New Year, New Rifle

Stevens Model 52, built on the older No. 44 action, with the newer Model 45. Both are chambered in the .28-30-120. It’s a lovely cartridge to shoot, but presents many problems in reloading.

by Terry Wieland

About a year ago, a friend of mine handed me a brand-new, unopened, bag of Remington brass.  It was .357 Maximum.

“Got no use for it,” he said.  “You?”

At the time, the answer was no.  But since I’ve rarely seen a cartridge I didn’t like, particularly one with straight walls and a rim, I figured I could put it to work.

Sitting on my rack at the time was a Stevens target rifle, circa 1912—a Model 45 with the great No. 44½ action, in almost perfect condition.  Its only drawback was that it was chambered for the .28-30-120 cartridge, a target number introduced long after its time (like the No. 44½ action itself) and a royal pain to load for.

How the sweet little rifle survived the barbarous ‘Twenties, and even worse ‘Thirties, when such actions were routinely cannibalized to make often hideous rifles chambered for wildcat varmint cartridges like the .219 Zipper Improved, is anyone’s guess.  Mine is that it got stuck in someone’s closet and wasn’t found for several generations, by which time cannibalizing had fallen into disrepute, there was renewed interest in the great old single-shots, and it found its way to Rock Island and thence to me.

Stevens Model 45, built on the No. 44½ action, sometime before 1914. It is wearing its original .28-30-120 barrel.

The difficulties of loading the .28-30-120, which even most serious shooters have never heard of, is too long to go into.  Please just take my word for it.  Oddball case, oddball bullet, the works.

One gargantuan positive feature of the old Stevens rifles is that the barrels are almost instantly detachable.  You remove one screw that locks it in place, unscrew the barrel, which has coarse threads, and there you are.  Originally, this was intended to allow for easier cleaning, which it undoubtedly does.  It also allows you to have one, two, (five? ten?) additional barrels in different lengths, weights, or calibers.

The only real limitations are whether you want center- or rimfire, and making sure the extractor fits.  It would be difficult to adapt a .25-20 Single Shot to .45-70, for example.  But a .28-30-120 could accept a .38 Special case or—eureka!—.357 Maximum, which is only the .38 Special lengthened beyond any practical limit for revolvers.

Among cartridge designers, the thinking seems to be that if something is good, then longer is better (hence the .38 Special and .357 Magnum) and if longer is good, then longer still is going to be that much better.  The .357 Maximum (the .357 Magnum lengthened by .31 inches) was dreamt up by Elgin Gates around 1982 for use in silhouette shooting.  You need some muscle to knock over steel silhouettes at several hundred yards.  Unfortunately, the .357 Maximum presented problems in a revolver and it fell into disuse.

From left, the .38 Special, .357 Magnum, and .357 Maximum. The .357 Maximum was not a success as a revolver cartridge (its original intended purpose) but offers great potential in a single-shot rifle.

A nice single-shot rifle, however, is another matter:  Fit a barrel chambered in the Max and you can shoot common-or-garden, dirt-cheap, factory .38 Special for plinking, or you can handload .357 Magnums for hunting, or .357 Maximums for hunting, targets, or whatever.  In fact, the Max has enough room that you could load it with black powder for certain kinds of matches, like Cowboy Action.

I took my Stevens to Lee Shaver, who ordered a barrel blank, contoured it to an exact match of the .28-30-120 (part-octagon, part round) so the forend would fit, installed one of his globe front sights to complement the original Stevens tang sight, adjusted the extractor slightly, and we were away.  The total cost ran to about $1,200, but I now have a rifle for anything from plinking to hog hunting to Cowboy Action to knocking over steel plates.  I can shoot inexpensive factory ammunition or work up serious handloads, and all in a rifle made to the high standards of the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Co. of Chicopee Falls, circa 1912.

In the opinion of experts who know more about it than me, such as James J. Grant and Frank de Haas, the Stevens 44½ action, designed with the assistance of Harry Pope around 1902, was in many ways (and perhaps overall) the best single-shot action ever made in America.  It just came along too late, at a time when single-shots were being displaced by lever and bolt rifles, and the Great War was about to disrupt anything to which it did not put a permanent end.

No one knows how many 44½-actioned rifles were made between 1902 and about 1916, when production ended—the Stevens records were destroyed in a fire in 1919— but it could not have been many compared to such as the Winchester High Wall.  And those that survived often ended up turned into wildcat varmint rifles with outlandish stocks, scopes, and so on.

Alas for Stevens, its great pre-1914 rifles had neither the magic of competition, like the Ballard, nor buffalo hunting, like the Sharps, nor the Browning/Winchester connection, like the High Wall.  And, after 1920, the company was acquired by Savage and became the brand name for low-priced guns of varying descriptions.  Hence there was no incentive for anyone to revive the 44½, or make reproductions.  One small company, CPA, does make them on a purely custom basis, but I have no experience with them, and no desire to spend three grand to get any.

Anyway, I now have my combination rifle and am ringing in the new year dinging plates and cackling like a mad man.

This is not the first time Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, has had a rifle made just because he acquired some arcane ammunition.  It’s like finding a button off a cavalryman’s tunic and having an entire uniform made to go with it.  But it keeps him out of the saloons.