Try as one might, it’s awfully hard to make a case for any small-game cartridge other than the .22 Long Rifle. It’s cheap and readily available in loads to suit any occasion. More effort has gone into perfecting it, worldwide, than any other cartridge in history. As a result, you can buy target and game loads of superlative quality.
If the object of the game is a passel of fat squirrels to make a stew, and head shots are the ticket, standard match solids work well out to 50 yards or even beyond, depending on the rifle. If you want to take out pesky possums, or woodchucks in the back garden where noise is an issue, .22 LR hollowpoints will knock ’em dead if placed in the right spot.
In England, from about 1870 to 1910, there was a whole class of “Rook & Rabbit” rifles and cartridges. As the name implies, they were intended for hunting rooks—a species of blackbird—and bunnies, both of which make tasty fare if prepared right. Cartridges ranged from .25 caliber up to about .35, corresponding roughly to the .25-20 WCF and .32-20 WCF. When the .22 Long Rifle came along, it consigned them all to the dusty back shelves. After 1914, the traditional rook-and-rabbit rifle disappeared, and the British embraced the .22 Long Rifle like it was their own.
The trick with using the .22 LR for small game is to have a rifle accurate enough to place the bullet where you want it but comfortable enough to carry or to have handy in a truck when you spot a target of opportunity. Specialized varmint rigs, like a .22-250 with a bipod and topped with a massive scope, are great for long-range varmints, where you want to vaporize the critter and have no intention of eating it. For small game, however, they are too heavy, too awkward, and not quick enough into action to get that armadillo before he disappears into the brush—even if you could pick him up in an 18X scope.
There are many good .22 rimfire rifles on the market, of every shape and description. But if you’re a guy who likes rifles for their own sake—and admires the solid walnut and steel that went into American rifles in the old days—here’s a suggestion. Last year I happened to pick up just such a rifle at an auction. It was part of a two-rifle lot, and I wanted its running mate, a Savage 99. The “unwanted” one was a Marlin Model 39 dating back to about 1930, but you can always use another .22. Little did I know it would become my favorite—and make several others surplus to requirements.
The Model 39, which is still available on special order, is the longest-lived commercial rifle in history. Allowing for a few name changes and cosmetic alterations, it has been around since 1891, beginning life as the Model 1891, evolving into the take-down 1897, and, finally, in 1921 and for no apparent reason, the Model 39. It was the rifle Annie Oakley made famous, performing with it on several continents and wowing the paying customers at every turn.
It was the first lever-action .22 Long Rifle, using a tubular magazine that could accommodate Shorts, Longs, and Long Rifles interchangeably, and afforded tremendous firepower—15 rounds or more without reloading. Designed by Lewis Hepburn (of Remington Hepburn fame), it set a standard for reliability and durability like no other. If the kid down the block had a Stevens Favorite and you showed up with a Marlin ’91, then you were the lad. It became every boy’s dream rifle and stayed that way right up to the 1970s.
If there is such a thing as the definitive American .22, then my candidate is the Marlin 39. If you don’t agree, tell me what is. I’m listening, 39 in hand.