Shortly before the Christmas holiday, members of our staff were contemplating a return to North Dakota for a prairie dog hunt. One of our concerns, however, was the cost of ammunition. The last time we traveled to the Bismarck-Mandan area, (discoverbismarckmandan.com), game was so plentiful we expended a huge amount of ammunition. Our .204 Ruger bolt-action rifles proved to be an excellent choice, but if we were going to make the trip again, we had to find a way to cut costs. We considered a change to rimfire rifles. Our first impulse was to load up on 17 HMR ammunition. But after checking prices and availability, we decided on a more traditional round that was cheaper and easier to find, 22 Winchester Magnum Rifle, or 22 WMR.
Its been a long time since we tested varmint rifles chambered for 22 WMR, so we rounded up a representative trio. The three rifles we chose were the $729 Browning T-Bolt Target/Varmint No. 025176204, the $527 CZ 452 Varmint No. 02041, and the $812 Ruger K77/22-VMBZ Target Grey Magnum Varmint Rifle. Each rifle offered at least one substantive feature that distinguished it from the others. Our tests would determine if one gun was superior to the others or simply more suitable for one individual or another.
Our ammunition costs ran from $8.99 per 50-round box of Winchester 40-grain JHP from Walmart to $11.95 per 50 rounds of 50-grain Federal Game-Shok hollowpoints purchased at our test site, American Shooting Centers in Houston. The Winchester rounds were tipped with exposed lead, and we think they probably should be listed as semi-jacketed hollow points. We also shot some $9.99 CCI 40-grain Maxi-Mag JHP rounds that we found at Academy Sports and Outdoors. We could have purchased more exotic rounds, but we decided to stay within a price range that was more typical of readily available 22 WMR ammunition.
None of the guns came with sights, so we mounted a Burris Timberline 4.5X-14X scope on each rifle. This was the same scope we used in our test of .204 Ruger bolt-action rifles in the September 2008 issue. The Burris Timberline No. 201344 featured a Ballistic Plex reticle and adjustable parallax. This allowed us to adjust clarity at two points. The ring on the bell of the objective was marked with distance calibrations from 7 yards to infinity. The rear lens or eyepiece could also be rotated to adjust focus. Our test distance was 100 yards, and each gun was tested with the scope adjusted to 14-power. The fore end of each rifle was mounted on a Ransom rifle rest. The rear of the gun was controlled by the shooter with the aid of a beanie bag beneath the stock. The Browning T-Bolt and the Ruger Magnum Varmint rifles were tested under similar weather conditions. On each of these days our Kestral 4000 NV Weather Tracker (sinclairintl.com), registered high humidity (about 88%) and occasional gusts of wind ranging from 5-8 mph breaking diagonally from left to right. The only real detriment was the relatively dim light provided by overcast skies. Squeezed by coming rains, our day for testing the CZ rifle proved to be more challenging. We had to wait out long periods of gusting winds ranging from 14 to 21mph. These gusts interfered at full value blowing from right to left. But there were intervals where the wind blew almost straight down range and remained steady at about 8 mph. We decided to continue our tests while reading the Kestral for windows of opportunity. The wind meter was placed so that our shooter could read it with his face resting on the stock. Each time the wind meter read below 10 mph, our tester took aim and fired. Lets find out more about the operation of each rifle and how they performed.
Browning T-Bolt Target/Varmint
No. 025176204 22 WMR, $729
The Browning T-Bolt is not a new design, but were willing to bet most readers have never shot one. The T-Bolt design offers a straight-pull bolt, which is not unique, but it is uncommon. The first clue to its operation was the lack of relief on the side of the stock that typically shelters the bolt when in its lock position. The bolt handle on our Browning jutted out nearly 90 degrees. This prompted us to remove the bolt before sandwiching the rifle in between the foam pads of our rifle case. To remove the bolt we first slid the thumb-operated top tang safety rearward to the on position. Next, we pulled on the bolt so that it unlocked and pivoted outward. Pressing on the chrome-colored release located directly beneath the rear of the bolt freed it from the action.
What was the advantage of the straight-pull bolt? In a word, speed. We found it possible to rock and roll through the capacity of its 10-round rotary magazine faster than most cowboy action devotees can work a lever-action rifle. The Browning T-Bolt was fun to shoot.
The Target/Varmint we tested was one of eight different T-Bolt models-four right-handed, four left-handed. Prices for 22 WMR T-Bolts ranged from $709 for a Sporter with composite stock to $739 for a left-handed version of the same Target Varmint model we tested. T-Bolts that come with composite stocks include a storage compartment behind the butt plate suitable for carrying an extra magazine. Thats a handy feature we would have liked on our rifle but given the choice we couldnt resist the walnut Monte Carlo stock with cut checkering. T-Bolts with wood stocks are seamlessly fit with a plastic butt plate of classic design. T-Bolts are offered in three rimfire calibers, 22 LR, 22 WMR, and 17 HMR. Since none of these rounds generates harsh recoil, we saw little need for a more shock absorbent pad. But at times we wished for a buttpad that was less slippery. This would have helped us keep the rifle steady while working the bolt.
Each model T-Bolt is shipped with a 22-inch barrel. Naturally the Target/Varmint models weigh more due to their full profile heavy target barrels. Additional features include a free-float barrel and recessed crown. The trigger was adjustable, but we left it at the factory set resistance of 5 pounds. We could have made it lighter, but we dont think we could have made it more precise. Browning refers to this trigger as its “Three Lever” design. But the only lever we were aware of was the gold-colored one beneath our index finger. There was virtually no hint of movement, negative or otherwise before let off.
The top of the receiver was drilled and tapped for a scope mount. Scope mounts for the Browning were pretty easy to find in stores and catalogs. We foraged through our spare parts box and found a two-piece mount by Warne that fit. Adding low mount 1-inch utility rings by B-Square we mounted our scope and it was off to the range. Setting up at the bench we began loading the Browning Double Helix magazine. This magazine consisted of two spools one above the other inside a translucent plastic chamber. One end of the magazine was metal. The upper spool was smaller in diameter than the lower one and could be rotated manually by way of a knurled wheel available from the right side. We found that rounds entered the magazine easily enough, but loading could be aided by spinning the wheel. If we did flub pressing a round into the magazine, the wheel made it easy to remove it and begin again. We liked the way the magazine popped into the receiver and how easy it was to remove via the release lever located ahead of the magazine well. In our opinion the magazine was secure and there was no danger of it being ejected accidentally. Once seated, the magazine was flush with the stock. This could be helpful when improvising a method of supporting the rifle.
There are a variety of 22 WMR rounds available, but we think our three choices were representative. The most accurate performer in the Browning T-Bolt was the CCI Maxi-Mag 40-grain JHP rounds. We landed groups that printed consistently in patterns ranging in size between 0.9 and 1.2 inches across. The power of these rounds computed to an average of 337 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. This was substantially more energy than was produced by any of the three 17 HMR rifles we tested for our October 2004 issue. The highest average muzzle energy recorded by the 17 HMR ammunition was about 276 ft.-lbs. when fired from rifles that were fit with barrels comparable in length to our 22 WMR rifles. Accuracy and power from the 40-grain Winchester hollowpoints ranked not far behind results from shooting the CCI ammunition. The 50-grain Federal Game-Shok rounds moved substantially slower, about 1450 fps on average, and produced a calculated 234 ft.-lbs. of energy. We shot groups measuring about 1.4 inches across with the Federal ammunition.
The overall feel of the Browning T-Bolt was a lightweight rifle with distinct muzzle-heavy bias. The Sporter models with lighter barrels would probably be ideal for those who prefer portability over other concerns. But with the heavy barrel in place, this is a handsome rifle that should take well to high-volume fast-action shooting.
Ruger K77/22-VMBZ Target Grey Magnum
Varmint Rifle 22 WMR, $812
Rugers Target Grey Magnum Varmint Rifle offered a big gun feel, and well it should. Our Ruger rifle was 3 inches longer than the Browning T-Bolt and about 4 inches longer than the CZ. The gray metal color of our Ruger rifle may not stand alone as exceptional, but against the darkened grain and checkered inlays the overall look was striking. The lines of the stock were graceful flowing into the taper of its 24-inch barrel. The visual effect was to offer the profile of a Sporter rather than a Varmint rifle. But this would be misleading. If we were to cut about two to 3 inches off of the Rugers barrel so that it was the same length as the CZ or Browning rifles, the diameter of the barrels at the muzzle would be nearly the same. So despite the tapered look of the Ruger, it does fire from a heavy barrel. Another difference between the Ruger and our other rifles was that the barrel was seated tightly against the stock. The free-float barrels of the Browning and more so the CZ left enough space that you could actually squeeze the fore end against the barrel and make a clicking sound. Most riflemen prefer a free-float if for no other reason than heat attenuation. But we found that 22 WMR ammunition did not generate nearly as much heat as what we have experienced with rounds such as the .204 Ruger. So the manufacturer may have chosen additional support over air flow.
The buttpad on our Ruger was a soft rubber. In this case we found this unnecessary from the standpoint of soaking up recoil. We found the rubber to be tacky, which can inhibit shouldering the rifle quickly. This can be addressed by coating the edges of the rubber with products like Slick Eez Recoil Pad Treatment ($28, from kickeezproducts.com). But we think the design of the K77/22-VMBZ rifle favors shooting from a bench or other means of support. We say this because the bottom of the stock was flat and broad, and the rubber pad offered a solid weld to the shoulder. The magazine was a flush fitting rotary design that held nine rounds. Unlike the Browning rotary magazine there was no external mechanism to aid loading such as the wheel found on the T-Bolt. But the magazine loaded very easily. We remarked that pressing the magnum rounds into place seemed easier to do than loading 22 LR rounds into our model 10/22, which utilized the same type of magazine. The release for ejecting the magazine was located behind the magazine well, and it is best described as a panel that is to be pressed upward. The proper way to remove the magazine is to pinch the magazine between the index finger and the thumb. The index finger is placed in front of the magazine. The thumb goes in front of the magazine and digs upward. Should you give this rifle to a wife or girlfriend she may suffer a broken thumbnail during this process. Brownells, (brownells.com), lists three different release extensions that might save the cost of a manicure.
Our Ruger rifle made scope mounting easy by supplying a matched set of 1-inch rings (30mm rings are also available) and a receiver machined to fit them. Some Ruger models that feature such an integrated scope mount utilize a front ring and a rear ring that are not interchangeable. But in the case of our rifle it didnt matter which ring was used ahead of the other. The level was the same, and this system eliminated any possibility of misalignment. There were also two rearward mounting points so the distance between the rings could be altered to suite the scope. This did not add to how far back the scope could be placed, rather the opposite. More important was the ability to mount the rings further apart and offer greater support for longer scopes with heavier glass.
Another Ruger feature was the three-position safety. The safety lever was located on the right side directly behind the arm of the bolt. With the lever fully forward the gun was ready to fire. Pulled rearward to the right side corner of the bolt housing the trigger was now locked. However, the bolt could be moved to load or unload the chamber. In addition the bolt may be removed with the safety lever at this middle “Load/Unload” position by depressing the bolt stop located on the left side of the receiver. Moving the safety lever further to the rear, continuing to describe a clockwise arc, the action was now fully on safe. The three-position safety system offers the hunter additional safe handling options in the field.
Setting up at the bench we decided to protect our elbows from bruising or abrasion by placing a gel filled Shooter Pad beneath each elbow, ($17 per pair from sinclairintl.com). This made shooting more comfortable and reduced distraction. We noticed that unlike the Browning trigger the Ruger offered a short takeup. There were no signs of grit in the press, but just enough of interval before let-off to encourage a final adjustment to our aim. Thanks to the longer barrel our Magnum Varmint Rifle produced the most power from our ammunition. The CCI ammunition produced 353 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. The Ruger was the least accurate gun in the test firing the 50-grain Federal rounds, but shot the at least one MOA group with both the CCI and Winchester ammunition. We measured one group to be only about 0.8 inches across. Our overall impression of the K77/22-VMBZ rifle was that it offered a very natural feel, and we noticed that our accuracy improved with each group we shot.
CZ 452 Varmint 02041 22 WMR, $527
Our first impression of the CZ 452 was that it looked like a larger-caliber rifle. In fact at least three of the CZ 527 series smallbore centerfire rifles share a similar profile of comparable length. The stock of our 452 Varmint was a dark Turkish walnut that contributed to the solid overall feel of this rifle. By comparison the stock of the Browning T-Bolt was shell like, polished and taut. The CZs hammer forged barrel floated well above the fore end of the stock, which was smooth and broad on its bottom side. The only checkering on the stock was at the pistol grip. A knurled hard rubber buttpad with company logo was expertly fit with a wide spacer at the rear. Our rifle arrived with a five-round magazine that looked like it should have held more. The magazine had a rigid steel body, polished steel follower and a removable base pad so that it was rebuildable and easy to clean. Fully seated the magazine stuck out from the bottom of the receiver without apology to style. In our opinion this gave the CZ a strong purposeful look. The magazine release was located at the forward edge of the magazine well. The act of removing the magazine was simple. We could squeeze the release lever and grab the magazine in one motion. According to the web page at cz-usa.com, ten-round magazines, and a single shot adapter are available for this rifle as well as other rimfire models in the CZ catalog.
The CZ had a two-position safety lever located atop the bolt about 0.5 inch behind the bolt handle. We pushed the lever forward for on safe and pulled it to the rear, perpendicular to the bore for ready to fire. Removing the bolt did not necessarily require clearing the weapon, but we would recommend it. Pressing the trigger with the bolt unlocked is the how the bolt is removed. The trigger was adjustable, but required removing the action from the stock. Pleasant but with a little more pre-travel than the other rifles we left the trigger at its 4.0-pound weight of pull as delivered.
The receiver of the 452 Varmint was not drilled and tapped for a scope mount but was machined with a 3/8-inch dovetail. Rings to fit these grooves are not difficult to find, (Brownells catalog, 800-741-0015, lists several). But we opted to fit our CZ with a dovetail-to-Weaver adaptor by BKL Technologies so that any number of rings could be used to mount the scope.
At the range we found that the CZ was at its most accurate when firing the 50-grain Federal Game-Shok ammunition. We even printed a 1-inch group with this combination whereas our other rifles decidedly preferred the 40-grain slugs. We might credit this to the 1:16 twist rate of the CZ barrel. This was faster than our Ruger, which fired from a 1:14 barrel. We think that the faster twist was able to supply more rotation to the heavier bullet. Favoring the heavier bullet was fortuitous, in our opinion, as the test conditions for the CZ were racked with gusts of wind. One of the raps against hunting with a rim fire rifle instead of a centerfire model is the reduced distance over which the projectile is capable of striking an effective blow. But we were encouraged by the CZ because it favored the heavier bullet. This meant we might be able to hunt effectively not only at greater distances but also for larger game. Testing at a busy private range always invites comment from onlookers. We heard from one rifleman who was at the range checking the zero on his 22 WMR bolt-action rifle that he had taken hogs within 100 yards firing 50-grain slugs. Of our two 40-grain rounds the CCI Max-Mags were the more accurate. But in combination with the CZ 452 Varmint, we were sold on using the heavier rounds.