June 24, 2020
One of my African mentors, Geoff Broom, often told me about safaris with Colonel Charles Askins in the 1960s. Wherever he went, Askins had a High Standard .22 pistol on his belt, and frequently used it to bag birds for the pot. Across much of Africa, tasty francolin fowl and guinea are frequently encountered along the road, so this is a common use for an accurate rimfire handgun except that Askins typically shot them in the air.
The Old Days: Colt & High Standard
The .22 “sport pistol” evolved between the world wars in a time when bullseye competitions were at their height. Rooted in target shooting, these pistols are accurate, typically feature adjustable sights on a blowback semiautomatic action that’s a bit lighter than a competition handgun. Although the .22 sport pistol can (and has) filled many roles, it was not developed for pocket carry or personal defense, but was intended for plinking and potting small game and varmints, and even a fun utility pistol for holster carry.
Colt’s Woodsman was the early leader and archetypical sport pistol, but High Standard offered an alternate choice. High Standard’s .22 semiautos were manufactured from 1949 to 1984 in a wide variety of competition and sport models. A well-made, high-quality pistol, the High Standard was preferred by many target shooters. In fact, Col. Askins (1907–1999) was a two-time national pistol champion. He practiced some form of shooting discipline almost every day, and since I’m told that he carried a High Standard on safari, I assume he used it for at least some of his smallbore competition. When I was shooting smallbore in college, we checked out and used High Standard Supermatic target pistols from the armory. Those were great pistols, but I can assure you that, never, not on my best day, could I have hit flying birds with it.
Although perhaps not as popular as the High Standard in competitive circles, Colt’s Woodsman was the runaway favorite and American classic .22 sport pistol. Based on a John Browning blowback design, some 690,000 Colt Woodsman pistols were made between 1915 and 1977. Ernest Hemingway was a big fan, too. In his classic novelette “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925), the protagonist, “Nick Adams,” carried a Woodsman. In his posthumous “True at First Light” (1999), Hemingway carries one during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in 1954. Dad carried one, too. He had his from 1939 onward.
Like the High Standard, the Woodsman was offered in both target and sport versions, the latter with a lighter barrel. The Woodsman Sport had either a 4½-inch or 6-inch barrel with a 10-shot magazine. All Woodsman pistols had windage-adjustable rear sights. Early 4½-inch pistols had fixed front sights, but all 6-inch (and later 4½-inch) models had elevation-adjustable front sights. Dad’s was a 6-inch version. When I was a kid, getting to shoot it was a big deal! However, to this day the Colt Woodsman remains one of the most difficult pistols I’ve ever tried to strip down for cleaning. Putting it back together was even worse.
Ruger Standard: A Company is Born
Introduced in 1949 and marketed at a suggested retail of $37.50, the Ruger Standard, later Mark I and Mk I, was William B. Ruger’s first production firearm. It has been modified into Mk II, III, and the current Mk IV to become the most popular and prolific .22 pistol ever made. The Ruger is a blowback action with internal bolt, originally with fixed sights only and nine-round magazine.
When I was a kid and Ruger was a new name in the firearms world, I confused “Ruger” with “Luger.” Indeed, the lines of the Ruger Standard — including its profile with fixed sights — are similar to the famous German pistol, but it is more similar to the Japanese Nambu. The Nambu’s grip angle slants sharply rearward, as does the Luger and both the Woodsman and High Standard .22 pistols.
The Standard’s grip angle remained until 2012, when the Mk III version was introduced with 22/45 variants, emulating the grip angle of the Colt 1911. The current Mk IV pistol remains available in Standard versions with fixed sights, visually very much like the original, but incorporate a number of mechanical and design improvements. Grips and grip angles, barrel lengths, sights and rails, finishes, and barrels threaded or not. To me, the grip angle is largely a matter of personal preference. I have owned and used both, but I guess I’m a 1911 guy at heart, so I prefer the 22/45 version.
Across the four generations, the Ruger pistols have been offered in dozens of variations, although always in .22 LR. At this moment, Ruger offers the Mk IV pistol in 12 different models. Most basic is the Mk IV Standard with fixed sights and a current retail price of $449. I would argue that a true .22 sport pistol needs adjustable sights, but I suppose that depends on what you intend to do with it and how well you shoot. Me, these days I need all the help I can get.
Browning Buck Mark
Previous Browning .22 semiautomatic pistols include the Nomad, Medalist and the extremely similar Challenger. Introduced in 1985, their current sport pistol entry is the Buck Mark. Browning does have another .22 semiauto pistol, their excellent 1911-22, an 85 percent scaled-down version of the 1911. I need to go out on a limb here and say that the 1911-22, although a great pistol in all ways, isn’t exactly a sport pistol because of its short barrel and non-adjustable sights, so it appears absent on these pages.
The Buck Mark is definitely a sport pistol: blowback operation, 10-shot magazine and a fixed barrel. The bolt isn’t exactly internal like the Ruger, but it operates underneath a top frame strap. Grip angle is fairly similar to the 1911, but what else would we expect from Browning?
Browning does an amazing job of offering a wide array of products. The Buck Mark has been through innumerable variations in the last 34 years and is currently offered in 23 different models. Variations include finishes; grips; slab-sided, fluted or round barrels; barrel lengths, sights, and rails; and threaded or unthreaded muzzles. Many of the differences are cosmetic, which is not unusual for Browning, but the variety of Buck Mark pistols is simply amazing. Prices start at just $389, which is actually the lowest in this small-pistol category. The Buck Mark is a veteran sport pistol but, uniquely, is also the basis for Browning’s nifty Buck Mark .22 rifle.
Smith & Wesson Victory
Introduced in 2016, Smith & Wesson’s “Victory” is the newest on my list. The Victory replaces (and is similar to) the Model 22A. The most significant difference is that the barrel is interchangeable. It is quite different from the much costlier S&W Model 41, a legend that dates back to 1957 and is still manufactured. The Model 41 is very much a respected target pistol, but I argue that it isn’t a sport pistol.
On the other hand, the Victory has a blowback action with a 10-shot magazine, .22 LR with enclosed bolt and grip angle similar to a 1911-type pistol. S&W took a different approach with the Victory. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all design, but the standard model is the Victory Target with 5½-inch bull barrel, fiber-optic sights with adjustable rear, stainless steel with textured grip panels and a optic rail supplied. It’s a complete sport pistol package at a retail of $416. Both threaded and unthreaded versions are available, but for additional options, including 6-inch, fluted, carbon-fiber barrels and factory-supplied Vortex Viper red dot sight, you’ll need to contact the Performance Center.
Performance & Sights
The High Standard pistol was thought to be finicky about cycling, but I’ve read this was usually a maintenance issue. My only experience with a High Standard was in competition where we cleaned our pistols regularly. With thorough cleaning, I don’t ever remember ever catching a jam during a rapid-fire string, but that was a long time ago and I suppose it must have happened.
Dad’s Woodsman generally performed consistently, and numerous Ruger pistols I’ve had (from Mark I to IV) have always spit ‘em out. I have less experience with the Buck Mark and the Victory, but they are proven pistols with reputations for reliability.
These days, we are sometimes subjects to ammo availability, especially in .22 LR. I’ve learned that Browning, Ruger, Smith & Wesson and an old reliable Woodsman have all jammed with cheap, bulk lots of .22 ammo. Across the board, as you might expect with a blowback action, high-velocity .22 LR was pretty much non-slip. However, standard-velocity .22 LR ammunition from good brands also work fine. The problems arise with inexpensive, bulk ammo that we’re compelled to buy because it’s such a good deal. It’s not a good deal if jams are frustratingly frequent. Plink with what you want, but if you want to make sure your sport pistol will function properly with every shot, feed it good ammo!
For this story, I had on hand a Buck Mark Camper UFX stainless, a Victory Target stainless, an early Mk III 22/45 Lite, a Mk IV 22/45 Lite, and a 1940s vintage Woodsman. All grip angles except the Woodsman’s were “1911-esque” and I found them steadier and more comfortable to shoot than the Woodsman’s rear-slanting grip. The heavier barrels on the Buck Mark and Victory also aided stability, but of course these are heavier pistols. The Buck Mark Camper URX weighs 34 ounces, while the S&W Victory with the heaviest barrel weighs 36 ounces. The 22/45 Lite is significantly lighter at 25 ounces. For comparison, the old all-steel Woodsman with a 6-inch barrel weighs 32 ounces, but with its longer, slender barrel, it was the most difficult to steady. Across the board, trigger use was exceptional, crisp and light, further proof that these sport pistols have roots in target shooting.
Another thing I learned is that there are major differences in sights. This was not a huge surprise. It’s been a long time since I shot smallbore competition, and my eyes aren’t what they were back then. However, shooting a sport pistol, as in head-shooting small game and grouse, is not the same as ringing steel. Fixed iron sights are obviously not designed for precise shooting at small targets. The front blades, or fiber-optic beads on some examples, are too big and subtended too much of the target. Sure, they’re great for fast shooting at larger targets (like silhouettes), but they’re not ideal for little marks.
Surprisingly, the most precise sight for me was the narrow, square, flat-topped blade on an 80-year-old Woodsman, hearkening back to a time when we worried about X-ring hits, not just plinking. My Officer’s Model target revolver of the same vintage, have exactly the same narrow, square, flat-topped blades. Mind you, I had to strain like heck to see that narrow blade. OK, actually, I couldn’t see it. I cheated using reading glasses, allowing the target to be fuzzy, but keeping the sights sharp.
In this fashion I could shoot reasonable 15-yard groups by concentrating on center-of-mass holds, but my 25-yard groups opened up badly. I could keep armadillos out of my yard, but if I needed to head-shoot vermin, there would be a few that got away. So, I cheated again. One of the Ruger pistols I had on hand was a Davidson’s Exclusive green-anodized Mk IV 22/45 Lite featuring a barrel shroud and rail on the receiver. I put a red dot sight on the rail, which tightened up my groups.
For this round-up, I was curious to compare groups from each sport pistol. With adjustable open sights as supplied, I could keep the Buck Mark, Victory, Mark IV, and the old Woodsman to 3-inch groups at 25 yards. With a whole bunch of eyestrain, I could hold the occasional 2½-inch group, but not much tighter. Sure, these pistols are all capable of better, but that’s as good I could see to hold with or without reading glasses. This level of accuracy will no longer win bullseye matches, but it might still put some small game in the pot.
I accept that adding a red dot sight was not in keeping with the sport pistol concept. I also accept that I’m a child of the optical sight era. I’m now old enough that my eyes can no longer resolve iron sights for pinpoint accuracy. Therefore, I decided
I should be old enough to admit it. The red dot sight cut the groups in half. After zeroing, 1½-inch groups were instantly possible. Even at that, I’d miss the occasional head shot, but that’s well within “minute of squirrel” or “rabbit.” My Kansas woods are brim-full of red squirrels and I haven’t bothered them much. I may spend some time when the season rolls around again.
It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a .22 sport pistol into the woods. Sounds like fun, but flying birds won’t be on the agenda.
As for a favorite, I can’t pick just one. I can say it isn’t the old Colt Woodsman. That’s still a great pistol, but the modern sport pistols were easier to shoot well — especially with a red dot.
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