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Small-game rifles I've known and loved: why? Because man does not live by big came alone.

HUNTING DEER during my youth involved a very long drive to Francis Marion National Forest on the coast of South Carolina. We only got to spend a week there each year, and while it was a big deal, small-game hunting at home was a bigger deal due to the convenience. That applied not only for kids like me, but for my father and other grown-ups as well.

I grew up in the country, and in those days I took squirrel hunting as seriously as I do big-game hunting today. Each Saturday morning of the season, I arose while the rest of the world was still fast asleep and--with rifle and Little Beaver flashlight in hand--headed out. Daylight would find me sitting in one of my favorite spots in the big woods behind our house. I have owned many small-game rifles through the years, but only a few have been my favorites. Here is a brief look at each of them.


My first small-game rifle was a Remington Model 512. It was accurate enough, but what I really wanted was the one my hunting chums and I dreamed of in those days, a Marl in Golden 39A. Back then it was an accepted fact of life that kids worked during summers, and some of the money I made during one of mine bought the rifle of my dreams. An uncle owned a hardware store, and my "nephew discount" on the 39A was exactly enough to allow me to add a Marlin Micro-Vue 4X scope with a three-quarter-inch tube to the tab. By today's standards the scope was quite primitive, but I loved it and was amazed at how much farther away it enabled me to head-shoot a bushytail than with the open sights of the Remington.

The 39A was a great rifle, but when I shot a Mountie a buddy got for Christmas, I was smitten. Like all standard 39As, mine had a 24-inch barrel and a curved-grip stock, while the barrel on his straight-gripped Mountie was 20 inches. But what I really liked about the Mountie was its lighter weight. I don't recall how many boxes of .22s the trade cost me, but I ended up with his rifle and my scope. Years later I realized that the scope was not as good as it was when my eyes were much younger, so I replaced it with one of better optical quality and a one-inch tube.

In the old days I mostly hunted with the .22 Short, and while it required getting close before pulling the trigger, it was less expensive than .22 Long Rifle. Not long back, I came down with a bad case of nostalgia and managed to round up several boxes of CCI .22 Short. Some things in our distant memories are often bigger and better than they actually were, and while my first favorite small-game rifle is not as accurate today as I thought it was back then, it'll still keep five bullets on a target the size of a gray squirrel's shoulder at 25 yards.


There was a time when the Winchester Model 52 Sporting Rifle was what many small-game hunters wanted but few could afford, and that included me. Then one day Dave Talley showed me a custom rifle he had built on a 1922 Springfield action. For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the 1922, it is a .22 rimfire version of the 1903 Springfield. It was officially designated as "U.S. Rifle, Cal. .22, Model of 1922," and the Army took delivery of the first ones in 1922. As various improvements were made, its designation was changed, first to 1922M1 in 1925 and finally to 1922M2 in 1932. The original accuracy requirement was five shots inside an inch at 50 yards. But when Peters introduced a new match load called "Outdoor Tackhole" in 1927, this mandate was reduced to three-quarters of an inch.

The Model 1922 was adopted as a training rifle, but a few changes here and a modification or two there made it capable of holding its own in world-class competitive shooting. One of the rarest examples is the International Match Rifle built in 1924 for the Army's Free Rifle team. In addition to a star-gauged barrel, it had a double-set trigger, hook buttplate and adjustable palm rest.

On special occasions through the years, my wonderful wife, Phyllis, has given me several rifles. When, in 1964, she learned that Dave Talley had a 1922M2 Springfield-barreled action for sale, she bought it. First I had P.O. Ackley reduce weight a bit by turning the barrel to a lighter contour with a muzzle diameter of .550 inch. Then Talley lowered the bolt handle, fine-tuned the trigger and installed a Buehler safety. He also stocked the rifle with a nice piece of American walnut replete with a Niedner-style checkered-steel buttplate and grip cap, and an ebony forearm tip. Bob Cassidy finished the job with one of my favorite checkering patterns at 22 lines per inch.

My very special Springfield ended up at 8 1/4 pounds with a fairly light scope in a two-piece Conetrol mount. The first ammo I tried in it back in the 1960s was Western Mark III Super Match. It shot just under a half-inch at 50 yards. More recently, Federal Gold Medal UltraMatch and Lapua Midas Plus averaged .49 and .51 inch for five five-shot groups at that distance. Match Xtra Plus, which is loaded for Remington by Eley, went .62 inch. Back when I was hunting a lot with the rifle, I stuck with the Western match load until my supply was exhausted. Today I mostly use Lapua. That sounds expensive until you consider that 50 dead gray squirrels are in every box.


Beginning back in the 1950s when Mike Walker put together the first one on a single-shot version of the Model 722 action, the 40X rifle has always been built in the Remington custom shop. Many variations have been available through the years. I bought my first one in the 1970s, shortly after Remington got into the benchrest competition game in a big way by introducing the 40XB-BR version for the Light Varmint and Heavy Varmint classes of competition. The former had a 20-inch barrel, and the barrel of the latter was 26 inches long.

I bought the Heavy Varmint rifle in .222 Remington and had Harry Creighton rechamber it and open up its bolt face for the .220 Swift. The very first five-shot group I shot at 100 yards with the 50-grain Sierra seated atop 39.0 grains of 1MR 4064 measured .444 inch, and accuracy got a lot better than that. The rifle quickly became my favorite for bumping off groundhogs at long range, and many years later, when Remington began offering its 40X-KS in .220 Swift, I added one of those to my varmint battery. By that time the 40X action had become an addiction, so I had Kenny Jarrett build a new prairie dog rifle in .223 Remington around one.

When engaged in high-volume plinking at flickertails and other small critters, I enjoy taking occasional breaks from centerfire muzzle blast by switching to an accurate .22. The one I settled on for that around 1992 was a Remington 40X. At the time, it was being built by Remington for .22 rimfire benchrest competition. Weighing 11 1/4 pounds (with scope), it has a 22-inch, stainless steel, buttonrifled barrel with a muzzle diameter of .940 inch. The rifle also has a two-ounce trigger. When a cartridge is pushed into the match-dimension chamber, the bullet makes hard contact with the rifling. The receiver and trigger of the rimfire 40X are the same as for the centerfire version, but its bolt is different. Of two-piece design, the front, nonrotating section has twin extractors, while the rear section rotates to engage its two locking lugs with shoulders inside the receiver. It is similar to the Ruger 77/22 bolt but without the looseness between its two sections.

Shooting tiny groups outdoors with any .22 rimfire rifle is seldom easy, but when there are no strong breezes to push bullets astray and I am having a particularly good day, the 40X will keep five bullets inside .300 inch at 50 yards with Eley Tenex and Lapua Midas Plus. Both are too expensive for varmint shooting (for that I stick with standard-velocity Federal ammo). On a windless day, any flickertail within 200 long paces is destined for that big, grassy field in the sky.


I may be the only person in the entire world who considers the .17 Mach 2 the best small-game cartridge to come down the pike. It shoots flatter and bucks wind better than the .22 Long Rifle and, in a good rifle, is more accurate at 100 yards and beyond. The ammo is also quite a bit less expensive than .17 HMR. Sad to say, this great little cartridge seems to be on its last legs, and that's a shame.

I first used it in 2004 in a preproduction R55 semiautomatic made by Thompson/Center. I was in Kansas for a deer hunt and also had a Contender rifle with barrels in .30-30 Winchester and .17 Mach 2. After taking one of my best bucks with the .30-30, I switched to the .17 and went after some of the biggest fox squirrels I had ever seen.

As small game goes, fox squirrels may be at the top in toughness. The first two were sitting on a limb near the top of a tall tree at 61 yards and appeared to be stone dead before hitting the ground. Several kills were made out to 130 yards. While on a turkey hunt in California a few months later, I bagged a gobbler early and finished out the week trying to put a dent in the ground squirrel population with a rifle in .17 Mach 2. A few more shoots later and I was really beginning to like the cartridge.

I still enjoy shooting the Contender, but my favorite is a switch-barrel rifle in .17 Mach 2 and .22 Long Rifle built about six years ago by Tom Volquartsen. Built on the Ruger 10/22 receiver, it has his trigger and a McMillan fiberglass stock. The two matchgrade, stainless steel barrels are 18 1/2 inches long and measure .925 inch at the muzzle. The rifle has two CNC-machined bolts, one a bit heavier to handle the slower pressure peak of the .17 Mach 2 cartridge. A heavier recoil spring goes with that bolt.

Soon after receiving the rifle, I tried .17 Mach 2 ammo from CCI, Eley, Federal, Hornady and Remington. All shot inside an inch at 100 yards for five five-shot groups, with the best averaging .69 inch and the worst .83 inch. The .22 barrel averaged .79 inch with Remington Match EPS and 1.13 inches with CCI Mini-Mag HP (the most accurate high-velocity load in the rifle).


Several years ago, Dan Cooper of Cooper Firearms called to inform me of the introduction of his new Model 52 rifle. To make a long story short, after shooting one, I liked it so much that I placed an order for the Western Classic grade in .25-06. I still have the rifle, and it shoots just about any good load inside an inch at 100 yards, with some loads averaging less than a half-inch. Dan knew how much I liked that rifle, so soon after building a Model 57-M Western Classic in .22 Long Rifle, he cast the hook and reeled me in. Except for its smaller action, it is a spitting image of my .25-06.

The .22 weighs dead on eight pounds with scope. Its 24-inch barrel starts out round just forward of the receiver, and from there it transitions to octagon, then tapers to .590 inch across the flats at the muzzle. The case-color on its receiver, bottom metal, magazine floor cap and grip cap is by Doug Turnbull. Same goes for its Talley scope mount and Model 70 Super Grade-style sling swivel brackets. The American walnut stock has 22-lpi cut checkering in a fleur-de-lis pattern with coverage on the forearm--that task was made quite difficult to execute as perfectly as it is by the addition of a thin ribbon of uncheckered wood. The buttplate is checkered steel in the Niedner style, and the forearm tip is ebony.

The last time I shot the rifle on paper, its overall average for five five-shot groups at 50 yards with six different loads was .61 inch, with Federal and Remington match ammo averaging .34 and .38 inch. The most accurate high-velocity load was Remington Cyclone at .82 inch.

I know what you're thinking. Why did he want the Cooper when he already had the custom 1922 Springfield? To be honest, in the battle between want and need, lust won out. And besides, owning only one small-game rifle would be as sad as having only one rifle for big game. It could be done, I suppose, but life is much too short to even consider it.
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Title Annotation:SMALL-GAME RIFLES
Author:Simpson, Layne
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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