There were a handful of lever-action .22 Hornets produced, but they never arrived in the large quantities that the bolt-action versions did.
The .22 Hornet was a popular cartridge from its introduction in 1933 until the arrival of the .223 in the 1950s. The .22 Hornet was available in several bolt action platforms and a few single-shot rifles.
The lever-action version of the .22 Hornet wasn’t nearly as successful, primarily because the cartridge didn’t lend itself to lever-action mechanisms because of its size.
When Did the .22 Hornet Become a Popular Cartridge?
With the wide range of high-speed, small caliber rifles on the market today it seems strange that there was a time when a huge gap existed between the .22 long rifle, rimfire cartridge, and big game hunting rifles, but it was a reality until the 1920s.
Varmint and small game hunters either used the .22 rimfire or calibers much too large for coyotes, fox, and rabbits. There were no .22 Hornets, .218 Bees, .219 Wasps, or the modern .204 to fill that niche.
The .218 Bee was the only version in the popular lever-action style epitomized in Hollywood westerns of the day. The .22 Hornet cartridge didn’t lend itself to the lever-action design because of its unique dimensions, it was difficult for the lever-action mechanism to lodge the shell for firing.
In the 1920s Grosvenor Wotkyns began modifying .22 black powder cartridges with faster burning, higher velocity smokeless powder. He also tightened and altered the neck of the cartridge to handle a smaller 35 to 45-grain bullet.
The new design didn’t seat well in Winchester’s famous line of lever-action rifles.
The cartridge held promise, but there was no rifle to fire it. A few bolt-action and single-shot rifles were introduced to handle the .22 Hornet, but true, repeating lever-action rifles never appeared.
Eventually, breechloading models with a release lever in single-shot action appeared on the market.
Why Were There So Few Lever-Action .22 Hornets?
The answer lies in how a lever-action rifle works. Bolt action rifles are much easier to offer many different-sized cartridges. You lengthen the bolt, and the chamber allowing rounds of all sizes, big and small in the same style of rifle. Just the dimensions change a bit.
With a lever-action rifle, the cocking action of the lever limits the size of the shell casing and bullet it can take.
The differences between a .218 Bee and a .22 Hornet seem insignificant to the casual observer, but they presented problems in design for manufacturers.
For example, the Winchester Model 92 was available in .218 Bee, but the .22 Hornet was too long for the 92’s action.
It was also too long for the Marlin 62 Levermatic, even though it is available in larger cartridges, such as .256 Winchester, .30 Carbine, and even .357 magnum. Lever-action design borders on an art form to get the working dimensions to all function as one.
But, there were some.22 Hornet lever-action models produced, and a few are still available today.
The J Stevens 417 in .22 Hornet
The 417 was a single-shot, lever-operated rifle manufactured from 1932-1947. It was one of the first .22 Hornet designs on the market, though it came in more popular short or long rifle rimfire .22 as well.
The Stevens 417 featured a heavy barrel, most often seen in target rifles. It offered a full pistol grip, a beavertail forearm and utilized a different mainspring plunger and hammer unit.
While not a true lever-action repeating rifle, its operating mechanism did use a lever to break the breech open for reloading.
1919 Winchester 1885 Deluxe .22 Hornet
This rifle began its journey in 1878 with legendary designer John Browning in Ogden, Utah. Target shooting was as popular in the later years of the 19th century as professional golf is today.
Browning designed what many consider the apex of single-shot rifle design in the Model 1885 just for match competition.
Browning took his design to Winchester where it remains today as one of the best single-shot rifles in terms of accuracy ever produced.
When they developed the .22 Hornet, Winchester added that cartridge to their lineup with the venerable Model 1885. The 28-inch barrel allowed almost two full revolutions of .22 Hornet rounds with the 1:16 twist that was standard with these high-speed, small-grained bullets.
Ruger .22 Hornet No.1 Lever Action
This is often the highest seller in annual reports for .22 Hornet rifles. It was designed by Ruger for collectors and hunters alike. The quality you associate with Ruger is readily noticed in Hornet No. 1. Ruger’s precision engineering takes this flat shooting cartridge to its utmost level.
The No. 1 features a falling-block breech, an artillery-style breech lock, a sliding tang safety, and an adjustable ejector mechanism.
The bold hammer-forged barrel will last for many decades and the sculptured receiver is a work of art.
It is available in left or right-handed models, weighs just seven pounds, and has a 24-inch barrel.
Ruger No. 3 .22 Hornet
The Ruger No. 3 was the plain-Jane cousin of the much fancier Ruger No 1. Manufactured from 1973 to 1986, there are still many Ruger No. 3 .22 Hornets on the second-hand, and collector markets.
When they were introduced they retailed for less than half the price of the Ruger No. 1. The checkering, pistol grip, and rubber butt-pad on the No 1 were not available on the No. 3.
Instead the No. 3 was plain walnut, had an aluminum or plastic butt plate, no checkering, and very basic iron sight.
No longer available, the No. 3 has become a collector’s item and routinely draws the same sale price as the fancier No. 1 in similar condition.
Chiappa Little Sharp Rifle 22 Hornet
The final .22 Hornet in this review is a modern rifle, with a distinctly “Old West” look. The mini-Sharps resembles closely the Sharps buffalo guns of the 19th century.
A 26” octangle barrel, walnut stock that weighs just six pounds, this “mini-Sharps” is nearly identical to its 19th-century ancestor except it weighs much less and fires a much smaller cartridge in the .22 Hornet.
A blued barrel, steel butt plate, Tang sights, with a case hardened receiver finish, and an overall length of just a hair under 40 inches makes this a popular collector rifle, but it shoots the accurate 45-grain .22 Hornet round just as well as any bolt-action in the same caliber.
The .22 Hornet entered the world at approximately the same time as the .218 Bee. An era when the Old West was disappearing into legend, and many people felt the nostalgic twinge to purchase lever-action rifles.
While the .218 Bee and the much more popular .30-30 and .45-70 cartridges were marketed heavily in lever-action rifles, the dimensions and overall specifications of the .22 Hornet didn’t lend well to the lever-action design.
True lever-action repeating rifles like the Winchester Model 1894 were available in much larger cartridges, but the .22 Hornet was never offered in a true lever-action repeating rifle.
The open-breech, single-shot, lever-action was as close as the .22 Hornet would get. The cartridge is still available in rifles from Winchester, Ruger, and Chippa in the breech-loading style.
They are all accurate to 200-yards and have an effective range to 300-yards for coyotes and other varmints.
If you’re after a nostalgic taste of history in a .22 Hornet offering, you still have options.