August 2011

Smith & Wesson Vs. Ruger: 22 LR Wheelguns and Pistols

Smith & Wessonís Model 41 ties Rugerís New Model Single Six Blackhawk Hunter. Rugerís Competition Mark III also had what it takes. The Smith & Wesson 617 was consistent, if not sterling.

The International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Association (IHMSA) recently instituted a new division aimed at attracting more shooters competing at a maximum distance of 100 yards or meters. As explained on the www.IHMSA.org website, the rimfire arm of the Practical Hunter division is open to 22 LR handguns only with open sights, optical, or red-dot scopes. Competitors can shoot from any safe position they choose, including prone. New shooters may use a sandbag or mechanical rest to support the gun.

We decided to review some of the guns that would be a good choice for competing in IHMSA’s Practical Hunter rimfire division. For quick reference we opened up our DVD copy of the Firearms Guide 2011 database ($40 from Firearms Multimedia Guide) and found almost 80 pistols and revolvers that would be eligible to compete, along with their specifications and schematics. Economy was the goal, but we didn’t want to buy the least expensive gun and risk outgrowing its capabilities. We were also split over choosing a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol. So we chose two of each.

22 LR Wheelguns and Pistols

Our team preferred the $1139 Smith & Wesson Model 41 pistol (left) and the $777 Ruger New Model Single Six Hunter. We think the Smith & Wesson was more fun to shoot, but the Ruger single-action revolver was more reliable and undeniably more versatile. It came with a second cylinder chambered for 22 WMR. The upper of the Smith & Wesson carried the fixed barrel and both front and rear sights. It was drilled and tapped for a scope mount. The Ruger revolver came with rings that attached neatly to the cuts in the flat-top barrel. The Smith & Wesson rear sight was micrometer adjustable, and its rear blade did a great job of setting the scene for the undercut front blade. The Ruger rear unit was a grooved V-notch, which would not necessarily be our first choice for target work. Neither would the brass bead front sight. So we think there was more accuracy available even with open sights, let alone mounting a scope. The Smith & Wesson 41 did have one glitch, but was easily fixed with the help of a telephone call to an experienced company gunsmith. These guns tied in our accuracy tests, but the $625 Ruger Competition Mark III and the $829 Smith & Wesson 617 were scored a close second and third. Getting ready for IHMSA Practical Hunter Competition, we shot half-size targets from www.TargetSilhouettes.com

Our revolvers were the Smith & Wesson 617 double-action revolver with single-action capability and Ruger’s New Model Single Six Hunter. The Smith & Wesson was a smallbore version of the L-frame 686 revolver, and the Ruger was the smallbore brother to the New Model Super Blackhawk Hunter single-action revolver. On the pistol side we decided to stay with the same manufacturers. The Smith & Wesson Model 41 has been in production since 1957. The Ruger Mark III Competition is the latest version of the popular pistol that often comes to mind when shooters talk about target shooting.

Since accuracy was the primary concern, our test procedure was simple. Firing from a bench we would shoot the best groups possible. For support we chose the Caldwell Matrix shooting rest with the rifle extension removed. Augmented with sandbags to support the shooter’s head as well as his arms, the only thing moving was the trigger finger. Most full-size pistols are tested from the 25-yard line, but the nearest steel silhouette was going to be 50 yards away. Even with the fine target sights found on each of our handguns, it was our opinion that 50-yard shots would require a scope. All four of our guns came with accommodation for mounting a scope, but with the extraordinary winds that were blowing, we were afraid that conditions might trump even the best optics. Finally, we decided to test from the 25-yard line with the supplied open sights.

The first gun we tested was the New Model Single Six Hunter, and here is why. The Hunter is a convertible model that comes with two cylinders, one for chambering 22 LR and the other for 22 Winchester Magnum Rifle. The WMR bullets are a little bit wider (.222 vs. .224). According to a Ruger representative, the bore would favor the wider magnum rounds, but we should be able to find a number of 22 LR rounds that shoot very well in the Hunter nonetheless. After trying several different rounds of 22 LR in the Ruger revolver, we chose the three most accurate rounds. They were CCI’s new high-velocity AR Tactical rounds, CCI Standard Velocity ammunition, and Lapua Midas Plus. All three were topped with 40-grain roundnosed bullets. Regarding velocity readings, the pistols were fired over the chronograph five times. The revolvers were chronographed according to their full cylinder capacity, six shots from the Ruger and 10 from the Smith & Wesson 617.

Shooting in the wind required us to wait for calm between gusts. Some of our hold periods took minutes, not seconds. Since both revolvers were shot single-action only, we lost time pulling back the hammer and reacquiring the sights between shots. The pistol tests didn’t take as long to complete because during the periods of calm, we were able to put more consecutive shots down range without interruption. This could pay off at a match when trying to beat a time limit. Beyond accuracy, we looked for reliability plus how well each gun lent itself to being shot standing offhand and from other IHMSA-legal shooting positions. Let’s start knocking them down.

Ruger New Model Single-Six Hunter No. 7NR-7H 22LR/22WMR, $777

The Hunter featured all stainless-steel construction with a set of black-laminate Gunfighter style grips. One of the reasons we chose the Hunter was its 7.5-inch barrel with flat-top rib. It had an adjustable V-notch rear sight with vertical white line in the center. The front sight featured a brass bead on the front blade, which was notched into place from the muzzle end. Ruger supplied scope rings ready to fit the integral mount machined into the top rib at no extra cost. The rings were 52mm high and suited for a 1-inch-tube scope. Other height rings are available, as well as rings for 30mm-tube scopes. Not having to modify or remove anything from the gun to mount a scope is a big advantage, in our view. Weaver adaptors are available aftermarket, but the integral mounts offered quick, foolproof alignment.

The New Model Hunter is a very substantial looking handgun. The monolithic top rib and long barrel made it a dead ringer for its centerfire brother, the 44 Magnum New Model Super Blackhawk Hunter. The Super Blackhawk weighs about 7 ounces more, but is only about 0.4 inches longer. This means you could compete in two divisions with nearly identical guns. Actually, since our Single Six Hunter came with an extra cylinder for shooting magnum ammunition, this would make it eligible for IHMSA’s centerfire classes as well.

The Hunter offered side-gate loading that prevented the hammer from being pulled fully rearward but allowed the cylinder to rotate clockwise. Another safety feature was the transfer bar, which only stayed between the hammer and the firing pin when the trigger was pressed. At rest in the down position, the uppermost edge of the hammer face rested on the frame above the firing pin.

The ejector rod worked flawlessly. Supporting the gun with the right hand, we pushed the ejector rod with our left-hand index finger while rotating the cylinder with the base of the palm. Removing the cylinder required pushing inward on the base pin latch from the left side and pulling the base pin forward. Once the pin was clear, we could remove the cylinder by opening the loading gate and pulling it out from the right side of the frame.

Shooting from a rest, we had to take the ejector-rod tab into account, but there was plenty of room beneath the long barrel. The rear sight did not require adjustment from dead center, but we did lower the point of impact by turning down the screw on the tang that was mounted flush with the top strap. As is customary with Ruger revolvers, windage adjustment required a second screwdriver of very small gauge. Point of impact followed the blade, but movement was opposite to the direction in which the adjustment screw was turned. For example, turning the screw right or clockwise moved the blade to the left.

22 LR ammunition

On the line, we overcame gusting winds by waiting for moments of calm. Our patience was rewarded with groups like this one produced by 10 shots of CCI Tactical AR ammunition (right) fired from the Smith & Wesson Model 41. The Ruger Competition Mark III liked the Lapua Midas + rounds (center) almost as much. The Ruger New Model Single Six Hunter single-action revolver preferred the CCI Standard Velocity ammunition (left) overall. The Smith & Wesson 617 liked both the Lapua and the CCI Standard Velocity rounds.

Fired standing offhand, we thought the 45-ounce Hunter felt balanced. With the grip enveloped in both hands we had no trouble keeping the front sight steady. From a prone position, the relatively short grip allowed us to put the base of the hands in solid contact with the ground. This meant the sights were quite low, and it took some care to align our eyes. With a scope in place well above the gun, the sight picture would be much easier to acquire. The 4.5-pound trigger press did not have what we would call take-up, but we did experience a short distance of smooth, grit-free compression. We found the trigger to be consistent and predictable.

If we were concerned about accuracy when firing 22 LR rounds, we shouldn’t have been. From the 25-yard line, we were able to land groups measuring less than an inch across with all three test rounds. This actually exceeded our efforts with the 22 WMR ammunition that we tried. The smallest five-round groups firing the 22 LR ammunition measured 0.5 inch (Lapua), 0.7 inch (CCI Tactical) and 0.4 inch across (CCI Standard) ammunition respectively. According to our Oehler chronograph, the velocity of the most accurate round, CCI Standard Velocity, varied from chamber to chamber as little as 15 fps. Overall average for all groups was a computed 0.66 inches. This made the Hunt≠er the top revolver, and virtually tied with the Smith & Wesson 41 pistol for best accuracy.

Our Team Said: Accuracy was tops and reliability was flawless. Its construction was overbuilt. No moving parts on this gun felt as though they’d wear out or loosen. We liked the trigger and the way the hammer in its down position sealed up like a vault. The ejector system worked smoothly, and the tolerances of the base pin and latch were just about perfect. Integral rings took the headache out of scope alignment.

Smith & Wesson 617 No. 160578 22LR, $829

There are actually two model 617s in the Smith & Wesson catalog. They are both medium or L-frame revolvers with satin-stainless-steel finish, double- and single-action capability, and a full underlug barrel. But No. 160584 fires from a 4-inch barrel. Our test gun featured a 6-inch barrel. In both cases one could mistake these guns for the 686, which is a six- or seven-shot 38 Special/357 Magnum revolver. The cylinders on the 617s were chambered for 10 shots. That’s makes for a lot of fun especially when firing double action.

The rubber Hogue Monogrip with exposed backstrap carried finger grooves and a pebble finish. We noticed that the 617s displayed on the www.Smith-Wesson.com website were fit with a different grip, but we would not complain. The cylinder release was checkered and contoured to make room for the girth of a speedloader. There are no 10-round 22 LR speedloaders currently available, but this gun was faithfully built on a target/combat platform. In fact, our 617 weighed in at just 0.7 ounce less than the 44.9-ounce 6-inch barrel 686 357 Magnum. The 617 carried a full-underlug barrel and a shielded full-length ejector rod. This gun will withstand heavy use. But the 617 was the only gun in the test that did not utilize a recessed crown to protect the lands from impact.

The rear sight was Smith & Wesson’s tried-and-true fully adjustable sight. It has been so successful that it showed up on early custom-made 1911 45s. But what we really liked was the front-sight blade. Fitted by a roll pin atop the stanchion, the patridge-style blade rose above the lined and frosted top strap. Round in the front and undercut by the smallest angle, it cut glare much better than the ramp-style sights that are commonly found on Smith & Wesson revolvers. To mount a scope, remove the rear sight from the top strap. S&W offers a Weaver-style scope mount by Warne Manufacturing on the website for $95. It is available with a matte-blue or stainless finish. Bases and matching rings (1 inch or 30mm) are sold in sets ranging in price from $155 to $170.

The trigger was smooth faced, and the pull weight felt heavier than its measured 12.0 pounds. But it was consistent and without grit or dead zones throughout its movement. Rotation was counter clockwise. The hammer offered a wide, heavily checkered tang. The 4.5-pound single-action trigger action was, in our view, more of a release than a press. The wide arc of the trigger seemed to wrap itself around the index finger. With little or no sensation of movement, squeezing the trigger let the hammer down hard. Since the trigger required so little attention and the grip was thin with pronounced finger grooves, the gun was easy to shoot offhand. Using any type of rest beneath the long underlug was easy, too. Fired in prone, the long thin grip made it more difficult for some of our staff to find a stable platform. But thanks to the popularity of NRA Action Pistol, there are many grips available aftermarket that were designed to elevate and stabilize the Smith & Wesson revolver specifically for shooting from the prone position.

From the bench, our 617 landed sub-1-inch groups with both the Lapua and CCI Standard Velocity ammunition. Average group size computed to about 1 inch. Variation in velocity from chamber to chamber varied about 45 fps on average. The 6-inch barrel produced about 17 fps less than the Ruger revolver on average.

Our Team Said: We’re sure there is more accuracy to be had from this revolver, and since we found the single-action trigger so remarkable in its release, we wouldn’t count this gun out for steel silhouette or bullseye competition. Thanks to its 10-shot capacity, the double-action persona of the 617 made this gun a lot of fun, too. We suspect it has great potential for speed games like Steel Challenge. The 617 also offers lots of economical training in lieu of feeding your centerfire revolver.

Ruger Competition Mark III KMKIII678GCM 22 LR, $625

Ruger calls the finish on this 45-ounce semi-auto with 6.88-inch slabside barrel satin stainless, but it is quite a bit shinier than the satin stainless found on the Smith & Wesson 617. There was plenty of sight radius, and the black front sight was undercut, leaving no chance for glare to blur the sight picture. The only problem of any kind during our test of the Ruger Competition Mark III came when we discovered the front sight was loose. Held by a single flat-edge screw, the sight needed only to be turned down tight. The black rear-sight unit was fully adjustable, and despite being dovetailed into place, it appeared to be perched precariously. That’s because the top of the receiver had a round profile, and the bottom of the sight unit was flat.

Dark cocobolo checkered panels covered the grip. The left-side grip offered a generous thumbrest. The lineage of this pistol runs right through the world of Bullseye shooting, where firing strong hand only is the rule. The angle of the grip was steep. There was a thumb safety in the form of a heavy button on the left side just above the web of the hand. Our testers noted a matching magazine release forward of the grip at the bottom rear edge of the trigger guard. The magazine held 10 rounds, and the polymer base pad with logo rested artfully in what appeared to be the clutches of the frame. Ruger supplied two magazines.

The safety worked easily, we thought, but the magazine release was too well hidden by the thumb rest to be activated by the strong-hand thumb. Not a problem really, since this is a target pistol. The internal cylindrical bolt worked flawlessly, and the bolt ears on the back made it easy to grasp. But our shooters found the bolt stop was difficult to set. The bolt did lock open on an empty magazine, but the stop lever, which consisted of a sheet-metal tongue, sat flush with the top of the grip when closed. We had to use our thumbnail to catch the bolt-stop lever and raise it into position. Releasing the stop was easier.

Ruger added a chamber indicator to the left side of the frame. It sat flush when the gun was empty, and didn’t do too much harm to the profile of this visually impressive handgun. The front strap was left smooth as was the mainspring housing at the rear, except for the mainspring housing latch and related mechanicals, which were machined flush with the grip.

Spoiled as we have become by today’s polymer pistols, takedown of the Ruger semi-auto seemed complicated. These guns have the reputation for running reliably for thousands of rounds, but here is the breakdown procedure. Pull the mainspring housing latch away from the pistol. Use a piece of wire with a loop or a paperclip instead of prying it with something that would mar the finish. Pivot the housing outward and down. Remove the mainspring housing and bolt-stop pin. You may need to tap the bolt stop free with a plastic hammer while pulling down on the housing. Now insert an empty magazine and pull the trigger. (The Ruger Mark III pistols operate with a magazine disconnect). This should free the bolt from the receiver. Remove the magazine. With the mainspring housing, magazine, the bolt and bolt stop pin removed, a forward blow on the rear of the grip frame should free the receiver and barrel. We think keeping the Ruger clean with regular maintenance, such as brushing out the bolt face and chamber mouth, can prolong periods between takedowns.

The drilled and tapped top of the receiver would accept a mount with three mounting holes. It looked as though we would have to remove the rear sight to install the supplied scope mount, but that was not the case. The mount was radiused to match the receiver, and its three holes matched up perfectly for a rigid hold. But about 1.3 inches of the mount was left unsupported hanging over the barrel.

Designed to be fired offhand, the Mark III was a natural for competing from the standing position. But this gun did feel heavier than the revolvers. For prone shooting, we would prefer a set of high or extra-high rings to make sure we could keep our head up when aiming. The bottom of the long, heavy barrel was a natural for shooting from a rest.

At the range, we learned that the trigger had just the slightest bit of movement—not quite enough to qualify as creep—followed by a nice, sharp break. All of our groups shooting the CCI Standard Velocity and AR Tactical ammunition ranged in size from 0.6 inch to about 0.9 inch across. Our smallest group overall measured about 0.5 inch when firing the Lapua Midas ammunition.

Our Team Said: The Mark III was reliable and well thought out. Everything worked, from the safety, to the magazine release, to charging the bolt. Its one gaffe was the front sight loosening, but this is a gun that we’d love to shoot scoped. It even came with a fitted scope mount. Slab sides, cocobolo wood grips with thumb rest and a fantastic finish. Can’t go wrong with the Competition Mark III.

Smith & Wesson Model 41 No. 139512 22LR, $1139

The Model 41 isn’t seen very often. The inexpensive Smith & Wesson 22A is a good pistol in itself, but the 41 was so impressive we could say it was meant for the professional. Under the category "Purpose," the manufacturer lists Collector’s Interest in addition to recreational and competitive shooting. The 41 is also available with a 5.5-inch barrel, but thanks to its "switch-barrel’ design, each button-rifled barrel can be purchased separately and installed.

The trigger was user adjustable for overtravel simply by tightening or retracting the set screw located inside the trigger guard. Visually, the contour of the lined trigger matched the forward inner radius of the trigger guard. Like the Ruger, this is a distinctive-looking pistol but more understated. The blued finish had an old fashioned polish on the carbon-steel frame and slide. The lower and upper contours of the 7-inch barrel were frosted and the top strap was lined. The undercut front sight was machined as one with the barrel. The rear sight was a Bo-Mar style Keng product, makers of Champion Sights. It had a wide rear face that was grooved to reduce glare. It featured micrometer adjustment for windage and elevation. The dovetail seating was unusually stout, in our view. This fit right in with the sturdy, no-nonsense look of this pistol.

Immediately below the rear sight were no less than nine healthy cocking serrations. The wood target grip covered the rear of the frame and was checkered on the sides. Held in place by two screws, it supplied an outward contour that was of equal size on both sides. We found this contour added support to the thumb position and also helped us index the trigger. We think that makes the grip ambidextrous. But the safety, magazine-release, and slide-release levers appeared only on the left side. We found the safety, located directly above the web of the hand, difficult to operate. The safety lever was small, sharp, and stiff. The magazine release had its own little relief at the edge of the grip, but the contour made it difficult to contact. The slide lock/release was easy to use, however. The bottom of the wood grip was flared, and the well recessed. This was meant to assist hold and not serve as any type of magazine guide. This did, however, create a stable surface that we found helpful for prone shooting.

Field-stripping the 41 was easier than the Ruger Mark III pistol. The trigger guard is also the take-down latch. With the magazine out and the chamber clear, you begin by holding the gun upright and pulling down on the trigger guard. According to the manual, after it swings away from the frame, the barrel assembly can be lifted off. But the trick is to pull back the slide to free the barrel. Guns that haven’t been stripped before may need a tap with the palm of the hand on the muzzle end. Holding the slide at the rear serrations, pull the slide all the way back and lift it back end first. Letting it forward will release the slide. Removing the recoil spring rod and recoil spring completes field-stripping.

When you remove the barrel, the entire top strap, including the front and rear sights, go with it. The top strap was also drilled and tapped with four holes for a scope mount. We couldn’t find a scope mount on the Smith-Wesson.com website, but we found one at www.Brownells.com. The LSP S&W 41 scope base costs $32, and there are two models. One mount is for the 7-inch barrel and one for the 5.5-inch barrel. These are black anodized-aluminum Weaver bases with lots of cross hatches.

Held offhand, the gun felt very solid. The grip was neutral so it fit everyone who shot it. Weighing about 42 ounces unloaded, it was not light weight. Steadying the pistol, we almost felt like we were hiding behind the big rear sight. Of the four guns, we agreed that the Model 41 was the most fun to shoot. It had a remarkably crisp trigger. Its recoil was sharp but over so quickly we had to smile. But the fun was interrupted when the magazine began to fall out after every shot. Without a magazine in place the gun would not fire. To find out what was wrong with the retention, we removed the grips. We noticed that the stud that moved into position to lock the magazine in place was making only minimal contact with the notch in the magazine. We were able to complete our tests by placing a small block of wood beneath the magazine and holding it place using duct tape. Later, we spoke with a Smith & Wesson representative who has been working on the Model 41 for more than 30 years. With a light tap on the catch stud itself, we were able to move it enough to increase contact with the notch in the magazine. Problem solved.

Filled with both the CCI Standard Velocity ammunition and the Lapua Midas rounds, the variation in group size was minimal. Range in group size for the Lapua was from 0.7 to 0.9 inch across. The CCI Standards offered large and small groups varying from 0.6 to 0.7 inch. The largest group shooting the CCI AR Tactical rounds measured about 0.8 inch across, but the 41’s smallest group, 0.4 inch, offset that.

Our Team Said: This is an expensive gun, so we were relieved when a knowledgeable service rep helped us with an easy fix. The pistol was accurate, and the trigger broke like glass. If you have never gotten a kick out of shooting rimfires, the Model 41 is for you.

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

RUGER NEW MODEL SINGLE SIX HUNTER KNR-7H 22 LR

Smith & Wesson 617 No. 160578 22 LR

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

RUGER COMPETITION MARK III KMKIII678GC 22 LR

Smith & Wesson Model 41 130512 22 LR

GUN TESTS VALUE GUIDE: 22 PISTOLS

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD SUMMARY