August 2012

22 LR Takedowns: Browning, Ruger, Marlin Go Head to Head

Rugerís new 10/22 Takedown hits a home run. The age-old semi-auto Browning SA-22 walks, and the even older lever-action Marlin 39A design strikes out, our crew of umpires said.

We recently had the pleasure of testing one of the first copies of Ruger’s just-announced new 10/22 Takedown, $389, and as is usual in this magazine, we wanted to test it against other takedown rifles. To that end we organized the simultaneous testing of the age-old but still in production semi-auto Browning SA-22, $700, and the even older lever-action design by Marlin, the 39A, $702. All of these rifles come apart easily for storage or transportation. Other than that feature, the rifles were miles apart in design and also in overall weight. However, considerations of not only weight but also shortness, ease of disassembly, and retained accuracy when reassembled, have major effects on the choices of one or the other of these for boat, off-road, or light-aircraft use. We kept that in mind as we examined each one. We tested with Federal AutoMatch, Eley Match EPS, CCI MiniMag solids, and Winchester Power Point HPs. Here’s what we found.

22 lr rifles

The Ruger, top, got the highest grade we can give. It did it all, with lightness, accuracy, an easy to take apart and put back together clever design, and low overall cost. Its list price is just over half that of the Marlin 39A, center, or the Browning SA-22. All these rifles come apart for ease of cleaning, storage, or transportation, but sometimes new designs like the Rugerís can have it all over the other two rather ancient designs. Ray Ordorica liked the Ruger 10/22 TD so much, he plans to keep it in his Citabria, shown here in some wild country in Idaho. The Ruger makes a perfect, light, easily stored, emergency or fun gun for light aircraft.

Ruger 10-22 TD Model 11100 22 LR, $389
The Ruger came in a square, rather heavy, fitted backpack-style Cordura bag. In the bag was room for a second barrel, and there were outside pouches into which you could fit a 22 pistol, extra magazines for rifle and pistol, extra ammo, ear and eye protection, a picnic lunch, and what-have-you. For applications where space and weight are important, we thought the bag was entirely too much, but it would be mighty handy to keep all the gun stuff in one place on trips where weight is not a problem. The bag offered great protection to the rifle in a disassembled state.

We were most interested, as we suspect most readers are, in the takedown system itself. Was it easy to use, and did it lock the gun tightly? What about keeping the joint tight? Yes to all three questions. This takedown system is clean, bright, well done, and all Ruger. The entire barrel comes out of the action, right to its breech. Forward of that about 2 inches is the locking mechanism. This is formed by the rear of the barrel being machined into a lug, cut so that the barrel has to be turned to permit the lug to enter the beginning of its recess in the stock portion of the locking system. The recess is in the form of a beveled or cammed trough into which the barrel lug fits.

To assemble the rifle, the shooter fits the breech end of the barrel into its hole in the receiver and twists the forend portion axially about 45 degrees out of line. He then shoves the barrel fully rearward against light spring pressure and twists in a clockwise direction. This cams the barrel against a stop, which can be adjusted by hand to take up any slack or wear in the system. As he rotates the barrel into the proper orientation with the stock portion, a spring-loaded pin clicks into a recess, holding the two parts together. Although this looks simple, it’s most likely the result of lots of design and testing work. The fact that Ruger can sell the gun for a very reasonable price is further proof of the dedication that went into this overall design. Now, then, how well does it work?

First, let’s look at the rifle. It’s stainless and aluminum and black plastic. The stock and forend, barrel band, magazine, trigger guard, trigger itself, magazine lever, and a few other parts inside are all plastic. The receiver appears to be aluminum. The barrel and all the takedown joint parts are stainless steel, with a few carbon-steel screws thrown in. On top of the barrel is a folding U-notch rear sight and an unprotected gold-dot front sight. The action was drilled for scope mounting. The stock had coarse checkering that worked well.

We looked for a trap in the butt into which could be stored odds and ends like fishing line and hooks, spare ammo, a small knife, etc., but there was no such trap. We’d bet someone will do an aftermarket job of fitting one before too long, if such has not already been done by lovers of the 10/22.

We used the sight-mount rail provided and mounted a 36X Bausch & Lomb test scope. The first thing we wanted to see was how well the rifle would return to its zero after disassembly. With the rifle sighted in, we fired a 10-shot group. We then fired another 10-shot group, removing the barrel before every shot. The scope was mounted on the receiver, not the barrel, so tight lockup matters. Was it tight enough? We found that if the takedown joint was kept as tight as possible, the sights would return pretty closely to the original sight-in point, though the prudent rifleman would always check. The two group sizes were about the same, about 1.5 inches, but impact moved lower left about 1.5 inches at 50 yards. However, we should note that the change in impact point would not necessarily be consistent.

There were no problems whatsoever with feeding, firing, or ejection. By now, nearly 50 years into this design, Ruger has it down pat. We wanted to try one more thing with the Ruger. Senior Technical Editor Ray Ordorica wanted a rifle to pack in the back of his Citabria airplane, and asked us to see if we could fit an aperture sight on the 10/22 TD. After consultation with the good and extremely helpful folks at Brownells, we acquired a Williams Gun Sight Receiver Sight (WGRS-RU-22, #962-100-022AE, $40) receiver sight and screwed it into the two rear scope-mount holes. We were able to use the existing front-bead sight with the aperture, though the Brownells folks had sent along an XS Sight Systems’ “Stripe” front post, in case the normal front sight could not be used. The Williams aperture sight was fully adjustable for windage and elevation, the adjustments held in place by simple clamp screws. We were able to make groups at 50 yards in the same realm as we had done with the big scope. This, we decided, was the hot setup for the Ruger Takedown. Still, the dismount joint has to be kept as tight as possible to keep the zero if the rifle is taken apart.

Our Team Said: We had no troubles whatsoever with the Ruger 10/22 Takedown. We consider it to be a milestone in the development of that rifle by Sturm, Ruger & Co., and take our hats off to them for this design. With weight of only 4.5 pounds and a package that takes up half the room of other light rifles that don’t come apart, we believe the 10/22 TD will find its way into the storage compartment of many bush aircraft. It seems almost to have been designed with small aircraft in mind. We noted the Ruger owner could pack several extra magazines and keep on shooting much more easily than with the other two rifles, which would have to carry boxes of loose ammo. We think the Takedown is a home run.

Marlin Model 39A 22 LR, $702
Marlin’s lever design has been around for more than a century, in fact since 1897, with several minor changes along the way. Annie Oakley used one. We looked forward to our test of this legend. On opening the box, our first impression, stated clearly by one of our test crew, was, “They sure didn’t spend much time on the stock finish.” In fact, the very good walnut looked to be nearly without any finish, but we found whatever had been put onto the wood does indeed have water-repellent qualities, though it left the pores wide open. At the very least, the wide-open pores will collect dirt and make the rifle look shabby in time. The wood had excellent checkering on it, wrapping the forend completely and with big panels on the pistol grip. Both areas had diamond patterns left uncheckered, which added to the good looks of the rifle. The stock had a curved rubber pad, perfectly fitted, which was a good touch, we thought. It helped keep the rifle from slipping around on the shoulder, or on slippery floors when stood in the corner. There was the Marlin bull’s-eye and also sling-swivel studs.

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We thought the bluing and inletting were excellent. The top of the action was matte finished to cut glare. The front sight was a bead on a hooded ramp. The rear was the common spring-and-step pattern with a folding leaf in a modified buckhorn style. A U-notch was at the bottom of a gradual curve. The left side of the receiver showed some waviness from polishing, though the right side was dead flat. The trigger had the traditional gold plating, and the left side of the barrel had Marlin’s also traditional gold-filled lettering in all caps: “ ORIGINAL GOLDEN-39A” The barrel was Marlin’s Micro-Groove. The tubular magazine handled 26 Shorts, 21 Longs, and 19 Long Rifles. That made us recall the old slogan, load it in the morning and shoot all day.

The rifle was heavy. It weighed just over 7 pounds. We just tested a 308 that weighed 6.3 pounds, and have a 416 Taylor on hand that weighs eight. Perhaps the weight is part of the mystery associated with this design, in that it makes the rifle “steadier” in the hands, as some have said. We found it tends to make the shooter weary to drag this much weight around all day, especially compared to the Ruger 10/22, which weighs only 4.5 pounds. But in the end we didn’t knock this one for its weight.

The rifle felt tight and solid. There was no looseness to any of its parts. The forend was fully bedded to the barrel, a feature that we admire. The rifle also felt good on the shoulder, though most of us didn’t like the iron-sight picture even a little bit. There was always a question where to put the front bead in the huge U-notch.

The rifle comes apart by loosening the captive screw located on the right side of the receiver. Our rifle’s screw had a sticky set of threads, so we had to use some effort to get it all the way out. In time we suspect it would loosen up enough that a quick twist with a quarter-dollar coin would get it apart. With the screw loose and the action closed, a light bump on the left side of the muzzle, or a tap on the left side of the stock, gets the gun apart. Then the bolt must be withdrawn, so you end up with three parts. All these parts are then easily susceptible to dirt, which in the house is not a problem. With the gun apart you can clean the barrel from the breech. Be sure to lock the spring-loaded ejector out of the way first. But in the field, we thought there was way too much of the rifle’s guts exposed. Drop any of its three parts in the dirt and you’re in for a heap of cleaning. We had the devil of a time getting the bolt out the first time, but it wore in from shooting and was then easier to get out.

When we had the rifle apart, we saw there was no finish on the exposed wood inside. While this is not uncommon in today’s firearms-making world, we deplore it because oil from the action will seep into the wood, and discolor and soften it over time. We anointed the dry wood with linseed oil.

The beginning of our troubles was trying to open the magazine tube the first time we tried to load the Marlin. It was stuck, and devilish tight. We nearly resorted to a pair of pliers. Once we had it open and had dropped in a few rounds, it was just as hard to close. After putting up with it for a few loadings, we finally got it to function properly by bristle-brushing the magazine tube inside extensively and vigorously with Hoppe’s No. 9, and then ran a patch down the tube to clear out all the rust and debris that had been in it, and then oiled the steel tube. After these efforts, the little spring cap at the top of the brass follower tube could do its job of locking the brass tube in place, and the whole thing was now easy to use. How this rusted magazine tube got by the inspectors we’ll never know.

We mounted our 36X B&L scope on the rail that came with the rifle. We didn’t need the hammer extension, which was just as well because it was missing its set-screw. Many of our first shots gave us a stuck lever. It took lots of force to pry it open, though that didn’t happen every shot. We first thought it was the rifle just breaking in, but that was not the problem. This problem persisted throughout our testing, and it happened with all four types of LR ammo used in our test. After a great many shots and after several thorough cleanings, the sticky-lever problem continued. We measured the force needed at over 12 pounds to get the lever pried away from the stock.

Something was clearly wrong. We again cleaned the rifle thoroughly and tried it with Shorts, and they all worked properly. We thought the problem was over, but as soon as we put in some Eley Match ammo, the lever jammed again. We have no idea what was the cause of this. The rifle shot well enough, but that was no thanks to its foul trigger pull. It broke between 7 and 8.5 pounds.

Our Team Said: The “Final Test” below pitted the three takedowns against each other in a loading and practical shooting contest. The Marlin failed badly, in almost every way. It had more episodes of sticky lever, and one instance of the lever failing entirely to close. That was traced to a loose screw on a critical spring, another item that got by quality control. Then the rifle failed to fire several rounds of Eley Match ammo, and we don’t know why. We finally gave up on it. This rifle had so many problems that we probably should have failed it, but we hold open hope that warranty attention will resolve its manifold malfunctions. It worked, sort of, and shot quite well, so it didn’t quite fail. Nothing about the problems were dangerous, as far as we could tell.

Browning SA-22 Grade I 22 LR, $700
This rifle looked like something you’d put on display in your living room. The stock had a glass-like finish, and the bluing was also very shiny, looking like black wax. That’s all good if you like that sort of thing and don’t want to use this rifle for any serious purpose. The faux engraving adds to its “clever toy” image, so far as we are concerned. Still, this little rifle has been around a long while. It was small, light, and when taken down to its two parts was quite compact. Gone are the fitted luggage cases of long ago, however. The rifle came in a cardboard box with Styrofoam lining.

The instructions cautioned us to not use the stock wood to force the gun together, but instead use the action. The rifle went together easily with half a turn of the interrupted thread, though the sharp edges of the threads made it somewhat sticky. The take-up adjustment is simple, though not easy to implement, in the opinions of our testers.

The stock wood was reasonably attractive, and wood of the butt and forend matched. The checkering was only okay. It was done in two panels on the wrist and three on the forend, giving the look and feel of wraparound checkering without the enormous hassle of all that work. On close inspection the lines were overrun and the work was frizzy, as though a dull tool had been used to cut the checkering. It did provide good traction, however.

As far as we could tell, the rifle was all steel except for the butt plate. The front-bead sight was dovetailed directly into the barrel and stuck up a mile with no protection. The folding rear was also dovetailed into the barrel. It had an elevation-adjustable plate with U-notch and white triangle at the center. Windage was by drifting, same as for the other two rifles. The action was not drilled for scope mounting, but the barrel was. Browning offers an extra-cost base ($65) made of aluminum, with two screws to attach it to the back of the barrel once the iron sight had been drifted out of the rifle. This means the scoped rifle will hold its zero when reassembled. But no, you can’t have both iron and ‘scope on the rifle. Also, you’ll have to buy a special set of rings ($53) because the base provided doesn’t seem to fit anything but Browning’s rings. So if you want a scope on your SA-22, figure on spending $118 extra for the dedicated rings and bases.

When the rifle was assembled with the adjusting screw one click short of really tight, the barrel and forend flopped around all over the place. With one more notch of tightness so that you had to use some pressure to get it together, everything out front was nice and snug. Compared to the Ruger system, this one was a distant second for ease of adjustment and getting the tightness just right, we thought. The rifle had a cross-bolt safety in front of the trigger guard.

We shot a few rounds using the iron sights to see how we liked the rifle. Our first and continuing impression was, don’t get your arm under the ejection port or you’ll get hot brass up your sleeve. Other impressions were of a decent trigger and more than adequate accuracy at 50 yards. We came not to like the loading procedure. The tube follower has to be pulled out until it stops, but don’t dare twist it or it’ll fall out. Then rounds are dumped into the port in the right side of the stock. What happens if you dump one in the wrong way? Twist the follower tube and withdraw it, and dump out the offending round. That’s also a good way to unload the rifle, but be sure to clear the chamber, too. If a round gets stuck, even if it’s pointed the right way, we found it difficult to get out. One could stick something into the port.... But wait! There’s no way to hold the port open. We don’t like that, and consider it to be a safety issue. We ended up banging the rifle on its butt until finally the errant round came out. This on a $700 rifle.

Once the magazine is loaded, you must then tickle the bolt with a finger to load the first round. There is no loading indicator. For the most part, this system worked well, feeding and ejecting all the ammo we tried in it. Ejection is forceful, and the empties don’t zing past your face or over your head. However, empties out of the Ruger and Marlin didn’t do that either, and they didn’t burn our arm. In case you’re not a rifleman, the correct form for shooting rifles is to have the supporting elbow directly beneath the forend. With short sleeves, this form is not a good idea with the SA-22.

We mounted our 36X B&L on the extra-cost Browning base and proceeded with our accuracy testing. We greatly disliked having to drive out the rear sight to mount a scope. Why not move the iron sight forward? It folds, and can easily be moved toward the muzzle 2 inches where it would be out of the way of the base. The screws that came with the base had to be forced through the base holes. The fit was too snug. We disliked the aluminum base and would have preferred steel.

Accuracy was fairly good, with sub-inch groups from all four ammos. The Browning was the only rifle to do that. Function was perfect except for one round that stuck. The stuck round also resulted in a huge gouge in our finger as we tried to clear the gun safely. That didn’t endear the SA-22 to us. The trigger pull was decent, though a touch heavy at 4.9 pounds. A smaller and very light scope would be a good thing to put on this rifle, we thought, and then you wouldn’t worry about the front sight when it gets bent. But a scope would stick out the back and make a longer, bulkier package. We saw no easy way to install an aperture sight.

Our Team Said: We came to dislike this rifle nearly as much as the Marlin, except for the malfunctions. One stuck round put us off the design because we had the devil of a time clearing it. We know the SA-22 has many fans, but we’re not among them. Chief among our complaints is the downward ejection, followed by no way to hold the bolt open. Follow that up with the need to remove the rear sight to mount the very expensive base and rings, and our displeasure mounts. We were not entirely happy with the takedown, but that ought to slick up with some use. The rifle had fine accuracy and a mighty comfortable feel offhand. The big smooth stock was comfortable on the face, and the forend was fat enough to fill the forward hand nicely.

Final Test
An oncoming thunderstorm provided a grand background and a real sense of urgency to our final test of the three rifles using their iron sights. Could we get the job done and escape before the rains hit us? The task was to load each magazine of the three rifles with 10 rounds of CCI Mini-Mags and hit five small cans set up at 20 yards, and then put a few rounds into a bull’s-eye target to see how close to center we could get. The winds got fierce as our flying fingers tried to jam 10 rounds into each of the different types of magazines. The Ruger’s little rotary box loaded easiest, and next up, and almost as easy, was the Browning. The Marlin gave us fits getting the magazine tube turned and withdrawn, and then we dropped and lost a few rounds trying to hit the small loading port.

We began our shooting with the Ruger, fitted with the Williams aperture rear sight. The Ruger was the lightest rifle and thus hardest to hold steady in the high winds. From 20 yards we made good hits on the cans, missing only one. We then put two shots into the 10-ring, which on that target was the size of a quarter. Next we shot the Browning. Its trigger was a shade better than the Ruger’s, but its iron sights were hard to see against the dark dirt next to the cans. Still, we hit most of them, but failed to get anywhere near the center of the target as we took all our hurried shots.

Finally, it was the Marlin’s turn. We had just cleaned it and fired it with ten 22 Shorts to see if that would free up the balky lever. It apparently had, so we began shooting. Squeeze... will the trigger ever break? Ah, there it went, and we hit a can. Work the lever for the next shot... Work the lever! But it’s stuck and won’t move. It took two hands to free it, and then we missed the second shot. This time the lever worked, and we shot our cans, but several more shots gave us a stuck lever. We turned to the paper target and levered in the eighth shot, or rather tried to. The empty had zinged out, but the lever was stuck wide open.

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

Ruger 10-22 TD Model 11100 22 LR

Marlin Model 39A 22 LR

Browning SA-22 Grade I 22 LR

Gun Tests Report Card Summary

GUN TESTS VALUE GUIDE: 22 LR SEMI-AUTOS