The American firearms industry has produced many outstanding and iconic weapons, from the Kentucky rifle of the frontier days to the Colt Peacemaker and Winchester repeater. In fact, I could probably fill out a lengthy blog post just by listing all of the epic and timeless firearms produced by American ingenuity.
However, when it comes right down it, no weapon more epitomizes the American tradition of gun ownership than the humble shotgun.
Of all the firearms types out there, the shotgun is probably the most versatile. It can be used to take an almost limitless variety of game, from varmints to large predators. It is excellent for self-defense and trap shooting is a highly enjoyable sport.
Shotguns are also inexpensive to own and shoot. While the bullet bubble has caused critical shortages in almost every caliber, the shelves were always full of shotgun shells.
But what is a shotgun? What makes it so darn useful? Why do Americans uniquely value them?
Shotguns are – as the name implies – a gun that fires shot. That is to say it discharges many small bullets instead of a single large one.
Because of this, shotguns tend have wide barrels (“large bore”) that is smooth inside (“smooth bore”) without the grooves that makes bullets spin and therefore more accurate (“rifling”).
Thus the big difference between a rifle and a shotgun is that the rifle fires a single bullet that is spun by grooves cut in the interior of the barrel. The tight fit of the bullet combines with the spinning motion to make the bullet go farther and straighter.
Instead of a single bullet, shotguns fire a bunch of pellets (which come in various sizes and material) that in modern weapons are contained in little plastic tube. The tube holds the balls together until they leave the barrel when they start to spread out. Shotguns do not have the range or accuracy of rifles, but they make up for that by spreading their damage in a wider area (this is called the shot pattern).
Because shotguns use less pressure, the barrels tend to be thinner and thus lighter.
Shotguns don’t have calibers per se, instead they are rated by “gauge.” This can be confusing because the larger the gauge number, the smaller the shotgun’s bore. Thus a 12-gauge shotgun is actually larger and more powerful than a 20-gauge one. To make things even more complicated, one of the smaller sizes still uses a conventional caliber (.410).
What makes shotguns useful is their flexibility. Shotguns generally have a smooth bore, but it is possible to fire a single sold bullet (called a “slug”) through them. These are slow-moving and don’t have much range, but they hit very hard because the size of the bullet is huge.
Some shotguns even have special barrels designed to shoot slugs (hence the term “slug barrel”).
These types of shotgun are popular with deer hunters who operate in populated areas. In Michigan, for example, rifles are prohibited south of the (wait for it) “rifle line”, which runs basically east-west from the bottom on Saginaw Bay. Rifles can be used north of that, but only shotguns and handguns may be used to hunt south of it.
It is possible to have multiple barrels for your shotgun, so that you can use a slug barrel for deer, and normal one for ducks or small game. There are even things called “chokes” that help reduce the size of the shot pattern to ensure better distance performance.
Shotguns (especially the heavier gauge ones) can have some serious recoil, but they are generally lightweight and extremely easy to use.
They also come in a number of very simple packages.
Perhaps the most basic model is a single-shot, break action. Basically you push a lever and the rear of the shotgun (“the breech”) opens on a hinge, allowing you to insert a single cartridge.
You then snap the shotgun closed and can now fire. Once you have fired, you break it open (which usually causes the spent shell casing to eject) and insert another one.
While this may seem slow and inefficient, compared to muzzle-loading firearms of ages past, it is remarkably quick and easy.
Even better are the double-barrel shotguns, which let you fire two barrels before you have to reload. There are two kinds of double-barrels: side-by-side and over-under. The over-under is by far the more costly. I must admit I'm not sure why, other than it may be slightly more accurate in terms of sight picture - and people are willing to pay more for them.
About a century ago the pump-action shotgun was developed and it is probably the most common. You can insert the individual shells into a tubular magazine below the barrel and by racking grip back and forth you can eject the spent shell and insert a new one.
This distinctive noise and determined motion has been a mainstay of Hollywood movies for decades. Of course, being Hollywood they usually get it wrong.
For example, in a moment of tension one character will point a shotgun at another and – to emphasize the drama, he will rack it and keep pointing it. Now by doing this he was just admitting that the shotgun was unloaded so the other character could actually have just pushed it aside without fear.
If it was loaded, the other round should have ejected, which would be stupid.
One sees similar variations on this (usually in horror flicks) when a character racks the shotgun before approaching where they thing the baddy is hiding. Again, this means that while the character was grimly approaching, his weapon was unloaded and therefore useless.
Are there semi-auto shotguns? Of course! Firearms genius John Browning made one a century ago that is still popular today.
Shotguns are used elsewhere and are prized sporting and game weapons in Europe. In fact (gun control propaganda to the contrary) there are quite a few shotguns in private hands in Europe, especially France and England.
The strange thing about Europeans is that they consider the use of shotguns against people to be utterly barbaric. Shotguns are for game, period.
During World War I, trench fighting was almost tailor-made for shotguns. It is hard to think of a better weapon to clear a trench than a large-bore shotgun.
When the United States entered the war, that was one of the first weapons we hit upon and shotguns were quickly modified for military use.
The German reaction to this was utter outrage. They said it was a war crime to use shotguns against people.
You read the right, the people who brought you poison gas and unrestricted submarine warfare had a serious problem with (of all things) shotguns.
The Germans threatened to kill anyone they found carrying shotguns or shotgun ammunition, even if they surrendered. Of course by that point in the war the Allies had more than a few German prisoners and it was pointed out that if they wanted to start killing POWs, two could play that game, so the Germans backed down.
With more states allowing concealed carry, I would have to say that a pistol would probably be my first purchase if I didn't own any firearms, but the second would have to be a shotgun.