The first firearm I recall shooting was a 12-gauge Model 12. A neighbor took me to a nearby grade-school ball diamond, set an empty soup can just shy of the outfield and handed me the Winchester pump. Its fearsome blast impressed me, but not as much as the holes in the can.
I was hooked. A local farmer favored me with a 121 Remington and enough .22 Shorts to thin out the rats in his sheep barn. A plumber with a rack of DCM rimfires indulged my lust for target shooting with a Remington 40X-a heavy beast that drilled centers from NRA targets in his basement range. By the time I’d saved $300 for a 1413 Anschutz and joined Michigan State University’s team, any craving for a beginner’s gun had faded.
I was a latecomer to shooting. My parents disliked guns; schoolyard friends owned them long before me. Had someone blessed me then with the Winchester 67 standing proud on the Albion Hardware gun rack, 1’d have rejoiced. But at $16.50, it cost as much as a bicycle and had no practical, academic or social utility.
The problem with a single-shot .22 now is that it bores the people it would most benefit. The new shooter with no fundamental skills wants an autoloading shotgun, a centerfire bolt rifle with a big scope or a rimfire that looks like an AR-15.
But I heartily endorse manually operated repeaters. They can make anyone a better marksman and deliver lots of fun in the bargain. These rifles span a broad price range, but even the crude specimens are accurate. The .22 Long Rifle cartridge is inexpensive. You won’t flinch for fear of recoil, and your head won’t ring from the blast. Match ammo is obscenely accurate, but even low-budget fodder is accurate enough.
You can’t buy a no-frills .22 for $16 anymore-or a top-end Anschutz for $300. But you have more choices in rifles than shooters did a half-century ago. Fit matters, and balance. Rimfires can be made very light-Remington’s Nylon 66, hugely popular in my adolescence, weighed just four pounds.
If you’re big and strong or seeking an understudy for your centerfire rifle, more barrel weight makes sense. You don’t need a long barrel to accelerate a .22 bullet. In fact, 16 inches will get you all the speed available. But the sight radius on CZ’s 452 longest Training Rifle helps you shoot more accurately with irons. Length and weight both influence balance. Also, a slight tilt toward the muzzle helps your .22 settle faster in a hunting position, and extra inertia makes the rifle less sensitive to a rough let-off.
Alas, most inexpensive .22s have crude triggers, with long, hard or gritty pulls. Rifles proportioned for kids compound this problem because they’re so light in the hand. If the trigger pull is heavier than the rifle, which do you think will move first when you decide to fire? The best strategy for beginners-or people outfitting them- may be to seek the best trigger and buy the rifle that comes with it.
A short stock helps shooters with short arms. But to truly fit small people, the stock must also be slender in the grip and fore-end, with a tighter radius behind the trigger to accommodate short fingers. A few manufacturers have minded these details. Most just lop inches from a standard stock -and perhaps a length of barrel- to come up with a youth model. You can do the same to any stock (preferably on rifles whose resale value matters not). As a youngster grows, stock length should increase incrementally, not in one leap from 12 inches to 13 ¾. That’s easily done with buttpads of various thicknesses.
In my youth, safeties on .22s ranged from crossbolts on pumps and autoloaders to thumb tabs and half-cock notches on hammers. Some bolt rifles required a pull on the cocking piece after loading. But there’s no foolproof mechanical safety. Safe rifles are those in the hands of people who handle them safely. Multiple safety devices distract and can lead beginners to believe the gun itself takes care of the safety issue. When I coach shooters at a range, I insist they leave safeties off. They soon learn to control the muzzle and keep fingers off triggers. A mechanical safety makes sense on a hunting arm. Automatic and multiple safeties not only engender a false sense of security, they interfere with the main purpose of a firearm, which is to fire.
Whatever your preferences in rimfires, the field of affordable rifles is broad indeed. Don’t neglect the used market either. The .22 Long Rifle cartridge is so easy on bores, you must fire tens of thousands of rounds to wear out one.
I can’t claim to have fired every .22 rifle, but 45 years of shooting have put quite a few at hand. A recent review of the most popular confirmed some impressions -and brought surprises:
For decades Browning offered the cutest .22 autoloader around. Still does. Now called the SA-22, this petite rifle feeds from an 11-shot magazine in the stock. The slim action spits empties out the bottom. Beautifully checkered, gloss-finished walnut and a slim 19-inch barrel with sights a tad low for the comb distinguish this 5 ¼-pound classic, available in two grades.
As appealing is Browning’s BL-22, a slick-shucking, short-throw lever gun. Its barrelband, tube magazine and exposed hammer give it an Old West look. But this is a sophisticated rifle, with mirror-finished walnut meticulously fitted to a forged receiver.
I equipped one with a Williams receiver sight and killed a crow at 145 steps off-hand against a post. Although Browning habitually follows one fine rim fire with another, the T-Bolt didn’t catch on the first time around. Fortunately, the company brought it back, this time with a clever “double helix” box magazine. Forget the versions with composite stocks. Checkered walnut belongs on this straight-pull classic.
CZ’s .22 rifles remained largely unknown by U.S. shooters until only recently. The 452 series of box-fed rimfires includes a variety of stock styles and barrel profiles. It’s being superseded by the 455 with interchangeable barrels. The new line retains the options of the 452 and its basic strengths: hammer-forged barrels, adjustable triggers, billet-machined receivers.
The checkered walnut is still there, in European and American form. Left-hand, full-stock and youth versions make this a unique stable of .22s. I like the beechwood-stocked 452 Training Rifle with 25-inch barrel and adjustable iron sights. A pal found that his delivered astounding accuracy, outshooting his competition rifle.
“The first Model 36 cost $2,000 to build and sold for $600,” Dan Cooper recalled when I asked about the genesis of his carriage-class .22s. “We made 75 or so.” Cooper Firearms followed with other bolt actions for both rimfire and centerfire rounds. That was just 20 years ago. The 57M I tested in .17 HMR shot into .7 at 100 yards, so I promptly ordered one in .22 Long Rifle. It’s what the Winchester 52 Sporter used to be, only more accurate. Cleanly checkered walnut hugs blued metal of impeccable polish. The bolt glides as if on rails, and an adjustable trigger makes shooting easy. Several variations of this box-fed repeater have cropped up since. You won’t find a better rimfire sporter than a Cooper.
Marlin calls its Model 60 the most popular .22 rifle in the world. Perhaps it is. Now 50 years old, this sleek autoloader has logged more than 11 million sales.
Dependable, affordable and shamelessly profligate in its use of ammo, the 60 now comes with wood, laminated and synthetic stocks, blued or stainless steel. The 19-inch barrel with Micro-Groove rifling has a proven record for accuracy.
At just 5 ½ pounds, this 14-shot .22 points like a wand. If you’re no longer young, tripping along fence rows with this rifle in hand will take off decades. Or pick up a 39, the classic Marlin lever gun that’s been in continuous production longer than any other rifle in the U.S. It cycles with a flick of your hand. The long, graceful barrel holds to the target as if the sights were glued there. Micro-Groove accuracy, a capacious tube magazine and twist-of-a-coin takedown are bonuses. Cottontails avoid farmsteads patrolled by youngsters with 39s. In bolt guns, Marlin lists tube-fed -and box-fed- .22s. The 915Y is a single-shot mini version of the 925 in my rack, a nicely balanced wood-stocked rifle I’ve fitted with a bright 4X Nikon rimfire scope.
In the days of black-and-white television, Mossberg cataloged, in full color, a huge assortment of .22 rifles. Many had novel features like grooved grip inserts for your fingers and a folding monopod in the fore-end. Long-barreled, tube-fed models gobbled handfuls of Long Rifle ammo. The triggers crept, but the rifles shot well. These days Mossberg still offers wood stocks and reliable function. The 702 Plinkster is a blowback autoloader, the 802 a bolt rifle. Both have detachable box magazines. Short-coupled shooters might fit the 802 Bantam, with scaled-down synthetic stock. And buying a Mossberg still leaves you with change for a carton of ammo plus a trip to the soda fountain.
Remington has built some truly great rimfires, beginning in 1873 with the Rolling Block Sporting Rifle No.2. The 510 boltaction single-shot in 1939 spawned the 511, 512 and 513. The 513T endured as king of affordable competition rifles long after its 20-year production run. I used the fast-handling, tube-fed 550 autoloader in control work for Washington’s Dept. of Game and competed quite successfully with Remington 37 and 40X target rifles.
The company’s popular Nylon 66 autoloader appeared in 1959 with the first lightweight synthetic (Zytel) stock on a .22. Remington still makes the racy 552 Speedmaster autoloader and 572 Fieldmaster pump rifles. But its 597 auto has become a new flagship rifle, with nearly a dozen variations, including AR-style. Choose a camo stock (even in blaze and pink), collapsible A2 or thumbhole laminate, a standard or carbine or stainless heavy barrel. This box-fed rifle accepts 10- and 30-round magazines. Some wear TruGlo fiber optic sights. Remington serves traditional taste with its Custom Shop 547, in target and sporting versions. Close-fitted walnut and hand-lapped Shilen barrels set apart these beautiful rifles. The C Grade is even more elegant.
If Ruger built only the 10/22, its factory would stay busy. Since its introduction in 1964, this rifle has sold into the millions.
The carbine butt and barrelband on a sleek, but hand-filling stock distinguish it from all other autoloaders. So does the ingenious 10-shot detachable rotary magazine. The 10/22 looks like a good time, and it is. No other rimfire has generated a cottage industry in aftermarket parts or appeared in as many custom configurations. Easy to own, shoot and disassemble, this Ruger can also be exceedingly accurate. If you don’t own one, buy one for your kids, whether or not you have any.
Savage devotes 21 pages in its current catalog to rimfires. Many wear the AccuTrigger, a jar-proof mechanism that still gives you a crisp pull down to 2 ½ pounds. The line includes autoloaders and the dropping-block Stevens Favorite, an enduring design that has served generations of young shooters. Among single-shot and box-fed bolt guns, there’s no better rifle for little people than the Stevens Cadet. It has a hardwood stock with 11 ¾ -inch pull and a grip proportioned for small hands. The short barrel ensures good balance. It’s no AccuTrigger, but the Cadet I’ve used has a remarkable trigger pull: two pounds and icicle-crisp. This Stevens is also fitted with a receiver sight, a better option than a traditional midbarrel open sight. There’s also a Stevens Youth Model 315, with slightly longer stock, but no peep sight.
Weatherby’s box-fed bolt-action .22 features an Anschutz-barreled action in a superbly finished checkered walnut stock with the unmistakable Weatherby profile and shine. It fits me well, putting my eye right behind a Leupold 2-7X rimfire scope in slim steel Talley rings that match the rifle’s high-polish blue. Oh, yes, I own a Weatherby Mark XXII. It ranks among the finest sporting .22s of our day. It cycles as smoothly as a race-car engine and shoots tiny groups, thanks in part to an excellent adjustable trigger. Do not buy this rifle for your child. He or she will object loudly when you snatch it away for your own indulgence.
Beginning shooter or veteran, you’ll benefit from practice with a .22. If you or the youngsters on your list are slight of build, take advantage of the short-stocked models. Stretching to reach a trigger can discourage any shooter. Keeping the rifle close to your body helps you steady both, so you hit more often. Hitting makes shooters happy, no matter their age.