By Clair Rees
The author’s.22 Magnum Henry offers extra rimfire power for desert hunting.
Winchester and Marlin .30-30 and .44 Magnum lever rifles still work great at typical deer shooting range, but their popularity plummeted years ago. More powerful, flatter-shooting bolt rifles inevitably nudged them aside. As much as I like lever-action deer rifles, I seldom hunt with them anymore. When I do, it’s mostly for the sake of nostalgia.
Have I given up on lever rifles? No way! I may be addicted to scoped .25-06, 7mm-08 and .30-caliber bolt guns when the hunting season rolls around, but I’m still firmly hooked on rimfire lever carbines. I bought my first lever-action .22, a Marlin 39A, many years ago, and that collection has gradually increased.
I wasn’t yet a teenager when I fell in love with the Marlin Model 39 displayed in the Sears & Roebuck window. I pined for that rifle, but I had to face reality. When my widowed, gun-phobic mother eventually gave me permission to own a .22, there was a provision: I had to earn the money to buy it. After a summer spent picking cherries for less than a penny a pound, I’d saved barely enough for the single-shot Remington I took home from the sporting goods store. The Marlin was still beyond my financial reach, but I finally owned a real gun.
As the years passed, I went through a progression of bolt-action and autoloading .22 repeaters. Then one day it hit me: I could finally afford the Model 39A of my boyhood dreams!
Classic rimfire lever guns, from left: Winchester 9422 and Browning BL-22 carbines, and Marlin 39A rifle.
At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the Model 39’s long history or the importance it played in the rimfire world. When L.L. Hepburn invented the exposed-hammer lever rifle that became the Marlin Safety Rifle, Model of 1891, it was America’s first successful .22 repeater.
An instant hit with shooters, the Model 1891 soon received a publicity bonanza. World-famed sharpshooter Annie Oakley adopted the new lever rifle and featured it in her shooting performances. With Oakley trumpeting the accuracy and dependability of the Marlin .22, sales quickly took off.
Today’s Model 39A rifles, along with modern variations like the Model 1897 Cowboy I acquired a few years back, are direct descendants of that original Model 1891. Five years after the Model 1891 was introduced, it was replaced with the Model 1892 (don’t ask me why it wasn’t called the Model 1896). Improvements included eliminating the Model 1891’s lever-operated trigger safety, and a one-piece trigger and sear. Another innovation prevented the rifle from firing until the lever was fully closed and the breech block firmly locked. Today’s Model 39As still have this feature.
In 1897, a full-takedown version was developed. Removing a single thumbscrew allowed separating the buttstock and half the receiver from the barrel and the other half of the action. With the lever, carrier block and bolt exposed, you could also remove the firing pin and extractor for cleaning or other maintenance. This feature came in handy on the rare occasions a cartridge jammed in the action.
Following a brief hiatus when company ownership changed hands, the Model 39 was introduced in 1922. While the model number changed, this gun was virtually identical to the Model 1892/1897 rifles from which it descended. Featuring a stronger action, the Model 39A replaced the Model 39 in 1936. This rifle’s basic design has been in virtually continuous production since 1891. It still contains no stamped or synthetic parts, but continues to be machined from hardened steel forgings.
The quick, one-screw takedown feature on modern Marlin .22 lever guns originated more than a century ago.
Later variations included the Model 39M Mountie with a straight pistol-grip stock, squared-off lever and 20-inch barrel, and a modern version of the century-old Model 1897. When the new Model 1897 Cowboy was introduced, I was smart enough to get my hands on one. It featured a 24-inch octagon barrel topped with a vintage Marble semi-buckhorn rear sight and a high front blade with a brass bead insert. The straight-grip walnut stock was sharply checkered.
My only complaint with the current Marlin lever guns is the pushbutton cross-bolt safety that physically blocks the firing pin when engaged. The extra safety probably makes sense in our increasingly litigious world, but I prefer to rely on the rifle’s rebounding hammer and half-cock safety notch. Guess I’m gettin’ old and crotchety. The good-looking Model 1897 has since been discontinued. Hopefully some similar variation will again appear in a future Marlin catalog.
While Marlin’s .22 lever rifle is a top-quality firearm with an enviable history, it’s not the only game in town. One of my favorite pastimes is wandering Western deserts or mountain forests with a lever-action rimfire and a pocketful of Long Rifle ammo. Last summer, I spent several days doing just that in Wyoming’s vast desert country. The Browning BL-22 on my shoulder was ready to take on jackrabbits, skunks, ground squirrels, bobcats or any other critters that put in an appearance.
While I enjoy all kinds of hunting, aimlessly strolling through mile upon rolling mile of sagebrush takes me back to my youth. My high school buddies and I eagerly hunted desert jacks in muddy springs, blazing summers and bone-chilling winters. Fall was reserved for ducks, pheasants and, the Holy Grail of Utah hunters, big-antlered mule deer bucks.
The Browning BL-22 delivers good 50-yard hunting accuracy.
All of my teenage companions carried rimfire rifles, but only one owned a lever-action .22. As I walked the Wyoming desert, I recalled those early rabbit hunts. Finally carrying a .22 lever gun of my own made me grin.
When the first Wyoming jackrabbit suddenly bounced into view from an acre-sized cluster of sagebrush, the rabbit and I were equally startled. My reflexes were a bit faster than his, and the little Browning came up of its own accord. Nestling the front blade into the rear sight notch, I moved it to the jack’s shoulder, tripping the trigger before the critter could bound back to cover. The jack was roughly 40 yards away, and the little 40-grain bullet stopped it in its tracks.
If a second shot had been required, I had the right rifle for the job. Alone among crank-action .22s, the BL-22 sports the fastest-cycling lever on the market. The trigger travels with the lever, so there’s no need to shift your hand on the grip before firing again. Simply flicking your fingers up and back chambers a fresh round and cocks the action. The BL-22’s short-throw lever allows you to fire repeat shots faster than with any other lever carbine.
Capacity of the BL-22’s tubular magazine is 15 Long Rifle cartridges (if you’re one of the rare breed who prefers shooting Shorts, you can stuff 21 of the diminutive rounds inside). This handsome little carbine measures just a half-inch over a yard long with its 20-inch barrel. The two-piece checkered walnut stock sports a glossy urethane finish. The rear sight wears an insert that can be adjusted for elevation, and the sight folds out of the way if you decide to mount a scope.
I have nothing against riflescopes. I use them all the time on my bolt-action hunting rifles. But I refuse to mount a scope on any saddle carbine of either centerfire or rimfire persuasion. My objection? Scopes destroy the light, easy-handling handiness that make lever rifles so doggone appealing. A scope looks and feels out of place on a slim, trim saddle carbine. What’s more, you don’t need magnifying optics at deer-woods ranges. They’re even more superfluous on a lever-action .22.
Winchester’s Model 9422 is another classic rimfire lever gun. Introduced in 1972, this crank-action carbine is available in .22 Long Rifle chambering, and .17 Mach 2 capability was recently introduced. Magnum versions digest your choice of either .22 WMR or .17 HMR loads. The Model 9422 features one-screw takedown, much like the arrangement offered on Marlin’s Model 39A.
Like the Marlin, the Winchester 9422 is a top-quality lever rifle that takes you back to the days when men were men and horsepower wasn’t found under the hood. Rimfire saddle carbines transport you to the romantic era portrayed by western movies and TV horse operas. These great squirrel, rabbit and plinking guns offer a heavy dose of nostalgia. Sadly, the 9422 is being dropped from the Winchester lineup. A few runs of commemorative 9422s will be manufactured and marketed this year, then this neat little rifle will fade into history much as the great Savage 99 and Model 88 Winchester lever guns have done.
I’ve been testing a Model 9417 (the Model 9422 in .17 Mach 2 chambering), and like it a lot. Guess what? When the consignment period ends and it’s time to return the rifle, I’m gonna write a check instead. I understand these Winchester lever carbines are rapidly disappearing from dealer’s shelves. I only wish I still had the Model 9422 I sent back to Winchester several months ago.
While the Winchester 9422 is fading from the scene, a lower-cost lookalike is still going strong. At first glance, the Henry lever rifle and the Model 9422 look pretty much alike. However, closer examination shows that the Henry receiver is made of glossy-finished alloy instead of blued steel. In place of the Winchester’s steel barrel bands, the Henry’s bands are black plastic. Another giveaway is the pair of large-headed screws on each side of the Henry receiver. The about-to-be-defunct Winchester has a single takedown screw on the port side of the receiver.
If you’re on a tight budget but want a lever-action .22, give the rifles offered by the Henry Repeating Arms Co. a close look. A variety of .22 Long Rifle, .22 WMR and .17 HMR Henrys are available, with recommended prices beginning around $280. I own both .22 Long Rifle and .22 Magnum versions. These are good-looking rifles that shoot and handle well. I initially had headspace troubles with the .22 Magnum, which spit case fragments back into my face. When I returned the rifle, the problem was promptly corrected.
The plain-Jane standard model Henry is offered in both adult and youth-model sizes, in addition to a carbine sporting an oversized lever loop. There’s also a series of Henry Golden Boy crank-action rimfires in .22 LR, .22 WMR and .17 HMR chambering. These slick-handling rifles wear American walnut stocks, octagonal barrels and eye-catching Brasslite receivers. If you like highly decorated rifles, the Henry Golden Boy Deluxe features a receiver and backstrap generously adorned with intricate hand engraving. This little beauty sells for an even grand.
The lever-action rimfire offered by Sturm, Ruger & Co. isn’t a classic saddle carbine with an exposed hammer and a two-piece stock. Instead, Ruger’s streamlined Model 96 has a hammerless receiver. Its appearance recalls the long discontinued (but increasingly coveted) Winchester Model 88 lever rifle, and is vaguely similar to that of the Savage Model 99. It, too, is no longer available unless you haunt the used gun racks.
The Model 96 is currently offered in your choice of .22 WMR or .17 HMR chambering, and comes complete with a Weaver or tip-off style scope base. These lever guns feature the same time-proven, rotary-feed magazines found on Ruger’s bolt-action Model 77 and autoloading 10/22 rimfire rifles.
While .22 rimfires help hone your shooting skills, the main reason to own a .22 is to have fun! And when it comes to plinking or hunting fun, nothing beats a lever-action .22.
This story was printed in the July 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.