Monday, March 11, 2013

H&R 158 Topper 20 gauge / .22 Hornet

About five years ago noted firearms instructor Clint Smith posted a trailer for his Defensive Shotgun DVD on Youtube. In the video, Smith effectively makes the point that you can defend yourself even if all you have a single shot shotgun.


Clint Smith–Defensive Shotgun

This video has sparked a lot of interest online in non-tactical shotguns for defense, spawning forum threads such as this one on

I own a couple old Harrington & Richardson Toppers, one in 12 gauge and the other came as a combination gun in 20 gauge with a .22 Hornet rifle barrel, which wears a Weaver K-4 scope.

The 12 bore suffers from a malady common to 1980s production Toppers – the lug that the forearm is screwed to broke off under recoil. It’s safe to shoot this way because the lug does not serve to hold the gun closed, only as an anchor point for the forearm. The gun is currently held together with duct tape, something I hope to remedy in the near future by having the lug TIG welded back on.

With the 12 gauge currently in disrepair, I turned my attention to the 20. The factory finish had some wear and the original factory recoil pad was both ugly – red with a white line spacer – but also hard. My first step in the project was to remove the old pad.

After removing the forearm and barrel, I stripped off the old finish with sandpaper. I’ll give H&R credit, that took some elbow grease. After sanding to 100 grit I used a shop towel with mineral spirits on it to clean off dust, then stained the wood with Minwax cherry stain. This did not come out as dark as I wanted, so I gave it a coat of Fiebing’s dark brown leather dye. This gave it a nice, reddish brown tint. After letting the leather dye dry I wiped it down with a dry shop towel, then gave it a couple coats of a spray-on polyurethane finish. It came out pretty nice, I think.

Instead of another recoil pad attached with screws, I bought a small slip-on Pachmayr Decellerator pad from Amazon. It fits the stock perfectly, and allows me to access the cavity I made inside the buttstock:

I should have enough room inside for a pull-through and some cleaning patches, plus a small bottle of oil. I might put a spare forearm screw in there, too.

You can also see that I added quick-detach sling swivels. Rummaging around in my gun stuff I found a Chicom SKS sling, which will serve nicely as a carrying strap.

If you want to weather proof a single shot shotgun better, you can replace the wood furniture with a set of plastic from Choate. They sell replacement stocks for H&Rs in a few different styles, including one forend that’s easily detatchable with a thumbscrew and which has space for storage within.

One thing you’ll notice that I did not do, but is common among the folks making single shot “survival” shotguns is chop the barrel. Shortening the barrel has some disadvantages, even if it does make the gun a bit handier.

First, and most importantly, you lose whatever choke the barrel had. If you are limiting yourself to slugs or very short range, a cylinder bore will work. But for most use with shot you should have some choke to extend the useful range. This one has a modified choke, although I’d prefer improved cylinder with modern ammo using hardened, buffered pellets.

Another disadvantage of a too-short barrel on a shotgun is that it hinders follow-through when you are shooting at a moving target. As a single shot, break open design, the Topper is already shorter than a pump or semiauto with the same barrel length.

Most people making these survival single shots are using 12 gauge guns. 12 gauge has the advantage of ubiquity. It’s the most common shotgun ammo in the US and even during the current panic, hunting ammo has remained available.

However, 20 gauge ammo is also widely available and because it’s lighter, you can carry more for the same amount of weight. It’s worth noting that during the 18th and 19th Centuries when smoothbore muzzleloading tradeguns were popular, many were in 24 gauge, which is even smaller than 20 gauge. The reasons for this were that the ammo was cheaper (no longer true when comparing 12 vs. 20), and using less powder and shot when far from resupply was critical.

Recoil was also much less with the small bores. Nowadays, you have to go to a 28 gauge or .410 bore to get light recoil in a single shot. Even the 20s can be brisk, hence my use of a good recoil pad. That said, 12s are worse. Once I get my 12 gauge H&R back together I’d like to try out some Aguila Mini Shells, which load reduced payloads into a 1.75” long shell.

Single shot break open shotguns have been made in the millions over the past 140 years or so.  Certainly, something like a Remington 870 or a Benelli M4 is a better defensive weapon. But, a single shot shotgun if it’s all you can afford or are allowed to own leaves you far from unarmed. Additionally, the break down into two halves easily so that can be stored in confined spaces like a boat or airplane, and are dirt simple to operate. As a survival gun that can serve for defense or procuring food in the wilderness, a single shot break open shotgun is a viable choice.