Until sometime during the mid-80s revolvers ruled the handgun roost. Well, times have changed! Plastic pistols are now in vogue, but demand for small wheel-guns still remains steady. They’re concealable, reliable and simple to use. Sure, capacity is reduced, but by how much? The latest genres of little semi-auto pocket rockets don’t hold a whole lot of ammo either. By going with smaller cartridges revolver capacity can increase until parity exists, albeit with possibly less punch. Any gun is better than no gun so when size, noise and recoil are issues some folks turn to little revolvers chambered for rimfire rounds.
by Steve Markwith
My son wanted a pint-sized package for the Maine woods. He’ll carry it mostly while bow-hunting. Others may prefer to pack one with survival gear, or just slip one in a pocket. The new polymer or scandium iterations weigh practically nothing and beg to be carried everywhere. Because light weight and big calibers translate to lots of recoil, these little guns seem especially well-suited for the smallest bores. In this case, the choice was an S&W Model 351 PD chambered for .22 Magnum.
In a rifle-length barrel, the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire is a fairly respectable cartridge, offering significant improvement over a .22 Long Rifle. With similar 40-grain bullets, velocity increases by around 600 fps. That’s a pretty big increase! As a hand-loader I’ve enjoyed using the .22 Magnum in repeating rifles, mainly to avoid the obligatory chore of chasing fired cases. Having played with several models, I eventually settled on a 75-yard zero, which permits a nearly dead-on hold slightly beyond 100 yards. Most folks just sight in at 100 yards and call it good. The .22 WMR dispatches small game with authority, doesn’t shake up the neighborhood, and is fairly affordable for everything except high-volume plinking. It might not be a great pick for big sky country but, in the woods the .22 Magnum is a very useful cartridge. Besides trim rifles you can still find used Savage Model 24 combination guns, which usually sell for several hundred dollars. These afford a shotgun option and have potential for subsistence or survival use. Surprisingly, the .22 Magnum is legal for deer in Maine. No doubt, it’s accounted for a fair share. Personally, I’d skip it – unless times were tough and that’s all I had.
Because it has more oomph, the .22 WMR is designed with a fatter case that won’t fit a .22 LR chamber. You can chamber the latter in the former, but you can’t safely fire it. The smaller case will rupture, venting high pressure rearward. On the other hand, you can purchase dual-cylinder revolvers that permit the use of either caliber. One thing to consider; velocity will be diminished in a handgun-length barrel. But, my son just had to have a “magnum” with its promise of raw power. I was interested to see what would happen from a barrel less than 2 inches long. As it turned out, not a whole lot did. Setting up the chronograph, Speer’s new 40-grain Gold Dot Short Barrel load averaged 1050 fps – considerably less than a .22 LR fired from a rifle.
CCI .22 Magnum 40-grain Maxi-Mag HPs clocked 975 fps.
Just for the heck of it, I grabbed the shortest .22 LR barrel available for comparison. Unfortunately, it was still 5” long. My old S&W M-41 Sport Barrel drove CCI 40-grain Velocitors to1175 fps. CCI Stingers averaged 1300 fps. So anyone with a .22 LR Browning Buckmark or Ruger MK II would be ill-advised to trade based solely on velocity expectations. However, the little Scandium Smith certainly is handy! With its short 1 7/8” barrel and weight of 11 ounces it’s a breeze to carry. Despite the short sight radius and light weight, we found this snub-nose S&W fairly shoot-able. Two contributable factors were the highly visible fiber-optic front sight and good trigger. The D/A pull was typical J-frame with stacking prior to let-off. The S/A pull was great. Recoil was nil and muzzle-blast was less than expected. Accuracy was decent, but groups clustered about an inch high and to the right at 10 yards. Fixed sights meant using a corrected hold. We drew a squirrel target and it was quickly perforated.
I’d personally opt for a .22 LR version with adjustable sights and a slightly longer 3” barrel. With this I could fire everything from CB caps to Stingers. Velocity with the latter round would probably approach the fastest .22 WMR launched from a 1 7/8” model. The little M-351 does carry well in a Bianchi holster though. Its front sight is good in bush, too. The grips look so attractive that I might buy a similar set for my M-66. For someone seeking the smallest package, it may have merit. Just don’t expect the ballistics listed for a .22 Magnum rifle. Instead, plan on the rifle punch of a .22 LR, delivered from a very discrete and portable 7-shot handgun package.