On May 24, 1879, 24-year-old John Moses Browning and Ed, his younger half-brother, were granted a patent for a single-shot, falling-block rifle they had invented and were hand building in their Ogden, Utah, gunshop. It is a pretty safe bet the Browning brothers would have been both shocked and perhaps a bit flattered to learn that today, 138 years later, their single-shot big game rifle has just been given a modern tweaking to bring it into the 21st century: Uberti's 1885 High Wall Big Game Rifle.
No article on a gun of this kind would be complete without a bit of history. Back in the early 1880s, Winchester had pretty much dominated the lever-action market with its Model 1873 and 1876 rifles, but those toggle-link repeaters lacked the receiver length and strength to handle one of the most popular hunting cartridges of the day: the .45-70 Gov't. T.G. Bennett, Winchester's vice president and Oliver Winchester's son-in-law, knew something had to be done to keep his father-in-law's company competitive.
When word of the Browning's .45-70 single-shot reached his desk in New Haven, Connecticut, Bennett took one of the next trains west to Ogden and purchased the patents and all the Brownings' inventory for $8,000. The Winchester factory immediately began tooling up, with improvements in stock dimensions and receiver design, for what it would rename the 1885 High Wall — one of the most versatile single-shot rifles in history, especially in its .45-70 chambering. In all, 139,725 Model 1885s were produced in various calibers until production was halted in 1920.
However, you can't keep a good rifle/cartridge combination down, and the 1885 High Wall in .45-70 is a classic example. For years A. Uberti of Brescia, Italy, has been producing historically correct replicas of this famous falling-block, breech-loading single shot, available as a 28-inch barreled carbine and both 30- and 32-inch-barreled straight-stocked Sporting Rifles as well as a Special Sporting Rifle with pistol grip stock.
True to its intended purpose, the Uberti 1885 High Wall, with its fast-action, centrally mounted hammer and open sights has primarily been a hunting rifle, a direct descendant of the original. However, a change in some big game laws has prompted a new version: the 1885 High-Wall Big Game Rifle.
The impetus for this new variation began in 2014, when states such as Michigan and Ohio began allowing deer hunters to use "primitive cartridges" — that is, straight-walled 19th century designs such as the .38-55 and, of course, the iconic .45-70. [Ed. note: See Brad Fitzpatrick's article on this topic in our previous issue.] This changing landscape led the folks at Uberti to create a new version of their best-selling 1885 High Wall that was adaptable to scopes.
Thus, we have, for the first time in history, an 1885 High Wall fitted with a Picatinny rail. I have to say I arched an eyebrow when I first saw this version, but believe it or not, this popular tactical accessory has a vague but definite historical connection to the High Wall. After all, the Picatinny rail gets its name from the Picatinny Arsenal where it was developed, and that facility, which was previously known as the Picatinny Powder Depot, was in existence when the Browning brothers were building the rifle that would become the 1885 High Wall. (Well, I said it was vague; but it is a fact.)
Other, less-dramatic, elements set the 1885 High Wall Big Game Rifle apart from the rest of the pack, such as its shorter, tapered, 22-inch round barrel, which, oddly enough, considering the rifle's Picatinny rail, is fitted with a traditional steel post front sight.
The reasoning behind this, according to Uberti, is that if you don't want to use the rail it can be dismounted from the gun, thereby giving easier access to a dovetail slot cut in the barrel. Once the dovetail plug has been driven out, an open buckhorn sight can be inserted. This sight, the folks at Uberti told me, is similar to those found on its lever actions and is supposed to be supplied with each Big Game Rifle, although there was none included with my early-production test gun.
Also, unlike other High Walls in the Uberti line, which feature case-hardened receivers, the Big Game Rifle sports a blued receiver and a ribbed rubber buttpad to help anchor the rifle and absorb recoil. The handsomely finished Grade A walnut stock, with its checkered pistol grip and schnabel fore-end, sports a pair of sling eyelets and, more importantly, has been slightly reconfigured with a higher comb to compensate for the use of optics — a subtle but practical feature that I fully appreciated when I took the gun to the range.
This is a good place to point out that no matter what type of optics you elect to put on this new/old rifle it still is a short-range gun by virtue of its .45-70 chambering, and no other calibers are offered for the Big Game Rifle at this time.
That means your hunting will be limited, for all practical purposes, to a maximum range of 150 yards. After all, scopes don't make your bullet travel farther, but they do make you shoot better. And that's the benefit the Big Game Rifle offers, especially for us older shooters whose eyes are not what they used to be.
Having hunted with both open-sighted original and replica 1885 High Walls over the decades (including my review of the standard Uberti High Wall .45-70 in the September 2009 issue of RifleShooter), putting optics on the Big Game Rifle was a new experience for me. (To be honest, putting optics on any rifle is a relatively new experience for me.)
My first thought was to keep it open-sighted by using an XS Ghost Ring or even a tang-mounted Creedmoor peep sight. But that would be defeating the purpose of the Big Game Rifle's Picatinny rail.
I decided to go with what I considered the ultimate high-tech piece of glass for a short range, hard-hitting big game rifle: SIG Sauer's Whiskey5 1-5x20mm variable. And as long as I was going "modern," I opted for the Hellfire Quadplex version, as the easy-to-see crosshairs had the added benefit of an illuminated adjustable-intensity center dot ($840 for the non-illumination version, $960 with the Hellfire Quadplex option, which includes battery).
With each click of the turret, the dayglow dot becomes brighter or dimmer, depending upon the direction of rotation; in between clicks it turns off, saving battery life. I also ordered a pair of Alpha steel-alloy scope mounts from SIG Sauer.
However, being a klutz when it comes to anything even remotely pertaining to scope mounting, I had the new gunsmithing department at Lock Stock & Barrel (LSBauctions.com) perform this otherwise simple operation. LSB armorer Chris Corcino accomplished the task much more professionally and faster than I could — and with the right tools, I might add.
At the range, the Big Game Hunter did everything expected of it, which is notable inasmuch as, due to an untimely series of back-to-back storms (rare for drought-stricken Southern California), I had to test this gun in the rain — as close to real-world hunting conditions as you can get.
With the scope set at 4X, which helped cut through some of the misty haze, I was able to keep my shots within a one- to 1.5-inch spread at 100 yards with Remington 405-grain .45-70s. By comparison, with the same loading and open sights and firing from the same Hornady Delta Rifle Rest, the best I could ever do with open-sighted versions of the High Wall was groups of two to four inches. The scope helped, sure, but the trigger was also good — dropping the hammer with 4.5 pounds of pressure, according to my Lyman digital trigger-pull gauge.
The 1885 High Wall Big Game Rifle is a sturdy gun, with a strong, reliable action that has been proven over time. With today's metallurgy, it is capable of handling cartridge pressures up to 28,000 psi, which means it will handle most any modern .45-70 load, even the stouter stuff. For instance, I tried a few 405-grain rounds of Black Hills .45-70s, which opened my groups to three inches, which is still within deer-dropping accuracy at 100 yards.
For all its attributes, the Big Game Hunter has room for a few improvements. For one thing, true to the original design, each round must be inserted by hand, and when the finger lever is raised, the hammer is brought to half-cock. That means for loading and then bringing the hammer to full cock for firing, the thumb must enter tight quarters between the hammer spur and scope. Fortunately, I have medium-size hands, but anyone with larger paws may encounter some crowding. A hammer extension would solve this problem.
Another frustration is the lack of an ejector to swiftly expel the fired case should a fast repeat shot be required. My test gun had only an extractor, which meant I had to manually remove each fired case unless I remembered to tip up the barrel after each shot to help the case partially slide out (which, due to fouling, doesn't always happen).
And finally, the finish on the stock, while attractive, is easily damaged. I inadvertently cracked a small chip in the finish at the range, and I can only imagine what could happen on a rough-and-tumble hunting trip. An oil-finished stock would be preferable on a hunting rifle such as this.
Nonetheless, the bottom line is that the 1885 High Wall Big Game Rifle is an accurate and well-balanced rifle for the hunter who wants to take the close range single shot challenge to the next level, using a scope. It's definitely a rifle to consider the next time deer or black bear season comes around — especially if you live in "primitive cartridge" states.