Sep 9, 2017
You don’t see them much anymore, but there was a time when single shot guns were part of just about every young boy’s life. When I was growing up in the 1960s, it seemed every hunter started with a single shot shotgun. I know I did and most of my buddies in those years did too. Single shot shotguns were an economical way to introduce young boys to shooting and hunting. Also, there was the belief if you only had one shot you would learn to make it count, so starting with a single shot would eventually make you a better shooter. When I was growing up, single shot shotguns were popular and you could find them all over. When I was 14, I started cutting grass for some of the neighbors. A large lawn, taking the better part of an afternoon, would get me $5. I saved that money for my first shotgun. Obviously, the cash flow for a young teenage grass cutter wasn’t great, so I knew the best I was going to afford was a single shot.
After about a month of cutting grass, I walked into a hardware store where I had been admiring a trim, used, 20 gauge break-open, single shot shotgun for some time. It was a Winchester Model 37 and of all the single shot shotguns I looked at it was the nicest looking gun I saw. I wanted that gun bad and was afraid someone else was going to get it before me, so I was greatly relieved when I walked into the hardware store to find the gun was still there. Now I had the $25 to pay for it. Yes, in 1964 you could buy a gun for 25 bucks and a 14-year-old boy could walk in, hand the clerk his money and walk out with a gun without an adult. In those days, it was just assumed if you had the money and you were there to buy a gun you had to have your parents’ permission. Things have changed a lot since then. I probably had to actually have a couple more dollars to buy a case for my new gun and a couple more dollars for the recently instituted Wisconsin sales tax, so it probably came to about $30 total, which would have required one more grass cutting. It would take almost another month of cutting grass for me to get a gun cleaning kit and a couple boxes of shells. As I recall, a box of shells in those days was about $5, or another grass cutting for me. The hunting license would eventually require another couple more grass cuttings.
I got an old hunting jacket and hunting pants from a cousin. He was much older than me, and the jacket and pants belonged to his father-in-law who had recently passed away. Apparently, his father-in-law was about my size and I was fairly big for a 14-year-old, so my cousin figured it would fit me. It did, and I wore that jacket for years. I was all set for opening day of pheasant hunting season. I had my first shotgun and a hunting jacket. What more could any teenager need? For me, it was as much anticipated a date as Christmas. My parents weren’t real pleased I wanted to hunt, but accepted that if I was old enough to buy my own gun they might as well let me go hunting. My father, who never hunted, felt I might need a bit of fatherly supervision so he also bought a single shot 16 gauge shotgun so he could come along to look after me. His single shot was made by Savage and was, much older than my little Winchester.
A week before pheasant hunting I was proudly showing my shotgun off to one of our neighbors who Father and I were going to hunt with on opening day. We lived in the country and knew several of the local farmers, so we had places to hunt. As we were looking at it, I noticed the hammer had no resistance. Although I didn’t know much about guns then I recognized this didn’t look good. My neighbor looked at it and diagnosed it as a broken spring. I was devastated. This couldn’t happen. Opening day was only a week away. I didn’t know what to do. I almost cried. Luckily my neighbor said he could get it to a gunsmith and have it repaired in time for opening day. He was true to his word, and on Opening Day of the pheasant hunting season he showed up with my gun. It was repaired, and for the next seven or eight years I owned it, I never had another problem with it. Shortly after the season opened at noon, we were working through a cornfield. In front of me, a rooster pheasant was running. I brought up my single shot, thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger. I hit him and he tumbled over dead. It was my first pheasant- on my first opening day of pheasant hunting season with my new gun. It was a great day.
That little 20 gauge served me well. Over those few years, I shot pheasants, rabbits, and ducks with it. A year later, a buddy of mine and I started serious duck hunting on an island in Lake Winnebago. He didn't have a gun so I lent him my 20 gauge and I took over my father’s single shot 16 gauge. We shot a lot of ducks together. Father’s 16 gauge became a second gun to me. Father was a good shot with his single shot, and I saw him drop his share of geese with it.
Some years later,, when I first was married and going to college I needed money and eventually sold my little 20 gauge for what I paid for it years earlier. I thought I got a good deal. Now as I look back on it, I wished I had not done that and still regret selling it to this day. My father kept his single shot for a number of years. It took its share of beatings. Eventually, the forearm was beginning to fall off so Father taped it back on with black electrical tape. But it could still shoot. Sadly, many years after I left home and Father was no longer interested in hunting, that battered 16 gauge single shot was given away to another family member and subsequently sold. I missed that gun. It was a piece of my boyhood.
Single shot shotguns did not have a safety. The safety was the hammer. As long as the hammer was not pulled back, it was on safe. When a bird or rabbit flushed you brought the gun up, pulled back the hammer, aimed and shot. It seemed a bit complicated with several things happening to successfully get off a shot, but after a couple of times, it seemed very natural.
Also in those days, there were single shot rifles. Although I never had one, a number of my hunting buddies did. Again it was considered the ideal, inexpensive starter rifle for beginner hunters. The .22 caliber was one of the most popular single shot rifles and accounted for its fair share of rabbits and squirrels. Single shot rifles were mostly bolt action guns, especially the .22. However, I seem to remember seeing a few break-open model .22s in those years as well. The bolt action guns would have a safety on them like any other firearm.
From the days of my youth, single shot guns have lost popularity. I have noticed in the last 20 years that I seldom see a single shot shotgun on any gun rack, either new or used, and I can’t tell you when was the last time I saw a single shot .22. I have seen some very expensive and fancy single shot shotguns used exclusively for trap shooting in gun magazines. As well, there are some single shot rifles, primarily in .22 caliber, used for competitive target shooting. For years, European hunters have used single shot big game rifles where they still remain popular.
Stevens, Winchester, and Savage, who made most of the single shot shotguns I remember from my youth, stopped making them by the 1980s. However, Harrington and Richardson have continued to offer both single shot shotguns and rifles. They are all break-open models. In shotguns, they have seven models in various sizes from 12, 20, 28 gauge and the .410. Plus they also have a trap shooting model in only 12 gauge. In rifles, they had a variety of offerings ranging in calibers from .444, .243, .22-250, .243, .25-06, .30/06, .308, .7mm, .45/70, .500 and, of course, the traditional .30/30.
Recently, thanks to Henry Repeating Arms Company, single shot firearms have found a new home. This year production began at their Rice Lake, Wisconsin facility manufacturing two models of single shot shotguns, as well as two models of single shot rifles. The shotguns come in 12 and 20 gauge plus the .410. The steel rifle is chambered in .223, .243, .308, .44 magnum and .45-70. The brass model only comes in.44 magnum and .45-70. Both shotguns and rifles have break-open actions. The steel frame shotguns and rifles are priced at $427 and the brass shotguns and rifles are priced at $549 in their spring 2017 catalog.
In their catalog, Henry says of their shotguns, “One thing we want to emphasize is that these shotguns are not intended to be budget entries-our standards are high and you can count on them for the long run.” Their catalog on their rifles states, “Make no mistake though while some might consider a single shot an entry-level proposition, we build these to the same high standards as all our fine center fire rifles, and not to be a budget model in any sense of the word. Born to hunt, we expect you to work this gun, and work it hard.”
Henry, for some time, has also made a single shot .22 caliber bolt action rifle especially designed for young shooters called the Henry Mini Bolt Youth. It is both a target and hunting rifle. According to their catalog, their rifle is, “So highly regarded by the US Olympic Shooting Team as an entry-level rifle for its performance and accuracy that they named our Mini Bolt as the Official Youth Rifle of their program.” My beloved Winchester Model 37 was made from 1936 to 1963. I recently did an internet search and found my little 20 gauge is now valued over $500. Not bad for a gun you could buy used in the 1960s for 25 bucks.
So it seems the single shot has not been completely lost, but it has changed greatly from the days when a kid could go into a hardware store, plunk down the money he made cutting neighbors’ lawns, walk out with a single shot shotgun and go hunting. For those of us who grew up on single shot shotguns, regardless if we abandoned them later for pumps and semiautomatics, they will always be a part of our lives and memories.