the bore diameter, but the 1 has nothing to do with bullet diameter, which is the standard .224”. But so what? Neither the 222 or 223 accurately reflect bullet diameter, either. For some reason the 22 centerfire world is rife with inaccurate numerical titles. The 218 Bee, 219 Donaldson Wasp, 225 Winchester, 220 Swift… They all take .224” bullets. Such is the confusing world of cartridge nomenclature. Makes no sense but gives us plenty to talk about.
That the 221 Fireball ever made it into this world is unusual. That it later gave birth to even more cartridges is rather remarkable. But it has. Easiest to understand is the 17 Fireball and/or 17 Mach IV, so called because it could push a 20-grain bullet about 4,200 fps, nearly 4 times the speed of sound. Remington’s official version of the Mach IV is slightly longer in most dimensions but performance is basically the same. The 20 VarTarg wildcat is basically the 221 Fireball necked down to take a .204” bullet. It drives a 40-grain about 3,400 fps and may be a better varminting option than its parent.
Much slower and now more popular than the 221 Fireball is the 300 Whisper aka 300 AAC Blackout. J.D. Jones at SSK Industries came up with this oddball that coughs up 220- to 240-grain .308 bullets at just under the speed of sound, perfect for the military working “under the radar” with suppressed weapons.
I can’t imagine early 221 Fireball enthusiasts ever thinking their little squirt of a cartridge would some day be pushing bullets much heavier than their 300 Winchester Magnums routinely shot. The 300 BLK is a crazy idea, but it works. So goes the evolution of rifle cartridges.
The 221 Fireball in 21st Century
What value does the 221 Fireball have today? A mild report and almost no recoil make for an enjoyable shooting experience. With a heavy enough rifle you can see your hits. Roll your own using 35-grain bullets and ammo is cheap. You can practice target shooting, plinking, trigger control, field positions, etc. with minimal expense. The Fireball is a good option for long barrel life if you’re trying to control an infestation of rodents in a farmer’s hay fields.
Internal ballistics of the Fireball are fully modern, the short, relatively fat case placing the center of the powder column close to the primer. This contributes to an efficient, uniform burn for potentially more consistent shot-to-shot velocity and resulting accuracy.
Shorties for Shorties
To take advantage of the 221 Fireball’s short length, it should be chambered in as short a bolt-action rifle as possible. Howa’s Mini Action is one fine option. Browning’s A-Bolt rifles chambered for the WSSM cartridges would certainly be short, but their bolt faces are much too wide for the skinny little 221 Fireball head. Generally, we’re limited to standard short actions, which are longer than the need be.
Any single shot falling block like the Ruger No. 1 or Dakota M10 would make for a compact rifle in Fireball. Perhaps the most popular platform over the years has been the Thompson Center Contender. Aftermarket barrels are still made for it.
Whatever you choose for a rifle, chamber it for the stubby little 221 Fireball and I’m betting you’ll love it.