Walnut and Steel: Vintage .22 Rifles

Walnut and Steel: Vintage .22 Rifles

by Bill Ward

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Overview

If you love old .22 rifles (and who doesn't?), and would like to know more about them, this book is a must-have. It is the only book of its kind, covering 20 classic and vintage rifles from five different manufacturers. The rifles covered are among the most-used and best-loved rifles of all time. In these pages you will find a wealth of information about each rifle and each manufacturer including: history and development, physical measurements and handling characteristics, accuracy testing, and current value. Plus, there are chapters on finding your own classic rifle, hunting with the .22, improving accuracy, and proper care and maintenance, and much more. So, if you'd like to know more about that old .22 that you've inherited or you need some good information to help you find your own, this is the book for you.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491862919
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 02/20/2014
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 802,193
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

WALNUT AND STEEL

VINTAGE .22 RIFLES


By Bill Ward

AuthorHouse

Copyright © 2014 Bill Ward
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4918-6320-6


CHAPTER 1

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE .22 RIMFIRE CARTRIDGE


The .22 short is the oldest self-contained metallic cartridge in the U.S. and one of the oldest in the world. The European pinfire preceded it by several years, but it was an evolutionary dead end, since it could not be readily adapted to function in repeating mechanisms. Somewhat ironically, the .22 rimfire is also far and away the most popular cartridge in the world, with billions of rounds produced and fired every year. We can thank the partners, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson for having the foresight to see the potential of the Frenchman Louis Flobert's BB cap, in essence a slightly modified percussion cap with a small lead ball seated atop its mouth. First, the partners added a true rim to the cartridge's base (Flobert had already tried a sort of rim, but he evidently did not foresee any further progress. He was probably quite content making and selling his extremely popular single shot parlor rifles and the ammo to fire in them). Next, the guys added a few grains of black powder and seated a 25 grain conical lead bullet. Voila! The .22 short was born. At first, it wasn't called the .22 short, but was known as the Smith and Wesson Number One for their First Model revolver. Believe it or not, its primary purpose was as a defensive round for this very small, easily concealed 10 ounce revolver. It was fairly popular with soldiers on both sides during the Civil War.

The metallic cartridge had been something of a pipe dream to gun designers for a pretty long time. Although there had been limited success throughout the first half of the 19th century in making repeating firearms using muzzleloading technology, most notably the Colt revolving rifles and handguns, most designers realized that further advances would have to wait on improvements in ammunition. Early efforts such as Hunt's Rocket Ball and the later Volcanic met with very limited success, mainly due to their lack of power and relatively fragile nature. While the Flobert BB cap was, for the most part, just considered a novelty to be used only in "parlor" or "saloon" rifles, Smith and Wesson believed they could develop it into something worthwhile. In the mid 1850's they began experimenting with the little cartridge, and by 1857, they were ready with their brand new revolver and its revolutionary new round. Soon many other makers were chambering rifles and handguns for it, and its place in history was secure. Of course, the .22 short itself was, and is, pretty puny, but its basic design was sound enough that it could be adapted to some fairly stout cartridges, such as the famous .44 Henry and .56 Spencer, both of which had important roles in the Civil War and on the American frontier. Virtually all of the larger rimfires would be hopelessly eclipsed when the more powerful centerfires came along in the 1870's and 80's, but the little .22 rimfire soldiers along with ever-increasing popularity.

The .22 short is nowhere near as popular now as it was 50 to 150 years ago, and, as far as I know no new rifles have been chambered for it for 30 or 40 years. Nevertheless, it is still a very useful little cartridge, and in rifles specifically chambered for it, it can be plenty accurate out to 50 or 60 yards. With hollow point bullets, it's a fairly reliable small game getter. Unfortunately, short ammo is getting harder to find. When I was a kid, you could buy shorts for less money than longs or long rifles, another reason for its popularity. But now, shorts generally cost more than long rifles due to limited supply and demand (I think they call this "economy of scale").

In 1871, the .22 long came along with a longer case than the .22 short, but with the same 29 grain bullet and slightly higher velocity. When high speed shorts were introduced back in the 1930, there really wasn't much need for the long anymore, so it's been on life support for a number of years now, and I really can't see it holding out much longer. It never was all that accurate anyway. Only Remington and CCI still make them, so if you own say, a Winchester 1885 or 1890 specifically chambered for it, you might want to stock up on a good supply before it is dropped altogether.

The old .22 extra long, introduced in 1880, is now as dead as a dodo. It was introduced in the blackpowder era, and at that time it wasn't a bad idea, for it held six grains of black powder and used a longer, more stable 40 grain bullet. Unfortunately, it was a little too long to function well in most repeating actions. It didn't last very long in the market, due to a very significant event which took place in 1887.

As you might have guessed, this event was the introduction of the superb .22 long rifle, the ultimate rimfire round from the standpoint of accuracy, economy, popularity, and suitability of purpose. It was mainly the brainchild of Joshua Stevens, in collaboration with the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. It combined the case of the .22 long with the extra long's 40 grain bullet and five grains of black powder. It quickly proved to be a much better round than the short or long, due to its longer 40 grain bullet which was considerably more stable and accurate at longer distances (up to 200 yards). Great advances in .22 long rifle ammo have been made since it was first introduced, including smokeless powder and noncorrosive priming, but it has always been considered a very accurate and useful cartridge. It is now offered in a wide variety of loads and velocity levels from subsonic to hypervelocity, to cover everything from formal and informal target shooting (aka "plinking") to pest control to medium size small game such as raccoons and groundhogs. But its real forte is squirrel and rabbit hunting. More on hunting with the .22 later.

The year 1890 saw the introduction of Winchester's landmark rifle and a new cartridge to fire in it: the .22 Winchester Rim Fire (WRF). This excellent cartridge used a flat-based, full diameter, inside-lubricated bullet as opposed to the other .22 rimfire's heel-based, outside-lubricated bullets. Bullets were also a little heavier, at 45 grains, and most were flat-pointed, giving it better knock-down power than the round nosed bullets of the others. Remington called the same basic load the .22 Remington Special and loaded round-nosed bullets in it. This cartridge really deserved to be more popular than it was, but for some reason, it had a reputation for not being as accurate as the long rifle. Plus, it also cost more, and not every country store stocked them.

As we'll see later, the introduction of Winchester's revolutionary semiauto Model 1903 of the same year caused Winchester to have to produce a special .22 round to fire in it, since most .22 ammo of that day was either just too dirty burning, or not consistent enough to reliably operate the action. This round was known as the .22 Winchester Automatic. Remington essentially did the same thing with their Model 16 rifle in 1914, calling their round the .22 Remington Automatic. Neither rifle lasted very long because their ammo was hard to find and considerably more costly than normal .22 ammo.

There wasn't much more activity in the .22 rimfire world until 1959 when Winchester brought out their potent .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR). It launched a 40 grain jacketed bullet at close to 2,000 feet per second. Basically, it is just the old .22 WRF with a longer case and more powder. It extends the range and power of the .22 rimfire, making it a reliable killer of bobcat and coyote size animals up to 125 yards. It's too much of a good thing for smaller, edible game unless only head shots are taken. It used to have a reputation as not being all that accurate, but in a good rifle, it can be very, very accurate. Again, its most serious drawback is its expense, as compared with most .22 long rifle ammo.

The design of the rimfire case is such that its developers must walk a fine line. The case head, where the priming compound is located must be thin enough to allow a significant dent to occur when the hammer or firing pin hits it, yet it also must be thick enough so that it can contain the 20,000 to 25,000 pounds per square inch of pressure that the cartridge generates. Early cases were made mostly of copper, which worked ok with black powder, but by the time smokeless powder came along, most manufacturers switched to brass. The brass case is also somewhat critical. If it's too hard, it won't expand to seal the chamber wall, and gas will flow back toward the shooter, or the case might split, causing a similar problem. Too soft, and it may not grip the bullet tightly enough, causing accuracy to suffer. The ductility, or "workability" must be just right, allowing the manufacturer to form the cases with precision. Bullets, powder, and priming are also of critical importance, as are all the manufacturing steps involved. When one stops to think about all this, it is a wonder that .22 ammo can be produced and sold as reasonably as it is.

The latest buzz in the world of rimfires is, of course, the .17s. But despite the good press and the hype they have been given since their introduction about a decade or so ago, I really can't get too worked up over them. No doubt they are loads of fun to shoot, and are often exceptionally accurate, but their little 17 to 20 grain bullets are tossed about by the wind past 50 or 60 yards, and the varmint type bullets destroy way too much meat on edible game. The worst part is that the ammo is four to six times the price of average .22 long rifle ammo. That pretty much negates doing much casual shooting or target practice. I will admit that they make good crow and starling medicine at up to a hundred yards on a windless day, but I haven't seen many crow or starling recipes lately. Maybe if some manufacturer were to bring out a controlled expansion 22 to 24 grain bullet load at a reasonable price, they could turn these tiny varmint cartridges into reliable game getters. Until that time, I think I'll just stay with the old reliable .22 long rifle with its 125 year track record of serving the needs of the small game hunter and smallbore target shooter.

Okay, it's finally time to take a good look at the actual rifles. We'll cover historical background, basic specifications (length, weight, stock dimensions, etc.), talk about design from a layman's standpoint, go over the strengths and weaknesses of each rifle as I see them, and discuss things like balance and other handling qualities, fit and finish, trigger characteristics, sights, reputation, and production history (including numbers produced, when known). We're going to take them to the range and shoot them, testing for accuracy and reliability. In other words, we're going to really get to know them and know them well. So, let's get started!

NOTE: Average accuracy for each rifle is in table form at the end of each chapter by manufacturer. All accuracy testing was done from a benchrest at 25 or 50 yards, as noted, and is the average, in inches, of at least three 5-shot groups. Most 50 yard groups are with the scope-sighted rifles, while the open and peep sighted rifles were tested at 25 yards with noted exceptions.

CHAPTER 2

STEVENS


It seems only proper to begin a review of vintage .22 rifles with the originator of the most popular cartridge of all time. That man is Mr. Joshua Stevens, and the cartridge, of course, is the .22 long rifle. As we have seen, it had evolved from the progenitor of all American metallic cartridges, the .22 short, a reasonably popular cartridge in its own right. However, I think it can safely be stated that the .22 rimfire was perfected by Mr. Stevens in association with Union Metallic Cartridge's William Thomas. The two gentlemen increased the length, bullet weight, and powder charge of the little Smith and Wesson cartridge, thus providing greater accuracy, power, and range. Their creation was called the .22 long rifle.

A quiet, unassuming man, Joshua Stevens had one main business goal: to make the best quality firearms at the fairest possible price. It's doubtful that he ever envisioned his company as the largest manufacturer of sporting firearms in the world, but demand for his products became so great that that's exactly what happened

Born in 1814 in Chester, Massachusetts, Stevens had an early fascination with machinery, particularly precision tools and firearms. After an apprenticeship as a young man, he did contract work for Samuel Colt, then Edwin Wesson, and finally the Massachusetts Arms Company. In 1864, at age 50 (about the time most people start to think about retirement), Stevens decided to go into business for himself and established J. Stevens and Company in the town of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. The company's main product was a small break-action or "tip-up" single shot pistol, a simple, but sturdy and accurate little handgun that sold quite well. The early single shot pistols, mostly small, vest-pocket models, were constantly being modified, upgraded, and refined, so that by the 1880's their target models had established an enviable reputation and were in high demand by competition shooters of the day. A. C. Gould, one of the era's noted firearms authorities and founder of the NRA's magazine The American Rifleman, spoke highly of Stevens's pistols. A contemporary of Gould's, Frank Lord, was a famous pistol marksman who preferred their target models. His suggestions for improvements would lead the factory to produce a pistol bearing his name, as well as that of Gould's.

The first true Stevens rifle was nothing more than a modified Stevens single shot tip-up type pistol, with a longer barrel and a rifle buttstock. This was introduced around 1870 and discontinued about 1900. Meanwhile, around 1888, Stevens introduced the ancestor of his famous Favorite and Ideal Models. This was a dropping, or hinged-block design operated by an underlever, and now known as the Side Plate rifle, as it allowed access to the internal parts via a removable side plate on the receiver. Only a year later, Stevens would bring out one of the most famous "boy's rifles" of all time, the Favorite model. The success of the Favorite encouraged Stevens to design and produce a myriad of similar size youth-type rifles, including the Crack Shot, Marksman, Maynard Junior, Little Krag, and Little Scout. These were all fairly popular, but the Stevens flagship models would always be the Favorite and its bigger brother, the Ideal Model. The famous Ideal, or Model 44, became the basis for one of the most popular and beloved target rifles of all time, the superb Walnut Hill.

As with most companies, Stevens had its ups and downs, but was able to hang on and survive through many trying times and corporate changes. Joshua Stevens retired in 1895 at the age of 81. Fortunately, he left the company in good hands, for by 1900, it employed 900 workers, and only a few years later could boast of being the largest manufacturers of sporting firearms in the world. Their line would include not only single shot rifles and handguns, but several types of repeating rifles and shotguns, and plain, but solid, single and double barrel shotguns. By then (1900), its facility covered an incredible (for its day) 14 acres. One of the main reasons for Stevens' success was due to the fact that their guns enjoyed such an enviable reputation for quality and durability at a very reasonable price. Stevens was able to maintain high standards of quality control due to the fact that every part was made "in-house". Many, if not most, makers outsource at least some of their parts, and these are often the "weak-link" in the finished product.

In order to fully understand and appreciate Stevens's contribution to riflery, we need to take a trip back in time to around the start of the 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, and America was on the verge of becoming the world's most powerful nation. This was the time when recreational shooting had reached its apex. It was also the heyday of the simple, accurate, and elegant single shot rifle. The demand was tremendous, and the Stevens company had built an enviable reputation for accuracy, quality, and reliability—all at a very fair price (certainly a winning combination for any product at any time). As if that weren't enough, Stevens rifles dominated most of the rifle matches of that time. Plus, it didn't hurt that one of the superstars of shooting, Annie Oakley, was a big fan of Stevens products.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from WALNUT AND STEEL by Bill Ward. Copyright © 2014 Bill Ward. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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