With the craze for black rifles, all things 5.56, and 'high-capacity', there may be no better time to shop for great deals on old rimfire rifles. Odds are there are a few dozen of them gathering dust within just a few miles of your house. A few simple tricks will help make sure you get a good one.
Why an old 22?
The 22 rimfire round in short, long, long rifle, BB, and CB versions has been around since as early as 1857. In the intervening 150 years millions of rifles have come off the lines dedicated to firing these little pipsqueak rounds. With bullets that ranger in weight from 20-60 grains, the humble 22 can take out any paper target, tin can, or small woodland critter at ranges out to a football field away. All this in possibly the most affordable price range with bulk pack factory ammo typically about $0.02 per round. With even the stoutest rimfire loads still coming in under 24,000 psi in the chamber (half as much as centerfire rounds), 22s are by definition low-pressure rounds.
This combination of popularity and easy handling has led to racks of old rimfire rifles on the market with lots of life left in them.
What to look for
Check for function but try not to dry fire the rifle unless the seller specifies that it's ok. If the bolt is frozen, rusty, bent, or wont cycle, walk away. Almost any rimfire gunsmith special is no special at all.
As with any rifle check to see that the bore is relatively clean and absent of deep pits and rust. All 22 rimfire rounds are very dirty due to the type of primer used and the nature of the often-unjacketed lead bullets. This can led to years of lead buildup inside the rifling of some guns that have seen dozens of family sized boxes of ammo fed through them over the years without cleaning. You may not see any rifling at all, but ask if you can clean the gun before you buy it to see if it's just decades of lead clogging the pipe.
Best buys for your money
OF Mossberg and Sons sold a dizzying array of 22 rifles from 1933-1985. In fact, these bolt action rifles were made in more than fifty models ranging from the single shot Model 10 to the 18-shot Model 346 to the seven shot Model 144. Most of these guns are dead accurate and reliable shooters that can be picked up in good condition for anywhere from $75-$150. On these, beware of missing parts, especially bolts and magazines, as they are cost prohibitive to obtain. If you come across a Mossberg bolt 22 with funny target sights and 'US' markings for an affordable price, pick it up, you will thank me later.
Marlin has long been a name to trust in 22 rifles and just about any Marlin in good condition for under $150 is a steal. If you come across a good clean Model 60 semi-auto with the tubular magazine tube present and all in working condition, sometimes you can luck up on these for around $75 used. The same can be said for a Ruger 10/22 but at any price less than $150.
Its hard to go wrong with a used but not abuses Ruger 10/22..as long as you don't pay through the nose for it.
Remington bolt-action rifles, from the old single shot Model 41 Targetmaster, to the 17-shot Model 341, to the Model 512 series are all older guns made 1936-66 that are found on pawnshop shelves, gunstore racks, and gunshow tables in the $100-$150 range and are a great value from a time when Remington really understood quality control. If you see a cheapo looking plastic stocked Remington 'Nylon' Model in working condition for less than $175, grab it.
The white diamonds inside the grips of the Remington Nylon series set them apart. Today these guns are sought after by collectors and are a much better deal than the newer 597 series in many shooter's opinions.
Vintage Winchester bolt action 22's are very expensive. In fact almost any Winny 22 with the exception of the 60-series (Model numbers higher than 60) tend to go for $300-ish to collectors. With that in mind if you find a working one for cheap, buy it!
In the end of the day, you can wind up with a very good and clean inexpensive rifle with a lot of history, panache, and decades more life ahead of it.