Stevens Single-Shot Pisols

Elegant, simple and still eminently shootable

The single-shot “Bicycle” rifle (with detachable stock) Holt is shooting comes equipped with
an unusual peep sight featuring an aperture selection disk.

There is an elegance to the single-shot pistol not reflected in revolvers or semi-autos. They’re sleek, simple in action, easy to tune and nicely balanced. On the range, the basic acts of breaking the pistol open, extracting a spent shell, loading a fresh cartridge and again bringing up the gun gave a marksman time to settle his nerves, control his breathing and focus on cleanly breaking the next shot.

No American single-shot pistol embodied those qualities better than the 14 distinct models produced by the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Co. and Savage from the patent date of 1864 to the discontinuance of the Offhand No. 35 Model in 1942.

It was a good, solid run of 78 years.

Stevens single-shot pistols once dominated match competition. Holt likewise tests his “one-handed” match skills.

Stevens poster

“Walk along the firing line of a 50-yard pistol match being shot in the 1880s and 1890s and you would find men, properly attired in business suits and hats, shooting a Stevens single shot.”

Enter Joshua Stevens

Born in 1814 and professionally associated as a master machinist and toolmaker for Cyrus B. Allen of Springfield, Massachusetts, Samuel Colt, Edward Wesson and the Massachusetts Arms Co., Joshua Stevens was 50 years old when he filed his patent in 1864 for a breech loading tip-up action that would launch the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Co.

The basic action provided the foundation for an expansive family of Stevens pistols, rifles and shotguns. By January 1, 1902, the factory covered 451,000 square feet (10.3 acres!), employed over 1,000 men and women, and was declared by Stevens as being the “largest producer of firearms for sporting purposes in the world.”

An equally important claim that Stevens could make was his company’s development and launch of the .22 Long Rifle cartridge in 1886-1887. As explained in their catalog — “The .22-calibre Long-rifle cartridge was originated by this company and brought about by a demand for a cartridge which would have a longer and more accurate range than the .22 Short cartridge. The .22 Short cartridge will shoot with remarkable accuracy at 75 feet. The .22 Long-rifle cartridge in a Stevens rifle is a marvel of accuracy … some remarkedly fine targets have been made with it up to and including 200 yards, and even farther, under favorable weather conditions.”

If you were to turn back the clock and walk along the firing line of a 50-yard pistol match being shot in the 1880s and 1890s, you would find men, properly attired in business suits and hats, shooting a Stevens single-shot, target-grade pistol chambered for the “.22 Long-rifle” cartridge loaded by UMC, probably with 5 grains of black powder and a 40-gr. bullet.

Because the production records of Stevens’ single shots have been lost, the quantities of each model manufactured and the serial number ranges are unknown. Nevertheless, Stevens pistols keep showing up at gun shows and in gun stores. They are not uncommon and, thankfully, don’t command premium prices for the more common models.

Stevens originals and German-made replicas, like the Offhand Target No. 35 (right),
shoot very well indeed.

Simplicity in Action

The Stevens action is brilliant in its simplicity. The trigger with its integral sear bears directly on the hammer, which sports a half-cock safety notch and a full cock notch. It’s an easy trigger to tune for weight of pull.

The barrel pivots on a thru-bolt at the front of the frame. The barrel is locked and unlocked by a pushbutton-operated traverse bolt that locks into a slot milled into the right side of the breech. The manual extractor is operated by an articulated arm attached to the bottom of the frame and the extractor extension. Typically, the firing pin is not spring-loaded — and most original guns exhibit some peening at the edge of the chamber caused by dry-firing the pistol without a fired case in place.

The angle and length of the grip are perfect. When the pistol is raised, you’re naturally looking directly at the sights and target. The balance is muzzle-heavy, but the vertical angle of the grip compensates for this, making the Stevens a very stable shooting platform indeed. Stevens himself referred to this quality as “hang.”

The deliberate, methodical operation required to make a Stevens single shot ready
can help take the edge off a tense match.

Originals and Replicas

I’ve recently been shooting two original Stevens and an exacting replica produced in Germany and imported years ago by the old Hy-Hunter Company of Hollywood, California.

The original pistol was cataloged as the Offhand Target No. 35. It’s the most common model you’ll stumble across. This example is chambered in .22 LR. With walnut grips, nickel-plated frame and blued barrel, it’s good-looking and very accurate. The early version pictured here has a thick, cast, trigger guard — later replaced with a lighter, strap iron guard. Barrel lengths were 6, 8, and 10″ while available chamberings included .22 Short or Long Rifle, .22 WRF and .25 Stevens.

The original rifle model pictured with its 18″ barrel and detachable skeleton stock (with matching serial number), providing an overall rifle length of 32″ was cataloged as the New Model No. 40 Bicycle Rifle. It was offered with 12, 15 and 18″ barrels chambered in .22 LR, .25 Stevens and .32 Long RF. The .22 LR example was loaned to us by Jim Sharrah’s Frontier Gun Shop in Tucson. It’s an intriguing looking rifle with its hooded, pin-headed front sight and an unusual rear peep fitted with a rotating, aperture selection disk. Perfect for a Sunday bike ride in 1890 I suppose!

The faux, ivory-gripped Hy-Hunter replica is a knockoff of the Offhand Target Model No. 35. It’s really a high-quality copy. If you can find one they’re cheaper than the real McCoy but carry all the nostalgia of those originals.

Stevens produced 14 different models of America’s most popular single-shot pistol from Plain Jane models through upscale target models named after prominent shooters of the day such as “Lord,” “Gould” and “Conlin” plus rifles and shotguns using the same basic action. Keep your eye out for them. They’re as elegant and accurate as the day they were made and a perfect learning platform for a beginning shooter. Heck, given the faddish nature of our sport, we may even see the return of the single-shot pistol match.

But let’s do it in proper period attire!

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