other By: Terry Weiland | May, 20
When its era effectively ended in 1917, it sank almost without a trace. Many of its artifacts were broken up like outdated warships in the breaker’s yard, and it was not until almost a century later that shooters returned to study the old single shots and really appreciate how extraordinary they were.
With such sweeping statements there are always exceptions, and there certainly are exceptions to these. The fire of interest may have been almost extinguished among the shooting public, but a few men kept it glowing, waiting for more appreciative times. John T. Amber, long-time editor of Gun Digest, was one of these; Ned Roberts, rifleman and writer, was another. And there was Handloader’s own Ken Waters, who tookRoberts’s unfinished manuscript and produced The Breech-Loading Single-Shot Rifle.
If there is one manufacturer’s name that does stand out above the others, it is Harry M. Pope, a barrel maker who became famous not just because of the quality of his barrels, which were superb, but because of his friendship with writer Lucian Cary. Cary, shooting editor of True Magazine, was a gun aficionado who shot anything and everything and wrote about it extremely well.
Cary made his living writing for the New York slicks in the 1930s and 1940s and was a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post. This was an era when the mainstream media respected and even admired shooters and shooting, and the Post published his series of short stories about a fictional barrel maker, J.M. Pyne, modeled on his friend Pope. Through the fictional Pyne, Cary made Harry Pope famous even outside shooting circles.
As such, Harry Pope – through the writing of Cary, Roberts and Phil Sharpe – provides a conduit into the world of single-shot target rifles for the modern enthusiast who wants to learn more about it but knows not where to start. Pope may or may not have been the greatest barrel maker in America, but he outlived his rivals, surviving into the modern era and became the best-known. Other prominent barrel makers included Schalk, Schoyen, Peterson and Zischang. Almost all were of German or Nordic origin. There was a reason for this.
Although the great age of American single shots began, most famously, with the Sharps rifles, post-Civil War, it lasted only until about 1890. Twenty-five years is a remarkably short span, but by 1895 the single shot for hunting had been largely displaced by lever actions. Single-shot competition continued beyond that because, for target work, nothing could match them. It finally died in 1917 amid a welter of anti-German feeling stemming from the Great War. This effectively ended an American-German shooting connection that went back more than a century to the German gunmakers of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania.
After the Civil War, when the breechloading cartridge rifle came into general use, many more craftsmen immigrated here from Germany, bringing with them not only their gunmaking skills but also a taste for that central European shooting passion, schützen
Out of all this grew the great American single-shot rifles: Ballard, Maynard, Bullard, Sharps, Frank Wesson, Farrow, Peabody and Stevens. The big companies had their own designs, including the Remington rolling block and Winchester 1885 High Wall. Marlin, a stiff competitor to Winchester in the lever field, acquired Ballard in 1875 and manufactured those actions for 15 years. Savage Arms later acquired Stevens.
With such a wide range of shooting activities, including everything from .22 Short at 25 yards to .450 3¼ inch at 1,200, it is no wonder it spawned a variety of actions, barrels, rifle styles, sights, target disciplines and even shooting positions that defy any attempt to sum them all up in one brief article. Entire books have been devoted to one or the other aspect of this field, which in its time burned brightly on the shooting ranges down the East Coast and in the sporting pages of the New York Times.
We may think, compared to our own time of bewildering technological change, that life in days past was leisurely, peaceful and predictable. That was never true in the late Victorian era and certainly not in the field of single-shot target shooting. The years between 1870 and 1895 saw a dizzying procession of new rifles, new cartridges and ever-changing tastes and trends.
As competition among riflemakers became more intense, there arose a desire to see which rifles were the most intrinsically accurate, eliminating the human element. A separate form of competition, known as “elbows and muzzle rest,” came into being. This was the ancestor of modern benchrest shooting, attempting to remove any variables related to shooters’ shivers and shakes, and make the contest purely between the rifles themselves.
Single-shot rifles employed many different action styles, but the two dominant ones were the break-action (or “tip up”) and the falling block.
Although some accounts today suggest otherwise, breechloading rifles and self-contained centerfire cartridges did not magically spring into being, completely developed and perfected. Between the muzzleloading caplock rifles of 1840 and the breechloading centerfires of 1870 lay many false starts, dead ends and inconclusive developments in both guns and ammunition.
The essential problems facing designers of breechloading rifles were the requirements to seat the cartridge readily, ensure a gas-proof seal and extract the empty case. With black-powder fouling, seating and extraction could be especially difficult. Military single shots used a variety of breech-closing methods, including the Enfield’s hinged block, the Werndl’s rotating block and the Springfield’s trapdoor, but these were mostly stop-gaps as designers searched for the ideal combination.
For sporting purposes, it was natural to adapt the new break-action principle, which originated in France and was perfected in England in the 1850s. It was versatile and relatively straightforward and became a mainstay of less expensive rifles for the next century. American examples of the tip-up action include the Frank Wesson and the Maynard. It was not, however, ideal for target use. Riflemen then began concentrating on the falling block, originated and made famous by the Sharps. It offered several advantages over other breech-closing designs. Supported by solid walls of steel on each side, the falling block was extremely strong. The face could be beveled in order to cam the cartridge into the chamber if it was slightly oversized or if the chamber was fouled, and good extractors could be fitted.
One name that is lesser known today but certainly has a valid claim to the title “greatest” is the Peabody, an action that began as an external hammer design, underwent various modifications and remained in production in one form or another for more than 100 years. It is best known today as the Martini.
The Peabody employed a breechblock that was hinged at the rear and pivoted up and down. As it moved into the locked position, it wedged into place front and back, giving it extraordinary strength. The action was modified by Friedrich von Martini, a Swiss, into a hammerless design. This became the British service rifle, the Martini-Henry (using a Henry-rifled barrel). In the U.S., as manufactured by the Providence Tool Co. of Providence, Rhode Island, it was known as the Peabody-Martini.
Over the years, this action would be scaled down to become the Martini .22 target rifle, as made by Greener, B.S.A. and others, right up to the 1960s. It would be used in Switzerland as the basis for the renowned Hammerli target pistols and in the U.S. by Mossberg in the single-shot Model L .22 rifle.
No other American single shot compiled such a record as a military, target and hunting rifle as the Peabody-Martini-Henry-BSA-Hammerli. It was truly a great achievement and deserves more recognition than it receives.
By the end of the era, the American single-shot target rifle was epitomized by the Ballard with a Pope barrel, chambered for the .32-40 cartridge, used in offhand shooting at 200 yards, but such competition died in the face of many changes. One was the adoption of the Springfield bolt-action rifle by the military. Another was the Great War of 1914-18, which not only caused massive changes among gunmakers, with many old designs dropped when civilian production was resumed, but also sparked serious anti-German sentiments. This resulted in the eclipse of the schützen clubs, with their overtly German character.
The rifles themselves were hung on walls, parked in closets and generally ignored. In the 1930s, with the rise in interest in high-velocity varmint cartridges, many of the old single shots were torn apart and the actions used to build super-accurate varminters. Others simply rusted away.
When interest in single-shot shooting revived in the 1990s, there were attempts to put some of the old designs back into production. The most notable success was the Sharps, with several companies attempting it. Beginning in 1978, Browning produced versions of the high wall, but it was an expensive, limited-edition product with a small circle of devotees. At least two companies have attempted to re-create the Ballard, always as expensive custom rifles, and one South Dakota gunsmith produced a custom single shot based on the Farrow, but in tiny numbers.
Although there was talk – and there’s always talk – no serious attempt was made to re-create the Bullard, Maynard, F. Wesson or Stevens. Fine though they were, each one had its weaknesses. Making them again would be too expensive for a market that was simply too small. Still, they represent a fascinating field of study for anyone interested in the history of rifles, and one where there is always something surprising waiting just around the corner.
* * *
and Further Reading
Given the wide-ranging field and limited numbers of rifles to be found, the best way to learn about the old single shots is to read about them. The following list is not complete, since new books are always appearing on specialized subjects, often in limited print runs. These, however, form a good basic reference library.
• Single-Shot Rifles, by James J. Grant, 1947
• More Single-Shot Rifles, by James J. Grant, 1959
• Still More Single-Shot Rifles, by James J. Grant, 1979
• Single Shot Rifles and Actions, by Frank de Haas. Gun Digest Books, 1969
• The Breech-Loading Single-Shot Rifle, Ned Roberts and Kenneth L.Waters. Wolfe Publishing, 1987
Lucian Cary’s magazine work is found in several anthologies. The best collection of the J.M. Pyne short stories was compiled by Guy Lautard in The J.M. Pyne Stories and Other Selected Writings of Lucian Cary. Cary also produced a series of firearms annuals in the 1950s (Lucian Cary on Guns) that contains assorted articles on single shots.
A complete Gun Digest collection will provide all manner of articles on single shots, cartridges, loading and related subjects, especially during John Amber’s tenure as editor (1950-1980).
The best way to locate out-of-print and rare titles is through Internet booksellers, such as Abe Books and Amazon.