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In black powder days, shotguns would be loaded with carpet tacks, nails, broken glass, and odd bits of metal, for defense. The hunter tended to stick to round lead shot for use against birds, and other game, because of the accuracy and consistency of the balls. Stage coach guards generally carried a shot gun both for it's lethality, and it's arc of fire, which made it easier to hit with from a bouncing stage coach. Latter, during the First World War, the shotgun came into it's own as the "trench broom". In the close range, fast moving actions that characterized much of the actual fighting in this war of trenches and barbed wire, the machine gun ruled the field, but the shotgun was master of the close in world of the trench. At this time, the classic double barreled guns were being replaced by the magazine types. The most heralded gun of those days was the Winchester Model 97 pump. During the Second World War, the shotgun was replaced somewhat for close in fighting, by the submachine gun. Though forbidden by the Geneva Convention, and thought of with a certain amount of ambivalence by the military, the shotgun made a comeback during the Viet Nam War. Today we have a number of assault shotguns designed specially for military and police use. There are even a couple of fully automatic shotguns around, though they have sharply limited application.
The largest shotgun projectiles are slugs, which essentially turn the shotgun into a large caliber, low velocity rifle. The term rifle may seem a bit out of place here, since part of the BATF definition of a shotgun includes the provision of a smooth, non rifled bore. In the case of the shotgun firing slugs, it is the projectile itself that is rifled so that it takes on a spin as it moves through the bore, and through the air. Though slow moving, this miniature artillery can have devastating effects upon the "target".
Hot Shot Loads
In construction, the choke may be a constriction, expansion, bell, or widening of a section of the bore. In modern practice, the choke tends to be a slight constriction at the end of the bore, though in some cases there is a slight expansion right before the constriction. Needless to say, slugs should not be used in anything other than a special slug barrel or cylinder choke, where there is no constriction. At the very least, the choke and maybe the entire barrel will be ruined. At worse, pressure could rise to the level where injury might occur.
In an attempt to make the law as restrictive as possible, a broad general definition of what constituted a shotgun was used. In essence, any smoothbore arm was a shotgun. Because of this, gun-makers could not introduce smoothbore pistols, and load up shot-shells for them. Because of another provision in the law, namely that any weapon with a bore size over half in inch constituted a destructive device, most traditional shot shells could not be loaded in anything other than a traditional shotgun. This, at lease, was the idea. The very vaugness of the law caused it to backfire, at least to an extent.
Today it is possible to own a "sawed off" shotgun, though it involves the same type of fingerprinting, photograph, and paperwork that is required to own a machine gun. The transfer tax is a mere $5, as opposed to the $200 tax on the full auto arms. The prices of the guns, too, are much more reasonable, being just about in line with the costs of the standard versions. Shown here is a photograph of a legally transferable Remington 870, "sawed off" shotgun. This particular example is called the Witness Protection Shotgun, by the company that does the conversion. Both the barrel and the stock have been cut down to make this a very handy and concealable weapon. There are a number of conversions around in the same general style, but it should be noted that it is highly illegal for a citizen to do this without proper authorization from the BATF. Folding stock shotguns with 18" barrels (the shortest the law will allow), and an overall length of 26" (also the shortest the law will allow) have developed a certain following among those who do not wish to deal with the paper work, and the special licensing required for ownership of the shorter guns. In many cases these unrestricted weapons may be very little different from the specially registered variants. My own particular example of the Mossberg 590, shown below, comes to mind. Though ownership of the Mossberg is legal, while ownership of the Witness Protection shotgun is highly restricted, there is very little difference dimensionally, between the two guns, as can be seen by the comparison photographs..
Before the NFA of 1934 was passed, there were several models of legal, factory produced, shortened shotguns. Some of them, like the Ithaca Auto and Burglar were simply shortened down versions of a standard production shotgun. There were also guns like the H&R handigun, which were special made shotguns following the design of a pistol. All of these guns were restricted by the NFA, and transfer taxes were required, though there were several periods of amnesty for those who wished to register and license their guns. The Auto and Burglar was essentially a cut down standard side be side shotgun with dual triggers. This is not meant to demean it's effectiveness; it is just a comment on the expedience of the design. This fired 20 ga. 2 3/4" shells, and was manufactured with 10.1" barrels giving it a length of 16.1" (shown) or 12" barrels. The H&R Handi Gun was a single shot weapon capable of firing a number of different calibers by virtue of it's interchangeable barrels. This is not too different from the Thompson Contender that is produced today. The action was a bit different, being more like a shortened version of the old rolling block rifles that the old buffalo hunters used. The example shown has a .22 caliber barrel, though shotgun barrels were available, and widely used. Though guns like these are no longer produced in the factory, it is possible to own a short barreled shotgun legally, with no restrictions, and no interminable paper work. Still, there is another way.
The democrats have made the banning of what they call "Hand Held Shotguns" a top priority. Now, technically speaking, all shotguns are hand held. I mean, we don't mount them on tripods, or fire them by remote control. So what are they talking about? Well, in their usual imprecise and emotionally leading way, they are talking about pistols designed to fire shot shells. There are presently, perhaps, a half dozen models of shotgun pistols, on the marketplace. Though technically, illegal, these guns have slipped though the cracks of the old law, taking advantage of the broad definition to sort of hedge their way underneath. These are all 410 shotguns, and all are able to fire the old 45 Long Colt cartridge as well. The first cracks in the facade, were not shown by new types of firearms, but with new ammunition. They began to appear with the introduction of "Hot Shot" cartridges. These are standard pistol cartridges loaded with shot capsules, rather than lead slugs. These were (and in most places, still are) legal, since they were being fired from handguns which had rifled barrels, and were not over the half inch size, which would have made them fit the definition of destructive devices. They did not fall under any of the sections of the NFA, and were thus legal. Such a combination was not without problems, however.
There is a reason that shotguns are smooth bore weapons. When a charge of shot travels through a rifled bore, it is spun, just as a bullet would be. Exiting the barrel, this spinning charge of shot, quickly bounces in every direction, spreading very quickly and very randomly. The Thompson Contender was the first arm to address this problem. Thompson produced special Hot Shot barrels. These had special, screw in, cloverleaf chokes, which could straighten out spinning charges of shot. For use with standard rounds, the choke was removed. Having set things in motion, Thompson then took the next step. It is pretty commonly known, among reloaders, that the base dimensions of the 45 L.C. and of the 410 shot shell are the same. Except for the fact that they operate at higher pressures, it would seem that the 45 L.C should be able to chamber and fire in a 410 shotgun, though it's shorter length might cause a problem with feeding. Still, if the old Colt cartridge could chamber in a 410, why could not the 410 chamber in a suitably lengthened 45 L.C. arm? It would seem that a 45 L.C. handgun, with it's chamber lengthened to 2.5 or 3 inches should be able to fire a 410 shot-shell.
This would, of course, be the Thompson Contender with a .410 shotgun barrel. Though a gun so configured is illegal in the people's republic of california, it is perfectly legal in less foolishly run states. Though the gun would seem to fall under the short barreled shotgun designation of the NFA, there are a couple of reasons that it does not. Firstly, I would like to state that this configuration of these guns, though falling within the letter of the law, definitely violate the spirit of the law. These are pretty much the types of weapons that were meant to be restricted under these regulations, as can plainly be seen by the fates that befell the old Auto and Burglar, and the Handi Gun. I would also like to state that, frankly, I don't care, as the NFA clearly violates both the spirit and the letter of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. In a manner similar to that of the rapid fire trigger devices being sold at gun shows, the letter of the law is being observed, even as it's spirit is being violated. The Contender is legal because it is not derived from an original shotgun design, and thus can not be considered as a cut down version of any other type of weapon. It is also legal because the barrels that fire the .410 shotgun shells are also capable of firing .45 Long Colt cartridges. The barrel is rifled for these .45 cartridges, and so is not a smoothbore. The fact that these barrels are sold with shotgun chokes on the end does not change them according to the letter of the law. Because these are of less than .50 caliber, they can not be designated as a "Destructive Device" or "Other Weapon". The Contender manages to slip through the cracks quite nicely. I have included a photograph of my Contender with a 16", ribbed shotgun barrel. Shotgun barrels are available for this gun in several different styles, and in lengths from 10" to 16".
Thompson also sells magnum pistol barrels with removable external chokes. These can be handy for reloaders, or for those who buy "hot shot" loads. The hot shot is basically a plastic capsule full of bird shot, loaded into a pistol cartridge. They are made in calibers as small as the .22 L.R. These are most commonly though of as snake loads, though some hunting of extremely small game may be done with them. This lower photograph shows the Contender with a .357 barrel, and an external choke in place. The choke is fluted, and has a cloverleaf pattern of vanes and guides inside to tighten up the shot pattern. The BATF does not consider these to be shotguns because of their rifled barrels. Hot shot shells are available in magnum pistol cartridges, and also in .22 rounds. They are not commonly available for auto pistols because feeding and pressure problems make them unreliable in these types of actions. Though these rounds are not yet regulated or banned, I would not be surprised if legislation were proposed similar to that banning the erroneously labeled "cop killer bullets".
Taking development further, and pushing out the envelope of the law just a bit more, are the 410 revolvers now on the market. This started with the Thunder Five, and then the Magnum Research BFR. The Thunder Five is a big, odd, clumsy looking revolver, which looks like a combination of a flare gun, a Detective Special, and a cartoon gun. It would look right at home, next to Elmer Fudd's big ol' shotgun. Actually, it may be a great gun, and is the only double action revolver, of which I am, aware, that will fire 3" magnum shells. Still, the company needs to do something about the asthetics of the gun. The BFR, is a classic western style handgun, chambered in a number of different cartridges, including 45-70, and is a stretched, stainless steel single action, along the lines of the Freedom Arms guns. Both of these guns hold five rounds. Both are a bit rare, and both are of a somewhat one off design. Still, demand is such, that both guns are still in full production.
Development has now been taken a bit further with the introduction of a five shot production revolver, from Taurus, which is chambered for the 410 / 45 LC combination. This odd looking revolver will probably soon be outlawed in several states; but as long as it has a rifled barrel, (though that rifling is pretty shallow), it is not considered to be a shotgun, according to federal law. These are available in stainless or blue, and with six or four inch barrels. As with the Thompson, and the earlier Thunder Five, this is not considered to be AOW (Any other weapon), because it's bore size is under a half inch. It is not considered to be a short barreled shotgun, because the barrel is rifled, and the chamber will accept a standard pistol round. This is a great little shotgun. A more detailed description can be found on my page, dedicated to this gun. Unlike the Thompson, this is a repeater, and unlike the old Thunder Five, the Taurus is of rather conventional appearance. The gun is as well made as any of the other members of the Taurus revolver line.
Actually, the day of the 410 revolver may be coming to a close, even without legal interference. The 410 shotshell is 2.5" to 3" long, can hold about a half ounce of shot, and has a bore of 41. Compare this to the new S&W 500 Magnum. The new Smith can hold shells a half inch wide, by 2.25 inches long, and can operate at significantly higher pressures than any shotgun shell. A shot charge of an ounce or more could probably be held, and could be delivered at shotgun velocities or faster. Imagine a shot capsule designed for this gun. Energy and shot charge would probably fall somewhere between that of the 20 gauge, and that of the 12 gauge. Of course, nothing comes without a price. The Model 500 weighs four an a half pounds (five pounds, when loaded), and is fifteen inches long. Just by way of comparison, the Remington 870, small bore, in 410, weighs six pounds, and hold four rounds + 1.
Adding to the versatility of the shotgun are a number of special loads which take advantage of the size and volume of the shell. These include everything from rescue flares to beehive flechete loads. The flare loads can be very handy to boaters and sportsman who have become lost or have encountered some other type of misfortune. Bird bombs are used by farmers to clear crows, and other crop destroyers from trees and fields. These are essentially cut down versions of the flash/bang loads used by anti terrorist teams to disorient hostage takers. There are also steel penetrator loads, grapeshot loads (two halves of a slug attached to each other by a small length of chain), tracer rounds, and every other sort of oddity, and experiment. It seems as if anything that can be stuffed into a 12 gauge shell, has been. I avoid all of the exotic loads except for having a few 12 ga flares around for emergencies. Other than that, I consider most of these overpriced rounds to be for recreational, rather than serious or sporting use. I must admit that I find the bird bombs to be a fair amount of fun, as much as I belittle their use, though at several dollars a round, they are much less cost effective than bottle rockets, which do the same thing for about 20 cents each.
There are several non-lethal loads available, such as bean bags, rubber bullets, and plastic bullets. The problem with non-lethal loads is that they are sometimes not true to their name, and have been known to kill people. There is also the possibility that a shooter might be more likely to fire using a non-lethal load, when firing on another person might not otherwise be justified. This would tend to trivialize the use of firearms, which is a trend I can not say I approve of. I am a member of the old school which believes that you should only fire on another human if you are in dire straits. In such a situation, you must try to stop your opponent any way you can, and you must assume that in doing so you are going to cause death or serious injury. If you do not consider the situation serious enough to warrant killing another human being, then you should not fire. The use of so called non-lethal rounds diminishes the caution and respect with which all firearms should be handled. No firearm should be considered defensively as anything other than the last resort, to prevent eminent death or serious injury. Non-lethal ammo may turn a lethal weapon into an instrument of deterrence, warning, or chastisement, in the minds of some. Such a mindset invites disaster.