August 12, 2019
The annual SHOT Show, with its torrent of new products, can be a lot of fun. Back in the 1990s, it seemed that every SHOT Show brought announcements of another company starting up to reproduce great rifles from the past, such as the Sharps and the Ballard.
At that time, Cowboy Action and long-range blackpowder shooting were getting the headlines, so it was natural gunmakers would cater to that demand. Today, the hot areas in shooting are quasi-military and sniping at ultra-ranges. Announcements of new bolt-on plastic parts don’t hold much allure for me, nor does a 34mm riflescope that talks to my iPhone and works with two other gadgets to communicate with weather satellites.
Over many years, I have discovered that, while something new can be fascinating, something very old—but new to you—can be twice as intriguing. And it generally has the added attraction that there are no incomprehensible instructions to read, even if you were willing to try.
Old single-shot rifles have fascinated me for the better part of 20 years. Like most of us of a certain age, I got my start with a single-shot .22 rimfire and never really appreciated its virtues until many decades later.
Last fall, on an impulse, I bid on a Stevens Schützen rifle at an auction and landed it. It was chambered for .25-20 Single Shot and was probably made around 1910. Except for the sights, which were Italian-made replacements, it looked original, all the way from its semi-octagonal barrel to its two-pronged Schützen buttplate. It’s a Model 47 built on the Stevens 44½ action. Three months later, I bought another—this one a Model 51 on the older No. 44 action but with every Schützen feature and chambered for the great, classic .32-40. This rifle dated from about 1901.
It’s surprising that both rifles survived the varmint-rifle mania of the 1930s, when such guns were routinely torn apart for their actions. But they did, and I had high hopes for both. Having read about astonishing feats of marksmanship from the early 1900s (such as C.W. Rowland’s 0.721-inch, 10-shot group at 200 yards, with a Ballard-Pope .32-40), I was ready to be astounded.
Alas, there was more to Rowland’s accomplishment than merely having a fine rifle and a good scope. Both of my rifles required some attention from an expert before I could even start to develop loads. The front sights were loose in their dovetails, so I replaced them with Lee Shaver’s new globe sight. I put a Shaver tang sight on the .25-20 SS but kept the original Stevens sight on the .32-40.
It took considerable juggling, including shimming the bases, to align them enough to make them workable at 100 yards. The detachable barrels on both required attention. In one case, the large setscrew was off-center, while the .32-40’s barrel was frozen on with decades of oil that had turned to varnish. One crosspin holding the trigger group on the .32-40 was snapped off and needed replacing, and of course, the entire action was full of dried gunk.
The bores were good on both but clogged with lead and other residue of a century of neglect. As I write this, having had the .25-20 SS for four months and the .32-40 for one, they are both to the point where I can start seriously experimenting with bullet weights and hardness, different powders, and methods of loading.
I don’t expect to come close to Rowland’s record group, which stood for almost 50 years before it was broken by a hotshot benchrest shooter in the 1950s. A cluster of bullets in the 10-ring, off sandbags, will suffice.
Meanwhile, the 2019 SHOT Show has come and gone. You can read about many of the newest guns throughout this issue of Shooting Times. I’m quite happy to say that instead of attending the show, I was working on my new (to me, at least) Schützen rifles, getting them ready for the range.