The single-shot rifle never really had its own era, aside from enjoying a brief moment in the sun just as the metallic cartridge came into being. For a short time, militaries used the single-shot and sportsmen found specific uses for it, but it was quickly eclipsed by the lever action and then lowered into obscurity by the bolt action.
While the single-shot never exactly dominated the market, it never really goes away, either. Since the end of the Civil War until the present day, there have been at least two or three single-shot rifles in production with varying levels of popularity. You can still find some of the older models on the used market (Martinis, Trapdoor Springfields and Remington Rolling Blocks). But most are only of interest to collectors. Several high-end and rather expensive single-shot rifles are currently available from companies like Blaser, Dakota Arms, Sokora and Searcy. All of whom would be happy to sell you a gun for a price that would normally be the down payment on a modest sized house. Occasionally revived models offered by Winchester & Browning, various Italian reproductions and Sharps rifles out of Big Timber, Montana round out the high-end single-shot field.
Most of the single-shot rifles on the market today have limited usefulness as hunting or sporting weapons due to prohibitive cost, being antiquated or requiring special ammunition. However, there are a few of these single-shots, which are useful to the average shooter available today. If you think a single-shot rifle is something you’d be interested in, one of the following guns is an excellent way to get your feet wet without ruining a collector’s item or missing a mortgage payment.
Ruger’s Number One
Ruger’s single-shot rifle, the Number One, is the product of Bill Ruger’s fabled ability to buck market trends and still come out on top. The design of the Number One mimics the old British Jeffery rifle with a few changes, which make it more reliable and durable than the original. The Number One is a falling-block action, which means that it is actuated by a lever on the bottom of the gun. This lever raises or lowers a block of steel that acts as the breech face. The firing pin assembly and hammer are both concealed inside the falling block. When the block is lowered, a cartridge can be inserted into the rifle and then the block is raised to bring the gun into battery. Fired cases are ejected automatically when the block is lowered.
The falling block design of the Number One gives the rifle added utility in several areas. For starters, the Ruger Number One can be chambered at the factory or rebarreled by a gunsmith to fire almost any cartridge. Head size or case length is of little concern with a falling block action; because cartridges do not sit inside of it so much as pass through it. Over the years, Number Ones have been chambered in everything from tiny .17 caliber wildcats to giant Nitro Express cartridges.
The Number One also offers utility in terms of maximum case pressures. The falling block action of the Number One is extremely strong and is capable of handling the standard pressures of hot modern cartridges. No one, Ruger included, would ever suggest purposely overloading a Number One, but the added strength does make it possible to get unheard of performance out cartridges that typically run at low pressures. The 45-70, 9.3 X 74R, .22 Hornet and 450-400 Nitro have all had new life breathed into them by the Number One.
The final interesting characteristic of the Number One is that longer barrels can be used with its short action while maintaining a shorter overall length. Since the action is only about two-inches long, a Number One with a 26-inch barrel is actually shorter than a bolt gun with a 24-inch barrel. This added barrel length, without increasing size or affecting handling characteristics, can result in a rather impressive increase in velocity with some cartridges. Combining strength, flexibility and the possibility of increased performance, the Number One is intriguing to many shooters.
While the Number One is both a mechanically and visually impressive firearm, it does suffer from a few foibles. Number Ones will sometimes string shots vertically (in some cases as much as six-inches over the course of a five shot group). However, this is a trait common to many rifles with two-piece stocks. Elmer Keith first pointed this problem out in the late 1960’s and many gunsmiths have developed their own proprietary solutions for it over the years. Not all Number Ones string their shots, but some will, so the prospective buyer should keep that in mind.
The second issue with the Number One is that many will begin to misfire as time passes. However, you can easily remedy this by having a competent gunsmith replace the springs and other parts inside the block. Keep in mind it is a rather vexing problem and is an added cost to consider.
The final consideration with the Number One is the initial cost. The current listed MSRP for a Ruger Number One is $1349, and even models on the used market are becoming hard to find for less than $1000. A rifle like the Number One is destined to be plagued by the issues listed above. However, the vast majority of these rifles do not bear these issues, thanks to Ruger’s quality control and attention to detail. Just about any company can make a good bolt action, but Ruger stands alone in being able to consistently produce a reliable, popular falling block.
Thompson Center Encore
The T/C Encore is a break-open action rifle very similar to T/C’s very successful Contender pistols. A few minor changes have been made to the action to make it more user-friendly and allow it to accept larger cartridges, which essentially are the same thing. The rifle is opened using a lever on the bottom of the gun. A cartridge is inserted into the chamber and the action is closed. The rifle’s exposed hammer can then be cocked and the rifle fired. Aside from the exposed hammer, the rifle is similar in operation to just about any break-open shotgun. Thompson Center does a very nice job putting these rifles together, avoiding the cheap look and feel that most break-open rifles exhibit.
The main point of interest to most people thinking about buying an Encore is the rifle’s ability to be easily converted to other calibers. With most rifles if you want three different chamberings you buy three rifles. With the Encore, you buy a rifle and have the option of choosing other barrels and chamberings as you go. T/C sells alternate barrels equipped with forearm that you can easily install on your Encore action. Sights or scopes are mounted on the barrel of this firearm so that, in theory, once it is sighted in, no readjustment should be needed when switching calibers. To sweeten the pot T/C offers the Encore in just about every chambering imaginable, running from .22 Hornet up to 416 Rigby with dozens of wildcat cartridges included for good measure. The Encore is probably available chambered for more cartridges than any other rifle that has come before it.
The utility of a rifle that can be easily converted between calibers appeals to many people. If you want to go varmint hunting one week and then chase after Kodiaks the next, the Encore can fulfill both roles easily. With a caliber-convertible rifle, all of the controls are right where you left them and there is no need to relearn how to use the rifle from hunt to hunt. If you are thinking you would rather have a big pile of barrels around (you can fit a lot of them in one gun safe), rather than a big pile of rifles, the Encore is a good option.
Overall, the Encore is a very impressive rifle but it does occasionally give people some trouble. Most of the issues circle around the fact that owners can convert the rifle into anything that strikes their fancy. Unfortunately, these combinations sometimes prove to be more than the design can handle. Hanging long heavy barrels on the Encore seems to be a bad idea. The added weight and leverage causes excessive wear on the pins that join the barrel to the action. This brings about poor accuracy and possible misfires over time. It is also important to bear in mind that the Encore is a very light rifle, which is great in the field, but can make for a bit of a handful on the bench. Chambered for any of the big, high velocity magnums the Encore is very frisky. If you don’t mind recoil this isn’t a concern, but if you’re the least bit sensitive, your choice of chambering should be made accordingly.
Price is also a hang up with the Encore. With starting prices over $700 and additional barrels running in the neighborhood of $250, it is not hard to sink a fair chunk of change into this gun. If you want the Encore to be six different rifles in one, the justification should be something like improving the consistency of your shooting technique, because it is hard to say if cost-savings will ever pan out.
The final truly popular single-shot rifle on the market today is Harrington & Richardson’s Handi-Rifle. The rifle is simply H&R’s well-known shotgun action with a rifle barrel attached. It is loaded by pressing down on a lever at the top of the receiver to open the action, inserting a round into the barrel and then closing the action. An external hammer is cocked to fire the rifle and the spent shell is ejected next time the action is opened. This design is simple and very cost effective to produce.
Rarely what you would call pretty, the Handi-Rifle is geared towards that portion of the market that prefers function over form and high value dollar-for-dollar. The Handi-Rifle cannot be had in as many chamberings as other single-shot rifles on the market. But it is available in about a dozen of the normal selections and even a few oddities, like 500 S&W. You can also purchase barrels separately for the Handi-Rifle, as well as factory-fit to an action, but with an MSRP of just over $300. You can also find it for even lower costs on the used market. Most people simply opt to buy multiple Handi-Rifles if their first one pleases.
The final item that makes the Handi-Rifle interesting is that it seems to have inspired knockoffs. Low cost guns like the Handi-Rifle are rarely cloned, and never while they’re still in production. However, the Handi-Rifle’s popularity has caused a few companies like Rossi to compete in the same niche. These clones are usually priced in the same range, but never seem to offer the same time tested user-friendliness that H&R’s gun does.
It is easy to nitpick the Handi-Rifle in areas such as fit and finish, but any disparaging remarks can be offset by the fact that it really is the only hunting rifle in its price class.
H&R’s rifle can and does wear out a little more quickly than other single-shot or bolt-action guns. But, that being said, it can still give many years of good service to the hunter or shooter as long as the number of rounds is kept within reason and the rifle is not abused.
The Handi-Rifle’s final weak point is in the area of accuracy. Handi-Rifles will rarely give the kind of needle threading accuracy some shooters hope for; 1.5-2 inch groups are pretty standard with the Handi-Rifle and there is little that can be done to improve this. The H&R will never be a sniper rifle, but it is more than accurate enough for big game hunting and short-range varminting.
A standout in the current market, the Handi-Rifle is perfect for new hunters, experienced hunters who want to try a new cartridge without being bogged down in costs or anyone who just likes getting a good deal. Simple, sturdy and dependable, the Handi-Rifle might be the best value that has come around in a long while.