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Briar Patch Outdoors

Single Shot Survival

by George Hedgepeth


The break-open, single-shot shotgun is the epitome of "the gun as a tool". Millions have, and continue to be made. Since the development of fixed cartridges in the mid 19th century, these simple guns have protected homes, killed game, and ran off varmints all over the world. In the United States, it is hard to imagine a farm without one of these work horses leaning in a corner, waiting to take care of business.

For the backwoods, these guns have two disadvantages. First of all, they are shotguns. That means the ammunition for them is heavier than for a rifle of pistol. It also means they are short range propositions, say out to 50 yards, or maybe 80 with a slug. Also, with some loads, they can kick.

Secondly, they are single shots. They are not the right tool for extended firefights in Afghanistan. It takes a few seconds to fire, eject, and reload... perhaps 4 to 5 seconds. They are not weapons for people who think in terms of target saturation. They are certainly not "cool".

If one can live with those limitations, they have much to offer. Their strong points seem to get more attractive the farther out in the bush one goes. They are very portable, they are simple and reliable, and they are effective and versatile.

An H&R and a Stevens single shot 20 gauge.



Few guns are easier to pack than a single shot shotgun. Most are quite light at about 6 pounds. That can make recoil brisk with heavy loads, but that is not what is most commonly needed anyway. They are shorter than repeaters while having the same barrel length because they donít have a long action in the middle. For example, A Harrington and Richardson 12 gauge single shot with a 28" barrel has an overall length of 41". A Remington 870 pump with the same length barrel is 48.5", and weighs around 7.5 pounds empty.

They are also very easy to break into two sections, which can make for a very compact package indeed. This is handy for tucking the gun away in a back or bedroll, or for longer term storage. They can be reassembled in a matter of seconds. I often slide the two halves of a disassembled single shot into the side pockets of a surplus West German pack I use sometimes... The gun is out of sight, protected from the elements, and handy. It also makes for a balanced load.

Single shot shotguns are easy to break down into two pieces. This makes for a very compact package.



They go well with packs in another way too. If a sling is used, these guns will ride very nicely along side of a pack. This is because they are flat sided. The only other style of gun which seems to be as nice a match for a backpack is a lever action rifle, which is even more slab sided.

These workhorses are highly available. They are cheap -- my personal companion cost $75 used. New single shots are available for under $150. There might well be one leaning in a family memberís closet already. They are also the last weapon to be legislated out of availability all over the world, and are common among country people even under oppressive regimes.

They are as simple a weapon as can be imagined, and generally simplicity means reliability. Not much is needed to keep them clean and functioning... a simple length of cord or a straight stick and a rag can do most of it. Few, robust parts mean durability. The most common problems I have seen with single shots are broken ejectors... and when this happens it will not prevent the gun from being used.



Beyond the mechanics of the gun, there are the characteristics of the ammunition to discuss. First of all, not all gauges of shotgun are equally well suited to backwoods duty. The two best choices are the 20 and the 12 gauge. The 16 gauge is fine functionally, but can be hard to find today. The same could be said of the 28 gauge. The .410 has size advantages, but carries a tiny payload. It really is not enough for large game, and its range is limited. The 10 gauge is simply too much of a good thing, and ammo is expensive and uncommon. This is not a cause for mourning however, as the 20 and the 12 are very well suited indeed.

Shotguns can fire three main types of ammunition; birdshot, buckshot, and slugs. There are additional types too, but they are outside of the range of this article. One can carry a mix of these types of ammo, and that is the key to versatility in shotguns. Birdshot is the most common, and is used for game from squirrels to turkeys and geese. There are many sizes of shot, and the larger the number, the smaller the individual shot is. For example, #9 shot is tiny, and is mainly for clay pigeons; #6 shot is larger, and is a good size for most small game.

Most ammo carried for a shotgun in most situations should be birdshot. I like standard loadings of #6 or #5 shot. In a 20 gauge this is generally a 1 ounce load, in a 12 gauge it will be anything from a 1 ounce to 1 1/4 ounce of the same shot size. If the main game in an area is game birds like grouse, I might carry some #7 1/2 loads as well. These loads will provide small game out to a range of 40 yards or so, depending on the choke of the gun.

Birdshot is individually very small, but each shell will carry hundreds.



Slugs are single projectile loads -- instead of a couple of hundred tiny pellets (218 per ounce in #6 size), these shoot one large bullet. How large? Well, the typical one ounce 12 gauge slug is .72 caliber, and weighs about 440 grains, as compared to .308 caliber and 150 grains for a typical deer rifle. The 20 gauge is .61 caliber and 330 grains. By the way, there are 437.5 grains to an ounceÖ that is a big piece of lead.

These slugs are for shooting big animals. Deer, bear, boar, and other big game can be cleanly taken out to anywhere from 70 to 100 yards, depending on the individual gun. One has to SHOOT slugs to see how they perform in any given gun, and I have seen single shots that would not handle them well. However, my personal woods gun will put 5 slugs into a 5" group at 75 yards, and they hit right at the point of aim at that range. That is the accuracy needed to ethically use a load on deer. Also, they are a very common load carried in big bear country for defense, even being recommended for this purpose by the State of Alaska.

In the smooth bore shotgun, the Brenneke style slug with the attached plastic wad is much superior to the hollow based Foster slug common in older American slug loads. Standard Foster slugs can work, but they are generally less accurate and penetrate less than the Brenneke style. The new Sabot loads in general are for rifled barrels, and will not be accurate out of a smooth bore.

The last type of ammunition considered here are buckshot loads. These are large pellet loads; each carrying a number of pea sized lead spheres. The common 12 gauge #00 load is nine pellets of .33 inch diameter pellets. These are for targets from about 50 to 300 pounds at close range. What targets? Mainly people. They can take game like deer out to about 35 yards, but are at their best as a defensive load. They are devastating on things like wild dogs, leopards and bad guys at short range. They are an effective bear deterrent at a range 30 feet or so. At longer ranges, buckshot is a great wounder of game, and I discourage the use of it as a general hunting load. Save a few rounds of buckshot to protect the camp from two and four legged predators.

One feature not often mentioned about single shot shotguns is their utility as a signaling device. They can be fired in a pattern of three shots, a pause, and three shots again as a universal signal of distress. Any gun can do this, but not all can actually fire commonly available signal flares. A 12 gauge with an open choke can do this. Finally, if the barrel is detached from the receiver it can be blown threw like a trumpet, producing a loud clear tone that can be heard for hundreds of yards.

The single shot shotgun is a fine tool. If their inherent limitations can be accepted, they provide a reliable source of food and protection all over the world. Pick one up and take a long walk in the woods sometimes soon!

2 3/4 inch 12 gauge and 20 gauge shells compared to a .22 LR. Shot shells are heavy!











Also see related article: Squirrel - Forgotten Fare?




- Woodsrunner Tips -


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