When Col. Townsend Whelen, one of the 20th century’s most illustrious firearms authorities, wrote, “Only accurate rifles are interesting,” he might very well have been referring to the 1885 High Wall. Indeed, the High Wall was at the height of its prowess during Whelen’s early career.
In fact, not only was this Browning-designed single-shot accurate—having garnered numerous trophies at long-range matches that included the 800-yard Creedmoor competitions—it was versatile, being chambered for 65 calibers, and in 1892 it became the first rifle to make the transition from blackpowder to smokeless.
In spite of its 1885 nomenclature, the High Wall was originally dubbed the 1878 Single Shot by John Browning and his brother Ed, both of whom patented their falling block, exposed-hammer rifle that year. They built about 600 guns in their Morgan, Utah, shop and sold them to an enthusiastic group of hunters, frontiersmen and target shooters.
Eventually the Browning brothers’ rifle caught the attention of T.G. Bennett, Oliver Winchester’s brother-in-law and vice president of Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
Bennett immediately grasped the uniqueness of the Model 1878 and paid the Browning brothers $8,000 for their patent and single-shot inventory. But as good as the Model 1878 was, Winchester’s engineers made it better. The stock and receiver were modified into a more graceful design, the firing pin and lock time were improved, and a gas escape vent was added to the breechblock.
The revamped rifle was renamed the Winchester Model 1885 and was introduced in November of that year. Over time, and in reference to the fact that its thick receiver covered all of the breechblock, leaving only the hammer spur exposed for cocking, this rifle became known as the 1885 High Wall. (In contrast, scaled-down Model 1885s in smaller calibers became known as Low Walls.)
By the end of production in 1920, 139,725 Winchester High Walls had been produced, and today they are highly collectible.
Just as the Browning brothers realized 131 years ago, A. Uberti, under the auspices of Benelli USA, has recognized the desire of today’s shooters for a high quality single-shot rifle equally adept at long-range competition and big game hunting. Only now there is the added allure of Old West nostalgia buffs, living history reenactors and cowboy action shooters.
Consequently, A. Uberti is manufacturing an extremely creditable replica of the 1885 High Wall, with its graceful open-curved finger lever and case hardened receiver indicative of the early, pre-1910 originals. In fact, it is one of the best case-hardening jobs I have seen from Uberti.
The 1885 High Wall is available in three models: a .45-70 straight stocked carbine with a 28-inch round barrel, and both a straight-stocked Sporting Rifle or a pistol-gripped Special Sporting Rifle. The latter two are available with either a 30- or a 32-inch octagon barrel and are chambered for .45-70, .45-90 and .45-120.
I tested a .45-70 Special Sporting Rifle with a 32-inch barrel. The Grade A European Walnut was especially rich looking, and the checkering on the pistol grip and semi-Schnabel fore-end was crisp and sharp. The 1885 High Wall looked, felt and functioned exactly like the originals I have shot; being a newer gun and made with better metallurgy, the parts locked up tighter.
When the lever is thrown forward, the breechblock drops, which withdraws the firing pin and opens the breech. Swinging the lever back up closes and locks the breech and brings the hammer to half cock. If the lever is opened with the hammer on full cock, the hammer snaps back to half cock and stays there when the action is closed.
The High Wall is drilled and tapped for a tang sight, an option I would definitely consider if target shooting or engaging in serious big bore plinking. While the rear buckhorn sight is easy to see, the squat steel front sight leaves a lot to be desired. I would definitely replace it with a gold or ivory bead and post, or a hooded globe and thick post. Likewise, I would opt for a trigger job, as the 5.5-pound factory trigger pull doesn’t do anything for the gun’s accuracy potential.
And make no mistake–the 1885 High Wall has plenty of potential for accuracy. At 100 yards, using a rest and firing Remington 405-grain softpoint ammo, I was able to print a four-shot, two-inch group, with two of the bullet holes touching.
One can only imagine what Uberti’s High Wall could do with a three-pound trigger pull and better sights. I think the Browning brothers and even Col. Whelen would be impressed.