The .22 LR is by far the most popular caliber out there. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) estimates that about half of the approximately ten billion rounds manufactured annually are .22 rimfire cartridges.
The military has used it to teach marksmanship; Boy Scouts use it to qualify for their Shooting merit badge. Largely available and affordable again after the shortages of the past few years, the lowly .22 LR is the most popular cartridge out there. Accurate when fired from both rifles and handguns, more small game has fallen to it than to any other solid projectile round. Ask most any shooter how they got their start in shooting and they’ll most likely answer “my dad (or mother, or brother, uncle etc.) taught me to shoot his/her rifle when I was ten.” Fundamentals of shooting – trigger control, sight alignment, etc. – are readily mastered by shooting this little rimfire due to its lack of intimidating recoil and noise. The .22 is, thankfully, back on dealers’ shelves in quantity once again.
Without delving into the .22’s ancestry, suffice it to say that it dates back to 1887 when the Stevens Arms & Tool Company combined the forty-grain heeled bullet from the .22 Extra Long with the case of the .22 Long. What is a heeled bullet? A bullet whose outside diameter is the same as the case diameter, with the smaller base of the bullet seated inside the case (the “heel”). The priming compound is placed inside the rim of the case, hence the term “rimfire.” There were many popular rimfire cartridges in the late 19th-century, some of large caliber (up to .44). The .22 has survived and thrived while its bigger brothers are, by and large, gone.
As many shooters know, there are some very accurate .22 LR rifles out there. You don’t have to spend a fortune to obtain a .22 rifle that will repeatedly break eggs at fifty yards. Add in the custom builds and accuracy only gets better. There is one factor, though, that makes a .22 handgun a desirable firearm – portability. Rifles are great but they most generally need two hands to operate and transport, even with a sling. They can be bulky compared to handguns. I realize that the most accurate way to shoot a handgun does involve using both hands but you get to put the gun in a holster when it’s time to go, out of your way. Accuracy within the .22 world is not confined to rifles – there are many very accurate handguns out there. It’s time to define a couple of terms. The term “pistol” most generally is used to describe self-loading semi automatics. “Revolver” refers to a gun with a revolving cylinder that fires only when the hammer is released by either pulling the trigger with the hammer down (double action) or by cocking the hammer manually (single-action). Both are handguns, so let’s use that term since we will discuss mostly semiautos but will also toss in a couple of wheel guns as well just for fun. There is not enough room to write about every great .22 handgun out there, so I will talk about some of my favorites. Let’s get to it!
When you try to narrow down, in an article of this type, the best .22 semiauto pistols you definitely have your work cut out for you. Over the past century or so, there have been many self-loading .22s that have earned the respect of thousands of shooters. Conversely, the opposite is true as well…we may have had experience with a gun that would NOT function as intended. I know I have, to be sure. But the good ones outweigh the bad ones.
Let’s do this a bit differently. Instead of narrowing my choices down to just one gun from a manufacturer, I’ll mention two or three and talk about why you might want to own one over the others. There are just too many good .22 pistols out there to cut the herd down to just one.
Let’s start with Ruger. Sturm, Ruger and Company was co-founded by Bill Ruger and Alex Sturm in 1949. Bill Ruger wanted to design a semi automatic .22 LR pistol to capitalize on the demand for guns created when the troops came home after WWII. Thousands of GIs had returned and had gotten the shooting bug, but there weren’t as many guns as were needed. So, he dissected the Japanese Nambu pistols he had brought back from the Pacific from his Marine days and used them (along with the famous German Luger) as a general starting point around which his pistol would be designed. His Mark I Standard pistol debuted in 1949. It was, to put it mildly, a success. The Ruger Mark I and its related models have grown to be the most successful .22 LR pistols in the U.S. in terms of sales.
Looking at current Ruger rimfire pistols, the Mark IV is available in at least eight configurations. Most Mark IV pistols have common features. Most have a 5.5”barrel, adjustable rear sight, steel or aluminum frame, and Patridge-type front sight. Here is a listing of available models…please understand that within these main categories most guns will have at least two variations. Ruger makes a lot of different .22s!
- 22/45 Lite
- 22/45 Tactical
All Mark IV models share one very important feature: one-button takedown. The Mark I – III pistols were, to put it politely, fairly difficult to take down and put back together. Not so the Mark IV series. Press one button at the back of the frame under the slide and the slide/barrel tips down and comes off. Let’s look at some specs from one of the more popular Mk IVs, the Target Model.
I have owned two Ruger .22 pistols, a Mark I and a Mark II 22/45. The Mark I was a gift from my band (I was a band director) as a going-away present when I changed schools many years ago. Sure wouldn’t happen today – it was much appreciated then. The 22/45 Mark II was acquired as a target/hunting pistol, a role which suited it very well. What I liked about these pistols was that, no matter how you used or abused them, they fired every time. Excellent sights, great balance…these were fine examples of Bill Ruger’s enduring design. No matter why you might want a .22 pistol, there is a Ruger for that purpose. Great guns.
Smith and Wesson
Smith and Wesson (S&W) produces several models of .22 pistols. Perhaps its most famous .22 is the Model 41, the target model.
The Model 41 was introduced to the shooting public in 1957. Utilizing the same grip angle as the vaunted 1911 and some excellent adjustable sights, the seven-inch-barreled version was an immediate hit with bullseye and other target shooters. S&W introduced a 5.5 inch heavy-barreled gun in 1963 for field use. There have been many different versions throughout the years, including a plain-jane model purchased by the Air Force as a training weapon. The gun is still popular today, but is pricey; current MSRP of $1369.
In terms of a more-affordable S&W .22 pistol, we look at the Victory.
The Victory is a great gun for the price. Let’s look at some specs:
The Victory is a fairly remarkable gun. Designed to be easily customized, the Victory features one-screw take-down and easily-swapped barrels. However, the one that comes in that blue S&W box right off the shelf isn’t bad in its original form. Another useful upgrade is already in the box-a Picatinny rail that mounts on top of the slide. This allows the mounting of red dot or scope sights without having to buy the rail.
The Sights…A Brighter Vision
The sights that come on the Victory are unique. Very few handguns will provide a U-shaped bent fiber optic rod and mount it in an adjustable housing at the back end of the gun. Front fiber optic sights, on the other hand, are common. In addition to the glowing rod, the post that the rod is mounted on at the front is slim for precision aiming. If glowing sights are not your thing, you can spend about twenty bucks more and get the Target model which uses steel target-type sights.
One reason that S&W is selling a lot of Victories is that the gun can be a Transformer in terms of barrels and sights. Intentionally included as part of the design, takedown and barrel replacement are accomplished by removing two Allen screws. This ease of takedown was an integral part of the design. The ability to easily remove the slide/barrel assembly for cleaning makes the gun popular with those of us who have wrestled with taking apart Ruger’s previous .22 pistols. (The Mark IV fixes that problem with one-button takedown). The factory barrel is interchangeable with third-party aftermarket tubes. One of the major players in Victory replacement parts, the Volquartsen company manufactures at least two Victory barrels: a carbon-fiber-covered barrel, and a fluted stainless steel barrel. Another popular aftermarket part that Volquartsen sells is a machined aluminum Picatinny rail to replace the polymer one in the box. What is worth noting is that most pistol aftermarket parts are made for centerfire guns. The Victory is one of relatively few rimfire pistols to have its own “cottage industry” of third-party parts. Considering that the gun was introduced in 2015, the availability of so many aftermarket parts speaks to its popularity.
The Victory is heavy. I handled one today along with some of the other pistols we’re discussing and was truly impressed with its heft. The bull barrel helps keep the front sight locked on target. The bright green fiber optic rods illuminated the sight picture and looked like tiny, bright green LEDs. The grip felt great; the controls worked easily and positively. All in all, S&W has a winner with the Victory…aptly-named! Expect a real-world price of around $360.
Browning Buck Mark
The Browning Buck Mark is a pistol against which other guns are measured. Introduced in 1985, the pistol grew in popularity. This popularity has resulted in there being no fewer than twenty-one models in current production listed on Browning’s web site. Whatever your need in a .22 pistol, there is a Buck Mark made for it. If you wanted a pistol with a green barrel, there is a Buck Mark with one. Picatinny rail? There are thirteen different railed models. Fiber optic front sight? Thirteen guns have one. Beautifully-figured hardwood grips? Six guns fill that niche. Suppressor-ready? Got it covered. Fluted barrels? Certainly. These are only the current production models…this doesn’t even take into account the eleven limited-production guns. MSR P ranges from a little over $400 to over $700. For the sake of this article, we shall concentrate on one model that has a retail price similar to other guns we’re examining, the workhorse Standard URX. Here are its specs…
Browning is one name in the gun industry that commands respect. When I was very young, my dad had a Browning Sweet 16 shotgun that had been made in Belgium. Even as a youngster who didn’t know much about guns, I could tell it was special, right down to the gold-plated trigger. Browning has continued their quality reputation to this day, even with their lesser-expensive guns. The Standard URX pistol doesn’t cost several hundred dollars. But, it is still a pistol that gives you the impression that it costs more than was paid for it. Like the Victory above, this gun just feels right in your hand. I was taken by how ergonomic the grip was and how the gun is a natural pointer. The target sights top off the package. The gun just looks good, too. The way the top rail (for lack of a better word) tapers off above the trigger gives the gun a streamlined, no-nonsense look. This is one gun that I wouldn’t mind carrying into the woods or field. Expect to pay from $350-$375 for one at your local gun shop.
As long as we’re talking Browning .22 pistols, I want to just touch on one of their most unique models, the Browning Black Label Compact 1911 .22.
If ever there was a gun that might be referred to as “cute”, this gun would qualify. (I know, guns are not cute, but I think this one may be an exception). I had seen this gun in my friend Duane’s gun case for a while but had not handled it. While pulling .22 pistols out of the case for photos, I asked him to get the little 1911 out. It is scaled to about 80% of normal 1911 size and only weighs 13 ounces with its polymer frame. This gun would just about fit in a large pocket, with its 3 5/8-inch barrel. It is so light, so perfect in the hand that I could see folks buying one just to keep their full-size 1911 company. Another selling point to help those 1911 owners decide to buy one of these as a companion gun is that .22 ammo costs a whole lot less than factory .45 ACP. The gun is small, but not cheap – after all, it is a Browning Black Label. If you are looking for a novelty rimfire that will turn heads at the range but still be an accurate, reliable pistol look no further. MSRP on the Black Label Compact 1911 .22 is around $640, but I saw one today for $499. Not inexpensive, but…if you could have held it…
And Now For Something Different…
We have looked a few of my favorite .22 autoloaders…how about a revolver or two? Rimfire revolvers are as plentiful, with a few standing a cut above the others. Let’s look at a couple…
Ruger Single Six
I have a soft spot in my heart for Ruger’s single action .22 revolvers. I once, a long time ago, owned the 4.62 inch-barreled version and practiced a lot with it. I was hunting squirrels with my brother, who had (if memory serves) a real Winchester lever .22 rifle. (He always has been a long-gun kind of guy, but he loves his Glock 17). We were approaching a forked tree when we heard that squirrel music that makes a hunters’ heart do a dance. I spied him in the fork of the tree (the top of his head, that is), about 35 yards away. I pulled the Ruger out, held it offhand, put the front sight just over the forked limbs and fired. The squirrel descended rather rapidly. The Ruger had put its bullet exactly where I wanted it to. My brother said that if he hadn’t seen it, he wouldn’t believe it. The reason I tell this tale is to illustrate just exactly how accurate that little Single Six was. If you are looking for a wheel gun that, with the right ammo, hits what you aim at a large percentage of the time, take a look at the Single Six (or Single Nine, or Single Ten…it just depends on how often you want to reload). These are not light guns…33 ounces for a .22 revolver is a handful. But, as with most other things, there is an upside to the gun’s fairly heavy weight-stability on target. There are other .22 revolvers out there, in all price ranges. But if you want a hunter with great sights, built-in accuracy and warranted by a company with great customer service, the Single Six is for you. Expect to pay around $500 on the street.
Charter Arms Pathfinder
Having owned other Charter Arms products, I have faith in this little guy. A four-point-two inch barrel added to a 24 ounce weight equals, in my gun math, a very portable product. This is a gun that will go walking with you more often than not, simply because it is so handy.
History And Notoriety
Charter Arms has gone through some changes over the years. The company was founded in 1964 by Doug McClenahan, who had worked previously for Colt, Ruger and High Standard. Down through the years, Charter Arms has gone through bankruptcy and different ownerships. However, today’s Charter Arms is solid and is making some very nice products.
Charter Arms’ first product was a newly-designed .38 Special snub nose called the Undercover. Using a solid frame with no side plate gave the gun’s frame more strength and theoretically allowed it to shoot higher-pressure cartridges. Many other handguns were introduced over the years. Perhaps the most recognizable Charter Arms revolver is the .44 Special Bulldog in its several variations. The Bulldog really put Charter Arms on the radar of many shooters; I owned one. A five-shot, three-inch barreled gun with wooden grip panels, my Bulldog was accurate and easy to carry. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one to think so. Back in the late 1970s, a string of murders in New York City attracted the nation’s attention at a time when such shootings were far more rare than today. David Berkowitz, “Son of Sam”, gunned down young couples as they sat in their cars. His weapon was the Bulldog .44. As terrible as it was at the time, it brought the gun to law-abiding shooters’ attention. I carried my Bulldog a lot when I rode a motorcycle in the late 1970s…it was easy to pack when I was on two wheels. The modern versions are better-made than the one I had, which brings us back to the Pathfinder .22.
An Excellent Trail Gun
The 4.2 inch Pathfinder is a great choice for the trail. Whether hiking, camping or just wandering through the woods on a crisp fall day, the Pathfinder is at home in whatever type of holster you use. Weighing only twenty-four ounces, you won’t notice it until you need it. During squirrel season, the fully-adjustable rear sight comes into its own as it allows you to fine-tune your point of impact with that one load that will allow you to take Mr. Bushytail out of the top of that hickory tree. Many other similarly-priced guns use fixed sights. If you want something to carry in your truck or car, this is a good choice. Stainless construction helps keep it corrosion-resistant and you won’t have to worry about chipping the rubber grip panels as you might with walnut ones. I have seen these guns priced locally around $360. It also comes in a two-inch version with fixed sights for about $40 less. You could sure do worse for your dollar.
How can you make a list of .22 revolvers without mentioning the S&W 17/617? This six-inch-barreled double-action revolver is renowned for it accuracy. I owned a Model 17 once and used it successfully to remove squirrels from trees. It was purchased used, but it was accurate and went with me in the woods a lot. If you are looking for a top-of-the-line (MSRP ranges from around $829 for the blued Model 17 to $929 for the Model 617 stainless) .22 revolver, look no further than this classic.
To Sum Up…
A .22 pistol (or revolver) can be a very useful tool. Just comparing ammo costs makes such guns attractive, and their suitability for recreational use takes a back seat to no gun. Another factor…if you are going camping and are taking a handgun along, consider the fact that you could bring a box of 500 .22 cartridges that would take up the space of only half that number or fewer of most centerfire rounds. That’s a lot of ammo in a small box!
If you don’t have a .22 pistol or revolver, you might want to consider getting one. Whether it’s used as a training stand-in for your carry gun, or as a small-game-getter, or as a plinking fun gun, or whatever your use, the lowly .22 pistol is king, and with .22 ammo now back in stock, there’s no reason not to have one.
Thanks to Duane Pearson of Pearson Sports (pearsonsports.biz) for providing guns for photographs.
Mike has been a shooter, bullet caster and reloader for over 40 years. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, he is often found at his reloading bench concocting yet another load. With a target range in his backyard and after 40 years of shooting, his knowledge of firearms and reloading is fairly extensive. He is married, with four sons and daughters-law and 7-and-counting grandkids.