shot breeze


Single-shot firearms are firearms that hold only a single round of ammunition, and must be reloaded after each shot. The history of firearms began with single-shot designs, and many centuries passed before multi-shot designs became commonplace. Single-shot designs are less complex than revolvers or magazine-fed firearms, and many single-shot designs are still produced by many manufacturers, in both cartridge- and non-cartridge varieties, from zip guns to the highest-quality shooting-match weapons.


Pre-cartridge era

Most firearms before the era of cartridges were single-shot and muzzleloading.

Cartridge era


Many of the early cartridge-fed rifles were single-shot designs, taking advantage of the strength and simplicity of single-shot actions. A good example is the "trapdoor" action used in early cartridge conversions of muzzleloading rifles. The conversion consisted of filing out (or later milling out) the rear of the barrel, and attaching a folding bolt, the "trapdoor", that flipped up and forwards to allow the cartridge to be loaded in the breech. Once loaded, the bolt was closed and latched in place, holding the round securely in place. The bolt contained a firing pin that used the existing percussion hammer, so no changes were required to the lock. After firing, the act of opening the bolt would partially extract the fired case from the chamber, allowing it to be removed. In 1866, the United States standardized on the .50-70 cartridge, chambered in trapdoor conversions of rifled muskets used in the American Civil War. The trapdoor mechanism continued with the adoption of the Springfield 1873 rifle, chambered in the new .45-70 cartridge. The Springfield stayed in service until 1893, when it was replaced by the Krag-Jørgensen bolt-action rifle.

After the advent of the repeating rifle, single-shot rifles were primarily used for target shooting matches in the United States starting about 1871, with the first official match shooting event, opening at Creedmoor, Long Island in 1872. From about 1872 until the U.S. entry into World War I (1917), target shooting with single-shot rifles was nearly as popular in America as golf is today. During that golden age of match shooting, the most popular target rifles were made by Ballard, Stevens, Remington, Maynard, Bullard, Farrow, and Winchester. Calibers used by some of these rifles during matches ranged from the .25/20, .32/40, .33, .35, .35-55, .38-55, .40-50, .40/70, and a host of .44's (.44/105, .44/77, etc.) for over-600-yard shooting at Creedmoor. But two calibers maintained consistency through out their tenure during the single-shot era: the .32-40 and the .38-55 calibers. The minimum standard in the beginning of the sport had been 200 yard firing from the standing position (off-hand position). No rifle scopes, no bench rests, no prone (laying down) positions, but shooting, as famed rifle barrel maker, Harry Melville Pope (1861-1950), once stated, "standing on his hind legs and shooting like a man." The .32-40 and .38-55 were able to buck the wind better at 200 yards, and not wear the rifleman out by heavy recoil, all while sustaining great accuracy. In the end though, it was the .32-40 single shot rifle that became the dean of match shooters, as the recoil from the .38-55 took its toll after hundreds of rounds had been fired during a match.

In 1885, Winchester introduced the argumentatively, greatest single-shot rifle ever produced, the model 1885 Winchester Single Shot Rifle. It was chambered for more caliber cartridges than any other Winchester rifle, the falling block action was so strong, that the Winchester Company used it to test fire newly created rifle cartridges. Although less than 200,000 thousand model 1885 Single Shots were built, it remained in production from 1885 to 1920. Two popular models were made, the so called Low Wall which showed an exposed hammer, firing less powerful cartridges, and the so called, High Wall which used stronger cartridges and the steel frame covered most of the firing hammer, when viewed from the sides. It is important to note, that although the public, and possibly many non-Winchester customers used the terms High Wall and Low Wall, Winchester always marketed the model 1885, as the Single Shot or WIN 1885 SS. In 2005, Winchester marketed a reproduction of their famed 1885 Single Shots, entitled the Limited Series. The currently popular cartridges of .17, .243 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield were offered with standard rubber recoil pads, straight butt plates, however four of those Limited Series Model 1885 SS's were subtitled Traditional Hunters. Those four rifles, in calibers .38-55, .405, .45-70 Government, and .45-90 BPCR (Black Powder Cartridge Rifle), were built in the style of the 19th century, with crescent steel butt plates and 19th century style folding tang sights, along with full octagon 28" long barrels. Their rifling, in the case of the .38-55, are the (Winchester) traditional one complete turn within eighteen inches (1-18") with rifle grooves at .376, and rifle lands measuring .368 of an inch. However, the .45-70 caliber is likely to be the most popular, as that cartridge is by far the most readily available cartridge to buy anywhere in the US. The ancient .32-40, and .38-55 caliber cartridges are seldom available commercially, and sportsmen using those calibers may have to resort to handloading.

Remington, Sharps, and Browning all made single-shot rifles using different actions, such as the rolling block and falling block. These rifles were originally chambered in large black powder cartridges, such as .50-110, and were used for hunting large game, often bison. Later production rifles would be in popular smokeless powder cartridges, such as the .30-40 Krag.

Single-shot rifles co-existed for some time with the lever action rifle, but they began to fade out of manufacture with the advent of reliable bolt action rifles.


Single-shot pistols were less common, as the revolver was a fairly mature technology by the advent of cartridge arms, and cartridge conversions existed for the common models of revolver. Versions did exist, which usually fell into two categories: single shot derringers, and target pistols, which were essentially single-shot rifle actions cut down to pistol size. The Remington Rolling Block is perhaps the most well known of these. As the era of single-shot rifles faded, so did these early single-shot pistols.

In 1907, J. Stevens Arms, a maker of inexpensive break-open single-shot rifles in pistol calibers, started making pistol versions of their rifles. This pistol was chambered in .22 Long Rifle and came with adjustable iron sights and grips designed for target shooting. These models were discontinued in 1939.


Single-barrel shotguns have always been popular as an inexpensive alternative to double-barreled shotguns. Single shotguns are almost always break-open designs, like the double-barreled designs, but far less expensive since they do not require the precise aligning of parallel barrels. Single shotguns are also lightest, which can be an advantage if they are carried hunting, though it does mean they have the most felt recoil. Single shotguns are not widely used in shotgun sports, as most events require the ability to quickly fire two successive shots, which would require reloading a single-shot design while a target is in the air.

Modern single-shots

Although non-cartridge single-shot firearms are still made in hobbyist contexts (for example, replicas of antique guns), this discussion focuses on newer designs employing cartridges.


The modern era of single-shot firearms is most visible in the realm of pistols. Remington introduced the single-shot bolt-action XP-100 pistol in 1963, which heralded the era of high-performance, high-velocity pistols. The .221 Fireball cartridge lived up to its name by reaching velocities of 2700 fps (823m/s) from a 10.5" (26.7cm) barrel. Essentially a shortened .222 Remington, the compact .221 Fireball delivered accuracy exceeding many rifles, out to ranges unheard of for other handguns.

Even bigger than the XP-100, the 1967 introduction of the Thompson Center Arms Contender pistol changed handgun sports forever. The Contender was a break-open design that allowed barrels to be changed by the shooter in minutes. Available in calibers from .22 Long Rifle up to .45-70, and in barrel lengths of 8, 10, and 14 inches (20, 25, and 35.5cm), the Contender could, in the right hands, handle any type of game, and delivered rifle-like accuracy to match the XP-100.

Many other manufacturers make single-shot pistols, most based on the bolt action rifle, with barrels generally ranging from 10 to 15 inches (25 to 38cm). Single-shots dominate handgun metallic silhouette shooting, and single-shots are the most common handguns used for hunting.

Single-shot pistols have sometimes found popularity among insurgents, resistance fighters, and street gangs. The mass-produced, low-cost Liberator pistol of World War II, which was manufactured and distributed by U.S. forces to Allied Resistance forces and Guerilla fighters as an assassination pistol, is the most common example of a mass-produced single-shot pistol. More than a million units were produced and distributed freely and many remain in private hands. A few varieties of zip guns could also be considered single shot pistols. In recent years these improvised firearms have become more common in the hands of criminals and insurgents, especially when manufactured firearms are difficult to acquire.



In 1966, Sturm, Ruger introduced their first true rifle. Their earlier long guns had been carbines, the first a .44 Magnum and the next the highly popular Ruger 10/22 in .22 Long Rifle. The rifle Ruger brought out, named simply "#1", (Ruger No. 1) uses a falling block action, and is available in a wide selection of calibers from .22 Hornet to .458 Winchester Magnum. The #1 has always been sought after by shooters who appreciate the compact size of a single shot rifle, and the falling block action cuts about four inches off the length of the rifle for a given barrel length. From 1972 to 1987, Ruger also made a less expensive version of the #1, the #3. The #3, which sold for about half the price of a #1, used a simplified, non-locking lever for the falling block action, and came with an uncheckered stock.


In 1985 Browning re-introduced the famous Winchester model 1885 single shot rifles in popular calibers, but under the Browning name. Although the Winchester Single Shot gained fame as a WINCHESTER, it was John Moses Browning, that designed the rifle, and sold the rights to Winchester in the early 1880s. The Browning Single Shot Rifle was in production from 1985 to 2001.


Remington has once again made their No. 1 Rolling Block rifles available through their custom shop.

New England Firearms (H&R)

One of the most common single-action rifles would be the New England Firearms inexpensive break-open rifles, which are built on their 12 gauge break-open shotgun actions. These were originally built by Harrington & Richardson starting in 1871 . H&R was later acquired by NEF, and both are now aprt of the Marlin Firearms family. Rifles are sold both under the NEF and the H&R names. These rifles are quite accurate, and often less than half the price of a bolt action rifle in the same caliber.


In 2005, Winchester re-marketed their legendary model 1885 Single-shot Rifle, under their Limited Series category. The modern calibers of .17 was offered in a Low Wall design, and the .243 and .30-06 were of the High Wall type. The most faithful of the reproductions are the Traditional Hunter Limited Series model 1885 Single Shots, as they have the original style steel crescent butt plates, and folding steel tang rear sights, with full length octagon barrels. The Traditional Hunters are chambered in the 19th century calibers of .45-90 BPCR, .45-70, .405, and .38-55. Test firing of some of these Winchesters showed that they are high quality in construction, using the latest technology and modern steel, they are stronger and safer than their 19th century predecessors; and accuracy from their factory (non-custom) barrels were exceptionally good; especially at 200 yards. However, their price will be reflected in that quality. The popularity of Cowboy action shooting has also had an impact on the availability of single-shot rifles, with many replicas of the old black powder rifles, particularly the Sharps, now being available.


Sharps rifles were a staple of the buffalo hunters in the late 1800s. Recently they have had a resurgence in popularity for hunting large game as well as historical firearms events and black powder cartridge (BPCR) competitions. Much of the current popularity is due to the popular film Quigley Down Under that featured a Sharps rifle.

See also


  • 1. Kelver, Gerald O: Schuetzen Rifles, History and Loadings. 1998. 3rd Edition, Pioneer Press.
  • 2. Kelver, Gerald O: MAJOR Ned H. Roberts and The Schuetzen Rifle. 1998. 3rd Edition, Pioneer Press.
  • 3. Campbell, John: The Winchester Single Shot. 1998. ISBN 0-91721-868X

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