The following information on single shot rifles comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
The single shot rifle has by no means outlived its usefulness. I think it a safe statement to say that as many cartridges are now fired from single shot rifles as from all other models combined. For certain purposes, as where there is no necessity for rapidity of fire, the single shot can never be excelled by any repeater. Its days as a military arm are over, and few American hunters would carry it to the woods, but after all is said, not many bullets in each million fired are directed at a man or animal. From which it may be inferred that the great virtue of single shot rifles lies in their furthering the admirable American propensity for shooting at some kind of an inanimate mark.
The single rifle accomplished its share of game killing in times gone by. The Remington and Sharps “needle guns” were the preferred weapons of the buffalo hunters and mountain men of the West. Renowned hunters like Paul du Chaillieu and Sir Samuel Baker staked their lives on a single huge, round bullet of four or eight bore. Even now the single shot will usually be found in the outfit of a big game hunter of Asia or Africa. But for us, we have relegated it to the art of scientific or miscellaneous rifle practice.
Though a number of makes of once highly esteemed single-shot rifles have been discontinued, it is still manufactured in this country and Europe in a large variety of styles. We have the falling breech block and finger lever; the drop down barrel, lug bolted and actuated by top or side lever, also the military bolt action, besides a miscellaneous lot of bolting mechanisms chiefly found on cheap imported arms.
The English have adopted the American finger lever and falling breech block, also a modification of the old Sharps in their Martini-Peabody, yet the shotgun style of breech fastening, a top lever and drop-down barrel, has always been the most popular with them. They have both black and nitro powder rifles with this fastening for the most powerful cartridges that have ever been used in shoulder guns. Lug bolted English rifles have been made in all calibers up to a four bore shooting sixteen drams of powder and a bullet weighing over eighteen hundred grains. Nevertheless, despite their partiality for the shotgun mechanism in the rifle, they have found it wise to adapt the breech block to their high pressure cordite weapons.
Our riflemen have never been very friendly to the lug bolt and drop-down barrel, though a number of such arms were made in this country at one time. The trouble with this style of rifle is that the barrel will loosen with wear, and then, if the sight is on the tang, inaccurate shooting must follow. Anyway no man would care to shoot a shaky rifle in these days of high pressure charges.
While other mechanisms, like the military breech bolt, have merit for use on a single shot, nevertheless the writer is convinced that all single shot rifles should be made with the falling breech block. This action has all the merit of every other, and many good points which none of the rest possess. The heavy breech block of solid steel, wedging in behind the cartridge, is absolutely indestructible, and no accident with it is possible except actually splitting open the frame of the gun. Such a falling block mechanism as that of the Sharps, Winchester single shot, or that used by Jeffery and Greener in England should bear double the bursting strain of the best nickel steel rifle barrel ever made. In fact, one frame with its locking block can be expected to outwear a dozen barrels,—might be considered, in truth, indestructible unless allowed to rust out.
The further advantages of the falling breech block rifle is that the barrel can be made either rigid or take-down, the one being as sound and serviceable as the other. The beauty of the takedown lies in the facility with which barrels can be made to interchange on one action. The .32-40, .38-55, and other barrels having like size of cartridge head can all be used on one frame. The Stevens people even made a rim fire .22 to interchange with their center fire barrels.
The single shot is the one arm really adapted to such refinements of rifle manipulation as set-triggers, telescope and other fine rifle sights, variations in powder and lead, bullets seated ahead of shell from breech or muzzle, and other contrivances tending to the greatest accuracy both of sighting and bullet flight.
As a consequence, except in military work, the single shot is the chosen arm of the match shooter, whether his work is accomplished off-hand or at rest, at long or short range. Even in military match shooting there is little doubt but that the single shot would be the preferred arm if Government regulations did not forbid it. In the old days of black powder and big bores no repeater could hold its own with the single shot, and I see no reason to believe that they could today, notwithstanding our New Springfield has been pronounced the most accurate long range rifle in existence.
There are more reasons for the preference accorded the single shot by match shooters than need be dwelt upon here. Among them is a closer fitting shell chamber which insures the bullet centering in the bore. Additionally this style of rifle permits a wide variation in barrel lengths and weights. As a rule the smokeless powder repeater has a light barrel limited in length. On the other hand, the single shot can be had with number one to number five barrels, in length from twenty-four to thirty-four inches varying in weight from three to ten pounds. For target shooting, either at gallery distance or two hundred yards, no other rifle than the single shot receives much consideration.
Single shot rifles are made in many styles from the two and a half pound pocket rifle to the sixteen pound Schuetzen gun. I have seen target rifles the naked barrel of which weighed twelve pounds. In Europe this style of arm is chambered for all the heaviest hunting cartridges, including the .600 bore cordite intended exclusively for elephants and weighing nearly twenty pounds. The favorite gallery rifle tips the scale between nine and twelve pounds, the sharpshooter’s piece from eleven to fifteen, the small game hunter’s arm from five to eight.
Stocks can be had of every description, straight grip, pistol grip, rifle butt, shotgun butt, Swiss butt, Schuetzen butt, and cheek pieces of different shapes and designs. Many of the stocks are handmade to satisfy individual fancies and demands. Even the style of the lever is varied to suit the taste; it may be the ordinary curved finger lever, a loop lever, such as repeating rifles have, or some one of the many Schuetzen levers.
Of all gun men the match shooter has the largest stock of whims and cranky notions; the average sharpshooter will not be satisfied with anything a factory can turn out, but must exert his individual ingenuity in finishing up his rifle. A visit to a rifle range will demonstrate that hardly any two of the participants will be satisfied with even the same description of butt-plate.
The single shot rifle must always be the chosen arm of the rifle crank, the man who shoots a great deal and who is fond of experimenting with gun and ammunition, perhaps firing a thousand shots at various targets to one at a living object.
While the single shot rifles have been chambered for nearly every cartridge that has ever been built, yet in this country we might now safely limit the arm to calibers from .38-55 down to .22 short. The most appreciated sizes will be the cheap rim fires, .22 and .25, and such center fires as can be readily and cheaply reloaded, like the .38-55, .32-40, .28-30, .25-25, .25-21, and .25-20.
The center fire cartridges named can be charged with either black, semi-smokeless, or smokeless powder, with bullets of soft lead or metal patch. Barrels can be obtained of the ordinary tensile strength or of nickel steel, guaranteed to withstand heavy pressure and high velocities. Altogether the “student” of rifle shooting shows his wisdom in a partiality for the single shot rifle.