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.