The New .22 Competition Craze

Precision rimfire events are taking the shooting sports by storm—and pushing .22 accuracy to previously unimaginable limits

man aiming rifle
Competitor David Martin takes aim at the 2019 NRL22 National Championships in Las Vegas last May.National Rifle League

Allison Zane lay prone behind her Vudoo Gun Works V-22 rimfire, eyeing five targets stretching out over the desert from 100 to 330 yards. Sunday in Las Vegas was hot, with a 20-mph wind, gusting to 40. Her dad and fellow competitor, Frank Zane, gave her a wind call. She watched the breeze lie down, shook off her dad’s call, ran her Kestrel, and then connected with seven of 10 shots, besting her dad and nearly everyone else at the NRL22 National Championships last May.

By the end of the match, the 13-year-old eighth grader from Pennsylvania finished above competitors who’ve been shooting longer than she’s been alive. She easily won the Young Guns division and placed third overall. At one point during the match, National Rifle League director of match operations, Ty Frehner, asked Allison how she was feeling. She just beamed: “I’m having so much fun!”

woman aiming rifle in truck bed
Allison Zane, 13, won the Championships’ Young Guns category and placed 3rd overall.ConX Media

Fun, says Frehner, is key to the success of NRL22, which has quickly become one of the most popular and fastest-growing shooting sports in the country, and around the world. Nearly 70 gun clubs in the U.S. currently hold NRL22 matches, and there are events in England, France, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. As long-range centerfire competitions, like the Precision Rifle Shooting series, have taken off, a growing number of shooters are also learning that going long with a rimfire rifle is just as much fun as it is with the big guns. Maybe more. It's also less expensive and more accessible to the average shooter. Meanwhile, the latest rimfire rifles and ammo are stretching the limits of small-bore accuracy to previously unimaginable distances. Put it all together, and .22 competition shooting is on fire right now.

Small-Bore Big-Time

It makes perfect sense: Everybody wants to shoot long range these days, but most don’t have access to even a 500-yard rifle range, let alone a 1,000-yarder. But with a .22 LR, you can have that long-range shooting experience at just 100 yards. A standard-velocity .22 LR round, zeroed at 50 yards, drops almost 7½ inches at 100. A 10-mph crosswind will move the bullet another 4 inches. That means you have to know your equipment, adjust for the drop, and dope the wind in order to hit—just like when shooting longer ranges with a centerfire rifle. This is why rimfire training is a popular low-cost option for tactical precision centerfire competition. But it’s also become a hugely popular discipline in its own right.

Frehner started NRL22 in 2016, figuring it would provide some minor-league fun ahead of his major-league National Rifle League centerfire events. “I was dead wrong,” he says. “This rimfire community, these shooters, they’re all about .22s. I see some of them at centerfire matches, and they don’t have half the money invested in centerfire that they’ve put into their rimfire guns.”

man aiming a rifle
Ty Frehner, NRL director of match operations, shoots from the hood of a car.ConX Media

Three years after the first NRL22 match, the game has spread like wildfire. Part of the appeal is the ingenious open-source competition system that Frehner and the NRL22 team developed. Every month, a standard course of fire is posted online, and any club or range can run a match. All it takes is a few steel targets and some barricades. NRL22 uses the term “club” loosely, so any group from a sportsman’s organization to five guys with a hay field can download the monthly course of fire and hold a match.

By registering for the event, which is free, a club can purchase an official target pack. It’s a steal on steel—16 AR500 targets and 10 hangers for $329. (There are also plans online if you want to make your own.) The course of fire always includes two prone stages, one positional, and one barricade. Directions on building the barricades are online, too, along with Home Depot SKU numbers, but many are items a club or range is apt to have on hand, such as a 6-foot step ladder, a 5-gallon bucket, or a folding metal chair.

young boy lying prone and aiming rifle
Ryland Shih shoots prone at a station that requires using a step ladder for a rest.ConX Media

NRL22 matches have five classes: Open, which allows any .22 LR rifle and optic regardless of cost; Base, which sets a limit of $1,050 (MSRP) for rifle and optic; Young Guns, for shooters age 8 to 16; Ladies; and Air Rifle. In each case, you need a bipod for the prone stages, and you’re allowed up to two bags and a sling for barricades and positional shooting. Because the course of fire is standardized, the NRL22 team is able to post shooter rankings from around the globe online, and monthly awards and prize drawings are held on Facebook Live. To be in the running, clubs need to submit scores to NRL headquarters (at a cost of $35 a match), and the shooters need to buy a $75 annual NRL22 membership ($25 for kids, ages 8 to 16).

“NRL22 target sizes are generous too” Frehner says. “The difficult ones are around two MOA, or 2 inches at 100 yards. Rarely do we go sub-MOA, so you don’t need a ridiculous level of accuracy to succeed.”

group of people standing in a shooting range
Range officer Henry Garay (in plaid) goes over safety rules at the NRL22 National Championships.ConX Media

Small-Arms Race

Precision-shooting competitors are, by definition, accuracy junkies. So while you don’t need “a ridiculous level of accuracy” to compete in NRL22, that is exactly what most competitors are obsessed with. It explains why rifles made by Vudoo Gun Works in St. George, Utah, have come to dominate open-class NRL22 matches. Although the scored course of fire is always at 100 yards, clubs are encouraged to run their own bonus stages, often at extended ranges. And there are other brand-new rimfire disciplines, such as Extreme Long Range Rimfire, which has targets out to 600 yards or more.

Vudoo made their debut three years ago at the NRA World Shooting Championships at the Peacemaker National Training Center in West Virginia. (Peacemaker now holds their own summer precision rimfire series, the Lapua Practical Rimfire Challenge.) Paul Parrott, CEO of Vudoo Gun Works, brought the company's brand-new rifle for some of the best hands in precision shooting to try on an 18-inch steel plate at 460 yards. Veteran competitive shooter Walt Hasser got on the gun and fellow rifleman Emil Praslick called the wind. "First shot out, they whacked it," Parrott says. "We were all blown away. In 20 minutes, we had a crowd watching this craziness—a .22 hitting at 460, shot after shot. Everyone wanted to shoot it."

Mike Bush, a longtime consulting engineer for some of the world’s largest gun companies, designed the V-22 action after years of taking apart and converting old Remington 40x single-shots into repeaters. Four years ago, after the .22 ammunition market settled down from public mass hysteria, and PRS shooting was climbing in popularity, Parrott and Bush decided to start Vudoo, a company built around the modified 40x. “We had no idea it would be so successful,” Parrot says.

Vudoo Gun Works V-22 Apparition J. Allen 700 Short-Action Chassis rifle
The Vudoo Gun Works V-22 Apparition J. Allen 700 Short-Action Chassis rifle.By Vudoo Gun Works

Besides raw accuracy, the secret to the V-22’s success is its scale. Built on a Remington 700 footprint, it handles like a full-size centerfire and is compatible with the entire world of Model 700 accessories, from stocks and bases to triggers and barrels. Vudoo’s original idea was to provide a top-end, full-sized .22 trainer for centerfire PRS shooters. But just like Frehner did with NRL22, Parrot underestimated the appeal of the .22 in its own right. “Rimfire has taken on a life of its own,” he now says. “There’s a whole subset of shooters out there who only use rimfire rifles and who love pushing the limits of what these guns can do.” At a recent ELR rimfire event in Wyoming, targets were set from 200 to 600 yards. Shooters later filmed themselves hitting at 750. Then NRA ELR national champ Paul Phillips put his 9-year-old daughter behind a Vudoo, and she hit at 1,000 yards.

These rifles are not cheap. Barreled actions run $1,770. For the same money, you could buy six or seven Ruger 10/22s. A full Vudoo rifle tricked out in a J. Allen 700 chassis can push beyond $4,000, though it’s possible to get one around $2,500 if you can stomach the long waitlist. “It’s not for everyone,” Parrott concedes, “but some guys want the best.”

When I ask Parrott how practical all of this is for your average plinker or small-game hunter, it’s clear he’s answered the question before. “We’re exploring the outer limits, and it’s just generally fun, and a little silly, yes. But what’s practical about Formula One racing? Practical isn’t the point. Formula One is a billion-dollar sport and what’s learned there filters down to the rest of us. The best guns can get expensive, but what does it cost to get on the outer limits of race cars, or race boats, or superbikes. You can get $100,000 wrapped up a motorcycle real fast. We’re on the fringe, but hunters and shooters are going to benefit down the line from what we’re learning, and from the ammo, optics, and guns that will come out of it.”

Other rifle manufacturers have taken notice of the upward trend in .22 spending. More long-range scopes with a parallax adjustment down to 25 yards—the shortest distance for most rimfire matches—are hitting the market than ever before. CZ sells their wildly popular 455 and 457 .22s in Manner’s precision trainer stocks at an MSRP of $1,100. One of the biggest selling points on the CZs for the precision rimfire crowd is that the barrels are swappable, and leading barrel makers like Lilja and Shilen sell drop-ins.

cz 445 barreled action rifle
The CZ 455 barreled action matched with an MDT LSS-RF Gen2 Chassis System.MDT

Anschütz, the world leader in precision small-bore rifles, just released its Model 1761 at a low-for-Anschütz retail price of $1,600. With a double v-block on the barrel tenon, shooters can swap barrels—and even rimfire calibers—without a gunsmith. It’s a play to this new, growing group of NRL22 shooters, whom Anschütz had not previously courted.

“Our focus, and development dollars, has always been geared toward the NCAAs and junior Olympic shooting,” says Steve Boelter, president of Anschütz North America. His company’s 40-year plan was just realized when every biathlon shooter at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang shot an Anschütz. “You can’t point to another sport where a single piece of equipment is as dominant,” he says.

Parrott wants to change that. “The V-22 is the only modern American gun that has met Team U.S.A. accuracy standards.” Vudoo is now working on a rifle for Olympic positional shooting. “It’s still a ways down the road,” he says. “But I can see a day when the American Olympic team is shooting American rifles.”

a lineup of rifles at the nrl22 national championships
A lineup of competitors’ rifles at the NRL22 National Championships.ConX Media

Back to Basics

Even if $1,500 (let alone $4,000) is out of your range, you can still get in on the game. The NRL22’s typically large targets make it open to just about any budget. Fifth place overall at the NRL22 Nationals last May was taken with a CZ 452 American. A Savage Mark II won the Base class.

At my first match at Sheepdog Warrior in Catskill, NY, I watched a guy set a 200-yard stage on fire with a Ruger American and inexpensive scope. I went in confident, shooting ¾-inch groups at 100 yards with my Lithgow Arms LA101. But until that point I’d only ever practiced from a bench or prone. One stage had us crammed into a sewer pipe. At another we balanced on top of an overturned barrel. At a third we knelt against a sapling. The guys who shot well, like Bob Mead of Western Massachusetts., who won the match handily, knew how to build a solid position on unfamiliar objects. If you don’t have that, you can blow all the money you want on a rifle and scope, and still won’t get very far.

michael r shea aiming a rifle
The author shoots his Lithgow Arms LA101 .22 LR at 460 yards.David Maccar

Whether shooting centerfire PRS or a .22 match at 100 yards, "it's all the same math," Mead says. "That's the fun part, and you really need to know your equipment and be good on the fundamentals." To succeed, you have to drill the basics: shooting offhand, kneeling, sitting, and from an unsteady rest—all things that help hunters immensely and make practice fun. Mead likes to tell new shooters not to buy a high-dollar gun. "Buy a Savage and spend all that extra money on ammo," he says. "Then practice."

More than anything, he stresses—whether you’re a squirrel hunter or match competitor, shooting a $300 Ruger or $3,000 Vudoo—competing in NRL22 will make you a better shot.

Fun Gun

When the NRL22 National Championships wrapped up in Las Vegas last May, Open-Division winner Paul Dallin stood at the prize table next to Allison Zane. In front of them were two Vudoo rifles, one red and one blue. Dallin asked the Young Gun winner which she liked best. She said red, so he took the blue one. Up to this point, Allison had been sharing a rifle with her dad—but not anymore. If you sign up for an NRL22 match in Western Pennsylvania or eastern Ohio you’ll probably see her, cleaning stages with her red rifle.

I asked Allison if she’s gunning for the open crown next year. “I had a really good weekend,” she said. “I just want to keep shooting, and getting better.

“And having fun.”