Modern Day, WW1, WW2

Shotguns in War – The Ultimate Short Range Firearm

Since the First World War and the birth of the trench gun, shotguns have been a staple of every military force in the world, using them for close quarters combat in densely populated or forested areas.

However, the road to success wasn’t always easy, and it took many improvements to get from the M1897 to the Benelli M4, which might as well be the perfect shotgun. Today, we’ll dive into the history and the use of these frightening weapons in war.


Did you know that the very first long-barrel firearms resembled modern-day shotguns? They weren’t pump-action weapons, and today’s accuracy and shot power can’t be compared to them, but both modern shotguns and old rifles had smooth, wide barrels.

The barrels of modern rifles, in comparison, have spiralling bores on the inside. Thus the term, rifle.

These old firearms were used as both rifles and shotguns as needed – they could fire a single solid lead ball (the predecessor of modern bullets) or shotgun shot.

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A good example of this is the Brown Bess musket, which could be loaded with small buckshot. The Brown Bess musket was used by the British Army for more than a hundred years.

Although the shotgun is a fairly simple weapon and much easier to make than a rifle, the accuracy of a rifle is unmatched. Shotguns were, and are to this day, best applied in close combat.

Trench Guns.
The Winchester M97 and M12 Trench guns. Both of the shotguns were fitted with bayonet sockets.

As rifles became more and more common, soldiers could hit targets at distances that were, up until that point, unimaginable.

Keep in mind that a few hundred years ago, warfare wasn’t even similar to what it is today. Although firearms were widely distributed, there was still quite a distance between two sides on the field of battle. Trying to shoot someone who’s standing 200 yards away from you with a shotgun was mostly ineffective.

Thus, shotguns took a back seat in warfare application as they simply weren’t lethal enough at a longer range.

They would become very popular with bird hunters, a title that they hold to this day.

The Resurgence of Shotguns in the First World War

The First World War witnessed a resurgence of shotguns because of the widely implemented trench warfare.

Rifles proved to be too clumsy and difficult to manoeuvre in close-quarters combat. They had long barrels to improve accuracy and whilst these were deadly at hitting targets in no-mans land the accuracy wasn’t that important when the fighting was done within twenty yards.

At such a short distance, shotguns were both deadlier and easier to manoeuvre than rifles.

The United States Army were the first ones to implement the use of shotguns in modern warfare. Under the command of General John Pershing, the American Expeditionary Forces used trench guns during the latter months of the war in 1918, and with deadly effect.

Combat shotguns, usually the M1897 or the M1912, were also known as trench guns. They showed massive improvement in trench warfare and were so effective that the Germans were convinced their use had to be a breach of the laws of warfare. It wasn’t.

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Once a fight had spilled inside the actual trench, the sandbagged walls allowed little room for manoeuvring so much so that rifles were almost useless in comparison to shotguns. At the same time, there was no room for taking cover from fire, so taking aim with a trench gun was very easy.

The impact of the shotgun was instant and undeniable – at that point, it was clear to everyone that the shotgun would become a key weapon in close-quarters combat in the future.

Shotguns in the Second World War

Unlike the First World War, the Second World War didn’t see that much trench combat. With the overwhelming use of artillery, tanks, aeroplanes, and long-range rifles, a lot of fighting was conducted at great distances.

The shotguns were, once again, used mainly by the United States Marines more than anyone else, despite being issued to all Allied forces. Also the terrian of the Pacific front was nothing like the European and North African fronts.

The climate was humid, and the terrain was dirty and thick with overgrown plant life. Shotguns would jam less than regular rifles in such conditions, and since aiming was restricted to a closer range because of all the vegetation, shotguns were once again called upon.

Despite shotguns being superior to rifles, the Marines faced two problems. Firstly, carrying shotgun shells was difficult as they took too much room – rifle bullets were smaller, and a marine could fit more of them on his person.

A US Marine with his trench gun during an assault in Okinawa in WW2

Secondly, the shell at the time was made from paper – not from plastic, like modern-day shells. When paper comes in contact with such a high level of humidity, it becomes damp and swells.

Even after drying their rounds, they often wouldn’t fit into the weapon. Unfortunately, many marines had to throw away their ammo as it became unusable.

This problem would be solved once and for all with the plastic shell innovation.

Post-World War II Use of Shotguns

The most notable use of shotguns in warfare after the Second World War can be observed during the Malayan Emergency. During this conflict, the Commonwealth Forces fought the Malayan Communist Party and Japanese volunteers in British Malaya.

Similar to the areas of the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, the Malay Peninsula is a heavily forested area. Therefore, most combat that occurred was close combat, which allowed for the use of shotguns.

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The wars in Korea and Vietnam also witnessed the use of shotguns, mainly by American and French forces.

At that point, shotguns were already commonplace as law enforcement weapons in the United States, and they were the weapon of choice for indoor and close-range combat, particulary in urban environments.

The Winchester Trench Shotgun hasn’t changed much from its original design. (Pfc. Art Burgess, 2nd Battalion, 75th Infantry Ranger),

The plastic shell, mentioned earlier, was introduced in the early sixties, so soldiers didn’t have a problem with shells swelling up and becoming unusable. There were some claims, however, that the plastic would melt in the jungle heat, but they’ve never been confirmed.

Shotguns weren’t used only for advancing through forested areas – they were also the weapon of choice for base security.

Relative to that, shotguns were marketed as the ideal home defence weapons on the civilian market!

Modern-Day Use of Shotguns in War

The application of shotguns became more specific with time as several types of ammo were developed specifically for shotguns. This includes single-slug shells, gas shells, flares, and rubber shells.

Some of these rounds aren’t lethal, so they can be effectively used for controlling riots and in other situations where lethal force isn’t necessary.

Shotguns were especially useful during the War on Terror as units had to break into a house and clear it. The weapon was imperative for two reasons.

Firstly – it could blow off the door hinges with two quick shots, so it made breaching a breeze. Even more importantly, it’s the ideal weapon for securing small buildings with very little turning space.

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To make it easier on the troops, the United States Military introduced the M26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System. This is essentially a shotgun attachment that a soldier could mount under the barrel of their M16 or M4. It has a separate trigger, magazine, and a short barrel.

Up until that point, the M500 was the default service shotgun for US troops in combat. Soldiers had to carry both their M4/M16 rifles and an M500 shotgun for breaching. This was limiting their movement and had them tiring quickly because of the added weight.

Combat shotgun
A US Marine armed with a combat shotgun, Iraq in 2005

The M26-MASS shotguns were designed as a breaching tool and they’d make breaching much easier on soldiers. With it, a soldier can breach the entry door and easily switch to their assault rifle to clear out the building.

When soldiers engage in open combat that requires the use of an assault rifle, they don’t have a shotgun weighing them down from the hip and limiting their movement.

The Most Common Shotguns Used in Wars

Starting with the First World War, the most popular combat shotguns were the models M1897 and M1912. Both of these shotguns use a pump-action system to load the shells into the barrel, but the M1912 has larger calibres; 12, 16, 20, and 28-gauge, while M1897 only used 12 and 16-gauge shells.

The Benelli M4 is another notable shotgun model, used mostly by the Unites States Armed Forces, several police departments in the States, as well as the British, Portuguese, Australian, Italian, and Israeli Armed Forces, among others.

Unlike most shotguns, the M4 is not a pump-action shotgun, but a gas-operated system that loads shells semi-automatically.

There’s also the Remington Model 870, which has been in use since 1950 by Canada, the USA, Germany, Austria, and Australia, among other countries. There are short variations of this shotgun, which make it ideal as a secondary, breaching weapon.

The (In)Effectiveness of Shotguns in Combat

Shotguns are deeply polarising weapons in practice because their effectiveness depends on the situation the user finds themselves in. They can be either the best or the worst weapon to have.

Since the effective range of a modern shotgun is 30 metres (at best) and the weapon has great shot spread, it makes no sense using it in open-space combat at medium or long range.

The user could fire slug rounds, not shot, to improve accuracy, but a rifle is always going to be superior in this regard.

Another downside of the shotgun is the limited ammo. Because of the size of shotgun shell, which can’t be reduced, most shotguns can fit only 7 or 8 shells into the weapon at once.

In comparison, most modern assault rifles can fit 30 rounds in their magazines.

The Daewoo USAS-12 automatic shotgun. Its still a shotgun!

Truth be told – getting shot with a single round from a shotgun at a close range is much worse than getting shot with a round from an assault rifle, but the effectiveness still doesn’t compensate for the lack of ammo.


Many shotguns have to be reloaded shell-by-shell, which is much slower than just swapping magazines – the reloading system of every assault rifle.

Automatic shotguns with magazines exist, such as the USAS-12, designed by Daewoo, but they’re not too popular since they’ve been declared as Destructive Devices by the US Government, nor are they popular for military use.

It’s not all doom and gloom for shotguns however, as they harbour astonishing firepower, and they can deal much more damage than an assault rifle if used in the right conditions. Some shotguns have very short barrels, which make them easy to manoeuvre around tight corners.

All in all, shotguns are massively important weapons, capable of breaching and incapacitating targets with a single shot, but it’s crucial to only rely on them in close combat settings, as they pose little threat at medium and long ranges.

Are they here to stay? Well they’ve been around for well over 100 years in combat roles and all the while close combat is in existence the answer is yes.