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.
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.
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.
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.