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The Common Single-Shot Shotgun by Jerry Thoms
“Out With The Boys” by Rollie Brandt, courtesy of the artist and Wild Wings (800) 445-4833.

A Practical, Versatile, Inexpensive Firearm For An Introduction To Shotgunning, Hunting Or Collecting

hen the old hunter went over to his gun cabinet to get what he called his “most valuable shotgun,” everyone expected him to pull out a rare, expensive, custom-made side-by-side or fancy, new, high-priced over & under. Instead, he picked out and held up a very common, very inexpensive, factory-made single-shot 12 gauge.

“This was my first real firearm, given to me as a birthday present when I was 10 years old,” he said as he showed us the old break-open breechloader with open hammer. The walnut stock and forearm were polished smooth by years of handling, and the steel action was glossy with bright metal that glowed through what was left of the original blued finish.

“I had pretty much worn out my BB gun shooting tin cans and sparrows on the day I opened the box that held this single-shot shotgun. After a serious talk with my dad about gun safety and maintenance, we went out to my uncle’s farm to a dump site, where I shot a pattern that showed a good central point-of-impact and even pellet distribution on the side of a junked refrigerator. Then my dad tossed a cracked supper plate into the air, which I smashed with a load of No. 6s.”

“With this old single-shot, I got my first cottontail rabbit, red squirrel, wild pigeon and crow. Likewise, I used this gun to take my first ringneck pheasant, prairie grouse, ruffed grouse, woodcock, bobwhite quail, mallard duck and Canada goose,” the hunter recalled with obvious delight. “Of all the guns I’ve ever had, this is the most important, because with it I learned how to shoot, how to hunt and how to enjoy owning guns,” he added.

Harrington & Richardson 10-gauge

A Harrington & Richardson 10-gauge single-shot is an ideal gun for shooting custom-made reloads. The nearly 9-pound weight of this gun helps control recoil, and the 36" barrel keeps the muzzle blast away from the hunter’s ears.

The Practical Side

Although double-barrels, pump-actions and semiautomatics offer multiple shots, each type has a relatively complicated mechanical action that can easily malfunction because of its complex design and many parts. The single-shot, with its open hammer, has the simplest design and construction, plus the fewest parts of any type of shotgun. Consequently, maintaining one is easy: Just swab out the inside of the barrel and wipe off the exterior wood and metal. Because most single-shots are so simple and reliable, they seldom break. If they do, any repairs are usually quick and easy, with broken parts replaced by removing a few screws or popping a couple pins. Newer single-shots in particular can be fixed in a few minutes.

Ask any hunter what their first shotgun was and 9 out of 10 will say “a practical single-shot.” In most cases, that first shotgun was a single-shot for good reasons. First, they are safe, as they only hold one shell which can easily be removed with the gun’s action left open, so anyone can see up close or from a distance the gun is empty.

Second, the price of a new or used single-shot has always been the lowest of any kind of shotgun, so most adults can usually afford to buy one for a kid or anyone else expressing an interest in shooting or hunting. If that person does not remain enthusiastic, the gun can usually be sold for the original investment because someone is always looking for a single-shot shotgun.

Third, a single-shot is a good kind of shotgun for a new shooter to learn the value of one shot at any target. If there is only one chance to hit a rabbit, pheasant or goose, the hunter is more likely to focus and concentrate on waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. This is less likely to happen with a double-barrel or repeater.

The Versatile Side

Most manufacturers of single-shot shotguns make these versatile products in all the gauges, including .410, 28, 20, 16, 12 and 10. Also available in .410, 20 and 12 gauge are “youth models” with shorter stocks and barrels for better fit and lighter weight.

single-shot action

The action on most single-shot shotguns with exposed hammers is simple and durable and relatively easy and inexpensive to repair, if necessary.

Of all the gauges, 12 is probably the most versatile because of all the ammunition choices available. Ammo for the 12 gauge begins with low-recoil, low-noise subsonic loads (with no more kick or boom than a 20 gauge, well-suited for beginners) to heavy-duty magnum hunting ammunition with enough power to knock down a 10-pound Canada honker. In between are choices for clay birds (trap, skeet and sporting clays), small game (i.e., rabbits and squirrels), noxious birds (i.e., feral pigeons and starlings) and all gamebirds (i.e., doves, quail, pheasants, grouse, turkeys, as well as small and big waterfowl). There are even buckshot and slug loads for hunting big-game animals with 20 or 12-gauge single-shots.

The versatility of the single-shot is also in the ease with which the stock can be cut down to fit kids, women or anyone of slight stature. Cutting 3" or 4" off the stock of a $125 single-shot is less daunting than doing the same to a $350 pump, $900 semiautomatic, $1,200 over & under or $2,500-plus side-by-side. A cut-down single-shot, in fact, can maintain its value because there is always someone looking for such a gun for the same purposes the gun was modified for in the first place.

Because most single-shot shotguns, especially in 12 gauge, have little or no inherent or built-in recoil-reduction features in the way a semiautomatic does, a modern recoil pad added to any single-shot stock will greatly reduce the kick any gauge produces, even with light loads but especially heavy loads. All the major manufacturers of high-tech, stock-mounted recoil pads have a product either custom-made for specific guns or easily adjusted to fit most single-shots. Many can be installed at home with a few simple tools (i.e., a saw and screwdriver) or put on by a professional gunsmith.

The Inexpensive Side

Most gun shops will have a selection of single-shot shotguns, either new or used. Likewise, single-shots are easy to find at gun shows or on firearm websites like gunsamerica.com or gunbroker.com. Single-shot shotguns also regularly appear at personal-property auctions and in garage sales. These firearms are easy to find and almost always at reasonable prices.

Most new 12-gauge single-shots are priced from $115 to around $159, with used guns going from $75 to $100, depending on gauge, brand and condition (check the Blue Book of Gun Values). In judging the condition of a used single-shot, the prospective buyer should exercise all the usual concerns for rust and pits in the barrel, a tight fit between the barrel and action, a safely functioning trigger and hammer and good fit of the forearm to the barrel and stock to the metal.

Because of the low price of most new or used single-shots, most shotgunners can afford to own more than one. Some hunters have one in every available gauge. “Several years ago I bought, at an auction, several cases of shotshells from .410 to 10 gauge, even though at the time I only had a 12-gauge pump,” said one Minnesota ruffed-grouse and Canada-goose hunter. “So, I bought some used single-shots in each gauge just to use the bargain ammo I had purchased. For less than $500, I soon had enough singles to shoot with a .410 for woodcock, 28 or 20 gauge for grouse, a 16 for pheasants and a 10 gauge for honkers.” Another testimonial to the practicality of the single-shot.

Most single-shot shotguns in the $75-$150 range will never win a beauty contest. A few old singles may have real walnut stocks and forearms and some metal with case coloring, but even the best are mainly utilitarian and sort of homely. The newer single-shot shotguns tend to be even more straightforward, with some having really inexpensive, plain wood or wood painted black. “Practical” counts more than “pretty” in most single-shot shotguns.

Hunting With The Single-Shot

When Eleanor Eidsness wanted to develop some off-season business for the hunting preserve she managed, she and her husband Ken came up with the idea of having a pheasant-hunting contest for gundog owners and their dogs. The plan was to release three ringneck roosters in a 20-acre plot of prairie grass then give one hunter and one dog 20 minutes to find and shoot the birds.

.410 single-shot shotgun

A .410 single-shot shotgun with light recoil can be a good choice as a first shotgun for young kids, ladies or anyone of small stature. The single shot .410 can also be used in hunting contests where pen-raised gamebirds such as pheasants are released then pursued with dogs that will find and flush the birds close to the little firearm.

“To make the competition more interesting, we decided everyone had to shoot a single-shot .410 with only three shells per person,” Eidsness said. “This meant the dogs had to locate birds close to the hunters, and the shooters had to be good shots. Some participants thought this would be real easy. But when the contest was over, several thought their dogs needed more training, and some decided they needed more practice with the little shotgun.”

All the .410s and ammunition were the same, so no one could claim any handicap due to differences in gun type or shotshells. And, because these were single-shots, the cost of the equipment was kept to a minimum. “Even so, some contestants dropped out of the competition because they blamed the one-shot gun for them not taking big pheasants. The winners, however, knew, if their dogs did a good job finding the birds, the single-shot could knock them down,” explained Eidsness.

Jay Johnson has a dozen shotguns for hunting waterfowl in South Dakota, but one of his favorite and most-used firearms is a 10-gauge single-shot. “My reason for preferring the single-shot is this gun is so reliable and deadly on long shots, especially geese that might be on the edge of killing range with a 3½" 12 gauge,” Johnson said. “My single-shot 10 gauge has a 36" barrel that keeps the big boom of my hot reloads away from my ears,” he added.

Johnson’s single-shot has been carefully matched to some special handloads he found in a popular reloading manual. “I’ve been using a 10-gauge fast-load recipe that pushes 1½ ounces of steel BBs at 1,650 f.p.s. for a high-percentage knockdown of snow geese at up to 70 yards. This handload did best in the single-shot when I tested it on paper targets for a tight pattern at long ranges,” Johnson explained.

Collecting Single-Shot Shotguns

As with any type of firearm, single-shot shotguns can be collected by brand (Winchester and Savage-Stevens are the two most-obvious American manufacturers), by gauge (.410 through 10 gauge are relatively easy to find) or by age and rarity (antiques and special models are obvious choices). In most cases, collectible single-shots are fairly plentiful, and most are affordable, especially compared to other types of shotguns (side-by-sides can cost several thousand dollars).

“One important feature of my single-shot collection is, in most instances, I can feel comfortable shooting any of these shotguns or taking them out hunting,” one collector told me. “That isn’t often possible with collectible guns that have the same price as a new pickup truck,” he added.

Although the Savage-Stevens single-shots have been out of production for many years, there are still many in the marketplace. These were first manufactured in 1877 with a price of $15 for a plain barrel, $19.50 for a twist and $21.50 for laminated steel. Many of the earlier guns came with walnut stocks and forearms, the more-expensive ones having figured wood and checkering.

By the 1960s, Savage Arms had five models of single-shot shotgun. The Model 94, marketed under the Stevens trademark, was the most popular, with over 1,000,000 manufactured in .410, 28, 20, 16 and 12 gauge. Barrel lengths varied from 26" to 32", with a special 12-gauge “Long Tom” 36-incher. A simple collection of Savage-Stevens single-shots could begin with gathering all the gauge choices for the Model 94.

Over 1,000,000 Winchester Model 37 single-shot shotguns in .410, 28, 20, 16 and 12 gauge were made from 1936-1963. Another 600,000-plus were manufactured as Model 37As and Model 370s from 1968-1980. The Model 37 had a frame with Winchester-selected steel, a top lever with a semi-hammerless rebounding lock and a safety cocking lever on the tang. Also featured on the Model 37 was automatic shell ejection, a barrel with a brazed forend lug, stock and forearm of American walnut, pistol grip and composite butt plate. All Model 37s came with a Full choke. The Model 37A and 370 (made in Canada) are generally regarded as having poor-quality workmanship, weak trigger springs, flawed forend retainers and pot-metal top levers that often break. Even so, they are still great as collectibles.

“In the past 40 years or so, I’ve bought many single-shot shotguns as gifts for kids and other people who wanted an introduction to shotgunning and hunting,” an old hunter recollected. “Not everyone became life-long shooters or avid hunters, although more did than didn’t.” And that’s something that might not have happened at all if they hadn’t owned and used an ordinary single-shot shotgun.