Whether you call them single barrels, one-shots, break-action, or hinge-break, the single shot shotgun is a firearm legacy. Tucked in the back of your closet, peeking out somewhere, at least once in your life, you had a hinge break.
As you can see from this 1900's advert, the basic design has remained the same for a century.
These simple and effective firearms came about just after the US Civil War. Originally, with Damascus barrels, they fired 2.5-inch paper hulled black powder shells. Over time, the shells became brass and then plastic while the barrels became steel. I got my first break action, a wood stocked, blue steel Stevens .410 in the early 1980s. With a sling made from an old leather belt and a pocketful of shells, I was invincible at age 9. As time marched on, I upgraded, and long ago got rid of that little single shot. However, it never really got rid of me.
Relatively unchanged over the course of a century, the single shot shotgun is simple. With its reliable and effective break-open action, the firearm manipulation can be mastered in seconds. Since there is no action such as a pump, auto loading mechanism, or rotating bolt, this means a shorter and handier firearm. Likewise, these also translate to a shotgun that is lighter and with fewer moving parts to clean, maintain, or replace if broken. Additionally, this means a less expensive shotgun to manufacture as well.
The lines of the classic NEF/H&R series is well recognized. These can often be found used for $75-$100.
This makes the single shot shotgun a hit as a first gun, or a low-cost entry into the firearms market.
For comparison, let us look at one of the most popular pump shotguns on the market, the Remington 870. In its Express variant marketed for hunting and sports, use the 870 is 48.5" long overall with a 28" inch barrel and weighs 7.5 pounds. Remington gives the MSRP of these at $411.
One of your most popular break-action shotguns, the H&R Pardner SB1-011 is 43" long overall with a 28" inch barrel and weighs just less than six pounds. H&R gives the MSRP of these at $203.
That is quite a difference. The smaller size of the single-barrel style firearms can come in handy while hunting in the dense scrub forests like in the southeast. The same profile allows for an easier response in a home defense scenario when moving through doorframes and hallways.
These single barrel break actions can be shortened to AOW category weapons (follow all BATFE rules and get all the right stamps and approvals first!) They pack a wallop on both ends so be sure to examine reduced recoil rounds.
The humble break action shotgun's low weight and stiff design equals much more stout felt recoil. Many hunters like to stick to low-brass loads with these light guns such as number 7-8 for dove and 4-6 for squirrel and rabbit. This is for comfort reasons only as the modern versions of these shotguns are strong enough to shoot buck and slug all day. It is common to see these handy little sluggers fitted with thick after market butt pads. Moreover, use of low-recoil slugs and buckshot loadings can take the hurt back to a manageable level without sacrificing the length of the firearm.
Of course, the most obvious problem with these shotguns is that the action only holds one ready round with no magazine. This means there is no possibility of having a loaded shotgun with an empty chamber. From a safety standpoint, the tenet of treating every firearm as if they are always loaded is 100% essential when dealing with these guns. In addition, a second follow up shot, since it has to be reloaded, is going to be much slower than even the most cranky pump or auto loader.
Current buyers guide
New break-action single shot shotguns are currently under manufacture by H&R and Rossi. They have a number of options from 410 to 20, 12, 28, and even 10 gauge offerings with barrels ranging from 22 to 32 inches. The MSRP, due to the range of options starts at $120 and goes to $319. However it should be noted that actual retail price is often much cheaper. For instance when checking Academy they list a Tuffy Single shot for $149 new in the box.
The Rossi "Tuffy" is a 3-pound composite stocked compact .410 that is MSRP'd for $203.
Used prices on these are even lower. Expect to pay about $75-$100 for a good used NEF, Rossi, Stevens, or H&R on the rack of your local FFL shop or online auction site. A few years ago, I bought one for $20 at a yard sale.
It's peeking out from my closet as I write this.