The word Rifle can refer to many different types, from the long barreled muzzle loading flintlocks*, to the classic lever action cowboy gun, to the modern hunting rifle, and even the short barreled bullpup assault rifle. The one thing they must all have is a rifled barrel.
*Not all flintlocks, or muzzle loaders, are technically “rifles” since the barrels are smooth inside, but because they are fired from the shoulder, it’s still common to call them a rifle.
What I want to cover in this section is the non-black powder, non-assault rifle versions. These still cover a number of types, but they share much more in common with each other. I’m going to use the term Hunting Rifle for these. They have a metal case, primer, powder, and a bullet, just like most modern handguns. To see a round from a .40-90 Ballard rifle beside a round of a .338 Lapua as used in sniper rifles, there won’t be many obvious differences to the average person, even though more than 100 years separates their release.
Hunting Rifles can be single shots, manual repeaters, or even semi-automatic, but they don’t have a removable magazine. Most also hold a maximum of five rounds, including the one in the chamber. Some can hold more, but they are the exceptions.
The Rolling Block and Falling Block actions of the American West were among the first metal cartridge rounds and used black powder. If you ever saw the film “Quigley, Down Under” you have an idea of the type of rifle represented here. Calibers for these use the bullet diameter followed by the number of grains of black powder used in the case. A .40-90 used a .40 caliber bullet (10mm) and 90 grains of powder (which is actually quite a bit). The .45-70 was common, and still in use in smokeless powder versions under the same name. There was also a 100, 110, and 120 version of the 45, as well a version or two of a .50 caliber. Case lengths of 2.5 to 3.5 inches were common.
These used a big, heavy bullet that went relatively slowly. They could be accurate at a mile or more, but the path the bullet took to get there was actually several thousand feet high at the top of its arc.
To load and fire a Rolling Block action, the shooter must pull the hammer back, then pull back on a small tab on one side of the rifle. The “block” rotates around a point near the trigger and exposes the chamber. A single round is inserted, then the block is rolled back to the closed position. There is no locking mechanism. When the hammer is back, the weapon can fire. The only safety is lowering the hammer to the “half-cock” position, which actually hovers just above the firing pin.
The Falling Block is similar but more secure, in my opinion. A lever under the trigger is pulled down, which drops the breech block vertically out of the way. There is no way for the block to move without the lever moving. Otherwise, the operation is the same as the Rolling Block.
Both of these featured a “tang sight.” The tang is the bit of the action behind the hammer where the shooter places the thumb of the firing hand. The sight was mounted here and could fold down forward or backward. It had to fold back to load the rifle but has an obvious stopping point to tell the shooter when it’s back to vertical.
On the side of the sight was a screw that allowed for quick adjustment for range. There was a second screw that allowed adjustment for wind. Some of the newer sights have a small bubble level in them to be sure the gun is level from one to the other. A slight tip either way will mean the bullet hits far left or right of the target due to the high arc of the path.
In the Old West, these guns were the tools of the trappers and buffalo hunters. They were the dirty old pick-up of today. They were built solid and strong and there wasn’t much you could do to hurt them. Because of that, there are still some around. There are also companies that still make them new, though these are as much a work of art as they are a gun and have waiting lists years long with prices in the multiple thousands of dollars.