The Timeless .22

OL's Hunting Editor takes a fond look back at memorable hunts with "everyone's first rifle."

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Not long ago I had one of the hunts of my life. It was a special thrill, something I'd been thinking about doing for a couple of decades. The hunt itself wasn't terribly exciting, and it didn't occur in an exotic, far-off place. In fact, it might have seemed ho-hum to some folks.

It took place in an Iowa woodlot, where tall oak and hickory trees grew far above the forest floor. It wasn't the giant turkeys or the big-racked whitetails Iowa is famous for that brought me there. It was squirrels, just plain old gray and fox squirrels.

The gun slung over my shoulder was a brand-new Remington 504 bolt-action .22, and I had it dialed in to the point where any bushytail within 50 yards would be in serious trouble.

Memories washed through me as I eased through the trees. During my earliest days in the woods, when I was too young to hunt, I would follow my grandfather, dad and uncle around. I carried a BB gun and, under their supervision, was allowed to pot at any cans we encountered along the way. There were no hunter-safety classes in those days-we learned on our own or from mentors.

I remembered one day in particular, tagging along with my father during a squirrel hunt. The two of us were moving quietly in a forest of huge oaks, and we weren't having much luck. We hadn't seen a squirrel since we entered the woods. Suddenly, he pointed far up into a big oak and tried to guide my young eyes to a squirrel. I couldn't see it, but I'll never forget watching him raise the open-sighted .22 to his shoulder and fire, and seeing the squirrel tumble out of the top of that giant oak.

As I turned hunting age, I was allowed to use my dad's old Remington Model 12 pump .22. The very first time I shot it I was eight and my dad was my instructor. It was a big deal to heft that gun and aim it at a target. I didn't know what to expect. I knew the .22 was a whole lot more powerful than my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun, so I was a bit apprehensive. Unlike the BB gun, this gun shot a bullet with serious power. Once I took my first shot, though, I was hooked. At that moment I entered a new phase in my hunting life. A good share of my allowance was spent buying .22 shells, and I shot the gun every opportunity I had.

Squirrels were my primary quarry, but I found it especially challenging to shoot cottontails with the .22. We hunted bunnies with beagle hounds, and our routine strategy was to flush a rabbit with the little dogs and then take positions in the general area with shotguns, waiting for the beagles to run the rabbit back around. Typically the bunny didn't run full bore in front of the hounds but hopped along, stopping here and there as the dogs sorted out the scent trail. I learned that it was great fun to try cottontails with a .22, as long as I knew where my companions were and had a safe background.

[pagebreak] When hunting season wasn't open, my pals and I took our .22s after woodchucks. We hunted them by closing in carefully, usually within 50 yards. We didn't want to risk wounding one and having it escape into its burrow. Woodchucks taught us to sneak by crawling along on our bellies. I remember one woodchuck that took me three weeks to dispatch. The animal lived in the middle of a field, where it could see several hundred yards in any direction from its burrow. My buddy had shot at it and missed, educating it well. After trying many failed stalks, I pulled a log out into the field 40 yards from the woodchuck's burrow. One morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, I walked to the log and lay down behind it. The chuck emerged from its den shortly after sunrise, and my .22 bullet struck pay dirt. I dressed the chuck, as I did all of them, and made it into a delicious stew.

One of my favorite .22s, and one that I used almost exclusively for more than 30 years, was a Model 70 Marlin. This semi-auto, topped with a 4X scope, was light and accurate and performed alst flawlessly. I liked the semi-auto option when I missed an animal with the first shot.

The .22 Out West
When I moved west in 1960, I had no sense of what hunting opportunities were available with a .22. My first hunt was a foray into a huge patch of sagebrush that was loaded with jackrabbits. Armed with shotguns, my pals and I worked the big hares over until we ran out of shells. I assumed that Westerners used shotguns for rabbits, and that was that.

A couple of years later, my wife's uncle invited me to hunt cottontails with him on his ranch. When he saw the shotgun he grimaced and politely asked if I'd mind shooting a .22. I quickly agreed and he produced a battered old bolt-action Winchester Model 75 that had been in the family since the West was won, or so it seemed.

[pagebreak] The .22 was scoped and obviously well used. I was told it was a tack- driver, that it would hit any rabbit in the eyeball up to 50 yards-farther if I could shoot it well enough. As we walked along the edge of a gulch on a cold morning, I saw cottontails sitting boldly in the snow on the edge of their burrows. If we didn't move too aggressively, the rabbits would allow us to approach within 20 yards, sometimes closer. This was new to me, and I loved it. That was more than three decades ago, and I still make regular forays into cottontail country, usually a halfdozen hunts yearly.

Prairie dogs abound in many Western states. Like jackrabbits and woodchucks, they offer good shooting when other hunting seasons are closed. While most hunters use high-powered varmint rifles, I always take along a .22 for closer shots. The same goes for when I hunt ground squirrels, which are about half the size of prairie dogs. Both rodents are notorious for their ability to cause severe damage to the range, and private landowners often welcome hunters.

I've also enjoyed .22 handguns, using them for everything from snakes to rodents to grouse (where legal). I acquired my first .22 revolver when I worked as a forester in western Oregon in the early 1960s. The woods were so incredibly thick we had to crawl through tunnels in the brush traveled by bears. I was plenty unnerved, figuring I'd sooner or later come face to face with a bear, so I gathered all my cash together, which was a meager amount, and bought the only handgun I could afford: a nine-shot .22 revolver. That firearm, of course, was worthless for bears, but at least it gave me a sense of comfort-though not a whole lot. I figured that maybe if I shot in front of a bear, the noise and commotion might scare it off.

The .22 revolver also came in handy when I hunted big game and wanted to pot a grouse or two for dinner. I'd do this only when I was sure I wouldn't spook the quarry I was hunting. Some Western grouse, notably spruce and blue grouse, will sit calmly in a tree or on a log, allowing you to approach within mere feet. The spruce grouse is especially bold and lives up to its nickname of fool's hen, much to the delight of those who enjoy hunting with .22s.

I advocate using a rifle rest with a .22 rifle, regardless of the quarry. An exception might be the squirrel woods, where there are plenty of trees to lean on, but I still carry the rest if I spot a squirrel and can't make it to a tree that offers good support. I prefer shooting sticks that are 36 inches long with three sections attached by shock cords.

My preference in scopes is simple. I think anything other than 4X or 5X is too much. Given the short-range effectiveness of a .22, a more powerful scope isn't needed.

[pagebreak] I've always been a firm believer in bolt actions for rifles, but I make an exception with .22s. I've had great shooting, and fun, with a Ruger 10/22 and a Remington 597. A squirrel bouncing in the treetops or a rabbit hopping in brush might require a quick shot or two after the initial one.

Many years ago, hunters chose between short, long and long-rifle ammo for conventional .22s. Nowadays most hunters use long-rifle cartridges, so you might be hard-pressed to find shorts and longs in some stores. Also, very few rifles are chambered for anything other than long-rifles. When I hunt rabbits and squirrels, I like hollowpoint bullets because they do more damage and will dispatch the quarry quickly and humanely.

The .22 has been around for almost 150 years and will no doubt continue to be one of the most popular firearm calibers of all. It's tough to improve on something that's almost perfect.

The Greatest Shot I've Ever Seen
We were bouncing hard in a freighter canoe, reacting to waves driven by a storm over the Arctic Ocean. Suddenly three ducks flushed from the raging breakers, and my Inuit guide picked up a terribly rusted .22 that leaned against the bow. As the boat lurched with the stormy sea, he took aim at a duck and fired, which is legal for an Inuit to do.

To my amazement, the bird plummeted into the water. No one will ever know if that was a lucky shot my guide made, or if it was a result of incredible skill. I believe the latter.

The History of the .22
The .22 short rimfire is the oldest American cartridge. Introduced by Smith and Wesson in 1857, it was the first metallic, self-contained, internally primed cartridge. In 1887, it became available with smokeless powder. In 1871, the .22 rimfire (long) was chambered in revolvers, and soon afterward Remington and Stevens produced rifles chambered for the .22 long-rifle cartridge.

Many years ago, hunters chose between short, long and long-rifle ammo for conventional .22s. Nowadays most hunters use long-rifle cartridges, so you might be hard-pressed to find shorts and longs in some stores. Also, very few rifles are chambered for anything other than long-rifles. When I hunt rabbits and squirrels, I like hollowpoint bullets because they do more damage and will dispatch the quarry quickly and humanely.

The .22 has been around for almost 150 years and will no doubt continue to be one of the most popular firearm calibers of all. It's tough to improve on something that's almost perfect.

The Greatest Shot I've Ever Seen
We were bouncing hard in a freighter canoe, reacting to waves driven by a storm over the Arctic Ocean. Suddenly three ducks flushed from the raging breakers, and my Inuit guide picked up a terribly rusted .22 that leaned against the bow. As the boat lurched with the stormy sea, he took aim at a duck and fired, which is legal for an Inuit to do.

To my amazement, the bird plummeted into the water. No one will ever know if that was a lucky shot my guide made, or if it was a result of incredible skill. I believe the latter.

The History of the .22
The .22 short rimfire is the oldest American cartridge. Introduced by Smith and Wesson in 1857, it was the first metallic, self-contained, internally primed cartridge. In 1887, it became available with smokeless powder. In 1871, the .22 rimfire (long) was chambered in revolvers, and soon afterward Remington and Stevens produced rifles chambered for the .22 long-rifle cartridge.