A great trail gun is light, accurate, reliable and, most of all, useful. And though it may chap some shooters when I say this, “useful” really means “rimfire.” Some will argue that a trail gun should be chambered in a powerful centerfire cartridge in case it’s needed for defense against bears or two-legged predators, and that’s a valid point. However, folks who use their trail guns on a frequent basis—backcountry campers, snake-country hikers and so forth—don’t usually need or want a powerful centerfire.
One of the most important functions of a trail gun is a byproduct of everyday use—that of skill building. One of the first handguns I had as a teenager was a Ruger Single Six .22 rimfire, and I carried that six-shooter everywhere and shot it every chance I got. No target of opportunity was safe. The little revolver was simple, robust, accurate and didn’t recoil much. Without conscious attempt, I polished my skills to a creditable point.
A friend of mine purchased a Ruger Super Blackhawk in .44 Magnum and had the opposite experience. He carried it as insurance against a wreck with the extremely wild cattle he worked in the breaks of southern Utah’s high canyon country. But he rarely shot it and developed such a massive flinch from the few times he did that he had to work long and hard to overcome it.
How to choose the right rimfire trail gun? Pick one for reasonably light weight, excellent accuracy and complete reliability. Light weight is important because if you’re going to carry it, and carry it consistently, it should feel comfortable on your hip or in a shoulder holster. A too-heavy handgun will get left home more often than not.
Accuracy, however, must not suffer at the expense of weight. When it comes to bouncing a tin can at 25 yards or head-shooting a rattlesnake that’s somewhere it’s not supposed to be, accuracy is paramount to weight.
Thankfully, there are plenty of good medium- to light-weight .22 rimfire handguns available. Tiny poppers such as Walther’s P22 don’t make good trail guns simply because they don’t offer sufficient accuracy, but most of the full-size models such as Ruger’s Mk III (especially the 22/45 Lite covered here), Browning’s Buck Mark and Smith & Wesson’s Model 63 offer excellent accuracy and are easy to shoot well by virtue of hand-filling ergonomics and generous sight radiuses.
Reliability is important, too, and is not nearly as common in rimfire semiauto handguns as might be imagined. Many are sensitive to ammunition type and bullet weight, although the quality full-size .22 handguns that make the best trail guns tend to be a lot less picky than compact .22 semiauto handguns.
Reliability is a product of quality engineering and robust design on the manufacturer’s part and diligent maintenance on the shooter’s part. Most .22 rimfire ammunition is naturally dirtier than centerfire ammo, and a lot more rounds typically get sent downrange. Take care of your .22 semiauto handgun, and it will take care of you.
Revolvers, on the other hand, soak up abuse and neglect and keep on cooking. I shouldn’t admit this, but in the interest of science I’ve fired my old Ruger Single Six until it was so dirty that I had to firmly press each cartridge into the cylinder chambers, and still it functioned flawlessly. (I don’t recommend such neglect, by the way.)
Good trail guns have adjustable rear sights. Yes, they’re a little more damage-prone than a fixed rear notch, but good adjustable sights are robust enough, and the ability to fine-tune your point of impact with your chosen rimfire load is important.
The “center mass” concept popular with defensive handgun shooters isn’t good enough when a feathered potential dinner is peering down at you from a low-hanging spruce branch or when your favorite bird dog is firmly on point near a buzzing rattler.
I like to sight my rimfire trail guns dead on at 25 yards. After shooting a variety of ammo from a sandbag rest to determine which load offers the best accuracy (and to confirm reliability if shooting a semiauto), I shoot at a small black dot and tweak the sights until I am placing all shots within an inch or less of center.
One of the best rests I’ve found for semiauto pistols is a simple bunny-ear rear rifle sandbag. Place it on top of a short length of 2×6 to elevate it if needed and rest the pistol’s frame just in front of the trigger guard in the bag’s notch.
Revolvers, on the other hand, can be difficult to shoot with the gun itself resting on sandbags. If resting the frame—just in front of the cylinder—on bunny-ear bags doesn’t work, try just resting your wrists across a sandbag and shoot with the revolver free of contact. It’s a test of your ability to hold steady and squeeze, but I’ve shot some of my best revolver groups with handguns held in this manner.
If called on to shoot a very small target at close range, such as a snake’s head at four or five yards, remember that the bullet actually exits the muzzle around three-quarters of an inch to one inch lower than your line of sight, so you must hold slightly high to compensate. Just hold the top of the front sight on the top of the target but not over.
Choosing the best ammunition for your rimfire trail gun boils down to two criteria: penetration and accuracy. First, decide whether you want a solid-nose bullet that will penetrate well with minimal expansion and leave small holes or a hollowpoint that will expand well, impart a lot of shock and have minimum penetration.
Velocity also affects penetration and expansion: A low-velocity solid nose usually won’t expand; a high-velocity solid nose will expand a little but may not penetrate much deeper (because the expansion creates more drag). High-velocity hollowpoints will usually expand into a nice classic mushroom shape, penetrating well enough but not as deeply as a solid-nose and usually leave a slightly larger exit hole—if they exit at all.
I prefer to use a high-velocity hollowpoint for almost all of my trail-gun shooting, assuming my gun shoots them well. Hollowpoints work well on small game, aluminum cans and other targets of opportunity, and since I go for head shots on anything I’m planning on eating around the campfire, meat damage from the expanding bullet is not an issue.
Once a bullet type is chosen, it’s well worth buying a box of several different brands and lines of .22 cartridges for accuracy and reliability testing. Rimfire handguns, like any firearm, often show individual preferences. You might end up with a gun that shoots most loads into two- to 2.5-inch groups at 25 yards but places one favorite load into sub-inch groups.
Now, I have a hard time shooting sub-inch groups with an iron-sighted handgun. My eyes just aren’t quite good enough. For this phase of your load testing, it’s worth mounting a handgun scope if you’ve got one (and if the handgun model accepts a scope base).
Many semiauto pistols today are shipped with a base, and mounting a scope is as simple as screwing the base to the top of the slide and putting a scope on. Revolvers can be more difficult, but a bit of shopping can usually turn up a suitable base.
After I discover which load or loads shoot the best, I remove the scope because I don’t like carrying scope-sighted trail guns. Big game magnum handguns, sure, but not my rimfire trail guns.
Range testing semiautos will also tip you off to any reliability issues. If you had multiple ammo-related malfunctions while testing, you’ll probably want to find a different load that your handguns devours without a hiccup.
However, if your semiauto shot the most accurate loads with few or no issues, put another couple of hundred rounds through it. If you continue to have trouble-free—or darn near trouble-free—functioning, you’re good to go.
At this point, you’ve got a lightweight, beautifully accurate, wholly reliable rimfire trail gun. It will help you hone your handgunning skills, fill the stewpot and take care of destructive rodents and dangerous snakes (should it be legal and ethical to do so, of course).
Can such a handgun be suitable for personal protection? That is a good question. Convincing arguments have and will continue to be mounted for and against using a .22 rimfire for defense.
Me, I prefer to carry a bigger gun and my rimfire trail gun if I think there’s a real possibility of danger to my person. However, were I in a pickle without a more powerful handgun available, you can bet your boots I’d use my rimfire trail gun.
Four Guns to Consider
Here are four trail guns I think are worth considering. There are many more options, of course, but the following pistols would rank among my first choices.
- Gained in a trade during the poor, college-textbook filled years after I got married, my vintage Smith & Wesson Model 63 is my favorite rimfire handgun, hands down. My preference isn’t logical—the old S&W isn’t as accurate as my Rugers or my buddy’s Browning—but I love the way it feels in my hand, the superb workmanship apparent in every aspect of the revolver, and the just-right size and weight. Modern iterations are just as appealing. The current steel-frame, three-inch barrel gun is a little harder to shoot really accurately than the other three guns showcased here, but only because of a shorter sight radius and bulkier sights optimized for fast shooting in low light. An accomplished precision handgunner can milk very good accuracy out of the Model 63. And reliable? You’ll put tens of thousands of rounds through a Model 63 without a bauble. Capacity is eight rounds—not far short of its semiauto cousins.