Although the state of the art technology is Repeaters, Single Shot Rifles, in a variety of forms, fill the arsenals of most armies and are still a common civilian weapon.
Until very recently (the last 10 years) most senior officers, in armies around the world, felt that magazine repeaters (ones able to fire quickly, multiple times, without reloading) were a recipe for soldiers to waste ammunition. The field tactics of volley fire versus independent fire was (and still is) the standard by which rifles were judged. Also, Black Powder residue frequently fouls the actions of repeaters when many rounds are fired consecutively, causing the weapons to jam in an extended battle. Some early repeaters, like the Colt Revolving Rifles, would gang fire all five cylinders! Also, early repeaters lacked the tight seal of a single shot breech loader, meaning that power and range were lost and the soldier was subject to smoke and flash in the face. As a result, in the year 1890, the standard rifle for the British Army remains the single shot, breech loading, Martini-Henry. (Though it is currently being replaced with the Lee-Metford, bolt action repeater, it will be years before the Army and Navy are fully equipped.) In the United States, home of Winchester, Remington, Marlin and Colt, the US Army issues (as late as 1888) the single shot, breech loading, Springfield ‘Trap door’ to most troops. The Austrian Hungarian Empire’s troops use a bolt action, single shot rifle, the Werndl–Holub. And Imperial Russia uses a single shot bolt action, the Berdan. There are others…
All the nations are, like Britain, scrambling to develop or purchase modern repeaters, but the process of replacing tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of rifles, is slow and expensive. A few countries, like Imperial Germany, started the process earlier then others, and thus are far ahead in upgrading their arsenals. But, with the development and testing process taking months to years, arranging the funding, building or retooling the factories and ramping up production, the process can take many years. Meanwhile, the now obsolete, but still serviceable, single shots are traded, sold or given away as foreign policy tools or released to the civilian market as surplus. Germany has sent or sold over a million of their Mauser Model 1871, to China. Tens of thousands more to the Empire of Korea and, secretly, several thousand to the Boers in South Africa. The British Government has also handed quantities of Martini Henrys to friendly governments as the new Lee-Metfords have been issued to front line regiments. They are also being used to arm Colonial Troops in India and Africa, often replacing the Snyders that the Martini Henry replaced twenty plus years ago.
In the civilian market, single shot rifles remain popular with many shooters. Both the casual shooter, who may pick up the rifle a couple times a years and who wants something simple and reliable, and the serious target shooter, who favors the power, range and accuracy that the single shots excel at, and have no need for rapid follow up shots. Many game hunters also favor single shots for the same reasons, range, power and accuracy.
So, though the Winchester Lever Actions and Colt Slide Actions and their cousins, may be the best repeaters on the market, there is still a lot of room on the shelves for old, reliable, powerful and cheap, single shot rifles.
The break open breech loader designs largely began life as conversions of muzzle loaders. For the most part this was under contract to governments who were loath to abandon armories full of good old muzzle loaders and the investment they represented. The current American 1888 Springfield is simply a redesign of the 1868 Springfield which was a reworking and conversion of the Springfield Rifled Musket. In England, the Army used the design of the American, Jacob Snyder, to convert the muzzle loading 1853 Enfield Rifles to breech loading, later adopting a purpose built version. (These remain in service with Colonial Indian Regiments after the Martini Henry replaced the Snyder throughout the rest of the Army.)
Commercial versions of breech loaders have remained popular due to their simplicity, ease of maintenance and the fact that they can be extremely powerful and accurate, being able to safely and reliably, shoot very powerful rounds that early repeaters could not. Hence the popularity of the long range Sharps rifles, amongst others.
Bolt Action Rifles
Single shot bolt action rifles have been a shooting staple since the late 1860’s. Both in Military arsenals and civilian homes. Although more complex then the breech loaders, they are far simpler and less prone to jams or breakage then the Lever Action or Slide Action Repeaters. While England and the US have stayed true to breech loaders, most European powers have been early adopters of the bolt action. Now, as bolt action magazine, repeating rifles are the standard, the civilian market, and the armies of less industrial nations, have been flooded with surplus single shots.