November 29, 2023
Every died-in-the-wool shooter I know loves a fine old rimfire rifle. And there are a lot of good ones. So many, in fact, that when assigned to write about my top five or six, I struggled. That was like being told to pick a favorite kid or two.
I wondered if I should go by total numbers produced. That would be a valid look at the most successful rimfire rifles of all time, but it would leave out shooting phenomenons like Winchester’s Model 52, of which only about 125,000 were made—but were the only American-made rimfire target rifle that consistently gave Anschutz a run for its money in National and Olympic competitions. I eventually gave up trying to apply a practical, data-driven filter, and simply picked six of my personal favorites: rifles I love and believe are some of the finest of their type.
Unfortunately, I was forced to leave a few clearly spectacular rifles out, such as Marlin’s Model 39 lever action. Please don’t break out the tar and feathers; this isn’t a slam against the models not included. It’s just a list of a half-dozen greats, that offered practical, above-par performance.
1. Remington Nylon 66
This cult-favorite classic was the first wildly successful rimfire that employed a composite stock. Specifically, Zytel Nylon 101, a super stable, strong, corrosion-resistant material. Tom Frye used it to set a world record by hitting 100,004 out of 100,010 square 2.5-inch wood blocks thrown in the air. More than a million Nylon 66s were made, making it Remington’s most successful rimfire ever.
Durability proved to be exemplary. The Nylon 66 is a blowback design, like most semiauto rimfires, and tends to run well without much maintenance. Accuracy, in most cases, proved to be way out of proportion to expectations: Many Nylon 66s (including the one pictured here) shoot ragged one-hole groups at 25 yards, even with cheap bulk ammunition.
Today, nice shootable versions in good condition bring from $300 to $800.
Although the Weatherby Mark XXII (Mark 22) was plagued by failures to pass Roy’s stringent QC requirements, those that did pass and came to market were brilliant examples of rimfire rifle perfection. Manufacturing and finish were held to the same high quality exemplified in Weatherby’s fine centerfire hunting rifles.
When I first handled the one pictured here, I was slightly apprehensive of hurting it, the finish is so nice. Accuracy is spectacular, and reliability stellar. At one point my son, age 8, rested the Mark XXII over shooting sticks and proceeded to ding an old steel drum consistently—from 200 yards!
Ergonomics are excellent, and the feel is classic. Quickly, the model became my personal favorite semiauto rimfire.
While relatively uncommon, these are a fine example of the rimfire gunmaker’s art, and are worth a search. Particularly if you like something just a bit different, that both looks and shoots better than most. Value ranges from about $600 to $1,000.
3. Winchester Model 1906 & 62
If I could choose just one rimfire rifle model for every kid to own, this would be it. I’m a huge fan of pump-action .22s, having grown up with my grandfather’s Remington Model 572 Fieldmaster. It was nice; these Winchesters are nicer.
What sets these fine little rifles apart is how very sleek and slender they are. They are truly proportional to the .22 rimfire cartridge—and are lovely for it. Ergonomics possess that perfection attained only during the great iron-site age. Speed is unparalleled short of a semiautomatic; in addition to the pure speed of the slick, fast-functioning slide action, the shooter can simply hold back the trigger and rack the pump as fast as possible. (This slam-firing is not good for the rifle, FYI, but the design does allow it.)
The Model 62 is an updated version of the Model 1906. Both are terrific rifles. Between the two, well over a million were manufactured. They’re very collectable; even battle-worn versions bring $500 or more, and a cherry version will easily top $1,500.
4. Winchester Model 52
Long called “The King of the .22s” Winchester’s Model 52 was introduced at the National Matches in 1919, where it won a scandalously impressive string of championships. Over the coming decades, the Model 52 became the all-American force behind smallbore state championships and a regular at the National Matches and Olympics.
Variations were as wide as the competitive disciplines they dominated in. Most were 5-shot repeaters; many were single-shots. A spectrum of discipline-optimized stocks were available. Even sporter versions were made.
Many were modified by their owners, including the one pictured, which wears an aftermarket barrel by smallbore National Champion Eric Johnson, and a few other accessories. Such versions are ideal for shooting; pristine original Model 52s may certainly be fired but obsessive care should be taken, as collectible value is skyrocketing. Cost can range from $500 for a common, highly modified version up to $4,000 or more for a mint-condition, all-original Model 52.
5. Winchester Model 72
Here’s my pick for most practical of all the bolt-action rimfires. Winchester’s first-ever tube-fed .22 bolt-action, it proved ridiculously accurate, very reliable, and ergonomic. Unlike the detachable-magazine .22 bolt-actions popular at the time, one couldn’t lose the magazine. Plus, it held 15 rounds of .22 LR; three times the standard detachable magazine’s capacity.
Several variations were available, consisting primarily of different sight setups. The one shown with a simple, sturdy rear aperture was practical and precise.
Only 161,412 were made, and none were serial-numbered. These may not have been the most popular rimfire of the era, but they proved to have lasting, impressive quality. Value these days is $200 to $500 depending on condition.
6. Winchester Model 63
An updated version of the groundbreaking Model 1903, the Model 63 was Winchester’s first-ever semiauto .22 Long Rifle. Introduced in 1933, it went on to become a connoisseur’s self-loading rimfire. It’s a delayed-reaction design with a counterbalance system, which eventually evolved into the blowback system so prevalent today.
Cartridges load through the side of the buttstock. A charging rod protruding from the fore-end tip served to function the action. Balance was tuned to feel like a fine shotgun, giving the Model 63 a feel that soon became legendary.
Just a few variations were available, exemplified by the 23-inch barrel, high polished bluing, and well-finished walnut on the rifle shown. Around 175,000 were made between 1933 and 1958. Pristine examples are rare today, and bring a pretty penny. Solid shootable versions start at about $600 and range up.