Modern .22 semi-automatic pistols may be more sought after than vintage revolvers, especially if you’re a competitive shooter, but rimfire pistols still serve a purpose. They can be incredibly accurate at making accurate shots in small games and have clear advantages on the field. For example, they are safer. Once you fire a revolver, the action stops. Which means there’s only empty brass in the chamber, something to keep in mind when you’re re-holstering or retrieving a head-bashed rabbit or squirrel.
Many revolvers have longer barrels, which helps with accuracy (which is why most rimfire and centerfire hunting pistols are revolvers). Semi-autos are typically smaller, lighter, and have more ammo capacity, making them excel in areas a pistol can’t. But if you’re strictly looking for better shot placement, a revolver is the way to go.
There are three rimfire revolvers that I classify as must-haves: the Smith & Wesson Model 63, the Ruger Single-Six Convertible, and Harrington & Richardson’s Model 999 Sportsman. These firearms run the gamut from single-action, double-action, swing-out, and top-break weapons, but all three deserve a spot on any shooter’s short list of go-to models.
1. Smith & Wesson Model 63
S&W’s J-Frame Model 63 is a direct descendant of the company’s revered six-shot Model 34 Kit Gun (1958-1991). But its virtues as a “tackle box pinker” aside, in the current ammunition drought, which affects .38 Special availability to a much greater extent than 9mm, this little 3-inch eight-shot stainless steel is a perfect stand-in for my Model 36 .38. They are dimensionally similar in terms of overall length (7.3 inches). The M63 rimfire weighs in at 24.8 ounces, only slightly heavier than the 22-ounce, 3-inch M36.
You can buy the considerably lighter alloy version, the Model 317, but at a meager 11.7 ounces, it just doesn’t feel right to me, and it’s much harder to be accurate with if you don’t have much experience with pistols.
Aside from the obvious differences in cost, blast, and recoil fatigue, the Model 63 has a lot to offer on its own merits. Once I found the best brands of ammo to shoot for my 63, I quickly discovered that it shot better than I could hold (which is true of most firearms I’ve owned).
In its role as a stand-in for the .38, the Model 63’s adjustable sights allow me to practice effectively with any brand of bulk .22 Long Rifle ammo I can find. Cosmetically, I could live without the red fiber optic front sight, but I don’t feel strong enough to change it for another. The trigger pull on my 63 weighs just under 2 pounds, impressive for a single action.
To assess the little revolver’s targeting potential, I shot several groups from sandbags at 25 yards. Using 40-grain Aguila Super Extra .22 LR HV solids, I was able to consistently produce eight-shot 2-inch groups. My best effort was a six-shot group that measured just under an inch, a testament to the smooth single-action trigger pull and quality ammo.
2. Ruger Single-Six Convertible
Bill Ruger noted the lack of single-action revolvers in the firearms market when he introduced the Single-Six in 1953. Thirteen years after its debut, my father paid $40 for a used one on my birthday. By this time, it had been transformed into a two-barrel .22 LR/.22 WMR convertible: it could fire both cartridges from the gun.
Mine is a fixed sight model with a 6.5-inch barrel. It can still be had with fixed sights in a 5.5-inch setting. Adjustable sights became available in 1964 with the debut of the Super Single-Six Convertible because there are too many point-of-impact variables with rimfires (magnum or not) to stay with fixed sights. Also, higher profile adjustable sights are easier on aging eyes.
There are so many Single-Six variants (and Single-7, Single-9 and Single-10) that you don’t have to opt for a Convertible. There are also currently 11 .22 LR/.22 WMR convertible models listed in the Ruger catalog.
The most interesting to me is the Model 0662, a 7.5-inch stainless steel revolver with integral scope mounts on its fluted barrel and black laminated stock. And with an MSRP of $1,089, even accounting for inflation, it’s a bit higher than my old model’s used price.
I have timed the .22 WMR with bullet weights ranging from 30 to 45 grains. Naturally, the lighter 30-grain cartridges took top velocity honors with Hornady’s V-Max averaging 1,727 fps. By contrast, the top LR entry was the 30-grain Aguila Super Maximum, which clocked in at 1,365 fps. That’s a difference of 362 fps with shells of the same weight.
Accuracy-wise, the best .22 WMR results I could get were with the 45-grain Hornady FTX Critical Defense, which averaged 1,326 fps from my 6.5-inch barrel. Not the fastest, but he produced sub-2-inch clumps at 25 yards. The best shot entry .22 LR was a good-aged Winchester Wildcat, which produced a pool of just under an inch.
Of course, the tactile pleasure of placing the hammer halfway up to rotate the cylinder has been lost to single-action traditionalists since the new Single-Six model was introduced in 1973. The defining feature of the new model is the system. transfer bar. Now all you have to do to freely rotate the cylinder is open the loading door.
The old model is considered by many to have a superior trigger pull. I can’t argue with that. Mine breaks at a clean 2.5 pound weight. As good as it is, you still have to deal with that long lock time of a single action, so a good follow up technique is a must.
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3. H&R Model 999 Sportsman
If any .22 revolver qualifies as a sleeper, it would have to be the Harrington & Richardson Model 999 Sportsman, a nine-shot double-action top-break revolver manufactured between 1932 and 1986. It lacks the frontier-era grace of the Single -Six or the pocket cool S&W M63, but the H&R, while clunky in comparison, handles and shoots amazingly well. Even towards the end of its production run (which coincided with the closing of the H&R plant in 1986) it cost less than $200.
This M999 is a 1954 vintage 2North Dakota Model, with a 6-inch barrel and two-piece walnut grip panels. It is in good condition and has an unloaded weight of 34 ounces. In 1974 the M999 was redesigned with a transfer bar. But this old one has the traditional aesthetic pleasure of a hammer-mounted firing pin set in a jeweled hammer spur. Top break action allows for quick cylinder removal for cleaning. And the simultaneous ejection of spent voids is helpful, but may occasionally require a bit of wrist action to eject the spent brass.
Wide adjustable sights are easy to acquire and windage adjustment can be done with the rear sight. Elevation can be changed with a small screw under the front sight, just above the muzzle.
To test the accuracy of the M999, I used three brands of .22 LR: 40-grain Federal Gold Medal Match, 40-grain Sellier & Bellot Club, and 42-grain Contact Subsonic. At 25 yards, Eley’s nine-shot groups averaged a hair under 2 inches and beat the competition, but narrowly. And all of the groups contained sub-inch groups of at least four shots.
The single-action trigger pull on the H&R is a crisp 3 pounds, which adds a great deal to the M999’s shooting ability. The double-action pull, however, was considerably less manageable, breaking at a heavy 11.5-pounder. Considering the uses to which the M999 would be put, there seems little reason to resort to trigger cocking.