[Updated December 7, 2017]
Harrington & Richardson made single-barrel shotguns for more than 100 years, and the basic design didn’t change when New England Arms took over. The shotgun action we will use for this chapter is from one of the company’s latest model series.
Simplicity has always been the key to these single-barrel shotguns, but they are anything but simple if you factor in identifying which gun gets which part. The reason for this complication is that, despite making many changes in the shotguns through the years, H&R has not kept its model numbers separate.
A good example of this is the Model 148, a late-model firearm with a breech-lock release on the top left side of the hammer. The same number is also used on an earlier model with the old-style opening lever located on the shotgun’s tang. The internal design of the early model gun is completely different from the later model 148.
Model numbers also crisscross several times, and H&R even adds “A” to some of these models. Then you have to deal with the fact that H&R had little if any use for part numbers in the beginning. When they did start using them, the same number was often used again when the earlier model went out of stock. Needless to say, this is one of the hardest shotguns to get the correct parts for. Using an exact scale drawing of the needed part, along with the model and serial number, can help.
Writing this is like trying to write one service manual for all the Fords ever made without distinguishing which model is which, but it can give you some tips that will make repairing these single barrels easier. This repair guide will apply to shotgun Models 58, 158, 148, 176, 98, 88, 198, 188A, 490, 480A, 590, 162, 480, 580, 159, 459, 188, 99, and 44. It will also include single-shot rifle Models 258, 157, 58, 158, 163, and 155. Again, these numbers will also apply to some older guns that have different internal parts. If the breech release is not on the top left side of the hammer, you have an older model or variant.
These firearms use six wood screws, one tang screw (stock bolt), and a forearm screw to hold wood to metal but all the metal parts are held together with pins. The three pins in the barrel lug are roll pins, and can be driven out either way. The five pins in the frame are directional, and came from the factory driven in from left to right. They need to be driven out from the right side through the left unless someone has changed them.
The most common problems with this firearm are failures to extract, broken extractors and failures to fire. All three are most often caused by a broken striker and lifter assembly, a broken or stuck firing pin, a weak, broken and/or dirty mainspring, or a dirty action.
Lockup problems can be traced to the barrel catch, the release lever, a bent takedown pin, or an ill-fitted barrel.
When these firearms fail to extract or eject, check them out before starting any disassembly. Open the breech and see if the extractor pops back into its ejection mode as the shotgun is fully opened. If this seems to be working, check out the chamber to see if it is dirty, rusty, or has signs of swelling or damage.
When you use fine emery to clean out bad chambers, make sure you do not remove excess metal and inadvertently create a pocket in which a swollen shell might hang while still hot from firing. When the extractor/ejector is not opening, remove the forearm screw and forearm, then swing the barrel down and lift it off the frame assembly.
The extractor/ejector assembly consists of two flat metal parts—the extractor/ejector itself and the extractor release—along with one spring and three roll pins. These parts are housed in the barrel lug. The large hole drilled through the lug allows the large roll pin to fit tightly in the extractor release and still move freely in the lug. The roll pin fits through the front (muzzle) end of the extractor release and extends far enough on both sides of the lug to catch both sides on the inside of the frame. This pulls the extractor release down while opening the firearm.
Using the tip of a small screwdriver inserted into the large hole in the lug, pull the roll pin down and away from the barrel to allow the ejector to pop out into the ejected mode. If it is already out, press it against something solid and push the ejector back into the barrel until it locks in place. If it does not lock, you have found the problem, and we will solve it in a moment. When it locks in place, check it as we described above. If this works right outside the firearm, but not when the gun is assembled, then the roll pin is not catching in the frame as it was designed to do. The roll pin may be too short. Driving the pins out and in will shorten them, as well as wear, abuse, or someone’s grinding on them to “fix” some problem.
The roll pin might not have been driven back in so it is even on both sides or the lips that grab the ends of the pin on the inside of the frame might be damaged. If you suspect this, inspect the inside of the frame. Looking down into the frame from the top, you will see a notch cut into both sides 1 1/4 inches long. Feel under the notch’s front edge and you will see that it continues another half-inch toward the front of the frame. This creates a lip on both sides of the frame that catches the ends of the roll pin, pulls it down, and makes the ejector release work.
Without trying to replace the forearm, put the barrel into the frame, close the action and open it while pulling forward on the barrel. If the ejector is working, it will function while you are pulling forward on the barrel. When these lips are chipped or broken inside the frame, these guns are often discarded as irreparable, but that’s not always the case. There are times that a longer roll pin will work. I have flattened both ends of these roll pins and bent them slightly back toward the muzzle to make them grab the frame in order to save the firearm. Some gunsmiths weld the inside of the frame and recut the notch. You just do not want to spend more on the repair than the firearm is worth.
The other most common cause of these extractors not working correctly is a broken ejector/extractor lip, ejector spring, or ejector release. The extractor lip that grabs the rim of the cartridge or shot shell often gets damaged or broken off. The ejector spring gets rusty, weak or broken, while the ejector release gets chipped or broken. All these require replacements parts. Remember that parts vary, so compare the new one to the old one before installing it. We must also mention that we have found firearms on which the wrong parts were installed. They would work part of the time, but not at all the rest of the time, because the parts were just close enough to fit and work if everything was just right. I’ve seen guns with such parts that would work fine when it was hot, but never in cold weather.
To take this ejection assembly apart, remove the other two roll pins. The pin at the front of the barrel lug (muzzle end) holds in the ejector spring, so when you drive it out the ejector spring will come out as well. Be sure the ejector is in the ejected position to relieve the excess tension from the ejection spring before driving out the pin. The large roll pin we have been talking about can now be driven out of the ejector release. The pin that is closest to the rear of the barrel will allow the ejector release to be removed. Check both the sear areas on the ejector and the ejector release to make sure they are not broken or chipped. When you install new parts and have checked them against the old parts, be sure to slide the new ejector into the barrel by itself before trying to reassemble the whole unit. If it fits too tightly, use a little emery to smooth out the rough edges.
Check the face of the ejector to determine if it is flush with the face of the barrel. Also check to make sure that the extractor lip will allow a shell to fit all the way into the chamber and that the lip will not slide over the rim of the shell without ejecting it.
Failure to fire is a problem you may encounter. However, the firing pin is rarely broken; it is nearly always the striker/lifter assembly. The striker (transfer bar) often breaks off in these firearms. To check, cock the hammer. You can tell if there is proper tension on the hammer while you are exposing the firing pin. Use a screwdriver to push the back of the firing pin through the frame and into firing position.
When the tip of the firing pin comes through, you can see if the tip is broken and a new firing pin is needed. You will have a quick and easy repair if the transfer bar is in place and is working up and down correctly. If it is not working up over the firing pin as you cock the hammer, you’ll have to repair it. Even if it is working correctly, you should still show ensure that the transfer bar will not move out of the way to just put in a new firing pin, but that the entire action must be disassembled and reassembled to install a firing pin.
Only one pin holds the firing pin in place. On older models, you can remove this pin and replace the broken firing pin in a few minutes. The new models require the action described earlier. The pins in these guns are directional and were put in at the factory from left to right, but you never know how they were installed by the last person. The top pin holds the firing pin and the action release assembly. The bottom pin releases the trigger, while a small pin at the front of the trigger guard removes the trigger guard. The two large center pins hold the remainder of the action. This is a very simple system, as only the transfer bar/striker and lifter assembly require careful reassembling with each part going back in just like it came out.
Again, make sure the replacement parts are exactly the same as the broken parts. If the “gears” do not align, they will not work.
Another problem beginning to show up is people taking H & R and New England barrels and actions from different models and swapping the barrels back and forth. Interchangeable barrels does not mean all barrels are interchangeable with all guns. Anytime a barrel is changed it should be carefully fitted. Trying to put a new rifle barrel on a cheap shotgun breech is a big no-no. A properly fitted barrel is just as necessary on a single barrel shotgun as it is on a high-power rifle. Before everyone says I’m crazy, all I am saying is that there is never a place for a poorly fitted barrel.
A few simple tests can make a big difference on the single shot firearms. As crude as it sounds, try wiggling the barrel on the frame of the firearm. Next, see if the barrel still closes with two or three sheets of paper between the breech face and the barrel. Examine your fired hulls or cases for signs of swelling, etc.
On some of the older shotguns that have just worn so badly that they no longer fit tightly, you can take a punch and make a ring of dimples around the side of the surface area where the barrel lug fits onto the hinge pin of the frame. This serves to spread the metal out a little and makes the action tighter and safer. Although this is not the best way, it can give the old shotgun a few more years of use and is certainly much better than someone continuing to shoot it with a loose breech.
A common complaint about these firearms is the terrible trigger pull they all seem to have. Remembering the liability situation that exists in modifying these guns, it is easy to polish both sear points on the hammer and trigger. This alone will make a world of difference in how the firearms function.Changing the sear angles creates a softer trigger, but this change will cause the sear to wear faster and could lead to accidental discharge.
My issue is the breach will open prematurely after firing a shell. I took this older 12 Ga Topper 88 to a gun shop and had the send it out for repair. After waiting more than 3 months I finally had the gun returned to me. If I remember correctly they said they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I fired one shot and the breach opened as it did prior to sending it out. The shotgun has sat in my safe for more than 5 years and I’m not really ready to dispose of it if there is any hope. I do not know if any parts were replaced or any adjustments were attempted. What, if anything, would you recommend that I look at or replace?
I have the same problem with a 243 rifle.