The following information on the development of the black powder rifle in America comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
The American breechloading rifle in a practical form dates from the closing years of the Civil War. Previous to that time many models of breechloaders had been invented, and some were being manufactured in an experimental way, but they had attracted little attention. However, the needs of a great war could not fail to stimulate mechanical ingenuity to the utmost, and the result was that while many freak weapons were produced, others were of such sterling design that in a modified form they are in use to this day. At the close of the Rebellion certain regiments of our troops were armed with Henry, Sharps, and Spencer rifles, the two former making a great reputation for themselves as sporting weapons in the succeeding years.
The manufacture of the Spencer rifle was early discontinued and no description of that arm seems necessary here. The Sharps and the Henry, however, developed side by side, and for many years divided the popular approval of the American sporting public.
Neither of these weapons was ever used by the army to any great extent subsequent to the War, for the military service soon adopted a special weapon of its own, but big game hunters were quick to see the advantages of a breechloading mechanism with its fixed ammunition, and in a very few years such arms had entirely replaced every description of muzzleloader.
The Sharps was a single shot, the Henry a lever-action repeater. The former might be considered the parent of all the single-shot rifles made on the falling breech-block principle including the Ballard, Remington, Winchester single-shot, Stevens, Martini-Peabody, and several models made in England today.
There is no better single-shot action at the present time than the old Sharps-Borchardt hammerless with a falling breech-block, finger lever, kicking extractor, and block so shaped at the top that the cartridge would slide home with its own weight. After it was modeled the English war rifle and other European military arms in use up to the date of nitro powders. Why this arm was rejected by our own authorities in favor of the old Springfield .45 is one of the mysteries that only a board of military experts could explain.
The Sharps, together with its rivals, the Winchester, Ballard, and Remington single-shots, was instrumental in developing all our most powerful black powder cartridges. For two or three decades following the Civil War the single-shot was the preferred arm of hunters simply because cartridges of greater power than could be used in any repeating rifle of the time were adapted to it.
Powerful long range and express ammunition was manufactured for these rifles, ammunition of a kind now all but obsolete. The .44-100-520 Sharps and the .45-100-550 Sharps made long distance sharpshooting records that can scarcely be excelled today, besides being used effectively upon the buffalo and grizzly bear. These cartridges were loaded with both patched and lubricated bullets, the former being preferred for match shooting. Later the Winchester Company remodeled the .45-100, loading it with more powder and less lead. It then showed a very flat trajectory for a black powder rifle and plenty of killing power, but was never so well liked as the old long range cartridges owing to excessive fouling and lack of accuracy for any great number of shots.
The Henry rifle was the progenitor of our present lever-action repeaters the Winchester, Marlin, Savage, Stevens, and some other makes like the Colt and Bullard, now discontinued. In the beginning repeating rifles used rim fire ammunition of very moderate power and range, but gradually these arms were chambered for center fire cartridges of greater strength, and with such charges they began to replace the single-shot for big game shooting. At the time when nitro powder began to supersede the black some very fine black powder cartridges were made for these rifles, and the arms were thought to be as good as anything that would ever be required for big game. However, the charcoal powders have seen their day, and possibly the style of rifle that used them will presently disappear.
The single-shot and lever-action repeaters will be treated more at length under their proper heading, for they still retain all their old time popularity for certain purposes. Some of the models, like the Sharps, Ballard, Remington, Maynard, Springfield, .45, Bullard, and Colts have become obsolete, however, and will require little further mention. The “Old” Springfield, by the way, was an arm differing in mechanism from anything that preceded or followed it, a weapon capable of splendid service, as witness many “good” Indians buried all over the Western plains. It was replaced by the Krag-Jorgensen, previous to the Spanish-American war, though the National Guard were still armed with it up to the beginning of this century.
Another black powder rifle that came into existence during the decades between 1880 and 1900 was the pump-action repeater. As a black powder rifle, using heavy hunting cartridges, it was never very well liked, but with miniature ammunition the model has always enjoyed a high degree of popularity.
Nitro powder and the military organizations of the world are responsible for the appearance of the bolt-action repeating rifle which made its debut in the early nineties. Military exigencies demanded, first, a repeating rifle in place of the single shot once in common use; next, a reduction in caliber with the consequent lessened weight of ammunition; third, a far higher velocity and flatter trajectory than was possible with black powder.
The result was a general rearming of civilized nations with the bolt-action, .30 caliber repeater. This arm fought the Russo-Japanese war and has met every military requirement, but is not likely to see service again in a contest of such magnitude. Our own weapon of war, the New Springfield, belongs to this type of arm, and its good qualities and defects as a hunting rifle will be mentioned in their proper places.
The heavy, double express rifle is the preferred arm of big game hunters in Asia and Africa. Since an increasing number of American sportsmen are now shooting in those countries this weapon is entitled to a due amount of space in a volume devoted to sporting arms, even though few of them are built in America or used here. The double rifle is the most powerful hunting arm made.
Three barrel guns, consisting of two shotgun tubes with a rifle barrel lying beneath, are well adapted to hunting purposes under certain conditions, as where small game abounds together with large game of a non-dangerous character. The use of this gun has always been limited with us, however, and they are now in less demand than formerly. The same can be said of the gun and rifle combination, one rifle and one shotgun barrel, and of the double barrels which are rifled only at the muzzle, permitting the shooting of both loose shot and ball from one tube.
The decade between 1900 and 1910 must be credited with the most modern type of rifle, and the one that bids fair to replace all others in course of time—the automatic or self-loader. Of these we have three models, all differing essentially in mechanical principle but every one a weapon of merit. All the gun inventive genius of the world is now turned to the perfecting of an automatic rifle in which both the soldier and the sportsman are equally interested. At present self-loading arms are not thought to be simple enough in mechanism to withstand the exacting demands of hard campaigning, but the nations of the world are waiting for them.
Just now America leads in automatic firearms, but what a year will bring forth no one can tell. Germany is destined, probably, to take a leading part in the development of military selfloading rifles.