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History of Combat Shotguns: Military Shotguns Through the Ages

The military use of shotguns has always fascinated me. I love shotguns, like an absolute ton.

I shoot clays with a shotgun, I hunt with a shotgun, and I trust a shotgun for home defense. As a Marine, I was even issued a Mossberg due to my skill and experience with these firearms.

Benelli M4

The combat shotgun has always been a part of America’s arsenal, and today we are going to look at a brief history of the combat shotgun.

Sure, the rifle rules, but throughout history, Americans have embraced the shotgun more than any other country. So if the article seems American-centric, it’s because that’s where a lot of the history is.

Table of Contents


The Very Beginning

Firearms that fire a load of shot have been around since the earliest guns, but the most notable dedicated shotgun came in the form of the blunderbuss.

A flintlock blunderbuss, circa approximately 1780. (Photo: Catawiki)

The blunderbuss was a smoothbore muzzleloading firearm with a massive bore. With it, the user could shove a variety of different-sized shot into these weapons or just about whatever they wanted.

Blunderbusses came in both long and short sizes, with the ‘handgun’ form being called the dragon, which later evolved into the dragoon.

A percussion blunderbuss in a shorter handgun-sized format. (Photo: River Junction)

These guns came from the Dutch, and the word blunderbuss comes from the Dutch word donberbus, which combines thunder (donder) with pipe (bus).

Thunderpipe is what I will be calling all of my shotguns from now on.

Like shotguns, these guns had a large bore and limited range. They were adopted by several military forces and used extensively by police and military forces. British mailmen carried a blunderbuss and a pair of pistols, Portuguese Marines carried them, and they were common with pirates, sailors, and even cavalrymen.

A naval blunderbuss shown with a swivel to mount to a ship. (Photo: Bolk Antiques)

They offered quick and decisive close-range firepower.

Perfect for boarding ships and fending off highwaymen. Imagine riding a horse and trying to hit an enemy trying to kill you. Would a single ball be easier, or a mass of them be fired with a significant spread?

The American Revolution

The blunderbuss was never superbly popular with Americans.

Pilgrims being armed with the blunderbuss at Plymouth rock seems to be more fiction than fact. Coming into the American Revolution, the Americans were armed with more traditional muskets.

A reproduction buck and ball cartridge. (Photo: Cap and Ball)

These smoothbore long arms were not known for their accuracy. Colonial American soldiers recognized this and began using a special load called “buck and ball.” Soldiers would pack a normal musket ball but would also add a small load of buckshot pellets.

These buckshot pellets, followed by the musket round, improved the chance of scoring a hit on enemy soldiers.

(Artwork: “The Battle of New Orleans”. Artist: Herbert Morton Stoops. Catalog Number: P.6.1.84.)

In the Battle Of New Orleans, the buck and ball proved its merit. 5,700 Americans faced 8,000 British and routed them. The Americans suffered 62 casualties, and the British suffered 2,034.

Into the Civil War

The American Civil War saw the rapid rise of small arms technology, including metallic cartridges. But at the beginning of the war, the famed buck and ball loads were still being heavily used.

The South, in particular, utilized shotguns extensively, especially with their cavalry forces.

A muzzleloading percussion side-by-side shotgun from the Civil War era. (Photo: Horse Soldier)

Shotguns at the time were muzzleloading designs and often featured shorter barrels to make them lighter and easier to handle, especially on horseback.

The Confederates also lacked the production capacity of the North, and this forced them to utilize common hunting implements in war.

During the Civil War, metallic cartridges, including brass-cased shotgun shells and repeating rifles, came to be. Like every other firearm, the brass-cased shells improved reliability and reloading speed.

Civil War-era brass shotgun shells. (Photo: Worthpoint)

However, the closest shotguns got to being repeaters at the time were double-barrel guns, also known as coach guns. These shorter barrel shotguns were known for being quite powerful and effective for quick engagements.

In the 1870s, paper shells were introduced.

These water-resistant paper shells lowered the price of shotgun shells significantly and were easier to manufacture than brass shells. However, they could not be easily reloaded.

Paper shells were a common sight for over 100 years.

Paper shells became the standard for decades. In fact, they lasted into the 1960s until plastic hulls made an appearance.

The Adoption of Repeating Shotguns

In the late 1800s, John Moses Browning decided shotguns needed an overhaul. Like most things he attempted, he succeeded.

Browning wanted a slide action shotgun, but Winchester was a lever gun company and wanted a lever action.

The 1887 was one of many great designs from the famed John Moses Browning. (Photo: Guns Magazine)

To appease them, he produced the Winchester 1887, a lever-action, repeating shotgun.

It was the first successful repeating shotgun. It contained 5+1 rounds of 12-gauge, making it quite the beast at the time.

The Rise of the Pump-Action

Winchester finally relented and let Browning build the Model 1893 slide-action shotgun, which we call a pump-action these days.

The 1887 was a big clumsy gun that was needlessly complicated, and 1893 showed that the slide action was the superior choice.

The 1897 was a far more efficient and effective design than the 1887 lever-action. (Photo: Gun Digest)

The 1893 worked, but improvements in 1897 made the weapon more durable, ergonomic and could use both 2 3/4 and 2 5/8 inch loads.

As most gun nerds know, the M1897 became a legend among combat shotguns. While it’s most known for its World War 1 appearance, the gun gained fame well before that.

Quelling a Rebellion

In 1913 the Moro Rebellion kicked off in the Phillippines, and the American forces were fighting an extremely dedicated enemy in the Moro warriors.

This war is often cited as the reason why the Army ditched the .38 for the .45 Colt and .45 ACP.

US soldiers fighting against Moro Rebels. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

At the battle of Bud Bagsak, the Moro warriors were attacked by Americans led by General John Pershing. The Moros, known as Berserkers, were not afraid to rush the American forces.

Pershing once wrote to his wife, “The fighting was the fiercest I have ever seen. They are absolutely fearless, and once committed to combat they count death as a mere incident.”

Americans carried M1897s into this fight. There weren’t the famed trench guns, but merely 1897s with 28-inch barrels. In this fight, the M1897s proved to be absolute man-stoppers.

The charging Moro warriors weren’t always successfully stopped by the .30-06 Springfield or handgun rounds. Reportedly the M1897 stopped them quickly, and with the buckshot and chokes at the time, the spread was likely wide and made hitting moving targets easier than rifles or handguns.

Brigadier General John J. Pershing leads his soldiers into Mexico in pursuit of Panch Villa. (Photo: Military Times)

Noting its effectiveness, Pershing later had some of his soldiers carry the gun into Mexico when chasing Pancho Villa.

World War I

General Pershing was made the Commander of the American Expeditionary Force as the United States entered World War I.

The trench warfare fought here is where the combat shotgun became a star.

U.S. Army Air Servicemen recreationally shooting the Model 1897 in Issoudon, France, June 1918. (Photo: American Rifleman)

Americans were the only military force to bring shotguns to war, and that force was commanded by a man who knew their value.

The rifles at the time were typically big bolt actions, chambered in powerful calibers—not great weapons for close-quarters combat.

In addition to the soldiers’ melee weapons, they had the M1897 in its trench gun configuration. This weapon wore a perforated steel heat shield and bayonet lug to accommodate the M1917 Sword bayonet.

1897 trench shotgun Rock Island Armory
1897 trench shotgun with bayonet and heat shield. (Photo: Rock Island Armory)

At close range, six rounds of 00 buck wreaked havoc against enemy forces armed with cumbersome bolt actions. The M1897 lacked a disconnector so troops could hold down the trigger and actuate the pump to slamfire the gun rapidly.

It was a fearsome weapon but was hampered by paper cartridges. Trench warfare was brutal, dirty, and often wet. These conditions would cause shotgun shells to swell, break, and fail. 

Potential Warcrimes

Despite this, the shotgun was effective enough to warrant the famed protest issued by the German Government.

Trench warfare was an ugly affair, but the limited combat space helped display the shotgun’s full potential. (Photo:

“The German Government protests against the use of shotguns by the American Army and calls attention to the fact that according to the law of war, every U.S. prisoner of war found to have in his possession such guns or ammunition belonging thereto forfeits his life. This protest is based upon article 23(e) of the Hague Convention respecting the laws and customs of war on land. Reply by cable is required before October 1, 1918.”

The Americans replied

“The Government of the United States notes the threat of the German Government to execute every prisoner of war found to have in his possession shotguns or shotgun ammunition. Inasmuch as the weapon is lawful and maybe rightfully used, its use will not be abandoned by the American Army. If the German Government should carry out its threat in a single instance, it will be the right and duty of the United States to make such reprisals as will best protect the American forces, and notice is hereby given of the intention of the United States to make such reprisals.”

A Winchester Model 1912, commonly referred to as the Model 12. (Photo: Gunmag Warehouse)

The M1897 wasn’t the only trench gun in combat.

The second most popular was the Winchester M1912, an internal hammer pump-action shotgun that also featured a heat shield, a bayonet., and had slamfire capabilities.

Remington also provided the Model 10-A, of which 3,500 were ordered for World War 1. This gun used a bottom ejecting design that would likely allow less debris to enter the gun than other shotguns.

It had a bayonet lug and a wood handguard because Winchester patented the steel heat shield.

World War II

By the time World War II came around, the shotgun was no longer an American secret.

Multiple countries had adopted shotguns by the time the Nazis came knocking, including the U.K., Brazil, India, Denmark, France, and of course, the United States.

A Marine dog handler with an 1897 shotgun. (Photo: World War Photos)

Predictably the two most popular shotguns of World War II were the Winchester M1897 and M1912. The M1912 was the standard-issue shotgun of the U.S. Army.

World War II saw the advent and adoption of semi-auto combat shotguns, like the Browning A5 and Remington 1911 (an A5 clone). These were relatively uncommon but available.

Pump-action shotguns like the Remington M1931, the Stevens M520-30, and even the Ithaca 37 helped supplement a shotgun shortage as America went once more into the breach of World War.

Slow-motion footage of a Browning A5 semi-automatic shotgun firing. Note how the entire barrel recoils.

While they were all different guns, they had a lot in common. They were shortened variants of sporting guns, utilized the 12-gauge round, and were all pump-action shotguns.

The pump shotgun still reigned supreme, especially among Marines in the pacific.

Marines did not have the M1 Garand and Thompsons and instead were armed with the sub-optimal Reising submachine guns and Springfield bolt action rifles.

A 7th Marine armed with a shotgun after landing on BLUE Beach 2 on Okinawa. (Photo: USMC / ww2db)

Jungles were often crowded with little visibility, and Marines could quickly find themselves in a close-range fight. Shotguns offered the dispersal of lots of lead relatively fast in an ambush situation

Vietnam Shotguns – The Fortunate Son

Vietnam was a long conflict, and in the beginning, it wasn’t uncommon to see Marines and Soldiers wielding the same guns their fathers and grandfathers used in World War I and II.

The Ithaca 37 was a well-received shotgun that also served police departments well through the 1990s. (Photo: American Rifleman)

Shotguns used in Vietnam included the M1897, Model 1912, Ithaca 37, Remington Model 10, Model 31, and the Stevens Model 77E.

The Stevens Model 77Es is the forgotten combat shotgun of the United States. With over 77,000 sent to Vietnam, it was the most used shotgun in Vietnam.

The 77E was a pump-action shotgun designed to be shorter and handier to accommodate the smaller South Vietnamese soldiers.

A soldier in Vietnam wielding a Stevens 77-F shotgun in the jungle.

The Ithaca 37 proved popular due to its bottom loading and ejecting port. No side port meant less junk got into the action, which helped keep the gun reliable.

The newly formed SEALs experimented with several different ideas for combat shotguns, like the Remington Model 7188 — a select-fire 12-gauge shotgun that could fire in fully automatic mode. It was insanely destructive but unreliable, so it didn’t last long.

Another SEAL idea was the duckbill choke which would spread the shot horizontally. The idea was to increase a shotgun’s hit potential when fired at chest height. However, the chance of hitting two bad guys required a specific set of very unlikely circumstances.

Duckbill chokes are easily identified by their distinctive horizontal V-shape.

It’s also worth mentioning that Vietnam was the first time the Remington 870 saw action. The 870 utilized dual action bars that greatly improved the durability and reliability of the gun.

The Remington 870 would go on to be one of the most successful pump-action shotguns of all time and has continually seen service since.


at Kygunco

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Like the pacific campaign, the jungles of Vietnam had terrain that allowed the shotgun to shine.

In the tight jungles and urban settings, the shotgun worked well. However, as the M16 saw adoption, the shotgun began to fall out of favor.

M16 Being Used in the Vietnam War
The rise of lighter, handier infantry rifles, like the M16, marked the decline of the shotgun as a combat weapon.

The Global War on Terror

Shotguns were always niche weapons, but as rifles got shorter, lighter, and easier to use, the shotgun’s role shrunk even more.

In the Global War on Terror, shotguns were relatively rare but still saw service and combat across the GWOT.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Steven L. Phillips with a Mossberg shotgun near Camp Al Qa’im, Iraq, Nov. 15, 2005. (Photo: USMC)

The most common shotgun in the GWOT was the Mossberg 500 series — specifically the Mossberg 500 MILS and the 590A1. These shotguns descended from the Remington Model 31 and brought a high level of durability and simplicity to the field.

The Mossberg shotguns famously passed the U.S. Army’s Mil-Spec 3443E test, which involved drops, falls, and 3,000 rounds of buckshot.

Best Pump Shotgun


at GrabAGun

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

The 590A1 model features a thick-walled barrel, a bayonet lug, a metal trigger group, and an extendable magazine tube. This thing is an absolute tank of a fighting weapon.

On top of the Mossberg 500, the Remington 870 continued to see action. The 870 Modular Combat System, or 870 MCS, provided a modular shotgun that users could easily modify to suit specific tasks.

A photo of the Remington 870 MCS showing the full modular kit. (Photo: Gunrunnerhell)

It could be a standard fighting shotgun with a fixed stock and an 18-inch barrel, or you could toss on a shorter 14-inch barrel with a collapsing stock for CQB.

Need to breach a door? Simply swap to the 10-inch barreled pistol grip-only configuration.

Beyond Pump Actions

In 1999 the Marine Corps led the journey to find the newest fighting shotgun for the military forces. This concluded with the adoption of the gas-operated, semi-automatic Benelli M4.

Benelli M4
The Benelli M4 was the only semi-automatic shotgun to pass the rigorous Marine Corps testing process.

The M4, under the military designation M1014, packed seven rounds of 12-gauge and allowed users to rapidly engage multiple targets.

There is no dispute that the M1014 is the current king of military combat shotguns. The M1014 saw heavy use in Iraq, proving reliable in the worst conditions.

In the streets of Fallujah, it was tough to find a better weapon for the close, urban fighting experienced there.

Additionally, the U.S. Army developed the M26 MASS shotguns. These were designed to work as both under-barrel shotguns mounted to an M4 and as standalone weapons.

They are magazine-fed shotguns that use a straight-pull bolt.

They are better suited for breaching than combat due to the straight-pull design. It’s a bit slower than a pump-action and a helluva lot slower than the M1014. Still, the M26-MASS was a limited-issue item that saw some use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An M26 MASS mounted under-barrel on an M4 carbine. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Leading up to and during the GWOT, shotguns became seen more as breaching tools rather than combat weapons.

Although shotguns are effective in both roles, modern rifles have eaten away at the shotgun’s role as a go-to combat weapon.

Final Thoughts

Combat shotguns are niche weapons and always have been. They’ve never been the king or queen of combat weapons, but they remain devastating in close quarters and can peel doors off of hinges when necessary.

Mossberg Retrograde 590A1 Shooting

It’s tough to beat the up-close firepower a shotgun offers, and while their niche might remain small, shotguns are still fascinating and useful weapons.

I tried to cover the most prevalent of each time period, but I know I’ve missed some. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below! Don’t forget to check out our hands-on article on the 9 Best Home-Defense Tactical Shotguns!

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