They do have their limitations, but hunting with single-shot rifles can be its own reward.
The Ruger No. 1 is to many the classiest factory rifle ever, and it's available in a wide variety of chamberings from old to new.
In the days before the self-contained metallic cartridge, the vast majority of all firearms were single-shots; there were few practical alternatives. But with the advent of the centerfire cartridge as we know it today, over time the development enabled repeating actions that could house increasingly powerful cartridges.
Initially, however, repeating actions were flimsy affairs, with only single-shot actions (and perhaps doubles) able to house the long, large-caliber blackpowder cartridges considered necessary for the largest game. This period is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of the Single-Shot, when big single-loaders such as the Sharps, Remington and Winchester High-Wall were the choice of serious big game hunters.
Smokeless powder and jacketed bullets altered the paradigm. Stronger actions (like the bolt action) were developed to house compact new cartridges that delivered unprecedented velocity and resultant energy. The great single-shots of the 1880s quickly became anachronisms and eccentricities, very few surviving to be manufactured after the turn of the century.
Still, some old-timers and a few youngsters (like a young Elmer Keith.) clung to the big blackpowder single-shots — at least for a while. By the 1920s even this retro fad had died out, and the great American single-shot almost died out as well. So almost everyone, including a very young Craig Boddington, was surprised when Bill Ruger's No. 1 single-shot appeared on the market in the mid-1960s.
In a time when American riflemen were still reeling from the loss of the pre-1964 Winchester Model 70, the No. 1 was very retro — and very classy — in style. To my thinking it was — and still is — the best-looking rifle ever produced by a major manufacturer.
The No. 1 is an internal hammer falling block action, in which an underlever raises and lowers a massive breechblock. The No. 1 borrows much from the old British Farquharson action. Yes, the Brits had their own Golden Age of Single-Shots, theirs blown off the market by inexpensive bolt actions early in the 1900s. (If you've priced original "Farkies" lately, you'll find their values are similar to that of double rifles.)
Boddington used a Harrington & Richardson break-open single-shot in .45-70 to take this American bison. Such rifles are capable of handling most any hunting task.
The Ruger No. 1 is a falling block — one much improved by the genius of Bill Ruger, with a good trigger and an effective extraction/ejection system. One of the strongest of all modern actions, it proved a marvelous platform for almost any imaginable centerfire cartridge, and its factory chamberings are legion — from .204 Ruger and .22 Hornet all the way up to .45-70 and .458 Winchester Magnum.
Many people thought Bill Ruger was nuts to try to market such a gun. Crazy like a fox. The single-shot isn't for everyone, and indeed the Ruger No. 1, not an easy rifle to make, has always been a bit more costly than the average production bolt gun. But the "one shot, one kill" concept speaks to the American ideal and resonates with many sportsmen and women. In fact, you could almost say that there is a strong but loyal single-shot cult. And Bill Ruger definitely got there first.
To this day there are few factory single-shots that compete directly with the Ruger No. 1. Browning's 1885, offered in both High Wall and Low Wall versions, is darn near the only one that comes to mind. They're great rifles, but they've never been offered in the vast array of chamberings of the Ruger.
Dakota's slick little Model 10 falling block is a beautiful action offered in even more chamberings than the Ruger. Blaser sells the compact and fast-handling K 95. It employs a tilting-block locking system that's capable of handling the highest pressures and offers the option of interchangeable barrels.
The gun is cocked manually by sliding the safety forward (ala the Blaser 93 for those familiar with that system), and the gun breaks open much like an over-under shotgun. Depending on the version, it can be had in standard calibers ranging from .22 Hornet to .300 Weatherby Magnum — in addition to a bunch of European chamberings.
In an appropriate chambering, a modern single-shot is ideal for mountain hunting. The author took this chamois with a Blaser K95 chambered in 7mm STW.
And then there's Thompson/Center, first the Contender carbine and then the Encore. This amazingly versatile platform has spawned almost its own cult, based not only on the single-shot concept but also on the sheer versatility (and affordability) of the interchangeable barrel system.
You can have a T/C action with barrels from .17 rimfire to .416 Rigby. The top-of-the-line Pro Hunter is a bit pricier than many bolt actions, but with the inexpensive addition of additional barrels it's like having more guns at a fraction of the cost.
Then there's the H&R/New England Arms break-open system. Because of the excellent price and generally Spartan finish, this is usually considered an entry-level firearm, but to my thinking this is selling it short. Chamberings don't rival T/C (or Ruger), but they're robust enough for most hunting purposes, and add-on barrels are also available.
I suppose we of the single-shot cult each have our own preferences. I think I can say "we" because, although I have not been steadfast, I have certainly gone the distance. I obtained my first Ruger No. 1 clear back in 1968. I bought that first Ruger No. 1 slightly used at Simmons in Olathe, Kansas. It was a .243, and its intended purpose was prairie dogs, although I did also come to use it for medium-size big game as well.
Single-shots make a perfectly viable varmint setup. Even though things can happen fast in, say, predator calling, and having only one shot can be a handicap, if you accept the single round as part of the deal it makes it that much more of a challenge.
Perhaps a more serious disadvantage is accuracy. Falling block actions are very rigid. Break-open single-shots, like double-barreled guns, attempt to unhinge on firing, and this lack of rigidity does affect accuracy potential, at least when you're talking about the extreme accuracy serious prairie dog shooters demand.
More vexing is that all single-shot actions available today wear two-piece stocks. A rifle so stocked isn't necessarily less accurate than a rifle with a one-piece stock, but bedding is generally more critical. This can be mitigated by a stiff barrel. Many of those vintage single-shots rebarreled into early varminters wore incredibly thick barrels, likewise benchrest rifles built on single-shot actions.
A single-shot for dangerous game? It's not as bad an idea as one would think because 99 percent of the time, you have a guide to back you up.
In over-the-counter guise, well, my experience is that modern single-shots vary considerably in accuracy from rifle to rifle, and not all group well enough for really serious varminting. If you find one that will push that magical quarter-inch mark, better hang onto it.
General big game hunting is where the single-shot really shines. Back in the 1970s, gunwriter Jon Sundra darn near made a career out of slaying the world's wild beasts with the Ruger No. 1. More recently, it's pretty hard to turn on the TV without watching people knock things over with Thompson/Center's Encore.
The only difference between a modern single-shot and any other modern action is the simple fact that there is just one shot, and then you must reload. With practice you can get pretty fast, especially with a hammerless single-shot action like the Ruger, Blaser or Dakota. But you cannot get as fast a second shot as you would with any repeating action.
Now, I'm a guy who tends toward backing up my shot, especially on large, tough game. This is more difficult with a single-shot than with a repeater; sometimes a single-shot will be fast enough, other times not. This is part and parcel to hunting with a single-shot, a self-imposed limitation that you'd better be well aware of.
The other most significant aspect to hunting with a single-shot is that it is either completely loaded or completely empty. Depending on the situation, this is either an advantage or a disadvantage. An advantage is the obvious safety factor. Put the cartridge in, take the cartridge out, no other options.
The disadvantage is that there is no luxury of a magazine to hold rounds in reserve, so whether riding in a vehicle or keeping the rifle slung in rough terrain, safety dictates the rifle must be fully empty and thus fully useless. If you need it quickly you must have your wits about you, and you must have fast and ready access to that one cartridge — which can be problematic, especially in cold weather with gloves and heavy clothing.
Still, it's a matter of mindset and training. If you've practiced loading your single-shot, most of the time this will not be a big issue. But the nuances of using a single-shot are not limited to the one-shot capacity. First, you have to get to the cartridge.
There are lots and lots of clever ways to keep one or two cartridges instantly available — and none of them work unless you've practiced the technique and have the mindset to instantly implement the option you've prepared for.
For instance, I once believed that single-shots weren't good choices for horseback hunts because they must be unloaded in the scabbard, making it somewhat difficult to take advantage of any quick opportunities, and also because fitting a rifle scabbard under stirrup leather is usually a problem — sometimes an uncomfortable one.
Most people think of something like the Winchester Model 94 as an ideal saddle gun, but the slab-sided Ruger No. 1 fills the bill just as nicely.
A recent kudu hunt in South Africa changed my mind. I was using a No. 1 and discovered that the rifle is slab-sided just like a Model 94 Winchester, the first rifle I carried in a saddle boot. Even with a scope it fit wonderfully well under the abbreviated stirrup leathers of the South African saddles, so I can only imagine how well it would work with American tack.
After several days in the saddle, I hurt all over, but the rifle in the saddle boot had nothing to do with that — and when the time came to jump off and take a kudu, the single-shot action was no hindrance whatsoever. So I retract any reticence whatsoever about recommending a single-shot for a horseback hunt. The flat profile is worth the extra planning required to make sure that first cartridge is there when you need it.
At one time I also believed that a single-shot was a poor choice for dangerous game and said so in print. I was at least half right, but the wrongness came from the fact that, at that point in my hunting career, I hadn't actually hunted dangerous game with a single-shot rifle — so I was speaking hypothetically and really didn't have much of a right to an opinion.
In the last few years I have corrected this gap, at least enough to have an opinion. The basic situation isn't much different than with any other type of hunting. Sometimes a single-shot will do the job instantly — but when you're talking about really large, tough animals this is not common, let alone certain.
So, once again, sometimes there's all the time in the world to reload and fire a second shot. Other times things happen too fast and no one could get a follow-up shot, regardless of the rifle carried. Most situations are somewhere between these extremes, meaning that a follow-up shot, whether essential or merely insurance, can be fired if the hunter is ready enough and quick enough.
I've spent a lot of time practicing reloading single-shots and I'm pretty darned fast, but there have been very few instances where I've been able to reload a single-shot fast enough to get in a follow-up shot on buffalo or elephant. On the other hand, there have been very few situations where I haven't been able to fire at least a second shot when I've been carrying a double rifle or a bolt action.
Of course, hunting dangerous game by yourself with a single-shot would be foolhardy, but 99 percent of the time we are accompanied by guides, so our own inability to back up our first shot isn't the end of the world. But if you or I have fired our one shot and we're fumbling for a reload while, say, a potentially wounded brown bear or Cape buffalo is headed for cover, somebody now has to do somethi
In most jurisdictions your licensed guide is legally responsible for your safety, and most of these guys don't want to shoot your animals for you — but they don't want to follow up wounded dangerous game if they don't have to. So, when you're carrying a single-shot, there will be times when your guide will have to shoot, and perhaps he wouldn't have needed to if you'd been a bit faster.
In the end, big game hunting with a single-shot comes down to the same thing — the fact that you can count on only one shot makes you extremely careful.