Winchester's Model 1885 was the last of the great 19th-century single-shot actions. Designed by John Browning in 1878, about 600 were manufactured by Browning (price them babies!) before Winchester bought the manufacturing rights. About 140,000 were made in about 60 known chamberings, but the rifle was discontinued in 1920, following the Ballard, Remington Rolling Block, Sharps, and all the others into oblivion.
In the latter 19th century the single-shot centerfire competed well with even the largest lever actions. It was considered more accurate, and even John Browning's great '86 Winchester couldn't accept cartridges as large as the big single-shot actions could handle. But in the early 20th century the bolt action began its ascendancy. It was equally accurate, could be sized to handle the most powerful cartridges and was a repeater. The age of the single-shot sporting rifle was seemingly over.
Word of a brand-new single-shot designed by Bill Ruger was leaked through the subtle means of a Guns & Ammo cover in October 1966, with the actual Ruger No. 1 hitting the market in early 1967. Fully 47 years had passed since a major American manufacturer had offered a single-shot centerfire, and no new single-shot action had been developed in the 20th century. No wonder a lot of folks thought Bill Ruger had lost his mind.
Ruger knew his single-shot wouldn't appeal to everyone, and it does not. It was, however, his kind of rifle: sleek and classic. He believed it would appeal to a certain cadre of rifle shooters who would appreciate the look and feel and also be attracted to the ethos of the one-shot rifle.
Apparently, he was correct across the board. Expensive to manufacture and thus costlier than most Ruger firearms, it has never been a huge seller, but its fans are avid. It has now been in continuous production for 50 years and has just recently exceeded the Winchester 1885 in number of chamberings.
Aesthetics and nostalgia aside, what does the single-shot offer today's shooters. First is strength. The falling-block action is one of the strongest known; the massive breechblock rises and is fully locked within the solid receiver. It simply cannot go anywhere, and while it is theoretically possible to detonate any action - whether through barrel obstruction or a grossly negligent overload, such as substituting pistol powder for rifle propellant - the falling-block action will be the last to go. (Also, not all single-shots are created equal, and it's worth noting that break-open actions, though adequately strong, are not as strong as falling blocks.)
Second is overall length. Lacking the moving bolt of any repeater, a single-shot starts out as much as four inches shorter. This advantage can be utilized in two ways, depending on what you want. A single-shot with a standard 22-inch barrel is already several inches shorter than a repeater with the same barrel, carbine length if you will. It is shorter and handier and can be built lighter.
If you prefer the increased velocity of a longer tube, you can have a 26-inch-barreled single-shot for about the same overall length as a repeater with a 22-inch barrel. Most of the time the longer barrel is my preference, but that's up to you.
There is also some savings in overall weight, but as always, this depends a whole lot on the stock and even more on the barrel contour. The Ruger No. 1-A (Light Sporter) with a short, slender barrel is light. The 1-H (Tropical) has a longer barrel of much stouter contour and is quite a bit heavier. Although the 1-H looks great, I have always suspected the heavier barrel is supplied largely to add gun weight in the more powerful cartridges. In chamberings such as .458 Lott and .450-3¼ Nitro Express, the No. 1 needs every ounce it has, and to be honest it could use a few more.
The single-shot action is incredibly versatile. No repeating action of any type has ever been offered in nearly as many chamberings as the Winchester Model 1885, Ruger No. 1, Dakota Model 10 or Thompson/Center Contender. While the Ruger and Dakota are centerfire actions, the Winchester '85 (both historically and today) can be either rimfire or centerfire, and the clever switch-barrel Thompson/Center can be both.
Across the board, the only limitation is the size of the action. The Ruger No. 1, never offered in more than one action size, has been chambered from .22 Hornet to .450-3¼ Nitro Express, the latter cartridge pretty much maxing out the action without having to hog out the raceway.
The Winchester '85 in smaller Low Wall form and larger High Wall form is currently offered from .17 HMR to .45-70. In the blackpowderera it was chambered to a number of .50-caliber cartridges. Thompson/Center barrels have been made in just about everything imaginable, but the .416 Rigby seems to be about the maximum the action can house.
Let's note here that the hammerless falling block action was primarily a British (okay, Scottish) design going back to the 1870s. In the British gun trade, "custom" was a norm, not an exception, and some of the old.
British single-shots are truly spectacular. The Scottish Farquharson gave Bill Ruger the concept for his No. 1, and the Dakota Model 10 is also similar to a "Farky." But there were a number of exposed-hammer and break-open British single-shots.
Similarly, it's just a matter of action size. In the blackpowderera there were cartridge-firing single-shots in two, four and eight bore. In the smokeless era there were classic British single-shots big enough to house the .600 Nitro Express. No commercial action today can house such a cartridge, but custom single-shots have been built recently for the .600 and even larger cartridges.
Another advantage, in my opinion, is the safety aspect. The single-shot is either fully loaded or fully unloaded and extremely easy to check. There are no cartridges lurking in the shadows in a magazine, begging to be forgotten. Loading the chamber is a conscious act, and unloading is also simple. Most young hunters, at least in my day, started with a single-shot .22 and/or a single-shot shotgun. The same principles apply with a centerfire rifle.
This last is also a disadvantage in some circumstances: The rifle is either fully loaded or fully unloaded, with no full magazine in reserve. So when getting off a horse or when bundled up in heavy clothes one has to fumble for a cartridge. Serious hunters who use single-shots find all sorts of creative ways to have at least one cartridge handy, but it's something to think about.
This disadvantage is mitigated by the fact that most single-shots can be loaded (and unloaded) much more quietly than most repeating actions. Of course, that one single cartridge can be a disadvantage in some hunting situations, but I'll discuss this in more detail later on.
To me, perhaps the greatest disadvantage is accuracy. In general, the single-shot is often not as accurate as the bolt action (although it's at least equal to, if not superior to, other action types). This is because most single-shots have two-piece stocks, which are not as stable as one-piece stocks. Also, most single-shots have the fore-end secured to the barrel with a mid-barrel screw. This is not a kiss of death, but it does limit bedding options. What I have found is that single-shots with extremely light barrels tend to be finicky, while single-shots with heavier-contour barrels are much more forgiving.
As I mentioned, the Ruger No. 1 breathed new life into the single-shot concept. The T/C Contender followed just a year later, and the Model 1885 has been available again (either from Browning or Winchester) since 1985. Today there are quite a few single-shot rifles, but it seems to me they fall into four categories — five if you count bench-rest-type bolt actions that are solid where the magazine would be, but we're not going to include those here.
First are what I think of as "premium grade" single-shots. In my mind, this starts with the Ruger No. 1, not only a great action but also a gorgeous rifle. I am also a long-time admirer of the Dakota Model 10. The action is a bit trimmer than the Ruger, and it is a first-class semi-custom or custom rifle. I've used a couple of them and loved them, but I just recently choked it up and did some trading for a gorgeous Model 10 barrel marked .275 Rigby (aka 7x57).
I am not suggesting the Dakota is a "better" action than the No. 1. The No. 1 has a wonderfully reliable ejector, while the Model 10 - like older English guns on the Farquharson-type action - is an extractor gun. But the Dakota represents a serious upgrade in fit and finish. Mine sure is beautiful, and it shoots extremely well.
Also, the Europeans never abandoned the single-shot concept to the extent we did, so most of the better European brands offer really good-looking (and accurate) single-shots, usually break-open actions. Although rarely seen in this country, they are available from Blaser, Merkel and more. The most classic European type is short-barreled with a full stock and is very attractive; this configuration is often referred to as a "stutzen."
Finally, as "first class" single-shots, let's not overlook the newly manufactured Model 1885. It is a reproduction of an older action, which is the fourth of my categories, but the 1885 straddles both worlds because it's available chambered to modern cartridges and can readily and easily be scoped. It's also an upgraded modern single-shot, stocked in good wood with gorgeous bluing.
My third category is a much more basic and less expensive rifle. The most basic is the H&R Handi-Rifle, an exposed-hammer, break-open rifle similar to a good old break-open single-barrel shotgun. It's inexpensive and offered in a wide array of chamberings, and additional barrels are available. I have one of H&R's Buffalo Classic rifles in .45-70 with a 32-inch barrel, and it's very cool.
The Thompson/Center Contender Carbine is a step up, and its Encore is yet another step up, but they're still very affordable. The basic rifles are, again, break-open, exposed-hammer single shots, but the heart of the T/C system is its interchangeable barrel platform - with T/C as much in the barrel business as the rifle business. And they must make good barrels; I've never had a problem with accuracy.
One comment about exposed-hammer designs: Most can be used with scopes, and hammer extensions make it easier, but you're going to fumble a bit getting your thumb underneath the ocular bell to cock the rifle (except maybe on the T/C Encore Pro Hunter, which has a swinging hammer you can position to the left or right to make it easy to operate with a scope on board). Plan on plenty of time at the range getting used to reaching for the hammer. Obviously, this is not a problem with internal-hammer designs.
My fourth category of single-shots includes the reproductions of older actions, all of which go back to the blackpowder era, long before scopes were in common use. These include the Sharps, Remington Rolling Block and the trapdoor Springfield. Depending on the maker (and, of course, on the price) many of these are spectacular rifles, but most are poorly suited to scope use, and they're not often chambered to modern high-intensity cartridges. No disrespect to good rifles that are fun to shoot, but like the single-shot bolt actions, I think they are beyond the scope of this discussion.
So what about their practicality in the field? You know, the "one shot, one kill" creed isn't just for military snipers; it's also the mantra of every ethical hunter. Unfortunately, we all know it doesn't always work out that way. Ideally, hunting with any given platform should be preceded by a lot of range time, including rapid reloading. With practice, the single-shot can be fairly fast.
The falling blocks are generally faster to reload than break-open designs and require considerably less movement off the target. Exposed hammers that must be cocked also require a few extra split seconds and are a bit slower than hammerless designs. That said, when you're hunting with a single-shot, you should accept that there will be many situations when there simply won't be time to get off an additional shot.
For this reason, I think it's a really bad idea to hunt dangerous game alone with a single-shot, but that's not a situation available to the vast majority of hunters. I've taken a lot of African buffalo and other assorted dangerous animals with single-shots, as well as a whole bunch of other game in various places. There are situations where fumbling for a cartridge can be a hassle, but the single-shot is generally a viable option because I can't honestly say the lack of a fast backup shot from a one-shooter has ever cost me an animal. Sometimes, no matter what you're using, there just isn't time for a second shot - and sometimes you have all day.
But here's the real secret about using a modern, accurate single-shot rifle: It offers a huge psychological advantage in that you know that, in all likelihood, you have just one chance. You have to make it good. This knowledge makes you extra careful, and that's not a bad thing at all.