What makes for the best single-shot shotguns?
Our hunger for the latest and greatest in firearms innovation — replete with technical performance details and cutting-edge technology — is insatiable. And, while we love a kitted-out AR as much as the next guy, firearms — like any other tool — can be even more interesting when designed for specific purposes.
If you’re looking to hunt prairie game like sharp-tailed grouse, learning to shoot (or teaching someone how), or simply want to own an heirloom piece that you can pass down through generations, something simple and classic may well be in order. As far as firearms go, single-shot shotguns are easy to use, quick learn on, and require only rudimentary maintenance.
That means, in addition to being a fantastic platform for skill development, they tend to last just about forever.
These classic firearms come in a variety of calibers — from .410 all the way up to 12 gauge — and it’s well worth a glimpse into this underrated segment of the firearms market.
When it comes to hunting small game, a simple, safe, and reliable tool that will function when it needs to — every time — is a worthwhile investment. Plus outside of hunting season many of these would look fantastic hanging above a fireplace as well.
...and we didn't even mention zombies. Yet.
Quick List: The Best Single-Shot Shotguns
In terms of utilitarian guns, the Stevans/Savage Model 301 is hard to beat. Stevens — a sub-brand of Savage Arms — built this 301 to be more hunting-oriented with its camo finish, but it is both incredibly popular (the Savage 301 was the 3rd most popular single-shot shotgun sold on Gunbroker.com in 2019) and has a number of features which make it a good choice for survival as well.
First and foremost, it’s light at just 4.6 lbs, and has both iron sights and a 1913 rail for mounting optics. A pistol red dot would be an interesting and useful call on this 20 gauge model for medium range engagements.
Additionally, you’ve got sling swivels to ease long range carry and a recoil pad to soften up the shooting experience. With buckshot at close range this would be a solid hunting shotgun.
For sheer utility, this is another great choice. The ATI Nomad comes in .410, 20 gauge and 12 gauge, and would make a great second shotgun chambered in the same gauge as your primary. The 3” chamber will accommodate any shell you tend to run in other guns plus the synthetic stock has pre-installed sling swivels, making this shotgun a perfect choice to keep in your truck on the farm for disposing of pests like coyotes.
Especially in the 26” barrel variants, this is a light, compact, useful tool that we’d happily pair with one of ATI’s backpacks for an affordable survival kit.
The Browning BT-99 first saw the light of day 1968 and was put out to pasture in 1995 until 2001 when Browning re-introduced the new BT-99 which is still in production today. It’s a firearm that is as beautiful as it is practical: excelling at bird and clay shooting, with its rib sight and adjustable length of pull. With an overall length of more than 47 inches, the BT-99 isn’t going to cut it for home defense but as a hunting tool, it’s a top performer.
The fit and finish on these are second to none, and it is exactly the kind of firearm you would want to pass down to your grandchildren. In many ways, the BT-99 is an example of classic beauty that shows off what contemporary manufacturing techniques can do with a design that’s over a century old.
An absolute classic, the Winchester Model 101 is the kind of firearm anyone would be delighted to inherit. Originally introduced 1963 (in 12 gauge only we might add) it sold for $284 – undercutting Browning’s Superposed model by more than $80 at the time.
This one is an over-under in 12 gauge and is likely one of the finest bird hunting guns on the market today. Aside from the stunning fit and finish on this piece of art, the quality of the barrel, trigger, and sights make this a more than capable field gun. If you take care of this firearm, it will not only turn heads at the range but put food on the table as long as you do your part in the shooting.
Best for Close-Quarters:
In the lawless west of 1858, Wells, Fargo & Co. began stagecoach service along the 2,800 miles from Tipton, Mo., to San Francisco, Calif. These coaches moved passengers, mail, and gold shipments to Wells Fargo’s banking facilities, which made them a regular target for outlaws.
Robbing coaches essentially became a cottage industry from 1870 to 1884 – with Wells Fargo coaches seeing some 347 attempted robberies. Driving a stagecoach was not for faint of heart – some of the most famous drivers went on to become the stuff of western legend – with names like Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok.
The driver’s box of these coaches would include both the driver and an armed guard toting a coach gun. The term coach gun didn’t pertain to a specific make or model, but a generic class of guns. These compact, side-by-side double-barreled shotguns have 12- to 20-inch barrels which made for capable handling in the cramped confines of a stagecoach.
This example from CZ is a fantastic double-barrel side-by-side with an attractive walnut stock and black finish. This compact shotgun would be right at home in a closet for emergencies and home defense duty.
With that said, it’s also a capable hunting gun that would excel at hog hunting or situations where you need mobility and simplicity, and aren’t interested in fussing over finishes.
Why Use a Single-Shot Shotgun
There are 3 main reasons to consider a single-shot shotgun — the first is their legality. Generally, most states allow hunting with a shotgun, but migratory bird hunting requires a capacity of 3 shells or less owing to the Migratory Bird Protection Act. If your shotgun can hold more three rounds, you have to have plug the magazine to limit the magazine to the legal hunting capacity.
Single-shot guns make this easier to navigate, as they hold a single shell in the barrel, making for one less thing to worry about. This helps keep hunting fun and uncomplicated.
Second, single-shot shotguns are remarkably reliable. Building upon break-action breech-loading rifle designs from around the turn of the 20th century, the only real moving parts of single-shot shotguns are the breech hinge and the trigger mechanism. There is simply very little that can break.
Upon opening the action, everything is laid bare right in front of you, which means repairing or cleaning on a single-shot, break-action shotgun is relatively straightforward. Additionally, once the hammer is cocked the trigger pull is light and crisp, making them excellent small game and hunting arms. They’re relatively simple firearms, which means they work well for years and years.
Finally, there is more than a little cool factor in these guns. While some use modern materials, most are finished in a classic wood, like American Walnut, making them beautiful objects to display in your home. Similarly, there’s a nostalgia factor that we like about these firearms: stalking through the woods with your grandpa, holding a pair of gorgeous, single-shot shotguns between you is the stuff of great memories.
Don’t be intimidated by the limited capacity though — these are sporting arms through and through. There’s an excitement in knowing you have just one shot to get it right, and filling your tags shot-by-shot makes for a truly satisfying hunt.
First, we didn’t consider classic firearms for this list. All recommendations had to be in current production. There are probably more vintage single-shot guns available than new models and if you can find a quality example locally, by all means, pick it up. We can’t get our hands on those in reliable numbers, and any used firearm needs to be vetted in person if you expect to be functional, so we’ve recommended modern productions only.
One note on product selection — we’ve included breech-loading shotguns with single-barrel, over-under, and side-by-side double-barrel orientations. Rather than focus on single-barrel only (which are single-shot in the truest sense) incorporating any breech-loading shotgun that has to be opened to be reloaded will give you a much broader sense of the available products. The mechanics of reloading & firing are nearly the same for all options in this list (only one round comes out of each barrel before the action has to come apart). This leaves us with a little more variety in an otherwise fairly small market segment. We avoided pump-action and tactical shotguns in favor of breech loaders.
Given that these guns can vary significantly from one model to another, we’ve given each recommendation a specific purpose. Unlike modern tactical firearms, these older designs tend to be purpose-built for a single kind of shooting. For this list, we preferred firearms that excel at one thing rather a jack of all trades. They all share the benefits we discussed above, but are fine-tuned to do one thing exceptionally well. Performance is key to the utility of these designs.
- Modern Hunters, Understanding Hunting Seasons and Tags, November 29, 2014
- Firearms History, Technology & Development, Loading Mechanisms: Breechloader, Wednesday, April 28, 2010
- Peterson’s Hunting, Ben OBrien, Forty-Six Hunting Seasons With The Winchester 101, May 24, 2011
- Midwest Gunworks, MGW: Know your Browning BT 99
- Popular Mechanics, Revival Of The Coach Gun, Dec 7, 2004
- American Rifleman, B. Gil Horman, Affordable Survival: ATI RUKX/Nomad Shotgun Combo, April 23, 2020
- American Rifleman, Guy J. Sagi, Savage Arms 301: A Top-Selling Single Shot, July 22, 2020
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement – The Hunter’s Responsibility, February 14, 2013
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Migratory Bird Program | Conserving America’s Birds, April 16, 2020
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