New England Firearms Single Shot Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

Synthetic Handi-Rifle
Illustration courtesy of H&R 1871 LLC.

The Harrington & Richardson (H&R) gun company dates back to 1871, when it was founded as Wesson & Harrington. For over 100 years H&R manufactured inexpensive handguns, shotguns, and rifles. In the 1980's the old H&R Company fell on hard times, and in January of 1986 they went out of business.

H&R 1871, Inc. was formed in 1991 and manufactured double action revolvers and break-open rifles and shotguns of basic H&R design using the H&R and New England Firearms (NEF) trademarks. NEF revolver production ceased in 1999. In 2000 Marlin purchased H&R 1871, also acquiring the New England Firearms and Wesson & Harrington trademarks.

Whether marked NEF or H&R, these rifles come out of the same factory in Gardner, Massachusetts and are functionally identical. The Harrington & Richardson name, of course, is probably better known to the older generation of shooters, but guns bearing the NEF trademark seem to be more widely distributed today.

NEF rifles are among the least expensive on the market. Their low price naturally appeals to beginning hunters, or anyone on a tight budget. These inexpensive utility rifles have garnered considerable consumer interest in recent years.

They generally resemble the single barreled, break-action shotguns with which many bird and small game hunters got their start and are, in fact, based on the same basic action as the old H&R single barreled shotguns. This is a simple action with an exposed hammer that must be cocked before every shot. A new, more complicated, transfer bar system to help prevent accidental discharges has replaced the traditional rebounding hammer. Thank the tort lawyers for that change.

The trigger and plastic trigger guard are well shaped. Surprisingly, the trigger pull of the Stainless Handi-Rifle reviewed for this article is excellent, considerably better than most contemporary bolt action rifles. It has a clean release that averages about 2.5 pounds in weight on my RCBS Deluxe trigger pull gauge.

The action is opened by depressing a metal tab (button) located to the right rear of the hammer, rather than by the more common (to traditional double gun users) pivoted thumb lever located behind the hammer. The advantage of this location is that it keeps the opening lever away from the web of the shooting hand when firing cartridges that generate substantial recoil. NEF rifles are available in calibers including .30-06 and .45-70, so this is probably a pious idea.

This unusual side lever release works fine. The action opens easily and closes securely. The weight of the barrel alone is sufficient to swing the action open after the release is depressed. As with any break-action gun, close the action gently. It is slamming the action closed, not shooting, that loosens break-action guns. Lefties will find the action particularly convenient to operate.

The simple, non-selective ejector tosses any cartridge that happens to be in the chamber out of the rifle when the action is opened, regardless of whether it has been fired. Those who wish to save their brass for reloading will soon learn to put their free hand just behind the gun's breech as it is opened to keep the ejector from throwing their brass to the ground. Ditto when removing unfired cartridges from the gun.

The metal finish on the standard Handi-Rifles and Sportsters consists of a matte blued barrel and action. The only exception is the Stainless Handi-Rifle, which wears a matte silver finish. The polish of all metal parts leaves something to be desired, but that is a common criticism these days.

The NEF rifle line is somewhat confusing and subject to change as regards specific features and specifications. Iron sights are provided on some NEF rifles, a Weaver-type scope rail (and hammer extension) on others, depending on caliber and barrel style. Rifles that do not come with iron sights are generally supplied with stocks having Monte Carlo combs; stocks with flat combs are usually supplied on rifles that come with iron sights. White line spacers are used between the recoil pad and buttstock of a few models or calibers with hardwood stocks, but not others.

According to the 2003 catalog, for instance, the adult Handi-Rifle in caliber 7mm-08 comes with a hardwood Monte Carlo style stock, no white line spacer, and a roughly cylindrical forearm with a flat tip. No other Handi-Rifle caliber combines these particular features.

The two most common NEF rifle models are the Handi-Rifle and the Synthetic Handi-Rifle. The two-piece pistol grip stock and forearm of the regular Handi-Rifle is made from "walnut finished" American hardwood that really does not look much like walnut. The pistol grip buttstock and forearm of the Synthetic Handi-Rifle are made from a matte black injection molded polymer. Both materials were clearly chosen for their low cost.

Both the synthetic and hardwood stocks have an amorphous, bulky shape. Neither type of stock is checkered and neither has a fluted comb. The pistol grip of the synthetic stock is better defined than its hardwood equivalent, but it is still not going to win any awards for design. Wood (or plastic) to metal fit is tight, but the stock is left very proud where it meets the metal. These stocks are supplied with a ventilated recoil pad. The recoil pad seems to be fitted better on the synthetic models than on the wooden stocked models I have seen. Studs for detachable sling swivels are provided.

The standard hardwood forearm has a crude Schnabel form; it looks as if it were shaped with a chain saw. The plastic forearm has a more conventional shape with a long horizontal finger groove and a rounded tip. As much as I dislike plastic stocks, in the case of the NEF rifles, the synthetic version is probably more attractive.

In 2003 Synthetic Handi-Rifles were offered in centerfire calibers .22 Hornet, .223 Remington, .243 Winchester, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .30-30, .30-06, .357 Magnum, .44 Remington Magnum, and .45-70. Handi-Rifles with hardwood stocks were available in all of these calibers plus 7mm-08 and .308 Winchester. Standard barrel length was 22" for all calibers except .280, which came with a 26" barrel.

The basic 2003 specifications for the standard NEF Handi-Rifle are as follows. (Synthetic Handi-Rifles come with a polymer stock but are otherwise identical.) Action: break-open with side release lever. Stock: walnut finished American hardwood pistol grip stock with recoil pad and detachable sling swivel studs. Length of pull: 14.25". Overall length: 38" (with 22" barrel). Weight: 7 pounds. Sights: ramp front and fully adjustable open rear; drilled and tapped for scope mounts. (Rifles in calibers .223, .243, .270, 7mm-08, .280, .308, and .30-06 are supplied with scope mounting rail and offset hammer spur instead of iron sights.) MSRP: $264 (Synthetic $274).

The Stainless Handi-Rifle features a 22" stainless steel barrel and a matching nickel-plated receiver. The stock is identical to that of the Synthetic Handi-Rifle. This is the weather resistant version of the Handi-rifle, available in calibers .223 and .243. A scope mounting rail, hammer extension, detachable sling swivels and sling are included; iron sights are not. The barrel on the .223 sample I tested (and ended up purchasing) has what I would call a "semi-heavy" contour barrel. I find this black and silver model to be the most attractive Handi-Rifle variant. Basic specifications are similar to those of standard Handi-Rifles; MSRP $325.

For the varmint shooter there is a dedicated Handi-Rifle Bull Barrel Varmint model, available in .223 and .243 calibers. This variation comes with a Monte Carlo hardwood stock. A white line spacer sets off its recoil pad.

Other variations include a Superlight Handi-Rifle in adult and youth dimensions, and a Survivor model. Again, models and specifications are subject to change.

For 2003 all Superlight Handi-Rifles feature a lightweight synthetic buttstock, are supplied with a lightweight contour 20" barrel, and come with a sling. Calibers are .22 Hornet, .223, and .243. Adult models weigh about 5.5 pounds; length of pull is 14.25" and overall length is 35.25". The .22 Hornet Superlight stock comes with a flat, fluted (!) comb and the barrel sports iron sights. In .223 and .243 the Superlight stock has an unfluted Monte Carlo comb. These rifles come with a scope mount rail and hammer extension, but lack iron sights; MSRP $274.

Superlight Youth rifles are supplied with iron sights and a synthetic stock with a flat, fluted comb. Calibers remain .22 Hornet, .223, and .243. LOP is 11.75" and overall length is 33"; weight is only 5.33 pounds. In other respects they are similar to the adult model.

The Survivor Bull Barrel comes in .223 and .308 calibers only. This unusual rifle features a hollow, synthetic, thumbhole style buttstock. The buttstock and forearm have internal storage compartments, and are thumbscrew removable. The Survivor also comes with a scope mounting rail, hammer extension, and a sling; it does not come with iron sights, however. LOA is 36", LOP is 13.5", weight is 6 pounds, MSRP $227.

NEF Sportster model rifles are chambered for the rimfire .22 LR, .22 WMR, and .17 HMR calibers. All adult Sportster rifles come with Monte Carlo synthetic stocks equipped with a recoil pad and detachable sling swivel studs. Also included are a scope base and an offset hammer spur. The Sportster 17 (.17 HMR caliber) rifle comes with a 22" heavy contour bull barrel, the .22's come with standard contour 20" barrels. .22 caliber Sportsters weigh 5.5 pounds; the Sportster 17 weighs 7 pounds; MSRP $160. Other specifications are generally similar to the Handi-Rifle.

Youth models with shortened stocks (11.75" LOP) are offered in both the Handi-Rifle and Sportster lines. Youth calibers include .22 LR, .22 WMR, .22 Hornet, .223 Remington, .243 Winchester and 7mm-08 Rem. The Handi-Rifle Youth has a hardwood stock with a Monte Carlo comb; a scope mount is provided but not iron sights. The Sportster Youth model has a black synthetic stock with a flat comb and also comes with a scope mounting rail but not iron sights.

It is worth noting that all of these NEF rifles are heavily discounted. For example, I priced the Stainless Handi-Rifle at $252 in the Sporting Goods Department of my local discount department store.

NEF also makes a muzzleloading rifle (the Huntsman) and a Versa-Pack combo model with both .22 rifle and .410 shotgun barrels. There are also shotgun versions of the Survivor. These, however, are outside the purview of this article.

The user reports that I have received from NEF owners have generally been positive. Most rifle buyers seem to feel that they received good value for their money.

Handi-Rifles generally deliver adequate accuracy for a hunting rifle of their caliber. This is especially true considering their low price. The good trigger definitely aids accurate shooting, and single shot rifles are particularly convenient for use at a rifle range, where regulations often require that all rifles be single loaded.

Note: A complete review of the NEF Handi-Rifle rifle can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2003, 2005 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.