Classic Plinkers: Smith & Wesson small frame .22s
By Jim Krieger
Many of our readers know what a plinker is. For those who have recently joined the shooting sports family (and welcome, by the way) “plinker” refers to a handgun, typically chambered in .22 caliber, and often used for recreational shooting and informal target practice, such as at tin cans for instance, which make a “plink” sound when hit (hence the name “plinker”). There are many handguns out there that make good plinkers, and this series of articles looks at some of the most popular .22s among them. The first two articles in the series may be found here and here.
During the 20th Century, in addition to offering a .22 Long Rifle chambering on its M Frame (the first “Ladysmith” series) and later on its well-known K Frame revolvers, Smith & Wesson also built several different .22 revolvers on the smallest of its frames, the I and J frames. The Smith & Wesson small frame .22s quickly became popular with target shooters, sportsmen, and those who wanted a small, light handgun with minimal recoil for self-defense. The first of this series was the brainchild of S&W distributor Phil Bekeart, and to this day these early-production guns are known as the “Bekeart Model”. Built on the .32 Hand Ejector I Frame (hence the “.22/.32” in the model designation) they hit the shelves of Bekeart’s customers in 1911, and a classic plinker was born. In 1915, having noted the market demand for the Bekeart Model .22, Smith and Wesson began to formally catalogue it. Designated as the “.22/.32 Heavy Frame Target Model”, and later (in 1935) as the “.22/.32 Kit Gun”, they have long been the companions of hunters, anglers, campers and recreational shooters.
The Kit Gun is still catalogued by Smith & Wesson as the Model 317, and in the 102 years of its history it has gone through a number of changes and variations. The earliest of these guns were offered only with a six-inch barrel and adjustable sights. As the name “Heavy Frame Target Model” implies, it was initially marketed primarily with target shooters in mind. By 1935, the little revolver’s popularity with sportsmen led S&W to offer a 4” barreled version, also available only with adjustable sights, catalogued as the Kit Gun. The name “Kit Gun” reflected the idea that a compact, lightweight .22 revolver was a good addition to the “kit” (the gear and equipment) carried afield by hunters, fishermen, campers and hikers.
Eighteen years later, in 1953, Smith & Wesson recognized that the Kit Gun also had a following among shooters who regarded it as a viable option for self-defense, and a true pocket-sized version was offered, also with adjustable sights, but this time sporting a 2” barrel. In 1955, an aluminum-framed version, the “.22/32 Kit Gun Airweight” was introduced with a 3.5” barrel. In 1957, when S&W changed from named to numbered models, the steel-framed gun became the Model 34, and its aluminum-framed counterpart became the Model 43. In 1960, the I Frame was dropped in favor of the new, longer-gripped J Frame.
The Model 34 and its predecessors were produced until 1991, a run of 80 years, and in numbers exceeding 44,000. They remain popular to this day with both collectors and shooters. Shown in the photographs are two Model 34-1s, a 4” barreled round-butt version with a factory nickel finish, Herrett’s grips and a Tyler trigger shoe, and a less common 2” barreled square-butt gun finished in a high-polish blue and sporting a Tyler T-Grip. Both were produced in 1982.
Revolver aficionados may notice that there is a pin protruding from the side of the frame just ahead of the hammer well. This holds the firing pin in place. Unlike Smith & Wesson’s larger centerfire revolvers, which have firing pins mounted to the hammer, the J Frame .22 design uses a rebounding firing pin that is mounted in the frame. As with all of S&W’s adjustable-sight revolvers, the rear sight is screw-adjustable for both windage and elevation. The entire assembly is built around a flat leaf-spring base that is attached to a recess in the top strap, and is held under tension to allow for elevation adjustment by a screw that passes through the leaf and bears on the top strap. The rear sight blade is a rectangular plate with a square notch that rides in a groove, and is adjusted for windage by a detent-managed screw on the right side of the sight assembly. The front sight is a fixed, ramp-style blade, pinned to the barrel rib, that fills the notch in the rear sight blade.
Shooting these little guns is a lot of fun, and both deliver respectable accuracy. The single action trigger pull is crisp and precise, and the double-action pull is very manageable with a little practice. Speaking of practice, as with all rimfire revolvers, dry-firing on empty chambers is discouraged, because direct contact between the firing pin and the chamber mouth can damage both. At the range, which consisted of an arroyo on a friend’s ranch, I shot both revolvers at distances ranging from approximately twenty to fifty feet. Targets consisted of paper plates, tin cans and an old computer printer that had received the death penalty for crapping out on me one too many times.
It has been said that justice delayed is justice denied, so I started with the condemned printer in order to promptly put it out of its misery. At about twenty feet, shooting double action with the 4” barreled gun, I put all six rounds cleanly into the printer’s 3” X 4” controller card. With the printer dispatched, I turned to the tin cans. Shooting the same gun double action at the same distance, I made the cans dance up and down the bank of the arroyo until they were thoroughly peppered with holes. To better determine the little guns’ accuracy, I staked some paper plates to the bank, and moved back to about fifty feet. With CCI Stingers, firing the 4” gun freehand in single action, I was able to shoot groups averaging about 3.25”. The 2” gun, also fired freehand in single action at the same distance, produced average groups of about 4.5”, and, predictably, exhibited greater noise and recoil.
Ideal for a variety of uses, from small-game hunting, to pest and varmint control to recreational shooting, the Smith & Wesson J Frame 22s are truly classic plinkers.