The sporting rifle in single shot format holds a special place amongst both collectors and hunters. Whilst the double rifle can claim to be the pinnacle of riflemaking from a traditional big big game point of view, the single shot is a thing of simplicity and elegance. During the 20th century, perhaps the golden age of competitive gunmaking and rivalry, the various gunmaking houses battled to bring out the most perfect of single shot rifles. The most common concept amongst these was the 'falling block' design, an action where the downward motion of a 'side' or 'under' lever depressed the breech block, so allowing the cartridge to be loaded directly by hand into the chamber.
This concept had existed for decades and had strong ancestry in the British military who carried the Martini-Henry rifle as their principle weapon from the 1870's into the 1880's.
Only a handful of miniature Model 1897 Under-Lever rifles are known to exist. Of those probably half have been converted from there original calibre. This is the only .22 LR known to exist and it remains original. As 'rook & rabbit' rifles go, it does not get much rarer.
Obviously Westley Richards as one of the worlds largest manufacturers of both military and sporting single shot rifles was at the forefront of design. Models such as the 1872, 1873 Deeley & Edge, 1878 Deeley & Edge, and 1881 Side Lever were developed in quick succession along with new cartridges in keeping with both competitive and hunting trends. Interestingly it was the actual ammunition, more correctly the faults with it that led to the development of one of Westley Richards most iconic single shot actions, the 'Model 1897 Under-Lever'.
The 1897 was an improved version of the 1881 action which had experienced problems with extraction as thin coiled brass cartridges moved into the smokeless high pressure age. To guarantee extraction the breech-block lever was moved from the side of the action to the underside, hence 'under-lever'. Improvements were also made with the firing pin and Westley Richards can claim to be one of the only makers to furnish their action with an in-line striker.
In real terms this action design was probably late in the game as repeating rifles like Paul Mauser's now legendary 1898 were about to come onto the scene and they would dominate as the 'economic' alternative to a double rifle.
That all said, the 1897 is without question one of the nicest looking falling block rifles out there and we are lucky that Westley Richards offered them for the best part of two decades. Most Westley Richards rifles were built with the patent detachable barrel system with the bayonet style or 'lug' fitting. The Deeley catch was an obvious choice for the detachable forend and earlier models tended to have this more refined system. There were several action sizes catering for calibres from .22 up to .600 nitro express. Mutliple barrel options on the same action were offered sometimes in both black powder and smokeless format. Octagonal barrels, particularly in .303 British were not uncommon on the very early examples.
The full scroll engraving, detachable barrel, Deeley catch forend and engraved barrel details set this out as a 'best' grade model 1897. All of the 'rook & rabbit' calibre rifles appear to have been built pre 1900.
The particular example shown here has certainly seen some fair and honest use. By all accounts it is the only known example in .22 LR and as such is a rare and beautiful little beast. It is built on the smallest of the 1897 actions and is unbelievably lively and well balanced. The rifle is of the detachable barrel configuration with a Deeley catch forend and comes fully engraved which would make it one of the 'best' grade examples. Interestingly the rear express sight has been set far up the barrel which must have been at the request of the original purchaser. The bore remains in great condition and it strikes us that the rifle was a favoured choice from one generation to the next, such was the popularity of the .22 rimfire.
We would like to think that it started life 120 years ago most likely slung across the shoulder of some wealthy eccentric, in latter years racked in a vehicle ready to dispatch some unsuspecting rabbit or squirrel. Long may such a unique rifle continue to fulfil the needs of the next and future generations.