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Single Shot Shotgun – The Original Starter Gun

Single Shot Shotgun – The Original Starter Gun

Three single shot shotgun models on a table

In the hands of a youth or adult, the single-shot is the original starter shotgun for the uplands and small-game

In this day-and-age the single-shot or single-barrel shotgun is quite possibly the rarest gun carried in the upland fields. To see one carried by any bird hunter would be astonishing. In fact, so infrequently seen the single-shot is almost mythical. In my experiences I have seen . . . one! The last time I encountered a single-shot shotgun was during a hunt with a good friend and his son. Our group was hunting pheasant and bobwhite quail on Kansas public lands in the mid-2000s. My friend’s son carried the small toy-like shotgun proudly as if it were a Holland-and-Holland 12-bore side-by-side. 

Once considered the standard for youth, the single-shot shotgun has been overshadowed in popularity by its bigger and faster older brothers, the pump shotgun and semi-autos of the day. In a day where more is considered better, the single-shot is being left behind as a choice for youth and new bird hunters. There may be no better shotgun with which to learn the art of wingshooting. Its simplicity is its own beauty as the single-shot can still bring down feathers.              

History of the single shot shotgun

The very history of firearms started with a single-shot design. By the 18th century, shotguns intended for use in wingshooting became known as a fowling piece: a portable firearm for the shooting of birds.

Single-shot shotguns hold only a single shotgun shell round. Once fired, it must be reloaded after each shot. These shotguns have a break-open action in which it connects with the barrel assembly to the breech block with a hinge. When a locking latch is released, the barrel assembly pivots away from the receiver, opening the breech. In some models, opening the action automatically extracts the spent cartridge.

The single-barrel’s popularity as an inexpensive alternative to double-barreled shotguns was because the shotgun did not require the precise aligning of parallel barrels. Because of its very affordable price tag the single-barrel shotgun was often referred to as a “kitchen door gun” or a “farm gun.” Its primary purpose, self-defense.

A great shotgun for youth hunters

I have no idea how many youngsters start out with single-shot shotguns. I would like to ponder that sometime somewhere, fathers probably figured out the single-shot would be the perfect youth shotgun to be carried afield. Thereafter, the single-shot would be a common sight in years past.  

The affordable single barrel shotgun brings a lot to the table in the introduction into upland bird hunting. As with other break-action shotguns, safety is the biggest benefit with single-shot shotguns. An open action is a visible sign and indicator to other hunters alike that the shotgun is loaded or unloaded. The safety functions are perfect for beginners.

Many models include a spur hammer, and transfer bar safety action along with an integral system that prevents the action from opening or closing when the hammer is cocked. The shotgun is also lightweight which is an advantage when carried by eager young bird hunters. Single-shot shotguns come in a variety of gauges, from .410 bore up to 10-gauge. It’s easy to maintain and simple to use. Single-shots have no complex reciprocating actions to load and unload shells as with pumps and semi-autos. A new shotgunner could quickly learn how to load, reload, and unload a single-shot break action shotgun in a morning. It is also easy to clean in the field or on the workbench.   

The two disadvantages can be worked through. Since single-shots have no action to absorb the force of the recoil, they have the potential to “kick” pretty good. The other downside is the lack of a “quick” follow-up shot by its young carrier experiencing the excitement of a covey flush, cackling rooster, or grouse rocketing through a patch of alders.

Single shot models and brands

Harrington & Richardson Pardner Single-Shot: this model is offered in various gauges with a break-open action, side lever release, and automatic ejection. The Pardner is versatile and economical ($200) and its design has changed little since 1893.

Henry Single-shot: is available in .410, 20- and 12-gauge. With its simple operation and reliable action, it conveys nostalgia when carried. Though a little more expensive at $510, each model is quality made.

Yildiz Single-Barrel: comes in two gauges; 12-gauge and .410 caliber. Its affordable price tag at under $150 makes the shogun an excellent choice for beginners.  

Savage 301 Single-shot: Savage Arms went with a synthetic stock or camo model when building this entry level shotgun for around $200.

Iver Johnson Single Shot: These Turkish made shotguns come in 20-gauge and .410 caliber and are available in Youth models and size. MSRP $180.

Discontinued models include CZ Cottontail Single-shot and Rossi.

A spread of single shot shotgun models.

Stories of single shot shotguns

Below are, a gathering of four colorful narratives from co-workers that I found amusing through my research in the common use of the single-shot shotgun. The tales tell the story and memories afield with their fathers and family members of how the single-shot appears to have been the choice for the young quartet to learn the basics of firearm safety, shotgunning, and wingshooting during the 1970s and ’80s.

Hunting the black devils!

Under his father’s careful eye, Harrison loaded the single-shot. The single-shot Rossi gently snapped closed. A lone yellow 3-inch shell in its chamber. Half-a-box of shells sat in Harrison’s camouflaged coat, the rest carried by his father. The “Black Devils” could be heard in the distance. Soon a dark flying shadow overhead was quickly identified as the scout and shot as it veered too close to the decoys. With no scout to report back, other crows began to fly in to investigate only to fly off.

The barrel quickly made its way upward between two branches from out of the makeshift blind and fired. Harrison hit the black licorice colored crow as the murder (a flock of crows) flew away. The black birds had noisily come into investigate why the “scout’ had not returned. It laid motionless not far from the decoys.

Harrison held the crow, examining his first bird. Mark, Harrison’s father, said “H” had a big smile across his face. It didn’t matter that Harrison’s first bird was a crow. Trophies come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and species and for Harrison to do it using a single-shot was even more impressive.

Harrison had received his single-shot shotgun, a Rossi for his eighth birthday. His father felt the other “youth” model shotguns available were still too cumbersome and wanted something Harrison could comfortably and safely manipulate (load, unload, shoulder, fire) and carry, the Rossi fit the description. The Rossi’s built-in safety features, affordability, and capable knock-down power would be enough to hunt pheasant and quail with “dad.”

Harrison’s at home safety classes consisted of practicing loading, unloading, carrying, and cocking the hammer and firing (using snap caps). He was expected to be proficient while maintaining muzzle awareness. To Mark, it was an easy decision to go with the single-shot for his son. The shotgun allowed Harrison to participate safely in his father’s bird hunting quests. The single-shot made Harrison one of the “guys” in the field. His excitement and happiness as he carried the shotgun was forever etched into his father’s memory.

Action open

At 12 years old, Mike greatly disapproved of his father’s direction to carry the Winchester Model 37 12-gauge given to him by his grandfather, “open” in the Iowa fields. His argument was that he would be at a disadvantage if a rooster flushed, as everyone else carried pump shotguns. After each shot, an outreached hand with a singular shell from Mike’s father would be there to replace the spent shell. Through time and lots of missed ring-neck pheasants, Mike eventually became very efficient at closing the action and firing. “I killed many a rooster with that single-barreled shotgun.”

Mike was given the single-shot for many reasons, but the main one was for the mere safety factor behind the functionality of the single-barrel offered. Mike carried the single-shot for years until transitioning to a repeating shotgun. He wanted more shells to fire. Mike kept the shotgun, whereas in time he eventually handed it down to his son for the same reasons his was given to him. And yes, Mike also made his son carry the single-shot with the action open when hunting.

I’ll trade ya a dog for the shotgun

Before the old H&R Pardner 20-gauge single-shot made its way into Brett’s 11-year-old hands, it was carried in the Missouri woods by his grandfather. Brett recalls his grandfather being very efficient at killing small-game. The accomplished hunter carried shells between his index, middle, and ring fingers for quick reloads. He could shoot and quickly insert another shell for a quick follow-up shot.

Brett’s grandfather came into the possession of the Pardner in a rather peculiar way. See, in southern Missouri it was and still is very common to trade. One day he put together a deal that included the bartering of one of his well-known hunting dogs for the H&R single-shot.

The Trading Post as it is referred to, allowed the trading of things or services. This “trading” was often done with CB radios and the local radio station. The single-shot must have caught Brett’s grandfather’s eye as he was willing to give up a dog!

When the time came, Brett’s father knew the single-shot to be the perfect shotgun for a young boy to start out with. Never having fired a shotgun, Brett was afraid. However, its ease of use, reliability, and fairly-small profile made the single-shot a perfect choice. Quail was becoming scarce and pheasant numbers were low in Missouri during the time Brett used the shotgun, but not for the lack of trying. The Pardner was on loan to Brett, and after years of service it soon gave way to yet again a shotgun that held more shells.

Family tradition and a mason jar full of shells

“I’ll take $25 dollars for the Harrington & Richards .410 single-shot shotgun” is probably how the scenario unfolded. Thrown in with the purchase to sweeten the deal was a mason jar full of shells. Justin was 10 years old when he received his shotgun from his older brother’s friend. Justin says in the beginning only tail feathers were evidence of his marksmanship and enjoyed the time spent hunting with his father hunting Central Missouri. Ironically, Justin’s dad had also started out with a single-shot H&R 20-gauge.

The use of a single-shot goes back even farther in Justin’s family tree, as he recalls stories of his great-grandfather hunting with a single-barreled shotgun, too. He was known to be a “great shot” and carried an extra shell in his off-hand for quick reloads. Justin’s father recalls seeing his granddad shoot two quail in one covey rise on more than one occasion. For shooting a single-shot, Justin’s grandfather apparently enjoyed shooting “doubles!”

Timeless use of the single shot shotgun

The single-shot clearly is the shotgun of choice for youth and beginners. In this day and age when the ability to carry and shoot more is better, the single-shot takes many back to a time when things were a lot simpler. Fathers, grandfathers, and uncles walking along with sons and daughters doling out ammo teaches the new hunter to be careful, patient, and precise in their shots – basic principles that ALL bird hunters need to know and adhere to. If only for old times’ sake, how grand would it be to see more young bird hunters traipsing across the uplands with a single-shot shotgun behind a pair of bird dogs walking along a weedy fence row. Images such as these would be like stepping back in time.

There is no denying that the timeless single shot break-open breech design in single barrel shotguns are still capable enough to bring down upland birds, from quail to ruffs. Those older single-shots still pack enough oomph to bring a smile to a youngster toting their first shotgun–a benefit still retained by newer single-shots with updated modern safety features. I can bet that whatever youth carries the single-shot in a field or covert, they will not be prouder of their shotgun than if carrying anything else. It’s in how the youth are taught that they will come to understand that carrying the single-shot is a shotgun worthy for the uplands.

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View Comments (19)
  • I am 85 years and inherited two single shots and over the years acquired 2 more so now I have 4. We called them the “Hardware Store Shotguns”. You are right you never see ’em in the field.

    • It appears at least to me that single shots were more prevalent back in the day and more common as a starter gun. I am looking into buying one for doves.

        • Adam…I wish I could help you, as I only know that one of the pictured single-shots is a H&R and the other is an Iver Johnson. I believe H&R and Henry still makes available single-shots in various gauges. Good luck.

  • My first actual shotgun was a Mossberg bolt action. But having lost it through bad choice of friends. While in college wanting to get back into hunting I sacrificed 136 bucks for a single shot. Which I still have to this day and I still hunt with on a regular if not often basis. Yes I carry two shells between my second third and fourth digits. And yes my stepson has fell victim to emptying his pump shotgun on Dove dropping none and me asking if you’re finished and then dropping two or three with a quick shot and then a reload. I believe I’ve had that shotgun now for close to 26 years It’s simple light fast modified by me and imminently deadly with the right hands. honestly if there was a nicer upgrade single shot I would probably be interested but I see this gun as practical and is deadly as anything else out there. Honestly a box of shells and that single shot made many a happy afternoon collecting six or seven doves and having dinner. There is no telling how many small game fell to that. Thanks for bringing back memories that I thought I had lost!

    • You are welcome sir! Sounds like that was a great investment…$136. My buddy who’s story is in the article about carrying shells in between his fingers and now hearing that you did as well – makes me believe that you guys are some crack shots. I wish I would have had the opportunity to start with a single. I see more birds falling to your single this season.

  • I started with a single shot about 40 years ago. My kids started with the same single shot–and H&R “Topper Jr.” in 20 gauge. It still has a place of honor in my safe. Single shots are absolutely the right starter shotgun.

    However, even with a transfer bar the hammer is a problem. I wish I had known about the Savage 220 (the old single shot, not the new bolt action) when my kids were starting out. It’s one of the few that has a tang safety and no exposed hammer. They are long out of production and somewhat difficult to find in 20 gauge, but they are the perfect starter shotgun.

    I bought one for (hopefully) grandkids. By the time I open the choke, cut it down, and put a recoil pad on it, I’ve almost as much in it as a new youth model pump would cost. But it’s a lightweight, safe single shot.

    • After researching single shots, I wish more manufacturers offered single shots. I intend to purchase one this season for doves. I think it will be fun and look forward to using it in the field. Thanks for reading my article and for sharing your story.

  • I was given a 20 gauge “youth” model for Christmas 1968 by my grandfather ( with parents permission). I recall it kicked like a mule. did kill my first partridge ( Ruffed Grouse) with in but I out grew it, moving to a used 12 gauge autoloader when I turned 15. That firearm disappeared decades ago ( I think to a cousin). I still have my great uncles 16 gauge H&R and recall some of his & my grandfathers stories about the arm. I guess more than a few mill workers where they worked got poached venison during the depression thanks to that gun. I occasionally carry it since it is light and in S. NH “bird hunting” ( outside of waterfowl or punt & shoot planted pheasants) is generally little more than taking a shotgun for a walk. The arms aren’t all that different from the modern, break action muzzle loaders and when used properly are still very capable of being a good meat & potatoes gun.

    • First, thank you for reading my article and sharing your experiences. I have noticed that nowadays it is a rare gun carried in the uplands. As I mentioned I have only seen one in the field in thirty years. The other day while shooting sporting clays a father and son were discussing the boy’s first shotgun and the pump was mentioned. A great gun no doubt, but I think the single is the way to go.

  • got my first stevens 20ga singleshot from my grandfather when i was 10, 60 years ago. found one in a gun store for 60$ in the 1970s. i own enough shotguns to outfit my 2 kids and 7 grandkids . they grab the doubles and autos so i end up with the old single shot and get more birds and cary less weight . hunting with a single shot is a lot of fun. 60 yrs of practice with the same gun makes for a lot of dead birds. grandfathers gun was bought a general store aroung 1925 for 8.00$

  • While our fathers and grandfathers no doubt understood the utility of using a single-shot shotgun as an introduction to firearms & firearm safety, it’s worth appreciating many of these single-shot guns perform spectacularly while being an “everyman’s gun”. If there’s a hunting culture in your country then there isn’t a single social class that doesn’t have enough money to operate a break action in either 12, 16, or .410 shell size.

    Most of my father’s break actions here in Canada were exported from Brazil by the CBC company. At their core they are simply a stock+trigger assembly, a handguard, and a metal tube. Next to no need for extra equipment, likely bought from a catalog advertisement for sub $50 of the era’s money. To this day it’s the only realistic option for a spectacular firearm at a $100 price point.

    I tend to bring both my lever action .410 as well as my break action .410 with me when I go for grouse. I got some of my first birds with that gun, and I often pick it up first to this day.

  • I still use my old western auto single shot 20, sometimes to show the son in law and grandsons that more expensive isn’t always better. It has dropped squirrels, birds varmits and even turkey and as hard as it is to believe a couple of short range deer over 50 years of use. The only thing I have ever had to do is clean and oil it. Both my daughters and grandkids were taught about shotguns with it and hopefully someday great grands will learn on it too.

    • Mr. Benefield, thank you for reading my article and sharing your memories of your single-shot. I was so inspired to write this after hearing from my friends how much the single-shot had such an impact on them and their time afield. It made me want to get one as I did not start out using a single-shot. I found a 1963 Webley & Scott with beautiful case hardening, English stock, and decent wood two years ago. It has since served me to shoot doves and a pheasant. I am glad that my article inspired you to comment. Thank you. Edgar

  • Tout d’abord, excusez-moi mais j’écris en français (mon anglais écrit n’est pas très bon) j’avais acheté un
    single shot baïkal ij18 12g en cadeau à mon père car il avait débuté avec un single et en avait la nostalgie. Mon père a beaucoup chassé avec ce fusil et à son décès j’en ai hérité. Je l’ai laissé au coffre pendant 25 ans et puis un jour je l’ai pris pour une chasse. Depuis je ne chasse qu’avec ce fusil car l’âge avançant, le poids d’un fusil devient important, le baïkal ne fait que 2,5 kg, et je peux vous dire que j’ai attrapé toutes
    sortes de gibiers avec, y compris des chevreuils qui sont très nombreux ici en france. De plus, avec les cartouches non toxiques, obligatoires en europe en zone humides, le baïkal est très efficace. Bien à vous Edgar.

    • Jean, I’m so sorry for the loss of your father. It’s obvious he impacted you and hunting as my father did. Reading your comment I found it amazing that he used a single-shot for deer. Just never would’ve thought about that. Great to hear you’ve continued using it to pursue small game and making memories and remembering those of your fathers. Thank you very much for sharing. Merry Christmas.

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