USRA Single Shot Pistols - Guns of Constant Evolution - by William K. McCarter, Past President


The finest, most highly evolved and developed single shot match target pistol produced in the U.S. from 1880 to 1940 was the H and R "U.S.R.A."

Commonly called "U.S.R.A. Single Shot Pistols", the U.S.R.A. marking did not appear on the early models. Production began in 1928 or perhaps 1929 and ended in 1941 with about 3300 of the pistols produced. The factory records were destroyed in a fire and this pistol of constant evolution and change makes an interesting study. Officially it was the Harrington and Richardson Model 195 although it appears that the model number was never put on a pistol.

After about a year or so of production, in 1930, H and R hired Walter F. Roper, a talented mechanical engineer, designer of custom target grips and an expert pistol shot with many years experience in the firearms industry. For the last 10 years he had worked for Smith and Wesson. H and R wanted the Model 195 developed into the best single shot target pistol. This was an era when competitive pistol shooting in this country was largely conducted under the auspices of the United States Revolver Ass'n (U.S.R.A.) Roper was provided with adequate funds to experiment and develop the pistol. This he did with a passion. Sometimes, only 5 or 10 pistols were produced with a certain feature. Sometimes only one! Besides some of the readily visible features discussed below, there were features not readily apparent to the naked eye. There were combinations of bore size, rifling twist rate and chamber design. The rifling equipment used in making the barrels for this match pistol cut the grooves while simultaneously scraping the top of the lands to remove marks. Barrels for this pistol were so smoothly rifled that lapping was unnecessary.

The American Rifleman in the March, 1930 issue announced and described an improved model now called the "U.S.R.A. Model" and so marked on the left side. From this point on, it is inconceivable that H and R made any profit directly on the sale of this pistol. With the limited production on a no costs spared constant design change basis, any direct profit from the sale of the pistol was probably not achieved. What H and R wanted was a reputation for the best single shot pistol, which they achieved.

One of the pistols in my collection is very interesting. This pistol was owned by Miller Bedford, first president of the OGCA. There is a letter with the pistol from Major General (Retired) Julian S. Hatcher of the American Rifleman staff to Bedford concerning Walter Roper and the pistol.

July 15, 1960

Mr. Miller Bedford
New London, Ohio

Dear Mr. Bedford:
Thanks for your card of July 12, and it is interesting to know you have fallen heir to that experimental gun of Roper's. His experiments on sight radius are found in his book, "Experiments of a Handgunner". As to his address, I am sorry to tell you Walter Roper died about 4 or 5 years ago.

Very truly yours,

J. S. Hatcher
Technical Editor

In the summer of 1931, Hatcher, then a Major, used an experimental U.S.R.A. pistol given to him by Roper while competing in the British National Matches on the Bisley Ranges. Using the pistol, he won the British "open" Championship with a perfect score of 100. The runner-up in this match was Ensign Harry Renshaw, his team mate who used the same pistol for a score of 98. Hatcher had stowed the pistol with his traveling gear more or less as a last minute inspiration.

The pistol that was owned by Miller Bedford is a late model with all the best features and is one of two known that has the top of the barrel milled with a square groove to allow the front sight to be moved back closer to the shooter's eye as one's eyes deteriorated with age. This feature could have been performed at the factory, but more likely in Roper's basement and the grips were modified by Roper.

The readily visible alterations and changes and features in the pistol are:

Barrels: Three shapes, keyhole, modified (heavier) keyhole and slab side: three lengths, 10, 8 and 7 inches.
Extractors: early - round later - rectangular (about the first 10 pistols had an extractor that was partly on the outside of the frame)
Sights: changes in shape, finish, and adjustment, the slap sided barrel's front sight was also adjustable.
Frame: The later frame was slightly larger.
Triggers: The early triggers were very curved and non-adjustable, then an adjusting screw was added to the inside guard, in front of the trigger and later the trigger was about straight with the adjustment on the outside, on the front bow of the guard.
Hammers: early hammers were small and later ones much larger.
Barrel latches: early ones were knurled and round and later ones were square.

There were numerous other visible variations, some guns had a dry fire notch above the chamber, other guns had vertical finger grooves on the face of the inside strap, some trigger guards had no second finger spacer and some were wider than the frame, and other various features too numerous to mention.

Walter Roper liked grips! Many target shooters of the time had custom made Roper grips on their target pistols. You sent Roper a drawing and measurements of your hand and he made a set of grips. How many variations in production grips for the U.S.RA. actually exist is very hard to determine. I would estimate well over 30. There was a set group of 6 shapes, but some changes were made in some of the shapes from time to time. Some of the shapes could be had with or without internal weights. You could order a block of wood fitted to the pistol and make a grip to fit your hand. There was an offering for a period of time called "Tennessee Ivory" that was an early form of white plastic. For about two thirds of the production, the grips were fastened by a screw in the back of the grips and then changed to the front of the grip.

As these various changes were being offered, owners of older pistols would often send them back to the factory or to a gunsmith and have the new features installed. It is not uncommon to find early guns with large hammers, straight triggers, and later sights that their owners had modified. Numerous "custom" modifications, especially sights, were installed by gunsmiths.

Generally collectors have the greatest interest in the early models of a particular gun. The U.S.R.A. was only made for about a decade and a half. The later guns with all the evolved features are a very superior pistol to the early models.

The Model 195/U.S.R.A. target pistol was dominant in American slow fire matches from the early 1930's until the outbreak of World War II. What caused its demise? There were several factors. In 1900 the United States Revolver Association was founded to foster and develop revolver shooting. Certain rules were set down that were important in the development of single shot pistols. Eventually, the NRA became the purveyor of rules that brought about changes away from only slow-fire matches. Developments such as the Colt Woodsman had brought about pistols with rapid fire accuracy. The Sunday afternoon slow-fire matches were coming to an end. The Europeans were developing "free pistols" and regulations that Americans felt encouraged the design of absurdly specialized match pistols good for no practical purpose. John Harrington died in 1939 and a subsequent change in ownership of H and R resulted in a hault in further development work on the pistol. The War brought about a change in production and after the War ended, its manufacture was not resumed. The popularity of the NRA three stage (slow, timed, and rapid fire) course of fire favored the now well made and accurate auto loading pistols.

What did a U.S.R.A. pistol cost? They started out at $25.00, then went to $30.00 and the 1940 edition of the "Shooters Bible" lists them at $32.25. The 1939 edition had listed them at $30.00 and the 1941 factory price list listed it at $36.25. In 1940, a Winchester Model 12, Standard Grade was $43.64, and a Model 70 Standard was $61.80. A black fitted pistol shooter case for the U.S.R.A sold for $5.00 and extra grips were $2.20 each. The pistol was shipped from the factory in a blue box that contained a target shot with the pistol. The targets, to the extent they exist, help determine dates of manufacture of the various major features since the targets have the serial number of the pistol and the date it was fired at the target. You probably find about 10% of the pistols with its target, about 15% of the boxes and about 1% with the black box specifically made to fit the pistol that was sold separately. The blue box appears to have contained a small hardwood cleaning rod and a fold-out factory leaflet. I have found a couple of the rods, but only one leaflet. The blue box contained instructions for cleaning, etc. printed on the inside of the lid.

What is one worth today? There are a lot of firearm dealers who have never even seen one. High volume dealers that have been in business a long time have probably in most cases handled one or two. There is little to base price upon except the prices shown in publications like the "Blue Book of Gun Values". Because there are so few and most know little about them usually no price differential is made between the early undeveloped models and the highly developed later models. Unusual features and accessories will command a higher price. Anyone who has studied U.S.R.A.'s will readily admit that they are superior to their Smith and Wesson and Colt contemporaries. But because they are Harrington and Richardsons they command a much smaller price. The Blue Book lists a 100% U.S.R.A. as worth $440.00, while a Colt Camp Perry in 100% condition is $1795.00 and 25% more for an 8 inch barrel and a Smith and Wesson 100% 1st, 2nd and 3rd models 22 cal. run about $750.00 with a straight line target at $1500.00. Because of the degree of evolvement, the later U.S.R.A.'s should command a higher price than the earlier pistols.

The 67 guns in my collection at this writing, represent about 2% of the total production. It is difficult to find 2 pistols exactly alike. This collection was started in March of 1996. I searched for and bought every gun that was offered at a fair and reasonable price. There are so many variations in U.S.R.A.'s that it is virtually impossible to own every variation.

The days of the slow fire, Sunday afternoon matches have been gone for a half century. Unlike the single shot rifles that have had a rebirth of shooting interest, the single shot pistols are not likely to have that happen, but the "U.S.R.A.", despite its "ugly" appearance is a real pleasure to shoot. If you cannot hit it with a "U.S.R.A." it is not the pistol's fault.