The Break-Open, Single-Shot, 12-gauge shotgun
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 compares to a .32-20 rifle in energy. Thin patterns make game hits iffy beyond 20 yards, .410 ammo is expensive. The 5-pellet 00 buck is OK up close and it is 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 either rifle or pistol cartridges. Seek out one of these if you already have a handgun or rifle in one of those calibers.
Harry Archer my friend and colleague formally of the CIA, and I once had to equip a married couple whose assignment normally wouldn’t have required them to be armed, but their situation changed, so we had one afternoon to train them. We took two H&R Model 158 Toppers and made a quick trip to Ace Hardware store for a tubing cutter and pipe flaring tool. They didn’t make the short barrel, iron-sighted “Tracker” or “Survivor” models then. So we had to make our own.
A few minutes with common hardware store tools turned our 28-inch full choke barrels into 20 inch cylinder bores with a slight muzzle constriction induced by the tubing cutter, which patterned 12 pellet “short Magnum” 00 or 16 pellet No. 1 buckshot wonderfully out to 30 yards. These legally shortened guns stowed on both side floors of their Fiat 124 between seat and door post.
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. It is just another option and if you can hit where you need to leave the gun alone.
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.
Just as we did with the revolver, 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.
C.E. “Ed” Harris is well known to readers of American Rifleman, the Gun Digest and the Cast Bullet Association’s Fouling Shot magazine.During 12 years on the Technical Staff of the National Rifle Association he was a consultant to numerous military, law enforcement and firearms industry organizations and was officially commended by the U.S. Marine Corps Development Center, Quantico, Virginia for expert technical assistance provided during the Development and Operational Testing of the M16A2 rifle. He is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, holds the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Professional Development Certification in Emergency Management and for 22 years he has worked for local government in Northern Virginia.