Ruger 96/22M lever action rifle review.
When I think of lever-action rifles, I immediately visualise a venerable old Winchester 94 blazing a trail through the Dakota deserts.
However, as far as a viable hunting tool goes, I must confess lever-action rifles have no appeal whatsoever – I always prefer a sturdy bolt-action.
Ruger understood the appeal of the lever-action in the US and wanted to introduce a creditable and accurate design that rimfire shooters could enjoy and rely upon.
Introduced in 1997, the model 96/22 was initially available in .22LR and had Ruger’s typically styled carbine 10/22 semi-automatic profile with barrel band and a detachable rotary magazine system. This proved a reasonable hit in the US and a .22 Magnum version was introduced shortly after, as well as a hard-hitting .44 Magnum carbine.
Though the .17HMR version is the latest incarnation and is a popular calibre in this country, I wanted to revisit the .22 magnum cartridge. It has plenty to offer, but has now fallen into the shadow of the smaller and faster .17.
If Ruger has a good product then it tends to incorporate as much from that rifle’s design into any alternatives, which makes economical sense. That is why, if it was not for the lever under the action, the 96/22 Magnum could be mistaken for Ruger’s hugely successful 10/22 repeater .22LR.
The action is very similar, with a length of 6.75in and an enclosed design that only has a small aperture to the right flank for ejecting spent cases. The reasoning behind this is to stop debris from field use getting into the action’s moving parts. The idea is fine, though it makes retrieving a stuck case tricky.
The whole action is made from alloy, so it is light and has a smooth black-painted finish with a pronounced curved rear section tang as it meets the woodwork. A small protruding brass pin is elevated through this to show the rifle is cocked.
The lever design is reminiscent of the Savage 99 system, with an enclosed ring section of 2.8in and an operating arc of 3.5in or so. Though the lever is curved, you rap your knuckles in operation.
The lever pivots on the drop-down forward section in front of the trigger and locks with a small pocket in the roof of the alloy receiver, which is reinforced against excessive wear with a steel locator. This is certainly not as solid a lock-up as a bolt-action, but it works with this mode of operation.
Barrel and sights
As befits a carbine design, the overall length of 37.25in is largely due to the short 18.5in barrel, which has a slender sporter profile with no threaded muzzle for a sound moderator.
Ruger still fits a barrel band securing the barrel to the fore-end of the stock and, because the barrel is not free-floated in any way, it does not seem to affect the accuracy. It is an old concept and, with only a single screw to secure the action and barrel to the stock, it provides extra security, but I still dislike it.
Neither do I like the open sights with a fixed gold-bead foresight and small folding rear unit. They work perfectly well, but I doubt if anyone could really use them and if you were to thread the barrel, as most sporting shooters would, you would have to remove the foresight to fit a moderator.
The one-piece dedicated scope base supplied with the rifle does work, and it enables the use of standard .22 tip-off or dovetail mounts to fit a cut along the mount’s entire length. In all, there are no problems in fitting and setting up the correct eye relief with this mounting system.
Trigger, safety and magazine
The trigger unit has a single-stage pull that is adequate at best. In reality, it has a lack of feel and 5lb pull though the trigger-blade, despite being smooth, is wide enough to give a little more control to the firing cycle.
In front of the trigger-blade and sited above the lever-hinge mounting is the safety catch. This is a cross-bolt affair that operates by pushing from the right side to the left position to fire and, when reversed, the bolt locks the trigger movement but still allows lever operation. However, this only works if the action is initially cocked.
The magazine is a longer version of the 10/22 rotary design to accommodate the .22 Magnum round. Capacity is reduced by 1 to 9 shots, which is more than enough and gives the shooter plenty of firepower from one magazine load for any sporting foray.
In use, the magazine catch must be fully pushed up to release the magazine just as with the 10/22 and this is best achieved with the lever open a little. It is a bit awkward, but with a payload of nine shots there should be no need for a speedy change under normal conditions unless you are a high-volume rabbit lamper.
Utilitarian is probably as accurate as I can be when describing the stock. It is made from birch that is stained walnut-brown and finished with a matt, but smooth, lacquer.
With no chequering on any of the woodwork, this does make the 96/22M a little slippery to handle. The situation is not helped by a plastic black curved butt-pad. The length of pull is short at a measured 13.25in, but in truth this sort of stock is all you need on this type of rifle.
However, at least you can concentrate on the stalk without fear of damaging any lovely figured wood.
The first thing one notices when firing the .22 Magnum cartridge is the muzzle blast and crack. Without a moderator this diminutive round really barks and I would certainly fit some form of sound moderator.
You also notice the desire to ‘rack’ the lever with gusto, but this combines noise and discomfort, so a steady follow-through is recommended.
Reliability from all testing was flawless. This surprised me, as I was expecting a few jams, but the Ruger carried on regardless.
Accuracy was better than I expected, too.
At 50 yards I shot a variety of ammunition ranging from Remington, Federal and CCI. Each brand shot less than 1in at 50 yards and nearly double that at 100 yards, but as with most rifles the Ruger had its preferences.
The Federal Premium 30-grain Sierra JHP load shot 2,089fps and 290ft/lb, and clustered five shots into 0.70in at 50 yards and 1.25in at 100 yards. Its hollowpoint design was really impressive with hard-hitting shots on rabbits and at sensible short ranges a capable, though not ideal, fox gun.
This rifle is certainly not to my taste, nor would it be my first choice as a rabbit rifle. However, this intriguing design gives the eclectic shooter a rifle that may suit certainly it was accurate enough with the right ammunition.
The .22 magnum round does still offer the shooter a choice, especially with some new Hornady 30-grain V-Max loads just coming into production.
Priced at £400, with good reliability, who can complain? I do, however, suspect that not having a threaded barrel for a moderator may put many shooters off.