Regardless of which firearm you shoot most often, the only way to ensure its safe and effective use is through constant practice. Enter three revolvers chambered for .22 Long Rifle: The $359 Taurus Model 94, Smith & Wesson’s 617, $534, and the $280 Sportsman 999 from Harrington & Richardson, now known as H&R 1871, Inc. While the Taurus 94 appears slightly smaller than the company’s medium-sized revolvers, the Smith 617 is a standard sized K-framed revolver with full lug barrel bored to fire 10 rounds of .22 LR instead of .38 Special or .357 Magnum. We’ve lost count of the old hands who first learned to shoot on the break-top H&R, and the other two guns in this test offer an inexpensive way of keeping up those hard-earned skills.
Naturally, a .22 revolver takes the recoil out of the equation but still retains the same lessons of grip, sight alignment, and trigger control, not to mention fun. All of this came to the attention of the GT staff when we were invited to compete for the High Revolver award at a Practical Shooting match to be held in just a few weeks. Between us were an expert revolver shooter, a sometimes revolver shooter and a rank beginner. With such a short time to prepare we elected to compete with revolvers chambered for .38/.357, but we trained heavily with the .22s and their comparatively cheap, cheap, cheap rounds. Thus, by saving the costs of 2,000 centerfire handloads a week, we were able to stave off bankruptcy for another month.
The beauty of a revolver is never having a feeding problem. While there’s hardly a semi-auto alive that won’t choke on one brand of ammo or another, revolvers will reliably fire any cartridge you can stuff into the chamber. That is, until they get dirty. We pounded out round after round as fast as we could until the chambers were dirty enough to build up a cushion of debris that would absorb the shock of the firing pin and cause a misfire. While all revolvers are prone to this malady (especially if you’ve backed off the mainspring in search of a lighter trigger), rimfire wheelguns are more sensitive to dirt than their centerfire big brothers.
In our testing, we tried three different brands of ammunition: Remington’s 36-grain high-velocity jacketed hollowpoint, unabashedly christened the Golden Bullet by its maker, Federal’s Gold Medal UltraMatch, a 40-grain solid, and Winchester’s lead Lubaloy coated 40-grain round. Jacketed or not, you can get any of them to foul your chambers and have a ball doing it. We shot our accuracy tests from a sandbag rest at 25 yards, since Ransom Rest inserts for all the guns weren’t available. Much more fun, however, was standing and shooting double action (plinking) at cans on a berm 65 yards away. With all this data collection under our belts, we were able to form some opinions about what we liked and didn’t like about each wheelgun. Here’s what we found:
H&R 1871’s Sportsman 999
Our recommendation: Conditional Buy. Most inexpensive guns are just not worth buying. That’s not the case here. The Sportsman 999 retails for only $280 and could make an ideal first gun, especially for a youngster. The downside is that compared to the others, the 999 is a little rough.
Skeptical as we were about a break-top revolver that opens by pushing up the rear sight, the Sportsman 999 from H&R 1871, Inc. proved itself worthy of our attention. Listed as gray in color, its finish is a case-hardened look with subtle, well-executed engravings and venting machined into the top strap. The company lets the buyer know that this gun is made totally in the USA, and to our eyes, the metal work appears to be quite good.
Pins and stakes that protrude from the frame have been peened in such a way to give the gun a hand-made look. The two-piece wood grip is highly polished and blended expertly onto the frame. As old-fashioned as this gun is, a trigger stop is provided. A telltale sign of a cheap firearm is rough edges, but even the most squared-off surfaces found on this gun were smooth.
Another sore point on cheap guns is a poorly finished crown, but happily the muzzle on this gun is properly finished and wisely inset with a rounded finish. The sides of the rear sight were lined to provide grip when pushing it up to unlatch the cylinder and barrel portion from the frame. After the assembly is tipped up past the loading point (at a 45-degree angle), the ejector rod begins to protrude and push out the empty shells. They can then be picked out or easily shaken to the ground once the gun is broken in.
The rear sight is adjustable for windage with a push-pull system controlled by an Allen screw on each side. We are not a big fan of this system, but it stayed put once adjusted. A common flat-blade screw that shims the patridge style front sight up and down controls elevation adjustment. We found this system to be sabotaged by the screw that was too loose to hold a fine adjustment. As a result, we feel the gun’s accuracy was adversely affected, as the accompanying table shows. We later applied LocTite to the screw and achieved somewhat more consistent results.
With this solved, the 999 became a willing plinker. Sight picture is actually quite good. The front sight is undercut to prevent glare and is wide enough to fill the ample rear notch, although some may prefer slightly smaller light bars for fine shooting. The trigger in double action is heavy but consistent, getting a little heavier just before let-off. Single action is also free of take-up or rough staging. While this looks like a gun from a bygone era, ignition is via the hammer hitting a floating firing pin inside the frame instead of a nose-pin style striker connected to the hammer. A transfer bar prevents the hammer from striking the firing pin without pulling the trigger.
Our beginner, who had bravely put in his entry for the upcoming match, was able to practice and learn most of the necessary skills shooting the 999. What was left out was the technique of releasing the cylinder for a speedy reload. For this he had to move on to one of the other revolvers, but the 999 got him up and running on the basic shooting skills. You can have a lot of fun with this gun for not a lot of dollars.
Taurus Model 94
Our recommendation: Conditional Buy. For a little more money than the H&R ($308 for the blued finish, $359 for the stainless model as tested), you can have this more-modern revolver. The sights seem small and even brittle. Otherwise, this is a competent little training gun. Frankly, though, we expected more from it.
We overlaid this gun on a Smith & Wesson K-framed Model 13 and found it was, save for the heavier barrel on the Smith, of the same dimensions. We were surprised by this, but reasoned that it was the slim-line barrel sans even a shroud for the ejector rod that made it look smaller. The Taurus revolvers have a coiled mainspring similar to those found in the J-frame series of Smith & Wesson revolvers. The action on this revolver was quite smooth with little hint of stacking often characteristic of the coiled mainspring. We found the ejector-rod action to be stiff and the cylinder unwilling to spin freely. This resistance has to account for some of the weight of the double-action pull. The Taurus was the first to produce misfires because, in our opinion, the cylinders were not as well polished as the other guns, and this roughness attracted and held more debris.
As with the other guns in this test, ignition is via a floating firing pin with a transfer bar to prevent accidental discharges. The outside of the gun has a high gloss, but ripples in the metal work were evident in the reflections. Ergonomically, the Model 94 presents an excellent orientation, especially for smaller hands. We think the supplied rubber grip was perfectly mated to the frame and provided maximum clearance for ejected rounds. The cylinder latch is the same as those found on all the full-sized Taurus revolvers, but the hammer spur is abbreviated. Located on the hammer is Taurus’s key-operated security system, which effectively prevents the hammer from being pulled back when engaged.
In our estimation, polishing the chambers and the ejector rod would help this gun immeasurably. Although there is not clear evidence it is called for, we’d bet some stoning of the internal parts would also improve this gun. A willing performer despite the aforementioned roughness, the 94 was not as accurate as we hoped.
Perhaps much of the blame should be credited to the supplied sights. The front sight is too narrow and tall to really line up in the rear blade, and the white outline found there is small and superfluous, in our opinion. We did notice, however, that the spindly front sight was bent to the left.
Likewise, the rear sight was also poorly made, in our view. Elevation adjustment is made on top with a single screw that does not click, and the windage adjustment is a push-pull affair with small flat-blade screws. We feel Taurus is cheating both the customer and themselves by providing such a poor sighting system.
Smith & Wesson 617
Our recommendation: Buy it. With the highest MSRP ($534), obviously the quest for a good rimfire trainer is a “get what you pay for” game. Save for some roughness in the double-action trigger that should be easy to correct, S&W didn’t let us down. Any serious revolver shooter should have this gun. Speedloading and recoil control aside, this is the ideal training tool for trigger control and other fundamentals.
The reason the Smith & Wesson product is so much more expensive is it was not built down to the caliber. This is a regular full-size revolver normally chambered for six rounds of .38 Special, .357 Magnum or even five rounds of .44 Special. It features a rugged, no-nonsense lightly polished stainless steel facade, click-adjustable sights for windage and elevation, rounded case-hardened trigger, target hammer, snag-free cylinder latch, full-lug barrel and shrouded full-length ejector rod.
When we first handled the S&W Model 617, we remarked on how much it resembled the com-pany’s other revolvers. Just because it fires the tiny .22 round, Smith & Wesson did not give it short shrift. Despite the 10 little holes in the cylinder, this gun weighs in with the full-sized target models of larger caliber and comes with a full-sized Hogue monogrip with exposed backstrap for more compact grip. Like on the Taurus, the Smith’s slightly abbreviated hammer supplied enough punch to ignite rimfire rounds.
The next notable shooting impression we formed had to do with the relationship of the front sight and rear notch. Of the three guns tested, the 617’s sights allow for the least amount of light between the edges of the front sight and the inside of the rear notch. Also, we saw how low mounted and long this pinned front sight is. Before you bought this gun, you’d need to check these two points and see if they meet your sighting needs.
Although the Smith’s single-action trigger was the heaviest of the three, it was also the smoothest and most efficient, making point-of-aim groups from a rest easy. But, of the three guns, the Smith’s double action was actually the roughest. It suffered from a hitch just before let-off that made plinking a test of patience as well as shooting. We judged that it managed to shoot as well as it did despite this flaw by way of a superior barrel and overall fit. Certainly, Smith & Wesson triggers have proven to be the most rewarding to work on, but we wish it were perfect from the factory. While this could be considered warranty work if you insist, it might be more prudent to have the work done privately to suit your tastes.
Gun Tests Recommends
H&R 1871, Inc. Sportsman 999, $279. This blast from the past holds up pretty well as a first gun. As a training tool it is a capable teacher of sight alignment, trigger control, safe gun handling skills and the mechanics of sighting in a pistol. We believe this is a good buy, especially for youngsters. However, we don’t think its break-open top is the right choice for someone who needs to practice speed loading.
Taurus Model 94, $356. You have to ask yourself: Do I want the Taurus, a budget gun that needs a full set of sights and some refinement at a medium price, or do I want a less expensive gun such as the H&R, even if its operation is old-fashioned and limited by the breaktop design. Then ask yourself, does the Smith .22 revolver warrant the next step up for an additional $200? We bet you’ll want to commit to the low road or the high road, but probably not the middle road. For us, this medium priced gun does not offer enough quality for the money. We’d pass on it, but we recognize many GT readers would be happy with it. Conditional buy.
Smith & Wesson Model 617, $534. This is a stiff price for a 4-inch rimfire (even more for the 6-inch target model), but it allows you to train with it in lieu of more powerful guns (saving money), as well as be competitive in serious games such as bullseye and handgun silhouette. The way we see the pricing, the 617 costs twice as much as the H&R 999, but about the same as the Taurus after the Brazilian gun is brought up to speed. Even if your 617 needed some trigger work like ours did, this is a fine firearm that you’re likely to shoot more than any other gun in your safe over its lifetime.
The serious revolver shooter will be very happy with the Smith & Wesson Model 617, and we recommend that he buy it. But if you’re more casual, then save the dollars and buy the 999.