Which Plinker Is Your Favorite?

TTAG reader Brian asks:

Would you guys be able to recommend some good .22 plinkers, specifically the Phoenix Arms Rangemaster?

Mission accepted, Brian! I’ve shot a lot of .22s over the years and I’m happy to make a few suggestions. I’ll break it to you now, though: the Phoenix Arms Rangemaster is not among them.

A good plinker has to be simple, affordable and rugged. Tack-driving accuracy and tactical good looks are not required, since tin cans and magpies aren’t too small and they’ll never know what shot them.

‘Mission-Critical’ reliability is also not exactly mission-critical for plinking, when a jam or misfire is only an inconvenience. That being said, a plinker should be fairly reliable with the kinds of low-grade .22 ammunition (purchased at least 500 rounds at a time) that will be its exclusive diet.

If you’re looking for a plinker, remember to include pawn shops and smaller gun stores in your search because used guns often make the best plinkers. First of all they’re cheap, and second you’ll never get too upset if your nephew accidentally scratches or dings a gun that’s already covered in dings and scratches.

All of these rifles can be found for around $200 new, and the handguns can all be found for around $250-300 new.

Here are a few suggestions, not necessarily in order of preference:

Any Bolt-Action .22 Rifle Around $200

To me, a bolt-action .22 by Marlin, Savage or Mossberg (or anybody else for that matter) is probably the quintessential plinking rifle. Simple, cheap, and built like tanks, these rifles are reasonably accurate and almost indestructible. They’re also simple and cheap to fix if anything goes wrong, and a brick of ammo will last you a really long time.

A bolt-action .22 is a good plinking choice if you’re taking newer or younger shooters with you, because they’re simpler to operate and easier to supervise than semi-automatics.

Tin cans, beware!

Marlin Model 60 or Ruger 10/22

I’m too lazy to go hunt down some hard sales statistics, but I’d hazard a guess that one of every three .22 rifles sold in the United States is either a Marlin Model 60 or a Ruger 10/22. You can’t walk past a Wal-Mart gun counter without seeing both of them and with ‘Millions And Millions Sold’ they’re only slightly less common than McDonald’s hamburgers.

Those millions of shooters know that both of these little rifles are fun, accurate and reliable. My model 60 cost a princely $60 in the early 80’s, but you can still buy a non-takedown Ruger or Marlin for less than $200 now. I own one of each, so don’t expect me to take sides as to which is better. The 10/22 has bigger magazines and more accessories.

The Ruger and Marlin are both available in ‘takedown’ versions with removable barrels; these might be the best plinkers ever, but they run about $300 new and you’ll probably never see a used one for sale. If you get lucky and stumble on a used Marlin Papoose, you must reach directly for your wallet and purchase it: do not pass GO and do not call home first.

Budget tip: the Mossberg ‘Plinkster’is a clone of the Marlin Model 60, and it’s sometimes even cheaper than the original.

AR-7 Survival Rifle

If a takedown .22 plinker fits in your budget, it will easily fit in your backpack. The AR-7 survival rifle disassembles to stow in its own buttstock, and it costs about the same as a non-takedown Marlin or Ruger. Currently made by the Henry Repeating Arms Company, it’s simple and reliable and so lightweight that it actually floats.

Almost Any 4″ .22 Revolver

If you’re looking for a plinking handgun instead of a rifle, you can’t go terribly wrong with a 4-inch (or longer) .22 revolver by Taurus, Rossi, H&R, Iver Johnson or NEF. H&R, Iver Johnson, and NEF revolvers may be ugly, but $175 won’t buy you reliability, ruggedness, straight shooting and good looks at the same time. Colt, Ruger and S&W make outstanding .22 revolvers, but sadly you’re not likely to find one at plinker’s prices.

Double-action triggers tend to be very stiff on most .22 revolvers, but this is for a reason: they have to smack the cartridge rim hard to insure reliable ignition. You’ll probably end up cocking the hammer for single-action plinking most of the time. My old H&R revolver was such a gun as this, and 18 years later I still regret selling it.

Almost Any Full-Size .22 Semi-Automatic

The Ruger Mk.I and Mk. II, Browning Buckmark, S&W 22A, and Beretta Neos are all excellent .22 plinkers, and they’re all usually available new for somewhere around $250 ($300 for the Buckmark.) They’re all solidly built with long (usually heavy) barrels, good sights and crisp triggers. These features make them capable of amazing accuracy with expensive match-grade ammo, which you’ll never use while plinking.

The Ruger .22 autos (any of them) are probably the best plinking pistol of the past 60 years: they’re all steel and they never wear out, no matter how beat up they may look. Find them at pawn shops and LGS’s: the uglier and cheaper they are, the more bang you’ll get for your plinking buck as long as the barrel isn’t corroded.

Non-.22 Plinkers

The term ‘plinker’ is pretty much synonymous with the .22 long rifle cartridge, but there are a handful of centerfire rifles and handguns (and even a few shotguns) that can be really cheap to own and shoot. If all-rimfire plinking has given you a case of taedium vitae, it might be time to beef up your bargain blasting with some bigger calibers.

  • Ruger P-series 9mm: These chunky pistols are as sound as the pound, double as good home-defense guns, and cost well under $300 new. Shoot steel-cased FMJs for $9 a box for plinking, and get some JHPs for nightstand duty.
  • 12-guage Mossberg (or Maverick) 500: These shotguns cost less than a pair of Benjy’s, and light-kicking birdshot runs less than $5 for 25 rounds. This is another budget blaster that doubles as a home-defense powerhouse (or hunting arm) with appropriate ammo.
  • Mosin-Nagant 91/30: this ridiculously powerful bolt-action rifle can be yours for a buck twenty out the door, and another C-note will buy you more ammo (440 rounds) than you’ll want to shoot through it in a whole summer. While your friends are shooting holes in tin cans and cardboard boxes, you’ll be punching holes in plate steel and engine blocks.

There you have it, Brian: an incomplete list of plinkers great and small. I’ve shot all of these, and I’ve owned most of them. I’m sure there are other great plinkers out there, but I’ll leave the rest of them to the Comments section, where you’ll probably learn much more than you’ve learned from me.

But What About The Phoenix Arms Rangemaster?

Not all is rosy when it comes to high-value firearms. The saga of the Phoenix Arms ‘Rangemaster’ doesn’t have anything to do with plinking, but it could easily be an entire post all by itself and it all starts with the passage of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968. When GCA ’68 cut off the importation of .32 European snubnose revolvers and zinc-framed $25 pocket automatics (usually in .22 or .25 caliber), California machinist George Jennings started designing and selling miserable-quality blowback pistols to fill that market niche.

Jennings founded Raven Arms, and his family or associates also founded the Jennings, Bryco, Lorcin, Davis and Phoenix arms companies. They all used the Jennings/Raven design, and they all feature zinc-alloy frames, horrible triggers, useless sights and cheap stamped magazines. Accuracy from these guns is poor; reliability is worse.

The Phoenix ‘Rangemaster’ is a slightly evolved version of the Raven MP-25 which Jennings designed in 1970. It has better sights and interchangeable barrels, but it’s still a 1970’s Saturday Night Special. I owned its predecessor once, a Jennings J-22 which worked perfectly for all of 50 rounds before giving up any pretense of functionality. Luckily I got all my money back from the $45 POS by selling it to the San Diego Police Department in a 1992 ‘Gun Buyback.’

Don’t do what I did; even a quick Google search will show that my experience with Jennings pistol designs was anything but unique.