February 09, 2022
By Layne Simpson
In addition to being a genius in firearms design, John Browning of Ogden, Utah, was a shrewd businessman who sometimes sold manufacturing rights for one of his creations to more than one company. While the basic design was the same, subtle details differed.
An autoloading shotgun built and sold by Fabrique Nationale of Belgium as the Browning Automatic-5 was built and sold by Remington in the United States as the Model 11. An autoloading big-game rifle sold by Remington as the Model 8 in .35 Rem. was sold by FN as the Model 1900 Caliber .35 Automatic Rifle.
Browning applied for patents on his first blowback-operated, .22 rimfire rifle in 1912, and in 1914 it was introduced in Belgium as the FN .22 Caliber Automatic Rifle. Ten years later, Remington introduced the same rifle as the Model 24. Both rifles were chambered initially for .22 Short, with .22 Long Rifle added only later. Both could easily be taken down, but the separation of their barrels from their receivers differed a bit, as did their methods of compensating for wear between the two parts.
Detaching the barrel allowed the use of a pull-through cleaner for scrubbing the barrel from its chamber end. Then as now, firing .22 rimfire cartridges leaves a lot of crud and residue behind and ease of removing the entire bolt and fire-control assembly from the receiver encouraged cleaning.
When a carnival came to town in those days, the shooting gallery was quite popular. Shooters standing shoulder to shoulder may have been why Browning designed the rifle to eject fired cases downward from the bottom of its action rather than to the side. It was also the likely reason why the rifle was available in .22 Short—although it was a popular small-game cartridge among kids like me as late as the 1960s.
But since bottom-ejected cases sometimes ended up inside the shirt of the person shooting the rifle, a curved steel plate on the Remington Model 24 deflected them to the side. Remington replaced the Model 24 with an updated version called the Model 141 Speedmaster in 1935, and it remained in production until 1951. The Browning Arms Co. version of the SA-22, introduced to the American market in 1956, was manufactured by FN until production moved to the Miroku factory in Nankoku, Japan, in 1974.
As is typical of John Browning’s creations, the SA-22 is a rather simple design, and yet it has always been a classy rifle at a fairly competitive price. When I used profits from a paper route to buy a Marlin 39A for $60.85, the Browning Autoloading Rifle—as it was called in those days—was $69.50.
The Browning is small enough and light enough for a youngster to shoot while being large enough for grownups to love, cherish and show off when company comes. Everything about the rifle that appears to be precision-machined steel actually is. The finishes on wood and metal have long been quite nice.
Well over a century after John Browning introduced the design, it is still being produced, and a new variation called SA-22 Challenge is the star of this report. Unlike other SA-22 variations available today, the Challenge is not a takedown design. The intent was to deliver the best accuracy possible, and in order to accomplish that, a more rigid fit between receiver and barrel was deemed necessary.
The barrel is threaded tightly into the receiver, and while it can be removed, the job is best left to a gunsmith. And speaking of increased rigidity, the barrel measures a chunky 0.940 inch at the receiver, and from there it straight-tapers to 0.900 inch at the muzzle. A peek inside with a Lyman Bore Cam revealed extremely smooth lands and grooves. The barrel is 16.25 inches long, with a 40-port radial brake increasing it to 18 inches, for an overall rifle length of 355/8 inches. A thread protector and trigger lock are included.
A cantilever-style, Picatinny base attached to the barrel positions a scope over the receiver. The trigger has a gold-colored finish, as does the familiar Buckmark logo at the bottom of the trigger guard. As expected from a Browning, wood-to-metal fit is extremely good.
Prior to being blued, the barrel and receiver were given a nice satin texture. The stock and fore-end are extremely dense walnut, and while the finish is modern synthetic, it has the appearance of hand-rubbed oil of yesteryear. The 18-line, machine-cut checkering is nicely executed, with not a single border run-over or flat-topped diamond revealed by my trusty magnifying glass. A slightly curved shape along with transverse grooving on the aluminum buttplate prevents the stock from slipping off the shoulder.
Back in 1912, John Browning borrowed a design detail from Christopher Spencer’s earlier .52 caliber repeating rifle used by Union troops during the American Civil War. The magazine assembly, a tube-in-tube design with the inner tube containing a spring and cartridge follower, is housed in the buttstock.
To load the SA-22, retract the magazine and while holding the rifle muzzle-down, drop 11 cartridges into an angled port in the side of the stock and then push the magazine forward and rotate to its locked position. Or with the magazine completely removed, drop in cartridges at the rear of the stock. With the magazine loaded, retracting and releasing the bolt feeds the first cartridge into the chamber.
Two methods of unloading the rifle are recommended by the owner’s manual, both enacted with the safety in its engaged position. One way is to point the rifle in a safe direction and manually cycle the bolt until rounds are no longer being ejected. The other way is to fully remove the magazine from the stock, use one hand to hold the rifle butt-down and dump cartridges into the other hand. Then replace the magazine and cycle the bolt several times.
The first method worked fine. When I tried the second, the butt of the rifle had to be rapped against the top of the shooting bench several times in order to dislodge every cartridge. (Before doing that, I ejected the cartridge from the chamber and held the bolt back.)
Regardless of which unloading method is used, with the empty magazine inserted, manually cycle the bolt several times and then while holding the rifle upside down and pointed in a safe direction, hold back the bolt and visually make certain no cartridge remains in the cartridge guide or in the chamber. Applying a coat of red fingernail polish to the end of the follower and allowing it to dry serves as an easily spotted empty magazine indicator.
The bolt does not automatically lock back upon firing the last round, nor can it be manually locked back. This prevents scrubbing the bore with a pull-through cleaner unless the entire lower assembly, consisting of the breech bolt, fire-control unit and trigger guard, is removed. And in order to do that, the fore-end has to be removed.
There is one other thing. When the cease-fire, gun-safe command has been given at gun clubs and public shooting ranges, the bolt of a rifle has to be in a retracted or locked-back position. Because this is not possible with the SA-22, you should insert a chamber flag, which is available from several companies. It’s a solution range officials should accept. Chamber flags are so cheap, I was surprised not to see one included with the rifle.
With an extremely trim receiver measuring a mere one inch wide and 1.50 inches tall, it seemed a pity to spoil the one-hand carry comfort of the little rifle by attaching a scope. But glass sights beat iron sights for accuracy, so I attached a Bushnell Rimfire 6-18X scope with Weaver rings, and that increased weight to eight pounds.
As the name indicates, the scope is designed specifically for use on rimfire rifles, and it has parallax adjustment ranging from infinity to as close as 15 yards. It also has a one-inch tube, quarter-minute windage and elevation clicks and excellent optical quality.
The SA-22 delivered very good accuracy with the entire family of SK ammunition. The rifle ran smoothly for about 100 rounds and then occasionally failed to eject a case. The bolt would extract a case from the chamber and then close before the empty could exit.
Regardless of the brand or load, the propellant in all .22 rimfire ammunition burns extremely dirty and leaves plenty of residue inside the action and the bore of a rifle. Heavy fouling in the SA-22 appeared to be reducing bolt velocity. Removing the lower assembly and cleaning its innards with an old toothbrush and powder solvent chased that problem away.
With paper-punching concluded, I rapid-fired another 200 rounds at reactive steel targets, and the action had to be cleaned again at about the halfway point. As the owner’s manual recommends, frequent cleanings are necessary, and John Browning thoughtfully made sure doing so is quite easy.
Our 50-yard range is fairly well protected on both sides by trees and brush, and that along with a wind flag placed beside the targets, foiled accuracy-spoiling March winds during my test session. As semiautos go, the SA-22 has a very good trigger, and I easily got off five shots anytime the flag indicated my chosen condition was holding for a couple of seconds.
I don’t think the temperature ever got higher than 30 degrees, and wind lowered the comfort factor even more. Several times while attempting to chamber a round, my numb finger would slip off the tab of the bolt before it was fully retracted. Increasing the length of the tab a bit and giving its surface more aggressive grooving would make the rifle better suited for shooting during frigid conditions.
While I realize the Challenge is mainly intended for competitive shooting, its accuracy, nice balance and smooth handling make it a very good candidate for hunting small game for the pot and for picking off flickertails and other small varmints out to 50 yards or so. For that, quick-detach sling swivel posts at front and rear would make the rifle easier to carry and to attach a Harris folding bipod.
Browning SA-22 Challenge Specifications
- Type: Blowback, semiautomatic rimfire
- Caliber: .22 Long Rifle
- Capacity: 11+1 tubular magazine
- Barrel: 16.25 in. hammer-forged blued steel, 1:16 RH twist
- Overall Length: 355⁄8 in
- Weight: 6 lb., 10 oz.
- Stock: Black walnut w/18-lpi cut checkering
- Trigger: Non-adjustable; 3 lb., 9 oz. pull (measured)
- Safety: Two-position transverse
- Sights: None; cantilever Picatinny optics rail
- Price: $940
- Manufacturer: Browning, Browning.com