When is a rifle not a rifle? When its barrel isn’t rifled, as in the curious case of the garden gun.
As you’ve probably gathered from the name, garden guns were charged with eliminating pests from orchards, plantations, and other places food grows or pests hang out without damaging the very things the shooters were trying to protect.
These “rifles” were actually .22 caliber shotguns for all intents and purposes, typically chambered in 9mm in Europe or in .22LR here in the States, and featured smooth barrels specifically designed to be used with the tiny pellets commonly known as rat or snake shot.
The #12 shot contained in the .22 shell is only five hundredths of an inch in diameter. The Lilliputian size of each individual pellet meant they were incapable of carrying a lot of energy; as such, there was little chance of doing damage to wooden or tin structures found around the farm. This also meant that a ricochet or stray pellet likely wouldn’t injure any nearby livestock.
Outwardly, the guns looked remarkably like their rifled counterparts, with the only clue being the absence of a rear sight. Most only featured the front bead typical of a shotgun, as they would typically be used at fairly close range, and were only effective at short distances anyway.
At one point, garden guns were relatively common on American farms, and in decades past, newer models have come and gone like the Marlin Model 25MG; Winchester Model 67; and Remington Model 511SB, 512SB, and 572SB. All were operated via a bolt with the exception of the Model 572SB which used Remington’s popular slide action. Snake shot is also utilized in larger centerfire handgun calibers for the same purpose.
These rimfire curiosities had uses outside of agriculture, and the smoothbores found their way into the hands of exhibition shooters such as Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody. Though both were crack shots, they hedged their bets in front of a live audience by using the rimfire shotshells to make certain they hit their marks. The unusual guns also made their way to at airports, warehouses, and stockyards for pest control.