description and history of the shotgun

Shotgun Hunting Painting


A shotgun (also known as a scattergun and peppergun, or historically as a fowling piece) is a firearm that is usually designed to be fired from the shoulder, which uses the energy of a fixed shell to fire a number of small spherical pellets called shot, or a solid projectile called a slug. Shotguns come in a wide variety of sizes, ranging from 5.5 mm (.22 inch) bore up to 5 cm (2.0 in) bore, and in a range of firearm operating mechanisms, including breech loading, single-barreled, double or combination gun, pump-action, bolt, and lever-action, semi-automatic, and even fully automatic variants.

A shotgun is generally a smoothbore firearm, which means that the inside of the barrel is not rifled. Preceding smoothbore firearms, such as the musket, were widely used by armies in the 18th century. The direct ancestor to the shotgun, the blunderbuss, was also used in a similar variety of roles from self defence to riot control. It was often used by cavalry troops due to its generally shorter length and ease of use, as well as by coachmen for its substantial power. However, in the 19th century, these weapons were largely replaced on the battlefield with breechloading rifled firearms, which were more accurate over longer ranges. The military value of shotguns was rediscovered in the First World War, when American forces used 12-gauge pump action shotguns in close-quarters trench fighting to great effect. Since then, it has been used in a variety of roles in civilian, law enforcement, and military applications.

The shot pellets from a shotgun spread upon leaving the barrel, and the power of the burning charge is divided among the pellets, which means that the energy of any one ball of shot is fairly low. In a hunting context, this makes shotguns useful primarily for hunting birds and other small game. However, in a military or law enforcement context, the large number of projectiles makes the shotgun useful as a close quarters combat weapon or a defensive weapon. Militants or insurgents may use shotguns in asymmetric engagements, as shotguns are commonly owned civilian weapons in many countries. Shotguns are also used for target shooting sports such as skeet, trap, and sporting clays. These involve shooting clay disks, known as clay pigeons, thrown in various ways.


Most early firearms, such as the blunderbuss, arquebus, and musket had large diameter, smoothbore barrels, and could fire shot as well as solid balls. A firearm intended for use in wing shooting of birds was known as a fowling piece. The 1728 Cyclopaedia defines a fowling piece as:

Fowling Piece, a portable Fire Arm for the shooting of Birds. See Fire Arm.
Of Fowling Pieces, those are reputed the best, which have the longest Barrel, vis. from 51/2 foot to 6; with an indifferent Bore, under Harquebus: Tho' for different Occasions they shou'd be of different Sorts, and Sizes. But in all, 'tis essential the Barrel be well polish'd and smooth within; and the Bore all of a Bigness, from one End to another.
For example, the Brown Bess musket, in service with the British army from 1722 to 1838, had a 19 mm (.75 inch) smoothbore barrel, roughly the same as a 10 gauge shotgun, and was 157 cm (62 in) long, just short of the above recommended 168 cm (51/2 feet). On the other hand, records from the Plymouth colony show a maximum length of 137 cm (41/2 feet) for fowling pieces, shorter than the typical musket.

Shot was also used in warfare; the buck and ball loading, combining a musket ball with three or six buckshot, was used throughout the history of the smoothbore musket. The first recorded use of the term shotgun was in 1776 in Kentucky. It was noted as part of the "frontier language of the West" by James Fenimore Cooper.

With the adoption of smaller bores and rifled barrels, the shotgun began to emerge as a separate entity. Shotguns have long been the preferred method for sport hunting of birds, and the largest shotguns, the punt guns, were used for commercial hunting. The double-barreled shotgun has changed little since the development of the boxlock action in 1875. Modern innovations such as interchangeable chokes and subgauge inserts make the double-barreled shotgun the shotgun of choice in skeet, trap shooting, and sporting clays, as well as with many hunters.

As wing shooting has been a prestige sport, specialty gunsmiths such as Krieghoff or Perazzi have produced fancy double-barrel guns for wealthy European and American hunters. These weapons can cost US$5,000 or more; some elaborately decorated presentation guns have sold for up to US$100,000.

During its long history, the shotgun has been favored by bird hunters, guards, and law enforcement officials. The shotgun has fallen in and out of favor with military forces several times in its long history. Shotguns and similar weapons are simpler than long-range rifles, and were developed earlier. The development of more accurate and deadlier long-range rifles minimized the usefulness of the shotgun on the open battlefields of European wars. But armies have "rediscovered" the shotgun for specialty uses many times.

19th century
During the 19th century, shotguns were mainly employed by cavalry units. Both sides of the American Civil War employed shotguns. U.S. cavalry used the shotgun extensively during the Indian Wars in the latter half of the 19th century. Mounted units favored the shotgun for its moving target effectiveness, and devastating close-range firepower. The shotgun was also favored by citizen militias and similar groups.

With the exception of cavalry units, the shotgun saw less and less use throughout the 19th century on the battlefield. As a defense weapon it remained popular with guards and lawmen, however, and the shotgun became one of many symbols of the American Old West. Lawman Cody Lyons killed two men with a shotgun; his friend Doc Holliday's only confirmed kill was with a shotgun. The weapon both these men used was the short-barreled version favored by private strongbox guards on stages and trains. These guards, called express messengers, became known as shotgun messengers, since they rode with the weapon (loaded with buckshot) for defense against bandits. Passenger carriages carrying a strongbox usually had at least one private guard armed with a shotgun riding in front of the coach, next to the driver. This practice has survived in American slang; the term "riding shotgun" is used for the passenger who sits in the front passenger seat. The shotgun was a popular weapon for personal protection in the American Old West, requiring less skill on the part of the user than a revolver.

Hammerless shotguns
The origins of the hammerless shotgun are European but otherwise obscure. The earliest breechloading shotguns originated in France and Belgium in the early 19th century (see also the history of the Pinfire) and a number of them such as those by Robert and Chateauvillard from the 1830s and 1840s did not use hammers. In fact during these decades a wide variety of ingenious weapons, including rifles, adopted what is now often known as a 'needle-fire' method of igniting the charge, where a firing pin or a longer sharper needle provided the necessary impact. The most widely used British hammerless needle-fire shotgun was the unusual hinged-chamber fixed-barrel breech-loader by Joseph Needham, produced from the 1850s. By the 1860s hammerless guns were increasingly used in Europe both in war and sport although hammer guns were still very much in the majority. The first significant encroachment on hammer guns was a hammerless patent which could be used with a conventional side-lock. This was British gunmaker T Murcott's 1871 action nicknamed the 'mousetrap' on account of its loud snap action. However, the most successful hammerless innovation of the 1870s was Anson and Deeley's boxlock patent of 1875. This simple but ingenious design only used four moving parts allowing the production of cheaper and reliable shotguns.

Daniel Myron LeFever is credited with the invention of the American hammerless shotgun. Working for Barber & LeFever in Syracuse, N.Y. he introduced his first hammerless shotgun in 1878. This gun was cocked with external cocking levers on the side of the breech. He went on to patent the first truly automatic hammerless shotgun in 1883. This gun automatically cocked itself when the breech was closed. He later developed the mechanism to automatically eject the shells when the breech was opened.

John Moses Browning
One of the men most responsible for the modern development of the shotgun was prolific gun designer John Browning. While working for Winchester Firearms, Browning revolutionized shotgun design. In 1887, Browning introduced the Model 1887 Lever Action Repeating Shotgun, which loaded a fresh cartridge from its internal magazine by the operation of the action lever. Before this time most shotguns were the 'break open' type.

This development was greatly overshadowed by two further innovations he introduced at the end of the 19th century. In 1893, Browning produced the Model 1893 Pump Action Shotgun, introducing the now familiar pump action to the market. And in 1900, he patented the Browning Auto-5, the world's first semi-automatic shotgun. The Browning Auto-5 remained in production until 1998.

World wars
The decline in military use of shotguns reversed in World War I. American forces under General Pershing employed 12-gauge pump action shotguns when they were deployed to the Western front in 1917. These shotguns were fitted with bayonets and a heat shield so the barrel could be gripped while the bayonet was deployed. Shotguns fitted in this fashion became known as trench guns by the United States Army. Those without such modifications were known as riot guns. After World War I, the United States military began referring to all shotguns as riot guns.

Due to the cramped conditions of trench warfare, the American shotguns were extremely effective. Germany even filed an official diplomatic protest against their use, alleging they violated the laws of warfare. The judge advocate general reviewed the protest, and it was rejected because the Germans protested use of lead shot (which would have been illegal) but military shot was plated. This is the only occasion the legality of the shotgun's use in warfare has been questioned.

During World War II, the shotgun was not heavily used in the war in Europe by official military forces. However, the shotgun was a favorite weapon of Allied-supported partisans, such as the French Resistance. By contrast, in the Pacific theater, thick jungles and heavily fortified positions made the shotgun a favorite weapon of the United States Marines. Marines tended to use pump shotguns, since the pump action was less likely to jam in the humid and dirty conditions of the Pacific campaign. Similarly, the United States Navy used pump shotguns to guard ships when in port in Chinese harbors (e.g., Shanghai). The United States Army Air Forces also used pump shotguns to guard bombers and other aircraft against saboteurs when parked on airbases across the Pacific and on the West Coast of the United States. Pump and semi-automatic shotguns were used in marksmanship training, particularly for bomber gunners. The most common pump shotguns used for these duties were the 12 gauge Winchester Model 97 and Model 12. The break-open action, single barrel shotgun was used by the British Home Guard and U.S. home security forces. Notably, industrial centers (such as the Gopher State Steel Works) were guarded by National Guard soldiers with Winchester Model 37 12 gauge shotguns.

Late 20th century to present
Since the end of World War II, the shotgun has remained a specialty weapon for modern armies. It has been deployed for specialized tasks where its strengths were put to particularly good use. It was used to defend machine gun emplacements during the Korean War, American and French jungle patrols used shotguns during the Vietnam War, and shotguns saw extensive use as door breaching and close quarter weapons in the early stages of the Iraq War, and saw limited use in tank crews. Many modern navies make extensive use of shotguns by personnel engaged in boarding hostile ships, as any shots fired will almost certainly be over a short range. Nonetheless, shotguns are far less common in military use than rifles, carbines, submachineguns, or pistols.

On the other hand, the shotgun has become a standard in law enforcement use. A variety of specialty less-lethal or non-lethal ammunitions, such as tear gas shells, bean bags, flares, explosive sonic stun rounds, and rubber projectiles, all packaged into 12 gauge shotgun shells, are produced specifically for the law enforcement market. Recently, Taser International introduced a self-contained electronic weapon which is fired from a standard 12 gauge shotgun.

The shotgun remains a standard firearm for hunting throughout the world for all sorts of game from birds and small game to large game such as deer. The versatility of the shotgun as a hunting weapon has steadily increased as slug rounds and more advanced rifled barrels have given shotguns longer range and higher killing power. The shotgun has become a ubiquitous firearm in the hunting community.