There are few things as accurate, useful and fun as a great rimfire handgun.
These are the precision plinkers that will get you on target:
High Standard H-D
Smith & Wesson Model 41
Smith & Wesson Model 17
Browning Buck Mark
There can be a vicious cycle when it comes to a good rimfire handgun. Inherently accurate, these pistols and revolvers are like a spring meadow in their ability to sprout tidy little clover leafs. But once a shooter gets a taste for these firearms’ precision printing, they only want more and smaller. Then the obsession begins — check out a precision pistol match to see what I mean.
Thankfully, gunmakers have fueled this mania, turning out true classics in the genre of rimfire handguns. And a shooter needn’t be a competitor to truly appreciate what these guns bring to the table. Whether placing a dead-accurate head shot on a brushy tail high in a beech tree’s boughs or making soda cans dance up a hillside, precision plinkers are truly one of life’s small pleasures.
With that in mind, here are seven of the greatest rimfire handguns to ever pitch small-bore lead. If you don’t have at least one of these in your arsenal, then your collection isn’t complete.
When John M. Browning’s influence over pistol design is considered, typically the 1911 comes to mind — rightfully so. However, the Colt Woodsman deserves its share of the spotlight, for much of the modern rimfire pistol world rests on its shoulders. From its fixed barrel to its blowback action to borrowing Luger’s raked grip, the Woodsman set the standard for what was expected out of a .22 pistol.
Though, in truth, Browning doesn’t get all the credit for this still intriguing gun design. Among his last handguns while employed at Colt, a number of other designers had a hand in bringing the Woodsman to the public in 1915 after his departure. And what they offered the shooting world was one slick little rimfire, ideal for an afternoon target shooting or bagging the odd rabbit in the field.
Browning and the Colt team did something right, given the 10-round Woodsman had a 62-year run and was only jettisoned after manufacturing costs exceed sales. There were three series of the hammer-fired Woodsman (one through three) over this time with three models available in each: Target, Sport and Match.
The differences between the models are minor, generally barrel length, sights, grips and frame (particularly the squared-off section at the front of the receiver). Later, Colt also introduced economy variants of the Woodsman — first the Challenger, then the Huntsman. While they lacked the refinements of the Woodsman, both had identical actions to the higher-end models.
With some hard searching, acceptable specimens of the Woodsman are available. And if you really want to break the bank, there are some extraordinary examples of the pistol complete with elaborate engraving and all the bells and whistles.
High Standard H-D
Rimfire pistols, at least in the modern era, are rarely associated with military conflict. However, the H-D was up to its cocking serrations in global conflict for the better part of a quarter century. Cutting its teeth as a military training pistol in World War II after its release in 1940, due to similarity in operation to the M1911A1, it would go on to cloak-and-dagger work.
The OSS (forerunner of the CIA) ordered around 2,000 of the integrally suppressed High Standard HD-MS models late in the conflict. And it continued to serve spy types into the Cold War or that can at least be inferred with one produced by the Soviet’s trial of Air Force pilot Lt. Gary Powers after his U-2 aircraft was shot down over the U.S.S.R.
The H-D was also a hit with everyday, average shooters and finished its run among the most popular pistols ever produced by High Standard. With a pinned barrel, Luger-style grip and weight of a full-sized pistol, the H-D was designed for accuracy and delivered in competition and plinking.
The Model HDs aren’t terribly tough to come by, if you’re willing to search, but they can tax a shooter’s budge. The HD-MS, well that’s a completely different story. Few were made and of those just a handful were ever registered with the ATF for civilian ownership. Translation: They are plum expensive.
Smith & Wesson Model 41
To many competitive shooters, pistols don’t get any sweeter than the Model 41. The high-end Smith & Wesson rimfire pistol has been a mainstay on the national competition stage for more than half a century, and doesn’t show any signs of letting up soon.
But producing a pistol meant to gun down gold required plenty of time at the drawing board — a decade in fact. Smith & Wesson developed two semi-automatic prototypes in 1947 — the X-41 and X-42, however, the company’s actual offering — the Model 41 — wasn’t unleashed on the shooting public until 1957.
To win hearts, the pistol has a familiar feel to handgun shooters. The angle of the Model 41 directly draws upon one of the most prolific pistols of all time — the 1911. And the similarities between the small- and large-bore handguns don’t end there. Smith & Wesson also configured the slide release and manual thumb safety in the same positions found on the 1911.
In addition to a fixed barrel (notice a trend here?), the 10-round pistol also has another element that makes it lights-out accurate — perhaps the finest trigger ever to grace a rimfire pistol. It has a smooth pull and a terse 3-pound break, as well as over-travel adjustment.
While the Model 41 has pulled disappearing acts from Smith & Wesson’s catalog in the past, it is now presently available. And the newest iteration has some intriguing upgrades, such as a switch-barrel design and micrometer click adjustable target rear sight. Just the tickets for competitive types to stay right on target.
Smith & Wesson Model 17
Smith & Wesson had dabbled in .22-caliber revolvers in the late 19th and early 20th Century, but got it next to perfect with the release of this post-World War II gem. The Model 17, introduced in 1947, is quite possibly the best double-action rimfire revolver of all time, combining rock-solid construction and lights-out accuracy. To boot, the rimfire looks unmistakably like a Smith & Wesson wheelgun — never a bad thing.
Much of the six-round revolver’s durability, accuracy and looks are thanks to the gun’s hefty construction. The Model 17 is a full-sized revolver built around S&W’s legendary K-frame. And it can be configured for everything from dropping squirrels to dominating a rapid-fire competition. The company offered three barrel options — 4, 6 or 8 inches — and outfitted the six-round revolver with an adjustable rear sight and an un-pinned, fixed ramp or Patridge style front sight.
In the past, serious marksmen could get the Model 17 with “The Three T’s”: target trigger, target hammer and target front sight.
The Model 17 did a disappearing act for a spell, with Smith & Wesson discontinuing the revolver for 11 years. The stainless steel Model 617 was available, but for the diehards it was no replacement for the blued-steel beauty. Wisely, in 2009 the company reintroduced the original again as the Model 17 Masterpiece, allowing an entirely new generation to revel in one of the true greats of the rimfire world.
The story is familiar to most .22 fans: Bill Ruger banged away in his garage on a pistol with the styling of the P08 Luger and the guts of a Japanese Nambu. With a little financial backing from Alex Sturm, he struck firearms gold in 1949 with the Standard — one that blossomed into an empire. But the Standard forms more than just the roots of a thriving manufacturer; it’s also fair to say it’s the origin of today’s booming rimfire pistol market.
The interest the best-selling .22 pistol of all time kindled has erupted into an inferno at this point.
Accuracy, not to mention a fair price, is how the Standard captivated shooters. The fixed barrel deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the pistol’s ability to launch bullets with deadly accuracy. Only the unique cylindrical bolt moves when the gun cycles, giving the pistol the rigidity required to stay on target shot after shot.
But there’s more to the Standard than just its barrel. The gun’s ergonomics are superb; there are few handguns that have better balance and point as naturally. The angled grip facilitates much of this, as does the gun’s overall heft — which is plenty for a .22.
If there is any one hitch in the pistol’s giddy up it’s the takedown of the early models — it’s a bit of a bear to field strip. Ruger, however, has done its utmost to rectify this in the most recent Mark IVs, with a simplified push-button takedown.
Credit Bill Ruger; he knew when he had a winner — and the self-taught engineer certainly had one in .22-caliber handguns. It didn’t take him long to realize this after the introduction of his masterpiece Standard, and he followed it up with one of the truly great single-action revolvers of all time — the Single-Six.
The rimfire, styled after the Colt Single Action Army revolver, Ruger harnessed the enthusiasm for America’s Old West percolating in the country in 1953. The popularity of the throwback revolver proved so great it eventually led to the launch of the legendary Blackhawk line of centerfire single-action revolvers.
A gun, however, doesn’t rise and then stay on top off nostalgia alone, and the Single-Six offered wannabe cowpokes a whole bunch more, including an affordable price. Ruger pulled off this minor economic coup by manufacturing the frame through investment casting. In fact, the Single-Six was among the first firearms the company produced utilizing this process, one it still relies on heavily today. The results were magnificent, providing backpackers, campers, plinkers, competitors and every other rimfire enthusiast a strong and accurate revolver, with a dash of American history.
Despite its timeless design, the Single-Six continues to remain relevant to today’s shooters through a number of upgrades over the years. Among the weightiest was the addition of the transfer bar safety in 1973 (these revolvers are known as the New Model) that allowed the safe loading of every cylinder.
More recently, Ruger has embraced other popular rimfire cartridges, offering a .22 WMR along with a .22 LR cylinder in its Convertible model and expanding the Single-Six to the red-hot .17 HMR rounds. Available in barrel lengths from 4.62 to 9.5 inches, the Single-Six is truly a revolver for all occasions.
Browning Buck Mark
Though released in 1985, the Buck Mark has a lineage that can be traced all the way back to the company’s namesake. The pistol was the evolution of the Browning Challenger, which was a tweak on the Nomad, which was a redesign of John M. Browning’s Colt Woodsman. With this sort of pedigree, it’s no wonder the company believed it could stand tall against the heavyweight of the rimfire pistol world — the Ruger Mark series.
While it has not enjoyed the absolutely stratospheric success of the Marks, the Buck Mark has held its own. The 30-some models that have come down the pike have captivated shooters, whether drilling bullseyes in rapid fire or dispatching coyotes on a trap line.
The Buck Mark turns to a successful formula of many rimfire pistols — a fixed barrel. This one simple design feature ensures the gun stays on target by doing away with all potential play. On top of that, for American shooters, the gun is extremely familiar to operate, given its slide.
This somewhat unusual design for modern rimfires bestows an admirable attribute, often overlooked — less fouling. Since the action opens more than many pistols in its class, it kicks out more carbon — making the Buck Mark as reliable chewing through cheap ammo as it is the top-shelf stuff.