The Falling Block Action

By Chuck Hawks

The other type of action, in addition to the bolt, that is generally recognized as offering superior accuracy is the falling block single shot. Falling block single shot rifles were winning 1,000 yard target matches well before the turn of the 20th Century. Like the bolt action, perhaps even more so, the single shot rifle tends to be the choice of the connoisseur.

The classic falling block actions of the latter half of the 19th Century were the Ballard, Farquharson, Sharps Borchardt, Stevens, and Winchester 1885 (designed by John Browning). Today, some falling block actions are produced in custom shops, or by smaller manufacturers like Dakota Arms, but the best known models come from two major manufacturers, Browning and Ruger.

To unlock and open a falling block action, a lever under the action body is pivoted forward. This causes the large breechblock to slide vertically downward in grooves machined into the interior sides of the receiver (hence the name "falling block"), revealing the chamber. After a new cartridge is inserted into the chamber, the finger lever is moved rearward again, and the breechblock slides back up and locks into place to seal the chamber. Cocking the hammer is automatic in the classier actions.

These are superbly made, elegant rifles. When their underlevers are swung forward, their actions open with a smooth and precise feel, unlike most bolt actions, which rattle when the bolt is opened. The falling block is as strong as a bolt action, and as accurate. Because their actions are extremely compact, they can have a barrel about four inches longer than a bolt action rifle of the same overall length. This allows maximum velocity from modern high intensity and magnum calibers. Left-handed shooters like the fact that falling block actions are ambidextrous. Modern falling block rifles incorporate all the advances in metallurgy, design, and construction enjoyed by other contemporary rifles.

The obvious disadvantage to any single shot is, well, it is a single shot. An experienced shooter can reload a falling block rifle fairly rapidly, if it is equipped with an ejector that automatically throws out the spent case when the action is opened, but in general it is not the action to choose if a fast follow up shot may be needed. (Both the Browning and Ruger have automatic ejectors.) On the other hand, there are many situations where a fast follow-up shot isn't needed, or isn't practical, or there is plenty of time to deliver it. For these situations, the classic falling block may still be the best choice.

The Browning 1885 High Wall is a modern version of the John Browning designed classic, widely regarded as the strongest and best of the American single shot rifles. John Browning began producing these rifles himself, then sold the rights to Winchester, who made the design famous. It is a very simple yet elegant looking rifle. It has an exposed rebounding hammer that cocks automatically when the "S" shaped underlever is operated. The automatic ejector can be user set to throw the empty case out to the right or left, or extracted for convenient removal by hand. The schnable style forearm and straight hand buttstock are select walnut with a durable gloss finish, and extensive checkering.

The standard version comes with a heavy 28 inch octagon barrel without sights; it is drilled and tapped for scope mounting. The Traditional Hunter model is similar, but comes with a crescent butt plate and tang mounted peep sight, plus conventional barrel mounted open sights. All metal parts on these High Wall rifles are very well polished and deeply blued, except the breech block, which is polished and left in the white. Standard Model calibers are .22-250 Rem., .270 Win., .30-06 Spfd., 7mm Rem. Mag., and .45-70 Govt. Traditional Hunter calibers are .30-30 Win., .38-55 Win., and .45-70 Govt. These High Wall rifles all weigh between 8 lbs. 12 oz. and 9 lbs., depending on model and caliber. These classy single shot rifles really shoot: my High Wall is one of the most accurate centerfire rifle I have ever owned.

There are also two special black powder cartridge versions of the Browning High Wall. These are the BPCR silhouette target rifle, and the BPCR "Creedmore" type target rifle. Both come with special long-range target-type iron sights, pistol grip stocks, and half round barrels. The Creedmore is chambered for the long-range black powder .45-90 cartridge, which throws a 525 grain bullet at approximately 1,300 fps. This is a serious target rifle with a 34 inch barrel, intended to dominate long-range black powder matches (out to 1000 yards!). Its receiver is richly and deeply blued, like the standard model. The BPCR Creedmore model weighs 11 lbs. 13 oz. The BPCR silhouette model comes chambered for the .40-65 and .45-70 black powder cartridges, is fitted with a 30" barrel, and its receiver is case-colored. It weighs 11 lbs. to 11 lbs. 7 oz.

The other Browning falling block rifle is the Low Wall. This is a lighter action, intended for smaller calibers. Standard Low Wall rifles are supplied with a slimmer contour, 24" long plain octagon barrel (no sights), in calibers .22 Hornet, .223 Rem., .243 Win. and .260 Rem. The wood and finish are similar to the standard High Wall. There is also a Low Wall Hunter model with a case-colored receiver that is chambered for the .357 Mag., .44 Mag., and .45 Long Colt revolver cartridges. A standard Low Wall is just about the cutest, trimmest rifle I have ever seen. In .243 or .260 it makes a terrific mountain rifle. It weighs just 6 lbs. 4 oz. and, despite its 24" barrel, is only 39.5 inches long.

The Browning 1885 Low Wall and High Wall rifles were discontinued at about the turn of the 21st Century. However, in 2003 the 1885 Low Wall was introduced in caliber .17 HMR under the Winchester brand name. Winchester (USRAC) and Browning are owned by the same holding company, so perhaps the rest of the Model 1885's will reappear under the Winchester name in the future.

Bill Ruger deserves more credit than anyone else for rekindling interest in the classic falling block rifle. Imagine a modernized Farquharson, the very elegant British hammerless action, and you will have an idea of what the Ruger No. 1 action looks like. The Ruger single shot is available in many variations. These are: 1-A Light sporter (22" barrel, Alexander Henry style forearm), 1-B Standard Rifle (26" barrel, semi-beavertail forearm), 1-H Tropical Rifle (elephant gun), 1-RSI International Rifle (20" barrel, full-length Mannlicher style stock), 1-S Medium Sporter Rifle (26" barrel, A. H. style forearm), and 1-V Varminter Rifle (24" or 26" heavy barrel, semibeavertail forearm).

The list of calibers for which the No. 1 is chambered is extensive, although not all calibers are available in all models. These include the .218 Bee, .22 Hornet, .223, .22-250, .220 Swift, 6mm Rem., .243, .257 Roberts, .25-06, .270 Win., .270 Wby. Mag., .280, 7mm Rem. Mag., 7x57, .30-06, .300 Win. Mag., .300 Wby. Mag., .338 Win. Mag., .375 H&H Mag., .416 Rigby, .416 Rem. Mag., .45-70, and .458 Win. Mag. The automatic ejector can be user modified to function only as an extractor if desired. No. 1 rifles have a top tang (shotgun) safety. All steel parts are nicely polished and blued. The select walnut pistol grip style buttstock and forearm are cut checkered, and come with a tasteful satin finish. As the 1998 Ruger catalogue puts it: "To the sophisticated shooter, the single shot rifle offers a compact, strong mechanism with a minimum of mechanical contraptions. The No. 1 is the rifle for serious hunters dedicated to making one shot count."

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Copyright 1999, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.