August 08, 2021
Forgive me, but I like good-looking guns. What that means is in the eye of the beholder, but I find classic single-shot rifles attractive and just plain cool. I guess Bill Ruger thought so, too, because he had a pet project to improve upon the classic British Farquharson action, which he did in 1966 with the Ruger No. 1. When I first saw a Ruger No. 1, I thought it was the best-looking production rifle I’d ever seen. I still think so.
Many thought Ruger had lost his mind and produced a one-shooter that modern rifle shooters would never accept. Production has never been huge and the No. 1 has always been costly, but it has remained in the Ruger line for 55 years, chambered to dozens of cartridges suited to any purpose.
A year later, in 1967, the break-open Thompson/Center Contender was unveiled. Although initially in handgun form, the switch-barrel Contender Carbine, the G2 and the much stronger Encore offer a less expensive single-shot option, with the advantage of myriad switch-barrel options.
There are many other single-shots. Although not currently manufactured, Harrington & Richardson’s break-open Handi-Rifle was also switch-barrel and even more affordable. I used a .45-70 Wesson & Harrington 1871 Buffalo Classic, which was built by H&R, to take the bison in the lead photograph accompanying this article.
On up the scale, Browning and Winchester offer multiple versions of John Browning’s Winchester Model 1885 exposed-hammer falling block in both Low Wall for smaller calibers and High Wall for larger cartridges. And the 1885 design was recently adopted by Uberti for its Courteney Stalking Rifle.
Remington did recent runs of its rolling block, and there have been many good copies of Sharps and other 19th-century single-shots. At the top of the food chain are the custom rifles based on various actions, among them the sleek, elegant Dakota Model 10 falling block.
All these designs, in all price ranges, in whatever chambering, have one significant feature in common: When fully loaded, they hold exactly one cartridge.
Long before self-contained cartridges, wars were won and lost and our planet was explored with single-shots. In its latter decades, only the single-shot was capable of housing the large-cased blackpowder cartridges needed for larger game. Whether in hunting or combat, the mindset was clear: You had just one readily available shot, so make it count.
Despite increasingly powerful repeaters, big single-shots dominated into the 1890s. Then they almost passed into history—until Bill Ruger’s No. 1. The credo of “one shot, one deer” is a powerful and attractive message, speaking of marksmanship, restraint and ethical hunting. The Ruger No. 1, along with the many modern (and reprised) single-shots, introduced new generations to the seductive challenge of making that single bullet count.
Hunting with a single-shot makes you careful. Knowing you can only rely on one shot, with no full magazine in reserve, should give you pause and make you just a bit extra-certain when you expend it. In general, this is good.
In a perfect world, that one well-placed shot is always enough. Unfortunately, our world is not always perfect, and neither are we. Wind, last-instant animal movement, imponderables such as projectile failure and, most common, human error dictate that one shot isn’t always enough to cleanly take all game animals, regardless of size or circumstances.
When an animal doesn’t go down to the first shot, it’s essential to prepare to shoot again. Culturally, ingrained with the legends of Daniel Boone, Natty Bumppo and Davy Crockett, we go to great pains to fire that perfect first shot and then we wait to see what happened. Europeans, more experienced with driven game and running shots, are typically much faster than we are.
Hunting with a single-shot makes one more careful and conservative with the first cartridge. However, I submit that knowing it will take additional time and movement to reload contributes to the cardinal sin of not instantly preparing for a second shot.
I was early to the single-shot game. I was in high school when Dad traded for an early No. 1 in .243. We used it mostly for prairie dogs, and I did some pronghorn and deer hunting with it. In the half-century since, I’ve had a bunch of No. 1s, T/Cs with numerous barrels and various other single-shots, using them to hunt a wide variety of game.
Honestly, I don’t have a sense that my first-shot success on game with single-shots is better than with repeaters. I know I’m careful, but I’m always careful, and much of the time, one shot is enough. But it’s not always, and even with a perfect hit, you don’t always know the result instantly.
That’s why if you are seduced by single-shots, you simply must practice your loading drill at the range—from various positions—so reloading as quickly as possible becomes second nature. You must also find a system that keeps extra cartridges very handy.
Fellow writer Jon Sundra, who has hunted lots of the world’s game with a No. 1, used a handy wrist bandolier—and he was fast. I tried it and found it uncomfortable, so I haven’t gone that route. But it works.
When hunting dangerous game with a single-shot, I usually use a cartridge belt, wearing it backwards so the cartridges are in front and accessible. But for most hunting, I use a cartridge slide. When setting up for a deliberate shot, as in over a pack, I take the slide off my belt and put it beside me for more rapid access with less movement.
I recently got a shot at an Arizona Coues whitetail. Lying over a boulder with my pack atop it, I was shooting a No. 1 in .280 Ackley Improved. My first shot missed slightly high, but the deer didn’t take off. I had my belt slide beside me and open, and I hit the buck with the next two shots. I should note that each time I dropped the lever, it snagged in pack straps. This was a new pack and a problem I hadn’t considered. I know better now and will practice with such new equipment.
Although all single-shots require more time and movement than repeaters, there are differences between them. I’ve always wanted a classic British single-shot, but they’re above my pay grade in terms of price. But here’s a point rarely mentioned: Many single-shots are extractor guns, meaning you must manually fish the fired cartridge out of the chamber. This also applies to most break-open single-shot rifles. With practice, you’ll get the drill pretty quick, but you’ll also flub it now and again.
I’ve never managed to acquire an original Farquharson, but in lieu I have a gorgeous Dakota Model 10 in .275 Rigby. It’s one of my nicest rifles. I love it, but it’s an extractor-only action. Only Bill Ruger figured out how to incorporate a strong, effective ejector into an internal-hammer falling-block action.
This makes the No. 1, at least in my experience, the fastest of all single-shots and able to be reloaded with minimal movement. Drop the lever, and the fired cartridge ejects under force. Throw in another cartridge, raise the lever, and you’re ready. It’s worth noting that if you do prefer extractor-only, the No. 1 owner’s manual tells you how to remove the ejector spring unit.
Most exposed-hammer designs (Sharps, Winchester 1885, Springfield trapdoor, T/C, H&R) also require the additional step of cocking the hammer after loading. We’re talking milliseconds, so, again, it’s just a matter of practice.
There is one more factor. All older single-shot designs pre-date the widespread use of scopes. With both extractor guns and exposed-hammer designs, you must reach under or around the ocular bell to pull out the fired case and work the hammer. This is not a problem; it’s just a fact. But even more practice is required for reloading as rapidly as possible.
Single-shots can be extremely accurate. I once messed with a Hall falling block, designed as a benchrest action with an amazingly fast lock time, then offered by Dakota. In .30-06, I used it to take a big leopard and several antelopes.
That rifle was spectacularly accurate, but most single-shots vary and are often a bit finicky. Almost all single-shots have two-piece stocks, which is not the kiss of death, but it is problematic for bedding and overall rigidity. How that fore-end attaches makes a difference. The Ruger No. 1, T/C single-shots and the Dakota M10 use a screw through the fore-end into a barrel fixture. This can play havoc with barrel harmonics, but there’s little consistency in how this might play out. For example, my Dakota is awesome despite its slender barrel, and I’ve had
T/Cs that were real tack-drivers.
I have the most experience with the No. 1—from .22 Hornet to .450 Nitro Express. All have been adequate, but they vary. My experience has been that light-barreled models like the light Sporter are the most finicky, often with a tendency to “walk” vertically from barrel heat.
I’m seeing this with the .280 Ackley with a medium sporter 25-inch barrel. I didn’t think it was extreme enough to cause a miss on that Coues deer, but that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
But you never know. The most accurate No. 1 I have ever owned in a big-game cartridge is a .300 H&H with a 26-inch medium sporter barrel. It’s always a sub-m.o.a. rifle and, on a good day, has turned in quarter-inch groups.
Stiffer barrels make a difference, which makes perfect sense in overcoming the harmonics issue. For many years my go-to varmint rifle was an accurate heavy barrel No. 1 in .22-250. In 2004, I replaced it with a No. 1 in .204 Ruger, which was even more accurate and amazingly consistent. My prairie dog shooting partner, Gordon Marsh, also uses a No. 1 in .204. His is much newer but just as accurate.
In larger calibers, there’s no issue. The barrel on the Tropical model is very stiff, because in heavy calibers the light No. 1 needs the weight. So big bores are usually accurate.
No break-open action is especially strong, as it naturally attempts to unhinge during firing. The older Contender action was limited to 48,000 psi, while the beefed-up Encore action is much stronger. Conversely, falling blocks are among the strongest of all actions.
There is really no hunting situation a single-shot cannot be used in, but you need to think about it. The single-shot is either fully loaded and ready, requiring cocking the hammer and/or slipping the safety. Or it is completely empty, completely safe—and completely unready.
This is not a deal-breaker, but when you’re hunting with a single-shot and need to have it empty for safety, you must have cartridges constantly accessible in case of a fast-breaking opportunity. Wearing gloves, heavy outerwear or raingear can complicate this, and this is why I have never taken a single-shot on a serious horseback or mountain hunt.
I haven’t hunted any of my big bears with a single-shot, but I have used them for Cape and water buffalo and American bison. They haven’t always been a one-shot deal, but there was never a problem—and, so far, never a necessity for anyone else to chime in. When hunting dangerous game with a single-shot, you are inviting the possibility of your PH shooting the animal to keep things from getting Western. Having an armed backup is the reason you can hunt dangerous game with a single-shot. Conversely, hunting dangerous game alone with a single-shot is asking for trouble.
To me, the most ideal situation for hunting with a single-shot is from a blind or stand. The rifle goes to the stand unloaded, is roped or lifted up, then loaded and secured, ready for that one perfect, deliberate shot. Doesn’t really matter whether you’re waiting for a buck, boar, black bear or leopard. When the animal appears you take your time, pick your shot and press the trigger.
In such shooting, there’s rarely an opportunity for a second shot, and you shouldn’t need it. Through practice, another cartridge is ready, and you’ll reload quickly. Just in case.