Some time ago, I wrote an article about gunsmithing the Raven MP-25, the granddaddy of all of the cheap little “Ring of Fire” pistols from the 1970s and 80s. At one time, these guns were the best-selling guns in the USA. They went out of production decades ago but there are thousands of them still out there. Most gunsmiths never get to see one because they cost so little it just isn’t economical to have a gunsmith repair one of them.
I’m mostly retired and have tried to keep my gunsmith business small so it is still more fun than work. As a result, I have time to spend on gunsmith projects that won’t bring much money but are interesting and fun. I’ve looked at a lot of the so-called “Ring of Fire” guns – Bryco, Jennings, Lorcin, etc. and there are a couple that I like. The Raven is one of them, but another is the Jennings J-22. Jennings Firearms was started in 1978 by Bruce Jennings, the son of George Jennings, the founder of Raven Arms. Jennings Firearms ultimately declared bankruptcy but was then reorganized as Bryco Arms. They continued to make the J-22 with no changes in the design until Bryco went out of business in 2003. At that point, Bryco’s designs and tooling were bought out by Jiminez Arms. Jiminez currently makes a model called the J.A. 22 that looks suspiciously like the J-22; but I haven’t had a good look at one of these, so I can’t say for sure.
This little pistol will never win any awards for high-quality construction and there are lots of horror stories out there about unreliability, safety, etc. but I have found the J-22 to be a reasonably well-designed gun and reasonably safe to use. The caveat with any gun, of course, is that the gun has not been modified by some gunsmith wannabe with more brass than sense and that the shooter follow simple common-sense shooting safety protocols. With that in mind, the J-22 is a neat little gun, and the fact that so many of them are still out there is testimony to their durability.
If you’ve never worked on one of these and think you’d like to try it, here’s a short course we’ll call “Jennings 101”; but keep in mind this applies ONLY to the J-22. Jennings/Bryco made the mistake that many of the Ring of Fire companies made – they tried to “scale up” George Jennings original Raven design for larger calibers, all the way up to 9mm. In my opinion the design is adequate for guns of .22 and .25 caliber (and Raven never made anything but a .25 caliber) but poses significant safety hazards in the larger calibers. I do not like and will not work on any of the larger caliber “Ring of Fire” gunsfor that reason.
OK – with that “soapbox” preaching out of the way, let’s look at the J-22. The basic design is simple, with a complete tear-down producing around 20 parts (excluding the magazine, grips and grip screws – see photo).
You start the tear-down by depressing the slide latch/striker-spring cap in the rear of the slide, which lets you lift the rear of the slide and take it forward off the gun. Watch out at this point, because the latch and striker spring may want to go into orbit (to use a Bob Dunlap expression). Taking the grips off leaves the frame and most of the action parts open to view, and at that point you want to make sure that various other parts including the safety and the disconnector do not also fall / fly off and disappear. The sear (and its spring) will usually stay in place because the ejector (a flat blade pinned to the frame) holds the sear down.
Like the Raven and most other Ring of Fire pistols, the J-22 fire-control system consists of a single trigger bar and a disconnector that is mounted externally on the right side of the frame. The sear and sear spring mount vertically in a well in the center of the frame. The disconnector retains the sear and is itself retained by the right grip, which also keeps the trigger bar in alignment with the disconnector. Without the grip, the trigger bar can slip outside the disconnector. Note the vertical tab on top of the trigger bar. This tab is pushed down by the slide when the gun cycles, disengaging the trigger bar from the disconnector until the trigger is released.
On the left side of the frame you will find the safety, which blocks the sear when placed in the safe position. With the grip removed the safety can just be lifted off the frame but be careful not to lose the L-shaped spring that serves as a detent for the safety. This spring fits into its own recess in the frame. This photo shows the safety in the raised (SAFE) position. Note that the tab on top of the safety (to the left in the picture) is blocking pin protruding from the left side of the sear. This prevents the sear from moving downward. Note also that the forward part of the safety is raised up, covering the word “FIRE” by moving it up under the slide and exposing the word “SAFE” on the frame. This also blocks the slide from moving backward, so that the slide cannot be cycled with the safety on.
If I have any concern about the safety of this design, it’s that the safety lever itself is made of plastic. If that little plastic top tab is broken, deformed, or just worn down, it may be possible to overcome the safety with excessive trigger pressure. In other words, the trigger is trying to pull the sear downward, and when the gun is on “SAFE” that little piece of plastic is all that is stopping it. If you are working on one of these guns, this is a area to which you want to pay special attention. Be sure to verify that the safety is doing its job, even when the trigger is pulled with maximum pressure.
As for the design of the sear itself, I don’t have any issues. The sear engages the striker with engagement that is normally “neutral to slightly positive” (as Bob so often says); but there have been a couple of documented cases of accidental discharge in which it was noted that the sear had been damaged or deliberately modified(possibly by some wannabe gunsmith trying to do a “trigger job”) which reduced the engagement of the striker and sear. In such cases, you can wind up having a “war of the springs” in which the fully-compressed striker spring is fighting against the uncompressed (and much smaller) sear spring. If the sear engagement is even slightly negative, the striker spring is likely to win. The sear will be pushed down, and the striker will be released. The picture shows how the sear engages the striker in the gun.
Of course, you’ll also want to check the condition of the sear spring, which requires unpinning the ejector blade – seen behind the sear in the picture – so you can remove the sear. I have found that J-22s usually have a reasonably stiff sear spring, which helps to prevent problems; but you’ll want to beware that someone hasn’t replaced it with a weaker spring to lighten the trigger pull. Likewise, I’ve found that these guns generally have a lot of engagement between the sear and striker; but that produces a long, squishy trigger pull, since the sear has to move quite a distance to disengage. I consider that a safety feature and haven’t found it to be a problem when shooting. A crisp, creep-free trigger just isn’t something you are going to get with these guns, but the trigger they have is just fine for casual, non-competition shooting. Limit your “trigger jobs” to polishing up the trigger, trigger bar, and disconnector. Stay away from the sear and striker.
The J-22’s extractor is mounted on the side of the slide, pinned in place retaining the extractor spring. I’ve seen a few J-22s that have extract / eject issues, but these are usually fixed by working on the extractor or replacing it if it is damaged. It’s a simple enough part that you can probably make a new one if necessary.
The J-22 magazine can be disassembled, even though the base plate is staked on. You just need to depress and captivate the spring through the witness hole, then tilt the follower to take it out. After that, the spring comes out easily. The magazine catch is pinned into the frame at the bottom of the magazine well and has its own spring. It’s made of a fairly soft alloy, and I sometimes get guns with that part broken off. Fortunately, replacements are cheap and readily available.
Complete disassembly and reassembly of the J-22 poses no special challenges. With a design this simple, there’s not much that can go wrong with the gun. Broken grips are common, and the grips are important because they serve to retain the safety and the disconnector. Used grips are available but some of them are barely in serviceable condition, if at all. New reproduction grips are also available but cost too much for a gun that is only worth $100 in good working order. Some J-22s came equipped with wood grips and it’s possible to make them if you have any woodworking skills. They are simple enough that blanks can be cut out with a scroll saw and fitted from there. As for other parts, they are available from the usual suppliers and don’t cost that much.
Most J-22s were made with a chromed finish (like the one in the pictures here) and those hold up pretty well. You might find some with a painted black finish. Those don’t usually look nearly as good; but the good news is that if you strip the finish off, that zinc alloy seems to take very well to spray-on finishes like DuraCoat or DuraBlue.
So there you have it – the “Jennings 101” course. You still might never get to work on one of these, but you might want to give them a little more consideration the next time you see one sitting on a table at a gun show. As guns go, the J-22s are not as bad as some people make them out to be, and can actually be fun little shooters for very little money. But if you happen to run across any of the Jennings, Bryco, or similar 9mm or .380 models, you’d probably best leave them sitting on the table.