A .45-70 Single Shot Express Rifle:

Built From Spare Parts

By Steven Dodd Hughes


(Excerpted from the now defunct Accurate Rifle Magazine, November 2002.)
Express Set-up-
Petrified wood collected from gravel bars on the Yellowstone River serve as a background for the Express High Wall.

Every gunmaker and gunsmith who has been in business for any length of time has accumulated quantities of spare parts. Take off barrels, drawers of old sights and rifle action that will someday become something when they find the time to get around to it. It even happens on occasion, I mean they even put a rifle together from those old parts every once in a while.
This is the story of a “spare parts” rifle I finally got around to putting the bit and pieces together into a cohesive unit. I had done it in my mind, several times, built a really cool rifle, just the way I thought it ought to be. I had approached a couple of clients with the idea, but no one else could see my vision for a single shot High Wall Express rifle. I couldn’t blame them, there simply was no historic precedent, nothing to refer to. I imagined a large bore, well handling rifle that would have the stock architecture of an 1880 English double rifle. Why no one else could imagine this rifle, starting with an American single shot action, is no surprise to me.
In fact, W.J.Jeffery & Co. of London, built up twenty some High Walls around the 1890s but the only photo I'd seen was of one with a straight-grip stock and nothing like what I had in mind. They called them the Jeffery Sharps, for some odd reason.
I got the action from the late Maurice Ottmar in a swap. Maurice was a prolific, creative and uniquely accomplished gunmaker. He was also a wonderful man and a good friend to me and many other in the business. At the time he needed a Low Wall Winchester action for a project and called me, knowing I might have one. I did, and told Maurice I didn’t want to sell it but would trade it for another action. If I sold the Low Wall I knew I would spend the money and wouldn’t have either the action nor the coins. He had a rough High Wall action with a bunch of interesting history and we made a swap.
Express L action-
The completed rifle’s action cleaned-up nicely after much handwork.

Ottmar had gotten the High Wall many years before in a trade with legendary stockmaker Monte Kennedy. Kennedy is considered by many to be the one of the great forerunners of today’s custom stockmakers. His book,
Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks, was first published in 1952, the year after I was born. It is in its umpteenth printing and every gunmaker and hobbyist I know has a copy.
The action also spend several years in the shop of Tom Burgess, another pioneer of custom gunmaking who worked closely with Kennedy, Jerry Fisher and still does extraordinary metalsmithing (Tommy Burgess passed away a couple of years ago). Burgess surface ground the sides of the action and welded the firing pin hole in preparation for a smaller diameter pin. Apparently he gave up on further hand polishing as the action was in pretty rough shape when I acquired it.
The action was externally pitted, the lower tang had been shortened and the lever pitted and poorly ground to the point of discarding. But, it was a complete High Wall action and I didn’t have one. It was a good trade too, Maurice told me truly of its condition and the Low Wall was no sparkling gem itself. So that is how it sat, for many years.
The barrel was a take off, a brand new Kreiger that had been fitted to a custom High Wall years ago. It was machined to an octagon configuration with a short round cylinder section at the breech. I had ordered the .45 caliber blank with a 1-22 twist for a .45-70, slightly slower than normal because I envisioned it being shot with a lighter bullet at higher velocities. When the client ordered the rifle he requested a tight chamber. That’s is what he got, with minimum headspace at the breech, but it was cut with a SAAMI specs reamer. He was very pleased with the rifle but not very happy with the chamber, or the rate of twist.
After shooting it exactly once, he asked me to re-barrel the rifle. He took partial responsibility for the miscue and agreed to buy a new barrel if I would eat the installation. He also ordered a custom chambering reamer to his desired specs which we used on the new barrel. The client Ian Shein, and I have subsequently become great friends and I have built five or six rifles for him so apparently we did all right on this early miscue. The take-off, brand-new Kreiger barrel languished in my shop well oiled in a cardboard tube for several years.
Forend-
The barrel was taken-off another rifle, set-back and re-chambered with a match grade reamer, it features the MkII 24 kt SDH hallmark. The folding leaf sight was regulated for 75-125 yards.

In early 2000 I finally found the time to embark on the project. I selected a special stick of English walnut that none of my clients had found attractive. I bought it because it was odd; oddly shaped in blank form, had an odd orangish background color and light fiddleback figure that didn’t really show up well in the blank. To its credit, the blank was large enough for a forend and buttstock, it was dense, quarter-sawn and I knew I could enhance the fiddleback and color by staining it to look like those nice old British rifles.
I had a Fisher grip cap, ebony for a tip, and an old set of fixed sling swivels I had removed from a German shotgun. All that was left to order was a red rubber recoil pad that would fit the character and soak up some recoil in what I knew would be a fairly light rifle.
My associate at that time Thomas Harms actually started the project and his help made it possible to complete. He filed up the rough action, reestablished all of the contours and turned it into something worth working on. I borrowed that .45-70 custom reamer back from the original client, Ian and single shot gunsmith Dan Ferris set the barrel back one turn and re-chambered it for me in trade for a milling machine vise I wasn’t using. He did a fine job fitting the barrel and a new extractor. Now I had a complete barreled action, with a tight chamber.
Several years before I had made a pattern stock for a similar project, a .30-40 with a quarter rib that had turned out very nicely. I began this project by fitting the pattern to the action and modifying it to have a more pronounced pistol grip, and that steep angular looking buttstock associated with English double rifles. Fortunately my good friend Tim has several British double rifles from the era which was a great deal of help with the stock design. I sent the buttstock pattern and band-sawn stock blank out for machine duplication. An ebony tip was attached to a piece of the left over wood, and I made the forend from the blank.

HW Express cheek-
Red-toning helps bring out the subtle fiddleback figure in the quarter-sawn English walnut.

As in any working gunshop, I had to fit in time on this project in between paying jobs and months went by when little or nothing was accomplished on the High Wall Express, as I had begun to call it. Eventually the stock was fitted, shaped and the pad installed. I turned it over to Tom for sanding and finishing.
I chose a German made rear sight with one standing and one folding leaf. It had been sitting in the sight drawer for several years. I had used these sights on muzzleloading rifles I made and they work very well for an iron sighted rifle. The fixed leaf would be sighted for 75 yards and the folding for 150, about as far as anyone should be shooting at game with iron sights, in my opinion. Each leaf was filed with a shallow V notch as an English rifle would have. If the sight is placed far enough out on the barrel for aging eyes to focus on, the spring loaded leaf is right where the thumb can flick it up for longer yardage. I once killed a blacktail doe with a .50 caliber flintlock using a sight as described, a 125 yard shot.
For the front sight I started with an oversize dovetail blank that Hamilton Bowen, the custom revolver maker, was gracious enough to give me. The local jeweler ordered a couple of inches of .080” diameter round, 14 kt. gold wire for making a bead. A .040” diameter shank was carefully lathe turned on the gold wire. The sight blank was drilled with a corresponding hole in the middle of it. The shank and hole were closely fit leaving a flat faced, recessed gold bead. With a bit of milling and a bunch of hand filing, I whittled the base down to an appropriate size and fit it to the dovetail already in the barrel. The results are a relatively large genuine gold bead front sight and a shallow V notch rear sight with a long range folding leaf placed about 25” from the butt.
Tom sealed and filled the stock with our in-house oil/urethane and rottenstone method. Unlike English stocks we filled the pores. Like English wood we stained it a rich red-tone and top coated with a linseed blend.
Normally I’m prone to fine line checkering, 24-28 lines per inch. I had to force myself to cut 22 lpi knowing it would be correct for the rifle and would help accentuate the look of the grip. When viewed from the side, the back line of the grip checkering appears to be straight. When viewed from slightly above or below, one can see a considerable arc from the top tang down behind the grip. The forend checkering is extensive in coverage and has three points forward and four to the rear.
The rifle was finished in the white, for display at the International Arms Makers Show in Las Vegas 2001. I had test fired it and sighted it in shooting Federal 405 grain lead factory loads. If there had been any doubts about the barrel or the twist rate, they disappeared with the initial targets. Groups ran about 1” at 50 yards and 2 1/2” at 100. Not bad for open iron sights!
Express Stock- copy
The rifle shot and handled very well without great recoil.

I still owned the rifle after the show and determined it would be easier to market if the metalwork was blued. I personally believe that all fine firearms should have at least some engraving and thought a bit of border work would enhance the High Wall Express. A local woman, Suzi Bradley had done some fine work for a friend of mine and I gave her a call. We decided on a simple nick & dot border for the sides of the action and grip cap, fancy rosettes for all of the screw heads, recut the serial numbers and the caliber on the barrel. This would leave the major part of the action open if the future client wanted more engraving. Suzi did a wonderful job with the embellishment and I was very pleased with her work.
All of the metalwork was given a finished polished and was ready for rust bluing. Tom rust blued all of the metal parts except the breech block, lever and hammer which were sent to Doug Turnbull for color case hardening. The screws were nitre blued to a charming sapphire hue. These are traditional finishes for early single shot rifles and add a pleasing and colorful look to the rifle.
I shot the rifle a few more times using the same factory loads and it seems to group better every time. An out of town client came by the shop during the summer and liked the uniqueness of the piece. We took it out to the range a few days later and he managed to shoot a 100 yard, three shot group from a sitting position that measured about 1-1/2” with two shots clover leafing. We were both impressed!
Fact is, I just finished photographing the High Wall Express and I like it even more than I did all those years I was dreaming about it. I guess the punch line to this story is for all you guys that have been dreaming of putting those spare parts together into a dream rifle, better get after it, as John Wayne said, “Daylights a-burnin’”.

-END-
This rifle was purchased by my good friend and client Pete who enjoys it thoroughly!