The Aspiring Hunter Part II: My Small Game Rifle—The Browning BL-22

The rifle is arguably the most important piece of equipment to the hunter—with a possible exception allowed for the equipment which sits between the hunter’s ears.

Finding a rifle that suits your body and shooting style is paramount to placing your shots accurately and having a good day at the range or in the hunting field. Rifle action, length of pull, type of sights, and trigger pull must all suit your preferences. This intensely personal nature of the rifle is probably one reason that debates rage year round all over the internet about the best hunting rifle. It is impossible for me to prescribe which rifle is best for someone else; all I can do is describe my rifle and my preferences and hope that the information is valuable to others.

The rifle that I use to hunt small game is a Browning BL-22 Grade I—a lever action rifle chambered for the .22 Long Rifle, .22 Long, and .22 Short. I have owned this rifle for about three years now and have used it to bag my first (and only) squirrel.

Prior to owning the BL-22 I owned the now discontinued Marlin 925, also chambered for the .22 Long Rifle. The Marlin was my first gun and I never did take it hunting. The Marlin was a decent gun—it was affordable, comfortable to shoulder and shoot, and was plenty accurate. I sold it for the sole reason that I am a left handed shooter and the Marlin was a right handed bolt-action rifle. I was initially unfazed by this, but as time went on I got annoyed with reaching over the receiver with my left hand to work the bolt and I never got the hang of using my right hand (the one that supports the fore end of the rifle) to reach back and work the bolt.

When I began the search for the rifle that would succeed the Marlin 925 I debated between getting a left handed bolt action rifle and a lever action rifle. At the time—and I believe it is still the case—that the only left handed .22 bolt actions are the CZ 452 (either Lux or American) and the Savage MK II series in a variety of configurations. I have never been one for synthetic stocks, thumb-hole stocks, and the like, so the only Savage MK II for me would be the GL model, which comes with a simple wood stock and iron sights.

I have never had much interest in auto-loading rifles so I never even considered one as a replacement for the 925. Besides, many states don’t allow hunting with a semi-automatic rifle and I had plans to take up hunting.

I eventually ruled out the bolt actions because I have always been a sucker for the Old West and Western movies, so the lever action guns are a natural fit. Additionally, if I ever took my right handed friends shooting they would be able to comfortably shoot a lever action, but not a left handed bolt action rifle.

It is worth mentioning at this point that I was looking for a new rifle, not a used one. Used guns have a lot to offer over new guns and I will admit it was a questionable tactic to look only at new guns, but I am unabashed in my preference for things which are new and shiny, so I limited my search accordingly.

The next step was to determine which lever action .22 was best for me. The choices at the time were the Henry rifle in a couple of configurations, the Marlin 39A, and the Browning BL-22.

First to be eliminated was the Marlin 39A. New Marlin 39As were, and continue to be, rarer than a hen’s tooth and quite pricey. Furthermore, at the time Marlin was receiving streams of negative reviews about their quality control after their recent acquisition by Remington. I would still like to have a Marlin 39A, and hopefully they will appear on shelves again someday soon. (For the record, my recent internet surfing indicates that Marlin quality control is back at acceptable levels)

The Henry offers good value in a lever action rifle and my reason for passing on the Henrys is not really a good one. Henrys look good and I hear they shoot very well too, but the sticking point for me was the use of a  painted/coated “alloy” receiver cover instead of a blued carbon steel one (I put alloy in quotes because I am aware that steel is itself an alloy, but the Henry alloy is composed of non-steel components). I am sure that the receiver covers on Henry rifles are perfectly adequate, but I prefer blued steel when I can get it, and I think knowing the receiver cover was coated or painted or whatever instead of blued would have eventually drove me mad. And when I handled the Henry back-to-back with the Browning BL-22, I felt there was no doubt that the BL-22 was the better made product.

At this point it sounds like I chose the Browning by a simple process of elimination, but the BL-22 has several things going for it. First of all, the BL-22 is of outstanding quality. I have not held other rifles made in the Miroku plant, but I have heard they are of equally exquisite craftsmanship. When you hold the BL-22 you know that this is a rifle which will stand the test of time. The wood is beautiful and the blued steel is gorgeous—you could not ask for more.

The Browning BL-22 is also pretty reasonably priced. It is not as affordable as the Henrys, but like I said, I firmly believe you get what you pay for with the Browning. If it could be found in stores, I think the Marlin would have out priced the Browning by at least $100, and I am not sure if it would match the quality. So in my book, the Browning wins the bang-for-your-buck competition.

Finally, the Browning BL-22 simply fits me. I shouldered both the Henry and the Browning and found the BL-22 to be the better match for me.

Browning BL-22 and Squirrel
My Browning BL-22

Are there things that I don’t like about the BL-22? Absolutely.

The wood, while beautiful, is finished with a high gloss lacquer which makes for an impressive appearance out of the box, but soon the gloss finish shows fingerprints, dents, and scratches more easily that a satin finish. I expect my rifle’s gloss finish will take a beating in the hunting woods, but that is what guns were designed for, so I won’t cry over it.

The lever action on the Browning BL-22 has some kind of gearing so that the lever throw is only 33 degrees. This is pitched as an advantage, and no doubt some people love it, but I am a traditionalist and would have preferred a full length lever throw. Moreover, the trigger assembly moves with the lever, as opposed to staying with the stock as on traditional lever actions. Again, I would prefer the traditional arrangement. Both the Henry and the Marlin use traditional levers.

This brings us to the most universal complaint about the BL-22: the trigger pull. I don’t have the equipment to measure the pull weight but I can say for certain that the trigger pull is very heavy. And due to the unique trigger/lever arrangement it seems to be difficult, if not impossible, to lessen the pull weight. When just plinking and shooting for fun the heavy trigger isn’t much of a problem, but when trying to sight in the rifle and make good groups you tend to focus on the trigger pull and it seems monstrous. You can find a collection of Browning BL-22 trigger pull data over at Rimfire Central.

Finally, the stock iron sights aren’t great, but they never are. The Marlin and the Henry have a similar arrangement so this isn’t really something to nit-pick, and it is easy enough to fix. Shooting in low light with the stock iron sights is hard, but I still manage it okay.

I guess at this point I should say something about the accuracy of the rifle. I am not a bench rest shooter; I don’t like making meticulous groups and therefor I don’t do it. Furthermore, I am not a great shot. I am merely a passable shooter, so every gun is going to be more than accurate enough for me at this point. I enjoy shooting from a standing position at fun targets—empty shotgun shells, steel plates, cans, what-have-you. Because of all the above factors, my ability to give a fair assessment of the Browning BL-22’s accuracy from my own experience is limited.

Someday I will get sandbags—or maybe even a more advanced bench rest set-up—and test the real capacity of the BL-22. Until that time comes, I can say this: When I have done my part and held the sights correctly on the target, the rifle has not missed. If you search the internet you will find that public sentiment holds that of the three major players in the .22 lever action game (the Marlin 39A, Henry, and Browning), the Browning BL-22 is the worst performer. This may be true—I can’t say for sure—but the BL-22 is plenty accurate for my needs and I wouldn’t trade it for either of the other two rifles.

In the next Aspiring Hunter I will go into some more detail about the sights, possible solutions, and sighting in the rifle before hunting season.

The Aspiring Hunter Part I: An Introduction

I have a confession to make: I don’t come from an outdoorsy family—I didn’t grow up camping, shooting guns, and hunting. In fact, it took me until I was in college before I ever shot a gun, and I had never gone hunting until just last year.

It can be difficult to take up a hobby like hunting if you don’t have friends and family who are hunters themselves. Reading about where to hunt, how to shoot accurately, and how to clean the game when—or more appropriately, if—you kill it only takes you so far. At some point you need to get your hands dirty, and that is when it would be nice to have an advisor standing by to offer advice. Unfortunately I don’t have an advisor, so I have to do my best to take the information I learn from books and the internet and utilize it in the hunting field.

This series is going to chronicle my attempt to transform myself from an absolute tyro hunter into something reasonably approximating a competent hunter.

With my limited hunting experience, going after game the size of a deer is a daunting proposition. In theory I know how to field dress a deer, but once I have the downed animal in front of me I fear it would be a bit overwhelming to dress it and haul it out of the woods by myself, and for that reason I have elected to focus on smaller game which will be more manageable for a solo and inexperienced hunter. This season I will be focusing on small game, in particular squirrels, rabbits, and grouse. I fully plan to graduate to turkey, deer, and larger game at some point, but for this season I think it is best to start small.

Most of what I know about hunting comes from the books that I publish about hunting; however, most of those books are specifically about hunting large game. That’s not to say these books aren’t helpful to the small game hunter. They teach the mentality required to bag game, how to move and be observant while traveling through the woods, and how to shoot a rifle accurately from a variety of field positions. These skills are useful to small game hunting as well as large game hunting and I feel that I have a better chance to bag my quarry having read these books.

One book, .22 Caliber Rifle Shooting by C. S. Landis, does cover small game hunting, and squirrels in particular. This book has been helpful in learning some of the skills that are more specific to small game and squirrel hunting. I will probably read through the small game hunting chapters again for a refresher before the season opens.

As mentioned above, I do have one season of small game hunting under my belt. Last season I got into the woods a few times and managed to get one shot at a squirrel, which I made count. The biggest obstacle to more frequent hunting last season was the cold—I was totally unprepared for how cold it is to sit in the woods in December and January waiting for game to appear. With that in mind, keeping myself adequately protected from the cold is one of this year’s top objectives so that I can hunt more often.

Squirrel and Small Game Hunting Rifle
My one triumph from last year’s small game hunting season. Note the  BL-22 rifle and my homemade game straps.

Squirrel and grouse season opens here in Pennsylvania in about 10 days, and rabbits will be fair game shortly after that. I would like to get in a fair amount of early season hunting so that I can beat the cold for my own comfort and to catch the game before they become less active in the depths of winter. I will still hunt in December and January, but the early season is a priority for me.

In the upcoming parts of this series I will cover how I am preparing for this year’s hunting season and what gear I plan to bring along. Once the season begins I will do my best to log my excursions and analyze them to learn from my frequent mistakes and occasional successes. It is my wish that this series will be, at the very least, entertaining. Beyond that, I think that recording my experiences might be of use to other novice hunters with the desire to get into the hobby more seriously.

Trigger Control and Offhand Shooting Posture

After going to the range yesterday and shooting some disappointing offhand groups, I decided to hit the books and see if I couldn’t learn something to improve my posture for offhand shooting and trigger control.

The following is an excerpt I found from Small Bore Rifle Shooting by Edward Crossman on the subject of offhand shooting and trigger control which I think might help those of us struggling to improve our groups from the standing position.


This takes one of two forms, in a broad classification. Success in either one is a matter of trigger control; no man can hold steadily in this position. The more removed you are from the ground, in rifle shooting, the more difficult it becomes. Prone, sitting, kneeling, and offhand, decrease in steadiness in regular

The first of the offhand positions is purely a target-shooting version. The palm-rest of the Free Rifle is merely an artificial aid to this first form, which is the hip- or body-rest.

In this, the rifle is held perched on thumb and fingers, thumb on guard, fingers about the end of the magazine floor-plate of the service rifle, elbow on hip, or pulled firmly against body, body facing at nearly right angles to the line of fire, head dropped forward into the line of sight.

Most men err in not turning the body far enough around from the line of fire, and get the elbow too much to the front.

The sling is of no aid in this position.

It is a poor one for use in a wind, and is not practical for game or war. It is, correctly enough, barred from the offhand stage of the National Matches as entirely artificial.

The other form is the extended arm—the shotgun, or deer shooter’s, position. It is divided, roughly, into half- or full-arm extension. The shooter will take the extension that seems the most steady. The heavier the rifle, to a certain degree, the steadier it will hold in this position; but this can easily be overdone. Light, muzzle-deficient rifles require the left hand run well out to control them.

The right hand should do most of the work, and pull the rifle firmly to the shoulder. The rifle should remain at the shoulder and be fairly steady, with the left hand released entirely. This depends much on the weight of the rifle, of course.

The left hand is the guiding hand and the steadying hand. You cannot get steadiness out of muscles on a strain, hence the desirability of letting the right hand do most of the work.

Left side well toward target, left elbow as far under rifle as possible with the build of the shooter. In a high wind, run left hand well out, and shoot the target “as it goes by.”

In any standing position, success is purely a matter of trigger control and touching it off at just the right moment, compounded with an ability to avoid jerking the trigger for a wide shot now and then.

Offhand Shooting
Captain Richard showing the two standing positions. Left—The extended arm “elbow-free-from-body” position. Right—The hip-rest or “schuetzen” position.

The beginner must remember that, with the exception of prone, no rifle is ever held motionless, and the apparent lack of motion of the rifle of the old hand, is only apparent—the telescope shows that there is still a little wiggle.

Hence, in every position but prone, the rifleman can make good scores only by squeezing off the rifle when it is approximately correct in the alignment of front sight and mark. The farther from the ground the position, the wider will be the swings, and the less the front sight will hesitate under the mark.

Wherefore the festive beginner thinks that he can fool that rifle, and snatch the trigger off the instant the sight touches the mark. It looks reasonable, but the results are truly deplorable.

What happens is that, being a beginner, the shooter could not pull the trigger hurriedly in any event without moving the rifle. Second, the instant his brain signals FIRE! on the report of Chief Scout Right Eye that all is jake, all of his muscles tense up to help in the party. Third, there is a delay, even in the function of brain and muscles, and in the mean time the rifle swings off the mark.

The old-timer can make a rifle go at the approximate instant he desires by a little increase in the weight of squeeze, but keeping all the rest of his buttinski muscles out of the deal.

The tyro cannot, and his only salvation in any but the prone is merely this:

Relax all possible, take up the slack in the trigger, and let the front sight swing and gyrate as it will under the bull.

Trigger Control
Study the position of the hand here. This is the one position where complete trigger control is essential.

Keep increasing the squeeze little by little, trying to “think it off” as the front sight is about right under the bull. Often the shot will come when you are not quite expecting it—but you can “call” the location to yourself because of the mental picture you have of the location of front sight and mark as the shot cracks.

This “calling” business is the first sign of your progress or lack thereof.

If your shots, offhand, strike about where you had the picture of the front sight, you did your part of the squeeze and you are improving rapidly.

If they fail to land where you call them, either your front sight was moving too fast, or else you were jerking the trigger.

The good offhand shot makes his scores by some queer and unexplained ability to add just the trifle necessary to the squeeze at just the right time; he almost “thinks” the rifle off. It is acquired only by practice, and it is always done while the rifle is slowly swaying back and forth across the paper.

Don’t try to fool yourself or your rifle—you can’t yank a trigger fast enough. You cannot, even with a quadruple set trigger and a Martini action, the fastest way known to science to cause a bullet to emerge from a rifle barrel.

If you cannot “call” your shots, or if there is no clear mind-picture of front sight and position of bull in relation to it as the shot goes, then you are kidding yourself and making no progress.

No matter how wabbly you are, no matter how wide your swings, if you are squeezing the rifle off you can tell where the shot should strike.

The only time this may fail as to exact location is where you are conscious that the rifle was swinging rather rapidly as the shot went, and your shot is found wider in the same direction than you thought it would be. This is due to the delay, the lapse, in the ignition, and barrel time of the bullet. It is much less with very fast actions, like the Martini, and it is much more with slower actions, like some single-shot hammer types or fool bolt-action guns, with their cocking pieces loaded down with sights, and slower than cold honey.

Why We Read Old Books Part III

In the first two parts (Part I, Part II) of this series we discussed why someone might read an old book about outdoor activities for the purposes of entertainment and for historical enlightenment.  In this final part of the series I will seek to explain the value of reading these old books for their intended purpose—to instill in the reader some practical knowledge of how to hunt, fish, shoot accurately, etc.

When originally published, these books were written by the foremost authorities on sporting activities and many of the books are still regarded today as the standard by which other books on the subject are judged.  Still, we must admit that fifty or more years is a long time and face the possibility of out-datedness head on.

Many modern hunters will eschew these books as hopelessly out of date and not worth reading because so much has changed in the last half century—heck, many of these books are so old as to predate the .223 Remington and .308 Winchester.  There is some merit to this way of thinking, after all, many of the companies discussed in these books are no longer in business and many of the rifles, cartridges, and other technology which were used in the 1950’s are out of production and impossible or impractical to find nowadays.  Furthermore, given the advance in technology over the years, the techniques and technology may no longer be the most efficient way of taking game or fish.  All of these statements notwithstanding, these books are still of immense value to the modern sportsman.

It is simple to overcome the issue of out of date information regarding what rifles and cartridges are available on the marketplace.  First of all, many of the guns you will read about in these books still exist in a modern form—for example, the Winchester Model 70, 1894, or 1886—or they can be found on the used market relatively easily.

And if that is not comforting enough, you can always use a little creativity in following the advice found in the books.  If Townsend Whelen suggests a modified Mauser military rifle for hunting in the backwoods, you can take a look at the Ruger Model 77, which is based on the Mauser action and retains many of the original features such as the claw extractor and the angled recoil lug.

The same goes for cartridges.  You will find that many of the writers suggest cartridges that are still readily available in today’s sporting goods stores, such as the 30-30, .375 H&H Magnum, .338 Winchester, and the venerable .30-06 Springfield.  And just as with rifles, if someone suggests a hard to find cartridge you can always find a modern equivalent that will offer comparable ballistics.

For example, if someone recommends the .300 H&H Magnum—which is still available, but maybe not readily so—you can substitute the .300 Winchester Magnum, or if Elmer Keith recommends his 334 OKH wildcat cartridge—which probably never saw use by many people outside of Keith’s own circle—you can substitute the .338 Winchester Magnum and get equal or better performance.

The point is this; even if some of the rifles and cartridges referred to in these books seems archaic, there is always a way to bring the information into the present.  And given that the authors of these books were esteemed for their expertise on these subjects, it seems prudent to try our best to bring this information into the 21st Century.

Let us not also forget that some things don’t change when it comes to our preferred outdoor activities.  The best way to dress and pack out game hasn’t changed and likely never will until the day we all go into the wilderness in our own private helicopters.  The techniques for marksmanship which earned Col. Whelen and C. S. Landis national championships haven’t changed and anyone would be well served to follow their advice for hitting the bull’s-eye.  The laws of physics haven’t changed, and the tables for drop and wind drift of a .22 caliber bullet in Small Bore Rifle Shooting are still accurate to this day.

The best area to place your bullet, or look for game, or drop your lure also hasn’t changed.  While technology may have changed in the past fifty years, we can take comfort in the fact that the quarry has not.  If Edward Freeman made his hunting trips with a .38-55 Winchester Model 94 and dropped hundreds of deer in the Maine woods, you can be sure your .308 Winchester has the potency to take down a whitetail.  Hunters may have added camouflage, scent blockers, and range finders to their bag of tricks, but the animals have remained the same.

For all of the above reasons, classic sporting books still have a place in your library for their original intended purpose—to teach you how to bag your quarry or hit the bull’s-eye.  Good information is good information, regardless of when the words were put down on paper.  Much of the information in these books stands the test of time and requires nothing of you, other than to read it, for it to make your outdoor excursions more enjoyable and successful.  And whatever information has become outmoded due to advances of technology is easily transported into this century with just a modicum of creativity on the part of the reader.

And this is to say nothing of the man who prefers to take to the woods in the fashion of his father or grand-father and is steadfast in his commitment to tradition.  I know these people are out there.  People who wish to take the woods with wood stock and blued steel instead of synthetic and stainless; people who prefer wool, cotton, and leather to acrylic, polyester, and rayon; people who value patience and perseverance; and people whose foremost desire is to enjoy the outdoors and their time spent in it, rather than to simply get in, get their game, and get out.  For these sportsmen, books like this provide hours of enjoyment and a lifetime’s worth of valuable knowledge.

Why We Read Old Books Part II

In the first part of this series we covered how classic books about the outdoors can stand the test of time purely for their entertainment value to readers, particularly the enjoyment that is can be had from the stories of hunting and fishing.

The second part of the series is similar to the first part, but instead of deriving enjoyment from stories of trophy elk or trout, the enjoyment comes from connecting to another time.  Granted, these books are not that old, ranging anywhere from fifty to one hundred years old, but to many people, it’s an era that holds a certain level of fascination.  Whether the fascination stems from learning how your father hunted, how your grandfather hunted, or remembering how you hunted as a youth, the fascination is undeniable and these books provide a way to learn about the history of hunting.

Some people are simply captivated by how things were done in the past, even if they have no intention of using those tools and techniques in their own sporting excursions.  For people like that, classic books about the outdoors are a goldmine of information.  Almost all of these books cover in great detail the tools used for the particular subject—rifles, cartridges, clothing, rods, reels, lures, tents, packs, etc.—so that one can get a complete picture of how hunting, fishing, or match shooting was done decades ago.

History of hunting and camping
A hunting camp the old-fashioned way.

Examples of books of this kind are ample, the most notable being Wilderness Hunting and Wildcraft by Townsend Whelen, Keith’s Rifles for Large Game by Elmer Keith, and Rifle-Craft by C. S. Landis—currently the oldest book published we publish, dating from 1923.

We can learn about the history of hunting from C. S. Landis
Information circa 1923

One of the more unique books that comes to mind for its historical value is This Business of Exploring by Roy Chapman Andrews.  While this book is not about hunting or fishing or any other sportsman-like pursuit, it remains a fascinating account of a bygone era.  The book is about one of the expeditions of the author, a noted explorer, in his search for fossils and other artifacts in Mongolia in the late 1920’s.  In the book, Andrews writes of death, war, and groundbreaking discoveries in an age of scientific exploration which no longer exists.  Reading almost like the journal of a real-life Indiana Jones, Andrews’ book has tons of entertainment and historical significance.

history of archaeological expeditions
An account of the 1928-1930 Mongolian expedition of Roy Chapman Andrews.

Smith & Wesson Hand Guns by Walter Roper and Roy McHenry is a book written about the history of the Smith & Wesson Company from the founding of the company through World War II.  This particular book was written from the ground up as a historical account and has been used by Smith & Wesson collectors as a reference for decades, as the book contains a fair amount of detail on the changes to each Smith & Wesson model through the years.

history of the Smith & Wesson company
One of the standard references for Smith & Wesson buffs.

Elmer Keith makes reference to Smith & Wesson Hand Guns many times in his own brief historical account of the revolver—which can be found in Sixgunsand Keith’s history of the revolver is itself a valuable reference work to firearms historians as a secondary source, since Keith personally interacted with Civil War veterans and other Old West survivors.

history of hunting and revolvers used in hunting and self defense
The standard by which all other books about revolvers are measured.

It is impossible to deny that these books are valuable to those of us who read books for their historical content.  From learning how things were done by a prior generation, to learning about the founding of a company and the technological advancements of firearms, these books have it covered.

In the final part of this series we will discuss the practical value of classic sporting books.