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The military utilization of shotguns

Written by Sakhal

Shotguns have demonstrated their effectiveness as military weapons in close combat, assaults to trenches, urban combat, dense forests and guard duties. Still, few were the models declared as reglamentary by the armed forces in general since it was hard to overcome the attachment to certain habits that their high staffs have.

Military shotguns used to be civilian models to which certain modifications were applied, generally a reduction in the length of the weapon by replacement of the wooden or fiber buttstock by a foldable metallic one or sometimes a pistol grip. Another important alteration is the increase in carried ammunition, either by prolonging the tubular magazine parallel to the barrel, adopting a box magazine or incorporating a feeding system similar to a revolver drum. Also civilian models differentiate from military ones in the length of the cannon, varying in the latter ones from 406 to 610 millimeters. Besides, the barrel is cylindrical, without chokes (a device that is inserted in the barrel of a shotgun to reduce the shot pattern when multiple projectiles leave the muzzle). Also the finish of military shotguns is usually parkerized, matte and anti-reflectant, and some of them are applied a camouflage pattern. Military shotguns have majorly opted for pump-action mechanisms (a manual movement exerted on the sliding handguard effectuates case ejection, hammer cocking and cartridge feeding); this is a simple, robust and realiable mechanism, but they are used as well semiautomatic or even mixed systems. These developments based in civilian models have been converging increasingly towards specifically military projects.

The military utilization of shotguns

From top to bottom: Spas 12, Spas 15 MIL, PA 7, PA 8I, PA 8E and LAW 12.

Historical background

It has been difficult to date the birth of these weapons. For some the origin goes back to certain rifles which fired a bundle of projectiles; these weapons were used by British and French in the borders of Virginia and Pennsylvania in the beginning of the North American colonization and they later appeared in the American War of Independence. They also served during the American Civil War, in which some regiments from Texas carried shotguns with shortened barrels. But if the origin lies in projecting a bunch of projectiles, the primogeniture would belong to the blunderbuss, a weapon which during naval combat - in the boardings - assumed a good share of the roles that modern shotguns have. During the Spanish War of Independence against the Napoleonic armies, this weapon turned to be such a fearsome resource in the hands of the guerrilla forces in their ambushes as they would be the modern shotguns with which the forces of the Commonwealth ambushed the Communist patrols, one century and half later, in the jungles of Malaysia. This tactical and functional similarity indicates that the origin of the modern shotgun would lie effectively in the blunderbuss and not in muzzle-loading rifles. The blunderbuss of yesteryear and the shotgun of nowadays are both compact weapons, of easy load, contundent at short ranges and even against multiple targets and ideal for ambushes and close combat.

But focusing again in military shotguns, regarding their operating system - majorly pump-action or slide-action - truth is that the first ones appeared in United States, in 1882, by work of Christopher Spencer and Sylvester Roper. In 1890, following the success of the slide-action system in the carbines Colt Lightning, were the shotguns from Spencer and Burgess the first weapons that commercialized such system in United States. Particularly, the US Army acquired, for guard duties, 384 pump-action shotguns of the first brand mentioned during a time span of seven years. Subsequently, conquered the Philippines after the Spanish defeat in 1898, the islanders, seeing frustrated their dreams of independence, rebelled and forced the Americans, harshly tested by the events, to seek contundent solutions against the tenacious islamic people from Mindanao, known as "Moors" by the former Spanish colonizers. Then were returned to service the revolver Colt Single Action Army 1873 in caliber 45 Long Colt and were acquired the new shotguns Winchester M1897 along with buckshots of the size 00. Also the American expeditionary force that in 1916 entered Mexico to punish the troops led by Pancho Villa, carried the Winchester M1897 as well as the newer Winchester M1912. Not much later, in 1917, the United States entered into the First World War sending to France a powerful contingent, equipped with shotguns Remington M10 and Winchester M1897, these with adapter for bayonet and which were, mainly, weapons destined to escort and guard of prisoners, being denominated "Riot Guns". Later, due to the good results that these gave in the assaults to entrenchments, were acquired more pump-action shotguns that would be denominated "Trench Guns".

Almost a quarter century later, after the German occupation of Denmark and Norway in April 1940, the United States sent to the British a good quantity of veteran shotguns from the First World War, as well as submachine guns Thompson M1928A1. But newer materials were required and, regarding shotguns, the companies Winchester, Remington, Ithaca, Savage and Stevens started to provide them. The modifications introduced in the Winchester M1897 and M1912 were minimal while only the Stevens and Ithaca received an adapter for bayonet and handguard. Both the US Army and the Marines used these weapons widely in the Pacific theater, in China, Burma, India and in Europe after the landings in Normandy. As well, the National Guard was widely provided with shotguns, both civilian and militarized ones. Another conflict in which the shotgun had an important role was the one developed in Malaysia (1949-53), already mentioned. The tactics of the deep patrols in the jungle along with an agressive policy of ambushes found in the shotgun an ideal element and a great complement for the submachine gun Sten. When the Korean War (1950-53) broke, American soldiers retook their veteran Trench Guns, besides a large number of Stevens M520 and M620. The following conflict in which shotguns were significantly used was the Vietnam War (1964-75). Albeit in lesser numbers than in Korea, appeared again the veteran Winchester M1897 and M1912, Stevens M520 and M620, Remington M31 and M11 and, to a lesser extent, the Ithaca M37 as well as some semiautomatic shotguns from the civilian market. Particularly, in 1969-70 the US Marine Corps had 4600 Remington M870 Mk 1 with barrel for buckshots, extended tubular magazine and adapter for bayonet.

The military utilization of shotguns

From top to bottom: Winchester 1300 Marine Defender - in stainless steel -, Remington M870 and Ithaca M37, three veterans from the Vietnam War.

In 1978, the Department of Defense elaborated particular specifications for the manufacturing of a shotgun for military combat adapting, from an already consolidated civil commercial base, the characteristics of such weapon to the particular requirements of such combat. OF Mossberg & Sons obtained a contract to produce a shotgun, which would be denominated Milsgun (Milspec Shotgun), derivative from the Model 500 Persuader Police Shotgun. This weapon had a pump-action or slide-action system, made in steel (generally the mechanisms box of a shotgun is made of alloys, but some models have it made in steel to provide more robustness and allow to fire Magnum charges), with a tubular magazine under the barrel and parallel to it, with space for five cartridges, being the finish a grey matte phosphated. Its handguard and buttstock were made of wood, having this latter one a ventilated rubber catch to absorb the recoil, and they were provided with rings to hook a sling. It was incorporated as well an adapter for the bayonet M1917 Enfield Pattern. This shotgun, after the success obtained, would return to the civilian market as the Series 590 by Mossberg. In 1979, the US Navy, after the experience obtained with militarized shotguns in Vietnam, decided to develop a more specific weapon. Later the Department of Defense, who had moved in that direction with the project Milsgun, wanted to materialize a much more effective one, leading this, throught the Joint Service Small Arms Program (JSSAP), to the Repeating Handheld Improved Non-rifled Ordnance (RHINO), which determined the specifications of the new weapon, as well as the munition and even the recoil of the shots. With a view to develop the new combat shotgun were signed contracts with several companies for the project which would be known as Close Assault Weapon (CAW). The objective was to obtain a weapon that allowed to fire multiple projectiles with an effective range superior to 150 meters.

The military utilization of shotguns

The family of the series Model 500, developed by OF Mossberg & Sons.

The companies associated to the project were Olin/Winchester, who along with the German company Heckler und Koch (HK), presented the Olin/HK Close Assault Weapon System (CAWS). Olin/Winchester developed the cartridge, whose penetration and chances to hit were superior to the conventional shotgun cartridge, and Heckler und Koch was in charge to design the weapon. This one had lines resembling a later design by the same company, the assault rifle HK G11, or Heckler und Koch Gewehr 11. This weapon was a prototype intended to replace the HK G3, reglamentary assault rifle in the German Armed Forces. It was an innovative weapon with a magazine placed parallel to the barrel, with capacity for 50 projectiles of caseless munition, capable of firing in semiautomatic, three- round or automatic mode, and fitted with an integrated optical sight. Returning to the shotgun in question, another aspirant to the contract was AAI Corporation Ltd. who proposed a weapon of selective fire, box magazine and an aesthetical line combining innovation and convention. The end of the Cold War cancelled the program of the HK CAWS, albeit subsequently Smith & Wesson developed a weapon for the new munition: the S&W AS, or Smith & Wesson Assault Shotgun. Designed as an assault shotgun with selective fire, rotating bolt with twelve lugs and box magazine for ten cartridges, it even had a morphological resemblance with the assault rifle M16. The last warlike event in which shotguns were used in a noteworthy way was the Gulf War (1990-91). During the operation Desert Shield they were used in security missions in key facilities, such as the Dhahran International Airport. In the operation Desert Storm, the Mossberg M590 and Remington M870 were fundamental to evict the enemy from their entrenchments and the subsequent conduction of the Iraqi prisoners.

Types, operating mechanics and components

Facing the large offert provided by the diverse manufacturers to both the civilian and military markets, it shall be mandatory to focus in a simple and clear classification, starting by the type of user. So, a civilian requires for hunting a light weapon, with a maximum load of five cartridges, fixed wooden buttstock and munition with pellets or bullet. The police requires a compact weapon, usually fitted with pistol grip and foldable buttstock as well as maximum availability of ammunition, about seven cartridges, of diverse types, such as buckshots, plastic bullet for riots, gas, door-buster or anti-vehicle. But which are the specific requirements for a combat shotgun? Undoubtedly, one of them is robustness to endure the harsh treatment that it can suffer. Other is reliability, indispensable to make it work in any condition. Also, it should have a high capacity for ammunition and the possibility to fire diverse types of munition. Regarding the operating mechanics, combat shotguns can be classified in the following types:

- Semiautomatic: This system is generally found in civilian commercial models. It achieves a higher rate of fire but at the expense of a lesser reliability due to a more probable interruption on the mechanical operation. Representative of this category are the German HK 512, the Italian PG85 and the South African Armsel Striker.

- Manual action: These weapons eject the case, cock the hammer and feed the breech with a new cartridge, in this order, by means of the sliding movement effectuated with the handguard of the weapon. They are considered as the most robust and reliable ones and, regardless the type of munition used, they should always be correctly fed since this operation is manual and not depending on the behavior of the cartridge whose ignition is used to generate the energy that operates the mechanisms in semiautomatic shotguns. Representative of this category are the Remington M870 Mk 1 and the Italian models Valtro Trusty PM1 and Franchi PA 3/215.

- Mixed action: These weapons allow to select between manual or semiautomatic operation. These weapons seek to combine the best characteristics of the forementioned types: the reliability of manual action and the firepower of semiautomatic action. Representative of this category are the Italian models Franchi SPAS-12 and SPAS-15 and Beretta RS 202P M2.

Regarding the feeding of the weapon, the most widespread system is the tubular magazine running parallel to the barrel and with a capacity of five to eight cartridges, as in the case of the Winchester M1300 Defender. It became also widespread the box magazine with a capacity of five to ten cartridges, such as in the Smith & Wesson AS. And another type of feeding is the one based in a drum magazine with a capacity of 10 to 12 cartridges, as in the Armsel Striker or the Pancor Jackhammer.

The components, generally, and given the wide range of available models, are defined by the seven main elements: barrel, handguard, magazine, frame, breechblock, trigger mechanism and buttstock. Of course, the appearance and functionality of a particular shotgun is conformed by the design of these elements. The barrel can be longer or shorter, which affects ballistic qualities apart from the longitudinal volume of the weapon. The handguard can be sliding or static and in this case a hand grip can be added. The type of the magazine determines the amount of cartridges carried but also the non-longitudinal volume of the weapon. The trigger mechanism can be accompanied by a hand grip or not and finally, the buttstock can be fixed or foldable, solid or "skeletal", made of wood, fiber or metal. Shotguns are particularly diverse in their morphology.

The military utilization of shotguns

The Armsel Striker revolver-shotgun is a simple and unconventional design fitted with a rotating drum magazine with capacity for 12 cartridges.

The military utilization of shotguns

Another Italian product, this time from Atis SpA.


From the beginning it has been stated the versatility that combat shotguns have according to the wide range of munitions available for them. From the 1960s the munitions for combat shotguns started to diverge from the munitions commercialized for civilian use. A first classification is made based on the length of the breech of the weapon; here we can distinguish between the 70 millimeters of conventional cartridges and the 76 millimeters of Magnum charges. Regarding the cartridge itself, we have these types of "stuffing":

- Slug: A single projectile, similar to a conventional bullet, intended to ensure the downing of the enemy by means of a considerable penetration force. Its effective range is about 50 meters albeit in some models it reaches up to 100 meters.

- Hollow-Pointed: This type seeks the expansion by deformation of the tip of the projectile when hitting the target, causing damage in a large area around the impact zone in unprotected tissues but losing penetration force against body armor.

- Brenneke: Introduced in 1898, this type has a stabilizer that causes the projectile to rotate during its flight. This, along with a certain shape of the projectile, leads to considerable ravage in the target.

- Sabot: The concept is based in the anti-tank projectiles of the same name. The projectile is of much lesser diameter than the bore, being surrounded by a plastic casing that starts its disintegration after the ignition. The projectile has a great penetration power and a considerable stopping power.

- Buckshot: These are cartridges containing multiple projectiles, balls of a similar diameter to the one of a pistol bullet which, in the dispersion produced by the shot, allow to hit the target with an acceptable number of them. There are two groups: small projectiles that, albeit with lesser penetration, produce a larger "cloud" of projectiles, whose diameter vary from 1.3 to 3.3 millimeters, and large projectiles with an effective range of 25 meters and an approximated dispersion of 50 centimeters. The most common ones are the 1, 0, 00 and 000, filled with 16, 12, 9 and 8 balls, respectively. To consider the effectiveness of these cartridges, let us take for example a 00 one with nine 8.6 millimeters balls or a 000 one with eight 9 millimeters balls. In an effective distance of 36.5 meters and on a target having 38 centimeters in diameter, if firing a cartridge 00 with a full choke - the most closed type, with a difference between the bore of the barrel and the diameter of the choke of 0.9/1.1 millimeters -, subsequently it will be seen a minimum of five impacts in the target. The fact is that few submachine guns can do so well, and with the added value of not existing danger of possible rebounds when hitting in hard surfaces. These projectiles are generally made of lead hardened with antimony, polished or plated in copper or nickel.

- Flechette: The cartridge is filled with small darts instead of balls, being a typical amount 20 units. This type of munition combines the best characteristics of slugs and buckshots: penetration power and multiplicity.

- Low lethality: Used by the police in riots. They contain plastic projectiles with an effective range of 30 meters and an approximated dispersion of 1.5 meters and are intended to put the agressors out of action without killing them.

- Gas: This is another option for using during riots. AAI Corporations Ferret developed cartridges loaded with liquid CS (emetic tear gas actuating on eyes and lungs) or CN (tear gas actuating only in the eyes) in a quantity of about three cubic centimeters, which is enough to neutralize a volume of 27 cubic meters.

- Doorbuster: This is a munition specially intended for police use, of maximum force in the impact against a door lock or hinges, but with the minimal risk for whom could be behind the door. These projectiles are, in general, much safer than a projectile made of lead. For example, the munition Shok Lock 12-gram made by Accuracy Systems, uses a fragmentary projectile made of metal and ceramics, which disintegrates in harmless fragments after the impact. Another example is the Round Frangible 12-gram made in United Kingdom by the group Nitor, whose purpose is to destroy the lock of a door remaining the projectile inlaid in it after the impact.

- Anti-vehicle: This type has the purpose to stop moving vehicles that have avoided a roadblock and also it can be used in an ambush against light vehicles - all-terrain or light/medium trucks -; an example of this type is the 29-gram projectile with hardened cover developed for the Remingtom M870. The company Light Field Ammunition corporation tested and evaluated this cartridge by request of the US Marine Corps, after the suicide attacks effectuated with vehicles in Lebanon against the Franco-Italo-American pacification forces in October 1983. Another type of projectile intended for this role is a design by French company Prevost, composed of a single steel ball and being its target the wheels, engines and other main components of a vehicle. In United Kingdom it was developed the munition Poly Round 12-gram, with projectile made of resin and high-speed fragmentary polyester intended to shatter the windscreen of a car. And finally, high-penetration munition, fin- stabilized projectiles without an explosive charge denominated Rocket-Assisted Target Slug (RATS) or projectiles fitted with high-explosive charges triggered by a micro-fuze, developed by the company Sky-Media.

Categories: Small Arms - 20th Century - [General] - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-02-01

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