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What's a shotgun house?


Layout, Lore and Design of Shotgun Houses
The long, narrow layout of the shotgun house is such that a person could shoot through the front and out the back door without hitting a wall -- supposedly.
The long, narrow layout of the shotgun house is such that a person could shoot through the front and out the back door without hitting a wall -- supposedly.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

As is the case with most things rooted in the distant past, uncertain lore surrounding shotgun houses is often taken as fact. One prominent example is the story surrounding the name for this style of architecture. The popular explanation for the style's name is found in its layout: Shotgun houses are a one-story row of rooms, one behind the other, following a single line perpendicular to the street. So, with all of the doors in the house following a single line as well, a person shooting a shotgun through the front door could reasonably expect the shot to pass through the house and out the back door without touching a wall.

The explanation is a quaint one, and would likely have made sense for the Haitian homes upon which the American shotgun house design is based. Once the homes were erected in the U.S., however, doors were usually placed off center, so that a person conducting such an experiment would've probably taken a sizable chunk out of the rear wall of the front room. (Another etymological explanation is that the shotgun house takes its name from that aforementioned West African style of home. These homes were called "shogun" or "God's house" in the Yoruba language [source: Andrews].)

Shotgun houses might sound kind of boring -- a few rooms one story high in a single row, with no windows on their sides. Indeed, shotgun houses would be somewhat plain if not for the aforementioned custom of embellishing them with ornate fixtures. Brackets that hold the roof aloft are usually carved intricately, after European tastes in the Victorian or Greek Revival fashions. Vent covers are intricately designed and the front windows and doors are adorned with shutters.

Despite their size, the rooms in shotgun houses are surprisingly large, usually around 14 square feet (1.3 square meters). A modified version of the shotgun house, the double shotgun, was later developed for larger families and can serve as a duplex for more than one family. These homes bear the same style as the traditional shotgun house, except that the double shotgun is essentially two single shotgun homes fused together side by side. They share a single roof and doors that connect the adjoining parallel rooms.

The shotgun house brought a new home design concept to the United States -- the porch. The overhanging roof along the front of the house created a stoop where a family could congregate on a hot evening. The front of a traditional shotgun house would usually encroach upon the sidewalk, and the house's porch gave rise to the longstanding New Orleans custom of visiting outside with neighbors in the evening.


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