Shotgun houses are usually single-story and made of wood. They are narrow and rectangular shaped. Shotgun houses have no hallways; instead, rooms line up one behind the next, with each door opening into the next room. Their popularity dates from the early 1800s to the 1940s, and they are primarily found in the Southeastern part of the United States. The most common explanation of the term "shotgun" is that if one stands at the front door and shoots off a shotgun, the shot would go straight through each doorway through the center of the house and out the back door!
However, John Vlach in his article "The Shotgun House: An African Architectural Legacy", says the word could be a corruption of the West African word "to-gun", meaning "place of assembly." Virginia and Lee McAlester, in their book A Field Guide to American Houses (90), put the Shotgun house in the category with other front-gabled houses like the Greek Revival. In fact, the front of a Shotgun house looks like a very, very simple form of the grand Greek Revival houses being built in the 1830s.
There is general agreement that this style of dwelling originated in Africa and was brought to the Caribbean and from there to southern states, especially to New Orleans, Louisiana. John Lienhard, using J.M. Vlach's research (see references below) states that Shotguns were houses for poor people who were forced to be poor, as well as being perhaps the only type of African-American architecture there is in the United States. Additionally, Lienhard says "We didn't previously have porches like that in America. Like the shotgun house itself, southern porches are now all over America."
The McAlesters, while admitting the theory that black slaves brought the pattern of their dwellings from Africa to Haiti and then to southern states, also say the origin of the Shotgun could be the same pattern as "...the one-room-deep, hall-and-parlor plan of the rural South turned sideways to accommodate narrow urban lots." (90)In spite of its modest beginnings, Shotgun houses soon carved out a significant niche in the southern American landscape. Usually only one room wide, they did fit well in urban settings, but they were also cost-efficient to build. Like Craftsman-style homes, kits and parts could be mail-ordered.
Shotguns were also easily ventilated by opening the front and back doors and the doors in between, allowing air to circulate. This ventilation was especially important in the hot, moist climate of Southeastern United States. Consequently, Shotgun houses could be found in rural areas as well as urban. As the houses grew in number, they began to feature exterior decoration such as the gingerbread and fish scale found on Victorian houses, as well as more elaborate porches. They also became important dwelling places for different types of workers.
They provided shelter for agricultural migrant workers who might have had to live in tents. Shotguns were also built by railroads and other construction concerns as housing for workers and their families. Because of its significance in American culture, Shotgun houses are now attracting the attention of the National Trust and other preservation agencies. One variation of this type of architecture is the "Double-barreled Shotgun" which is similar to a duplex where two Shotguns share a wall or two close-standing Shotguns have been combined to form one family dwelling.