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Rifles Historical Rim Fire

Ageless Rimfires: The Best Rimfire Rifles of All Time

by Rick Hacker   |  October 28th, 2013 56

Nineteenth century big-bore lever actions and single-shots aside, there is perhaps no other rifle of the late 1800s that best exemplifies the American spirit of gun ownership than the .22 rimfire. And even though the .22 cartridge was originally developed for a revolver, it was with the subsequent and inevitable appearance of the smallbore rifle that everlasting memories were created of a boy or girl’s first firearm, an affordable plinker and a means of putting meat in the pot.

But of course these ubiquitous rifles could not have existed without the cartridge. So a brief background of the .22 rimfire is in order.

There’s a reason the .22 rimfire is the world’s oldest continuously produced self-contained metallic cartridge. Although it can’t be reloaded due to its rimfire priming, it remains our most affordable cartridge. Specifically, it was the .22 Short, which first appeared upon the shooting scene in 1857, that started it all, having been developed for the Smith & Wesson No. 1 pistol.

Soon after that came the .22 Long in 1871, followed by the now-obsolete .22 Extra Long. Finally, the most popular variant of all, the .22 Long Rifle, made its appearance in 1887—thanks to the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company, which began to chamber a number of single-shot rifles for this cartridge. So chambered, these rifles shot faster and farther, and with the cartridge’s 40-grain roundnose bullet they hit harder than any of the previous versions. And as signified by its “Long Rifle” name, other companies soon began producing rifles for the .22 rimfire, which, in turn, dramatically accelerated its popularity.

Today that cartridge—along with the .22 Short and, to a lesser extent, the .22 Long—is still very much with us, as are many of the early rifles for which they were chambered. And yet, although these vintage firearms are popularly collected, many of them remain in gun safes or on the wall, often with little thought given to their ongoing practically as accurate and enjoyable shooters.

Granted, some of these guns show evidence of pitted bores—graphic reminders that the earliest .22 cartridges were loaded with corrosive black powder, and many budding young marksmen of the day had not been properly instilled with the need to clean their rifles after every shooting session. Nonetheless, even a slightly pitted bore that still retains some semblance of rifling can possess tin can-hitting accuracy out to 100 yards, especially with today’s ammunition.

With some of the older 19th century guns, in which softer steels were used for the barrels, it is recommended that only lead bullets be used. The copper-coated variety should be reserved for guns made after the advent of smokeless ammunition and the adoption of harder steels—assuming they are in otherwise safe condition. And in all cases it is best to stay away from the newer high-velocity stuff and have your vintage .22 checked out by a competent gunsmith to make sure it is safe for shooting the fastest ammo.

That said, let’s start with the oldest .22 first. The Marlin Model 39 lever action is the longest continuously produced rifle in firearms history. The Marlin 39 got its start as the Model 1897, named after the year it was introduced and an improvement over the earlier Marlin 1892. As such, the Model 97, as it was later called, became the first repeater to digest .22 Shorts, Longs and Long Rifle cartridges interchangeably.

Slim and lightweight, this lever action also ushered in Marlin’s takedown feature, which, by simply cocking the hammer and turning a large screw on the right side of the receiver, permitted the buttstock and lever portion of the rifle to be lifted up and out of the frame. In an era when transporting such rifles in suitcases on railroad and trolley cars as well as in special bicycle scabbards was a widely accepted practice, this was a popular selling point.

In 1922 the Model 97 underwent a few mechanical changes such as loading via a button-type magazine tube under the barrel rather than the latch-type tube of the Model 97. Renamed the Marlin Model 39, in all other aspects it was still the same gun as its predecessor and retained the original’s case-hardened receiver, octagon barrel, takedown feature and, of course, Marlin’s much-touted solid-top receiver and side ejection.

But at $27, the newly named Marlin 39 was one of the most expensive .22 rifles on the market. However, as justification for this high cost, Marlin’s 1922 catalog read:

“The Marlin Model No. 39 lever action rifle is the most accurate .22 repeating rifle in the world, and is the choice of expert shooters for hunting small game such as rabbits, squirrels, crows, foxes, etc., and for target shooting up to 200 yards…a great many big game hunters prefer this lever action rifle, as it has the ‘feel’ of a big game rifle and permits them to keep in practice at small expense…”

Therein, of course, lies much of the appeal of the Model 39, which was very much in overall appearances—albeit on a smaller scale—to Marlin’s big-bore Model 36, the forerunner of its 336 and descendant of the earlier Model Marlin 1893.

In the 1930s the bolt of the Model 39 was strengthened to permit use of newly introduced high-speed .22 ammo. But more dramatic changes came over the gun in 1939, when it was rechristened as the Model 39A after being “modernized” with a rounded barrel, semi-beavertail fore-end and a slightly thicker pistol grip and buttstock. In 1945, after a brief hiatus prompted by World War II, the Model 39A returned with a ramped front sight and blued receiver, which replaced the pre-war case-hardened version.

This is essentially the same gun that remains in the line today, with minor variations. But it is the pre Micro-Groove (1953) and pre-crossbolt safety (1988) rifles that catch the eye of the collector, especially the earlier octagon-barreled models. And for the same reason, these guns also belong in the hands of today’s shooters because in suitable condition they are every bit as capable of upholding Marlin’s 1922 claim of fast-handling accuracy.

Another popular vintage .22 that is as shootable today as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is the Winchester 1890 pump action. Its action was so strong it became the ultimate go-to gun for the shooting galleries that could be found in practically every circus and penny arcade in America during those halcyon years. The slim little octagon-barreled pumps just kept shooting and shooting and shooting.

Not surprisingly, the Winchester 1890 was created by brothers John and Matthew Browning, who had already brought success to the New Haven company with their High Wall single-shot rifle and Model 1886 repeater and would go on to create many other famous Winchesters as well.

The only real drawback to the Model 1890 was that it didn’t chamber all versions of the .22 rimfire, so there were four different versions: .22 Short, .22 Long, .22 Long Rifle and the now-discontinued .22 WRF (Winchester Rim Fire), a slightly more powerful version of the .22 Long Rifle developed specially for the Winchester 1890.

Rifles chambered for .22 Shorts were called gallery guns, as that is where they often would be found, and they still make for low-cost yet effective close-range eradication of backyard pests (where it is legal to shoot them, of course).

Introduced at just $16, the first 15,000 Model 1890s featured a solid frame, but after 1892 a takedown feature was added, enabling the 24-inch octagon-barreled rifle to be separated into two sections, which increased its appeal tremendously. The popularity of the rapid-firing Model 1890—which did not feature a detent and thus could be “slam fired” by holding the trigger back while rapidly working the pump—is evidenced by the fact that many are found today worn down to their gray metal. But they were so rugged that most are still in shootable condition.

The Model 1890 was a handsome rifle, with blued barrel and magazine tube, bone charcoal case-hardened receiver, trigger and hammer, and a walnut stock and ribbed handguard. The case-hardened receiver became blued in 1901 and in 1919—around serial No. 640,000—Winchester changed the Model 1890s nomenclature to the Model 90.

In 1906 Winchester introduced its appropriately named Model 1906, a more economically priced version of the Model 90. It featured a round 20-inch barrel, and the first rifles had smooth pump handle fore-ends. Ironically, a deluxe variation of this “economical” rifle, the Model 1906 Expert, was made from 1918 until 1924, thus reflecting the rising economy of the country at that time.

Both the Model 06 and the Model 90 were discontinued in 1932 to make way for the Winchester Model 62, by far the most practical of the early Winchester pumps; it was able to handle .22 Short, Long and Long Rifle cartridges interchangeably (although a special Gallery Model was made for .22 Shorts only). Retaining the exposed hammer and takedown features of the earlier Winchester pumps, the Model 62 and 62A (the latter being introduced in 1940 with coil springs and a redesigned bolt) remained in production until 1958, and today’s shooters stand the best chance of finding these guns in fairly decent condition, which bodes well for both their collectibility and shootability.

Those aren’t the only vintage .22s worth your investigation. The Remington Model 12 hammerless .22 pump is another rugged design that found fame in shooting galleries and as a chicken coop protector alike, and it can still be found at reasonable prices. Remington’s Model 16 autoloader is more elusive and more costly.

The original Stevens Model 25 single-shot .22—the rifle that started it all—can still be found at relatively reasonable prices and, speaking from experience, it makes an excellent close-range rabbit gun. A replica of the Stevens Favorite has been reintroduced by Savage Arms as the Model 30G.

And the Uberti Silver Boy .22 lever action, although not a replica of any vintage firearm, nonetheless takes its inspiration from the earliest pre-Winchester lever action, the Henry rifle.

Interestingly, Winchester once chambered its famous Model 1873 in .22 rimfire, but it discontinued that version in 1904—with less than 20,000 having been made. Still, it serves as a reminder of the past popularity of the .22 rimfire rifle and why these old guns remain a viable choice for the shooter of today.

The Winchester Model 1890 (top) and the Winchester 62A (bottom) are just as viable for today’s riflemen as they were when originally made.

  • Gary Vetter

    My first .22 that my Dad bought for me was the Winchester 61 pump. Being a young boy image must have meant more to me than function since my next .22’s were semiautomatics. But as I grew older and more experienced in the field, I grew to love that old pump and I still have it which I can’t say for those rifles that were to replace it.

  • Ronald Orszag

    I have a lever action 22 Ithaca made in west Germany what a gun the best
    Just unbelievable , I love it. On the money.

    • Patrick

      The Ithaca lever action 22 was made by Erma in West Germany and was marketed under the Erma name, Ithaca, and Iver Johnson. It was designed by the current president of Henry Arms and is basically the same gun as is sold by Henry. They are smooth ad very accurate shooters.
      I’m surprised they didn’t include the Winchester 9422 or the Browning BL22 rifle but there are lots of others they didn’t include like the Browning 22 auto, or the Winchester 22 auto, or the Ruger 10/22, Marlin 60, etc.

      • Gubbins48

        Did not know about the connection between the Ithaca LA .22 and the current Henry product. As many .22s as I have (including a 94/22 and 94/22M) I just had to have one of the Henrys and found an as-new example recently. For the money I love this rifle!

      • qlyng

        Win 9422 ought to be on this list. Definitly the best lever .22! Mine is from mid.’70s and shoots sub moa at 50m even with CCI Velocitor. Love this little trooper

  • Pete

    The .22 WRF is still loaded periodically by Winchester. It can be fired in, in addition to guns chambered for it, as a “detuned” .22 WMR.

    • Lance

      The 22 WRF and the 22 Remington Special are the same cartridge 45 gr flat tip bullet (for tube feeders) Had an old pump Rem. mod. 12, I believe, that was chambered for it. Paid a premium for the bullets but rabbits, squirrels, and wood chucks beware. Miss that gun.

  • Shayla Striffler

    I’m surprised the Henry AR-7 isn’t on the list.

    • John Harris

      I am a gunsmith, dealer and lifelong shooter. I don’t have a very high opinion of the AR7. I do not like plastic and am not ecstatic about aluminum. This article is about classic ,22s, of which I own several.

      • Shayla Striffler

        It was designed in 1958 by Stoner, so it is definitely a classic.

        “Since 1959, the venerable AR-7 has been the choice of U.S. Air Force pilots who need a small-caliber rifle they can count on for survival should they have to punch out over a remote area. Over the years, the AR-7’s reputation for portability.”

        • Leatherstocking

          I have two AR-7s and keep one in my airplane, one when I backpack in remote areas. Fine little shooters for game. Not quite my .45 for 2-legged varmints, but better than no gun. I learned on a Marlin 60 in my native Upstate NY, hunting small game.

      • The Truth

        “I do not like plastic”

        Another sad and confused redneck who knows nothing about guns. I’ll take any one of my 6 Glocks against any gun you own any day of my life and it will work every single time I squeeze the trigger. What a sad person you are. It’s funny, even rednecks who know nothing about guns can be snobs.

        • nater

          I can tell by your comment that you are a sad confused 20 something tacit-cool kind of guy. this discussion is about quality steel guns some of which the retail price of your six glocks wouldn’t touch. Since you like a challenge I have two for you. First lets tape your flock on a target fifty yards down range, and I’ll take one shot at it with my 357 Smith. after it’s obliterated you’re welcome to take the same one shot with another one of your toys at my Smith. second test, I have a wood stove, we throw both guns in and see which one lasts more than a minute or two.the final test will have to wait twenty years ior so and that will be the test of resale value. you sir are on the wrong thread. I think you’re looking for pee-weI’d playhouse.

          • JustASec

            I’m with you… can’t do better than walnut and steel. Oh I apprecaite my AR’s but for my handguns no Plastic Fantastics.
            Give me a Glock on Monday and on Tuesday I’ll be down at the lgs trading it in. Plus Glocks are the ugliest handguns on the planet.

  • Philip Beekley

    “…the Uberti Silver Boy .22 lever action…”!?!

    Hello…? How about the *US-made* Henry Golden Boy .22 lever action?

  • Steamer

    My first was a Winchester Model 55 – Automatic Single Shot. You loaded one bullet thru a trap door on the back top of the receiver, then switched off the safety just behind the trap door, then fired, then it automatically ejected the shell and cocked the bolt.

  • Patrick

    PS The Silver Boy is a blatant copy of the Henry Golden Boy only in silver and an inflated price. Uberti does make quality firearms however. I wonder if it has a steel receiver cover instead of the pot metal ones on the Henrys.

  • petru sova

    You did not mention the Winchester 03 automatic or the pump model 61. Also how about the Browning .22 auto rifle, it still has no model designation to this day but it was the one that ejects out the bottom of the receiver and has been in continuous production since the beginning of the 20th century.
    Compare these rifles to the plasticky and cast iron and stamped sheet metal garbage that is being vomited out today by the gun companies.

    • Barney Samson

      Here here!!

  • Timothy Leger

    Marlin Golden 39A, nuff said !!!!
    Marlin Glennfield 60, #2
    That’s all I got ta say bout that !!!

    • George Cahonna

      I have my favorites too. First off my Anschutz 164, 9422, 1954-39A, 1956-62A, & later Win 490..

  • mmcgr

    My first .22 was a Savage 63, a single shot bolt action with a Mannlicher stock received as a birthday present in the ’60s. Safety is levered to automatically come on whenever the bolt is opened. I still have it, it still shoots, and I still like the looks of Mannlicher-stocked rifles. Enough, in fact, to have subsequently bought other rifles (30-06 and .22 bolt actions) with them.

  • Boonrawd

    bought my first gun at 17 with first paycheck from first job in 1967. Paid 40 bucks for a Winchester .22 bolt action with 7 round mag. Shot it in the house basement which was no small feat as house was a tiny Philadelphia row home. Now almost 50 years later it has changed hands a couple of times and will be used next year when Grandson turns 5 just like his father did when he was 5.

    • puhiawa

      That would be the Model 69. Great gun. Accurate as all get out. I once won a shooting contest by puting the flame of a candle out at 50 feet 10 times in a row without hitting the candle wax itself with one. Night shooting. Next best was one.

      • Ben Rawls

        I read an article in a prewar British magazine bemoaning the fact that the Brits could not produce a rifle as accurate as the Win 69 at an affordable price. I think it was about $16 at the time.

  • Jim

    You guys left out the Browning .22lr one fine gun ;) PIcked up mine in 1969 and thousands fo rounds later it is still as tight as the first day I bought it….

  • rhmeekjr

    My favorite in the Winchester 63 I inherited from my granddad.

  • Rob R

    I have my dads Winchester model 90 pump that was purchased in a hardware store in Maine when he was 10 years old in 1922.Love this little rifle.Can you imagine if Lowes or Home Depot sold guns?!

  • Jimmy the Greek

    Over the objections of my Mother and Father when I was 10 years old in 1963, my Grandma bought me a new Marlin Model 25 Glenfield bolt action, clip-fed .22 rifle from Montgomery Wards for my birthday. From then on and well into my teen years, that rifle brought me hours of fun plinking Campbell cans, punching holes in paper targets, popping water filled balloons and hunting squirrels near her home in the country (I lived in the suburbs). A friend and I would shoot brick after brick of .22 LR rounds that she bought from a local drug store whenever we came to visit. He had a Remington Model 52 single shot bolt action he had been given to him by his grandfather the same year. Seeing me whip through.22’s as fast as I could work the bolt, he swore that one day he, too, would have a state-of-the-art, 7 round, clip-fed bolt action like mine (unfortunately, he died 8 years later in Viet Nam). I still have the rifle and, someday, hope to pass it on to my grandchild (girl or boy) when the time is right.

    • GeoInSD

      I am old enough to remember .22 rifles and ammo being sold in department stores like KMart. I had bought several bricks of Remington Mohawk around 1975 that I my son finished shooting about 2 years ago in the Remington Nylon 66 that I bought in 1974.

  • Paul Zimmerli

    I do not see either the Remington Nylon 66 or the Remington Model 552 Speedmaster in this listing. Despite some people’s druthers, the Nylon 66 has carved out its own niche in rimfire history, and in its tube-fed variation, is still extremely popular. The Model 552 with its ejection port cover is still the world champ of “Drop in what you have and I’ll shoot it.”

    • Tarasdad

      I have both of those and love them to death. My Nylon 66 Black Diamond was the first .22 rifle I ever bought. The 552 Speedmaster belonged to my brother and passed on to me after he died. It’s a treasure to me.

    • GeoInSD

      I still have my Nylon 66 that I bought in 1975. I use it occasionally in smallbore silhouette matches. Another guy in my club uses one too. I have seen another person use one, though his isn’t working 100% unlike mine and the other guy’s.

      I was surprised to see a local gun shop selling a used Nylon 66 for $300 in condition that was nothing special. I seem to remember paying $60 for mine in 1975. Even considering inflation, it has held its value. It has been my observation that a quality firearm holds its value well and is arguably “good as gold” in that respect.

  • GB McDaniel

    QUESTION: This article states that the model 62 was very popular because it fired .22 short, long and long rifle.
    My 1906 is also chambered for all three .22 rounds.
    Is it therefore unique, or even rare to find this chambering on the 1906 models?

  • Jim_Macklin

    BEST is a question of what makes a gun “best?” But the Winchester 52, particularly the 52D Sporter should certainly be in any best list.
    Also, little known, Remington built a few 40XB Sporters, that cost $250 each wholesale in the early 1970s. Mike Walker at Remington called the store where I worked to let us know that our suggestion that a 40X Sporter would be popular. The store, The Sportsman’s Center in Springfield, Illinois had been buying 40X centerfire rifles in ADL Sporter stocks for several years so it wasn’t out of place suggesting a 40XB Sporter.
    When Mike Walker called a year or two after the suggestion was made, he said they had built five rifles as repeaters feed from handmade box magazines. The store bought all five rifles. These were in fancy walnut, much like the Model 700 Safari rifles.
    Remington built the Model 37 pre-WWII if I’m not mistaken. Anschutz makes fine rifles and has nearly taken 100% of the .22 target rifle market.
    And Ruger makes the 77/22. Springfield Armory built the M1922.
    The Marlin 39A Mointie with a heavy 20″ barrel was a very nice rifle.

    • puhiawa

      I have all the guns in the article. But the W 52 and 69A are worthy of honorable mention, as is the R Nylon 66. The latter is ridiculously fun and extremely quiet as the hollow barrel stock absorbs so much sound.

  • SOG74

    I have many of these and other .22s, and my favorite is the Henry 15-shot, lever-action 20 inch octagonal barreled .22LR H001T. I’ve shot shorts, LR, sub-sonic and even caps (not recommended by Henry) and all have shot well and grouped well. Everyone at my club who owned any other lever-action .22s (Win 94-22, Marlin 39s, etc.) who tried my Henry commented on the easier and smoother action of the Henry, and already about ten of them have bought a Henry.

    Another member was doubtful about the Henry because he could reload his Winchester ‘faster’ than the Henrys, until I challenged his to a timed event – and used a Speed-e-loader. Fifteen rounds reloaded and ready to go when he had only loaded 9 rounds.

    Henrys forever!

  • Bob

    At 13 Dad gave me my first rifle, a Remington 521T with a peep sight – and enrolled me (and my rifle) in a basic rifle / hunter safety course. This was a great gun to learn on. Have since gotten Dad’s Ranger brand (Savage 87a) , and bought a Nylon 66,Marlin model 60,Winchester 1890, Winchester 62A,and a Weatherby XXII. They are all good for different things, the only one I would not recommend was the Savage.

    • Ben Rawls

      Don’t underestimate those old Savage/Springfield rifles. I have one that you can break clays with all day at 100 yds-offhand. Mushy trigger and all it still is a very accurate rifle.

    • GeoInSD

      I have a 521T that I inherited from my father. It is still nice and accurate. It is my son’s favorite .22 to shoot because of its accuracy. (He hasn’t shot my Savage Mark II BTVS yet. That might be a classic one day.)

  • billiepeterson

    I have a GREAT working order 1922 Stevens 22 long Rifle semi automatic for sale…asking FULL value price of what I do not know..anyone know value of it?All writing on barrel is readable also..EVERYTHING works PERFECT

  • AndyB282

    Was the Winchester Model 61 prewar (1940) available with a longer forearm?

  • dltaylor51

    The model 1890 the best 22 of all time,i have one in every 22 cal.they made and the 22 WRF is my favorite.

  • MJT

    Any mention of A.W. Peterson .22 Target rifles? Value? desirability?

  • Wayne Memmler Sr.

    The Winchester 52 needs to be on this list , my D model sporter will shoot for real one hole groups at 25 yards all day , with ammo it likes, and it has the best trigger I have ever experienced

  • dltaylor51

    The American gun manufacturers dont have what it takes to make a modern model 1890 Win. 22 pump,to much work for them and that type of precision is over their heads.Same goes for the model 12 Rem pump 22,sad to sat but its true.

  • James n hall

    I am aware that sales were not that high but for overall quality ,my Winchester model 320 in .22 L R. Is super well made by Warne in Australia . I happened to be in the shop when the rifle came in. One side of the stock was “A” grade and the other was easily “AA+” . I removed the Winchester red-brown varnish Ugh ! I refinished with 6 coats of Tru-Oil rubbed down with Brownell’s #5 stock. rubbing compound. With Eley 10X the rifle will shoot one hole groups at 50 yards if I do my part. Also the trigger is easily adjustable for 1 1/2 lb. let off. The retail price back then was $87.00 yet today I see them going for $500+. Mine is definitely not for sale as my great grand son is waiting in line.

    • DC Halverson

      I found a 320 in a gun shop in 1976 in new condition. Paid $50 for it and came away with one of the finest .22s that I have ever shot. Great trigger, nice wood (after I polished off the awful varnish with ultra fine sandpaper soaked in linseed oil), and superb accuracy.

  • westword6

    Two things I should never have let go of: My 1965 Chevy 2, with the rare cast iron 153 cu. in. motor, and my Remington model 510 single shot, bolt action .22 rifle. Best firearm I ever had.

  • Goldbug12

    My first .22 was a single shot rear loader Jr size rifle with a hexagon barrel. I received the rifle in 1955 from one of my dad’s customers. To this day, I still can’t find any information about this rifle. I think the manufacture was Harrington. Sold it to a friend when I was a kid for $10.00. Maybe someone can give me some information on this neat little rifle.

    In 1960, I bought a Winchester model 77 .22 semi-automatic from Western Auto, our local hardware store for $40.00. I still have the rifle and all the memories that go along with it!

  • guegelhupf

    Looking for a box magazine for my old Ranger Model 36 22 LR. A couple of parts houses are out of stock. OR a magazine that is compatible with this old rifle made by Marlin.

  • Paul H. Kirk

    What about the Savage 29?

  • Pete

    My first rifle was a Winchester model 62 when I was 14. I remember that rifle well. I lived i Los Angeles and had to drive about 50 miles to Frasier Park which was about 50 miles north of home. My dad bought the 62 for $78. from the Sear ps Catalogue. I could hit the top of a small orange juice can at 50 YDS. when my eyes were still sharp. I ended up pawning the rifle in 1960. What a bone head!
    I loved that pump action.Since then I have had a few 22s but my favorite by far is my Browning 22 I think it is a model one. Belgian made Semi Auto, 10 Rds, loaded through the stock. LR only. Ejects out the bottom.

  • M

    B’klyn born

  • M

    I own a few 22s your list omits. Ruger 1022, Norinco atd22, Rossi 62sac, Marlin Glendale 20,Ithaca 49, Bingham 50(now sold thru Mitchell Arms), and yes even the dreaded AR7 by Charter Arms. Almost forgot my Marlin Papoose (with wood stock).

  • moasart

    To many classics to list. Remington 120’s, Winchester 61’s, Browning TDA’s, ……. The list is very long.

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