Gun Review: American Tactical Imports VK-22

It seems like every major gunmaker–and several dozen lesser ones– is now selling a .22lr version of their AR-15. The American Tactical Imports VK-22 gives you an M4-styled flattop .22lr upper mated to a fully equipped mil-spec AR lower at a list price ($480) that’s about the same as the Ruger SR-22 or the Smith & Wesson MP-22. Street prices, of course, are well below MSRP, and my example was part of a “No Rain Checks” promotion at $299. Did I get a great deal, or what? Keep the latter option in mind . . .

Strangely, the ‘VK’ in the name stands for the (not PETA-approved) “Varmint Killer.” I could care less about offending PETA, whom my carnivorous diet already mocks thrice daily. But for the sake of truthfulness I would have called this rifle the EK (Enthusiasm Killer) -22 instead.

Upper Receiver:

Chiappa Firearms (of .357 Magnum Rhino fame) supplies the VK-22′s upper receiver. It’s a dedicated .22lr-only flattop receiver with a polymer body, a functional dust cover and shell deflector, and a non-functional forward assist. The flattop Picatinny rail is low enough to mount a standard detachable carry handle; if you plan to mount an optic or red dot you’ll need a riser. High-mount scope rings will co-witness with the front sight pillar, but the front sight sight base will obstruct much of the scope. It’s distracting as hell, so use high scope rings and add a short riser for a lower 1/3 co-witness.

The 16-inch M4-contour barrel is a dead ringer for the real thing save its tiny rimfire chamber and missing gas port. Designed for the utmost in visual verisimilitude, it sports an A2 flash hider, forward sling swivel, grenade launcher cut and a bayonet lug. I don’t have an M-16 bayonet hanging around the house (loitering with intent), but the VK-22′s lug is purported to be a cosmetic fake. The foregrip halves are held in place by the a spring-loaded collar at the rear, just like a real AR. No, they don’t have heat shields, but thanks for asking.

As befits a .22lr, the VK-22′s action is a straight blowback operation with a fairly light mainspring and a fairly heavy bolt. The mainspring requires just a bit over four lbs. of pressure to compress, and the moving mass of the bolt weighs about six ounces. That’s just enough to delay the case ejection until after the bullet leaves the muzzle. The bolt reciprocates very smoothly via the fully-functional charging handle.

Magazines:

The full-size polymer magazine has a handy thumb-loading button. This really helps, because for most of us, the magazine holds 28 rounds. If you live in an anti-gun state it sucks to be you; you only get a bulky 10-rounder. Either way, the VK-22′s magazine locks firmly into the lower receiver and drops free using the mil-spec magazine release button. The rifle’s lower-receiver bolt catch is mil-spec functional, but it doesn’t work with the rimfire upper.

The bolt will still hold open after the last shot, but it releases when you drop the empty magazine. Other than the nonfunctional forward assist, it’s the only chapter of the VK-22 manual of arms that differs from a stock AR-15.

Additional .22lr magazines are available from many online retailers (search for ‘M4-22 magazine’) at around $20 to $30 each. Both of mine fed and functioned well as long as I followed the proper loading procedure, arrived at by trial and error. Pull the loading button down just far enough to slide in one more round at a time. If you pull the spring too far down, the .22 rounds wiggle all out of position and you might have to start over.

During one of my range testing days with Joe Grine, we lent the ATI magazines to several other shooters who were having fits with their Black Dog aftermarket .22 AR magazines. The ATI versions fed perfectly in their rifles. Aside from the slightly tricky loading, which is a snap once you get used to it, the MK-22′s magazine works exceptionally well for a high-capacity rimfire.

They fed many different brands of ammo with less drama than an episode of Antiques Road Show—with the exception of some Winchester lead hollowpoints with a fairly flat nose. The Winnies tended to jam upwards between the bolt and the face of the charging handle. They were a real PITA to clear; I had to hold the bolt back with my finger (not the charging handle) and wiggle my other hand up inside the magazine well.

Lower Receiver:

ATI  mounts the Chiappa uppers on a mil-spec AR lower from an outfit called Xtreme Machining. Some ‘net sleuthing reveals that Xtreme has been manufacturing forged AR uppers and lowers since 2005.  They make ARs, milled AKs, and even a .338 Lapua sniper rifle.

The milling on the lower receiver is decent. Although it’s not not luxuriously deep or ‘creamy’ like the best examples of the genre, the phosphate finish is smooth and even. Inspecting the VK-22′s lower gives the impression of generally good machining work, compromised by one very visible toolmark on the magazine well’s front face. It looks like the CNC mill tried to shave a little too much metal off the front, and the operator stopped the bit just in time so he didn’t have to trash the whole lower. He should have; the result isn’t pretty.

The VK-22′s magazine release and bolt release are sturdy and operate smoothly. While serviceable, the lower receiver assembly is a few quality notches lower than the ArmaLite M-15 I tested earlier this year.

Note that the receiver is (faintly) engraved with the designation “MULTI CAL 5.56MM-.22.” This is the only real giveaway that the VK-22 doesn’t sport an off-the-rack AR lower. Disregard the apparent blemish beneath the “CAL 5.56MM” engraving: this is an artifact of the photo editor that I used to obscure the serial number.

The parts kit is obviously a really cheap one. The VK-22′s trigger is a single-stage affair with a grittiness that made it feel a lot heavier than its measured 6 lb. pull. It got smoother as it broke in over about 500 rounds, but the gun started double-firing as the trigger got smoother, so I don’t consider this a good thing. Triggers and hammers should be made of high-quality hardened steel. If they ever wear out, they should do so after many thousands of rounds, not just a few hundred.

The VK-22 also has lots of sharp edges waiting to cut your fingers around the grip and trigger guard.

This picture shows the annoying ‘gap’ area at the rear of the milspec AR trigger guard.  The stock El-Cheapo grips were a tad undersized for a full-fisted chap like myself, and the very sharp edges of the gap dug into the top of my middle finger.  The metal trigger guard itself was almost knife-edge sharp, so I replaced both parts with a polymer Magpul MOE trigger guard and grip for $20.  If you’re not a fan of stock AR grips and trigger guards, this $20 is very well spent.  The MOE grip components provide a more hand-filling grip, fill the annoying gap, and open up the trigger guard for gloved shooting.  They look pretty bitchin’, too:

The ATI’s trigger and hammer pins are slightly loose, and they started ‘walking’ even before I started firing.  You’re not supposed to be able to push them back into place with your thumbnail, are you?

Accuracy:

The VK-22 gave disappointing accuracy during initial testing.  At 50 yards it would deliver approximately one-inch groups using the cheapest brands of ammunition I could find: Federal bulk-pack and old Winchester Wildcat.  You’re probably thinking that one-inch groups at 50 yards aren’t too bad for a semi-automatic .22, and you’d be right if those one-inch groups didn’t wander all over the target every time you changed shooting positions, changed magazines, or made a scope adjustment.  I seriously doubt I can blame the scope, since it was a $600-plus Leupold VX-R Patrol 1.25-4 power variable with steel Warne 30mm rings.

When I disassembled the gun to investigate the double-firing problem, I discovered the cause of the wandering zero: the barrel nut wasn’t more than finger-tight.  I tightened it firmly, with the result that the barrel no longer wobbles, but the front handguards are now canted slightly clockwise and the Magpul virti-grip now hangs at 7:00 instead of 6:00.  It’s a good thing I’m right-handed.

Reliability:

A lawyer friend here has been perfectly happy with his new VK-22, which was bought the day before mine.  My example, however, has been a shiny tart lemon, plagued with fundamental mechanical defects that have rendered it either impossible or unsafe to operate.  Most of my time with this gun has been spent trying to zero it, trying to fix it, or waiting for replacement parts.

Problem #1: The Broken Bolt

The VK-22 came out of the box and shot quite well for the first 250 rounds, before the bolt broke and put the gun completely out of action.  That’s not a good sign with a new .22, but I give two thumbs up for Chiappa’s customer service, who had me back up and running in four business days.  The new bolt installed easily and worked perfectly.

Note: Conventional Internet Wisdom suggests avoiding hypervelocity .22s with this rifle, especially Remington hypervelocity cartridges, which tend to suffer case ruptures and violent ejection.  If you didn’t *always* wear ear and eye protection before you watched that video, I hope you will afterward.  The Kentucky Gun Company’s test VK-22 later suffered a total trigger failure on-camera.

Problem #2: Double-Firing

In a more relaxed legal climate, an infrequent double-fire might be considered an amusing malfunction that you would want to get fixed before you took the gun out shooting again.  In our legal climate, however, this mechanical defect can become a legal nightmare of the first magnitude, and it’s a problem that needs to be fixed right effing now.  It happened once the first time we used the new bolt, but I couldn’t be sure if it was a ‘double-fire’ caused by a worn trigger or disconnector, or a slam-fire caused by a dirty firing pin.

Instead of being an isolated break-in phenomenon, however, the double-firing continued throughout testing.  As the trigger pull lost much of its gritty feeling (and lightened to about five pounds) the doubling became more frequent.   By the time I’d shot about 750 rounds through the rifle, I couldn’t fire a five-round target string without at least one double-fire.  We discontinued testing at this point for safety reasons, and to avoid being thrown off the range.

The VK-22 was starting to fire .22 bullets the way Chicago union members vote: early and often.

I discovered I could recreate the problem at home by dry-firing the gun and holding the trigger back while I racked the charging handle.  Each time I released the trigger forward to reset the disconnector, the hammer would fly forward and the gun would dry-fire again. This indicates that the problem is not the disconnector, but rather the hammer and trigger themselves. Click here for another VK-22 owner’s YouTube video explaining the problem: scroll to the 9:00 mark and he’ll get to it, eventually.

After only 750 rounds, this is what the face of the trigger looks like:

After a dismally short service life, it looks like there’s a lot of metal missing from the sear engagement face of the trigger.  Here’s a closeup of the sear notch of the hammer where the engagement face of the trigger is supposed to lock up with it:

Pardon my poor eyesight, but don’t those look like metal shavings in there?  You’ll only need one guess to figure out where they came from…

I don’t want any part of anything the ATFE might try to call ‘automatic’, so I’ve removed the broken lower receiver parts.  Maybe ATI will want me to return them for their own testing, or maybe I’ll just crush them into uselessness in a bench vise.

I contacted ATI with a detailed description of the problem, but it was a holiday weekend and I did not expect an immediate followup.  I emailed ATI again a few days later.  I would have tried to use their warranty registration page, but it was still down.  Just like it was when the bolt broke more than a month ago.

My emails got no response, so I called their customer service number and was diverted to voicemail.  I’ve asked them to just send me a new trigger parts kit, since the shipping and FFL fees alone would cost twice as much as a replacement set of lower receiver parts. We’ll see how they respond, and until then the jury is still out on ATI’s customer service.

The verdict on the VK-22, however, has already been rendered.

Conclusion

Selling a mil-spec AR lower with a dedicated .22 rimfire upper is a great idea, and a great way to get the AR platform into the hands of a lot of first-time shooters and their families.  It’s like a Trojan Horse: an affordable .22 rifle that you can always ‘upgrade’ into an Evil Assault Rifle Modern Sporting Carbine later if you really dig it. But…

The VK-22 itself is a deplorable piece of trash.  From its CNC-bungled lower receiver to its razor-sharp grip gap to its under-torqued barrel nut, it’s plagued by shoddy assembly and careless machining.  These aren’t exactly mortal sins for a gun that sells for less than $400, but a self-destructing bolt and an illegal and incredibly dangerous trigger are absolutely unacceptable for any firearm.  Period.  Ever.  At any price.

Even the best companies occasionally sell a product that breaks, but our test VK-22 suffers from so many manufacturing and assembly defects that it reminds me that my factory-reject Marlin 1894C was at least mechanically sound, safe, and functional when it left the factory.  The VK-22 is not.

RATINGS (out of five)

Accuracy ***

One inch groups at 50 yards doesn’t make it a tackdriver, but it’s not too bad for a .22 autoloader now that the barrel is screwed on tight.

Reliability

That’s not a typo.  With a mean time between catastrophic failures of about 350 rounds, it proudly earns ZERO stars despite being blessed with good magazines.

Ergonomics ***

It’s an AR; what else is there to say?  I like the angled buttstock, but I had to replace the grip and trigger guard.

Customize This *****

It’s an AR; what else is there to say?

Overall Rating 

That’s not a typo.  Our test gun is charitably best described as an entry-level parts kit.  Assembled by the factory, however, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.  You might be lucky and get one that works, but if you really like gambling you’ll have more fun blowing $350 in Vegas instead.