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The Single Shot 12 Gauge Shotgun

(c) 2014 – Ed Harris


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"People with real-world experience agree that a break-open, single-shot, 12-gauge shotgun the least expensive, most handy and versatile firearm that anyone can own. A subsistence farmer or outdoors-man doesn’t want a heavy duck gun or tactical shotgun. When on foot or out doing chores you aren’t going to carry several hundred 12-gauge shells which only take 9 rounds to weigh a pound. Instead, you take what you need for the day and to get you back home. Typically you will carefully make a box or two of ammo last for as long a time as possible, especially if your ammo re-supply is a great distance away. We are speaking here of a meat getter, predator eliminator and home defense gun. Low cost, safety, simplicity, ruggedness, durability, ease of carry, fast handling and versatility are essential attributes. What other firearm can you get for about $100 used or less than $200 new which does so much?


The break-open shotgun “always works” and is simplicity itself. Minimal training is needed. You can’t “short-shuck” one, as often happens to novice “pump gun” owners. It keeps going like the Energizer Bunny with only minimal care, despite monsoon rain, desert sand, snow, ice, mud, dust or saltwater exposure and takes apart to fit in your backpack. Nothing much goes wrong or breaks on them unless you are stupid enough to dry-fire them with the action open and slam the action closed, breaking the firing pin.



A break-open single-shot 12-gauge with rebounding hammer and automatic ejector is the best choice. This is because 12-gauge guns and ammo are the most effective, least expensive, and available everywhere, world-wide. A typical break-open single-shot gun weighs about 6-1/2 pounds. Yes, it’s true that its recoil can be intimidating. So buy low-base “field loads” and “low recoil” law enforcement slugs and buckshot to take the “sting” out of it. Fifty shotgun shells weigh about 5 pounds. This limits how much ammunition you can carry.

If someone in the family using the gun is recoil shy, a 20-gauge gun may be considered. Its lighter shot load has about 10 yards shorter effective range than a 12-gauge, roughly 35 yards vs. 45 using a full choke barrel on game. Figure five yards less using a modified choke and ten yards less if using a shortened or cylinder bore. Twenty-gauge guns and ammo are less common and more expensive. If you buy a 20-gauge get a 3-inch chamber, which can shoot either standard 2-3/4 inch field or heavier 3-inch Magnum loads. A 3-inch Magnum 20 gauge carries the same shot load as a standard 12-gauge 2-3/4 inch field load.

Forget shotguns in other than 12-ga. or 20-gauge if cost or convenience is a factor because the ammo is harder to get and more expensive. Some people like .410-bore because of the lower weight and cube of its ammo, but it has VERY limited range, no more than 25 yards. A .410 slug only compares to a .32-20 rifle in energy. Thin patterns make game hits iffy beyond 20 yards, .410 ammo is expensive. The 3-inch 5-pellet 00 buck is an effective defense load within 25 yards and is alot better than no shotgun at all. If you shop carefully you can find single-barrel shotguns factory fitted with an extra rifle barrel chambered for common rifle or pistol cartridges such as the .30-30, .357 or .44 Magnum. Seek out one of these if you already have a handgun or rifle in one of those calibers...


While a shotgun is no substitute for a rifle, it can place a slug about as accurately as a non-expert can shoot a revolver from an improvised rest at the same distance. Reality is hitting a 6 inch target at 40 or 50 yards. Having rifle sights on your shotgun doesn’t improve its inherent accuracy, but lets you “zero” the gun so that it will “hit where it points,” in case your plain bead-sighted barrel doesn’t.

The value of short barreled shotguns with rifle sights is over-rated. Rifle-sighted shotguns are usually either improved cylinder choke or full open cylinder bore with barrels 20 to 22 inches long. While they are handier to carry taken apart in a backpack, the shot patterns they produce are thinner and their effective range with birdshot or buckshot is significantly reduced. If accurate slug shooting is that important to you, you should get a rifle instead. Ask yourself if it worth giving up 10 yards (or more) of effective game range, which effectively limits you to 25-30 yards, to get that handy length and rifle sights whose benefit is mostly mental? For most people a 26 inch Modified or 28 inch full choke is best on game and hits well enough with slugs for practical use. If you can do the job with the plain vanilla simple gun you have, learn to love its Long Tom barrel and the virtues of instinctive point shooting.


Expert shotgun gunners wield a shotgun on moving game as if sweeping a paintbrush. The “non-expert” single shot user makes his one shot count by shooting his shotgun at game the same as if it were a rifle. Typical table game is sitting turkeys or squirrels up in tall trees. By the way, ground sluicing birds when hunting in a survival situation is OK as its taking game out of season. However don’t try and take any wild game out of season and tell the Game officer you were in a survival situation and did not want to waste the left over’s, so you brought them home after you rescued yourself. That bird will not fly.

You want to simplify your shotgun ammo supply. For initial training and periodic practice buy a case of “dove and quail,” or “trap” loads of No. 8 shot. For general hunting, predator control, big game and home defense buy 100 rounds each of “duck & pheasant loads” loaded with No. 6 shot, and either No. 1 (best choice) or 00 buckshot (OK) and 1-oz. rifled slugs. The “low-recoil” (reduced velocity) buckshot and slug loads made for law enforcement use are less punishing to shoot in a light gun. They give up little in effectiveness and some guns pattern better with them than they do with “high base” loads, so it is worthwhile to seek them out if you can find them. Otherwise learn to hold onto your gun tightly, cut loose and get over it. Remember that the force of gravity is perpetual and that of recoil is brief, so enjoy the virtues of your simple and handy gun.

Advice for the basic load of 20 gauge ammo load parallels the 12-gauge. Buy a case of 2-3/4 inch 7/8 oz. No. 8 shot “dove and quail loads” for training and practice, then 100 rounds of 1 oz. No. 6 shot “duck & pheasant loads” for general hunting and 100 rounds each of buckshot and slugs for predator control and home defense. The 3-inch Magnum, 18 pellet No. 2 buckshot has better penetration than the 20 pellet No. 3 buck loaded in the 2-3/4 inch shell, so get these if you get a 20-gauge gun with 3-inch chamber.

You may need a personal weapon while traveling places which prohibit civilians from possessing a handgun or center-fire rifle. If self-defense potential is more important to you than putting meat in the pot, then you want a gun which can be accessibly carried, concealed if necessary, which handles easily and can be quickly grabbed, instinctively pointed and fired instantly. Only a short barrel gun fits these requirements. Harry Archer and I once had to equip a married couple whose assignment normally wouldn’t have required them to be equipped with personal weapons, but the situation on the ground changed, and we had only one afternoon before they left CONUS to train them. We got two H&R Model 158 Toppers and made a quick trip to Ace Hardware store for a tubing cutter, mill file and pipe deburring tool. They didn’t make the short barrel, iron-sighted “Tracker” or “Survivor” models back then. A few minutes with common hardware store tools turned the 28-inch full choke barrels into 18-inch cylinder bores with a slight muzzle constriction induced by the tubing cutter. They patterned 12 pellet “short Magnum” 00 or 16 pellet high base, or 20-pellet "short magnum" No. 1 buckshot wonderfully out to 30 yards. These legal-length sawed-offs stowed in a Fiat 124 between seat and door post and proved successful in thwarting a kidnap attempt, whereas another less fortunate embassy employee was killed a few weeks after our charges returned home.

Any single-shot gun is a “shoot and scoot” weapon used only to provide an opportunity for escape. If you use a shotgun in combat you must realize that any opponent who knows that you are armed with a shotgun will change the battlefield conditions to his advantage. In an extended gun fight an adversary will undermine your use of the shotgun by staying outside its limited range and just plink away at you. He will get behind substantial cover capable of stopping buckshot, and expose little of himself, being difficult to hit with a slug beyond pistol range. He will rush you while you are reloading or extend the time of battle until you run out of ammunition. If reduced to using a single-barrel shotgun, you must quickly end the fight at close range, exploiting your shotgun’s strengths, by surprising the bad guy who didn’t expect you to be armed, while you escape the killing field before an opponent can take advantage of your weapon’s limitations.

With practice you can learn to reload and fire more rapidly than most people would expect, especially if you carry spare ammo on an elastic carrier on the shotgun butt.



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