By Terril James Hebert
Being in front of and behind many a gun store counter has taught me that pocket pistols sell. Full-sized handguns and long guns simply don’t move quite like today’s pocket polymer .380s, single-stack 9mm’s, and .38 Special snub-nosed revolvers.
The gun industry has consistently striven to put more power into as small a package as possible and they’ve have succeeded. Plus, the prices are about as low as can be for a quality product.
But that doesn’t make them perfect. If anything, I’m alarmed to find so many pocket guns in these calibers walking out of the door in the hands of people who may not be able to deploy them successfully.
The single mom who needs “something” for her purse. The man doing the talking for his disinterested significant other. The elderly woman with hand issues under the guidance of a male relative.
Convenient to have around does not mean convenient to use. Touching off a relatively powerful cartridge from a little, lightweight gun is not a recipe for shooting pleasure.
Further, there is little real estate to hold onto in order to manipulate these little pocket guns. The slides are small, the controls are small, and the grip leaves you hanging, so to speak.
With that said, I’m going to step off my soapbox and say that it is times like these that I lament the loss of truly small caliber pocket pistols that might be more appropriate for some of these people. The vest-pocket .22’s, 25’s, and 32’s that used to be the pocket option before the .380 polymer pistol craze really came on strong.
These guns were small, and made by manufacturers both good and bad. Though compact, they fired relatively low-powered, low recoiling cartridges. That’s probably why we don’t see many of them in current production.
A few pistols are still chambered in .32 ACP and .25 ACP, as well as .22 LR, but availability isn’t anything close to what you’ll find in a .380.
One of these holdouts that’s still in production is a model I wish would make a comeback—the Beretta 21A Bobcat. After six months of looking for an elusive new Inox model, I settled on a moderately-used blued steel version for this review.
The Beretta 21A represented one of the latest and simplest presentations in pocket guns when it debuted in the 1980s. The essential design dates back to the early 1950s with the Beretta 950 Jetfire.
The Jetfire was a single-action hammer-fired pocket pistol chambered in .22 Short and .25 ACP. The slightly larger Bobcat improved on the old Jetfire with a DA/SA action gun that could be carried with the hammer down and safety off for immediate use.
The then-new pistol made the scene around the same time as new developments in .22 LR ammo. Reliable, high powered ammunition like the CCI Mini Mag and Stinger was to push the .22 Short and the .25 ACP out by the wayside. Over the years, the Bobcat has been made in 22LR and .25 ACP with the stainless-steel version in .22 still in Beretta USA’s catalog.
Like all Bobcats, my blued steel model is American-made and has the same general lines as the full-size Beretta 92 service handgun—albeit shrunken and a little stripped down. Mine, and the current models, come with black plastic grips bearing the Beretta logo and housing a flush-fitting magazine release button.
Above the grip is the slide bearing the markings of Beretta USA and abbreviated gripping serrations at the rear. There’s a tiny groove rear sight and the front blade sight is fixed. When I say fixed, I mean the barrel does not tilt or move when the slide is operated, making this pistol a straight blowback design relying on the weight of the slide and the recoil spring to cycle the gun when it’s fired.
This doesn’t work organically with larger calibers like 9mm Luger or .45 ACP, but it does just fine with the low pressure 22 LR. Oddly enough, unlike most blowback guns the Bobcat doesn’t even have an extractor. Instead, the design relies on gas pressure to eject an empty case after firing.
Operationally, the Bobcat is a double-action pistol, meaning a long pull of the trigger can cock the hammer and fire the first round. Each subsequent shot is fired with a cocked hammer and therefore a lighter trigger pull.
The double-action trigger pull is on the heavier side, running about 8 lbs. of pressure on my Lyman trigger scale. Smoother and lighter than say, a double-action revolver, but still heavy enough for safety without throwing rounds off target. The double-action feature also helps if you have a dud round in the chamber. Pulling the trigger again allows the hammer to strike the round again—a handy feature for a 22.
With the hammer cocked, the trigger pull has a little bit of play, but breaks at a clean 2 lbs. 10 oz. With a bit of practice, it wasn’t too hard to lob rounds into my eight-inch steel plate at thirty yards, a somewhat ridiculous distance for a gun meant for bad-breath encounters.
The most interesting feature of the Bobcat, and one borrowed from the Jetfire, is the tilt-up barrel. You can insert the magazine and flick the lever on the left side forward of the grip panel.
This frees the barrel to tip upward, exposing the breech so you can load a round directly into the barrel and close it. There’s no need to rack the slide. That’s a real benefit to those with hand problems.
On The Range
The Beretta Bobcat was one of my “bucket list” guns, but I have no illusions about .22 automatic pistols and their role in self-defense. My run with the Bobcat was not perfect, but it highlights both the advantages and disadvantages of .22 pistols in that role and where the Bobcat stacks up.
One thing to note about .22 pistols is how dirty the ammunition is. I made sure every range session started with a properly cleaned and lubricated pistol. These semi-automatics also tend to be ammunition sensitive, so I brought ten types of ammo to try.
CCI Blaser High Velocity 40 grain
CCI Mini Mag 40 grain solid
CCI Stinger 32 grain hollow-point
CCI Velocitor 40 grain hollow-point
Federal Target 40 grain standard velocity
Remington Thunderbolts 40 grain
Remington Viper 36 grain solid
Winchester Western 36 grain hollow-point
CCI No. 12 ratshot (for pattern testing only)
Federal Automatch 40 grain
Loading the Bobcat is an easy proposition. The loaded magazine holds seven rounds. You can get an eighth round in, but you will not be able to work the pistol’s slide. So, keep seven rounds in the magazine.
With the magazine inserted into the grip, you can either rack the slide back or push the barrel release with your thumb. The barrel pops up horizontally and you can load a single round directly into the chamber. Close the barrel and you are ready to shoot.
With relatively their short grips and relatively light weight, pocket pistols don’t tend to be very enjoyable or easy to shoot. But the virtually recoil-less .22 LR chambering makes shooting the Bobcat downright fun.
While the grips are relatively large, the Bobcat still only allows for a three-fingered grip. Even so, it’s easy to fish the pistol from a pocket or holster and get it on target. The minuscule fixed sights take some getting used to, but once I got them on target, dumping my eight rounds into palm-sized groups as far as seven to ten yards out wasn’t a hard proposition.
To put a number on group sizes, I can generally expect to put eight rounds in a 2-3 inch group offhand from at ten yards with most of the ammunition I tried. While some .22 pistols will be most accurate with certain brands and loadings, I found that not be the case for my Bobcat. But while the Bobcat handled whatever I fed it, there’s still the general issues of rimfire inconsistency.
Anyone who says they have put a thousand rounds through their 22 without any problems is probably fudging the numbers a bit. The .22 LR is a rifle round that was never meant to be put into handguns. The Bobcat came around as reliable, higher velocity loads in .22 LR were coming to market.
As a result, more pocket guns chambered for the round became available. Viable, yes, perfect no. The .22 LR’s rimfire ignition isn’t always consistent and the round leaves a lot of residue when firing.
In a thousand rounds, I’ve counted fourteen malfunctions. Ten of those were with Federal Target 40 grain target loads. Almost without fail, this standard velocity ammunition would fail to cycle the slide, leaving an empty case still in the chamber.
As mentioned before, there is no extractor to pull the empty case out of the chamber, clearing it for the next round. The Bobcat relies on gas pressure to eject the empty shells. It works, until you deal with underpowered ammo or if you can’t ignite that dud round in the chamber.
The instinct, as with all other pistols, is to then rack the slide to clear the malfunction. Since there’s no extractor, you have now stripped a round from the magazine and that empty case is still stuck.
To clear a case or dud round from the Bobcat, you have to hit the barrel release. The barrel pops forward and the round comes flying out. After about two hundred rounds, in simulated malfunctions, I found that the gun was so dirty that I had to use a fingernail to clear the case.
Caveats aside, the Bobcat was more reliable than I expected. Aside from the underpowered Federal Target loads, I had only two malfunctions—a CCI Stinger and a Winchester Western round that failed to eject once the gun got past the two hundred round mark in a range session.
I also had two Winchester rounds fail to fire, requiring a quick second-strike to set them off. So with high velocity and hyper velocity ammo, the Bobcat will run like a top, more than long enough to get you out of trouble.
The Bottom Line
Aside from the cool factor, it can be hard to justify owning a Beretta Bobcat. It is mechanically interesting and features some of Beretta’s best styling, but is it worth carrying for personal defense in light of the latest generation of pocket .380 pistols that pack more punch? Remember, there are very pocketable alternatives out there like Ruger LCP, which is lighter in weight than this eight-shot 22.
I will still entertain the Bobcat.
The .22 LR might be many things, but punishing to shoot is not it. The hottest .22 caliber solid rounds can penetrate deep enough to stop a threat with decent shot placement, yet the recoil and report would never startle a new or inexperienced shooter. I
have seen pocket .380s sold as the answer for many new gun owners who “just want something” for personal protection. Never mind that those little guns can be miserable to shoot—therefore you aren’t likely to practice.
Even with its flaws, the Bobcat’s tilt-up barrel is still a good design for those with limited hand strength or injuries. Even if you don’t fit into that category, the little Bobcat is infinitely easier than most larger caliber alternatives to shoot and to shoot well.
When negotiation and situational awareness fail, that pocket .22 is going to be better than that “just something” you dread pulling the trigger on.
Specifications: Beretta 21A Bobcat
Grips: Black plastic
Front Sight: Fixed blade
Rear Sight: Fixed, milled notch
Barrel Length: 2.4 inches
Construction: Aluminum frame, carbon steel slide
Finish: Enamel black aluminum, blued steel
Weight: 13.1 oz. loaded
Safeties: Half-cock, manual thumb safety
Ratings (out of five stars):
Style and Build Quality: * * * * *
The Bobcat oozes the classic Beretta 92 styling, but in a miniaturized pocket form. While my used gun was worn from previous use, fit was excellent. No burrs or noticeable machine marks.
Reliability: * * * *
You’re going to have problems with 22 rimfire occasionally, especially in a semiautomatic handgun. Outside of underpowered ammunition, though, the Bobcat did quite well and the double-action feature was helpful to set off a round that failed to fire on the first hit.
Accuracy: * * * * *
In the world of pocket guns, the Bobcat is a real shooter. The inherent lack of recoil of 22 LR, the beefiness of the grips, and a light single-action trigger makes the Bobcat easy to shoot.
Overall: * * * *
Though you might run into trouble with some ammunition, the Beretta Bobcat—a thoroughly 1980s design—is still relevant in some situations. At the very least, it’ll make you look cool for those EDC pocket dump photos.