There’s merit in the notion of starter rigs. In everything from golf clubs to automobiles, maximum tech and longed-for glitz are easy to justify from the “want” perspective, but those things can get in the way of establishing actual competence in any undertaking. Hurdles—including those of technique, distraction and the occasional dent—are all but certain to appear and birth an understandable wariness of acquisition cost: Utility-class wear and tear is vastly easier to bear.
In the search for a bolt-action rimfire rifle, though, that wisdom—if we may call it such—should be expected to comprehensively fail if someone puts Steyr’s Zephyr II bolt-action rimfire (msrp $995) in your hands. Even those economic constraints will be likely to fly, and you’ll simply want one.
The trouble for many will begin with the stock. Gorgeous walnut, handsome (and effective) fish-scale checkering at the Schnabel-type forend and a superbly sculpted grip complement an ample, elegant Bavarian-style cheek piece, and say “pick me up” in every human tongue. Even those who don’t fancy European-style stocks will discover a striking ease and pointability on shouldering the Zephyr, yet at 5.8 pounds it shows virtually no tendency for the muzzle wobble and drift that many light-nosed rifles do.
The only strain we encountered with the Zephyr II .22 LR rimfire was on our superlatives. It’s an elegant, accurate joy, as well as a worthy inheritor—and perpetuator—of the fine Steyr legacy.
The metal work is no less alluring. Unmistakable hammer-forging marks the barrel, which free floats all the way back to the action. (You will need the “dollar bill” test to know, however; our stock was so well fit as to make this undetectable to the eye.) That action is home to a milled-in dovetail for your rings/optics mount, a tang safety and a classic butterknife-handled bolt. All are finished in Steyr’s “Mannox,” a handsome matte oxide that dresses up even better with a little Flitz wax.
We’ve likely tipped our hand on shooting performance: The gold-toned trigger of our sample rifle slacked up with utter repeatability to a just over 2.5-pound break, and we’d pronounce it an ideal field setup. This is not to say that accuracy work is beyond the Steyr, as both shooting for group and 100-, even 200-plus, yard shots came with relative ease (consistent velocity ammunition is the key here, remember). Reliability emerged only as a desirable afterthought. Smooth, sure and ultra-consistent thanks in part to double extractor claws, the Zephyr is also possessed of a zero-wrangle, fumble-free magazine insertion/release that ought to be the envy of virtually every other rimfire.
It’s worth noting that this is the second time around for the Zephyr, hence the “II.” Originally offered between 1955 and 1971, accolades for the originals—many in full Mannlicher stock—remain impressive, with values commensurate to their iconic status. In the II, Steyr’s update is as near-perfect a balance of classic European elegance and modern precision as a remotely reachable price point allows. It is also where a collision with our opening gambit comes into focus: Balancing an investment like the Steyr against the return is only good stewardship, but our take is that successive approximations (read “modifications”) of lesser rifles aren’t likely to measure up, may end up costing as much or more, and certainly won’t be a Steyr in the end.
In a lifetime with Steyr’s Zephyr II, you’re far more likely to run out of rifleman than rifle.
Nuts And Bolts
The hunt for the .22 LR fodder that best suits any individual rifle can be a long, lonely pursuit. It’s long—in our experience, at any rate—because past performance may be a poor indicator for the rifle at hand; that is, you essentially start over. Lonely arises in the sense that varied options may prove tough to find together. Your vendor of choice might have a dozen or more rimfire loadings available, but if they are mostly from the same manufacturer, the chances of finding a “eureka!” performer can fall. Marketing and packaging may belie more similarity than difference, and you’ll be left to try
one variety after another. Keep good notes so that repetitions aren’t wasting both time and resources, and buy as much of a single “lot” of a good-performing type as your budget allows.
We had some of the “good stuff” on hand, namely RWS R100 (supersonic), and ELEY’s black-box Edge (high subsonic). You can guess we’re talking very nice groups, but also 20 to 40 cents per round—not exactly the budget joy that so generally commends rimfire.
Packaged in an unassuming red-lettered, blue box and boasting a 6-cent per round cost, however, was CCI Standard Velocity. While flyers were both less egregious and less common with the top-shelf ELEY and RWS—that is what you’re really paying for in any premium ammunition—the CCI was astonishingly close. It produced our best 5-shot, 50-yard group—a paltry .386 inches, and not from a full-up rest, either. The others were handily under half an inch, and routinely so. Sliced pretty much any way, a truly affordable option for skill building, with ELEY or RWS for any more exacting trials, and a rifle that will let them all shine is a rare combination.
If more oomph than .22 LR is a high rimfire priority, know that the Zephyr II is also available in .17 HMR and .22 WMR, and with a threaded barrel.
As we noted, sight technology is presumptively tilted toward an optic on the Zephyr II. For our tests, Talley staked us to a pair of their vertically split 1-inch rings. These cradled a Vortex Crossfire II 2-7x32 with V-Plex reticle. Quarter-MOA clicks had us on target with ease and precision, and subjective “brightness” of the view was notable considering the modest price tag—especially so for the dimmer indoor sessions where we got our most tranquil air, as well as superb results.
It’s tempting to up-optic the dazzling Steyr, but that’s very different from needing to: There’s an argument to be made that more glass is due a rifle of the Zephyr’s pedigree. We wouldn’t fault that contention on any technical grounds. But impressive, repeatable results quickly quelled our urge to fiddle with the configuration, and we’d dub the Steyr/Talley/Vortex combo a certain achiever.
Frank Winn has been studying arms and their relationship to tyranny, meaningful liberty and personal security all his adult life. He has been a firearms safety/shooting instructor for more than 20 years, earned state, regional and national titles, and holds Master or Grand Master rank in several competitive disciplines.