The Ultimate .22 Revolver for Hard-Working Outdoorsmen (and Why Semi-Autos Aren’t Up to the Job)

The author’s S&W Model 63 Kit Gun in .22 LR. Will Brantley

Everyone enjoys shooting a .22 handgun—or at least, everyone I care to associate with does. It’s a safe bet that most rimfire handguns are sold for plinking and target shooting, and also that most of them are semi-autos of one sort or another. But lots of us who spend the majority of our time outside need working guns—ones that stay on hips or in packs year-around, on fishing trips, on the tractor, scouting for elk, or running a trapline. And for all of that, it needs to be a revolver, because the hard truth is, semi-auto .22s are too finicky for the job.

Rimfire semi-autos run best with quality ammunition, and they need to be kept clean—something that’s not always easy to do when you’re planting food plots or trapping coyotes. Quality revolvers, on the other hand, will shoot through whatever bargain brick of ammo you have available, and stainless-steel models can be subjected to shameful neglect without much consequence. So, the ideal working gun ought to be stainless and should wear adjustable sights, and yet be handy enough to drop into a coat pocket and rarely left behind.

S&W’s Perfect Every-Day Working Gun

I’ve got a Ruger Super Single Six convertible that’s a great hunting gun and fun to shoot, but it’s too big and bulky for the task I’m talking about. So, too, is my buddy’s Smith & Wesson 617, a 10-shot .22 K-frame that’ll outshoot some bolt-action .22 rifles, but with a 6-inch barrel and full underlug, weighs almost 3 pounds. 

Ruger’s single-action Bearcat is along the right lines (a couple versions have adjustable sights), and so is the double-action SP101, which is available in .22 LR with a 4-inch barrel. But the best of the guns in this class is the Smith & Wesson’s Model 63, the stainless version of the classic J-Frame “Kit Gun” that’s been produced in some form or another since the early 1900s.

My own Model 63 is what’s convinced me of this. It’s been on my hip every morning at daybreak for most of the past two months as I’ve run my trapline, and I’ve used it almost daily to dispatch some sort of critter (three possums, five raccoons, three coyotes, a bobcat, and an armadillo so far this week). I own and carry a bunch of different handguns, but the 63 is the one that’s on my side for most of the general shit-kicking that goes on in a year’s time. It’s in my pack all during hunting season, whether I’m hunting whitetails here at home or elk in Colorado. It’s important to note that I don’t really view it as a defensive tool. Instead, it’s like the First-Aid kit or fire-starting supplies I also carry. Should I ever find myself good and lost, I’m confident that I can use that revolver to kill something for dinner. And even when I know exactly where I am, it’s handy for shooting pine cones and armadillos, which are invasive and almost as numerous around here.

What Makes This .22 Revolver So Useful?

That the Model 63 is purpose-made for such tasks is what makes it a favorite. It’s the perfect blend of small size and useful accuracy. The earliest version of it, the 22/32, was built on the discontinued I-Frame in the early 1900s and produced off and on through the 1950s. The I-frame was replaced with a J-frame version, called the Model 34, in 1960. The J-frame is, of course, the same one that was used on the .38 Special Model 36, the original 5-shot “Chief’s Special,” and the parent of S&W’s legendary line of snub-nosed revolvers that are still popular today (one of my EDC guns for matters more serious than shit-kicking is a Performance Center 637 .38 +P).  

The compact J-frame paired with a longer barrel (up to 6 inches in earlier models, but most were shorter), adjustable sights, and .22 LR chambering made the revolver ideal for outdoor “kits,” and so the name Kit Gun was born. The stainless-steel version, called the Model 63, was introduced in the late ‘70s, and most of them sported a 3-inch barrel. In the late ‘90s, the gun’s 6-shot cylinder was replaced with an 8-round cylinder, which was a fantastic upgrade. That’s the gun I have. Smith also introduced the 317 Airlite version of the Kit Gun around the same time. It’s built on an aluminum-alloy frame and weighs just 12.5 ounces, compared to the Model 63’s 26 ounces.

For hunting, the author likes CCI Mini-Mags or Stingers. CCI

I prefer the heavier gun because it’s shootable enough to be useful. (Maybe some people don’t struggle with left and right torque with extremely lightweight handguns, but I do). I killed yesterday’s armadillo at 21 yards, which is a bit of a poke for a 3-inch-barrel revolver, but the stainless-steel gun is just steady. It also has a full-sized, round-butt synthetic grip that fills the hand, and a fiber-optic front sight that is protected by a clear, hard-plastic shroud. Probably 98 percent of the shots I take with it in the field are in single-action, where the trigger pull is a crisp 2 ½ pounds, but it’s fun to shoot on the range in double-action, too, and I can usually keep all 8 shots in a pretty nice rapid-fire cluster out to 10 yards.

On the trapline, my load of choice is a simple 40-grain solid bullet, like a Federal Champion, which provides the penetration I need at handgun speeds to kill coyotes, but rarely passes through and puts two holes in the fur. Most of those shots are taken at around 12 to 15 yards, and they need to be precise; shots through the heart and lungs kill even big coyotes in seconds without spoiling the setup with too much blood (which is why I don’t take head shots).

Come squirrel season, I change that load to a good high-velocity hollowpoint, like CCI Stingers or Mini-Mags, which are consistent, accurate, and provide just enough expansion to quickly knock a squirrel right out of the tree. Plus, you can get them in a fairly weatherproof plastic sleeve of 100 rounds, which will last you a while if you get lost … or if you run into the armadillo motherlode. 

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