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Hunting with Single Shot Rifles

By Randy D. Smith

A selecton of single shot hunting rifles
Top to bottom: Pedersoli rolling block replica, Traditions Vortek, Traditions Outfitter, Ruger No. 1H. Photo by Randy D. Smith.

A single shot rifle is not as limiting a factor as many hunters might think. Most of the time, game is taken with the first shot and that is the end of it. If the shot is missed or the hit is marginal, however, it takes valuable moments to reload and attempt a backup shot. Sometimes the animal is lost. Many hunters prefer the security of repeating arms for this reason alone.

The single shot remains a popular hunting rifle around the world. The single shot stalking rifle is fashionable in Europe, where a single, precisely placed shot is considered all that is needed for most hunting situations. The stalking rifle is considered one of the most prestigious forms of hunting weapons and a symbol of the experienced and confident sportsman.

There was a time when a single shot was a better choice for big game hunting than repeating rifles. Big bore muzzleloaders and cartridge single shots were the arms that conquered the North American West. Both civilians and the military were reluctant to give them up. Big Bore single shots were the choice of many African professional hunters into the early 20th Century.

Single shots were carried in the black powder era because they were less expensive, more dependable, capable of handling much heavier loads and more manageable. Until modern steels and smokeless propellants were developed, repeating rifles were considered fragile, prone to jamming and the rounds were anemic. It was well into the 1880ís in North America before big bore lever action rifles began to unseat the single shot. Following the Second Boer War (1899-1902), African hunters turned to the bolt action rifle, particularly the economical 9.3X62 Mauser. Single shot rifles in general, and especially expensive Farquharson falling block actions, quickly fell out of use.

There are all kinds of ways to idealize and rationalize hunting with a single shot rifle. Some will talk about the mystique of the single shot hunter while others romantically describe the self-limitations a hunter assumes when a single shot rifle is chosen. Iíve heard statements implying that a single shot rifle hunter is somehow better than the average and how using a single shot is the mark of competence.

Many North Americans purchase inexpensive single shots because they are inexpensive. Hunters use single shots to take advantage of special regulations, such as certain big game muzzleloader-only and primitive weapons seasons. A few are caught up in the romance of 19th Century historical models such as the Sharps, Springfield, Remington Rolling Block and Browning/Winchester single shot models. Still others will chose a single shot for certain unique handling traits. Some believe that single shots are more inherently accurate or somehow safer than repeating rifles. Some hunters favor the idea of interchangeable barrels, which allow muzzleloader, small game, big game and shotgun hunting with the same basic shooting platform. Some manufacturers build single shots to achieve the lightest, most compact rifle dimensions. While many chose a single shot strictly for economy, a few will go to the opposite extreme and purchase expensive, elaborately embellished and finely engineered single shots for their beauty and workmanship. Fine European stalking rifles like the Merkel K-1, Heym 44B, or Blaser K-95 Prestige begin at the $3,500 level.

At this moment there is probably a larger selection of single shot rifle models available to North Americans than at any time since the 19th century. The main reason is that the tip-up or break-open action single shot rifle is so easy to convert to different cartridges with a simple barrel transfer. There are more of these models available than the market will bear and most of them will be gone in a few seasons. The European import historical replicas are nearly impossible to duplicate at their price points. It is very difficult for anyone to come up with a more effective, inexpensive North American hunting rifle than the H&R/NEF Handi-Rifle models. I have been told that these companies are in a constant back order mode. The Thompson/Center interchangeable barrel Encore rifle also has a strong following. (There are reviews of the NEF Handi-Rifle and T/C Encore on the Product Reviews page.) Everybody else ends up being shoddy, too high priced, too little known, or simply unappealing to the majority of the buying public.

The Ruger No. 1, a classically beautiful Farquarson style rifle, has been chambered in nearly every available cartridge. Ditto the Browning/Winchester Model 1885 fallling block action. These are deluxe rifles and they are not break-open actions. Unlike break-open guns, these falling block actions are very strong, with more locking area than a bolt action. (Several No. 1 and Model 1885 reviews can be found on the Product Reviews page.)

I enjoy hunting with single shots for several reasons. I take advantage of special muzzleloader and historical replica single shot seasons. Iíve purchased inexpensive single shots to satisfy my curiosity for shooting certain cartridges. I like to backpack into rough country with a compact single shot. I enjoy the historical experience and challenge of hunting with cartridge and muzzleloader replicas. Taking a whitetail doe for the freezer in my area is about as difficult as cottontail rabbit hunting, so an iron sighted single shot enhances the hunting challenge. I do not believe that a single shot is more accurate than other rifle designs and I donít consider the use of a single shot as some barometer of advanced hunting skills. I simply enjoy hunting with them. All but one of fifteen big game trophies displayed in my home were taken with single shots.

Iíve read some claims, just as you probably have, about how quickly a single shot can be reloaded after a shot is taken. One popular media figure wrote about how he could reload at bolt action speed. He was hunting dangerous game with a tip-up design, the slowest of the cartridge single shots. Amazing, isnít it? A bolt action is nearly as fast as a lever action, according to some writers, and a single shot is nearly as fast as a bolt action, according to others. Does that make a single shot reasonably close to a lever action to reload second or third shots? I believe that particular writer allowed his imagination to overwhelm his common sense. More to the point, I donít understand why he felt he needed to make such a claim. Anyone should have enough common sense to realize that a single shot rifle will always be slower loading than a repeater and reloading speed is never the reason for choosing a single shot.

I was recently chatting with a Tanzanian PH about a Mauser article I wrote for this web site and he had this response to my question regarding clients using single shots. His answer sums up my experiences as well: ďI have had two clients of mine arrive with urges and have found them to be as good as any other rifle out there. If a fellow practices with them, he can usually throw out two to three shots, relatively speaking, quite fast.These guys took elephant, hippo, buffalo and leopard and we did not have any problems.Ē

My single shot dangerous game hunting has been limited to Asian buffalo and black bear. Would I choose a single shot for hunting something with sharp teeth, claws and a nasty reputation? It depends upon the hunting situation. If I am shooting from ambush or a safe tower at short distances with plenty of time to take careful aim, then I donít see a problem with using a single shot. Iím talking about shooting a leopard or bear over bait, a lion from a tower, or some other large predator where I am relatively certain that I will not have difficulty finding and approaching that animal from a long distance with a clear field of view. In addition, someone like that PH is standing nearby with his .458 Winchester Magnum repeating rifle.

There are many who will argue that dangerous game hunting alone is a poor practice no matter what kind of firearm is being used and I agree. It is amazing how fast most predators are. Very rarely will most of us have a chance at a second shot, no matter what we are using, if the animal doesnít turn upon the first shot. However, most animals will turn and a repeater will provide a quick backup shot. A single shot will not. The animal will either be down, on top of you, or out of sight before you reload. If a hunter gets a second shot at a charging dangerous game animal with a single shot, he either fired the first shot too early or so badly incapacitated the animal with the first shot that it was no longer an immediate threat. Guides are required for dangerous game hunts in Alaska or Africa. That guide will be armed with something much heavier than most of us are comfortable shooting and the single shot hunter will be relatively safe. I wouldnít have a problem hunting dangerous game with a Ruger No. 1 for instance, but I would not pick it as my primary rifle if I were alone in a dangerous game situation. Get my drift?

I prefer a Ruger No. 1 for heavy loads over any tip up design. The falling block Ruger No. 1 is a design that will dependably handle any big game round. Tip up style single shots are usually adequate for rounds up to .375 Holland and Holland flanged or 9.3x74R, but as recoil levels climb it is difficult to build enough weight into the rifle to tolerate the recoil. A tip-up rifle weighing over 9 lbs. becomes too barrel heavy and can be difficult to manage. A falling block design is not only stronger and better balanced, but also a small breech block is much easier to manage quickly than an overweight barrel attached to a tip up frame.

Many bolt action rifle designs which are perfectly adequate for normal hunting, begin to demonstrate some serious flaws under the recoil of heavy dangerous game loads. Sights shoot loose, magazine floorplates spring open, stocks fail, safety switches and triggers malfunction, scope mounts donít hold, cartridges will not eject or feed properly. Just because a sporting repeater is chambered for a heavy round doesnít mean that it can dependably handle the abuse of such loads. Iíd much rather carry a good single shot chambered for an extremely heavy round than a poorly engineered repeater. This cost versus dependability advantage is one reason for the Ruger No. 1ís popularity.

A Ruger No. 1 has a positive ejection system that can be adjusted to clear a spent cartridge entirely from the breech with a forceful down-stroke of the breech block lever. An experienced hunter can recharge a Ruger No. 1 without looking down at the action. It takes practice and confidence in the rifle, but Iíve done it often. This is a great Ruger advantage over break-action single shots and my rolling block replica, where I have to shift my attention away from the game to monitor cartridge extraction and loading.

Single shots are not a good choice for close cover flushing shots. I have a couple of ďbrush busterĒ single shots for deer and feral hog hunting. I use these muzzleloaders for still hunting very thick foliage during the muzzleloader season. Both are short barreled affairs loaded with a heavy weight conical and equipped for easy access to both open iron or low magnification scope sights. Both are purposely set up for less than fifty yard shots and have been effective, but neither will rival a pump action slug gun or .30-30 lever action carbine in the same conditions.

There are certain situations that are better suited to a single shot. A shot from a rest where the shooter has time to take careful aim is the best. For many of us, that is the most common deer shot taken, either from a ground blind or tree stand. A compact break action single shot is very well suited for this duty. It is easier to manipulate a compact rifle in tight quarters and a single shot can easily be fully unloaded for transfer into a blind or stand.

A single shot does very well in long range situations, such as mule deer or American pronghorn antelope hunting. Many times, the animal is not aware of the missed first shot or the gunís report. There is time to reload, recalculate the distance and carefully aim. These single shots tend to be heavier and longer barreled than most for stability. I hunted with a Ruger No. 1B in .300 Weatherby Magnum for several seasons and it was an ideal plains rifle.

The only Ruger Number One I have right now is a No. 1H Tropical in .458 Winchester Magnum. It is my favorite single shot. It is a compact, hefty rifle weighing nine pounds with an overall length of 40-1/2Ē. I have not mounted a scope on it. I normally load this No. 1 with competitively priced 405-grain round nose jacketed soft points from Wisconsin Cartridge of Friendship, Wisconsin. I have the power of a hot loaded .45-70 for most of my hunting and the instant option of using dangerous game loads. There are many used .458 Win. Mag., Ruger No. 1H rifles on the market in pristine condition, because most shooters donít like the recoil generated by full power loads. A No. 1H shooting reduced .458 Win. Mag. loads is an excellent brush and mountain hunter. (See the Reloading page for reduced power .458 handloads.)

I have a .45-70 Pedersoli rolling block replica primarily for reenactment, but it would make an excellent rifle for some of the Southern statesí primitive arms seasons, as would any of the falling block or trap door replicas. Most of these replicas are expensive, weaker and not as versatile as a Ruger No. 1.

I have been hunting recently with a pair of break action Traditions Outfitters. I use a .243 with 3-9x scope for windy day coyote calling and a .30-06 with a 1.5-6X scope for deer and feral hog hunting. They are compact, sturdy, handy and reminiscent of European stalking rifles. I used a .223 KP1 Knight for a year and it was a solid coyote, jack rabbit and prairie dog rifle. I owned an extremely accurate .30-06 Mossberg SSI-One until the model was discontinued. I have owned several H&R single shots chambered in .223, .22-250 and .308. All were accurate and dependable. My son chose a .223 H&R Superlight for backpacking, survival and mountain bike hunting with satisfying results. There are similar tip-up designs available from Thompson/Center, Remington, Rossi, NEF and CVA.

Tip-ups are compact and easy to handle in tight areas. Tip-ups are easy to pack and carry. Most tip-up single shots weigh from 7 to 7-Ĺ pounds to help control recoil, but I donít like shooting heavier rounds than .30-06 in them. Load and barrel condition can be checked instantly. Barrel obstructions can be cleared with much less trouble than any repeater. A single shot can be loaded quickly, but transported completely empty, so I often carry one in my truck. Both of my Traditions Outfitters are equipped with Butler Creek Alaskan Magnum cartridge loop slings. Loading from sling loops isnít especially fast, but extra rounds are always with the rifle.

Most tip-up rifles have two potential disadvantages. Scopes, mounts and rings need to be monitored regularly to make certain they havenít worked loose from the activity of opening and closing the action. Tip-ups are not as handy for reloading from a prone shooting position. (Or at a bench rest on the rifle range! -Editor) Both of these negative traits can be significantly reduced by developing the habit of holding firmly to the forearm of the rifle and allowing the butt and trigger assembly to drop away from the barrel rather than allowing the heavy barrel and scope to drop while holding the butt assembly. By doing this the shooter maintains firm control of the heaviest and longest part of the rifle and allows the shorter, lighter rear end to drop down. This also allows the strong shooting hand to unload, recharge and close the rifle action without making a grip change.

Equipment that you might consider for enhancing a single shot are: a quick backup cartridge access device, shooting sticks or a bipod and good sights. The finer aim you can take the better, so a good set of receiver sights, tang mounted peep sights, or a scope help with field accuracy. Shooting sticks or a bipod steady any rifle and help make that first shot a confident one. A cartridge loop wrist band is especially nice in cold weather, when the shooter is wearing bulky clothing. A good vest, belt loop, or stock mounted cartridge band can decrease reloading time; the trick is to find a comfortable system and use nothing else. I have always preferred carrying my extra rounds in an easily accessible belt pouch, or in belt loops.

A thorough knowledge of game anatomy is especially important for a single shot hunter to make the most of that first shot, but this knowledge is the responsibility of all hunters. A single shot hunter should be a conservative shooter and only attempt high percentage shots but, again, isnít this ture of all responsible hunters? Single shot firearms reduce the temptation toward irresponsible shooting and force the hunter to be mindful of the shooting challenge and responsibility.

A single shot is a fine choice for pure sport hunting. I find myself planning more carefully, stalking closer and shooting more conservatively with any of my single shot rifles. Iím always working to get as close as I can and a few yards closer before taking a shot. Those stalking challenges enhance the experience and change my hunting attitude with all firearms.

There have been times when I regretted carrying a single shot rifle. I missed and I couldnít do anything, but watch my game escape. In spite of that, I still grab a single shot as often as not, because my memories of those lost trophies are just as vivid as the successes. Iíve become addicted to single shot hunting. I would not choose a single shot as my only rifle, but Iíll always have a single shot as one of my rifles.

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