Vintage .22 Rimfires: In Certain Cases, They’re Super Gun Values
We tested three now-discontinued bolt-action rifles to see how they compared to current production guns. We found they were more than a match in performance—and likely cost less.
[IMGCAP(1)] Although there are many nice new bolt-action rimfire rifles available today, some shooters prefer the look and feel, and what they perceive to be higher quality, of older rifles. Whether or not yesterday’s rimfires were of higher quality than the newest is a matter of opinion, chance, cost, and experience, and is hence arguable. Surely older rifles more commonly had real walnut stocks, and their bluing was, in some cases, exceptionally well done, even on relatively inexpensive rifles. Today, used rimfires are often bargain-priced. Some, though, are pure collector’s items and are priced accordingly.
We were fortunate to have access to three rimfire, bolt-action, magazine-fed rifles of yesteryear. Two were by Winchester, a Model 69A and a Model 320. The third was a Marlin Model 80. All of them were walnut-stocked, and all had excellent bores. The Winchester 69A was fitted with a period Weaver B4 scope and the other two had very-high-quality aperture sights. All were in near-new condition, though the 69A had been given some serious custom work. All three rifles were marked on their barrels that they took Short, Long, or Long Rifle cartridges. We decided to find out how well they performed, and if they were worth you hunting them out—assuming you can find them, and assuming they’re of comparable quality to our samples.
These variables are the downsides in this test, since we can’t reliably tell you where to find copies of any of these rifles if you decide you have to have one. However, there are some real bargains to be found in the category of used bolt-action rimfire rifles. We suggest you check pawn shops, gun shows, used racks at gun shops, and publications like Gun List or Shotgun News.
What we can tell you in these pages are the strengths and weaknesses of these models as you might expect to find them in the used-gun market today. To our surprise, the vintage guns in this test shot very well, and cost very little relative to what new rimfires run. Thus, in our estimation, they are not only vintage .22s, they are also bargain .22s.
Our recommendation: The Winchester 69 was made from 1935 to 1963 in a variety of options that include the 69A, and in both a Target and Match version. This gun cost only $40 at a pawn shop nearly a quarter-century ago. We doubt you could find one for that amount today, but $100 to $125 wouldn’t be out of the question—and for that money, we’d jump on it.
At the time of its initial purchase, this particular Winchester exhibited target-rifle accuracy, we were told. It could put five shots into 0.33 inch at 50 yards, using its old Weaver B4 scope and RWS Match ammunition. The owner has tested many brands of ammunition in this rifle and has come to prefer CCI Stingers for all purposes.
Our test Winchester 69A was a takedown rifle with five-shot magazine. All three rifles tested here were take-downs, in that one large slotted-head bolt allowed the removal of the action from the stock, resulting in two shorter pieces for easier transportation or storage. The magazine release of the 69A was a prominent button protruding from a hole in the left side of the stock. This was unsightly, but the wood in the hole was rendered black, and that improved the overall look. The all-steel magazine fit well and protruded only slightly, and that helped to give the rifle an attractive profile.
The barrel was 25 inches long. The length of pull was 13.5 inches. The rifle weighed 6.3 pounds, and together these specifications made this rifle thoroughly suited for adults.
The receiver was drilled and tapped on the left rear for a Lyman Model 57A receiver sight, which accompanied the rifle. We chose to test the rifle with the scope because mounting the aperture would have required removing the barrel-mounted rear sight with its step-adjustable U-notch. It was dovetailed into the barrel, and we didn’t want to tamper with it. There was a dovetailed front bead without hood. At the range, we verified the owner’s claim of outstanding accuracy. We fired groups with CCI Stingers, Federal Gold Medal Match, and Winchester Power Point ammunition. We also tried it with Federal .22 Long Hi-Power and with CCI Short hollowpoint ammunition, and it fed everything flawlessly. The Winchester 69A preferred Stingers, giving average groups of 1.0 inch at 50 yards. We were very pleased with this rifle’s handling abilities and performance. It’s easy to see why the owner has such faith in this Winchester, and why he put so much time and effort into making it into a unique custom rifle.
The bolt was finished in what appeared to be chrome plate. The handle was slightly loose, a common condition on the Winchester Model 69 rifle. This looseness doesn’t harm its function. There were two extractors. Ejection was by a fixed block within the action, just behind the magazine. Ejection was positive except for the last round in the magazine, which seemed to come loose from the extractors and lie in the raceway on opening the bolt after the last shot. The bolt was easily removed for cleaning by pulling it rearward, depressing the trigger, and sliding the bolt out. There was a stamped safety lever at the right rear of the action. Forward was the “Fire” position.
The fit of barrel to stock was very good, with no effort to free-float it. The Weaver B4 was mounted in a Weaver Tip-Off base that was securely clamped into milled slots on top of the receiver.
The customizations mentioned before were wide ranging, but not necessarily expensive. The original trigger guard was a bent and curved strip of metal that had the appearance of having been tacked on as an afterthought. The owner inletted the trigger guard into the wood so it appeared to be an integral part of the rifle instead of just stuck on.
The owner had also adding checkering, a trigger job, slight stock reshape, and a new oil finish. The reshaped stock was nicely contoured at the wrist and pistol grip. Original stocks on Winchester Model 69s did not have these flowing lines, and they had no checkering, much less wrap-around. The forend tip had also been reshaped to a contour reminiscent of pre-’64 Model 70s.
Original 69A rifles had trigger pulls that were generally a bit creepy and broke at 3 to 5 pounds, depending on the luck of the draw. The trigger on this gun pull broke cleanly at 1.5 pounds with zero creep and minimal overtravel.
Marlin Model 80-DL
Our recommendation: Our Marlin had a gorgeous piece of walnut of excellent color, grain, and even some fiddle figure in the buttstock. This wood alone would surely cost well over $100 today, but that’s one of the benefits you sometimes get with an older rifle. Depending on condition, it’s likely you can find this model starting at $100.
The Marlin we tested was in near-new condition. This model was made from 1940 to 1965, according to Modern Gun Values, 10th Ed. The 80-DL had a 24-inch barrel with Micro-Groove rifling, and was fitted with a Lyman Model 57 MR aperture sight, similar to the aperture we saw for the Winchester 69A. This sight alone would cost in the neighborhood of $100 today, but according to our reference, it may have been standard on this Marlin. It had fine click adjustments for windage and elevation, and an adjustable sliding dial for elevation indexing.
The barrel was fitted with a bead front sight on a ramp. There was provision for a sight hood, but none was fitted. The original dovetailed-in rear sight had been replaced with a wedge of steel so there would be no interference with the aperture rear. The receiver was grooved for a tip-off scope mount.
The plastic trigger guard was attached with two wood screws. It shielded a narrow trigger that appeared to be chrome plated, as was the entire bolt. The bolt head had a cleverly designed dual extractor, and the empties were ejected by a spring-loaded wire rod protruding forward from the action. This rod kept tension against the bottom of the bolt and prevented bolt rattle. Just over the rear of the chamber was another piece of spring steel that served to guide rounds into the chamber, and also provided downward pressure to the head of the bolt when it was fully closed. These features worked well, and we feel the uniform position of the closed bolt contributed to the excellent accuracy of this rifle.
The detachable magazine held eight rounds. It was tricky to remove and replace, but once inserted it stayed in place. Removal required pinching in a fore-and-aft direction. Feeding was flawless with all ammunition tried except for two failures to feed with .22 Long ammunition. The magazine well was shielded by a steel plate attached to the rifle with two fasteners, a wood screw at the front, and a through-bolt at the rear that also provided the take-down function.
The rifle weighed 6.3 pounds, exactly the same as the Winchester 69A, and its stock had pleasing, adult-dimensioned lines, with a pull of 13.75 inches. Apparently, it had been fitted originally with sling swivels, but these were absent. The finish, however, left wide-open pores throughout. This rifle would benefit greatly from a good oil-type finish, which would bring out even more of the fine wood figure. The forend was deep and narrow, and the pistol grip had a functional shape and feel. The top of the comb was slightly fluted, but the flutes could have been better integrated into the lines. There was a black buttplate that we think was made of hard rubber. It bore the Marlin name proudly on a shield, and was surrounded by checkering. The top of the buttplate was somewhat rounded. The rifle mounted easily and stayed in place well.
The trigger pull of the 80-DL was 3 pounds. It had significant creep, then a crisp letoff with a bit of overtravel. The pull felt harder than it measured because the trigger was only 0.19-inch wide. There was a sliding safety located just behind the bolt handle. Pushing it forward blocked the trigger. It worked well enough. When we first tried it, cocking (lifting) the bolt was a bit rough, though travel was quite smooth. Some lubrication fixed the hard bolt lift. Removing the bolt was accomplished by first removing the aperture slide (by pressing its button and lifting), and then pressing the trigger and withdrawing the bolt.
The barrel was bedded snugly to the stock. There was a significant gap in the wood on each side of the stock just in front of the action. The remainder of the inletting was quite good. Metal polish and bluing were outstanding, with an even, brushed look to all the steel.
At the range, the small aperture permitted us to get the most out of this rifle, and it had a lot to offer. We desperately wanted a creep-free trigger, though. The average of all groups with all ammunition was 1.3 inches at 50 yards. The smallest five-shot group was fired with Federal Gold Medal match ammo, and it measured 0.55 inch. This target ammo averaged 0.8 inch, not at all bad.
Winchester Model 320
Our recommendation: In this comparison, this gun was easily the highest-grade rifle, having a superior polish to the other two rifles, and somewhat nicer appointments throughout. As a result, it also has a higher collector value, and finding a good used one could be tougher and pricier.
This 5.7-pound rifle was the lightest, and had the shortest barrel, at 22 inches. Winchester made this from 1971 to 1974. The trigger guard was a bent piece of curved sheet metal that extended forward to also form the magazine well protection. It was inletted into the wood, rather than simply stuck onto the rifle. The take-down screw to remove the barreled action from the walnut stock was right in front of the magazine well.
The stock had good color and a bit of fiddle figure in the butt. It also had impressed checkering that was too slippery for us, in spite of its good looks. It screamed to be redone by a good checkering person. However, the Winchester 320 has considerable collector value, and it would not do to tinker with the checkering on an otherwise nearly-new and all-original rifle, like our test piece. The stock finish was non-reflective, with pores almost completely filled. The finish, however, was relatively soft and easily marked.
Inletting was outstanding. The stock shape mimicked the Model 70’s Monte Carlo without cheekpiece. The forend was more nearly square in section than that of the M70. The tip was nicely rounded. The pistol grip was slim with good-looking flutes on the top of the buttstock. The buttplate was black plastic. It had serrations to hold it in place on the shoulder, the Winchester name prominent in a shield, and—wonder of wonders—a nicely rounded top to ease mounting. It seems today’s manufacturers have forgotten some of these classic rifle-making basics.
The rifle was fitted with a (costly) Redfield target micrometer-adjust aperture sight, with replaceable-insert globe front. The Redfield sight was tall enough that it looked over the normal step-adjustable rear sight, so it remained in its dovetail in the barrel. The original front bead remained in place under the block that held the globe sight. The Redfield sight extended rearward far enough that the eye could get comfortably close to the aperture. It was possible to remove the bolt without tampering with the sights. Again, it was necessary to press the trigger to remove the bolt.
The Winchester 320’s receiver was grooved for scope mounts, and also was longitudinally grooved in a decorative manner, presumably intended to cut glare. This wasn’t enough to counteract the near-mirror polish of the receiver and barrel. The left side of the receiver held the classic Winchester logo, and the right side held a safety lever that, like that of the 69A, rocked fore and aft. Forward was Off. Instead of the stampings of the other two rifles, this safety lever was nicely machined and knurled. Unfortunately, it was all too easy to put the safety on while operating the bolt handle briskly, unless great caution was used to keep the hand entirely off the stock.
The bolt handle was pear-shaped, hollow, and nicely blued. The forward portion of the bolt was left white. The bolt head had two opposing extractors in a delightful imitation of the Marlin design, but with much more finesse. The bolt moved easily and positively.
The five-shot magazine was easily removed by pressing upward on a serrated button just behind the well. It also replaced easily, by far the easiest of the three rifle magazines to get in and out. Another nice touch, the magazine had a button-detachable floorplate for easy cleaning. The mag was all-steel but for a plastic follower. The magazine protruded down from the rifle enough to mar its otherwise attractive profile.
The trigger pull was outstanding. It broke at 3 pounds with zero creep and zero overtravel. At the range, we found cartridge feed, extraction, and ejection were flawless with all ammunition tried.
Accuracy was also superb with the Model 320. It had the best overall accuracy of the trio, with an average of all groups of just over 0.8 inch. The best group was shot with Federal Gold Medal, with five into 0.5 inch at 50 yards. That target ammo averaged 0.7 inch for all groups.
Gun Tests Recommends
Some shooters find they can shoot a rifle fitted with a good aperture sight very nearly as well as the same rifle scoped. If you find a rimfire rifle fitted with an aperture sight, don’t be too quick to remove it.
Also, be sure to clean the barrel of a .22 you’re considering buying before you test it for accuracy. We’ve had supposedly experienced riflemen tell us that they never clean their .22 LR barrels, and that’s a big mistake. Rimfire rifles need clean bores if you want to get the most out of them.
If you’re in the market for a vintage bolt-action rimfire, any of the three we tested here are well worth considering, always assuming they have a near-perfect bore, since that flaw is next to impossible to fix. How can you determine this? You can get some idea by removing the bolt, pointing the muzzle toward a bright light, and seeing for yourself. If you see noticeable pitting in the bore, pass on it. But there can be other, more subtle problems as well, and if you can arrange for the gun to be looked at by a gunsmith you trust, it’s probably worth $20 of his time to render an opinion on a used gun before you buy it.
If you make the leap, these rimfires can be trainers, understudies to your centerfire rifles, hunting companions, or just fun guns. Also, many a professional stock-maker got his start refinishing old rimfires, and that’s another good use for these older .22s.
Winchester Model 69A, $100 to $300 depending on how good a shape it’s in. Conditional Buy. If you can find a good used Winchester Model 69A with a perfect bore and beat-up exterior, it’s well worth customizing. Expect to pay a premium—$300 or more—for a perfect one, because of increasing collector value. Otherwise, if you’re looking for a knock-around gun, we’d buy one of these in a heartbeat if the price was right.
Marlin Model 80-DL, $100 and up. Conditional Buy. Our test gun was an attractive, durable, and very useful rifle. Its construction and detail work left a bit to be desired, but we felt this rifle was well worth seeking out. We would not expect to find this quality of wood on every Model 80-DL, though. A good scope would be easy to mount, and many would prefer that as a more versatile setup. We liked the Marlin. If you can find a good one for a good price—which would be around $100 today—grab it.
Winchester 320, $175 to $400, depending on its shape. Conditional Buy. This is a much-sought-after item to collectors, particularly one in excellent condition. A serious collector would pay $300 to $400 for a rifle like it, and the Redfield sights would add to the price. If collecting isn’t your gig, then look hard for one in less-than-perfect condition for a fraction of that. Again, it probably won’t have this costly aperture sight, but an appropriate scope would do. In sum, the 320 can be a better gun than many, or most, currently manufactured products. As such, it can be a delightful bargain, and it’s worth looking for it.