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Rifles Historical Rim Fire

Ageless Rimfires: The Best Rimfire Rifles of All Time

by Rick Hacker   |  October 28th, 2013 27

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.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/shaylastriffler/ 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.

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/shaylastriffler/ 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.

  • 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.

  • Timothy Leger

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

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