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Historical Rim Fire

Ageless Rimfires: The Best Rimfire Rifles of All Time

by Rick Hacker   |  October 28th, 2013 61

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.

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