Senior Correspondent John Dunn
The period from the end of the American Civil War in 1865 through to the early 1900s is regarded by many as the golden age of single-shot rifles. That timeframe more or less parallels the development of the self-contained metallic cartridge we know today as well as modern repeating rifles that came into their own in the 1890s.
Single-shot rifles were manufactured in a multitude of designs by a host of makers who gave the firearms world names such as Ballard, Maynard, Remington, Sharps, Winchester and Stevens - all of which are collectable firearms today - along with other brand names that never quite made the big time but are part of the single-shot story anyway.
Of all the various makers, no other company produced as wide a range of single-shot pistols, rifles and shotguns as Stevens.
J. Stevens and Company was founded at Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts in 1864, Joshua Stevens being the senior partner with W.B. Fay and James Taylor providing financial backing. The company began to produce vest and pocket pistols based on Stevens’ patent of September 6, 1864 as well as a line of precision machinists tools such as callipers and dividers.
In 1886 the firm was dissolved and the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company incorporated. Stevens sold his shares in 1896 at which time he ceased to be associated with the company. By 1902 it was promoting itself as the largest producer of sporting arms in the world, a claim many arms historians regard as probably true.
In 1916 it was reorganised and renamed the J. Stevens Arms Company. In 1920 the Savage Arms Corporation bought the entire stock and the two merged. The J. Stevens Arms Company operated as a Savage subsidiary finally being integrated in 1920.
The Stevens Ideal rifles
The first Stevens ‘Removable Sideplate’ Ideal rifle was made for a short period from 1893 to mid-1894. As the name suggests it had a removable sideplate. Not a lot were produced and today this is one of the rarer and more desirable rifles for Stevens’ collectors.
The Stevens Ideal rifle No. 44 was made from 1894 and some say it ceased production in 1933 but this can’t be right. I have a Stoeger Arms Corporation handbook dated 1939 that lists four Stevens target and small game rifles, all rimfires built on the 44 action. Noted American single-shot expert Frank de Haas wrote that the model did not cease production until 1947. Whatever the exactitudes of the date may be, it is generally accepted that around 100,000 were produced in a range of rimfire and centrefire calibres.
In 1903-04 the Stevens Ideal 44½ was introduced. This was a stronger action designed for smokeless powders and led to the discontinuation of the old 44 action except in .22, .25 and .32 rimfire calibres and the .25-20 and .32-20 centrefire cartridges. The latter two had also been discontinued by the cessation of production. The 44½ ceased production in 1916.
Contemporaneous with the 44½ rifles was the 044½ or English Model rifle. It differed from the 44½ in that it carried a shotgun-style butt and had a slimmer, tapered barrel. Like the 44½ it too only lasted until 1916 and today both are highly collectable.
The Stevens Ideal rifle No. 44
The No. 44 is the most common of the Ideal rifles and good examples are still around for those prepared to look for them. Usually described as a falling block-type action, the rifle has also been called a tipping block and even a lever activated rolling block. The No. 52 Stevens catalogue of 1907 describes the rifle as a ‘drop lever’ action so it would seem that even the experts disagree about what sort of action it really is.
Call it what you will but the action operates as follows: When the finger lever is pushed down and forward the breech block swings back and down from the breech face, activating the extractor (for centrefire calibres) or ejector (for rimfires). In the same motion the hammer is pushed back into the half cock or safe position. With the breech block fully lowered a cartridge may be inserted part way into the chamber.
When the finger lever is pulled up and back against the wrist of the stock the breech block rises and closes the breech. To fire the rifle the hammer must be thumbed back into the full cock position before the trigger can be released.
The No. 44 receivers were made from cast steel with a colour case finish as were the hammer and finger lever. The number 44 was stamped on the front face of the receiver, hidden by the fore-end, or on the lower tang just behind the trigger. The earlier 44 actions used an extractor that worked on the left side of the breech but this was replaced with a central extractor in 1901.
About the same time the screws that supported the four main action parts were changed, provided with a notched locating/locking head that retained them in the left wall of the receiver.
In its most basic form the Ideal 44 had what is usually described as a part round/part octagonal blued barrel No. 2 weight, 24^ long in rimfire calibres, 26^ in centrefire. A standard rimfire No. 44 weighed 7lbs while centrefire calibres with their longer barrels were listed as 7¼lbs. In the 1925 catalogue only round barrelled 44 rifles in rimfire calibres were offered.
The front-sight was a standard blade and the sporting rear-sight ladder adjustable for elevation. Windage adjustments required the sights to be drifted in their dovetails. Barrels were screwed into the receiver and secured by a short set screw housed in the bottom front section of the receiver. This allowed the barrel to be removed for storage or transportation but perhaps more importantly provided the facility of changing barrels with a minimum of fuss – a sales pitch Stevens used in advertising.
Barrels were marked in a number of different ways and together with the extractor location these can be used to place a rifle within an era of production.
The two-piece stock was American walnut with an oil finish, the forearm attached to the barrel via a single screw. The buttstock was attached by wood screws through the top and bottom tangs of the receiver, the butt fitted with curved steel, rifle buttplate - sometimes blued, sometimes nickel plated.
Like so many other single-shot rifles of the era, a host of ‘extras’ could be ordered for an Ideal 44, including different barrel lengths and profiles to order, special calibres and sight variations or additions, all at extra cost. A number of other manufacturers also made after-market sights that could be fitted according to the whim or pocket of individual customers.
Despite its popularity the 44 action was not a particularly strong one. It handled target loads well enough but had a tendency to shoot loose with higher powered hunting loads. This was particularly true of both the .32-40 and .38-55 calibres, which were consequently discontinued in the 44 action.
At writing I have two Ideal 44 rifles in my collection, one a catalogue standard in .22 rimfire, the location of its extractor and the barrel stamping indicating it was made between 1901 and 1916. It’s a solid example of the model in good condition, albeit showing some external wear.
The other is a centrefire, chambered in .25-20, with most of the colour case hardening intact. The left side of the receiver is stamped: TRADE MARK, STEVENS, REG. US. PAT. OFF. & FGN.
The rear-sight is stock standard while the fore-sight is a combination with a fine globe in one position and hooded wire cross-hairs in the other. A Stevens Mid-range Vernier sight is fitted to the tang. According to the barrel stamping, this rifle was made after 1916 but before 1925 as the catalogue for that year lists only rimfire rifles.
Both the 44 and the 44½ actions were used as the basis for a range of higher quality Stevens rifles. These were generally range rifles with the addition of premium barrels, special sights and stocks, buttplates and finger levers and in some cases engraved receivers.
They carried numbered names that included the Range No. 45 & 46, Modern Range No. 47 & 48, Walnut Hill No. 49 & 50, Schuetzen No. 51, Schuetzen Junior No. 52, Schuetzen Special No. 54 and the Lady Model 55 and 56. Prices varied according to the model but these special rifles were expensive. In 1903 the stock standard No. 44 was advertised at $10, in the same catalogue the Schuetzen Special at $68. That disparity has carried through to the present and these days any ‘special’ Stevens’ rifle that comes into the marketplace invariably commands a premium price.
Though never as popular or as highly regarded as the Winchester, Remington or Ballard single-shot rifles, the Stevens Ideal Rifle No. 44 endured and it’s a matter of historical fact they were still being made long after their better named and higher priced competitors had disappeared altogether.
In the 1903 catalogue Stevens’ advertising described the Ideal 44 as “manufactured to meet the demand for a reliable and accurate rifle at a moderate price . . . no better or stronger shooting arm can be made for the same cartridges. It is recommended without qualification and fully guaranteed.”
A lot of shooters and hunters of the time evidently agreed. For that, the single-shot collectors of today can be grateful.
Flayderman, Norm. Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms … and their values.
Krause Publications, Iola Wisconsin. 9th Edition 2007
De Haas, Frank. Single Shot Rifles and Their Actions. Follett Publishing Company, Illinois First Edition 1969
Grant, James J. Single Shot Rifles. William Morrow & Company, New York. 4th printing 1964.
Stevens catalogues of 1898, 1903, 1907 and 1925.
Stoeger’s Catalog and Handbook. Stoeger Arms Corporation, 1939
Cartridges for the Stevens Ideal rifle No. 44
22, 25 and 32
25-20, 32-20, 32-40, 38-40, 38-55, 44-40
22 Short, 22-7-45 (.22 WRF)
.22-10-45, 22-15-60, 25-21, 25-25,
28-30-120, 32-35, 32 Ideal. The last five are all proprietary Stevens cartridges