We set out recently to test a set of plinker/target .22 LR handguns, with an eye toward finding a comfortable, shootable, affordable product to pass some range time with. Unexpectedly, we wound up finding three .22 LR pistols that not only achieve the relatively low standard of being decent recreational-shooting diversions, but which also offer the serious shooter good training use that can save money. If you pick up the $219 Browning BuckMark Camper, Smith & Wesson’s Model 22A, $209, or the Ruger Model 22/45, $199, you will easily feel the similarities between these handguns and trademark centerfire names. The grip of the Browning BuckMark Camper renders the unmistakable feel of the venerable Hi-Power pistol. With the 22A, Smith & Wesson has managed to remind us of its Sigma series by sculpting the rimfire gun’s polymer grip in a like manner. Given the feel of Ruger’s Model 22/45, the intent is obvious—to offer an introduction to the 1911 .45 ACP pistol via a like-sized grip and positioning of the controls. The real kicker is the way you can axle the gun in your hand to connect with the magazine release for a fast reload.
But are these echoes of bigger guns enough to interest the serious shooter who may be looking for a rimfire to keep his bullseye edge, or the Practical shooter who wants to test footwork inexpensively, or the self-defense shooter who want to hone his 20-yard accuracy? Yes, in two cases, as the pros and cons detailed below illustrate.
We tested the accuracy of these pistols in a Ransom Rest, but we had trouble using the machine rest with all three pistols. The Ruger settled in the best, but the rest’s master hinge blocked the magazine well. This required the gun to be removed each time we changed mags. The Browning inserts came with steel inlays to brace the slide-release catch lever, mag-release button and spring. But we found out that while in the rest, the Browning suffered malfunctions of failure to feed and premature release of the mag. The Smith & Wesson was hampered by inserts that were not drilled properly for the mounting pattern of the machine, and even after redrilling by Ransom, some deflection in mounting was evident. Still, considering the only alternative was to shoot them by hand from a sandbag or static rest, we doubt we could have improved upon the accuracy data we gathered.
Unquestionably, the most accurate piece in this test was the Ruger, which shot the best five-shot groups with four of the five labels and tied with the Smith using the fifth ammo. It was half an inch or more better than the other two guns with Remington Viper Hyper Velocity 36-grain lead truncated cone rounds (shooting 1.4-inch average groups to the Smith’s 2.1-inch and the Browning’s 2.0-inch groups) and Winchester Super X 40-grain lead roundnose High Velocity bullets (shooting 0.7-inch average groups to the Smith’s and the Browning’s 1.2-inch groups). All the guns shot superbly with Federal’s Gold Medal UltraMatch 40-grain lead roundnose bullets, but the Ruger (0.7 inch) still edged the Smith (0.8 inch) and the Camper (0.9 inch). With the PMC ScoreMaster 40-grain lead roundnoses, the accuracy margin between the Ruger and the Smith was the same as with the Federal round (0.9 inch for the 22/45 and 1.0 inch for the M22A), followed by the Browning (1.6 inches). The Smith tied the Ruger in group size with CCI Pistol Match 46-grain lead roundnose bullets, both at 1.1 inches, followed closely by the Browning at 1.2 inches.
In addition to the accuracy data, we also found operational differences that we think make the 22/45 the best gun in this test:
Our recommendation: Buy it. Cheaper and more accurate than the other guns, it also duplicates the feel of a 1911. Also, its trigger feel is classic Bullseye, making it the perfect cheap date for your centerfire 45.
The $199 pistol that surrounds the silver-colored, hinged trigger is unmistakably Ruger in appearance and function. The barrel is a heavy bull design backed by the distinctive butterfly-shaped grip (Ruger refers to them as “bolt ears”) with which to pull back the breech bolt. The bolt-stop pin is just in front of the ears and requires the adjustable rear sight to be moved forward. This makes for the shortest sight radius of the three, but that was of no consequence, we found. The grip frame is polymer and very much like the one found on the company’s larger centerfire models of “P” and “K” designation that handle cartridges ranging from 9mm to .45 ACP.
The model designation 22/45 is derived from what we think is a successful attempt to emulate the tactile experience of shooting a 1911-design pistol. The 1911 is predominant in at least two different shooting disciplines, Bullseye and Practical Shooting or, IPSC. Towards which game does the Ruger lean as a training piece? Despite the rapidity with which the mag can be dumped and reloaded, it is the trigger that tells the tale. Indeed, the hinged trigger offers a free-swinging take-up and meets a solid wall of resistance with only the slightest hint of creep. This is a textbook setup for a Bullseye gun. An IPSC trigger would feature a short take-up, perhaps a small intermediate compression and crisp let-off. The idea here is to make the 22/45 a rimfire battery-mate to the 1911 used in the centerfire portion of a Bullseye match. After the shot breaks on the Ruger, it is necessary to release the trigger completely by moving the finger forward until it is off the face of the trigger completely.
As we mentioned above, the Ruger proved to be the most accurate gun overall, and it also performed without a single malfunction.
Smith & Wesson Model 22A
Our recommendation: Buy this $209 product if you like to shoot fast. Bonus: A built-in scope mount.
When the 22A first appeared on the market in 1998, it came with a beautiful wood-grain target grip. However, this grip proved too cumbersome for all but the largest and meatiest of hands. In 1999 the grip that adorns the 22A is a two-piece polymer affair that includes a beavertail profile and sports an opening on the front strap through which the mag release is operated. Looking at the 22A, it’s easy to take pleasure in the heavy flat top-strap that not only integrates an adjustable sight but reminds one of the Bo-Mar PPC sight rib. This rib also doubles as a scope mount, making the already frugal price tag seem even smaller. The 22A comes with two mags and a key-operated lock that covers the trigger guard.
Initially, the grip may be a “love it or hate it” affair, but stay tuned. While accuracy tests revealed some weaknesses from a machine rest, the excellent sights and eager trigger allowed us to hit the steel silhouettes on our test range just as much, if not more often, than the others. All three guns have a hinged trigger, but the Smith’s trigger was the most willing to reset. Whereas rapid fire in a Bullseye match is actually a slow (but continuous) endeavor, the 22A is capable of cycling like many custom guns built for genuine speed-shooting events.
Most shooters reported the grip generated a gap in some part of their hold. Normally, an unfilled hand reduces recoil control, but with the heavy top rib and the low recoil nature of the .22 LR round, it becomes a minor issue. Since the grip is polymer, we felt it might be possible to reduce or recontour it to an individual hand, but its walls are too thin. Actually, the grips offer a measure of squeezability for comfort, which brought with it a concern that the mag release mounted on the front strap would could be activated accidentally. We took turns applying death-grip holds on the grip, but couldn’t activate the release in this manner. Otherwise, we saw no operational malfunctions throughout the test.
Browning BuckMark Camper
Our recommendation. Don’t buy. Even though the weakest sister of the trio was a pretty good shooter, we found the finish to be substandard. Also, relying on the grip panels to retain small parts caused an unnecessary nuisance.
We’ve come to expect a lot from Browning, but we feel in the $219.87 BuckMark Camper we’ve been let down. During our get-acquainted firing sessions, we were greeted by a dull click when we pulled the trigger. By the sound it seemed to us a round had failed to chamber. But when we racked the slide again a loaded round of perfectly normal appearance was ejected. No cause for the malfunction was apparent. This continued during our testing, leading to a malfunction rate of 3 percent.
Also, we conducted part of the test by shooting off a wooden bench that had been softened by a recent rainfall. We were disappointed to find that incidental contact with the bench wore the finish on each side of the barrel. This is a real shame because this pistol is certainly no ugly duckling, with a gold-accented trigger and sweeping lines commanded by the grip panels that make the Browning the most pleasant to hold.
The BuckMark Camper shoots pleasingly enough between malfunctions, but when we removed the rubber grips to inspect its innards, parts fell away from the gun. These included the mag catch and spring and the slide release. At this point we backed away from breaking the gun down to clean it for fear of spring-loaded snakes bursting forth from it. Maybe we’re overreacting, but who needs the possibility of losing parts that could prove frustrating and embarrassing to order separately? The BuckMark Camper came with one mag and a key-operated cable lock that is intended to be threaded through the muzzle and out the ejection port to render the gun inoperative.
Gun Tests Recommends
While the Ruger 22/45 comes closest to being the perfect .22 in this category of rimfire pistols under $225, we still wish that what we consider to be the best attributes of each gun could be combined into one pistol. Perhaps we’d call it the Browning 22A/45, or the Ruger & Wesson BuckMark. If we could load all three into a cauldron of boiling oil and pull out only one, we’d like a pistol with the Ruger’s barrel, but the Smith’s top strap/scope mount combination. We’d ask for the Ruger’s undercut patridge front sight but go with S&W’s wide, wall-like rear blade, even if we had to make the notch a little wider. Then we’d mix in the Browning’s Hi-Power-like grip and breech slide serrations. Maybe we could take the Browning’s slide safety and ride it like an IPSC gun, but the nifty mag-release button on the 22/45 is too much fun to leave out. For anything but Bullseye we’d favor the S&W’s Speedy Gonzalez trigger. Last, we liked the reduced glare of the Smith & Wesson’s matte-black finish. Alas, none of the three has all the elements we’d like to see, but we do like two of the guns well enough to buy them:
Ruger 22/45, $199. If accuracy like the 22/45 showed isn’t proof enough, you need to reexamine your motives. Buy it.
S&W 22A, $209. The trigger makes it a lot of fun to shoot, and making use of the built-in scope mount should make it deadly. While the grip is not for everybody, the gun’s overall appearance is handsome, in our view. Buy it.
Browning BuckMark Camper, $219. Pass. Don’t be seduced by the gold trigger or outstanding grip. This gun was finicky about what it shot well and showed careless interior design and manufacturing flaws, in our opinion.