February 01, 2016
When the leaves are turning and frost is in the air, squirrel stew beckons. That's the time to dig out the trusty rimfire, take the kids out plinking, and perhaps pot a few bushytails from the treetops. If you need to add a little challenge to the adventures, turn to a rimfire pistol.
A rimfire pistol has a long, honorable legacy as the ultimate inexpensive practice tool with which to polish one's shooting skills, and as versatile sidearms for hunting and wilderness work. Where legal, pairing your deer or elk rifle with a light, accurate .22 rimfire pistol makes dropping a fat grouse for dinner possible, and while scouting and during bow season an accurate, suppressed .22 rimfire pistol can augment the culinary quality of your camp without disturbing the woods around you with the sound of a shot. (Just be sure that toting a rimfire pistol and hunting with suppressors is legal when and where you hunt.)
When it comes to choosing a rimfire pistol, there are two primary types on the market today: one is driven by the concealed-carry trend, and while they are great training tools for self-defense purposes, they're typically too compact and not accurate enough to serve well for hunting and serious plinking. The second type features longer barrels for better velocity (and which offer the lovely side benefit of longer, easier-to-shoot sight radius), and accuracy-driven design features; this type of rimfire pistol is too big to conceal, but will drive tacks.
Because they typically have hand filling, full-size frames, good triggers, and long sight radiuses, this type of rimfire pistol is exceedingly easy to shoot. Ranchers and farmers carry them or keep one in the truck for use on prairie dogs, skunks, and other varmints. Trappers tote lightweight versions for administering the coup-de-gras when necessary, and backpackers augment their protein intake with them. No tin can is safe from a good rimfire trail pistol in steady hands.
Don't have one? Time to go shopping! Characteristics to look for are accuracy, reliability, and easy-to-shoot ergonomics. Since the first two can't be confirmed at the gun store (you'll have to sally forth to the range to really test accuracy and reliability) base your decision on three things: obvious quality, a reputation for accuracy, and the way it feels in your hand.
Obvious quality tends to translate into performance, and spending the extra dollar is the best way to ensure that you get extra performance. As for reputation, certain make and models build much-deserved name for accuracy, and a knowledgeable gun shop employee can direct you to them.
Finally, if a rimfire pistol feels good in your hand, you'll likely shoot it better than one that feels like a hunk of wood.
As a kindly warning, most quality rimfire pistols have inflated suggested retail prices. Don't let the numbers presented on manufacturers websites sour you: actual prices in gun shops will be much friendlier.
Enough verbal lather. Below, in random order, is detailed a handful of top rimfire pistol options for hunting, plinking, and trail use. Peruse it and then get ye hence to the gun shop, and from there to the woods. Squirrels, grouse and tin cans await.
Ruger .22/45 Lite
Ok, ok, I mentioned "random order," but this rimfire pistol just deserves to go first. Why? Because I believe it is the most versatile plinking/hunting rimfire pistol available. Engineered with a grip angle and feel that matches the legendary .45-caliber 1911 Colt Government pistol, the 22/45s balance and point exceedingly well. Courtesy of the polymer frame and aluminum shrouded barrel, they're shockingly light — light enough to drop in your mountaineering pack and forget about. That shrouded barrel aids accuracy: I've tested several different-color variations of the .22/45 Lite with scopes mounted on them, and all have shot groups well under an inch at 25 yards. Honoring today's burgeoning trend toward suppressors for practical use, the muzzle end of the barrel is threaded — my SilencerCo Warlock fits and functions as if made specifically for it. Triggers are good, reliability is good, carryability is superb, and accuracy beyond expectation. Every rimfire pistol comes with two magazines and an optic rail. Weight: 22.7 ounces. Capacity: 10 rounds. Price: $515.
Browning Buck Mark Buckthorn Tan
Back in my teens, one of my best shooting buddies had an old Browning Buck Mark pistol, and I'll be darned if he couldn't hit empty little 50-round cardboard .22 cartridge boxes offhand at 20 yards with it. Buck Marks are renown for their ergonomics and accuracy. Significantly, they're easier to field strip and service than Ruger's competing semiauto rimfires. This particular rimfire pistol is fit with a fiber-optic front sight insert and is finished in the tan version of Browning's eye-catching new Buckthorn camo. Grips feature green rubbery overmolded inserts, and the 5.5-inch bull-diameter barrel suggest latent accuracy. Weight: 34 ounces. Capacity: 10 rounds. Price: $480.
Smith & Wesson Model 647 Varminter
This ain't your granddaddy's rimfire pistol. Chambered in the sizzling bottleneck .17 HMR cartridge, the 647 Varminter sports a 12-inch barrel, weighs a suspender-popping 54 ounces, and is accurate enough to take the head off of a cottontail 50 yards distant. You'll need a shoulder holster to carry it, but at the moment of truth you're more likely to hit your target with a 647 Varminter than any other handgun detailed here. Of double-action design, you'll likely opt to do must of your shooting in single action mode purely to get the best accuracy out of it. For an afternoon of serious gopher or prairie dog control, no other handgun will touch this. It even has a rail beneath the barrel to attach a bipod to. Capacity: 6 rounds. Price: $1,419.
Ruger Mark III Hunter
Back when I worked through college behind a local gun counter, I left numerous fingerprints and perhaps a drop or two of drool on the Mark II Hunter on display. At the time I figured it was the sexiest semiauto rimfire pistol on the market, and today's Mark III version is no less so. The long, deeply fluted barrel aids accuracy without adding undue weight, the rake of the grip frame makes it very comfortable to shoot, and the satin stainless finish contrasts beautifully with the reddish, partially checkered grips. The front sight boasts a fiber-optic insert to enhance visibility in low-light conditions. Weight: 41 ounces. Capacity: 10 rounds. Price: $699.
Ruger Single Six Hunter
This isn't just for the traditionalists among us: It's a superbly built, long-barreled .22 that will turn in eyebrow-raising accuracy, and without a doubt it is the most robust, reliable rimfire pistol detailed in this article. Black laminate wood grips contrast nicely with the stainless finish on the metal, and although it's heavy, the Single Six Hunter feels as good in the hands as it looks. Scope ring bases are machined into the barrel's integral top rib. This handgun is a bit much for grade-school-size hands, but there's nothing better for a teenager to polish skills on. Weight: 45 ounces. Capacity: 6 rounds. Price: $829.
Smith & Wesson Model 317 Kit Gun
Made for extreme hikers, trappers running a long trapline on snowshoes, and other backcountry pursuits, the Kit gun combines extremely light weight — only 12.5 ounces — with legendary Smith & Wesson reliability. While it's not engineered for precision accuracy, shooters with a steady hand and eyes good enough to get the best out of the relatively short sight radius will be surprisingly pleased at its consistency. It performs superbly in low light courtesy of a fiber-optic front sight insert, and in freezing weather conditions and so forth. This is less of a plinking and recreational hunting rimfire pistol and more of a lifestyle tool and would be a great companion to the moose rifle hanging on your dogsled. Capacity: 8 rounds. Price: $759.
If you wanna be Dirty Harry when you grow up, make your day and pick up one of these spectacular little eight-shot revolvers. Based on the small SP101 frame of snub-nose .38 fame, this little revolver has a 4.2 inch barrel (long enough to make it easy to shoot well and to generate game-dropping velocity), adjustable sights with a fiber-optic front insert, and Ruger's overbuilt, bull-tough construction. On the revolver side of the rimfire pistols detailed in this article, this is probably the most versatile of the lot: ergonomic, accurate, easy to shoot well, yet not so big that it won't carry nicely on one's belt. Weight: 30 ounces. Price: $719.
Browning Buck Mark Hunter
One of the classiest of all semiauto rimfire pistols, the Buck Mark Hunter will make your Kuiu-wearing hunting buddies jealous, and your grandpa want to come shoot it with you. Featuring a tapered 7.25-inch bull barrel, it will shoot as well as it looks, too. Sights are match-grade adjustable versions with a fiber-optic embedded into the front, and an optic base is integral to the top of the frame, making it easy to add a scope or red dot. Grip panels are a rich, reddish laminate with contours drawn from target pistols, making it one of the most comfortable pistols you'll shoot. Weight: 38 ounces. Capacity: 10 rounds. Price: $500.