Model 96 Review: Ruger’s ‘Ninety-Six’ Lever-Action .22 Rifle
The Ruger firearms brand is synonymous with many things – exceptional single-shot falling blocks, superior bolt actions, well-built wheelguns, and rimfire pistols galore. But lever actions? Not many shooters associate the Sturm, Ruger & Co. logo with cowboy guns. Yet here we are, holding a Ruger Model Ninety-Six, or Model 96, one of multiple lever-driven rimfires and centerfires from days past.
This numerically-named lever action refers directly to the year it was launched – 1996. Though produced for some 13 years, Ruger’s rimfire levers remain overshadowed. The Ninety-Sixes were chambered not only for .22 LR but also .22 WMR and .17 HMR. The designation changed slightly, with the 96/22 and 96/22M referring to the first two, and the 96/17 for the latter. Collectors will also note the centerfire 96/44.
The rimfires of our focus wear an 18.5-inch barrel topped with iron sights. The design feeds from Ruger’s recognizable rotary magazine platform. The stock, with lines similar to the famed 10/22 semi-automatics, is built of hardwood with a semi-pistol grip design. There’s even the expected front barrel band. While the 96/44 was set up for Ruger’s proprietary rings, the rimfire 96s accept standard equipment. The guns are lightweight and wieldy, with the overall measurement of 37.25 inches in length and the bare gun weighing 5.25 pounds.
Our Test Gun
When we saw a Ruger Ninety-Six appear at the Guns.com Vault, we simply had to have a closer look. It’s chambered for .22 Long Rifle. The rotary magazine is the same as those from our 10/22 platform semi-autos. Lever aside, the gun “looks” like a Ruger, with lines and finish similar to 10/22 rifles of the same era. There’s a crossbolt safety, silver-plated trigger, and basic plastic butt plate. There’s even a cocking indicator located at the tang.
This particular specimen appears to have been stripped of its original finish at some time, but it remains a lovely piece. The iron sights are again similar to the 10/22 with a brass-beaded blade front and folding rear. Though it came topped with a variable-power riflescope, we’d be just as pleased with the quality irons. According to our research, our test gun dates to a first-year 1996-production run, making it especially interesting with such early models often holding greater collector interest.
Pros & Cons
Though these guns have been advertised and mentioned as having a “short-throw” action, the distance of the lever movement is considerably greater when compared to lever-driven rimfires like the Browning BL-22 and Marlin Levermatics. Regardless, the Ninety-Six is a user-friendly, familiar platform from a company known for quality.
The trigger pull on our test gun has some creep and breaks between 5.75 and 6.25 pounds. While that wouldn’t be great for a target gun, it’s certainly serviceable on a standard-style rimfire plinker and occasional hunter. Note that, though these guns outwardly resemble the 10/22, the majority of parts are not interchangeable. That means upgraded drop-in triggers are not a possibility here. However, have no fear, for it’s easy enough to shoot this one as-is.
Speaking of 10/22 accessories, the classic Ruger-style 10-round rotary magazine finds its way to the 96 series. There’s some debate over whether the magazines are interchangeable, but parts manuals do list three separate magazine models for the 10/22, 96/22, and bolt action 77/22. Still, the flush-mount, rotary mags are yet another familiar and proven piece of the pie.
Wish List Gun?
The Ninety-Six series, like most firearms lines, have highs and lows. But they still find their way to the wish lists of many collectors and shooters. At the end of the day, the cool factor of having a Ruger-built lever action is real. Based solely on a relatively short production run, demand will always remain high for the Ruger 96s.
While we dig the .22 LR, there are other, even more unusual, desirable, and collectible variants on our Ruger wish list. That included not only the 96/17 but also, perhaps, the most highly sought Model 96/44 chambered in .44 Remington Magnum.
Final Thoughts: Ruger Levers Again?
While Ruger no longer produces the Ninety-Six – or any dedicated lever guns – they are no longer completely out of that market. In fact, Sturm, Ruger & Co. remains newsworthy of late for what the company has done with purchasing, upgrading, and re-launching the Marlin brand of serious lever-action rifles.
At the time of this writing, the rejuvenated Marlin lineup includes only centerfire big bores, but it’s almost certain that rimfires won’t be too far behind. While so much focus falls on the new Ruger-Marlins, we always appreciate the opportunity to look back at Ruger’s own early foray into the lever-driven genre with the Ninety-Six.