June 2000

Pocket .22 Long Rifle Semiautos: Fussy, or Functional Firearms?

How deep must you dig for a quality rimfire pistol? We tested the tip-up-barrel Beretta EL22, the venerable Walther PPK/S, and the safety-loaded Phoenix HP22 to find out.

[IMGCAP(1)] When it comes to .22 caliber Long Rifle pistols, you can spend as little or as much as you want. For about $200 retail, there are a number of very good target pistols that provide valuable range time with this economical cartridge. However, if you want to take a .22 with you wherever you go, we found that downsizing the action costs a little more, both in terms of money and functionality.

Within the modern pistol, ammunition is the fuel that runs the gun, and the .22LR round’s tepid power makes for chancy operation, even though it has to move relatively little mass and overcome less slide travel. This alone may account for the higher price of pocket guns that can serve as a last defense at close quarters or, in our view, a challenging firearm with which to sharpen shooting skills. This latter point is no small consideration, we’ve found, because our staff has noticed that since adopting the previously tested Springfield V10 for a long-term test, our shooting skills have improved. Reason: That miniature 1911, the near equivalent of the Officer’s Model, demands perfect technique every time for accurate results. The smaller gun is simply more sensitive to proper trigger control and sight deflection.

In this same vein, we found a test trio of pocket-sized .22s, which can be operated as cheaply as $18 per thousand rounds, to be ideal trainers. Also, we wanted to test the guns’ usefulness as personal protection pieces, but we’ll say upfront that we wouldn’t put them into action as such. Are there some GT readers out there who might? Probably. As last-ditch protection firearms, they’re better than a rock or a bat. But would we stake our kith and kin on them? Absolutely not.

Our test products included the popular Beretta EL22 pistol that features a tip-up barrel, Walther’s rimfire PPK/S, a small-bore replica of the James Bondian .380 (9MM Kurz) pistol, and the Phoenix Arms HP22 Rangemaster, which comes with two barrels, a lockable case, locking safety magazine, and a low price—$116. The Walther at $540 was the most expensive date, followed by the EL22 at $349.

Range Session
In testing the smaller pistols, we tried to set targets at a distance that reflected their intended use. For full-sized handguns, we feel 25 yards is standard and 15 yards a solid compromise for sub-compact models. For these little guns, 7 yards would probably be adequate, and we shot most of our break-in and orientation rounds at this distance. But we elected to list results of five-shot groups at 10 yards instead to really show what these palm-poppers can do. With abundant cheap ammo, we were also able to get in some point-shooting practice as well. This combination of careful bench rest shooting and range show boating told us all we need to know about the ergonomics, trigger response, and mechanical accuracy of these little .22s.

Here’s what we thought of them.

Beretta EL22
Our recommendation: Buy It. Little guns used to be very popular, but they have always been dangerous to one degree or another. Beretta’s $349 cap gun seems to have resolved this problem in an affordable way.

Click here to view the Beretta EL22 features guide

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A lot of people feel that little guns are dangerous because it can be too easy to accidentally pull a trigger, undo a safety, or simply get one’s fingers in front of the muzzle, as we learned shooting a .22 LR derringer (see sidebar). When the average-sized hand straightens the index finger along the frame of the Beretta to assume the correct off-trigger position, the fingertip will most likely fall just short of the muzzle. On the left side the thumb has a choice of contacting the slide safety or the barrel release.

Firing the EL22 double action will work for you if you are belly to belly, but the pull is so heavy you’ll miss out on any accuracy and probably pinch your trigger finger between the trigger and frame as well. We think you can safely carry this pistol cocked and locked because we found the thumb safety to be snag free and held with a strong detent. As far as another safety feature, we found that chamber checking is very easy, just tip up the barrel.

The gun’s capacity is 6+1, but we wish it were more. How much extra size would three more rounds add to the gun’s exterior dimensions? Since the diameter of the .22 round is small, it makes for press loading each round into the magazine harder than say, a .45. This is why so many .22 magazines include a pull-down lug beneath the follower. The Beretta’s lug, however, was rough on the thumbnail.

The mag release is the third control that can be operated by the right-hand thumb, reminding us that the EL22 is primarily designed for being operated and fired with only one hand, albeit the right hand. The trigger guard is generous, but looking at the position of the trigger with the hammer down can be misleading. When cocked, the tip of the trigger sweep rearward is a full 0.6 inch. From there, the shooter feels a slight take up. It was little scratchy at first, but smoothed out on its own after 100 rounds.

Standing and shooting the Beretta, we saw the gun run without a hitch with all types of ammunition. At the bench, firing carefully from a sandbag rest, we encountered malfunctions with all different cartridges that moments before hadn’t given us a moment of concern. It is our opinion that this failure to feed was caused by the change in grip we used on the bench. To get better accuracy results, we simply didn’t hold the gun as tightly during a controlled trigger press. The use of higher velocity ammunition overcame this problem even when we concentrated on firing with a reduced-pressure hold. The bottom line: Such is the lot of smaller guns that have less slide travel and a smaller window of opportunity to pick up rounds from the magazine. Whereas a loose grip cushions the propulsion of the slide and thereby allows some of the energy to move the gun in your hand rather than move the slide on the frame, the more powerful ammo overcame this and forced the slide to move completely to the rear.

However, when the gun ran dry, the slide would not lock back. This may be by design, but we mention it because allowing the hammer to fall on an empty chamber of a rimfire gun usually damages the firing pin. In our opinion, it is too easy for this happen when shooting the EL22.

The sights on the little Beretta are more akin to the revolvers of the old west than today’s pistols. The rear notch machined into the top strap has the profile of the St. Louis Arch, and the front blade is thin, forcing the shooter to place its tip at the apex of this rounded triangle. The front sight is an arc machined into the barrel that has been fashioned to make the EL22 look as though it is of the same design as Beretta’s trademark 92 series. However, this smaller pistol features a fixed barrel that does not unlock as the gun cycles. A number of designers have tried to adapt this design to centerfire cartridges, but so far none have been successful.

The reason they keep trying is accuracy. Firing the Federal Classic 40-grain copper-plated solid bullet, our worst group at 10 yards was just less than 2.1 inches. We did manage a 1.6-inch group with this round, but five-shot groups with the CCI Match brand ammo ranged from 1.2 to 1.4 inches. Also, we shot 1.0-inch groups with Federal’s UM1 Gold Medal rounds. The stainless satin–colored front sight worked for us against the black target, but we’re not sure we’d prefer another color instead. Any way you look at it, though, we feel 1 inch at ten yards is outstanding for a palm-sized pistol. What this gun gives up in power, it strives to make up for in shot placement.

Walther PPK/S
Our recommendation: Conditional Buy. At $540, this gun comes up short in any economics comparison among sub-compacts. But you may have a hard time finding a better machine. Small as it is, the Walther PPK/S feels, operates, and shoots like a centerfire pistol. Thus, we’d recommend you buy this only if you’re a diehard fan of precision, or if you already have a .380 PPK/S that the rimfire gun would augment.

Click here to view the Walther PPK/S features guide

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Reportedly, the importation of Walther PP-series pistols is limited, but we were able to find one at Earl’s Repair Service, a Walther importer and warranty station located in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. The left-side grip makes it amenable to firing with the right hand only. A flat left side panel would enhance two-handed shooting, and we feel this would have improved its performance during the accuracy test. The available safety devices are a decocking lever easily operated by the right-hand thumb.

The double-action trigger is, in our opinion, much too heavy but could easily be adjusted to taste, keeping in mind any concerns about liability. However, even when breaking the first shot double-action, the switch to single-action was smooth enough to maintain accuracy. Firing SA from a rest at 10 yards proved to be no challenge at all for this all-steel pistol. Firing the Federal UM1 Gold Medal round, we had a flyer that left us with a 1.3-inch group. Otherwise, consistency was the word. Groups of CCI Match all measured 0.7 inch; groups of Federal Classic were fixed at 0.9 inch. We also fired various odd lots of ammunition, but respected the advice of the importer and avoided rounds from Remington Arms. Reliability was 100 percent, and, in retrospect, perhaps we should have fed it some Remingtons anyway. We must also add that the Walther pistol produced the highest velocities of our three test guns.

It seems like there is always less to tell about the really good guns, and the PPK/S is a case in point. The grips are checkered plastic, but hold solid with a machined rather than molded feel. The bluing seems to be wearing a little thin on parts of this gun, but that look just adds to the full-size gun impression. The top strap is flattened and cut with wavy lines to allay glare. The rear notch appears to be a little too wide for the top strap, but it is a solid-steel unit that is windage adjustable. A white vertical line is supplied to match, with the white dot in the front sight, and the notch area is relieved to absorb light. We feel this gun could prove to be one of the most durable in your collection. Eventually, its relatively high price tag would be forgotten.

Phoenix Arms HP22 Rangemaster
Our recommendation: Don’t Buy It. Whatever the manufacturer is spending on all the extras should be turned around and put it back into the quality of the product. That just might make this $116 gun a bargain.

Click here to view the Phoenix Arms HP22 Rangemaster features guide

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Phoenix Arms has recently introduced a pistol in package form that in some ways is absolutely ground breaking. Not only does it come with an embroidered logo patch, cleaning tools, and a small bottle of Break-Free, but it comes in a locking case. The lock is located in the center of the case and affords metal to metal contact. The same key that opens the case also operates a solid-metal dummy mag that locks into place. Inside the top of the case is a steel cable with a loop on one end and a capped end that integrates with the dummy mag. Not only is the gun deactivated, but it can be immobilized as well. While the cable can be defeated with a good pair of cutters, the mag lock is a sound idea that would damage the gun if it were forcibly removed.

The Rangemaster also comes with two barrels. It arrived with a 4.9-inch barrel attached and a 2.9-inch barrel neatly fit into the case. This is an impressive package to behold. To fit into our chosen category of “pocket” guns, we switched to the shorter barrel. It wasn’t too hard to change out, but we couldn’t help noticing wear on the parts as we fit the barrel. The recoil spring is not much stronger or more durable than some springs found in retractable pens. The nubby little guide rod began peeling metal from the spring. The short barrel is actually used as a tool to keep the recoil spring from looping during the seating process. The construction of this pistol is a zinc alloy, with steel inserts at points of stress.

The pistol itself has two safety mechanisms, one that reads Safe and Fire, which is easily in reach at the top of the left-side grip panel. Also, there’s a firing-pin block that is located atop the slide that requires the attention of a second hand. Exposing the red dot with this lever means the gun can fire, and the black one means the safety is on. However, both of these dots are the same size and shape, and in most light they are hard to tell apart. Please add more orange to the red paint.

For all this attention to safety, we should point out that this pistol has some built-in designs that we feel are inherently unsafe. For one, changing the barrel requires inserting a magazine. For another it is impossible to simply drop the magazine and check the chamber. The only time you can manually operate the slide is when the mag is inserted and the safety is off. There is a small amount of play that gets you a peek at chamber, but it can be hard to tell if it is loaded or not. Also, this can render the hammer half-cocked, requiring manipulation of the trigger. Of course, you can work with the firing-pin block in the On position, but here are two problems. For one, it is out of the way and difficult to operate. While it can’t be knocked off accidentally, it is bothersome to use, in our view. Also, how do you know it is functioning?

At $116 MSRP, we weren’t expecting too much in the way of accuracy. But at 10 yards, groups ranged from 1.8 to 2.3 inches. For the money, we think this is just fine, and we also thought the ergonomics of the gun were rather good. The trigger was pleasant enough, and the heavily serrated sights were surprisingly easy to pick up. The rear sight is adjustable for windage, but Phoenix asks you to adjust your hold as per the serrations in the front sight to adjust elevation. We found this difficult, as our training wants us to level the sights for each shot.

Capacity is 10+1, thanks to a single-stack magazine that actually loads with a slight stagger. We decided to change to the longer barrel to see if it would improve accuracy, but after firing a couple of shots, the slide locked back, ending the test session. To avoid a slam fire, we activated the firing-pin block and installed a spent shell into the chamber. The problem was later diagnosed as an improperly installed recoil spring, which caused it to partially unwind after just a few shots. It is exceptional to offer an extra barrel with a gun at a low price, but necessary components better be first rate before the average consumer gets ahold of them and plays gunsmith.

Gun Tests Recommends
Beretta EL22, $349. Buy It. Whether the EL22 is actually meant as a defense gun or a fun gun, we recommend only the higher-velocity rounds be used for reliability. Whether you spend $349 for the EL or only $242 for the base model, we feel you will find this is one of the few designs that actually work in a pocket-pistol format.

Walther PPK/S, $540. Conditional Buy. The price is high for a rimfire gun, but you get a big-gun feel in a small package. It produces superb accuracy and makes for an ideal trainer, but its dimensions may make it slightly too big for a true “pocket” gun.

Phoenix Arms HP22 Rangemaster, $116. Don’t Buy It. Simplifying this gun, which we initially found comfortable and reasonably accurate, and putting the money saved toward enhanced durability, would make this gun a bargain. To us, however, it seems that Phoenix Arms went overboard on the extras and forgot about basic reliability.