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By Chuck Hawks
So, you want to get a rifle. Presumably, you have either already mastered the basics of shooting, or want learn them. You hope to do some target shooting or plinking, and maybe learn to hunt. Great! A lifetime of enjoyment waits.
Perhaps you are young (the best time of life to begin any sporting activity), or perhaps you are an adult who finally has the time and independence to get involved with the shooting sports. Either way, you will need to learn, and then perfect, the fundamentals of rifle shooting, like correct stance (or form) in the common positions from which rifles are fired, sight alignment, trigger control, and so on. How to go about this (in essence a rifle shooting course) is beyond the scope of this article, but choosing a good rifle to do it with is precisely what this article is about.
Once you have mastered the basics you can begin to concentrate on the aspect of the shooting sports that most appeals to you, whether that be continued plinking and informal shooting, traditional target competition, hunting, or whatever. Your ultimate purpose will influence the type of rifle that is best for you.
My advice to the beginner is simple: make your first rifle a .22 rimfire, chambered for the common .22 Long Rifle cartridge. The .22 LR is the best selling cartridge in North America by a wide margin. Unless you are very wealthy, it is just about the only practical way you can afford to do enough shooting to master the art and science of rifle shooting. Even if you can afford to start with a rifle chambered for a much more expensive centerfire cartridge, the other advantages of the common .22 LR make it the best choice. These include excellent accuracy, very low recoil, and widely distributed ammunition. Probably you have already heard this advice, or read it somewhere. That is because it is very good advice, indeed. Please heed it.
Let's consider that first .22 rifle. If you are very young, or quite petite, you may need a "youth rifle." These are typically lightweight rifles with stocks of reduced length that are comfortable for small people to hold and shoot. These are usually single shot bolt action types, because this is generally considered to be the safest rifle in inexperienced hands, and the most suitable for young beginners. Such rifles are suitable for informal target shooting and plinking, and small game hunting at short to medium range. If equipped with a decent telescopic sight, they can take small game as far as most other .22 rifles.
The most famous youth rifle is probably the tiny Chipmunk bolt action single shot, which only weights about 2.5 pounds. Other popular bolt action single shot youth rifles include the Marlin 15yn and Savage Mark 1-G. In the past both Remington and Winchester have made youth rifles.
If you are in your teens or are an adult, you can probably handle a full size adult rifle. This means that your range of choices expands dramatically. There are full size .22's available for every purpose, and in every price class. There are single shot adult size rifles, as well as bolt, lever, autoloading, and pump action repeating rifles. If you are a small adult who finds the average factory stock too long for comfort it is a simple matter to have a gunsmith shorten a wooden stock to fit you. If you have the opposite problem, your gunsmith can fit a recoil pad to lengthen a factory stock.
Formal target shooting is one of the great shooting sports. By "formal" I mean where you are competing against other shooters, under NRA (National Rifle Association) or ISU (International Shooting Union) rules, and someone is keeping score. There are many kinds of target competition involving .22 target rifles. Small-bore target shooting, where you shoot at paper targets and try to keep all of your bullets in the "X" ring at the center of the bull's eye, is perhaps the most popular and widespread of the formal target shooting disciplines.
.22 target rifles are very sophisticated and must be very accurate. The 10 ring on the NRA 100 yard small bore rifle target used for prone shooting is 2 inches in diameter, and the "X" ring in the center that is used to break ties is only 1 inch in diameter. Since you must keep the great majority of your bullets in that X-ring if you expect to win any matches, it is obvious that a decent .22 target rifle must possess sub-minute of angle intrinsic accuracy. (One minute of angle equals one inch at 100 yards.)
Matches are fired from either the prone position, or all of the standard positions. The standard positions are prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing in U.S. competition; or prone, kneeling and standing in international competition. Most shooters have at least two rifles, one stocked specifically for the prone position, and another with a stock designed for "position" shooting. There are also .22 target rifles designed for special bench rest matches.
There are matches for both iron (non-magnifying) and telescopic sights in the U.S., and for various classes of rifles and shooters. Matches are shot with the rifle held in the hands, or from a bench rest. There are indoor matches shot at 50 feet, and outdoor matches shot at 50 and 100 yards (or meters). Practically anyone, of any age, can find a suitable small-bore target shooting discipline if he or she wishes to compete.
The best .22 target rifles, such as those used in international competition, can be quite expensive. The top of the line Anschutz Model 2013 "Super Match" rifle for free style shooting retails for $3145. (All prices mentioned in this article are manufacturers suggested retail prices in 2001.) If you are shooting for an Olympic gold medal, this is the rifle you want. The less expensive Model 1907, which is based on the same Match 54 action as the M 2013, retails for $1639 and can still win you a lot of trophies. Remington offers their famous Model 40-X line of target rifles at prices competitive with the Anschutz Model 1907. The Model 40-XR KS Position Rifle, for example, also costs over $1600. These specialized rifles are not intended for the beginning shooter, but for the seasoned competitor. They serve to make the point that .22 target shooting can be a very serious sport.
A sample of more affordable .22 target rifles that retail from about $440 to $1000 includes models from Anschutz, Kimber, Marlin, Remington, Sako, Savage, and the HW 660 Weihrauch (distributed by European American Armory). Rifles in this class can win a lot of club matches in the hands of a good shot.
Metallic Silhouette is a type of target shooting where you shoot at small metal silhouettes of animals at various ranges up to 100 yards (or meters) with a .22, rather than at paper targets. Your bullet must knock the silhouette down to score. The sport was originally developed in Mexico as practice for and competition with regular centerfire hunting rifles at medium to long range. Now there are silhouette classes for .22 rimfire as well as centerfire rifles.
Special target rifles designed for the purpose are used by the serious competitors. A sample of typical .22 Silhouette rifles would include models from Anschutz, Brown Precision, Christensen Arms, Kimber, Marlin, Remington, Ruger, and Thompson/Center at prices ranging from $398 to $1500. There are silhouette matches for both iron and telescopic sights, and a variety of classes.
Most target rifles are of bolt action persuasion, but autoloaders and at least one break-action single shot rifle are included in the lists above. Before you buy any kind of target rifle, attend a few local matches and talk to the shooters. They will prove to be a helpful source of information and advice.
"Plinking" is informal shooting at casual targets, like empty cans, fired shotgun shell hulls, clay pigeons (my favorite plinking target), potatoes, bottle caps, potato chips, Necco candy wafers, and practically any other inexpensive and harmless target you can imagine. Never, by the way, shoot at glass bottles--broken glass will inevitably become a problem for someone.
Plinking can be done from any position, but offhand (standing) is probably the most common position. Plinking is the most popular of all the shooting sports, and an awful lot of fun.
It can be good practice if the shooter works to improve his or her technique and not so good if it leads to sloppy shooting habits. The tendency with informal targets is to remember the hits and forget the misses. Be forewarned: always strive for improvement. Concentrate on stance, sight alignment and trigger control for every shot, even when plinking. It is more fun to hit the target than to miss it.
Practically any .22 that burns powder can and has been used for plinking, from an ancient Remington rolling block single shot to an Anschutz Super Match. Probably the best plinking rifle is a deluxe, scoped, .22 hunting rifle (see below). These classy rifles have the accuracy to hit small targets, and their optical sights have a great advantage over even the best, target quality, iron sights.
For those who want to get started shooting and cannot afford a high quality hunting rifle, there are plenty of reasonably priced .22 rifles on the market. A repeater is usually more convenient than a single shot for plinking. Bolt action models from CZ, Marlin, Remington, and Savage are popular. Henry Rimfire rifles offers a traditional looking lever action .22 in the medium price class. Henry also offers a medium price pump action rifle. The largest market segment belongs to the autoloading rifles. Serviceable models are available from Marlin, Remington, Ruger, Savage, and Thompson/Center, among others. Anyone who has not made a small target dance with a .22 autoloader has deprived themselves of one of life's simple pleasures.
Any rifle intended for serious small game hunting must be accurate enough for head shots on squirrels and rabbits out to at least 75 yards. This requires near target rifle accuracy, and a telescopic sight to make the best use of that accuracy. Since it must be carried in the field, a hunting rifle must not be excessively heavy or unwieldy. This is mainly what differentiates a hunting rifle from a target rifle. A good target rifle is brilliantly accurate, but usually not well suited to carrying in the field.
The great majority of shots in the field are made from the sitting and standing positions. These are the two most versatile positions from which a hunting rifle can be fired. If you want to become an accomplished small game hunter, practice these two positions intensively. Always shoot from the sitting position if you can, as it is far more versatile and almost as accurate as prone, and much more accurate than standing or kneeling.
.22 rifles suitable for small game hunting are available from most .22 rifle manufacturers. Because small game is sometimes shot on the run, a repeating rifle is recommended. Always use .22 LR High Velocity or Hyper Velocity hollow point ammunition for hunting. The best .22 rimfire hunting rifles are similar to, and cost about as much as, similar centerfire hunting rifles. Deluxe bolt, lever, autoloading, and pump action rifles are ideal for small game hunting. As with any hunting, the first shot is usually the best, so firepower is much less important than accuracy.
I find deluxe bolt actions such as the Anschutz 1416D and 1710, Kimber Model 82C, Remington 541T, Ruger M 77/22, Sako Finnfire Hunter, and Winchester Model 52B; plus the deluxe lever actions, the Browning BL-22, Marlin 39, and Winchester 9422 particularly desirable for small game hunting.
For the autoloader fan, the Browning .22 Semi-Automatic, and Remington 552 BDL Speedmaster have been favorites for half a century or more. The Remington 572 BDL Fieldmaster pump action rifle is an excellent choice for those who favor the slide action.
All of these are adult rifles a shooter can be proud to own. The critical parts are made of steel and the stocks are genuine walnut. The Browning Semi-Automatic and Marlin 39 lever action are takedown models, very convenient when traveling.
Scopes for .22 rifles
A good scope is a practical necessity for consistent, humane kills. It is also a great asset when plinking at tiny targets. A compact fixed power scope of 3 or 4 power is about right, and all that is needed. A compact variable somewhere within the 2-7x range is more than enough scope for a .22 hunting or plinking rifle. A high power variable scope with an oversized objective is too heavy and bulky, and is a poor choice for a .22. Most .22 rifles are grooved for "tip-off" scope mounts. A few require standard type bases and rings, similar to those used for centerfire hunting rifles. Either system is suitable for a .22, because recoil is not a factor.
A scope designed for a .22 rifle need not have the comparatively long (around 3 inches or more) eye relief necessary for a hard kicking high power rifle. The slight recoil from the .22 Long Rifle cartridge will not drive a scope back into the shooter's eye. So a 1.5-inch eye relief is adequate. And the internal construction of the scope does not need to be designed to withstand the acceleration caused by the recoil of a high powered rifle. This makes a scope designed specifically for a .22 rifle less expensive than a scope designed for centerfire rifles.
.22 scopes are designed to be parallax free at a shorter distance than scopes designed for centerfire rifles, since they will be used for small targets at comparatively short range, instead of large targets at long range. A good .22 scope should have accurate internal adjustments and quality optics.
While most scopes for high power rifles can be adapted to a .22, some scope manufacturers offer models designed specifically for .22 rimfire rifles. Burris, Bushnell, Leupold, Sightron, Simmons, and Weaver are among the popular brands that offer such scopes. Redfield used to make an excellent compact 4x scope suitable for .22 rifles, and perhaps will again someday. I have used this, as well as Weaver 4x and variable power .22 scopes to take an enormous amount of small game.
To summarize, your first rifle should be chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge. The type of action should be determined by your preference and intended use. Buy the best quality rifle you can afford--a quality firearm is always a better investment in the long run. Unlike, say, beginning motorcycles (where you will probably trade up in a year or so), a good .22 can be a lifelong companion. You will never outgrow it if you buy a quality rifle. Likewise, invest in a good quality .22 telescopic sight. It, too, will serve you faithfully for many years.
What really determines how much you enjoy your first .22 rifle is your attitude. If you strive to become a good shot, you will. If you allow yourself to fall into bad shooting habits, you will not. Hitting the target is fun, missing is not, so to get the most enjoyment out of the shooting sports, you must be willing to put forth the effort to learn how to shoot correctly. In this, rifle shooting is pretty much the same as every other worthwhile endeavor in life. Enjoy!
Copyright 2001, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.