Plinking .22s: Smith & Wesson, Beretta, and Walther Handguns
Nearly equal on paper, these three rimfire pistols have very different personalities. Which one is the right pick for you?
For many longtime gun owners, memories of their first shots downrange start with the sharp crack of a rimfire pistol. But today, the .22 is looked at as more than a beginner’s gun. Even the most seasoned veteran who owns everything from a custom 1911 to an AR-15 rifle seems to be adding a pistol chambered in .22 Long Rifle (.22LR) to complete his collection. One can spend upwards of four figures for the latest rimfire target edition, but the essentials that make for a good pistol can be found in many products for around $300 or less. Generically, they are called plinkers. According to Webster’s, to plink is to shoot casually. But by the very nature of the cartridge, we have found that even basic rimfire models often perform at levels much higher on the accuracy pyramid than expected, as we found when we tested pistols from Beretta, Smith & Wesson, and Walther. Walther’s P22, $312, looks and handles like the company’s modern polymer P99 centerfire pistol. The Beretta U22 NEOS, $225, mimics Olympic competition models with its grip and balance, and the Smith & Wesson 22A-1, $260, features the same rapid-fire trigger found on the more expensive Model 41. Thus, all three offer inexpensive entry into the action-shooting sports, which now promotes rimfire pistol competition. Are all three winners? Let’s find out.
Walther P22, $312
Even with a 5-inch barrel, the P22 looks petite. Take away approximately 1.6 inches of barrel, and the P22 appears to be a 7/8th scale P99, the polymer-framed DAO centerfire pistol. The .22 LR pistol could be looked at as a training tool for the P99 owner looking to save on ammunition costs.
As such, the P22 has a certain radical charm. The front barrel weight carries a set of scallops that offers the look of a faux compensator. The front sight is interchangeable with two other supplied blades, all of which include a white dot. The rear assembly, which in our view seems like an afterthought perched at the rear of the slide, is windage adjustable only. Changing front sights is the way to change elevation. Tools for changing the sight blade and also backstraps are provided. The roll pin on the grip is very easy to remove. Hammering is not required, and the beating of .22 LRs will not dislodge it. The larger grip adds more palm swell so that hands of most sizes should be accommodated.
Of the three test guns, we found the P22 magazine the easiest to load. A button on the side of the magazine can be used to compress the spring and lower the follower to make loading easier. Unlike on other magazines, some buttons are so jagged or narrow that you need to pick up an empty shell and place it over the button to save your thumbnail. Actually, we were able to load the P22’s magazine just like a centerfire pistol. Barehanded, you hold the mag in your left hand, compress the follower or top round with the left hand thumb, apply additional downward pressure with the rim of the next round to be loaded and slide it underneath the lips of the magazine firmly to rear. Our other two test pistols required use of the button.
The P99 centerfire model is listed as Double Action Only, but the first shot on the P99’s system still requires a slightly longer trigger pull than subsequent shots. The Walther P22 design offers a hinged Traditional Double Action (TDA) trigger, but we found that most shooters will simply keep this gun in single-action mode, making use of the slide-mounted ambidextrous thumb safety. However, we don’t think one should consider cocked-and-locked carry. This is not a carry gun, and for target shooting we feel single action is the only viable option. For those wishing to train for TDA shooting, the gun must be decocked after a round is chambered. This means dropping the hammer without igniting the round. The safety lever does not double as a decocker, so the shooter must lower the hammer manually, depressing the trigger while the internal firing pin safety does its job. However, manually decocking the pistol and firing through a double- to single-action sequence is what makes this model an effective training gun for the owners of TDA centerfire pistols. If such training is the only reason for buying the P22, we suggest the 3.4-inch barreled model. Without its muzzle weight in place, it looks just like a standard compact pistol. (The shorter barrel is interchangeable and available separately). Additional features include a chamber-loaded indicator and a key-operated internal trigger lock.
At the range we fired a variety of ammunition at an 8-inch steel-plate rack to check how fast we could track the sights and break consecutive shots. We found that resetting the trigger between shots was more important than with the Beretta or Smith & Wesson pistols. Adding to lock time was an external mechanical hammer that drives the firing pin. This is yet another variation from the striker-fired centerfire pistols, thus ending any illusion of the P22 being a miniature P99.
For accuracy testing from a bench rest at 25 yards, we chose three different types of ammunition. The result was two out of our three test guns showed a preference for two out of the three test cartridges. Solid-lead match rounds from Remington Eley proved the most consistent, with all groups measuring close enough to 1.2 inches to be indistinguishable to the naked eye. Federal Classic’s copper-plated high-velocity round even helped us deliver one five-shot group measuring less than 1 inch (0.9 inch) for second best overall. But Remington’s 36-grain high-velocity hollow-point cartridge found in the “golden bullet bonus pack” made for the least accurate combination with the P22. Even when taking into consideration our windy test conditions, we feel sure that choosing a solid bullet of either standard or high velocity will make for very good results from the Walther P22 pistol. Overall, the addition of the TDA option is a bonus that did not interfere with the Walther P22’s ability to deliver the type of accuracy we have come to expect from this category of weapon.
Beretta U22 NEOS, $225
The U22 NEOS was introduced at the 2002 SHOT Show. After introducing the very capable $670 Model 87 target gun, Beretta sought to fill in the lower price point with a pistol that would draw attention and sales. Is the NEOS a less expensive copy of the M87? No, the NEOS is another pistol line all its own. It features modular construction, making it possible to switch grip frames and top ends. The frame is listed as being constructed of alloy, but perhaps the use of the word sub-frame is more accurate.
The sub-frame includes the action housing topped with the rails that hold the slide. Effectively a modular gun, it can be broken down to a lower (grip frame including trigger guard), a middle, (which includes the action housing with rails to hold the slide), and a top end consisting of the slide itself and the barrel. In the case of the NEOS, the barrel and sight rail disconnect as one. The NEOS’s grip is polymer, which of course can be formed in any color. We chose black despite the availability of a variety of bright colors.
Does this mean that Beretta NEOS is more show than shoot? Wild colors or not, the grip is patterned after the rakish design of Olympic pistols. Some shooters will find this angle to be too severe or tight at the web of the hand. Directly above the web is a set of ambidextrous safety levers that, when activated, interferes with the comfort of grip. Sometimes just holding the gun deactivated the safety before we were ready. As a target gun we prefer to run the gun dry or remove the magazine and clear the chamber each time. In the field this might not be practical. But this forward grip angle does help offset the NEOS’s muzzle heavy feel. This is a heavy barreled gun with clear, fully adjustable sights blended into a full-length scope rail. The length of this Weaver rail with multiple cuts should allow one to mount a variety of scopes.
The magazine release sits directly above the trigger. The right-hand index finger is the only way to operate the release, making the gun right hand only in this regard. The magazine drops freely, but we found loading the magazine to be tricky. The lips of the magazine proved to be prickly, and coordinating the loading button with the proper angle of the magazine was not as easy as it looks.
Another complaint was the trigger’s gritty feel, and we would have preferred less arc to the trigger face. Our trigger fingers often became aware of the lower one-tenth inch of the trigger. Also, one phenomenon we cannot explain was that the Beretta U22 NEOS was far and away the loudest .22 pistol we’ve ever fired.
Despite these shortcomings, the U22 proved to be the most consistent performer. Each cartridge printed groups within a range of 1.0 to 1.3 inches from this gun. In our June 2002 test of the more expensive Beretta Model 87, groups ranged in size from 0.5 inch to 1.1 inches over a selection of five different rounds. But the one cartridge we shot in both guns, Remington Eley Match Xtra Plus, shot average group sizes of 1.1 inches in both the M87 and the U22 NEOS.
Smith & Wesson 22A-1, $260
The 22A Sport Pistol is Smith & Wesson’s lowest-priced rimfire pistol. The 22A series lists for $260 topped with a 5.5-inch barrel. The stainless 22S costs $312 and up. The 22A Target includes wood grips and an ambidextrous thumb safety. This is a significantly different line than the Competition Model 41, but one feature we found the 22A-1 to have in common with the M41 was cycling speed. This makes it ideal for rimfire events in NRA Action Pistol and ISSA speed shooting.
We felt that the 22A-1 scored high on two of the most important elements of pistol ergonomics — trigger and sights. The trigger pull, only 4 pounds, was the lightest of our test guns and also featured the shortest movement. Elsewhere, the gun’s large rear sight blade was wide and flat, making the rear notch appear to the shooter as a glare-free peep hole. The front sight is a little wider than we’d like for speed, but its narrow light bars did do a good job of defining exact alignment. Overall, the Beretta was the accuracy champ of this test due to its ability to handle a wider variety of ammunition. However, the Smith & Wesson 22A-1 shot the best single group with the Eley Match Xtra Plus, (0.8 inch).
The Smith & Wesson 22A-1 also features a Weaver sight rail, similar to the Beretta NEOS in that an optical or electronic sight can be mounted without removing, or disturbing the adjustment of the supplied iron sights. The 22A-1, like the Walther, also includes a magazine disconnector, meaning that regardless of chamber condition, the gun will not fire without a magazine in place.
The thumb safety worked only from the left side. Its operation led to one complaint with the gun. Its lever was awkward and too heavy to move. In fact, we found it so difficult to use on our test gun that we fear some shooters may choose to remove the magazine to render it safe, thus developing a dangerous habit.
Also, the grip takes getting used to. The angle is pleasant and natural, but its shape feels odd, the result of a palm swell the plastic grips that include rubber inlays.
One unique feature is the magazine release. It consists of a button located in the center of the front strap. One’s initial fear is that the magazine will be ejected accidentally, but this never happened.
Gun Tests Recommends
Walther P22, $312. Buy It. The P22 breaks a lot of rules for rimfire pistol design. It can be shot exclusively in single action or used effectively as a trainer. If you are headed toward buying a full-size TDA gun for self defense, the P22 is a very good and inexpensive first step.
Beretta U22 NEOS, $225. Our Pick. The NEOS is one of the few guns you might buy simply to look at. However, its rakish style may not fit everyone. How it feels in your hand may be a determining factor but give it a try. Our complaints seemed small after tallying up its winning performance.
Smith & Wesson 22A-1, $260. Buy It. The 22A-1’s trigger and sights gave us the most confidence. Narrowly the most accurate, but far and away the fastest shooter of our trio, this pistol got the most votes. But some might find the grip feels odd, and the safety is too difficult to use, in our opinion.