The 159-year old .22 LR cartridge has been loaded into all kinds of firearms through the decades. It predates most firearms today’s shooters have ever handled, let alone shot, yet it’s still as popular and useful today as it was when it was invented—in fact, due to modern manufacturing techniques and materials, they’re better than ever.
The light kick and excellent short-range accuracy of the .22 LR has long made it a great choice for pistol shooters, whether as a less intimidating way to learn to shoot, as a high-end competition gun, or as always ready varmint hunter. While its generous rim made it a natural for revolvers, the cartridge has also seen massive popularity chambered in autoloaders, beginning with John Browning’s Colt Woodsman.
Let’s take a look at some of the best and most enduring .22 LR handgun designs ever made.
Ruger Mark Series
These pistols have dominated the .22 autoloader pistol market since the original Ruger Standard was introduced just after WWII.
The Ruger Mark series not only stands as one of the best rimfire pistols ever made, but it’s also the gun that started Sturm, Ruger & Co. back in 1949.
Bill Ruger, a self-taught engineer and entrepreneur, designed the Ruger Standard pistol using the German Luger P08 and the Japanese Baby Nambu pistol for inspiration. Ruger had acquired a Nambu from a U.S. Marine who had brought it back from the Pacific Theater in WWII.
Utilizing the gun’s silhouette and bolt system, Ruger produced the prototype of what would become the Standard in his garage. That gun would be the progenitor of a line of pistols that are still in demand today. Once Ruger got the financial backing he needed from Alex Sturm, the company was born and the Standard pistol went into production, becoming a favorite of target shooters and hunters who were attracted to its looks, accuracy, and affordable price tag.
The most obvious difference between the Mark series of .22 pistols and other semi-auto handguns is that the barrel is permanently affixed to the receiver. So, instead of a slide that moves and a barrel that tilts, only the blow-back operated bolt moves, much like a semi-auto rifle or carbine.
It was a good design, but refinements came soon after the Standard’s introduction.
In 1950, the Mark I Target version of the pistol was introduced with a longer barrel than the Standard, an adjustable target trigger, an adjustable rear sight, and a blade front sight.
In 1962, Ruger introduced a 5.5-inch heavy bull-barrel version of the Mark I, which then became the standard barrel length for the line.
For about 20 years, the Standard, the Mark I, and the Mark I Target were unchanged until the Mark II came along in 1982 in various barrel lengths and weights, replacing previous models. The Mark II had a new slide stop that held the bolt open after the last round was fired, as well as polygonal rifling, whereas other models used traditional land-and-groove rifling.
Soon after, Ruger expanded the Mark II line to include the 22/45 version, which had a polymer frame and a grip angle of 45 degrees to match the 1911, instead of the 35-degree angle of the steel-framed Luger-style grip. The idea was that military personnel and other shooters accustomed to the 1911 could use the 22/45 as a training alternative that was cheaper and easier to shoot than the .45 ACP, while retaining similar ergonomics.
While the Mark II represented relatively few changes from the 1949 Standard, the Mark III, introduced in 2004, made some drastic changes to the series, some of which didn't please longtime fans.
The changes included tighter fitting parts, which most shooters agree made the Mark III exceptionally difficult to disassemble and reassemble. A plastic loaded-chamber indicator was added to the left side of the gun, the addition of which made jams notoriously difficult to clear by cluttering up an already small chamber. The magazine release on the Mark III was relocated from the more European-style location at the heel (bottom of the grip) to a spot more familiar to American shooters, behind the trigger guard.
Mark III models with adjustable sights came drilled and tapped for a Weaver-style rail to mount optics, and a magazine disconnect was added (meaning the gun cannot be fired without a magazine inserted). The Mark III was also produced in the 22/45 configuration with its own variants, and the 22/45 Lite was introduced in 2012 with a lightweight, fluted aluminum receiver.
In 2016, Ruger listened to shooters who were unhappy with the changes made with the Mark III, and began producing the Ruger Mark IV. The chief problem the new model addressed was that of the gun’s notoriously difficult takedown procedure. Redesigned internals mean the Mark IV only requires the push of a button to separate the receiver from the frame and remove the bolt for cleaning.
The bolt stop was also redesigned, an ambidextrous lever-style safety replaced the button safety of the Mark III, and a spring was added to help assist the magazine release. The Mark IV is currently available in a bull-barrel Target version; in a Hunter version with a longer, fluted barrel, fiber optic sights, and wood grips; and the newest, heavy-weight Competition model, with a 6.88-inch slab-sided bull barrel, hardwood laminate thumb rest grips, and fully adjustable target sights.
The Mark IV 22/45 Lite was released soon after, with the same one-button takedown design, making the update of the Mark III complete.
This thoroughly modern pistol was one of the first, and is still one of the best, ergonomic polymer-framed rimfire pistols.
While the Ruger Mark series represents a pistol design born from the last Great War that has been refined through the decades, the P22 from German gunmaker Carl Walther GmbH Sportwaffen is a thoroughly modern .22 LR pistol with a polymer frame, low bore axis, and all the features one would expect on a modern handgun.
Walther started making the DA/SA semi-auto pistol in 2002—the dawn of the polymer pistol age—as one of the first rimfire guns to use modern manufacturing procedures and features only found, at the time, on new centerfire pistols. It remains a favorite of shooters in all walks of life to this day.
On the outside, the P22 resembles the company’s extremely popular and ergonomic P99, but at about 75 percent of the overall size and with a slide-mounted thumb safety and an external hammer.
The gun has a cast polymer grip frame with a slide and frame receiver inserts made from metal injection molding cast zinc alloy. The barrel consists of a rifled steel insert containing within a steel barrel sleeve.
The P22 comes with a compact 3.4-inch barrel or with a longer 5-inch target barrel. The longer-barrel version also includes a barrel-mounted weight that acts as a compensator and matches the slide profile.
All P22 pistols, except the California-compliant model, come with an internally threaded barrel allowing the attachment of a suppressor. Walther also makes a thread adapter to fit various suppressor models.
Because of the frame’s polymer construction, it is available in a number of colors, making it a popular, customizable choice for target shooters and plinkers.
Because of its polymer construction, the P22 only weighs 15 ounces and can be fired in double-action with an 11-pound trigger pull, and in single-action with a trigger pull of just over four pounds. The pistol uses a blowback action and incorporates a magazine disconnect and the aforementioned slide-mounted safety, which serves as a hammer block and as a firing-pin lock. The P22 also includes two passive safety mechanisms to protect against accidental discharges if the gun is dropped.
New P22s comes with 3-dot polymer sights, a Picatinny accessory rail, deep slide serrations, a loaded chamber viewport, a removable and interchangeable grip backstrap, and a 10-round magazine. It is offered in all black or with a nickel slide in the regular or Target version, as the P22 Military in matte black and FDE, and in a package with an included laser sight.
One of the downsides of the P22 is that its design doesn’t function well with low-pressure, low velocity ammunition. It must be fed high-velocity loads to function properly.
S&W Model 17
This simple, robust, and full-sized .22 LR revolver has been serving target shooters, plinkers, and hunters through most of the 20th century and well into the 21st.
Though the .22LR does lend itself well to semi-automatic designs, the fact that the cartridge has a rim means it’s been a mainstay load for revolvers pretty much since it was invented.
While the Smith & Wesson M17 was introduced in 1947, after the end of World War II, it has its origins with the company’s large framed Hand Ejector series produced in the 1930s. The “hand-ejector” moniker was intended to differentiate the swing-out cylinder revolvers from previous top-break models, which ejected spent casings when the breech was opened fully. The new cylinder required the user to use their weak hand to activate the star ejector.
Before the war, the revolver debuted as the K-22 Outdoorsman in 1931, along with a companion pistol, the K-32, chambered in .32 S&W Long.
Production of both guns ceased during the war and the Hand Ejector series evolved into the M1917 chambered in .45 ACP (using moon clips) for the U.S. military.
After the war, The Model 17 was reintroduced, along with the K-32 (Model 16) in 1947 as the K-22 and K-32 Masterpiece. The Model 16 was produced until 1983, when it was discontinued due to the declining popularity of the .32 S&W Long cartridge.
One of the more robust revolvers made by S&W, the Model 17 had an adjustable rear sight and an un-pinned, fixed ramp front sight.
Additionally, a customer could order a Model 17 with what the company called “The Three T’s,” meaning a target trigger, target hammer, and target grips. Standard barrel lengths fell at 4-, 6-, and 8-3/8-inches with an abbreviated under lug. S&W also made a Model 18 (sometimes called the 22 Combat Masterpiece), which was the same revolver, but with a 4-inch tapered barrel.
In 1990, S&W began making the Model 17 with a full-length circular under lug of solid, blued steel cast as part of the barrel running from the front of the cylinder yoke to the muzzle’s end, enclosing the ejector rod and adding considerable weight to the gun. The models hipped with special rounded-butt wood grips with inletted finger grooves.
In 1998, due to a corporate shift away from blued wheel-guns, S&W discontinued the Model 17 and all its variants. However, the company began producing the Model 617 in .22 LR, which was a stainless steel version of the blued Model 17 with a full under lug barrel. The 617 is still produced today with a six- or 10-shot cylinder and rubber grips.
In 2009, Smith & Wesson reintroduced the revolver as the Model 17 “Masterpiece,” along with 15 other previously discontinued models under the company’s “Classics” category, due to a resurgence in the popularity of vintage S&W revolvers, along with 15 other previously discontinued models.
Smith & Wesson Model 41
A pistol designed for competition, the higher-end Model 41 has been a mainstay of the target-shooting world for 60 years, despite being discontinued for two years.
Ruger wasn’t the only company after WWII looking toward civilian hunters and target shooters to support their firearms sales. In 1947, Smith & Wesson began working on a new semi-automatic competition pistol chambered in .22 LR by introducing two prototypes, the X-41 and X42. The guns were tested and improved for an entire decade before the Model 41 was finally made available to the public in 1957.
After that long in R&D, it’s not surprising that S&W produced what many consider to be the best .22 target pistols ever made. Though it hasn’t been constantly produced since ’57 and didn’t attain the widespread popularity of the Ruger Mark series, the Model 41 is still made today and is used by national level competitors for acute precision in competition.
The Model 41 is an old-school wood and steel pistol designed to operate and feel like a 1911 (without the external hammer). Unlike the earlier Rugers, the Model 41 is easy to disassemble. With the trigger guard pulled down and the slide locked to the rear, the barrel simply pulls out and then the slide can be removed.
The grip angle on the Model 41 is deliberately made to feel like a 1911, with a grip angle that’s almost identical and the slide release and manual safety in about the same locations.
With a 5-1/2-inch barrel and a weight of 41 ounces, nobody would ever mistake the 41 as a carry gun, but that extra weight and barrel length, along with its crisp 2.7 to 3-pound factory trigger pull, make it a tack driver out of the box. The trigger also features an over-travel adjustable stop screw for fine-tuning to the shooter’s needs.
Variants include the Model 41-1 introduced in 1960 that was chambered in .22 Short for International Rapid Fire competition, though only about 1,000 were made. In 1963, a heavier barreled version was made and a 7-inch barrel version was introduced in 1978.
The year it was introduced, S&W offered a no-frills version of the Model 41 designed as the Model 46. In 1959 it was selected by the U.S. Air Force for basic marksmanship training. About 4,000 units were made with 7- or 5-inch barrels. The Model 46 proved to be a commercial failure, however, and couldn’t compete with other guns at lower price points. It was discontinued in 1966.
in 1992, Smith & Wesson dropped the Model 41 from production, only to return it in 1994 as the S&W Model 41 (New Model).
Today, the Model 41 includes a switch-barrel design that allows shooters to alternate between a 5.5-inch barrel and a 7-inch barrel on the same frame. The current pistol also includes the user-adjustable trigger stop, a 2.75 to 3.25-lb. trigger, checkered wood target grips, micrometer click adjustable target rear sight with an undercut patridge-style front sight and a precision button-rifled barrel. S&W also makes a Performance Center version with a removable front sight, a better trigger, and an integrated top rail for mounting optics, and special wood grips.
One of the first revolvers from Ruger, the Single-Six combined Old West style with modern production methods to create one of the best rimfire revolvers ever made.
In 1953, Ruger bolstered its already growing reputation as a great new rimfire pistol company by producing one of the best .22 LR revolvers ever made: The Single-Six.
The single-action revolver looks and operated much like a scaled-down Colt Single Action Army revolver and other so-called cowboy guns from the late 1800s. As the name suggests, the revolver’s cylinder holds six rounds of .22 LR, which are loaded, one at a time, through a loading gate at the rear of the cylinder.
Since 1973, the pistol has been sold as the New Model Single-Six, meaning that it includes Ruger’s transfer bar mechanism as an added safety feature.
Typically, single-action revolvers of this design must be holstered or carried with the hammer resting on an empty chamber, as leaving it resting on a live round could cause an accidental discharge. The transfer bar only allows the gun to fire when the trigger is pulled, and not only with manipulation of the hammer, which allows the gun to be safely carried with all six rounds loaded. Ruger will install the transfer bar on any old model Single-Six free of charge.
The Single-Six is currently chambered in .22 WMR and .17 HMR. Ruger makes several convertible models that ship with both a .22 LR and a .22 WMR cylinder, allowing the use of both cartridges. The .22 LR cylinder can also accommodate .22 Short rounds.
Browning Buck Mark
A pistol that contains the sum knowledge of decades of firearm design, the Buck Mark represents a new crop of rimfire semi-autos from the late 20th century with some of the best features from gun that came before it.
In the world of fixed-barrel .22 target pistols, another pistol keeps ready company with the Mark Series and the Model 41, though it is relatively new compared to those other two. The Browning Buck Mark line hit the market in 1985 as direct competition for Ruger and others.
It was born from the company’s steel-framed 10-shot blowback .22 LR Challenger and Medalist series pistols, which were based on the same overall concept as the High Standard Supermatic, the Model 41, and the Colt Woodsman.
In a way, the Buck Mark is actually a descendant of a design from John Moses Browning himself. Chronologically, the Colt Woodsman is the grandaddy of them all (more on that later). Originally designed by Browning, it was redesigned in the 1960s by his grandson, Bruce Browning, as the Browning Nomad, which later became the Challenger.
By the 1980s, S&W was ramping down production of the Model 41, and both the Colt Woodsman and the entire High Standard company were gone. So, the choice was made to redesign the Challenger in 1984 as the Buck Mark, which is still made today, to compete with the Mark II.
The Buck Mark’s 5.5-inch barrel is fixed directly to the frame and doesn’t move during the firing process. The pistol has a short slide and block that incorporates the striker-fired, blowback action. Since the action is more open than a pistol with a one-sided ejection port, it tends to build up less fouling, and therefore eats cheaper bulk ammo more easily.
The Buck Mark incorporated several features we see present in the later Ruger Mark IV, such as a mag release button behind the trigger.
While the guts and basic design have remained the same, there have been nearly 30 variants of the Buck Mark over the years. The standard 5.5-inch barreled version is pretty much the same as it was in the 1980s, save for updated grips. The Silhouette model, introduced in 1987, has a 10-inch barrel and large adjustable target sights. With its wood forend, the pistol looks more like a carbine. An even longer-barreled version, known as the Buck Mark Rifle (introduced in 2001), has an 18-inch barrel and a full wood Monte Carlo stock.
There are also shorter 4-inch barrel models, such as the popular Camper and Contour models.
Smith & Wesson SW22 Victory
The Victory takes the proven and popular fixed-barrel concept and adds the modularity and customizability favored by modern handgunners.
While the S&W Model 41 is still in production and quite popular, it has always been mostly relegated to the world of serious target shooters, a bit out of the price range of the casual plinker or target shooter, who gravitated much more readily to pistols like the Ruger Mark and Browning Buck Mark.
Smith & Wesson realized this, and in 2016 it introduced the SW22 Victory, after having discontinued most of its more affordable .22LR semi-auto models, such as the 22A, the previous year. With its standard barrel affixed, the Victory looks like a Buck Mark had a baby with a Ruger, with the addition of the grip profile of the S&W 22A.
The Victory is easy to disassemble, which is always important on often-dirty .22 LR pistols, and customizable.
While the barrel on the Victory is fixed, like other semi-auto pistols already mentioned in this list, it is also removable, and that means its swappable.
Just in front of the trigger guard is an Allen screw. Once it’s removed, the barrel and receiver pop off of the frame. Another screw at the bottom of the receiver holds the barrel in place. Simply remove it and the barrel separates from the receiver.
Volquartsen Custom makes aftermarket barrels for the Victory in different configurations, such as an ultralight carbon fiber long-barrel, or a fluted one for easier carry in the field. And all barrels are available in threaded or non-threaded versions for ready suppressor use.
In keeping with the feature-rich design, the Victory also comes with a Picatinny rail that can replace the rear sight, which is held in place with a single Allen screw. The rail segment comes with the gun, and has a notch cut into the back so it can double as a fixed sight if necessary.
On top of all these features, the Victory is a heck of a shooter and quite affordable. For a full review and accuracy test, go here.
The modern 10-round rimfire revolver matches the capacity of most semi-autos and allows shooters to choose their grip shape like few other wheelguns.
While Browning was busy in the 1980s inventing and producing the Buck Mark semi-auto, Ruger was busy building a new revolver platform, the GP100.
The revolver conquered an inherent problem with most revolver frames: the fact that traditional revolver designs have steel of the frame exposed at the front and rear of the grips, therefore determining the shape of the grip. Switching from a rounded carry grip to a more squared off-target grip was usually impossible.
The GP100 solved this problem by having a small rectangular “peg” type of grip attached to the frame just large enough to contain the hammer spring and strut. The grips could then be any shape the shooter desired, as long as they were large enough to wrap around the peg. This wasn’t a new innovation, however, having been used by Dan Wesson and High Standard previously.
Regardless, the feature allows GP100 shooters to switch from target grips to carry grips with ease, so the same revolver can punch holes in paper at a target match and ride in a holster.
The GP100 is also made in .357 Magnum, .38 Special, .44 Special, and .327 Fed Mag with barrel lengths of 3, 4.2, and 6 inches with partial or full under lugs.
In 2015, Ruger brought the GP100 back to the company’s roots and introduced a new version of the popular GP100 with a 10-round, .22 LR cylinder, matching the capacity of most rimfire semi-autos, making it a hugely popular choice with target shooters and small-game hunters, especially because of the various grip options.
It just shows that even almost two decades into the 21st century, there is still room for innovation and evolution in the .22 LR revolver platform.
The Colt Woodsman
Almost every fixed barrel semi-auto rimfire pistol owes a bit of its design to John Browning's .22, the granddaddy of them all.
Through much of the 20th century, the man who impacted firearms perhaps more than any other individual in history, John Moses Browning, also dominated the .22 LR semi-auto market with the venerable Woodsman. The pistol was made by Colt’s Manufacturing Company from 1915 to 1977 in three distinct series (series one, 1915-1941; series two, 1947-1955; series three, 1955-1977). Browning wasn’t solely responsible for the Woodsman, as he was for many other Colt models.
It was actually one of the last pistols he worked on with Colt and it was ultimately finished by a team of designers as the first truly reliable .22 LR autoloader.
Since the Woodsman was being developed specifically for the civilian market and not to meet government contract specs, Browning gave the pistol a short slide, no grip safety and no exposed hammer, all features required to be on the Model 1903, 1911, and Hi-Power designs.
Each series of Woodsman had three models available: Target, Sport, and Match Target.
Looking at the shape, slide design and functionality, you can see the influence of the German Luger. It's also easy to see the inspiration for what would be the Buck Mark, Ruger Mark series, and the S&W Victory, all in one gun. Like those three, the Woodsman had a fixed barrel and a small, abbreviated slide and operated via a blowback action. It seems keeping things simple was the key.
Though it’s concealed, the Woodsman does have a hammer, which is hidden in the slide where it hits a striker-style firing pin. The single stack magazine holds 10 rounds.
In the first series, the Target model served as the base model of the line and featured a 6-5/8-inch barrel with adjustable front and rear sights. The Sport model was designed as a hunting sidearm and as a companion for hikers and campers. Introduced in 1933, it had a shorter 4.5-inch barrel and fixed front sights at first, but by the end of the run, they had been replaced with adjustable ones. The Match Target model came out in 1938 with a heavier barrel, a one-piece wrap-around grip called the “elephant ear.” A bull's-eye was rollmarked into the slide on this model, leading to the nickname “Bull's-Eye Match Target.”
“The Woodsman” wasn’t actually stamped on the side of the frame until 1927. Guns made before that year are referred to as “Pre Woodsman.” These were actually designated simply as “Colt Automatic Target Pistol.”
Colt ceased civilian production of the Woodsman in 1941 when the U.S. entered World War II, but 4,000 Woodsman Match Target pistols were delivered to the U.S. Government during the war. They had plastic, one-piece grips and were marked “Property of U.S. Government,” and appeared on the surplus market after the war’s end.
Colt resumed production of the Woodsman with the Second Series in 1947 with the same three models, all built on a longer, heavier frame. All second series models included a magazine safety, an automatic slide stop, and a magazine released located at the rear of the trigger guard instead of the more European location at the heel of the grip. Special versions were made for various branches of the military and many were sold to the public through the Director of Civilian Marksmanship Program. A new budget model, the Challenger, was also introduced as part of the second series, with fixed sights, a less polished finish, and the heel magazine release.
In 1955, Colt changed the design of the venerable Woodsman for the third series run of the pistol. The three models remained the same, but the markings, grips, and sights were all modified. The biggest change was moving the magazine release from the rear of the trigger guard to the heel of the grip, as it was on the original Woodsman.
The budget model was changed from Challenger to the Huntsman, though it kept the “C” in it’s serial number. The Target model was also stamped with the name “Targetsman” in the third series.
Colt also introduced new models in this series, such as the more affordable Challenger and Huntsman models, which came with fixed sights.
As the 1970s melted into the 1980s, Colt changed a lot about its focus and manufacturing methods, and many models, like the Woodsman (which by then was facing competition from other gun makers), simply fell by the wayside and were discontinued as the company pared down its catalog.
All told, Colt made about 690,000 Woodsman pistols in various configurations. Some are worth a lot, and some can be found for about $500 or less. For just about everything you’d ever want to know about the gun, check out Bob Rayburn’s page here.
Colt SAA Frontier Scout
It's rimfire version of the Single Action Army—known as the gun that won the West.
In 1958, on the heels of the Ruger Single-Six release, Colt reworked its legendary Colt Single Action Army single-action revolver as a .22 LR handgun dubbed the Frontier Scout. The venerable SAA had its work cut out for it. The Single-Six had already proven hugely popular among all kinds of shooters, both for its craftsmanship and old west looks, as well as for its affordability. But during the late 1950s the country was in the midst of a western craze, and the Colt soon garnered a healthy share of the market, especially since it managed to have a lower price-point than the Ruger.
According to this story from americanrifleman.org, ads for the Frontier Scout began showing up months before the gun was released in order to generate excitement and early demand. “Here’s Big News!” the ads read. “A .22 caliber version of the world-famous Single Action Army—(with) the same classic lines…fundamentally the same foolproof action, and though lighter, the same balance and feel.”
The story says the ads also touted the SAA’s “full formed” loading gate, which was a little jab at the early flat gate on the Ruger Single-Six.
When potential guy buyers were confronted with the choice between a Single-Six for $57.50, or a Frontier Scout, a genuine Colt, for $49.50, it wasn’t much of a choice. In 1986, nearly three decades of production later, the Frontier Scout was discontinued as Colt shifted its focus toward military projects.
The Colt SAA, also known as the M1873, Peacemaker, the Colt .45, and sometimes as “The Gun That Won the West,” was designed for the U.S. government service revolver trials of 1872 and was adopted as the standard military service revolver until 1892.
The single-acton revolver, original chambered for .45 Long Colt, has been offered in over 30 different calibers and various barrel lengths, though its overall appearance has remained the same since 1873.
Production of the SAA has been discontinued twice since its introduction, but both times it was brought back due to popular demand.