Smith & Wesson 22A-1 - Buckmark on a Budget

Smith & Wesson 22A-1

I know every shooter should have a .22 pistol for fun and practice, but I put off getting one for a long time. Most of them, like the Ruger Mark III/IV, Beretta Neos and friends look too weird. I'm a bit more on board with .22 imitations of centerfire handguns, like the Smith & Wesson M&P 22, Ruger SR22, or Walther P22.

I went to the gun store to put my grubby mitts on a few. The P22 and SR22 were so small they evaporated in my hand. It felt like my fingers were covering all the crucial operating components, which was just on the bad side of comfortable. The M&P 22 Compact felt better, but looked worse. I just think the M&P series looks goofy. I do like the look of the Browning Buckmark, but the inexpensive base models are hideous, and the nicer looking ones are way too expensive for what they are.

Around this time I went shooting with extended family, and got to try out a Smith & Wesson 22A-1. It jammed and misfired on about 4 out of 10 rounds, but it LOOKED good, and was just the right size.

The recent release of the S&W Victory 22 seems to have undercut the price and demand for the 22A. The Victory is supposed to replace the 22A, but I think it misses the point of what makes the 22A interesting. The Victory is much heavier, and looks just like every other .22 target pistol on the market. Perhaps more importantly, it costs more than the 22A ever did.

When a lightly used 22A-1 with a 4" barrel popped up for sale at a good price, I grabbed it. Mine cost significantly less than the cheapest Ruger 22/45, although since it's a discontinued model that's not surprising. On the first trip out, the 22A-1 had a severe light primer strike issue at least twice per magazine. It happened with Winchester's bulk white box 36gr hollow points, but also with much nicer CCI Mini Mag, both 36gr hollow point and 40gr solids. It didn't fail to eject or feed, but ignition was totally unreliable.

When I got it home I inspected it more closely. There was a faint indentation on the top of the chamber from dry firing, though not enough to cause material to intrude into the chamber. The firing pin still looked pretty good, and the mainspring felt extremely strong. I flushed the firing pin channel with MPro-7 and blew it dry with compressed air. On the next outing it was imperceptibly better. With the CCI ammo it was good overall, but there were still a few light primer strikes. I was getting worried that poor reliability is just a hallmark of the 22A.

Greasing up the hammer pivot pin. The kinked recoil spring is visible in the upper left.

The problem seemed to be that the hammer wasn't getting fully cocked. If the slide doesn't completely cycle, the hammer will only go to a half-cock position, which doesn't give it enough power to ignite the primer. Using higher velocity ammunition could ameliorate this problem, but the 22A-1 is admired for being able to cycle a wide variety of ammo types. I'd read that it will even cycle subsonics, which even my Marlin 795 won't do all the time.

The next step involved replacing the plastic slide insert and recoil spring, and lubing the hammer pivot pin and recoil guide rod with Tetra grease for good measure.

New slide insert on the left, old one on the right with a chunk missing.

If you look at the old slide insert side by side with a new one, you can see obvious damage. It looks like a piece broke off of the old slide insert. I can't tell what effect the broken piece could have on the function of the gun, but it seems worthwhile to have a fully intact part. While I was ordering these parts I took the opportunity to stock up on other components available on Brownells. I suspect 22A/22S parts will dry up now that S&W is only producing the Victory.

A big pile of spares from Brownells, including another slide insert, various springs, a recoil guide rod, and a bunch of plastic recoil buffers. A few are included in the box, but it doesn't hurt to have more.

After the second batch of gunsmithing, the 22A has been flawless. I ran a cornucopia of different ammo types through it, including extremely lightweight CCI Copper, and even subsonics! The 22A fed and cycled almost everything (check the list below for what worked and what didn't). Buying used pistols is always a roll of the dice. I bought what looked like a problem gun, but... 30 bucks and a bit of tinkering later, I have a perfectly functional gun on the cheap. Too bad to whoever let it go so cheaply. On the other hand, they were more than willing to offload it on somebody without telling them about the reliability issues, so I'm not losing any sleep.

The 22A design includes a "consumable" nylon recoil buffer that needs to be replaced occasionally. Two spares are included with the gun, and you can get more for a few bucks each (for now... stock up while you can!). I suspect they can survive thousands of rounds before truly failing, and it doesn't strike me as a reliability concern.

A pile of ammo that works just fine.

Ammo that will:
Aguila 40gr LRN Super Extra Standard
Aguila 40gr CPRN Super Extra High Velocity
Aguila 30gr Super Maximum Hyper Velocity
American Eagle 36gr HP
CCI 21gr Copper
CCI 40gr CPRN AR Tactical
CCI 32gr CPHP Stinger
CCI 36gr CPHP MiniMag
CCI 40gr CPRN MiniMag
Federal Bulk 36gr CPHP
Remington 40gr LRN Subsonic
Remington 40gr LRN Thunderbolt
Remington 40gr CPRN Golden Bullet
Remington 33gr CPHP Yellow Jacket
Winchester Bulk 36gr CPHP
Winchester SuperX 40gr CPRN
Winchester SuperX 40gr CPRN Super Speed
Winchester SuperX 40gr CPHP Power Point

A smaller pile of ammo that doesn't work at all.
Ammo that won't:
CCI 40gr Quiet (obviously, it's basically a full length CB loading)
Aguila 40gr LRN Subsonic (seems to have less oomph than the Remington version)

I think it's safe to say the 22A is plenty reliable, so back to the pistol itself.

The 22A is an alloy framed pistol, available in different barrel lengths. Mine is the shortest 4" barrel, and has a cool snubnosed menace to it. The aesthetic is somewhere between a target pistol and a combat pistol. I like it, just because it doesn't look like a Nambu with a naked skinny barrel sticking way out over the front. Smith & Wesson also produced a counterpart to the 22A with a steel frame called the 22S. The alloy framed version is a bit nose heavy even with a stubby barrel; I'm willing to be the 22S is more well balanced.

Smith 22A cycling.

Both the alloy and steel framed versions were available in a two tone finish, or all black like mine. The steel version could be had in an all-stainless finish. The black finish is a painted on finish, which is what S&W used in the 80s and 90s for their alloy guns. Their "random number" automatics and the low-cost Sigma pistols all had this finish. It's not especially durable, and not especially good looking. It seems to chip easily, and the chips are conspicuous.

There are a few different types of grips available on the 22A and 22S. The original design was a hard plastic wraparound grip, styled to look similar to the grip of the Sigma pistol. The newer style is a rubberized plastic grip, which is comfortable but a bit cheap feeling. The fancy target models of the 22A/22S had a fancy laminated wood grip with extra ergonomic features like thumb and pinky rests.

All three styles of grip overhang the bottom of the magwell, and create a "false" magwell that you can get the magazine hung up on. The only thing the overhang serves to do is make the grip longer than anybody is likely to need. If I had seven fingers on each hand, the grip would be perfectly sized.

Magazine release located in the frontstrap. Takedown button in front of the trigger guard.

A weird feature of the 22A is a magazine release mounted in the frontstrap. It's actually pretty easy to hit with your middle finger, and ambidextrous right out of the box. The 22A has a magazine disconnect which causes the magazines to rocket out of the bottom when you hit the button. The magazine disconnect seems fragile, and I'm not particularly a fan of it as a feature, but luckily it's easy to remove. With the disconnect out the magazines still drop free, and are easier to insert fully.

Magazine disconnect removed. There's no substitute for safe gun handling.

The magazines are a standard 10 round affair, with a nice tab to assist loading. As of this writing they're still readily available for a decent price, although they are not interchangeable with the new S&W Victory.

Possibly the nicest thing about the 22A is how easy it is to disassemble. The new S&W Victory touts easy disassembly as a feature, but even that requires removing a screw. And takedown of the Ruger Mk. 2/3 pistols is a notorious headache requiring a trip to the gunsmith with a sheepish grin and a baggie full of parts. The new Ruger Mk. 4 finally has one-button takedown like the 22A. Nice going Ruger, you're only 25 years late to the party!

Press the takedown button and the barrel and topstrap pops right off. It really is a great feature.

The 22A/22S comes with a full length top rail on all models, which in the 22A's heyday was pretty nice. Even today railed Buckmarks and Ruger Mark III/IV pistols are more expensive than the base models. The rail is compliant with the Weaver standard, but won't work with a lot of picatinny accessories due to the spacing of the slots. I tried a variety of optics I had lying around and almost none of them would even fit into the shallow 22A slots. I'm sure the right optic is out there somewhere, and I'll get one eventually.

I definitely need to, because the stock sights on the 22A are pretty bad. The sighting arrangement is classic Patridge target sights; a big square notch and a big square front blade. The rear sight is fully adjustable for drift and elevation, and the sights are nice and clean. The problem is, they're BIG. The big ol' coarse front blade completely blocks out the target even at close distance shooting. That's not likely to be a problem if you use a 6 o'clock hold and adjust the sights accordingly. I tend to cover the target with my sights, and it's hard to hit something you can't see.

The camera doesn't show just how chunky these are when viewed from a natural distance.

What? You say that sounds like a me problem? Yeah I'll grant you that. Whoever's fault it is, I can't get precise groups out of the 22A even from a bench rest position, because the sight picture is not repeatable. I certainly can't blame the trigger, which is a short, crisp single action affair with a nice light pull.

With a cheap (but nice) 4x Barska scope. Also note the old style hard plastic grips, which I tried out but didn't really care for.

Just for the hell of it I threw a fixed 4x rifle scope on the 22A, and shot some bench rested groups at 10 yards. By and large the groups were very tight, and proved that the poor accuracy can be attributed to the stock sights. The standouts from this batch of testing were the Federal/American Eagle 38gr CPHP, Remington 40gr CPRN Golden Bullet, and Aguila 40gr CPRN Super Extra High Velocity, all three of which basically shot into one big blob.

This was exceptionally fun. All the burnt gunpowder went straight into my eyeballs.
The clear loser of the bunch was CCI Copper. I always shoot outdoors, away from (as DMX would say) the "nonstop pop-pop of stainless steel," and there was a bit of a breeze. Maybe it was the wind, or maybe the 22A just hates it, but the CCI Copper exhibited ridiculous horizontal stringing. Several shots went off the paper to the left entirely.

CCI Copper (bottom left and middle of the left target) sucked. It was still reliable, but is either helpless against wind, or just inaccurate from this gun. I've shot better groups with it from my Marlin 795.
22A pistols manufactured from between August 1, 2008 to February 19, 2009 were subject to a safety recall due to insufficient headspace making it possible for rounds to detonate out of battery. Mine is outside the recall range, and in fact the recall does not seem to apply to the 22A-1 at all. A pistol that has been returned to Smith & Wesson and determined to be safe will have a small divot on the bottom rear of the slide.

The serial # range of the affected pistols is below:
UBW0000 - UBW9999
UBY0000 - UBY4104

And there you have the Smith & Wesson 22A-1! It's a reliable, inexpensive .22 pistol for hipsters like me who are trying, frankly, a bit too hard to not buy a Ruger Mk. something. I can heartily recommend any version of the 22A/22S, from the dirt cheap alloy frame, stubby barrel version like mine, all the way up to the stainless steel bull barrel target versions. I think they look great, and I bet you can get perfect reliability out of one with just a few bucks and some basic tinkering.