Everything You Need to Know About Shotgun Houses

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Updated March 14, 2022
An old small green home with porch
Photo: irina88w / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Highlights

  • Shotgun homes have a long and narrow layout with all rooms lined up in a row.

  • The style goes back to the early 19th century.

  • The layout encourages airflow in hot climates.

  • You'll still find shotgun houses across the South.

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If you're on the hunt to unlock the historical secrets of your city, look no further than its architecture. The shotgun house will greet you on the streets of New Orleans, Louisville, Charlotte, or Houston, and comes with over 200 years of stories to tell. But what is a shotgun house, and how do you know if you live in one? Here's what you need to know about the cherished Southern design.

What Is a Shotgun Style House?

The term “shotgun house” refers to an architectural home style traditionally found in the deep South, Texas, and along the southern Atlantic coast. These thin and long homes are typically one room wide and several rooms deep. The style connects a series of rooms one after another from the front porch to the back door. In many cases, shotgun houses also attach to the home next door, a bit like a row home or brownstone townhouse.

The Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans discusses the shotgun house's still-debated history, but most historians believe the style stems back to the early 19th century along the Mississippi River. One theory explains that homebuilders saved money when packing as many homes into one plot as possible by avoiding high income taxes, to use minimal building materials, and to offer affordable housing.

Other historians note that the style came with immigrants from modern-day Haiti, and that the shotgun style is a blend of West African and West Indian architecture.

The Shotgun House Layout

Original shotgun houses have a very clear and predictable layout that gives them their name. A front porch leads through the front door and to a living area, one or two bedrooms, and a kitchen all lined up in a row. 

This means you have to cut through two bedrooms to get to the kitchen, which, as you can imagine, is not ideal for privacy. However, the layout does encourage smooth airflow in a hot and humid climate before the days of AC and electric fans.

Key Structural Elements

In addition to its layout, there are a few ways to pick out a shotgun house on your tour of historic homes. For one, all rooms in a shotgun home are on a single floor and have extended front porches ideal for hosting.

The house sits perpendicular to the road, so you'll only see a small facade and not how far back it extends into the plot. In many cases—though not all—shotgun houses attach to the houses alongside it and only include windows on the front and back.

The majority of shotgun homes have gable roofs, which means it peaks at the top with two evenly sloping sides.

Shotgun house checklist, including no hallways, front porch, and gable roof and facade

Architectural Styles of a Shotgun House

A yellow shotgun house
Photo: GJGK_Photography / Adobe Stock

In the early 20th century, shotgun houses fell out of favor due to their packed layout and the repetitive look they gave to a street, making way for popular ranch houses and small and stylish bungalows. Yet, the shotgun houses that remain show off a surprisingly large array of architectural styles. Drive through any historic district of their southern hometowns and you'll find shotgun houses with:

  • Victorian or Eastlake gingerbread trim

  • Simple, monochromatic facades

  • Apron roofs

  • Italianate facades

  • Spanish or Greek revival elements

The Double Shotgun House

Double shotgun houses spread throughout its home cities as well, connected two long living spaces with one porch. In these cases, you will find two doors on one structure that share an outdoor hosting space.

Changes to the Shotgun House

The style adapted over the years, adding plumbing, HVAC systems, and even hallways to accommodate new homeowners. But historically preserved homes typically kept the ornate style of these often-colorful rows of houses.

Why Is It Called a Shotgun House?

Of all the architectural home styles, shotgun houses have one of the more intriguing names. There are several theories of its background. The National Park Service explains that it may come from the Yoruba word togun, which translates to "place of assembly." 

The other primary theory about the name comes from the idea that you can fire birdshot from the front door to the back without hitting a wall.

Pros and Cons of a Shotgun House

Even though shotgun houses failed to impress the trends of the early 20th century, many of these quaint abodes survived the test of time in areas like the New Orleans Garden District. If you're debating nabbing one of these historic buildings, here are some pros and cons to keep in mind.

Pros

  • Excellent airflow: Shotgun houses are built for great ventilation. Even without an advanced HVAC system, you'll enjoy a cross breeze from the front to the back of the house

  • Compact size: With the rise of the tiny home, a small space with little to care for now makes the pro list for many homeowners.

  • Flexible design: Without a set living room, dining room, and bedroom, arrange the first two or three rooms however you please.

Cons:

  • History restrictions: When purchasing any old fixer upper, remember that you may need the approval of a local historic board to make upgrades and alterations.

  • Minimal privacy: Make sure you're ready to get pretty cozy with your housemates before opting for a shotgun house. The layout makes it nearly impossible to sneak in after a late night without waking your roommate in the first bedroom.

  • Lack of land: Original shotgun homes used a good deal of space on their small plots. You're less likely to end up with a driveway, front yard, or large backyard hosting space.

If you're embarking on a new life in a historic shotgun home, be sure to have an experienced local home restoration team on your side. Not only can they advise on tricky upgrades like HVAC and electrics, but historic facade alterations that won't threaten the character of its original charm.

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