Single-Shot Guns in 2024: Are They Still Useful?

In the age of the AR-15 and micro-compact pistols that command magazine capacities into the double digits, the single-shot is an albatross. With the single-shot model, you have one shot and when it is fired, you have to reload. In many ways, the single-shot platform is like that great bird that hangs like a curse of times past.

For most of firearm history, the single-shot muzzleloader was the most common firearm in use. The advent of the primed cartridge allowed us to make the repeating firearms we take for granted today and that should have been the end of the single-shot. But it wasn’t. Instead, single-shot cartridge rifles, shotguns, and pistols developed alongside bolt actions, lever actions, and autoloaders.

Although the road of the single-shot has been bumpy in recent times, the design has staying power. You can still go out and buy one. But with so many objectively better options available, why would you buy or use a single-shot gun?

Single-Shots Guns: A Quick History

The world of single-shot firearms has always been bifurcated by three seemingly opposable strengths: affordability, accuracy, and power. Whether it pertains to a rifle, shotgun, or handgun, the single-shot versions were either geared toward affordability, precision, or power.

Single-shot guns come in many action variants from falling block actions to more modern break-action or crack barrel designs. It has an action that exposes the barrel for loading. After firing the cartridge, opening the action ejects or extracts the empty shell to facilitate a reload. The great majority are also hammer-fired. These actions are mechanically simple and also easy to engineer and produce. There are no rotating bolts, striker mechanisms, or magazines to manufacture.

Rifles like the Trapdoor Springfield, the Remington Rolling Block, and the Sharps (pictured here) were the guns of choice for poking game and bad guys that lay well beyond the reach of the more renowned lever-action in the Old West. [Notes From the Frontier]

Single-Shot Rifles

The action design is simple and strong enough to cut down on machining and engineering costs to produce a less expensive firearm. The famed Model 1866 Trapdoor Springfield was designed to convert existing stocks of single-shot muskets into breechloading rifles. The next year, Remington’s famed Rolling Block debuted. The Rolling Block singlehandedly saved Remington from bankruptcy after the American Civil War and it was sold worldwide to the military, police, and civilians because of its action strength and low costs compared to further developing existing bolt-action and lever-action designs.

The solid lockup between the breech face and the barrel results in a mechanically accurate firearm. This is helped by the lack of restraint when it comes to caliber choices. There are no overall length restrictions on the size of the cartridge and the action is largely intolerant to the power level of the cartridge. Some cartridges are milder to shoot. But if more power is needed, the single-shot design can accommodate the pressure.

Concurrent with the Rolling Block and the Trapdoor Springfield is the Sharps rifle. Although it was originally a paper cartridge-firing falling block rifle, the Sharps Rifle made the jump to metallic cartridges that could hit with authority out to 1,000 yards. Lever-action rifles, like the Henry and Winchester 1873, could only handle smaller, less powerful rounds. For some, having more punch at a distance was more material to daily life than having more rounds on tap.

Evolution and Iteration

But repeaters did evolve and outstrip single-shot designs in the first years of the smokeless powder era. Single-shot guns remained as mechanically accurate and reliable. However, lever-action, bolt-action, and autoloading rifles could now handle rounds that are just as powerful with more firepower potential. The same fate befell single-shot handguns with the advent of revolvers and auto-loading handguns.

winchester model 370 single shot
Single-shot rifles and shotguns have the virtue of being mechanically and operationally uncomplicated. This Winchester Model 370 16-gauge was the first firearm Terril ever shot and it has brought in plenty of game.

The Modern Single Shot

Outside of a few niche roles, such as handgun hunting and black powder silhouette shooting, single-shot guns stuck around into the 21st century simply because they tended to be the least expensive option. The cheap single-shot was typified by designs from Winchester, Remington, Iver Johnson, and most recently, Rossi and Harrington & Richardson.

Break-action rifles and shotguns from these makers are prolific, cheap to buy, and tend to go “bang” when you need them to. These guns bagged a lot of game, even though they may not be the best suited for some. A surprising number of shooters still keep a loaded single-barrel shotgun in the house for personal protection.

A good Remington 870 or even a double-barreled coach gun from Rossi or Stoeger would have covered more scenarios, but the single-shot was still a gun that anyone could wield. It was also what many folks already had, so they ran with it. Unfortunately, single-shot manufacturers could not coast on cost alone.

cz 457 scout
One notable exception to the general decline of single-shots is the rimfire youth rifle like this CZ 457 Scout.

Demand for cheaper repeating long guns coupled with a supply of those guns did not begin in the 2000s, but as time marched on, existing manufacturers found effective ways to cut corners while delivering the goods, new manufacturers emerged to deflate prices further, and more foreign imports flooded the market.

In 1988, the Mossberg Maverick 88 12-gauge shotgun debuted. It is still in production today and is among the least expensive pump-action shotguns you can buy, and it can be configured for tactical or field use. In 2006, Savage launched the Stevens Model 200, a budget bolt action hunting rifle that costs little more than a single-shot.

The Clinton Assault Weapons Ban ended in 2004 and the emergence of manufacturing to meet demand drove down the prices of AR-type rifles to new affordability. What kept the single-shot in the mainstream faded into irrelevance. The decline of the single-shot was underscored by the shuttering of the H&R plant in 2015.

The end of H&R should have been the end of the mainstream single-shot, but almost as quickly as the firm faded, new single-shots were on the shelves. First, a high number of unattractive Turkish imports flooded in. This was followed by Savage reviving their budget Stevens line with the Model 301 shotgun. And finally, Henry Repeating Arms launched a line of single-shot rifles and shotguns in 2018.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Single-Shot Platform

Single-shots do have their advantages and old designs do die hard for some buyers. The available imports are very cheap and incredibly lightweight. It has been trendy to convert these into backpacker guns, but they lacked the refinement of older guns that other consumers yearned for. The reintroduction of the Stevens scratched that itch by marrying the simple-break action shotgun with choke and optics options that were simply unavailable for the type before. Henry Repeating Arms went upmarket with an attractive line of guns that brought pride of ownership to a reliable design.

henry single-shot rifle
Henry Repeating Arms brought the style back to the single-shot market after the demise of H&R.

In 2024, people still want a single shot. But just because it is available doesn’t make it useful. Before you lay down your hard-earned money for one, it is worth exploring the advantages and disadvantages of the single-shot platform. Let’s take a quick look at some of those.


The Reload

When it comes to putting rounds downrange, the single-shot is behind the curve. With practice, a shooter equipped with a single-shot rifle that has a good shell holder and automatic ejectors can run the gun surprisingly fast. This is a setup I prefer and I can get two aimed shots downrange in four seconds. That’s fast, but the fact remains that with every shot you have to break your concentration on the target and fumble a shell into the chamber before closing the gun up to shoot again.

There are situations where having a single-shot is okay. Single-shots shotguns are popular in the trap shooting game. But if you are employing a single-shot for more dynamic situations, you will be at a disadvantage. The duck hunter won’t starve with a single-shot, but he will struggle to bag his limit for the day. A shorter barreled single-shot shotgun might be a reliable gun that anyone can wield, but in a home defense scenario you have one round to work with at a time. You have to make it count.

h&r handi rifle
There isn’t much customization you can do on your own with a single-shot rifle. While a sling, a shell holder, and an optic is enough for me, it is hard to make a single-shot gun truly your own.

Lack of Customization

Every generation of shooters customizes their firearms to some extent to suit them. In times, past you either did it yourself or relied on a trusted gunsmith to get the job done. In 2024, we increasingly expect at least some of these options to come directly from the factory. Gun manufacturers are keen to offer the latest and greatest chamberings, upgraded triggers, threaded muzzles, and so on.

Most single-shot guns on the market today are available in popular chamberings, though not the newest. While mounting an optic on newer single-shot guns is a straightforward affair, other modifications require a visit to the local gunsmith.


Size and Weight

For those applications where compactness is important, you might consider a single-shot. With a single-shot, there are no magazines or a receiver to house a reciprocating action like on a bolt, lever, or semi-auto. This cuts down on weight. Since no receiver houses a moving bolt, a given single shot in the same caliber and same barrel length will have a shorter overall length.

Some makers have taken the compactness to the extreme. The Chiappa Little Badger rimfire rifle weighs under three pounds and is a break-action single shot that can be folded in half. Other makers have made compact .410 shotguns colloquially known as snake-charmers that are popular as survival/backpacking guns.

Outside these niche applications, conventional single-shots are easier to carry in the field and quick to wield. But the weight savings can work against you as their light weight means you feel more recoil in the shoulder.


Although repeating guns have come a long way, single-shot firearms are still mechanically accurate and a strong enough action to handle anything that a repeater can. But one drawback to repeating guns is the length of the receiver needed for the bolt and magazine. This adds more length to the gun, but the length of the action also fixes the length of the cartridge a given platform can shoot.

The power advantage is more acute on the subject of handgun hunting.  Pistols like the now-discontinued Thompson Center Encore can be chambered in full-length rifle cartridges, whereas other types of handguns are limited by how long or short the cylinder or magazine is.

winchester model 370 break action
Although there are many variations of the single-shot, the break-action or crack barrel is the most common. It is a simple design and easy to handle safely.


While some single-shot guns might have an advantage in some niches due to power potential, simplicity remains the hallmark of all of them. Most single-shot guns are opened by a button or lever on the receiver, allowing the barrel to tilt down for loading. Most single-shots have an exposed hammer and can be fired by simply cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger.

If you are not ready to fire, the hammer stays down. Unloading is as simple as pressing the barrel release and hinging the barrel out. Most single-shots will have extractors or ejectors. With an extractor-equipped gun, the round is pulled from the barrel for you to grab with your fingers. Ejector-equipped guns will send the case flying free of the chamber, allowing you to reload more quickly.

This process is easy for shooters to understand, and it is hard to make a mistake. There are no magazines to forget to load or unload and usually no safety to engage or forget. The condition of the firearm is as obvious as opening the barrel. The loading and unloading process makes the single-shot an excellent choice for training a new shooter. The simple battery of arms is also forgiving toward those who are not, and perhaps don’t intend to be, a dedicated shooter.

The Bottom Line

I grew up in the decade preceding H&R’s terminal decline. I shot, hunted with, and had handy in the home two break-action single shots: an old Winchester Model 370 16-gauge and a newer H&R Handi Rifle in .270 Winchester. Further, I went to the range and in the field not knowing these were considered cheap guns. They never failed to fire and pattern as well as anything else, so I was none the wiser to that fact.

While I didn’t notice my naivety toward single-shots, I did hone in on the naivety of others toward them. Some have said single-shots are for the self-assured man (or woman) who only needs one shot. The platform spiritually possesses the shooter who always makes that one shot count because his gun only holds one round. For those who didn’t subscribe to that idea, a single-shot was as good as anything else because you are only going to get one shot. This was almost always said in a hunting context. Both ideas infuriated me to no end.

No platform guarantees success. Either the shooter is a good one or a bad one. There are plenty of applications where having more firepower can come in handy. But the misconceptions about single-shots and the people who use them do obfuscate the tangible benefits of going with one. A single-shot still has its advantages over a repeater, even in 2024.

Terril is an economic historian with a penchant for all things firearm related. Originally a pot hunter hailing from south Louisiana, he currently covers firearms and reloading topics in print and on his All Outdoors YouTube page. When he isn't delving into rimfire ballistics, pocket pistols, and colonial arms, Terril can be found perfecting his fire-starting techniques, photographing wildlife, and getting lost in the archives.

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