Aristocratic autoloaders: the premium .222s.
When I was asked these questions a while back I had to admit that I couldn't answer them with any authority. I'm a bolt-action man and I've never given the semi-automatics a serious workout.
Realizing this, I decided that I'd better get off my duff and see what I could do to broaden my scope a bit. As a starting point I needed some means of whittling the field down to just a few deluxe guns. Retail price seemed the only logical way to select these guns, so I decided to go with those popular semi-automatic .22s retailing for $250 or more--and they had to be sporters, not paramilitary types. In all I came up with six guns--one from Anschutz, one from Browning, two from Heckler & Koch, one from Harrington & Richardson and one from Weatherby.
Unfortunately, I was unable to test two of these. The Anschutz Model 520/61, a magazine-fed import, was undergoing redesign at the time of my work in preparation for reintroduction in early 1984. In addition, there were no rifles--old or new style--in captivity, thus none for testing. Then, through a shipping foul-up of some kind the H&R Model 700 Deluxe, a .22 WMR, failed to arrive in time for me to test it. On the bright side of this, though, I did some work with the Model 700 Deluxe a while back so I at least had some background with it to draw on.
Before we look closely at each of these rimfire self-loaders, there's one feature they all have in common. Every one of these rifles has a blowback action. What this amounts to is an unlocked breech. Inertia, provided by breechblock weight and recoil spring pressure, simply holds the breechblock against the head of the case until a certain breech pressure is obtained. At that moment the breechblock is forced rearward. As it travels back, it extracts the fired case, ejects it and cocks the internal hammer or striker while compressing the recoil spring. Rearward movement ceases when the breechblock contacts the bolt stop. Then the block is propelled forward by the compressed recoil spring. As it moves it picks up a fresh round from the carrier and chambers it. Movement stops when the breechblock is tight against the face of the breech.
The blowback system is adequate for any .22 rimfire cartridge, but it places special responsibility on the shooter. The action must be kept clean to ensure complete action closure. And, since .22 rimfire cartridges are notoriously dirty--powder fouling and bullet grease quickly cause a gooey buildup on the face of the breechblock and barrel--frequent cleaning is essential. Therefore, ease of action access for cleaning becomes important and we'll look at this feature as we discuss each rifle.
Browning's entry in the deluxe semi-automatic field is called, quite simply, the Browning .22 Automatic. Chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge, this one has been around a long time and is the darling of shooters who want a light, compact rimfire rifle. It sports a 19 1/4-inch barrel, is 37 inches long overall and, with iron sights, weighs only 4 3/4 pounds. Like so many Browning guns,t he little autoloader comes in three grades, Grade I being the least expensive at $259.95 while Grade III with its intricate engraving, satin chrome-plated receiver and extra fancy wood and checkering goes for $815.
Both the forearm and the buttstock on the .22 Automatic are walnut. Fineline checkering decorates a good share of the forearm as well as the pistol grip, and the wood is treated with a polyurethane that results in a durable, high gloss finish.
Quick takedown, which separates the barrel/forearm from the receiver/buttstock, is a unique feature of the Browning .22 Automatic. When separated the rifle can be carried in a case only 19 inches long--about the size required for a good many of the single-shot pistols these days. With the barrel turned at a 90-degree angle to the receiver, it's pushed into the receiver, then rotated to the left to its proper assembled position. As it is rotated, interrupted threads on the barrel engage those in the receiver. when properly aligned, a small lock, located on the bottom rear of the barrel, is pushed back to lock the receiver to the barrel. A serrated barrel adjustment nut is provided and is tightened against the receiver to eliminate any looseness at this point. If looseness tends to develop as a result of shooting, you simply tighten the nut to get rid of it.
Other unique features of the Browning .22 Automatic are the way live rounds are fed into the chamber and fired cases ejected. Loading is accomplished through the side of the buttstock. First the magazine tube, which enters the rifle through the buttplate, is rotated 90 degrees and withdrawn. Then cartridges are inserted into the loading port on the right side of the buttstock. The spring in the magazine tube affords forward pressure on the cartridges which are fed into the action from the top of the receiver rather than from below in the normal fashion. To feed a cartridge into the chamber, you pull rearward on the bolt, located on the bottom of the receiver. When released, the recoil spring propels it forward and a live round is fed into the chamber. You pull the trigger to fire and from then on, until the magazine is empty, the action cycles and a fresh round is fed into firing position. Spent cases are ejected straight down from the bottom of the receiver.
The Browning .22 Automatic is factory-equipped with open sights consisting of a gold bead up front and a rear unit adjustable for elevation. To make windage adjustments, either the front or rear sight must be driven to the side with a punch. Iron sights are too crude for the accuracy tests I had in mind, so i needed a scope. The Browning receiver is not grooved for extends rearward back over the receiver. I don't like this setup. The unsupported tang is easily bent should hard side pressure be applied to the scope. Equally objectionable is the fact that the tang just hangs above the receiver and can be flexed up and down. You can imagine the effect this flexing could have on accuracy. Browning would certainly do shooters a favor if they put an integral rail on the receiver of this neat little autoloader.
My test Browning, a Grade I, had a trigger pull of five pounds, a bit on the heavy side. The trigger/sear/striker setup on this rifle is relatively simple and I feel that the trigger pull could be improved. However, this is a job for a skilled gunsmith who knows exactly where to hone and how much steel to remove. Remeber, there's a lot of jarring that goes on inside a semi-automatic action, so if that sear/striker engagement is too fine, accidental firing will be imminent.
The Browning .22 Automatic is very siple to clean. It can be done pretty well by simply breaing the gun down into barrel and receiver. But, removal of the triggerguard and bolt from the receiver, then separation of these into individual parts, takes only seconds and affords access to all of the moving parts of the receiver so they can be cleaned and relubricated.
Heckler & Koch has two entries in the rimfire .22 market, the Model 270 in .22 Long Rifle chambering and the Model 300 in .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire. Basically the two are the same, but there are some minor differences. Externally the Model 270 sports blued metal, a black nylon trigger assembly and an oil-finished walnut stock showing no grain and without any checkering, but sporting a Schnabel fore-end and Monte Carlo comb. It comes with open sights and a receiver grooved for scope rings. The open sights consist of a blade up front and a square notch in the rear. Elevation adjustments are made by raising or lowering the front blade while the rear sight must be drifted to one side or the other with a punch to adjust for windage. With open sights the Model 270 weighs five pounds, six ounces. Sporting a 19 3/4-inch barrel, the rifle's overall length is 38 3/4 inches. The M-270 retails for $250.
There's little more to say for the H&K Model 300. There have been attempts to dress up the stock--pistol grip cap, checkering on the fore-end and pistol grip, and a better grade of oil-finished walnut is used. Where the Model 300 differs from its .22 Long Rifle stablemate is in overall beef. To handle the more powerful .22 WMR cartridge, the Model 300 action has been strengthened throughout. The result is that while it also has a 19 3/4-inch barrel, the overall length is 39 1/2 inches and the rifle weighs six pounds, seven ounces with open sights, 7 3/4 pounds topped with a Schmidt & Bender 4X scope set in an H&K mount.
The entire trigger assembly in H&K rifles is contained in a separate housing constructed of nylon or a similar material. a neat feature of this is that by pushing a small catch located on the back of the triggerguard, the entire trigger/striker unit is released to drop out the bottom. I recommend no further disassembly of this unit. The trigger pulls on my H&k test guns were good--three pounds and 3 1/4 pounds on the Model 270 and Model 300 respectively. I seriously doubt that any worthwhile alteration could be made to H&K triggers. incidentally, the trigger can be cleaned and relubricated without disassembly. Just soak the unit in a fast-evaporating solvent for 30 minutes or so, agitate it vigorously in the solvent for a few minutes to float away loosened grit and gummy oil, then set the unit aside while the solvent evaporates. When you're sure it's dry, relubricate using a needle point oiler.
H&K makes their Models 270 and 300 available only with detachable magazines. This feature I like both for reliability and safety. The standard magazines for both .22 Long Rifle and .22 WMR hold five rounds, but a 20 rounder is available for the Model 270 and a 15-round magazine for the Model 300. the mag snaps firmly into a recess in the bottom of the receiver. The magazine release is a flat lever located just above the magazine and protrudes for beneath the stock. Pushing the lever in--to the right--releases the magazine.
The H&K action design does not lend itself to easy cleaning. There's just no way to reach through that ejection port, the only opening in the receiver, and scrub the barrel face and bolt and magazine holder. This takes a little time, but isn't difficult and it has one big advantage. when so stripped, the bore of the H&K can be cleaned from the rear, thus preventing possible muzzle damage, and the round receiver an be swabbed and relubricated.
As I mentioned earlier, I didn't get an H&R model 700 Deluxe to test. However, in going over my notes from a couple of years ago when I did some rather superficial testing with this rifle, I find that I was favorably impressed, particularly with its accuracy and trigger mechanism. The Harrington & Richardson Model 700 Deluxe is a full-size rimfire rifle. Chambered only for the .22 WMR, it has a 22-inch barrel and is 43 1/4 inches long overall. The stock is walnut, there's a rubber buttplate, checkering on the pistol grip and forearm and no iron sights. The Model 700 Deluxe comes complete with mounts and an H&R 4X scope with a one-inch tube. Like the H&K, the H&R has a five-shot magazine instead of a tubular magazine. A ten-shot magazine is available as an accessory. With the five-shot option this rifle retails for $295.
Even though my work with the H&R was skimpy and done some time ago, my note indicate that it favored Winchester hollow point .22 WMR ammo and would group five of same in just over one inch at at 50 yards. However, the trigger mechanism deserves special mention. Unlike those on other semi-automatic .22s, the sear engagement on the Model 700 is adjustable, yet it can't be set too light. After just a little work I was able to achieve a good, safe 2 1/2-pound trigger pull. I only wish I'd had the opportunity to really wring this rifle out with the others.
Our last entry in the deluxe rimfire semi-automatic rifle lineup is the Weatherby Mark XXII. This rifle has been temporarily out of production for some months, but shipment will begin in full swing about the time this article comes out so you should have no trouble getting a Mark XXII in the future.
Like all Weatherbys, this rifle stands alone in the field when it comes to stock design. An excellent grade of walnut is used in the Mark XXII stock and shows nice grain throughout. There's a rubber buttplate, contrasting rosewood pistol grip and fore-end caps, a Monte Carlo comb, sling swivel stud and hand-cut skip checkering on both the forearm and pistol grip. The finish is glossy and appears to be pretty tough.
The Mark XXII has a 24-inch barrel, the longest found on any of the deluxe rimfire semi-autos. It's available with either a detachable magazine--five- or ten-shot models available at $339--or a 15-shot tubular magazine at $349. An overall length of 42 5/8 inches makes this one full-size rifle. With iron sights it weighs six pounds, but addition of a Weatherby 4X scope which attaches to the grooved receiver, brings brings the weight up to seven pounds.
A feature unique to the Weatherby Mark XXII is a single-shot selector. What this does is allow the rifle to be fired and, after extraction and ejection, the bolt stays open. The single-shot thumb lever is located on the right side of the receiver. Pushed forward it's set for single-shot, pulled back it's set for semi-auto firing. To release the bolt for another shot in the single-shot mode, you simply pull the selector lever rearward.
Cleaning the Mark XXII requires removal of the trigger unit and bolt from the receiver. The trigger unit can then be cleaned by soaking it in solvent, drying and relubrication. The bolt face and back face of the barrel should be scrubbed with a tootbrush and solvent.
Well, that's a rundown on the rifles, but I've saved the best for last. How do they stack up when it comes to accuracy and reliability of functioning? For my initial range tests with the .22 Long Rifle guns, I selected nine different hunting loads as well as four hyper-velocity rounds. Ten-shot groups were fired with each rifle and each load at 50 yards. In the H&K Model 300 I tested all four .22 WMR loads available. Following my tests of .22 Long Rifle hunting ammunition, I selected the most accurate of the rifles--the H&K Model 270--and tested six different brands of match ammunition, again firing ten-shot groups at 50 yards.
Several conclusions can be drawn from these tests. The most obvious, of course, concerns the accuracy of the various rifles. The H&K Model 270 and the Weatherby Mark XXII were very close in this category, but the edge goes to the H&K. If you like the takedown feature of the Browning, you give up a little in accuracy for this configuration. Still, with the right ammo the Browning's accuracy is acceptable for hunting.
A most distrubing result of my tests was that not one of my test rifles turned in acceptable groups with any of the four hyper-velocity loads. By far the best of the guns with this ho ammo was the H&K Model 270, but the very best group was not much better than the worst with regular Long Rifle ammo. For my own part i don't think the performance of the hyper-velocity ammo in these rifles is good enough to justify its use for small game hunting.
Of course, I should mention that all accuracy testing was done with the temperature ranging from 25 to 30 degrees Farenheit and it is well-known that rimfire ammunition accuracy tends to go to pot at low temperature. I have no doubt that both the hyper velocity, as well as the Winchester Magnum Rimfire and the standard .22 Long Rifle ammo, would have performed far btter in a more temperate climate.
It appears that the accuracy potential of the deluxe semi-automatic rifles is good enough for hunting--the best group being just over an inch, the worst close to two inches at 50 yards. This is bolstered by the groups I fired at 50 yards with match ammo. While it was, on the average, a little more accurate than high velocity hunting ammo, the difference wasn't enough better to sacrifice velocity and bullet performance for a minimal gain in accuracy. Finally, where the .22 Long Rifle guns are concerned, there seems to be little advantage to barrels longer than 20 inches when it comes to velocity. Long Rifle ammunition appears to develop maximum velocity in 20 inches of barrel, so additional length could benefit you only in rifle balance or in appearance.
Accuracy with the various .22 WMR loads in the H&K Model 300 was good, but no better or worse than that of the .22 Long Rifle Model 270. However, I found it disturbing that the best accuracy and velocity was obtained with the .22 WMR solids which are far less effective on game than the hollow point loads. Like solids in centerfire .22s, the .22 WMR solids are poor killer son the varmints for which the cartridge is intended to be used.
In looking back over my records I find that the deluxe .22 rimfire rifles aren't as accurate as their counterparts in the bolt-action field. However, neither do they seem to be quite as picky about the ammo used in them. With the best of bolt-actions one particular brand and type of ammunition will usually perform markedly better than all others, making your choice very clear cut. In the semi-autos, two or three brands and types perform nearly the same and the difference between the best and worst isn't too great.
Lastly, how did the semi-automatics function? Perfectly--that's the only word to describe my experiences. Feeding, extraction and ejection were flawless with all of the rifles and all ammunition--from target loads through Stingers. To make things ever more impressive, I took the rifles into the field and used them on rabbits when the mercury was down around zero and every rifle functioned perfectly.
In conclusion I'll have to say that I was impressed with every aspect of the deluxe semi-automatic rifles I tested. I'm not about to switch from my long-time favorites--the bolt guns--but those of you who favor the self-loaders certainly don't have to take a back seat to anyone. The autoloaders aren't target rifles, but no one claims they're supposed to be. They're intended for hunting and general shooting and for these purposes the deluxe semi-automatic rifles will hold their own against any rimfire rifle on the market.