The shotgun is nothing new. The smoothbore musket was the weapon of choice in the 17th and 18th centuries (not rifles). Why? Because you can get any job done with the same gun. While the shotgun—and other weapons—have evolved since then, the shotgun still holds its own with a colorful variety of firearms, action types, and ammunition choices to suit any conceivable need. For the last hundred years, the pump action and semi-automatic design have reigned supreme, eclipsing their break-top predecessors namely the single shot and double barrel varieties. But the break-top guns are still around and still going strong, though their design has already reached its pinnacle, while pump action and semi-automatic designs continue grow. With all this innovation going on, is there still room for the single shot shotgun? A case for and against can be made.
What the Single Shot Is Good At
The single barrel shotgun does offer a number of advantages over its newer pump and semi-automatic competition. Advantages include:
• Simple, Break-Top Design—The single barrel shotgun uses a simple break-top action that comes open via a lever or a button near the hammer (some single barrel guns are hammerless). The barrel is held in place via a robust locking lug in the receiver. Simply break the gun open, load a round into the chamber, and close it. The design also has few moving parts to include the hammer, hammer spring, and firing pin. There are no magazines to jam up or magazine springs to weaken. Nor are there bolts to short stroke like that on a pump action. Due to you being able to see the chamber directly, it is also very safe.
• Lightweight—The single barrel shotgun, due to the virtue of not having magazines or a bolt mechanism that rides inside a receiver, tend to be light weight in comparison to other types.
• More Versatile—The break-top shotgun can, in general, digest nearly any type of ammunition of the appropriate gauge. Break-top shotguns can take interchangeable barrels and shotgun adapters to use sub caliber ammunition for plinking and game getting (if you happen to not have or don’t wish to use shotgun shells). The semi-automatic shotgun relies on its ammunition to feed and operate. Certain loads will not work well. The pump action does not have that problem, but will not take adapters readily. So, the single barrel shotgun gets a bit of a nod with respect to versatility.
• Lower Cost—The single shot shotgun remains popular because of their low cost. It is one of the few powerful options out there that you can have for under $200 new. A quality pump shotgun could be double that price.
Single barrel shotguns take sub caliber adapters at ease. Here I use a fine Short Lane rifled 20 gauge to 9mm Luger adapter. With some cheap remanufactured ammo, I was able to put rounds into a nice 5 inch group at 36 yards using the basic bead front sight only.
A nice spread of a No. 6 birdshot load out of an H&R Tamer 20 gauge improved choke at 36 yards. A little far for birdshot, but you can still get dinner. Single barrel shotguns can also take any buckshot load for self defense, if need be.
Three shots, two in the same hole at 50 yards distance with Remington 20 gauge 5/8 ounce Slugger slugs. Using the basic bead front sight on the usual single barrel shotguns, these solid chunks of lead will shoot high at close range but hit right on at 100 yards with plenty of big game authority.
Where the Single Barrel Shotgun Falls Short
The single shot shotgun has some bright points but here are legitimate reasons why they have been eclipsed over the years.
• Low Capacity—The desire to fire a shotgun more than once or twice before reloading lead to the development of faster, designs whether it is for getting to your bag limit on game or for fast follow up shots for personal defense. The single barrel shotgun falls on its face. It only holds one round. That means if several ducks take flight, you are probably only going to get one. It also means, you have to reload in a defensive situation… for each shot. Luckily, there are better defensive shotgun options out today. But that has not stopped countless people over the decades from using their single shots successfully in defense of self.
• Lack of Accessory Options—The single shot shotgun is not often encountered with rails to mount optics or flashlights. About the only exception are slug guns. Shotguns with barrels designed exclusively to shoot slugs—ie: The H&R Ultra Light Slug Hunter
• Recoil—If you take a single barrel shotgun out to the range, you are bound to find that, when using standard loads, the recoil of these lightweight guns tend to be more than their heavier counterparts, regardless of gauge. Not to say that these shotguns are unpleasant to shoot.
What to Look For
Companies like H&R and Rossi are making fine single barrel shotguns. You can find them with ease for purchase online. Your local gun store will likely stock them or at the very least have them available to order. Pawn shops are great places to encounter them—both new and used, often at the $100 mark. But there are some things to look for before buying one for yourself, especially when opting for a used gun.
When buying a used single barrel shotgun look for the following:
Check for any stock cracks and any wiggle in the action when it is locked up. More than likely, the single barrel shotgun will lock up just fine, though large stock cracks might cause trouble down the road.
Just about all single barrel shotguns manufactured in recent times have some sort of rebounding or transfer bar safety that prevents the hammer from contacting the firing pin. Check it by pulling the trigger in the receiver and seeing if the firing pin comes through. Also try pushing on the uncocked hammer without pulling the trigger. The firing pin should not protrude. If you dry fire the gun and the firing pin doesn’t come out, it might need some oil, or it could be a broken firing pin, one of the few moving parts in these little guns.
So What Is The Take Away?
Single barrel shotguns are still being produced today, even when there are faster firing options out there. Why? Because these nifty little guns still fill a niche. First and foremost, they are still formidable survival/ hunting weapons that don’t lack power or versatility. They are very safe to operate, especially for new shooters and they boast unrivaled reliability—so much so that some used shotguns are not in the best of shape on account of being used so much for so long for so many tasks.
While, it is nice to have more rounds, the single barrel shotgun has defended home and put food on the table for generations and for some that is not likely to change. Even today, with a more defensive slant penetrating the shotgun market, the single barrel shotgun is still, quite possible, the best bang for your buck.