The .22 long rifle rimfire cartridge is probably the most popular cartridge in the world. Perfect for beginners and expert’s alike for plinking, serious target shooting and hunting small game and vermin. The versatility of the .22 rimfire is often forgotten and it’s relegated to the role of a ‘plinker’ far too often and a cheap low magnification scope will be carelessly slapped on to it, with this approach though you will never get the most out of your .22 rimfire rifle.
Pinpoint accurate at up to 50 meters and even beyond with the proper combination of rifle and optic and certainly powerful enough for all manner of small game, especially when loaded with hollow point ammunition. It’s a fantastic versatile calibre that is often underrated.
If you’re in a hurry and don't have time for the details, here are our best picks for Rimfire Scopes
Rimfire Optics for Plinking
Rimfire Optics for Precision
Rather than a primer located in a pocket in the centre of the base of a cartridge case which is struck by a firing pin as in larger centrefire cartridges rimfire cartridges feature a built in primer; the rim of the cartridge contains a priming compound which is ignited when the rim of the cartridge is struck.
Rather than a firing pin with a circular cross section a rim fire firing pin generally has a rectangular cross section and strikes the rim of the cartridge which is effectively a large percussion cap forming a the base of the cartridge.
Unlike a centrefire rifle which can be dry fired without fear of damage a rimfire rifle must not be dry fired. When a centre fire rifle is dry fired the firing pin doesn’t hit anything at all but in a rim fire without a cartridge in the gun the pin can strike the steel breech face instead of a relatively soft brass cartridge. This can damage the firing pin potentially dulling it and causing misfires or even causing it to fracture and creating sharp edges on the pin which can pierce the cartridge.
The ‘rimfire’ method of igniting a cartridge is not a new one and was first patented in 1831, over a decade after the original patent, in 1845, the Flobert .22 BB cap was first used for indoor ‘gallery’ shooting. Gallery style shooting on indoor ranges taking advantage of the minimal power and relatively quiet report of the long rifle cartridge is still very popular and great fun.
The original Flobert cartridge though contained no charge of powder instead relying solely on the priming compound in the rim and around the inside of the cartridge. This drove a single round ball which was simply pressed into the rim of the cartridge. This fired a round with very limited power, similar to a modern air rifle.
From left to right; A .22 CB cap (the .22 BB cap was similar except it used a round ball instead of a conical bullet), .22 short, .22 long rifle.
In the 1850’s the .22 short came along, originally for us in Smith and Wesson’s first revolver, the Model 1. This short .22 cartridge was originally loaded with just 4 grains of black powder and fired a conical bullet similar to the one pictured in the .22 CB cap above.
Not long later the .22 long followed and the modern .22 long rifle uses a cartridge of those same dimensions but uses a heavier bullet originally intended for the short lived .22 extra long. While many of the earlier rimfire cartridges were designed for use in pistols longer rifled barrels could make the most of the heavier projectile which may been unstable when fired from a shorter barrel.
Table of Contents
- Obsolete Rimfires
- The Modern .22 Long Rifle
- Best Rimfire Optics for Plinking
- Best Rimfire Scope for Precision on the Market Today
- Optics or Not; That’s the Question
- Beyond .22 Long Rifle
It’s the .22 long rifle which has survived the test of time but until centre fire cartridges became the norm there were many other rim fire cartridges which are now obsolete. Some of these were quite large and even used in the famous Henry and Spencer rifles of the Civil War. Rim fire cartridges were loaded in .30, .32, .38, .41 and even up to the very unusual .58 Miller cartridge.
The .44 Henry Flat Cartridge was manufactured up until the 1930’s and unless you see one in the flesh they look deceptively small. We are so used to the size and shape of the modern .22 long rifle cartridge that we think anything with that distinctive rimmed cartridge must be the same size;
They might look like .22 long rifle cartridges but the Henry Flat cartridges pictured above are actually chambered in .44 calibre and loaded with 200 grain bullets, without something to show their scale we might be tricked into thinking that they are simple .22 lr cartridges but in actual fact their projectiles are about five times heavier than the standard 40 grain bullets of the .22 long rifle cartridge.
Centre fire technology took over from the rim fires though and although there has been a resurgence and several new rim fire loads in recent years the heavier rim fires faded out and it was only the long rifle that stood the test of time.
The Modern .22 Long Rifle
The .22 long rifle is now the most popular cartridge in the world and is unbelievable versatile. When considering what's the best rimfire scope to buy though you do need to consider the use you will be putting your rifle to: While the round is perfectly capable of tack driving precision at up to almost 100 yards with practice as ammunition and firearms in this calibre are so affordable a .22 rifle is often the weapon of choice for plinking and training purposes and short range plinking at cans and reactive targets doesn’t require a precision scope, perhaps a reflex style optic would be more suitable.
In a precision role or for game hunting though the accuracy of the .22 rim fire needs to be taken advantage of and to do this a larger scope for with a bit of zoom with be more appropriate. We’ll deal with these two categories separately and also consider the very valid option of foregoing optic sights completely.
The versatility of the .22 rim fire though isn’t just in its accuracy and affordability, its universal popularity means it has been adapted a huge range of firearm styles from pistols to AR style rifles and precision hunting and target shooting platforms.
Those AR platforms though and some of the modified Ruger 10-22 rifles are perfect for plinking and informal target shooting. If that’s the style of shooting you are doing what kind of optic will suit you best?
1 ESSLNB Reflex Sight Red Dot Sight Scope 4 Reticles
Plinking rifles generally aren’t the kind of rifle you spend a lot of money on, nor are they the kind of rifle you generally shoot serious competitions with so there is little sense in shelling out the kind of money you might on a high end reflex sight for competitive target shooting or something really robust for shooting a full calibre AR in 5.56mm or .300AAC.
If you’re using a budget rifle for knocking over cans and just putting lead downrange use a budget optic, something like this from ESSLNB would be ideal. At well under $100 it won’t break the bank whatever your budget.
2 FieldSport Micro Red Dot Sight
Something a little more robust than a reflex sight this red dot sight is nice and small and will be at home on a ruger 10-22 as well as on an AR style .22.
3 BARSKA AC11876 Fixed Power 4x32 Scope
Reflex sights and red dots are great for plinking but sometimes you just can’t beat a proper optic. Maybe for stretching the range a little or shooting some really challenging water melons and bean cans or just to make your rifle more versatile this scope by barska crosses the plinking line and strays into the precision shooting and hunting realm.
The fixed power four times magnification is plenty for informal targets and ample for vermin out to over fifty meters. The illuminated reticle will make picking up targets quick and the mil dots will help you adjust when you want to reach out a bit further.
Best Rimfire Scope for Precision on the Market Today
While many would balk at putting a high magnification scope on a .22 rim fire they have enough potential to make it very worthwhile. And because you don’t need these scopes to put up with the vicious recoil of powerful centrefire cartridges you can feel safe with budget scopes.
1 Simmons 8-Point
The 50mm front end of this scope gathers light fantastically allowing you to use your .22 for squirrel hunting or other vermin in very low light conditions and still get a clear image. Still under $100 the Simmons 8-point retains fantastic clarity with high quality glass and fully coated optics.
The variable magnification allows you to take advantage of the precision offered by the .22 long rifle round on targets or when going for the coveted head shot which the small size of the .22 round demands to ensure a clean kill.
2 Bushnell Engage 3-9x40mm
If there is any specification for a scope which is the perfect match for a .22 lr rifle it might just be 3-9x40mm. Bushnell offer great quality products at very affordable prices. Not quite as low as the Simmons but still under $200 if you shop around.
As well as multi-coated optics and waterproof and fogproof construction the Bushnell is protected by a robust warranty and will serve excellently on top of your squirrel hunting gun.
3 Vortex Optics Diamondback 2-7x35 Rimfire
Vortex Optics are producing some fantastic products for firearms in general but this one is designed specifically for rim fires rifles. It doesn’t provide quite the magnification or light gathering ability as the Simmons or Bushnell products but the shock proof, waterproof and argon purged construction will ensure that this scope never lets you down even in poor weather.
Optics or Not; That’s the Question
Long before optics became the norm most .22’s would have been used with open sights and the often still are. I learned to shoot on a rifle with open sights and still keep an old BSA sportsman 5, one of the first box magazine fed .22 rim fire rifles available in the UK, in my cabinet for my children to learn to shoot with. At moderate ranges of up to 50 meters and a little over it is perfectly suitable for game getting and is great for plinking at targets. Do not underestimate a good set of open sights.
Beyond .22 Long Rifle
While the .22 long rifle is the rim fire calibre that has stood the test of time there has been a particular surge in interest in new and improved rim fire cartridges this century. The .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire (HMR) was the first innovation in rimfire technology for over thirty years, since the short lived 5mm Remington Rimfire Magnum. It is based on the .22 WMR cartridge which was introduced in 1959 by Winchester as a ‘magnum’ alternative to the .22 long rifle. It could handle heavier bullets and produce significantly improved muzzle energies and velocities than the long rifle. It proved relatively popular and has been in production ever since but was never as popular as the long rifle. People had been experimenting with ‘wildcat’ variations of the .22 WMR for many years but in 2002 Hornady made it official with the .17 HMR.
The .17HMR produces significantly improved muzzle velocity than the long rifle or .22 WMR firing a tiny .17 calibre bullet. Normally loaded with only a 17 grain polymer tipped projectile, the polymer tip is required to ensure the tiny bullet imparts the maximum energy to the target and they have become well known as devastating rounds on small soft game such as rabbits and hares and have been proven effective at up to 200 yards.
As well as the .27HMR in 2008 the 5mm Remington Rimfire Magnum was put back into production possibly prompted by the availability of 5mm barrels for the first time since 1974 with the release of the .204 (5mm) Ruger (a centrefire cartridge) in 2004.
The .17 HMR was soon followed by a .17 version of the long rifle cartridge known as the Hornady Mach 2 and in 2012 by a bigger brother the .17 Winchester Super Magnum. The Super Magnum is an interesting one as rather than being derived from the cartridge of another firearm it was derived from the blank .27 nail gun cartridges used in construction. To deal with significantly increased power this case is about 50 % thicker than the HMR cartridge and is available with 20 or 25 grain bullets. It isn’t dissimilar in appearance to the .17 hornet round and the rimmed cartridge of the hornet is often mistaken for a rimfire but is in actual fact a centre fire cartridge with a rim.
There are so many scopes suitable for rim fires that the selection here is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ll address the best scopes for the immensely popular .17HMR in a dedicated article but those featured here will be perfect for casual shooting, hunting and even serious target shooting with the .22 long rifle.
Because of the affordability of the cartridge and weapons you shouldn’t shy away from cheap products for use on your .22 but equally should recognise that limiting yourself to low magnification optics won’t make the most of the precision and versatility of the cartridge.
If I was forced to choose a scope as a lifelong user of Simmons scope’s I would feel very safe with a Simmons on my rifle and have taken many hundreds of rabbits, squirrels and even foxes with a rifle equipped with a Simmons scope. The extra magnification offered by the Simmons 8-point will allow you to reach out to 70 or 80 meters for rabbits and squirrels and if you use high velocity ammunition you can even stretch that range to 100 meters.
Don’t ever underestimate the .22 rim fire round, and as always respect your firearms, be safe and get out there and do some shooting with your best rimfire scope.