By Keith Wood
The flattest-shooting rifle cartridges and magnum-caliber handguns get lots of ink, and they are wonderful things, but they aren’t the right tool for every job. Sometimes smaller is better, and the rimfire is often the most useful choice in the hunter’s arsenal. Rimfire rifles are handy tools, but sometimes we need something more portable, which is where compact but capable rimfire handguns excel.
When I’m working at the family farm, which is usually a few days per week, I trade my carry gun for a .22 revolver. Whether I’m moving cattle, setting up treestands, or clearing brush, a sixgun is either on my hip or within easy reach. My go-to rimfire is a tired, old prewar Smith & Wesson Outdoorsman .22 LR that, despite its appearance, shoots great and has a trigger to die for. It rides comfortably on my hip in a Milt Sparks 200AW holster, where it is secure and protected but always available. I usually load the cylinder with two CCI shotshells and four roundnose or hollowpoint bullets, and choosing between loads is as simple as rotating the cylinder.
I’m usually working alongside my father-in-law whose tool of choice is an equally worn but much newer S&W Model 617. These guns are primarily intended for use on snakes, which are a daily threat here in South Alabama. A .22 makes quick work of copperheads and timber rattlers, but it also works fine on raccoons that feast on quail and turkey eggs and, at reasonable ranges, cattle-chasing coyotes. Where legal, a rimfire can be an efficient way of a hunter ending the life of a wounded game animal, and the same certainly goes for a trapper. I grew up on Elmer and Ross, and sure, a .44 or .45 would do the trick for any of these tasks (and I carry them at times, especially during deer season), but a rimfire does it with less fuss and noise. I don’t walk around the farm wearing ear protection, so a big centerfire would not be comfortable to shoot. I’m sure the neighbors appreciate the lack of loud report.
Perhaps the most useful virtue of a rimfire revolver is its role as a tool for training and practice. There is no better vehicle than a simple rimfire revolver for teaching a new handgun shooter or for honing the expert’s skills. The absolute lack of recoil, mild report, and inexpensive ammunition make it an ideal choice. The principles of sight alignment and trigger control are not caliber dependent, so, once in a while, I run a couple of boxes of .22s through my old Smith & Wesson to ensure that my skills stay sharp. As my children mature, these same revolvers will help them on their journey to becoming competent shooters.
Though .22 LRs are certainly the most common choices on the market, they are not the only game in town. The .22 WMR bests the LR in velocity and killing power, though at the expense of increased noise and muzzle blast. The new kid on the block is the .17 HMR, with a trajectory that is flatter than any of the others. Trajectory matters in the rifle world, but given the effective range of a handgun, it is probably a moot point for most handgun applications. The .17 is particularly useful when exit wounds are not desired, since their fragile 17- and 20-grain bullets expand violently upon impact.
There is a good selection of rimfire revolvers on the market at a variety of price points, so we assembled four with a range from simple and serviceable to simply exquisite. Our most inexpensive sample was the stainless-steel Taurus Tracker 17, chambered in .17 HMR with a seven-round capacity for well under $600. I own this same revolver chambered in .22 LR, and it is a dependable and durable sidearm for those on a budget.
The next rimfire that we tested was the Ruger stainless steel Single-Ten single-action revolver, chambered in .22 LR with a 5.5-inch barrel. These guns are built with typical Ruger toughness and a more useful revolver I cannot envision. With its 10-round capacity, good trigger and great sights, there’s a reason that Ruger’s single-action rimfire revolvers have been around for decades.
Next up is the modern iteration of my farm gun: the Smith & Wesson Model 648 chambered in .22 WMR. This gun is built on the same K-frame as my prewar example but with stainless- steel construction and a six-inch full underlug barrel and a capacity of seven rounds. As is the case with just about any S&W revolver one runs across, both the single- and double-action triggers are very good, and the sights are excellent. When a little more power and reach is needed, this .22 mag gets it done.
Our final choice of rimfire revolvers is a gun built with cost as no object to be the best that it could be. The Freedom Arms Model 97 Premier Grade rimfire is a single action built on the company’s midsize stainless-steel frame. Freedom Arms revolvers are often compared to Swiss watches due to their incredibly tight manufacturing tolerances, but I think that comparison sells short the durability of these guns. Chamber alignment is probably the single greatest factor in revolver accuracy, and each Freedom Arms cylinder is line-bored to match the actual frame and barrel that it will mate to. Our 5.5-inch example had a second cylinder in .22 WMR that was also line-bored to the frame. At $2,421 this gun is not inexpensive (additional cost for the auxiliary cylinder), but if you want absolute perfection, this is the way to go.
We fired all four revolvers with a variety of ammunition and found them all to be reliable and accurate. Not surprisingly, the Freedom Arms shot the smallest groups, with five shots fired from the rollover prone position measuring less than an inch at 25 yards. In one of my favorite skill drills, I fired each revolver at a 10x10-inch steel plate at 100 yards while sitting on my bottom with my forearms resting across my knees. This is the ultimate test of trigger control as any hiccup will result in a clean miss. Each of the guns was capable of hitting the target every time once the correct holdover was determined.
A rimfire handgun isn’t the correct tool for every task, but if used within its limitations, it can be an incredibly useful tool in the outdoorsman’s kit. Serviceable examples are available at an array of price ranges, and there are a wide variety of models to choose from, with Ruger having the most diverse collection. Strapping on a big-bore revolver looks cool, but it isn’t always the right choice. For practice, pests, and small game, make mine a rimfire.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.