Collecting Single Shots: My Pope
by Lorance Newburn
I don’t know what it was that prompted me to take up gun collecting 45 years ago, but I suppose it must have had something to do with having fun as well as making an investment in something that would appreciate in value by the time I retired. One thing I quickly learned was that you have to really study what it is you are collecting to avoid getting burned. I accumulated an extensive collection of U.S. military firearms, but in the late ’60’s, it was not appreciating in value. While I became knowledgeable about Springfield firearms and I had a lot of fun collecting them, the lack of appreciation in value prompted me to start looking at some alternatives.
A friend, who often chided me about my collection “lacking class,” suggested that I should take up collecting single shot rifles. Certainly, single shots had more charisma than my Springfields so I began selling them and looking for single shots. I discovered that there were far fewer single shots to be found in the usual venues where I had been buying Springfields and when I did find them, they were much more expensive. I could buy “unfired” Springfields almost any place for about $60. I bought my first single shot, a plain sporting grade .32-40 High Wall, from the New Orleans Arms Co. in the French Quarter for $100 and had the opportunity to buy two scheutzens from them: one, a Laudensack take-down model in .22 LR for $295 and the other, a factory nickel-plated, Helm pattern model in .32-40 for $350. I just couldn’t quite part with the money. And besides, $350 was a lot to pay for a gun that didn’t shoot a .30-06 cartridge! While I had decided to collect something more sophisticated than a military rifle, I had yet to develop the sophistication to actually do it. After suffering (and still suffering) great remorse for not buying those two scheutzens, I vowed I would not let that happen again.
With a modest yearly income and the money from the sale of my Springfields, my single shot collection didn’t exactly get off to a roaring start. My standards were to buy only factory original rifles with perfect bores and at least 90% original finish. I found these hard to find and when found, they were usually at the high end of my price range. But, nevertheless, I studied them and learned what I could about their features and variations and kept a log of prices on rifles being offered. I also made it a point to get to know the big single shot collectors and learn what I could from them.
I soon discovered that the real prizes in single shots were those referred to as Popes, Schoyens, and Zischangs, which were not factory originals at all. Was I going to have to compromise my standards? It seemed that the only way that I could develop any respect among other collectors was to have a rifle or two in my collection that had been built by one of these craftsman, so I began searching for single shots with these magical names stamped on the barrel.
I was able to locate a few Pope and Schoyen rifles, but only at the larger gun shows farther away from home. Nebraska was hardly a hotbed of Scheutzenvereins. Most, I found, were in terrible condition, missing false muzzles or parts, had rusty bores, broken stocks or had many scope mount holes drilled in the barrel, and often right through the maker’s name. Generally, these rifles were priced higher than factory original rifles in much better condition. My quest to own an original Pope or Schoyen rifle was not going to be easy. I was going to have to sell several of the single shots I had already accumulated in order to afford to buy a Pope, if I could find the right one. But, I began putting together my “Pope” fund by selling off several of my single shots at gun shows.
One of the gun shows I attended regularly was the Tulsa Gun & Knife Show. I met a collector there who, at one show, had two tables covered with high quality single shots. He was trying to raise money so he could drill another oil well. His prices were reasonable, but there were no rifles on his table with any of those most important names on them. However, because of the quality of what he was offering, I spent almost all the money I had on a deal for several of his higher quality rifles.
After I had finished the deal, I asked him if he had any Pope rifles. He hesitated for a moment and said that he had one, but he hadn’t considered selling it, but if he did, it would be very expensive. He said it was in almost new condition. I asked just how much that would be. I was more interested in finding out if a Pope was ever going to be in my future, or if it was always going to be just out of my reach, sort of like what the higher grade Ballards have always been. He shuffled his feet a bit, looked me in the eye and gave me a price that was about three-fourths the cost of the Chevrolet Suburban I bought a year earlier. I thanked him, collected up the rifles I had purchased and headed back to my table.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that Pope rifle. I called him about four months later and asked if he had changed his mind about selling the Pope. No, he said he really hadn’t, but he still needed to raise more money to drill his oil well. So, after some discussion, he said he would sell the Pope. I agreed to the purchase price if the condition was as good as he said it was and asked if he would ship it to me. He let me know that that was out of the question and that I should drive down and take a look at it. He would not risk the danger of the rifle getting damaged in shipment. Well, that wasn’t an option because I didn’t want to make such a long trip if the gun was not as nice as he thought it was. So, we hit on a compromise. I asked him if he would hold it for me and bring it to the next Tulsa Gun Show, which was less than two months away. He agreed, and as the Tulsa show got closer, I got more anxious. Was I going to actually own a Pope? I took out a loan to raise the money for it. My wife was very understanding.
When I arrived at the show to set up my table, I first looked the owner up in the show directory and headed for his tables. As I approached, I noticed a crowd of people around one of the tables. The only thing on this table was an old gun case with the lid propped open. In it was the .32-40 Pope rifle, complete with false muzzle, bullet seater, and the original wooden cleaning and bullet seating rods. It was magnificent! Not only was the rifle there, but there was an extra .22LR barrel with forearm as well. I moved around the crowd to talk to the owner and I told him I would take it. He told me that he had already been offered $200 more than he had quoted me, but since I had tentatively agreed to the purchase two months earlier, he would still honor the original price. Then, he pulled a sack out from under the table. In it, among other things was an original Maynard bullet seating tool, a Pope bullet lubricating pump, a Pope mould, a Pope capper-decapper, an Ideal bullet lubricating tool with a special Pope bullet die that allows the bullet to enter the die nose first rather than base first, the lever with the breech block, extractor, pins and screws for use with the rim fire barrel, an old, curved tobacco tin of felt wads, and an envelope with a letter inside.
I paid for the rifle and headed back to my table. I very proudly showed it to my wife and my best friend and his wife, who always accompanied us to gun shows. My wife was not impressed. She couldn’t understand how I could spend as much money on a gun as I had spent on our automobile. I put the gun away and began setting up my table. A short time later, a gentleman approached me and asked if I was the one who had just purchased the Pope rifle and if so, could he see it. I showed it to him and without hesitation, he offered me $1,000 more than I had just paid for it. Just as quickly, I said no, that it was going into my collection. My best friend plopped down in his chair and feigned passing out. He couldn’t believe that I would turn down an opportunity to make $1,000 profit. I explained that it was MY POPE and it was going home with ME! Little did I realize just how important that decision was. I was about to embark on the greatest adventure of my gun-collecting career.
The rifle was a Stevens-Pope made very shortly after Harry Pope had lost his business in the San Francisco earthquake and had gone to work for J. Stevens Arms. The letter that had accompanied the rifle had been written in response to an ad that had been placed in the May, 1935 American Rifleman by a gentleman seeking a “.32-40 muzzle-loading Pope rifle in gun crank condition.” The letter, which was written to a Mr. Charles E. McKey in Fort Scott, Kansas, went like this:
“Dear Sir, In reply to your advertisement in The American Rifleman In 1900, Charles S. Axtell was the world’s champion revolver shot. However, he did not confine all his activities to handguns, but managed to win an enviable reputation for rifle work also. I remember his showing me a cup which he had won for a perfect score of 50 bullseyes at 200 yards.
The rifle he used for this is now in the possession of his widow. Charles died about four years ago. While alive, he would not part with the rifle. But, since his decease, Mrs. Axtell, having little use for many of his extensive collection, has set aside some she is keeping for sentiment (hand guns mostly); the others she has sold with few exceptions. She still has the Scheutzen Pope 32-40 of which Charles was so proud.
I live in Westfield and work in Springfield, and have been a friend of the Axtell family for many years. Since Mr. Axtell’s death, I have cleaned and inspected all his arms. Some unfortunately show slight neglect. However, the 32-40 is in gun-crank order as probably he took better care of it than he did some of his others. I shall list below some pertinent facts about the arm as nearly as I can remember from having seen it last.
1. Scheutzen heavy half octagon Pope barrel. AA1. Cal. 32-40.
2. Target peep rear sight tang mounted, 2 adjustments. Front sight hooded aperture lateral adj. only.
3. False muzzle (for 32-40 barrel mentioned above), of Pope origin also.
4. Pope bullet mold for barrel as above.
5. 32-40 capper & decapper.
6. .22 caliber heavy half octagon barrel by Stevens AA1 condition.
7. Extra parts to convert the action to rim fire for the .22 L.R. barrel.
8. Double set triggers, cheek plate, fancy wood stock, etc.
9. Finish throughout like new.
To help in visualizing the outfit, I am making a rough sketch below:
I estimate the weight (with either barrel, they are alike) to be about eleven pounds. The outfit cost about $220 new. It is still very much in that same condition. Mrs. Axtell seems to think it to be worth somewhere near $195 at the present time. I have personally nothing to gain from the sale of the rifle, but I would like to see someone have it who can appreciate a truly fine target arm.
In case you (find) that the price (is) too extreme you could of course write Mrs. Clara L. Axtell, 27 Wellesley St., Springfield, Mass. or myself and make an offer which you might consider to be fairer or more nearly within your means. I do know she is anxious to sell the rifle and may be willing to better the price somewhat for cash. Then too she might be willing to sell the rifle without the .22 Stevens barrel tho I do not see much sense to that as it would not be much use separated from its parent frame. However, since it is a splendid barrel it could be sold for restocking purposes separately. At any rate, I or she will be glad to hear your reactions.
Very Sincerely, Edward A. Allen
Post Script: For reference to Charles S. Axtell, see Himmelwright’s Pistol & Revolver Shooting or any book on the use of hand arms. In case you have never heard tell of him before.”
The fact that the rifle had belonged to a man by the name of Charles Sumner Axtell prompted me to begin investigating him. This activity proved to be the most enjoyable and interesting part of having gained ownership of the rifle.
Since the letter mentioned that Axtell was featured in Himmelwright’s book, I sought to find a copy of it. At an Ohio Gun Collectors show, I found the book. In talking with Tom Rowe, another single shot collector and dealer in gun books, he said that Axtell was featured in another famous book by Douglas Wesson called Bullet Holes, and he just happened to have a copy, which I purchased. It seems that Axtell really had been an accomplished pistol shot.
Since Axtell had lived in the Springfield, Massachusetts area, I called a telephone operator there and asked for the phone number of anyone in the area with the last name “Axtell.” I called that number and the woman who answered said that her husband was a member of a large Axtell family, and that he had a book that gave the family history. Charles Sumner Axtell was listed in the book, so they sent me photocopies from it that gave more information on him and his wife, and, they sent pages from the Springfield, Mass. phone book that listed all the current Axtells and the Spragues, which was the maiden name of his wife.
From the information in the book, I learned that Axtell had been the owner of a printing business in Springfield and that the shop had a large wooden axe hanging over the front door with the motto “For the Best in Printing, Look for the Sign of the Axe.” Axtell and his wife had no children, but cared for two children of his brother.
I sent letters with postage paid return envelopes to everyone listed in the phone book, both Axtells and Spragues. I received several letters back with no information save for one that came from one of the Spragues. This gentleman said that while he was not related to Charles’ wife, he knew of Charles S. Axtell. In fact, this gentleman was presently secretary of the U.S. Revolver Association of which Mr. Axtell had been a member until his death. He said that there was a photograph of Mr. Axtell hanging in their club facilities and that he was known as the “Grand Old Man of the Game.”
Since Axtell had been such an outstanding pistol shot, I began researching Shooting and Stream magazines starting with the 1880 issue. I found numerous listings of pistol competitions in which Axtell had participated. Occasionally, I found listings where he also participated in rifle competitions. He was indeed a good pistol and rifle shot.
Since the letter that accompanied the rifle mentioned a trophy that Axtell had won for shooting 50 consecutive bullseyes, I thought I would try again to contact a few of the Axtells in the Springfield area. But, no one could help me. I discussed this at a later date with Gary Quinlan who said that a scrapbook containing Charles Sumner Axtell’s medals was sold at a recent auction, but there were no trophies sold.
I had learned that at one time, Claude Roderick, a renowned single shot collector, shooter and author of numerous articles on shooting single shots, had a card file on Pope rifles. I wrote him to see if he had any information in his files on this particular Pope. He replied, on an American Single Shot Rifle Association letterhead, that he had 402 cards on Pope rifles. He said that from 1929 to 1933, he was a Morse Telegraph operator in the general offices of the Frisco Railroad at Fort Scott, Kansas and shot with Charles McKey, the man who had purchased the Pope rifle from Charles Axtell’s widow.
He said he was responsible for getting Charles McKey interested in single shots. He did have a card in the file on my Pope indicating that it was a 44 Stevens DST type action with Model 51 lever and 52 Model stock and buttplate, with a non-engraved action. His card indicated that a Mr. Walter Jones of Pittsburg, Kansas had purchased the rifle from the Charles McKey collection. His card also noted that Mr. Jones took the gun to the Tulsa Gun Show in 1973 where he was asking $2,000 for it.
The gentleman that sold me the rifle had purchased it from Mr. Jones in 1975 for the sum of $1,500. I have the hand-written bill of sale from Mr. Jones to a Mr. Ronnie D. Sales dated March 15, 1975.
I have not pursued the history of this rifle any further, but I have tried to learn the history of several other rifles in my collection. Unfortunately, these rifles have changed hands so many times that previous owners have died and chain of custody cannot be traced. But, it has been very enjoyable to try to trace these rifles because, it has led me to other collectors who might possibly be interested in selling their Popes?~
—Illustrations from Cornell Publications; visit