Illustration by Jason Lee
Graduating from a Red Ryder to a real rifle is a monumental occasion for a kid. Even those of us who got beat-up hand-me-downs remember that first rimfire as a ticket to adventure, no matter what the gun looked like. This month, parents looking to put a new big-kid plinker under the tree have a range of solid choices, from basic, starter single-shots to compact rimfire versions of the most modern big-game rifles. I got to play kid for a week, testing four of the newest and most popular youth .22s, each vastly better than the Montgomery Ward special I got so many years ago. Here's how they stacked up.
Crickett 22 LR
Starting at $122; crickett.com
Specs: Single-shot bolt action • 161⁄8" barrel • 21⁄2 lb. • Adjustable rear peep sight, front ramp blade
The Lowdown: I expected the Crickett to feel like a toy, but it's surprisingly like a real rifle, albeit on a downsized scale. The bolt opens the action for loading a single cartridge, then users must pull the plunger back to cock the rebounding firing pin. A push-button lock on the underside of the action prevents bolt operation when engaged. Fifty yards was a little long for the pinhole-size peep sight—at least for these aging eyes—but at 25 yards the Crickett was very accurate, shooting cloverleafs measuring less than 3⁄4 inch. At 3 pounds, the trigger is a little light for youngsters, but some creep makes it feel heavier.
Hits: Sized right for small hands and easy to operate, with several built-in safety features. Plenty accurate for beginning plinkers.
Misses: The action-lock button's placement makes it too easy to engage when handling the rifle on the range. Keep the key that unlocks it handy.
Who Should Get It: The absolute beginning young shooter.
Henry Lever Action Youth .22
Specs: Repeating lever action • 161⁄8" barrel • 41⁄4 lb. • Elevation-adjustable rear blade sight, hooded front blade sight
The Lowdown: Despite Lone Ranger's bombing at the box office, kids still want to play cowboy (not to mention adults, see "This Just In," p. 30). The Henry's crisp action and solid heft add grown-up appeal to this youth-size lever, and with its 12-round tubular magazine, it was tempting for me to re-enact the opening of The Rifleman on the range. The receiver is milled for a scope; although Chuck Connors didn't need one, you might because the front blade is so wide it nearly subtended an 8-inch bull's-eye at 25 yards. Scoped, the gun averaged .842-inch groups.
Hits: No toy, the Henry feels like a real rifle thanks to its quality fit and finish. Great for southpaws. Trigger breaks fairly crisply at 3.7 pounds.
Misses: Inaccurate with open sights. At over 4 pounds with a 13-inch length of pull, it might be unwieldy for small-frame shooters.
Who Should Get It: The growing cowpoke big enough to handle a near adult-size gun.
Specs: Repeating bolt action • 16" barrel • 4 lb. • Adjustable rear sight, front ramp sight
The Lowdown: With a shortened trigger reach, thin wrist, and 12-inch length of pull, the new XT-22's black synthetic stock, while not handsome, is built specifically for young shooters. Given this, I found it odd that I had to reach for the thumb safety, which is a bit far forward. The adjustable two-stage trigger pulled at 41⁄2 pounds from the factory—not too light for new shooters, yet crisp enough to maximize accuracy. I managed groups measuring close to half an inch with open sights, despite not being able to see the minuscule notch in the rear blade. Thankfully, the top of the receiver is milled to accept dovetail-compatible rings and is drilled and tapped for a separate scope base.
Hits: Good fit (minus the safety), and durable design is kid-friendly. Pro-Fire trigger minimizes flinching for novice shooters.
Misses: Poor open sights. Not exactly pretty.
Who Should Get It: The kid who is ready to move up from plinking to hunting.
Ruger American Rimfire Compact
Specs: Repeating bolt action • 18" barrel • 5.4 lb. • Adjustable rear peep sight, fiber-optic front sight
The Lowdown: If there's a rimfire to challenge the ever popular Ruger 10/22, it's this, the same company's latest offering. From the integral bedding in the synthetic stock to the adjustable Marksman trigger to the hammer-forged barrel with 1:16 rifling, the brand-new American Rimfire is built for accuracy, and it doesn't disappoint on the range. With a scope at 50 yards, I managed three shots into one ragged hole. For the growing shooter, an innovative if somewhat homely stock system includes straight- and raised-comb inserts, and optional modules increase length of pull from 121⁄2 to 133⁄4 inches.
Hits: Super accurate. Tang safety. The gun grows with the shooter.
Misses: Stiff action. The factory-set 31⁄2-pound trigger pull, though crisp, seems a little light for inexperienced shooters.
Who Should Get It: The adolescent wanting to hunt small game with a "grown-up" rifle.
I shot all rifles with open sights at 25 yards, using 40-grain Winchester Super-X roundnose cartridges and measuring accuracy by averaging the width of three three-shot groups. I also fit the Henry, Marlin, and Ruger with a Cabela's 4x32 Rimfire Riflescope and shot again at 50 yards. And, of course, since a first rifle is supposed to be fun, I put the guns through the paces, shooting at bowling pins, steel plates, and reactive, bouncing targets—not to mention some tin cans. —D.D.