Precision .22 Rim Fire Guns

Text: Jerry Blanchard   Photos: Mike Blanchard

Archive  |  I have long enjoyed big precision firearms in small calibers; especially .22 rim fires, which are very accurate and also easy on barrels. Many shooters favor large, high-velocity cartridges, but these are hard on guns and barrels. Unless there are good reasons to use more powerful loads, I favor the .22 long rifle cartridge with its low noise level and superb accuracy. A well cared for .22 rim fire barrel will last for hundreds of thousands of rounds and still be putting them in the ten ring.

.22 rim fire cartridges probably date back to the 1831 French patent of Roberts, which placed priming compound across the entire inside of the head of the shell. In 1846, B. Houllier, a French gunsmith, patented the rim fire design having priming compound in the outer edge of the head of a sheet metal cartridge case. Another Frenchman, Louis Flobert, showed his .22 BB Cap (Bulleted Breech) guns at the 1851 Great Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in London.

Flobert parlor or saloon pistols and rifles were seen by people from many countries and became popular for indoor target shooting. Early Flobert .22 BB Cap cartridges contained no powder; the round bullets were propelled solely by the priming charge. The tiny shells did not have a distinct rim but were slightly tapered.

In 1854 Smith and Wesson lengthened the Flobert BB Cap case, enlarged the rim, added black powder to increase power, and patented it as the Number One cartridge which is essentially the same as the .22 Short which has been in continuous production ever since. 

Smith and Wesson introduced their famous Model Number One seven shot top break revolvers chambered for .22 Short in 1857. The cylinder chambers had holes bored all the way through like we are familiar with today. This revolutionary concept was patented by Rollin White and first offered to Colt who turned it down. Smith and Wesson recognized the value of the idea and bought the Rollin White patent, which gave them a near monopoly on the manufacture of modern cartridge revolvers through 1872.

As a boy I built and shot cap lock muzzle loading rifles, mostly with the collectors and shooters of the Eaton Canyon Muzzle Loading Rifle Association…

.22 rim fire cartridges have been made in sizes from the tiny Flobert .22 BB Cap through the .22 Extra Long, the .22 WRF, and the .22 Winchester Magnum Rim fire, introduced in 1959. The finest of the .22 rim fires is the .22 Long Rifle cartridge, which despite its name, is widely used in handguns too. The origins of the .22 Long Rifle cartridge are murky, but date from about 1887 when the Peters Cartridge Company manufactured them for the J. Stevens Arms Company which developed this more powerful load for target shooting. Today we tend to think of .22 rim fires as short-range cartridges, but in earlier times things were different.  You might be surprised to know that in 1919 Winchester brought out “Precision 200”  .22 Long Rifle cartridges designed for 200 yard target shooting.          

As a boy I built and shot cap lock muzzle loading rifles, mostly with the collectors and shooters of the Eaton Canyon Muzzle Loading Rifle Association who met on Sundays at the old police range in Pasadena, California. Later I turned to cartridge arms for their convenience of loading.

Single shot rifles of the period from about 1850 to about 1930 are particularly interesting to me: Ballard, Winchester, Peabody, Maynard, Sharps, Remington, Stevens, Gibbs, Etc. I have books on all manner of single shot designs from around the world. The high quality of workmanship, much of it by hand, is inspirational. There are gun makers today doing superb quality work, but I am of the opinion that the average run of factory guns made today does not meet many of the quality standards that seemed common in earlier years. I think part of the reason is that years ago there was a larger number of skilled mechanics available to work in the various factories. Makers of guns in that era made extraordinary efforts to supply the special requirements of customers and would build just about any custom feature desired. Particularly notable in this regard were Winchester and the Marlin “Ballard” companies who produced marvels of workmanship in varieties unheard of today.

Makers of guns in that era made extraordinary efforts to supply the special requirements of customers and would build just about any custom feature desired.

One of my favorite rifles is a Winchester model 1885 single shot in .22 Short with a heavy number 3 round barrel, high wall blued take down coil spring action, nickel plated bronze Swiss butt plate, and special sights. It is a superb piece designed by the legendary John M. Browning in 1878 and with brilliant improvements by Winchester designers William Mason and T. C. Johnson. It weighs nearly 9 pounds and was ordered long ago with special features from Winchester by another fan of precision heavy rifles in small calibers.

Ballard rifles were invented by Charles H. Ballard in 1861 and used in the American Civil War. Several companies made them, but the finest and strongest of the early Ballards were those made by the J. M. Marlin Company from 1875 to about 1891. The workmanship and precision of Marlin Ballards is remarkable and they were strongly competitive in the small-bore target game against modern bolt-action rifles well into the 1940s. Many Marlin Ballards are being shot today.

The Ballard Rifle Co. of Cody, Wyoming, bought the rights to the Ballard name and makes superb Ballard and also Winchester single shot rifles today. They make complete new rifles and will also restore older Ballards. The steels and tolerances on their new rifles are even better than on the Marlin factory rifles. Still, there is something special about using an original factory arm made long ago: the real thing with history attached.

A Swiss inventor named Martini designed an excellent spiral spring striker for the Peabody action and his name stuck. To give credit where it is due, these actions should be called the Peabody-Martini.

The famous Springfield 30-03 and 30-06 bolt action rifles used in WW I and WW II were made in .22 long rifle caliber in several variations in both military and civilian models. The Gallery Practice Rifle, Caliber .22, Model of 1903 (popularly called the Hoffer-Thompson) used steel cartridge holders that functioned in a regular 5 shot clip just like the larger 30-03 cartridges.  These rifles were not very accurate and the early powders and primers soon rusted the cartridge holders so this design was replaced by improved rifles with barrels chambered for .22 Long Rifle.  I have a tack driving beauty made in 1926. It is a pistol gripped civilian Model 1922 M I made by the U. S. Government’s Springfield Armory for sale to members of the National Rifle Association in order to help develop experienced rifle shooters. The price in 1926 was $46 plus $1.34 for shipping and handling.  My father remembered training with one of these rifles when he was a Boy Scout. Made between the wars, Springfield Armory had time to do things right. My rifle is all forged and machined steel and oiled walnut with beautiful workmanship. In addition to the original Lyman 48C receiver sight, it came factory tapped for scope blocks.  Elsie Unertl supplied the correct blocks and one of their excellent 1 - 1/4-inch diameter 8 power target scopes; the same Unertl scope used by Marine snipers in WW II.

Birmingham Small Arms Company of England made various models of Martini action .22 LR rifles but I think their Martini International MK II with heavy barrel is the ultimate. These rifles are heavy and very ‘British.’ Mine has beautiful French Walnut stocks with black marbled figure, the self setting set trigger, original Parker Hale iron target sights, and even the adjustable hand stop on the forearm.  By unscrewing a single knurled head screw, the entire breechblock and lock mechanism is easily removed for cleaning. I believe Francotte of Belgium invented this take down feature.  Al Freeland, the famous American small bore shooter, had a hand in designing this rifle and imported and sold them in the United States for years at his company, Freeland’s Scope Stands in Rock Island, Illinois.  I spoke with him by phone when I got it and he commented that I had “the good one.” These rifles came from the factory with scope blocks and I mounted an early Unertl 2 inch 10-power target scope on it. This rifle is one of the real classics and is very accurate. 

Al Freeland was highly regarded in target shooting circles and a little known fact is that Winchester bought the rifle stocks from him for their famous .22 LR Model 52 International Match rifles introduced in 1969.

I should mention that the Martini action, so popular in England and its colonies, was actually designed by Henry O. Peabody of Boston and patented in 1862.  A Swiss inventor named Martini designed an excellent spiral spring striker for the Peabody action and his name stuck. To give credit where it is due, these actions should be called the Peabody-Martini.

I am certainly not the only person who likes .22 rim fire large frame revolvers.

The famous Winchester Model 52 rifles introduced in 1920 and made in several variations are full sized, heavy, precision rifles long popular with small-bore shooters. Remington’s counterparts are the Model 37 introduced in 1937, and its successor the 40 X. 40 X rim fire rifles have massive actions with double locking lugs of a size usually seen on center fire rifles.           

In 1957 I bought a brand new Colt Trooper revolver in .22 long rifle caliber from Cornwell and Kelty Hardware in Glendale, California. Their wholesaler for my revolver was the famous stock maker and author Monty Kennedy who I often watched and talked with when he was stocking at Apex Rifle in Sun Valley, California. The Trooper was built on the .41 caliber frame just like the Officers Model, Official Police, .357, and the Python. My Trooper had a flat top frame, four-inch barrel, Baughman ramp front sight, and adjustable target rear sight. It proved to be very accurate and because it was my first really good revolver; I valued it highly. I made ivory grips for it with a high relief carved American Liberty on the right grip.

Do not confuse the early Colt Trooper with the later Colt Trooper MK III, which was also available in .22 caliber. I handled a new .22 caliber Trooper MK III at Herb Bell’s gun shop south of Alturas, California when they first came out but it seemed crude compared to the early Trooper. The internal parts of the MK III were made of sintered powdered metal and did not appeal to me for strength and reliability reasons.

The 1981 Colt catalog listed and had a picture of their famous Python revolver in .22 caliber. I immediately ordered one from Colt, but they told me none had actually been produced. I even tried to special order one with engraving through the Colt Custom shop but still no luck. It would not surprise me to learn that Colt made a few trial models but if so; they were not for sale to the public. This was too bad since it would have been a good seller. Also in this“ I wish they would make” category is the Ruger Number 1 single shot rifle, which I keep hoping the factory will produce in .22 LR caliber.

Over the years I have shot several Officer’s Model Colts including a fine prewar Officer’s Model Target and an Officers Model Special with heavy barrel and high Colt master rear sight. All the Colt Officers Models I ever used were very accurate. Colt as early as 1883 even produced a few of their big Single Action Army revolvers, sometimes called the Peacemaker, in .22 rim fire.

There are modern heavy .22 rim firearms destined to be rare classics in time. One of my favorites is the model 252 revolver made by Freedom Arms in Wyoming. Chambered for .22 Long Rifle cartridges they are built on the same size extra strong heat-treated stainless steel frame as their powerful .454 Casull revolvers. Mine is one of only 200 special pre production models and I ordered it from Wayne Baker, President of Freedom Arms, when he was on a selling trip at Kim Pisor’s Trigger Hill gun shop in Salinas, California. Wayne had a case of sample guns, including a prototype of the 252 revolver. The tiny .22 caliber holes in the massive cylinder really appealed to me. With tight match chambers and a double firing pin, it is amazingly accurate. AmericanRifleman featured the model 252 on their July 1991 cover and pronounced it one of the most accurate handguns they ever tested.

I am certainly not the only person who likes .22 rim fire large frame revolvers. When Smith and Wesson brought out their famous N frame .357 Magnum in 1935; one of these big revolvers was special ordered and produced in .22 long rifle. Wouldn’t that be one to have?

Though not at big as their N frame revolvers, Smith and Wesson made a fine .22 on the mid size K frame. One of my friends had a K .22 Masterpiece with 6 inch barrel and target sights that I often shot when we were rambling around the deserts when I was a kid. Those early K 22s were fine guns.

Just wipe them off, oil the metal, and store them carefully with any records and accessories that came with them so they will be preserved for future generations to enjoy and to learn from.

One of the more unusual .22 handguns I have owned is an RPM, which was formerly called the Merrill. These pistols are tip down barrel single shots available in many special calibers and are popular with some of the finest silhouette shooters. Jim Rock bought the Merrill Company and changed the name to Rock Pistol Manufacturing. I had read some good things about these pistols and arranged to meet Jim at a silhouette match at the Laguna Seca range in Monterey years ago.  Jim mentioned in our conversation that he had made a small run of experimental 17-4 PH stainless steel frames and had one left. He built me a .22 Long Rifle caliber pistol with 10 inch barrel and Coco bolo wood grips using the stainless steel frame which is a large size normally reserved for big center fire calibers. The bores of RPM .22 rim fire barrels are offset at the breech end to allow the firing pins to work with both center fire and rim fire barrels. 

The famous Colt Model 1911 .45 Automatic pistol, also designed by John M. Browning , was made in .22 Long Rifle caliber too. There were two models: the Ace and the Service Ace. The Ace was a straight blowback type like the Colt Woodsman, but the Service Model Ace had a special floating chamber designed by David “Carbine” Williams that allowed the small .22 rim fire cartridge to produce heavier recoil to simulate the kick of the big 45 auto. The hand file work and inside fitting especially on the prewar civilian models is perfect, as is the finish and old style Colt bluing. By 1947 both the Ace and Service Model Ace were discontinued but Colt produced a small run of the Service Model Ace again in 1978. It had target sights and a full-length integral rib on the slide.  I bought one, but sold it because the workmanship and accuracy did not match their prewar models. Colt also made kits to convert .45 and .38 Super caliber Model 1911 Automatics to .22 LR.

A final suggestion: It is increasingly common now to restore old guns to like new condition, especially Winchesters, Colts, and Parkers.  They can be superficially beautiful but such restored guns are no longer what the factory originally produced and some of their history is lost. Knowledgeable collectors generally reject such guns. Collectors like to see guns in superb condition, but only if they were made that way by the original factory. Some honest wear on an original factory gun is better than an over restored piece. My advice is to avoid the temptation to restore or improve rare old guns. Any polishing or refinishing will ruin their value. Just wipe them off, oil the metal, and store them carefully with any records and accessories that came with them so they will be preserved for future generations to enjoy and to learn from.

There are many other excellent makes of heavy precision arms chambered for .22 rim fire: Korth, Anschutz, Hammerli, Walther, Finnish Lion, Haenel, Buchel, Vickers, Maynard, Stevens. I apologize if I have not mentioned your personal favorite.

Some tips to the wise: avoid using copper plated .22 rim fire bullets in fine quality rifles or handguns. They look nice but the copper coating accelerates barrel wear. Stick with high quality lubricated plain lead bullet cartridges. In my fine .22 rim fire guns I do not use high speed or ultra speed cartridges.  Use a good plastic coated cleaning rod and clean from the breech end of the barrel if possible. With proper care your .22 rim fires will last virtually forever.