November 27, 2019
Way back in 1953, Gun Digest asked Col. Townsend Whelen to reflect on his years with single-shot rifles. He summed up with these words:
“The highly efficient bolt action is but a remodeled musket…the lever action a product of America’s unrivalled quantity-production industry…but the single shot, constructed on fine and beautiful lines by a master riflemaker, is a gentleman’s piece.”
At that time, the single-shot rifle was all but dead. It was the coming age of high velocity and ever-increasing firepower, with many predicting that even the bolts and levers would soon be shouldered aside by semiautos.
Like many predictions, those came to pass, sort of, but not right away, and never completely. Fourteen years later, Ruger unveiled its No. 1 single shot to quizzical looks (from some writers) and cheers (from many riflemen), and it has stayed in the Ruger lineup to this day. A new No. 1 with a composite stock and stainless-steel barreled action, chambered for some whiz-bang rimless cartridge, is not exactly what Colonel Whelen had in mind, but it’s still a lot closer to it than any AR ever made.
For reasons many and varied, there remains a coterie of riflemen (not all of them gentlemen, nor claiming to be) that consider the single-shot rifle both practically and æsthetically all they need or want. Now how, you might ask, can that be? It’s simple: In all the world, and including such masterpieces as a Holland “Royal,” there is no rifle more fun to carry and shoot than a vintage American single shot.
Of them all, my candidate for the most fun is the old Winchester Low Wall with original iron sights; straight grip; and longish, heavyish barrel chambered for some friendly old round like the .25-20 or .32-20. There is nothing like a morning wandering the creek bottoms with a Low Wall, watching for…well, just about anything shootable. Squirrels? (They make a nice stew.) Possums? (Very edible.) Raccoons? (Sure, if they’re a problem.)
For that matter, though, you don’t need to see any game, or even squeeze the trigger except on a stray tin can or plastic bottle or a white rock on the far bank. In your mind, you can be something as exotic as a mountain man after a grizzly or as unexotic as the small boy you used to be, on the prowl with your first rifle. There is always an element of fantasizing in any shooting we do—at least there is in my case—and Colonel Whelen pointed out that one of the enduring attractions of the single-shot rifle was its romantic associations, from buffalo runners in Kansas to the lone mountain man to, for the more cosmopolitan, Frederick Selous in Africa.
Such daydreams aside, my personal affection for the single-shot rifle stems from the sheer animal pleasure of using a silky, uncomplicated mechanism, crafted by a master, built to do a specific job and do it well. Some single shots, notably the old German Schützen rifles, make the most elaborate Swiss cuckoo clock look restrained, but at the other end of the spectrum lies the old Winchester Low Wall.
The Winchester single-shot rifle in its various iterations, designed by John M. Browning and originally produced by Winchester from 1885 to 1920, is reputed to be the most common of the old rifles and is not held in the reverence afforded to the Sharps or the Ballard. It’s notable, however, that the last competition rifle Harry Pope built for himself was based on a Winchester High Wall. That’s a pretty good recommendation.
During the mania for high-velocity varmint rifles in the 1930s, many Winchester High Wall rifles were cannibalized for their actions, but the Low Wall did not lend itself to high pressures. As a result, there seems to be a lot of them around, many chambered for interesting and fun-to-shoot cartridges like the .25-20. Personally, I can’t think of a better rifle with which to start off a kid in handloading. But then, nor can I think of a better rifle if you want to reconnect with the kid you once were, when creek bottoms were freely accessible and the odd gunshot did not summon the police.
Will it make you a gentleman? Probably not. But we can pretend about that, too.