February 2001

High-Quality Rimfire Sporters: T/C’s New Autoloader A Best Buy

The $335 Thompson/Center 22 Classic is accurate, lightweight, and good looking—and much more affordable than the $950 Kimber Classic and $874 Sako Finnfire bolt guns.

[IMGCAP(1)] A man-size .22 rimfire rifle has large appeal to riflemen all over the world. Such rifles are commonly considered understudies to similar centerfire rifles made by the same makers. However, many, if not most of them, are heavier than need be for the caliber.

Pride of ownership plays an important part of serious .22 LR rifle ownership, as does tack-driving accuracy—if it exists. We’re talking here about nice wood, smooth actions, good looks, excellent fitting, and the like. How much does this cost in today’s world? That’s hard to say, for what pleases one shooter will not satisfy the next one.

We acquired two relatively high-dollar .22 bolt-action sporters, a Kimber Classic, $950, and a Sako Model P94S Finnfire, $874. We also took a look at one of the newest .22 rifles on the market, an autoloader by Thompson/Center, called the 22 Classic, which retails for around $335. The T/C was an unknown quantity, but both the Kimber and Sako had reputations to match their good looks.

On its face, a matchup of production bolt actions and an autoloader would seem to be apples and oranges, except for one major factor. Traditionally, bolt-action rimfires have been segregated from autoloaders because the bolts substantially outshot self-loading mechanisms. That accuracy performance window has been tightened considerably over the last decade, as work on the Ruger 10/22 action has proven match-chambered semiautomatics can shoot superbly when mated with top-flight barrels. Thus, the question of which rimfire sporter to buy has been complicated, first because the consumer has to separate products when they have similar actions. Then, he also has to consider if one action mechanism is superior to another. We found the latter question was much more difficult to answer than we’d anticipated.

In this test, all three rifles had walnut stocks, blued steel, detachable magazines, sling swivel studs, and all but the Sako were drilled and tapped for scope bases. The Sako had integral scope-mount grooves formed into its action. Its rings were extra-cost items. The Kimber had scope bases and a spare magazine, but the rings were missing from our sample. Only the T/C had iron sights, though they’re an option for the Sako. Here’s what we found.

Kimber Classic
Our first impression was that today’s Kimber was a far cry from early Kimbers with their amazingly gorgeous wood and high-gloss bluing. Then we found out the Kimber SuperAmerica is still available, with fancier wood and better finish than the Classic, for a price of $1,560. However, the Classic had well-done matte-finish bluing and decent wood, and was a most attractive rifle. It had a thin black rubber buttpad that, while not absolutely needed, gave a protective non-slip surface to the back end of the rifle.

Click here to view the Kimber Classic features guide

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All the metal parts were steel, including the trigger guard, pistol-grip cap, even the entire magazine, follower and all. The bolt was a tiny controlled-feed design, with a “wing” safety similar to that of a Winchester Model 70. The action’s rear tang was likewise a copy of the Model 70 shape, and even the bolt release was similar in general operation, though a different design. The bolt’s extractor was a miniature Mauser-type, external to the bolt. It did a good job of controlling the rounds out of the magazine and into the chamber. If you stopped the bolt half-way home, the round was captured under the extractor. Ejection was by a spring-loaded piece that entered a slot in the head of the bolt, and shells were tossed as near or as far as you’d want, simply by how fast you moved the bolt rearward. This was a professional-looking system that seemed to be well thought out.

The Kimber had a pillar-bedded match barrel and chamber, the latter including the feature that the rifling engraved the bullet as it was seated into the chamber. Bolt lockup was by a lug at the rear of the bolt, which engaged a helical slot in the bottom of the action. Closing the bolt thus cammed the round into the rifling. The trigger was fully adjustable, but we left it alone.

Removal of the bolt required pressing down a tiny protrusion located on the left-rear side of the action. This part was a bit too small for us, and required significant pressure. We’d like to see a larger head to the release, but that might not be possible because of the design. Inserting the bolt was straightforward and required no tricks.

The safety had two positions, not three like the centerfire Model 70 Winchester. All the way forward permitting firing, and all the way back prevented it. The bolt could be cycled with the safety on. The flush-bottom magazine held five rounds. We liked the clean profile it gave the rifle, and the lack of holes for dirt to enter into the works. When the rifle was new we had to poke the magazine out with a finger stuck into the ejection port. However, with a little use, the magazine protruded about a quarter-inch when the release was pressed. It then had to be dragged out against spring pressure, which gave us good control of the magazine.

Kimber offers an insert to permit the rifle to be used easily as a single shot. In that mode, the extractor cams over the chambered round, and the chamber is relieved in front of the extractor to prevent unwanted discharges.

The bolt body was polished white, and the bolt handle and knob were smoothly polished and blued. This permitted fast and smooth handling in rapid-fire work, and won’t show wear as quickly as if it were matte-finished, like the rest of the steel. This rifleman-designed rimfire is essentially a completely new design, incorporating many Olympic-proven concepts that are supposed to enhance durability and accuracy. Quoting from Kimber’s website:

“The new Kimber action is an eccentric design like the [Prewar Mauser] Model 34. The bolt body is not centered in the action, but positioned slightly higher than center allowing two very important design features. First, the firing pin is concentric, centered within the bolt body like a centerfire instead of offset like most rimfires. This allows the firing pin to be made stronger so dry firing will not cause damage. The eccentric action also provides a thicker, more stable receiver bottom for better bedding”

The wood quality was about equal to the Sako’s wood. What we believe was an epoxy finish was smooth and completely filled the grain, but the finish had a milky look that tended to obscure the wood figure. We would have preferred an oil finish. However, the hard and well-applied finish gave good protection to the wood. The four panels of checkering were adequately large, well done and fully functional. The 22-inch barrel was fully free-floated back to the action. The stock also had two sling-swivel studs. Inletting and overall workmanship were excellent.

We would have liked iron sights on the Kimber Classic. Some of us believe rifles, particularly rimfires, ought to be capable of being pulled from the box, cleaned of shipping oil, loaded, and fired without the new owner having to buy or mount any extra stuff. However, we realize many riflemen prefer a completely uncluttered barrel, and will want to mount some sort of scope right off the bat. Although a set of bases were in the box, there were no rings. We suspect someone borrowed them before the rifle arrived. The bases appeared to require a ring with a dovetail lug, which we didn’t have. We mounted our 6X Artemis scope onto a set of Weaver bases.

A plastic-laminated target came with the Kimber, proving it placed five rounds of Federal match ammunition, at 50 yards, into a group that measured 0.342 inch. Could we do as well? It was time to find out.

At the range, we tried Federal Gold Medal Match, CCI Green Tag, and Remington High-Velocity ammunition. The Kimber’s trigger was well adjusted. It broke cleanly at 2.1 pounds with zero overtravel. Our first five shots with Federal Gold Medal Match ammunition zinged into a group that measured 0.45 inch, in spite of cold and snowy weather. Our overall average with that ammo was 0.4 inch, easily validating the laminated group that accompanied the rifle. The Kimber liked both the CCI Green Tag and Remington HV fodder as well, giving 0.9-inch average groups with the common Remington High Velocity ammo, and besting the Sako for overall accuracy.

Click here to view Accuracy and Chronograph Data

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We found it easy to get the magazine in and out of the Kimber even with a heavy glove on. Also, the magazine was easy to load. Rounds went smoothly and easily into the chamber either from the magazine or single-loaded. Single-shot operation was so easy we don’t know why the average owner would need Kimber’s special single-loading device. There were no malfunctions whatsoever. The Kimber’s bolt was much easier to operate than the Sako’s. The light trigger pull made it easy for us to get the rifle to fire.

Sako P94S Finnfire Hunter
A bit more European in overall look, the $874 Sako had a dark, oil-finished walnut stock with not-very-good pore filling on it. However, the nice figure of the wood was shown to good advantage. Oil-finished stocks respond well over time to periodic applications of linseed oil. Although the stock finish will always be relatively soft, minor scratches can be made to disappear with a little care and some linseed oil. An epoxy-finished stock will never change its initial looks, and if it’s scratched, the scratch will be clearly visible.

Click here to view the Sako P94S Finnfire Hunter features guide

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This Sako’s stock had a palm swell for right-handers. The checkering was well done, adequate in size and function, though a bit smaller in area than that of the Kimber. A massive cheekpiece rose into a Monte Carlo shape on the left side of the buttstock. A hard black-plastic buttplate gave some protection to the rear of the stock. There was no pistol-grip cap. Inletting and overall workmanship were very good to excellent.

The 22-inch barrel was semi-gloss blued, and free-floated back to the matte-finished action. The top of the action was grooved for scope mounts, but there were no iron sights. These are apparently an available option, though they may have to be special-ordered. The Sako catalog shows iron sights on this model. The bolt shroud and trigger guard were aluminum alloy. All the other metal parts were steel. The bolt handle and knob were brightly polished, like those of the Kimber. The short, fat bolt body was polished white. The detachable five-shot magazine was all-plastic. Extraction was by a small sprung hook on the right side of the bolt head, and ejection by a long wire spring contained within the action. We discovered the Sako’s rather ordinary extractor would “control” the round out of the plastic magazine and into the chamber, much like that of the Kimber, and would also permit short-stroking and ejecting, if wanted.

The bolt was hard to close. It required a strong push forward, and then downward. The bolt handle swung through only about 60 degrees, and that gave pronounced greater cocking effort than the Kimber’s bolt, which swung through 90 degrees. The Sako’s bolt could be removed by depressing a lever on the right side of the action. It came out and went back in easily with no surprises.

The safety, which blocked the trigger and locked the bolt, was a sliding button at the right rear of the action. A small red cocking indicator stuck out from the bottom of the bolt shroud. The trigger pull was crisp and clean. It broke at 4 pounds, and we’d have liked it at least a pound lighter. It is apparently adjustable downward to about 2 pounds, and that’s the first thing we’d do if we owned this rifle. Also, a single-set trigger is an available option, which may have to be special ordered, like the iron sights. The rifle came with ($50 extra-cost) Sako Tipoff rings, and we used them to mount a 6X Artemis scope.

At the range we discovered it was a real pain to get the empty magazine out of the rifle, particularly with cold fingers. Unless the bolt was closed over the empty magazine, the mag didn’t want to release. With the bolt closed, a small amount of pressure was put on the follower, and then the magazine would spring slightly out of its well so we could—just barely—grasp it. However, the magazine was easy to load, and feed and function were perfect.

The stiff bolt closure and its short throw were not at all shooter-friendly, at least not for deliberate slow-fire over a machine rest. The force needed to operate the bolt caused us to have to reseat the rifle and realign it in our machine rest for each shot. Our bench session proved to us that a much lighter trigger would have helped wring the utmost out of this rifle, though we did well enough with what we had.

The Sako really liked the two brands of target ammunition. Our best five-shot group at 50 yards was with CCI Green Tag ammunition. It measured 0.3 inch. In fact, that ammunition averaged 0.35-inch groups, which round to 0.4-inch groups in our table. We’re sure the 4-pound trigger hampered us in attempting to shoot the Sako to its full potential, but that potential was clearly there. We can’t imagine a more accurate .22 sporter, or the need for more accuracy, unless it would be with hunting ammunition. The Remington high-velocity ammo gave us average groups of 1.2 inches at 50 yards, more than enough for most small-game hunting. A search for the best ammunition would provide the owner with lots of pleasant shooting.

Although we liked the Sako’s outstanding accuracy and oil-finished wood, we didn’t like the feel of the stiff bolt. The stock shape was, to our tester’s fingers, not quite as pleasant as that of the Kimber, though we could certainly live with it. The plastic magazine’s reluctance to release to our cold fingers didn’t endear the rifle to us either, though that could be countered by fastening a small handle onto it. Another option would be to purchase Sako’s 10-round magazine ($47), which would protrude downward far enough to fix the problem. All in all, we though the Kimber Classic was more shootable and user-friendly, though it lists for about $75 more. However, Sako scope rings cost an extra $50.

Thompson/Center 22 Classic
Our first impressions were that this was an outstandingly good-looking and well-made autoloading rifle. The stock was extremely attractive, well finished, and of decent walnut. It didn’t have checkering, but didn’t seem to need it. In fact, checkering might have spoiled the clean lines of this new design. The inletting was outstanding, and so was all the visible workmanship, even the fitting of the hard synthetic butt plate and the T/C-marked pistol grip cap. When we inspected the iron sights, we liked the rifle even more.

Click here to view the Thompson/Center 22 Classic features guide

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The sights had plastic light-gathering inserts, well protected against bumps and dings. The ramp-mounted front sight had a red insert, and the fully adjustable rear had a green insert in the form of a U. The eye thus sees a green dot on each side of the red front dot, and this gave an excellent sight picture against almost any background, as long as there was any overhead light. This would be a handy hunting setup at sundown or sunrise. Without light on the inserts, the sight picture was a round-top post within a U-notched, wide-angle-V rear. The top of the rear sight was slightly curved upward, which didn’t do it any practical good. The iron sights were simple, strong, “illuminated,” and we could shoot the rifle right out of the box.

The wood finish was slightly soft, and apparently an oil-type. The pores were perfectly filled, a lesson for Sako. The shape of the stock at forend and pistol grip gave the rifle a lively and friendly feel, and inspired confidence. The forend and pistol grip were slim and provided a good match for the 5.6-pound weight of the unscoped rifle. The buttstock had a slight humped shape to raise the shooting eye, but no cheekpiece.

The action was a very clean design. There were no pins or screw heads visible anywhere to mar the surface. At the pistol grip, the stock flowed smoothly into the profile of the action, with a slight step at the joint. Both sides of the action had metal removed for lightness. The left side was unbroken except for the serial number, and the right side had only the ejection port and a cutout for the safety lever. Two painted dots were located in the stock under the safety lever, a red one (forward) for fire, and the other green. The front of the action had a contour cut into the steel above the barrel. Similar contours that integrated the overall design were at the sides of the trigger guard, running forward to the magazine well.

The front of the action, where the barrel joined it, had a sharp-cornered bottom that required a right-angle cut into the stock. We would have liked that right-angle cut in the wood to be curved, but that appears to be impossible. It’s the only harsh line on the entire rifle.

The metal finish was an overall semi-gloss blue-black. All the visible metal parts were steel. The staggered-column, five-shot magazine had a plastic base that protruded enough so it could be grasped easily, to control it as it fell free from the rifle. The release was at the front of the trigger guard. It was positive and adequately adult-sized. With the magazine in place the bolt stayed open after the last shot, or when manually cocked by its chrome-plated, hooked, cocking lever. The rifle is designed to be used as a single-shot trainer, so it will fire with the magazine removed. The excellent manual explains this in detail. The manual also details how to strip the rifle for extended cleaning, and how to disassemble the magazine.

A single extractor dragged empties out until they struck a rod ejector. A safety on the right rear of the action was a bit hard to put on when the 22 Classic was new, but this diminished as we worked the safety a few times. Pushing the safety lever forward permitted firing the rifle. Unless care was taken, the safety made noise going off. The chrome-plated trigger’s pull was clean. It broke at 4 pounds, with some overtravel.

The trim lines of the T/C 22 Classic made us eager to shoot it, and we tried it first with the iron sights, just to get a feel for it. We didn’t shoot formal groups, but did find the rifle shot where it looked. The magazine was difficult to load, having a strong follower spring. It held only five shots, something of a surprise.

We used the T/C-provided rings and bases to mount our 6X Artemis, and began with the Federal Match ammunition, as we had with the other two rifles. The first five-shot group measured 0.9 inch at 50 yards, and they got better from there, averaging 0.7 inch. The CCI Green Tag match ammo did as well. The Remington ammunition gave us poor grouping and numerous failures to fire, with average groups of 1.8 inches. That lot of ammunition had been problematic in the past, though it had performed well enough in the two bolt rifles. One of the T/C’s groups that measured 2 inches actually had four shots in 0.7 inch, and we believe with better high-velocity ammunition the T/C would distinguish itself as well as it did with the target fodder.

Feed and function were perfect, as long as the round fired. Dud rounds were easily ejected with a tug on the cocking arm. Operation of the rifle was flawless and easy in the intense cold in which we tested it, which might have been partly the cause for misfires, because we didn’t degrease the firing pin. Several brands of low-cost ammo other than the Remington fired without incident.

Gun Tests Recommends
Thompson/Center 22 Classic, $335. Best Buy. In our testing we gave the new T/C 22 Classic a clean bill of health. The Kimber and Sako were essentially half-inch rifles at 50 yards. The T/C was a 0.75-inch rifle with good ammo. It cost less than half as much as either of the two bolt rifles, and weighed a whole bunch less. It had stock work comparable with them, and a very good trigger pull. It was attractive to most of our shooters’ eyes. The 22 Classic came with excellent iron sights, and also had rings and bases for no cost. If you’re looking for a good, attractive, accurate and brand-new rimfire autoloader, this gun is a bargain.

Kimber Classic, $950. Buy It. We liked this rifle and believe you will too. You may also want the extras, which will cost you additional bucks. Kimber bases run about $40, and extra magazines are about $17.

Sako Model P94S Finnfire, $874. Conditional Buy. The street prices of these rifles would be very close to equal. We thought the Kimber was a better rifle than the Sako Finnfire, although we realize some smallbore enthusiasts will prefer its features to the Kimber’s.

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