Shotguns Aren't Just For Hunting: America Has Used Them As a Terrifying Weapon of War

Police fire shotguns and teargas as they attempt to disperse Khayelitsha township residents trying to erect shacks on open ground during a nationwide lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cape Town, South Africa A

Shotguns Aren't Just For Hunting: America Has Used Them As a Terrifying Weapon of War

In the first decade of the 21st century, the shotgun’s role has not diminished.

Coming upon the enemy’s rear guard outside the western Kentucky village of Sacramento, four days after Christmas 1861, Confederate Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest ordered his cavalry to advance. Ahead of them, a line of Union soldiers started to form, bayonets gleaming. Quickly, the bluecoat infantry formed its ranks and prepared to fight off the enemy cavalry, which had taken them almost unaware. Two lines of men formed the defense; the first line knelt, planting the stocks of their rifles firmly onto the ground, bayonets pointed out toward Forrest’s men. The second stood behind the first and aimed their weapons over or between the heads of their comrades. By the time they were ready, Forrest’s cavalry was a scant 20 paces away. The Union line presented a serious obstacle; the bayonets would impale horses and riders alike. Luckily for his men and animals, the wily and fierce Confederate officer had something other than an outright charge in mind. Almost as one, his horsemen raised double-barreled shotguns and fired at the enemy in a near-simultaneous volley.

The effect was shattering. Huge gaps were torn in the Union ranks. Each barrel had been loaded with 15 to 20 buckshot that crashed into the hapless infantry in wide, jagged patterns. One Confederate veteran later wrote in his diary that the carnage reminded him of “a large covey of quail bunched on the ground and fired into with a load of birdshot. Their squirming and fluttering on the ground would fairly represent that scene in that blue line of soldiers.” As many Union soldiers dropped to the ground dead or wounded, the effect on the rest of the unit was electric. Every man who was still standing turned and fled, many leaving their own weapons lying on the field among the bodies of their fellow soldiers.

The decimation of the Union infantrymen highlights the prime advantage of the shotgun: devastating close-range firepower. Not normally thought of as a military weapon, the shotgun has nevertheless found a useful place in the hands of soldiers worldwide. While its lack of range renders it nearly useless as a standard-issue firearm, when soldiers are fighting in close terrain in jungles or clearing enemy defensive works such as trench lines, many will reach for a shotgun whenever one is available.

The first shotgun widely used in warfare was the blunderbuss, distinctive for its flaring muzzle. This early weapon equipped European regiments from Great Britain, Prussia, and Austria. In 1781, General Sir John Burgoyne, famous to Americans for his role in the Revolutionary War, raised and equipped a Light Dragoon Regiment of the British Army and armed it with the blunderbuss. This early shotgun also served in contemporary navies, where its short-range firepower was effective in boarding actions.

Military use of the shotgun is generally considered an American phenomenon. While other nations have employed them in warfare, the American experience with shotguns is by far the largest and best documented. This is due to the widespread use of shotguns by civilians in North America, beginning with the colonial period. Shotguns have been used for hunting, self-protection, and recreation by generations of Americans. It is perhaps the quintessential utilitarian firearm, useful for hunting anything from squirrels and rabbits to birds and deer. The shotgun is relatively easy to use, requiring less precise aim than a rifle. This made it ideal for rural families trying to feed themselves. When these same Americans went away to war, their experience with shotguns went with them. Military shotguns soon followed.

Although not purposefully designed as such, the first common military shotguns in America were actually standard muskets charged with a load called “buck and ball.” This was a musket ball of the appropriate caliber for the weapon, with a few (usually three to six) buckshot added for additional firepower. This, in effect, made every firearm on the battlefield a shotgun. Since muskets had a smooth bore with no rifling, the addition of buckshot was easily accomplished and made tactical sense, given the short ranges at which armies fought during the Revolutionary War period. Buck and ball was popular with the American Army during the Revolution for the higher hit probability it promised.

Not surprisingly, the American affair with shotguns continued through the 1800s. Shotguns found use in the Texas War of Independence, where Colonel William Barrett Travis carried one at the Alamo. Americans also took them along when war broke out between the United States and Mexico in 1846. During the Civil War, buck and ball still found widespread use in units equipped with smoothbore muskets and cavalry units favoring purpose-built shotguns. With the advent of rifled muskets firing a bullet that spun to increase accuracy, separate shotguns were required.

While shotguns appear in a wide variety of barrel lengths, actions, and designs, a typical military shotgun of the 20th century is a firearm that, rather than firing a single spinning bullet like a rifle, instead projects a number of small usually round projectiles called shot. They gradually spread out after leaving the barrel. In a modern shotgun, at short ranges of 20 to 25 yards the shot will stay close together, most or all of them striking a man-sized target. Beyond this range the shot will disperse, until at long ranges of 75 yards and more a hit becomes a mere matter of chance. Shot large enough for use against humans is referred to as buckshot and comes in several different sizes. The most common load is 00 buckshot (pronounced “double-ought”), which typically has nine to 12 pellets of .32- to .34-caliber size.

The single- and double-barrel shotguns popularized in Western films saw occasional military use in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but this was most often because a soldier carried his own weapon rather than an Army-issued weapon. Some shotguns were issued as foraging weapons and doubtless some saw combat use. Most commonly used are pump-action and semi-automatic types commonly called riot or trench guns. While regular shotguns have barrels of 30 inches or so in length, military weapons for frontline use have their barrels shortened to 18 or 20 inches to make them easier to use in close quarters.

By far the most common caliber for a military shotgun is the 12-gauge, meaning that 12 lead balls the diameter of the barrel will equal one pound. This translates to roughly .72 caliber. While a few shotguns have been designed with detachable magazines like the modern assault rifle, most have tubular magazines that run under the barrel and hold between four and eight shells. Designs adapted to warfare are often modified to take a bayonet and have a ventilated hand guard on the barrel to keep the user from burning his hands if he has to use the weapon in close fighting.

The first major use of issued shotguns in the American military came during the Philippine Insurrection following the Spanish-American War of 1898. There, U.S. troops engaged in fierce close combat with Moros, indigenous tribesmen who fought a ferocious guerrilla-style war. Sometimes Moros would disguise themselves as civilians to get close to American soldiers before bursting upon them in hand-to-hand attacks with knives and swords. A shotgun was perfect for this sort of point-blank fighting. The U.S. Army purchased about 200 Winchester Model 1897 shotguns in 1900 specifically for use in the Philippines. This weapon, often called the M97, is probably the weapon that most people think of when they envision a military shotgun, although it was only one model among many that would serve the American military over the years. The Winchester M97 would go on to serve through the Vietnam War.

The shotguns in the Philippines were effective, as at least one officer who served there, John “Blackjack” Pershing, remembered when the United States embarked on its next major war. As commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in World War I, Pershing was determined to break the deadly stalemate in which the warring European nations had been locked since 1914. Shotguns were ordered to equip the American doughboys; the crowded trenches used by both sides were ideal territory for their short-range firepower. The Winchester was selected as the shotgun of choice, but that company was also producing other weapons for the American war effort and could not make enough M97s to meet demands. To fill the requirement, the Remington Model 10 was also adapted. Although experts still debate which was the better overall weapon, the two were essentially similar. They shared one real difficulty with the ammunition—many of the shell casings were paper, which quickly absorbed moisture in the trenches, causing them to swell. The solution was to switch to casings made entirely of brass.

Once in the hands of American troops, the shotguns quickly proved their effectiveness, and units requested more of them. Their compact firepower proved to be just what was needed to clear enemy trenches, giving rise to the “trench gun” and “trench broom” nicknames. Shotguns were a preferred weapon for raids and patrols and caused great fear among the Germans. One American sergeant single-handedly captured 23 German soldiers after bursting into their pillbox and firing just two rounds. In another instance, a massed German infantry assault was broken up by an American unit that had equipped 200 of its men with shotguns. The Americans poured buckshot into their opponents, leading one witness to recall: “The front ranks of the assault simply piled up on top of one awful heap of buckshot drilled men.”