50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
1885 HIGH WALL
While the 1860 Henry Repeating Rifle can rightfully be credited as the gun that started the Winchester lever-action legacy, it was actually a single-shot invented 19 years later that paved the way for the company’s continued success and profitability well into the smokeless powder era.
On May 12, 1879, John Moses Browning, just 24 years of age, and his younger half-brother Ed, received a patent for a single-shot, falling breech rifle they had invented. The Browning brothers soon began manufacturing and selling their Model 1878 Single Shot from their modest shop in Ogden, Utah. The octagon barreled guns were stamped “Browning Bros, Ogden Utah, USA” across the top barrel flat and are now exceedingly rare, with the few surviving specimens commanding figures well into five-digit ranges.
By 1883, with slightly less than 600 of the hand-built Browning single-shots sold, word of the rifle’s existence reached T.G. Bennett, Oliver Winchester’s son-in-law, who was also vice president of the company. Bennett knew Winchester was losing out to the Marlin 1881 lever-action, especially in its .45-70 chambering, as a large segment of the hunting market was demanding heavier bullets for dangerous game. Winchester’s Model 1873 and 1876 repeaters, with their short actions and toggle link systems, could not handle these longer, more powerful cartridges. Bennett also knew his father-in-law’s company had to expand its line, if it was to remain competitive, and back then, just as it is today, one of the great debates was whether a rapid-fire repeater was more effective than one well-placed and more powerful bullet from a single-shot.
The collapse of the Sharps Rifle Company, in 1881, left the field open for a new sporting rifle that could handle the more popular big-game rounds of the day. Thus, Bennett decided to make the long, dusty train trip from New Haven to Ogden and, after arriving in town and doing some diligent searching, he strode into the Browning gun shop. Bennett was surprised to discover that the two “workmen” he saw huddled over their benches intently building rifles were actually John and Ed Browning. He promptly offered them $8,000 for their patent and all their single-shot inventory. The Browning brothers agreed, and Winchester soon began tooling up for what would become one of the most versatile single-shot rifles in firearms history.
First, Winchester set about slightly revamping the stock and receiver dimensions, ending up with a more graceful looking gun. The company also renamed it the Winchester Model 1885, although it was initially referred to as simply the Winchester Single Shot in catalogs, a notable departure from the famous Winchester Repeating Rifles moniker. This first Browning-designed Winchester rifle made its debut in November 1885. It incorporated an open-curved finger lever similar to that of the Maynard No. 16 Target Rifle. When the lever was thrown forward, a solid breechblock dropped, which withdrew the floating firing pin and exposed the breech for loading and cleaning. Closing the breech automatically cocked the hammer, readying it for the next shot. Of course, the exposed hammer could be manually cocked or lowered, as well. Unlike the Sharps, which featured a large, heavy side hammer and an angled firing pin, the Model 1885 sported a much lighter, centrally mounted hammer and a firing pin that was in line with the bore. It consequently had a fast lock time and accuracy was superb. Small wonder the rifle was embraced by hunters and target shooters alike.
But then, why shouldn’t it have been? From the onset, buyers had a choice of single or double set triggers, no less than five different barrel weights, four different frame sizes, straight or pistol grip stocks, checkered or plain stocks in different grades of walnut, and an almost limitless choice of front and rear sights. During the course of its production, the Model 1885 encompassed Sporting Rifles (with straight gripped stock), Special Sporting Rifles (with pistol grip), Military Muskets, spur lever Schuetzens with adjustable palm rests and extended butt plates, and an ultra-rare baby carbine. All came with a wooden (later brass) cleaning rod. Takedown options and engraving could be special ordered on any of these versions.
Most impressive was the incredible number of calibers offered for the Winchester Model 1885. During its lifetime, no less than 65 chamberings were available, ranging from .22 Short all the way up to the .50-140 Winchester Express (basically the same as the .50-140 Sharps, but reintroduced in the late 1880s to take advantage of the Model 1885’s popularity). Sandwiched in between were such versatile rounds as the .405 Winchester and even the .30-06. Because of these vast and varied caliber designations, two versions of the Model 1885 were eventually created. The original configuration is now known as the High Wall, as its receiver frame concealed all of the breechblock, with just the hammer spur exposed for cocking. For smaller-sized cartridges, a Low Wall design emerged right around the 5,000 serial number range. This variation featured a slightly scaled-down receiver in which all of the breechblock and hammer were exposed. Both High Wall and Low Wall rifles were numbered in the same Model 1885 serial range. Generally, Low Walls had barrel lengths of 24 or 26 inches, while High Walls sported 30-inch barrels, but there were numerous variations, depending on the customer’s desires.
Initially all single-shots came with case hardened receivers, but right around 1910, in the 90,000 serial range, blued receivers became standard. Somewhere between the 100,000 to 110,000 range, the flat mainspring was changed to coil and the hammer was redesigned so that it was brought to half cock, rather than full, when the lever was closed.
With 139,725 Model 1885 Single Shots produced, production was finally halted, in 1920. By that time, Winchester had become legendary with Browning-designed lever-actions that included Models 1886, ’92, ’94, and ’95—none of which might have been possible had it not been for the Model 1885, a single -shot rifle that introduced John M. Browning to Winchester, thereby launching one of the most successful collaborations in firearms history.
Many years ago, I purchased a brand new Browning 78, which was basically an updated reintroduction of the older Hi Wall, in .30-06. I outfitted this graceful, tapered octagon-barreled rifle with a Leopold Vari-X scope and with that combination went on to make some respectable long-range one-shot kills, including a 375-yard shot on a Wyoming antelope. I had failed earlier in that day with my muzzleloader at 60 yards—go figure! But now I think it is time to do some hunting with the real deal, so the Winchester 1885 High Wall goes on my bucket list. I’ll know the right caliber when I find the right gun.