Lever-action rimfires are among the industry’s most entertaining products, whether for big kids or little kids. Suitable for small-game use and plinking, they have the capacity of autoloaders if the game is walking a tin can to a backstop, or they have the accuracy to knock a squirrel out of a tree at 50 paces. They’re also easy to carry and accept scopes without fuss.
We recently tested a trio of lever-action rimfires to find out which one shot the best, the smoothest, and handled the fastest. Our products were Ruger’s 96/22, introduced in 1996 (also the last year we tested these products), $350; Browning’s $415 BL-22 Grade I, which lacks the Grade II’s ($471) engraved receiver and checkering; and Marlin’s 39AS, a beefy 6.5-pound lever action that sells for $525 MSRP.
Granted, these guns are not tack-drivers like some of the other .22 LRs we have looked at in the last few months, but they’re not chopped liver either. With most match ammos, we think you can expect these levers to shoot average groups under 1.75 inches at 50 yards. With the right lot, they can even do much better. For example, Fiocchi Super Match averaged 0.79 inch-groups in our winner, the Ruger 96/22.
Overall, we thought our test guns delivered surprisingly good accuracy at short ranges, and they delivered better firepower than bolt guns. Moreover, since they are manually operated, they can feed and eject more reliably than many semiautos, especially those autoloaders that are finicky about magazines and bullet dimensions.
All range accuracy data ([PDFCAP(1)]) was collected at 50 yards using a Ransom Master Rifle rest set on a solid bench. We shot five five-round groups to calculate the accuracy data, and we fired 10-shot strings to calculate chronograph data ([PDFCAP(2)]) on an Oehler 35P. We cleaned the guns with Pro-Shot Lead and Powder Solvent and then fouled them between each load tested. To assess their accuracy across a range of ammo quality, we shot the guns with rimfire lots from PMC Zapper, Fiocchi Super Match, Eley Tenex, Federal’s Gold Metal Ultra Match, Federal Classic, and American Eagle.
Here’s how each product performed in our tests:
Browning BL-22, $415
Our test gun came with a Western-style straight-grain walnut stock with no checkering and a high gloss polyurethane finish. Wood-to-metal fit was excellent on the gun’s two-piece stock.
The Browning’s overall accuracy groups averaged 1.5 inches, second behind Ruger’s 1.1-inch overall group average. The Browning’s best group of 0.94 inch was shot with Fiocchi Super Match. These accuracy levels are good enough to take nearly any small game a hunter would want, we believe. This accuracy, combined with the gun’s short-throw lever, provides enough initial firepower for the Browning to stay with most semiautos. The lever’s quick movement allows the shooter to eject and reload cartridges without dropping the gun off the shoulder then having to realign the gun sights.
Reloads, however, are more of a problem. The tube magazine, which has a 15-round capacity, was easy to load, but it was unquestionably slower than the Ruger. We could execute a mag change on the 96/22 in about 5 seconds. Since rounds must be fed into the Browning’s cut-out slot on the tube, it takes at least 15 and usually 20 seconds to feed rounds into the BL and resume shooting. This is a significant disadvantage, in our view.
Elsewhere on the gun, we noted that all the blued metal was highly polished. The 20-inch barrel’s muzzle OD was 0.530 inch at the crown. Open iron sights, with a sight radius of 15 inches, were included. The rear sight is adjustable for windage and elevation and can be folded down to ease scope installation in the integral grooves on top of the receiver. The slim forend, with its front barrel band, was comfortable to use; however, it lacks checkering on the grip and forend. The Browning BL 22 had a 13.5-inch length of pull and a 0.25-inch-thick black-plastic buttplate. The trigger pull was creepy and heavy at 6+ pounds. To hone the trigger properly, the shooter should enlist the services of a competent gunsmith.
The Marlin and Browning guns will fire .22 Short, Long, and Long Rifle ammo. However, the shooter should use discretion when firing .22 Shorts in these guns. A continuous diet of this ammunition will cause carbon build-up at the end of the Short case, and in worse-case situations they will cause a ring to form in the chamber. This ring will cause extraction problems when Long Rifle ammunition is later fired.
Marlin 39AS, $525
Our Marlin Model 39AS had the highest price of our three test guns. The stock’s Western design has diamond-machine-cut checkering at the forend and pistol grip. The pistol grip is fitted with a black-plastic grip-cap. The walnut stock finish was satin smooth with Marlin’s Mar-Shield finish.
Of the three guns, the Marlin 39AS’s overall accuracy groups averaged 1.65 inches, the worst of the test. Our best group with this gun was 1.10 inches with Federal’s American Eagle.
Like the Browning, the Marlin was slow to load. The magazine tube can accept 19 rounds of .22 LR ammunition, but feeding them into the tube is slow going. Also, the Marlin’s longer lever throw makes this gun harder to operate than the other two guns tested, in our view. The Marlin’s trigger pull wasn’t anything to write home about either; it broke at just over 6 pounds with no creep and couldn’t be adjusted.
Swivel studs were standard as was a 0.5-inch brown-rubber buttpad. The 24-inch-long barrel with a muzzle OD of 0.700 inch at the crown was the largest and longest of the guns tested. Iron sights included a hooded front sight and adjustable, fold-down rear sight. Marlin used a Weaver-style base to fit the flat-topped receiver, which is drilled and tapped. The gun also featured low-gloss blued steel, a hammer-block mechanical safety located at the rear of the receiver, and a take-down screw located just below the safety.
Ruger 96/22, $350
Our Ruger 96/22 rifle had the lowest suggested retail price of our three test guns. The gun’s outward appearance is similar to Ruger’s 10/22 auto, except for the lever. The stock on this gun was American hardwood with a walnut stain, no checkering, and a low-gloss finish. If cosmetics and style are important to you, then you should consider the two guns above instead.
If practicality is your gig, however, then the Ruger comes out on top. The Ruger 96/22’s overall accuracy groups averaged 1.1 inch, with the best group being 0.70 inch with Federal Gold Medal Ultra Match. This accuracy factor, combined with the gun’s short lever throw and 10-round rotary magazine, make it an easy pick over the other guns, in our estimation. It was also the lightest and easiest to carry.
Elsewhere on the gun, the barrel had a low-gloss blued finish with an anodized aluminum receiver and trigger guard. The gun is fitted with iron sights, which have a sight radius of 15 inches. Like on the Browning, the Ruger’s rear sight has windage and elevation adjustments, and the shooter can fold the rear sight down to allow for scope clearance. The muzzle OD was 0.550 inch at the crown, with a slight taper on the 18.5-inch barrel. The trigger pull was crisp at 4.75 to 5 pounds with no creep. The trigger isn’t adjustable. A cross-bolt safety was located on the trigger guard in front of the trigger, and the shooter’s trigger finger operates it easily. The receiver was drilled and tapped to accept Ruger’s tip-off base, but we used a Weaver base and rings. The other two guns tested had exposed hammers, allowing the shooter to see that the gun was cocked. The Ruger, on the other hand, has an internal hammer, so a brass cocking-indicator pin located on the top rear of the receiver shows that the gun is ready to fire.
Gun Tests Recommends
Ruger 96/22, $350. Our Pick. When looking at all of the features of our test guns, but especially accuracy, speed of loading, and price, the Ruger 96/22 wins nearly every important category. It was the lowest-priced rifle, shot the best groups, had a short lever throw, and reloaded the fastest. Its looks are its sole drawback, in our estimation.
Browning BL-22, $415. Conditional Buy. This was a lightweight, nice-handling product that has eye appeal. The Browning BL-22 shot groups nearly as small as the Ruger’s, and its short lever throw reduces shot-to-shot times. But it takes a lot of time to reload the tube-fed magazine.
Marlin 39AS, $525. Don’t Buy. It was heavier, slower to load, slower to cycle, less accurate (with the lots we shot), and more costly than the others.