By Mike “Duke” Venturino, GUNS Magazine
Among modern shooters, the Sharps Model 1874 is the buffalo rifle of the Old West, as well as the premier single shot used in the famous 1,000-yard Creedmoor target events of the 1870’s. The nearest competitor to the Sharps was Remington’s No. 1 single shot, nicknamed the “rolling block.”
During the 1870’s, the Sharps factory produced somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 Model 1874’s in all configurations, from sporting rifles to long-range target rifles.
But consider this: In approximately the same timeframe—give or take a couple of years—the Remington factory produced about a million No. 1 rolling blocks, give or take a couple of thousand. The only reason the Sharps is more famous today is because it’s been featured in countless movies. I can’t think of a movie or even a television show in which rolling blocks starred.
Don’t take the above as criticism if you’re a Sharps fan. I’m one, too. In fact I owned multiple Sharps—replicas and originals—for several years before ever turning my attention to rolling blocks. But once I did, I became a great fan of them also. They’re sturdy, accurate and generally trouble-free black-powder cartridge rifles.
This original Remington No. 1 Creedmoor sports a tang-mounted Vernier peep sight.
The single trigger was mandatory by the rules of long-range target competition in the 1870’s.
Rolling blocks are also simple, with a minimum of moving parts. To operate one, merely pull the hammer to full cock, roll the breechblock backwards all the way to expose the chamber, insert a cartridge and close the breechblock. The rifle is now ready to fire.
One time a visitor told me—after I showed him one my rolling blocks—“I consider that an unsafe design. It’s cocked and ready to fire as soon as the breechblock is closed.”
My answer? “How is that different from your bolt-action rifle?”
Looking back on it, I should’ve had a camera ready to catch the “deer in the headlights” look on his face.
Actually, the full cock-on-loading factor worried some back in the 19th century because many of the military-style rolling blocks were designed so the hammer automatically fell to half cock when the breechblock was closed. But to the best of my knowledge that design was never incorporated into the sporting or Creedmoor target models intended for the civilian market.
The Export Factor
You may be asking, “If Remington No. 1’s were so prevalent back in the days of the Wild West, why aren’t they portrayed in movies more often nowadays?” Good question. It’s because the vast majority of them went overseas. They were made as military rifles and sold to nations circling the globe. To name just a few destinations, rolling blocks went to Spain, Egypt, Denmark, Sweden and too many South American countries to list here.
Also too numerous to list would be the individual features various nations wanted built on their rolling blocks. Suffice to say most had barrels between 32 and 33 inches in length, held to their walnut stocks with at least three barrel bands and fitted with barrel mounted sights only. An original 1877 Remington catalog I have lists military rolling blocks priced at $16 to $17. Without evidence to prove it, I think the most popular caliber of military rolling blocks was .43 Spanish.
Duke (left) and BPCR Silhouette shooting partner Butch Ulsher show off their original
Remington competition rifles after the 2013 Arizona State Championship. Duke’s is a
No. 1 Creedmoor. Ulsher’s is the No. 3 “Hepburn.” Both wear new Krieger .45-90 barrels.
When sold on the civilian market as sporting rifles, Remington advertised rolling blocks as coming in weights from 8-1/2 to 15 pounds, with a standard barrel length of 26 inches. Longer barrels were optional, up to 34 inches at $1 per every 2 inches added.
Unlike Sharps Model 1874’s, double-set triggers were not a factory option on rolling blocks, but a single-set trigger was. This was a $2.50 option operated by pushing it forward until it clicked. Then it could be adjusted to release at about 1 to 1-1/2 pounds of pressure.
Another popular option was the “Combination Open & Peep Sight.” As opposed to most rifles of the day—where peep sights were mounted on the tang—this one (also a $2.50 option) was set atop the barrel, just in front of the receiver.
Although it had no Vernier scales on it for precise adjustment, I know from experience with at least one original rifle in .44-77 carrying this sight, its elevation was sufficient to reach 1,000 yards. A Remington rolling block sporting rifle with both the single-set trigger and combination sight option would have cost about $30 in the 1870’s.
The only Remington rolling blocks with tangs drilled for Vernier peep sight mounting were target rifles, of which those meant for Creedmoor competition were “the best of the best.” As a rule, Remington’s No. 1 target rifles came with pistol grips, shotgun-type buttplates and target sights. Those meant for mid-range shooting cost about $37, but Creedmoors for truly long-range competition started at $100 and could go as high as $150. Those prices are almost fantastic for American rifles in the 1870’s. Most Creedmoor No. 1’s were chambered for .44 caliber rounds, with case lengths of 2-1/4 and 2-7/16 inches.
Once I indulged myself and bought a target-grade rolling block built by the now-defunct Lone Star Rifle Company, the hook was set. Since then I’ve owned more replicas and several custom rifles built on original actions.
My favorite for several years has been a hybrid—all original from the action rearward and all new from the action forward. The Krieger barrel is chambered for the .45-2-4/10-inch Sharps, today commonly called the .45-90. I’ve shot my highest score in BPCR Silhouette with that rifle.
I guess you could say I’m still hooked on rolling blocks.
Photos By Yvonne Venturino