Straight Shooter

Affectionately and casually known as shotguns, these long, narrow dwellings are the jewels of the New Orleans housing landscape.

The layout of a shotgun house is simple: Rooms are placed one behind the other in a straight line. As the legend goes, the name comes from the thinking that one could shoot a gun while standing in the front door and the bullet would travel uninterrupted through each room of the house and exit through the back door.

The definition of “shotgun” –– a style prevalent throughout the American South –– has evolved to include homes without hallways as well as those that are more than one room in width.

Historians believe the shotgun comes from West Africa via Haiti. It’s believed that the term “to-gun,” which means “place of assembly,” was probably used in
New Orleans by the influx of Afro-Haitian slaves in the 1800s and was misheard
as “shotgun.”

Shotguns come in three main variations: a single shotgun; a double shotgun; and a camelback, which can be a single or a double.

The shotgun single has one door and window in the front. A double shotgun refers to one structure for two families in which they share a central wall. The use of this model was widespread in poorer areas as its construction was fairly inexpensive.

Camelbacks, also known as humpbacks, have a second floor in the rear of the home. This design was one of the last in the heyday of shotgun construction. The floor plan is very similar to the traditional shotgun house, except there are stairs in the back leading up to the second floor. The second floor – the hump – can contain as many as four rooms. A single structure that’s twice the width of a normal shotgun is a double-width shotgun.

The early shotgun homes were built without bathrooms. Later on, a bathroom with a small hall was built before the last room of the house. The first two rooms were called double parlors and were characteristically separated by double pocket doors.

Most of the city’s stock of older shotgun homes was built at the turn of the 20th century and through the 1920s from resilient cypress wood. Shotgun homes are typically raised about 2 to 8 feet above the ground atop brick piers. They also feature a narrow front porch crowned with a roof apron and supported by columns and elaborate Victorian ornamentation. The rooms are relatively large – about 14 square feet – with high ceilings and decorative woodwork such as molding and ceiling medallions.

Though linked to poverty as they were ways to house multiple families cheaply and close to employers in the city, shotguns are charming and teeming with character. They have taken on a certain hipness and are quite fashionable among homebuyers. Shotguns that were originally built as two-family units are often renovated and converted into designer single-family homes. Restoring these historic gems is an effort to preserve history and this distinct style of architecture.