22lr Lever Action Comparison Essay

April 2008

Lever-Action Rimfires: Henry’s Golden Boy is Golden Indeed

Henry�s finely crafted lever outshot Browning�s Grade II BL-22, but we�d buy either one. However, we�d pass on Marlin�s Original Golden 39A in this plinker/hunter/fun-gun showdown.

Lever-action rimfires can be a lot of fun for kids or adults, whether it�s p-yowinga can along the ground (with a safe backstop), punching holes in paper, or knocking a rabbit down at 100 yards. We recently tested a trio of entertaining lever-action rimfires to find out which one shot the best, operated most smoothly, and was easiest to carry. Our products were Browning�s BL-22 Grade II No. 024101103, which we found at Fountain Firearms (www.fountainfirearms.com) for $695, a significant premium above the gun�s stated MSRP of $567; Marlin�s Original Golden 39A, a robust 7-pounder that sells for $593 MSRP, but which had counter price of $395 at Fountain, and the Henry Golden Boy, whose counter price was $385 with an MSRP of $480.

We tested the Henry gun in December 2006, when it was nudged aside by a Grade I BL-22 on the strength of the latter�s better accuracy. Reader follow-up mail asked us to look at the Marlin Original Golden to see how it fared against the Henry (we last tested that gun in 2002, when it earned a Don�t Buy). To complete the trio, we upgraded to the Grade II BL-22 to see if extra dollars offered enough in function and cosmetics to justify a sizable price jump. So we assembled a fresh test team, new ammo, and a critical eye to find out.

Overall, our test guns delivered good accuracy at short ranges, and they delivered better firepower than bolt guns. Moreover, since they are manually operated, they can feed and eject more reliably than many semiautos. Even so, one of the guns had some ejection problems, as we relate below.

All range accuracy data was collected at 25 yards using sandbags set on a concrete bench. We shot five five-round groups to calculate the accuracy data, and we fired 10-shot strings to compile chronograph data on a PACT Professional Chronograph XP. To assess their accuracy, we shot the guns with Federal Champion 40-gr. No. 510 lead roundnose solids, Remington Thunderbolt 40-gr. No. TB-22A lead roundnose solids, and Federal Value Pack HP 36-gr. No. 750 copper-plated hollowpoints.

All three guns will fire .22 Short, Long, and Long Rifle ammo. However, the shooter should use discretion when firing .22 Shorts in these guns. A continuous diet of this ammunition will cause carbon build-up at the end of the Short case, and in worse-case situations they will cause a ring to form in the chamber. This ring will cause extraction problems when Long Rifle ammunition is later fired.

But there are other issues that separate the guns, and because it�s the new kid on the block, we cover the Marlin in detail first:

Marlin Original Golden

39A Lever Action

.22 LR, $593

Established in 1870, The Marlin Firearms Company�s brands include Marlin, Harrington & Richardson, New England Firearms, and L. C. Smith. Under its various brands, Marlin produces an array of lever action, bolt action, and semi-automatic rifles, a variety of break-open single-shot shotguns and rifles as well as muzzleloaders and combo sets. The company maintains a corporate headquarters and manufacturing plant in North Haven, Connecticut, as well as a manufacturing facility in Gardner, Massachusetts.

The Marlin Original Golden 39A represents the oldest shoulder-fired firearm design still being made anywhere in the world, according to Marlin. The 39�s great grandfather, the Model 1891, was the first repeating rifle to be chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge. According to company literature, "� the Model 39 is still the standard by which all other 22 sporting rifles are judged." To this our team said, "Perhaps. Perhaps not."

Marlin�s continued production of 39s will be under a different corporate banner. Remington Arms Company, Inc. recently bought Marlin, adding to Big Green�s portfolio of firearms, which also includes recently purchased Bushmaster.

Tommy Millner, Remington�s CEO, said, "The opportunity to combine two historic U.S.-based companies with such storied and proud histories is both challenging and exhilarating."

Frank Kenna III, Marlin�s chairman, said, "Marlin has been a family-run business since 1924, and through a number of important steps we have grown it into the company it is today. We knew it was time to find the right partner for Marlin."

The 39A showed its long development history with an accumulation of good and ill features, our testers said. The flat solid-top receiver is machined from heat-treated steel forgings, which provide greater strength but also greater weight. At 7.2 pounds, the Marlin was the heaviest gun in the test, but certainly some of the extra heft is due to the 24-in barrel.

The Model 39A also featured a rebounding hammer, hammer-block safety, American black walnut furniture, cut-checkering on the pistol grip and fore-end, side ejection, and a gold-plated trigger. It held up to 19 Long Rifle rounds in its tubular magazine. The 0.5-inch-thick brown-rubber recoil pad helped our testers secure the gun in the shoulder pocket, and the wood quality, checkering, and metalwork were all topnotch. The Mar-Shield finish showed the grain well. The gun came with swivel studs, which the others lacked.

The 24-inch-long barrel with a muzzle OD of 0.700 inch at the crown was the largest and longest of the guns tested, and the extra length allowed for a 21-inch sight radius, compared to 17 inches for the Henry and 15.4 inches for the Browning. Iron sights included a hooded front sight and adjustable fold-down rear sight. Marlin used a Weaver-style base to fit a scope on the flat-topped receiver, which is drilled and tapped. There was a large-slot takedown screw located just below the crossbolt safety.

Marlin makes a big deal about its Micro-Groove rifling, which it says produces less bullet distortion and a better gas seal, along with "� the kind of accuracy most other 22s can�t touch."

That accuracy assertion turned out to be true in this test, though some accuracy-related mechanical items made us skeptical. The trigger broke cleanly, but its drop weight was a pounder heavier than the Henry�s. Though we recognize the hood protects the front sight, it also darkens it, making the front sight harder to see. A fiber-optic front tube might be the right answer, but it also might seem out of place on a design of this age.

But the paper doesn�t lie, and shooting iron sights at 25 yards, our best average group with this gun was 1.6 inches with Federal�s Value Pack 36-gr. hollowpoints, followed closely by 1.7-inch average groups shooting the Remington Thunderbolt 40-gr. roundnose solids. In comparison, both the Henry and Browning shot 2.3-inch groups with the Thunderbolts, and 2.0-inch groups with the Federal hollowpoints. But the Marlin didn�t shoot the Champion solids very well at all, recording the largest-of-test 2.5-inch groups. The Henry, in contrast, shot 1.7-inch groups with that ammo, followed by the Browning at 2.0 inches.

On the velocity side, the Marlin didn�t produce the highest fps-readings with any test ammo, so we wonder about the company�s gas-seal claims. If true, shouldn�t a better seal translate into faster bullet speeds?

Elsewhere, the Marlin�s longer lever throw made this gun harder to operate, in our view. We also had three failures to extract.

Additionally, sharp edges on the right side of the lever, particularly where the pinkie finger rode in the bottom of the lever opening, caused some discomfort. Also, where the lever forms the top rear of the trigger guard was very sharp, and this edge was exposed when the lever was open. In today�s world of CNC machining, it shouldn�t be a big deal to program in another 5-second pass to knock off those offending edges.

Browning BL-22 Grade II

No. 024101103 Lever Action

.22 LR, $567

The Grade II is one of five BL-22s offered by Browning for 2008. The Grade II is scroll engraved on the receiver and has a gold-colored trigger. The Grade I tested in December 2006 lacks the II�s scroll engraving and checkering on the walnut, but the Grade I MSRPs for a lot less, $494. Browning�s most expensive lever rimfire is the BL-22 FLD Grade II Octagon, $786, which a silver-nitride finish, octagonal barrel, and a front gold bead. Because the Grade II comes at a $150-ish premium to the Marlin and Henry, we wondered if those extra dollars would turn into enthusiasm in our evaluation.

Our Grade II test gun came with a Western-style straight-grip walnut stock with grip and fore-end checkering and a high-gloss polyurethane finish. Wood-to-metal fit was excellent on the gun�s two-piece stock. Elsewhere on the gun, we noted that all the blued metal was highly polished and looked great.

Reloading all three guns was a common and easy process. Each magazine tube had a catch (a pushbutton for the Browning and twist-catches for the Marlin and Henry guns), which when released, allowed the shooter to pull the tube out of the gun and open a slot in the magazine so rounds could be fed in. All three were equally fast and trouble free, we thought, but we really missed slapping a rotary magazine in, like on Ruger�s 96/22.

The 20-inch barrel�s muzzle OD was 0.530 inch at the crown, which was recessed, a feature that the Marlin and Henry lacked. Open iron sights, with a sight radius of 15.4 inches, were included. The rear sight was screw-adjustable for elevation, and the rear-sight base was dovetailed in and would have to be drifted for windage changes. It can be folded down to ease scope installation in the integral rimfire grooves (3/8 inch Weaver rings) on top of the receiver�an invitation to a lightweight optic like a dot sight, for those of us who can�t make out the sliver of a front sight.

The slim forend, with its front barrel band, was comfortable to use. The Browning BL-22 had a 13.5-inch length of pull and a 0.25-inch-thick black-plastic buttplate. We preferred the Marlin�s rubber buttpad because it stuck in the shoulder better.

The trigger pull was creepy and heavy at 6.7 pounds, which undoubtedly affected the gun�s accuracy, along with the very thin front sight, which was all one medium-gray color (where�s the Grade II Octagon�s gold bead!). It was very hard for some shooters to make out, but testers with good eyes had no trouble. In rough terms, we think of the Browning as being a 2-inch iron-sight gun at 25 yards, shooting two 2.0-inch group averages and one 2.3-inch average.

The lever�s short-throw 33-degree movement allows the shooter to eject and reload cartridges without dropping the gun off the shoulder then having to realign the gun sights, but the slippery buttplate hindered this feature. Also, when shooting lots of rounds, we noticed the lack of pitch and drop at heel made us want to put the toe of the stock into the shoulder to get the gun up to the eye. If we didn�t do that, then having to sit down on the stock caused some discomfort in the lever hand, because of the odd angle the head/stock/hand alignment caused.

Henry Golden Boy No. H004

Lever Action .22 LR, $480

The Henry sported a heavy 20-inch octagonal barrel with an OD of 0.675 inches, and the overall length was 2 inches longer (totaling 38.5 inches) than the Browning but 1.5 inches less than the Marlin. Weighing 7 pounds, this little-caliber rifle had a big-caliber feel. The length of pull of 14.25 inches is a better fit for larger shooters, rather than youngsters or small-framed women. In that area, the BL-22 had the edge, as we note elsewhere.

Adjusting to the drop at the comb of 2.5 inches and drop at the heel at 3.5 inches was a little difficult for some of our test shooters, but they grew to like it. This gun developed the two best groups of the test, a 0.9-inch group with the Federal 40-gr. solids and a 0.7-inch group with the Thunderbolts. It also shot the best group average with the Champions, a 1.7-inch group average. We believe two factors, the trigger and the front sight, helped us on the accuracy side. The trigger had a smooth let-off that was also the lightest of the test at 3.5 pounds. Also, the front sight was the easiest to see, we thought.

Cosmetically, the gun looked great with its polished brass receiver and classic lever-action looks. Another positive was the smooth operation of the lever, which required a longer stroke than the BL-22.

On the downside, that polished brass receiver wouldn�t easily accept optics like the other two guns. That requires a Henry Cantilever Scope Mount, which is mounted to the barrel. The mounts cost $27.50 plus $7.50 for shipping, and Henry recommends gunsmith installation. Also, the receiver produced glare that was distracting, and the smooth, curved brass buttplate slid off the shoulder too easily, we thought. Loading the rifle was not a chore, although pushing in and twisting the end of the magazine assembly is required. This system is a little more complicated than the Browning, and the same as the Marlin�s. Also, there�s no safety other than the half-cock position on the hammer, a fault with the Browning as well.

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

MARLIN ORIGINAL GOLDEN 39A LEVER ACTION.22 LR

BROWNING BL-22 GRADE II NO. 024101103 LEVER ACTION .22 LR

HENRY GOLDEN BOY H004 LEVER ACTION .22 LR

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD

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Ahh, Christmas, that magical time of the year. Nothing beats the joy and pride a parent feels when they pick out that perfect gift and see their offspring open it up on Christmas morning. Their first bicycle, a well-oiled baseball mitt, a … Who the hell am I kidding? The latest edition of “Call of Duty” plus a live internet link for the X-box. Done. However, there’s one old-fashioned present that still rocks – their first rifle! A finely crafted, bolt-action single shot .22 rimfire will be a prized possession for years to come, or until they’re old enough to want something else. So . . . then what? What do you get your progeny some years down the road?

A second .22 rimfire rifle, full-sized this time. Oh sure, they’ll want a deer rifle, a shotgun, an AK-47 and a Glock (well, my kids anyway). But there’s a simple calculus available to help settle the issue. A 12-year-old boy, a .22 rifle, and an all-day outing will cost less in ammo than a movie and popcorn. Try that with any other firearm.

Since the “first rifle” Christmas was done years back, I worked the grandparents this time around and suggested they send cold hard cash. Armed with Grandpa’s loot, we set out the very next weekend (New Year’s) for a very conveniently timed gun show. After forcing my off-spring to at least look at some other (slightly used) rifles, I relented. We stood at a dealer’s table to examine a Henry.

My son had burned up the internet on rifle research, and plainly wanted nothing else. So, Henry it was. Now there are more than a few horse-traders in my lineage and certain things are expected of the men in my family. So I stepped up and brought my mad bargaining skills to the table. After furious negotiations, I managed to obtain this fine rifle for . . .  full list price.

Bear in mind that this was roughly three weeks before the presidential inauguration, 2009. Apparently no one was discounting prices. I forget the final tally, but it was in the neighborhood of $300. It currently goes for $325 and change today.

After agreeing on price, I reached for my wallet, only to be handed a clipboard and pen, and told to go stand in line. Say what? I’ve been hitting gun shows since the 1980’s. I’ve never had to stand in line to make a cash purchase. But there we were, me, my brother, and my 12-year-old with an itchy trigger finger, cooling our heels for another 45 minutes. Instant criminal background check my rear end.

So what did we (he) get for ~$300? A very handsome, western-styled level action rifle. Any fan of John Wayne will immediately recognize the profile and Winchester influence on this piece. It has a nice heft and solid feel to it, enough so that it will never be mistaken for a toy. Wood quality was good, fit and finish acceptable. Action a tad bit rough, but hopefully it will smooth out over time.

Still, there was just some tiny bit of something nagging me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, other than to say “it’s not a Winchester.” Am I being a brand snob?

Well, the Henry website does talk at length about the origin of the Henry rifle, way back during the War Between the States. This implies a true link between a company in operation back in 1865 and today’s Henry Repeating Arms. Not so fast. Not so fast!

Back in my youth, I lusted after a Ruger 10-22, followed by a Winchester, a Remington, and (if nothing else) a Marlin 925 (as above) for my Christmas present. That Marlin currently resides in my parents’ closet, a bit worse for wear. Henry just didn’t make the list. As far as I can remember, they might have made a weird little .22 survival gun back then, but certainly no lever action.

I think there’s some remnant of the old Ivers Johnson company in their lineage, but the current lineup of lever-action rifles only dates back to the early 1990’s. Still, they claim to be 100% American made, so, okay then

Our first outing saw my son consistently keeping all rounds inside a 5” target at 25 yards. I managed one 3” group before he insisted on getting his rifle back. A little disappointing to me. I was shooting tighter groups with my Savage, so I don’t think it was me.

I then compared the sights between the two rifles and saw that the Henry went with plain flat steel with a notch in back, and a thick square post up front. While certainly functional, the sights just didn’t give the finely detailed sight picture I wanted. Plus, come on, this is a Wild West piece. How about some fancy buckhorn on the back and a post with brass bead on the front?

I did get another chance with the rifle, at 50 yards, and also got a rough 3” grouping. I think the gun will shoot better, I just didn’t have the groups at the time to prove it. One year later, with scope, 1.5” at 50 yards.

I also noticed the boy had more than several failure to feed issus. I had zero, so we discussed moving the lever with more authority. Once he started racking it with force, the failures went away. Otherwise a perfectly functional rifle that has probable sent close to 1500 rounds downrange so far.

Safety note, it’s very easy for young ones (and older guys too) to place hands, arms, and other body parts over the end of the barrel while reloading. I had to issue several reminders before we settled on dropping the lever to leave the action open before reloading the tube. Never reload one of these with a round still in the chamber, and pay attention dammit to the muzzle direction.

The Henry Repeating Arms Lever Action .22 is a very nice piece and a fair value. But there are plenty of other .22’s for the same price (or less). You’d pretty much have to want a lever-action to pick it over, say, a Ruger 10-22. Assuming that, you got a good rifle that’ll last a lifetime.

For myself, I’d probably spend some time searching the used market for a real Winchester. Or maybe cough-up some extra cash and get a Browning. Both are admittedly at a much higher price point. But I already own multiple .22’s and multiple lever actions, so my Jones has already been covered.

You ask my now 14-year-old and he’ll tell you: the Henry’s the best rifle in the gun cabinet. And I think plenty of other 14-year-olds would agree. After all, I’m still planning on getting that Marlin from my parents’ house someday and cleaning it up. Turns out that was a pretty fine rifle, too.

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