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A brief history of the shotgun in combat

Winchester 1897 trench guns with bayonets
Winchester 1897 trench guns with bayonets

There are some people that believe a shotgun has no place in combat. They will say that the range and accuracy of a rifle at distances greater than 50-100 yards is superior to a shotgun, which is true. They will point out that a shotgun is somewhat limited in ammunition capacity, and that shotgun ammo is far heavier than rifle cartridges, which is also true. But while it is true that rifles are the main firearms in battle, the shotgun has seen action of some sort in virtually every military action the US has ever been involved in. Here is just some of the storied and continuing history of the combat shotgun.

The shotgun first began to see military use in the 16th century in the form of the “blunderbuss”, which was basically a short-barreled smoothbore musket with a flared muzzle. It was loaded from the muzzle with assorted and various sized shot. Because of its limited range, it saw little action in the massed infantry battles of the era, but saw quite a bit of use in naval warfare. It was a devastating short-range weapon used to repel boarders on naval warships, merchant ships and privateers.

During the 18th century, shotguns were used in conflicts like the Revolutionary War, French and Indian War and numerous other colonial battles around the globe. Some militia members and frontiersmen had only their hunting shotguns with which to fight the British. Even the militias and Washington’s regular troops that were armed with muskets commonly used “buck and ball” loads in their muskets, combining a long-range musket ball with a few pellets of short-range buckshot.

With the increasing use of barrel rifling and the introduction of improved ammunition like the Minie Ball in the 19th century, there became a marked and noticeable difference in the distance and accuracy between rifles and shotguns. Still, the shotgun saw quite a bit of use in the Civil War, mostly on the Confederate side. Many of the volunteers from the southern states brought their own shotgun with them, as they were too poor to own the new rifles and the Confederacy did not have the production capacity to outfit all of their troops with rifles. Shotguns were mostly used by cavalry on both sides, and especially by irregular raiders from the Confederacy. Artillery crews on both sides often used their cannons as large makeshift shotguns, loading them up with “grapeshot” or canister shot, then leveling them to be fired directly into lines of advancing infantry, killing or wounding far more troops than a single cannon ball could. Many US cavalry units also used breech-loading double barrel shotguns in their wars against the Native Americans during westward expansion in the years after the Civil War.

The shotgun first saw “official” US Army use against Mexican bandits on the Texas border and against Muslim insurgents in the Philippines around the turn of the 20th century. But the combat shotgun became famous with the use of the Winchester 1897 12-gauge in the trenches of WWI. Sporting a 20” barrel, heat shield and bayonet, the pump action shotgun was far superior to any rifle of the time in the close quarters combat of the trenches and bunkers of WWI. The Winchester 1897, and the later updated model 12, was also used in WWII, especially in the dense jungles of the southern Pacific islands.

The dense jungles of Vietnam also saw action from a variety of models of 12-gauge shotgun. They were often used by the point man on patrols, Special Forces units and were standard equipment assigned to Navy boats patrolling the many rivers and deltas in the region. Many soldiers and marines preferred them for their reliability and devastation at close range, especially when clearing bunkers, spider holes and villages. The 12-gauge shotgun has also seen use in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly for its door breaching and room clearing capability.

Military Police, prisoner of war guards and post guards have been equipped with shotguns on guard duty throughout the history of our nation. It should also be mentioned that many of the insurgents, terrorists, rebels and revolutionaries the US has fought around the world have also used shotguns in their battles. With the increasing tendency and prevalence of urban warfare, with its close quarters battles and house to house fighting, the shotgun will most likely continue to see service in combat for the foreseeable future. When it comes to ease of use and reliability, not to mention stopping power, nothing compares to the 12-gauge shotgun at close range.

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