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"That is NOT your daddy's shotgun Private Pile!"
- Gunny Hartmann, Full Metal Jacket

Basic Information

A smooth bore firearm generally intended to fire loads of sub-calibre ammunition (the "shot").

The shotgun is generally regarded as a hunting weapon, and so may be available in places where repressive government prevents private ownership or some or all other weapons - although they may be quite strictly controlled themselves in this context.

Shotguns are ancient (by firearms standards) weapons, and the blunderbuss is very much part of the family, although to begin with there was little separating a shotgun and a musket or hand cannon, except the idea that the shotgun was mean to fire multiple round loads. The most direct ancestor of the military shotgun may be the musketoon - a short barrelled, carbine style musket often used with multiple round loads. Shotguns are generally long arms, although pistols chambered for shotgun ammunition also exist - the leMat revolver and many species of howdah pistol generally being examples1.

Shotguns have been made in most lock types, and indeed it is said to be a shotgun user who developed the percussion cap - spurred on by the tendency of the birds he was stalking to bolt at the flash of the priming firing in his flintlock gun.

They are also built in several actions, although the most popular at present seem to be single action break open and pump action. Single action shotguns are very often multi-barrelled: two is normal, but three or four is not unheard of, and some German designs mix shotgun and rifle barrels to create multi-purpose weapon called drillings - and "combination guns" of various kinds pop up in all sorts of other places as well. Semi- and fully automatic shotguns have also been built, but they tend to be unpopular and possess a reputation for poor reliability because the large, soft, blunt ended cartridges are hard for a mechanical action to handle and tend to generate too low a velocity of exhaust gas to drive an action well. Successful designs often include a revolver feed (like the Pancor Jackhammer) or a pump action auxiliary feed (like the Neostead and the SPAS-12 and SPAS-15).

Shotguns are generally sorted by their bore ("gauge" in the US) - an archaic measure of their muzzle diameter. The most common is 12-bore (18.5mm) which accounts for perhaps half of the shotguns in circulation with 20-bore (15.6mm) and 10-bore (19.7mm) for those wanting a lighter or heavier gun respectively, but plenty of other sizes can be had. In general, the larger the bore number, the smaller the weapon, although the smallest are usually marked up in actual calibres instead (.410 and .420 are common low end shotguns in the UK).

Shotgun ammunition, as previously mentioned, is based around multiple shot loads: 00-buck, a common load for combat or large game consists of 7-9 rounds of approximately .32 ball depending on bore, manufacturer etc., whereas a birdshot load could potentially contain nearly three hundred 2mm pellets. Shot is generally packed into a cylindrical cartridge of plastic or cardboard with a metal base to contain the percussion cap and a few pieces of wadding to hold the propellant and pellets in place until they are fired. The other common form of shotgun ammunition is the slug - a single full calibre (or occasionally sub calibre and sabotted) round. Many slugs are fitted with a driving band that simulates the effect of rifling in spin stabilising the shot … attempts to create fin-stabilised rounds have generally been indifferently successful. Slugs may be packed like a shot cartridge or may look more like a conventional round. Whilst slugs and large calibre buckshot are preferred for combat shooting, birdshot is also sometimes used on human targets as a less lethal round since it's limited penetrating power tends to cause only superficial injuries beyond point blank range, and whilst these can be painful and debilitating they are rarely fatal.

However, slugs and shot are not all there is - the wide, smooth bore of shotguns and their simple actions lend themselves to all sorts of loads no sane person would try in a rifled weapon: these have been known to include flares, less-lethal beanbags or rubber baton rounds, gas grenades and thermite (the infamous "dragon's breath shell"). Another popular load is rock salt - a less-lethal round for dispersing rioters or driving off trespassers without killing them. Shotguns have also been used with blank shells to fire line bearing munitions or rifle grenades.

Not all rounds are made for all shotguns - the length of the breech varies from model to model (generally between 2.5" to 3") and specialized rounds are usually only commercially available in 12-bore (and occasionally 10-bore) since that's what most users have.

The various kinds of shell are normally colour coded for convenience, but the codes used vary from country to country, as can the often cryptic text markings.

Also, bear in mind that just because it can be fired from a shotgun that doesn't mean that you can wander into your local gunsmiths and pick up a box of it - some loads may be illegal, some purely theoretical or only made in prototype quantities and not commercially available. Luckily, shotgun shells are also pretty entry level when it comes to hand loading.

The low capacity and short range of shotguns limits their military potential, although they were popular towards the end of WW1 for trench clearing and are occasionally revived for jungle or urban warfare. Naval units are more likely than most to issue them as naval small arms combat can occur at very close range indeed in environments where stray rounds are not welcome.
Some militaries have also procured shotguns which mount under the barrel of a rifle - e.g.. the M26 MASS - but these are not yet widespread.

Police and provost units often like shotguns for their intimidating appearance, versatility, ease of maintenance and cheapness - as well as being easy to use for operators who might not have stellar levels of skill at arms. Shotguns, often loaded with frangible rounds are also popular amongst forced entry teams for blowing out door locks and other security devices - this is a role in which the underslung shotgun has real potential, allowing the breacher to double as a rifleman once the door has been opened.

They are also popular amongst civilians for many of the same reasons - that and it may be the only weapon they are permitted.

Shotguns are often "sawn-off" - usually by criminals. Contrary to popular perception, sawing off the barrel doesn't improve the spread of shot - the grouping is much the same, but the muzzle velocity, accuracy and range of the shot are greatly reduced and the lighter weapon usually recoils harder. Sawing off the stock makes the weapon less bulky and easier to conceal, but much harder to control. Any kind of modification to reduce bulk on a civilian shotgun will generally reduce its legality in any jurisdiction that worries about such things. Non-civilian models are often designed with folding stocks and come in a variety of purpose built short barrel models. The aforementioned shot-shell firing pistols tend to circumvent such restrictions by being primarily classified as pistols - which may include having (largely ceremonial) rifling cut into the barrel, calibre restrictions and/or being capable of firing a recognised solid round.

At one stage, there was even a folding shotgun, designed by a chap named Burgess, which - as the name implies - could be doubled up just behind the chamber, stowed in a satchel like belt holster and then be drawn and firing six pump action rounds within seconds. Sadly it died of lack of interest by the manufacturer and is no longer in production.

Bizarrely, it is possible to fit a suppressor to a shotgun … it's just not all that impressive in action.


Tales of the Gun: The Shotgun … if you can tolerate the repetitive narrative style.

See Also

Man builds shotgun out of stuff he bought at an airport terminal
The Burgess Gun
Taurus' Shotshell Revolver

1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • A shotgun is the obvious vehicle for your home-made silver rounds, and is less likely to choke on them than most weapons. Shot shells are also really easy to hand load.
    • In general, monster hunters with a range of different things to shoot will probably default to the shotgun due to its massive range of (potential) ammunition.
  • They've been around a long time - and may well continue - that bit about their naval role could apply as easily to a space navy as a wet one.
  • Giant slugs? I just happen to have these rock-salt shells…
  • A shotgun may be the only weapon your PCs can find - in many rural communities they'll be quite common due to their widespread use for pot hunting and vermin control (sometimes the same thing).
  • Indeed, adventuring PCs might well pack a sporting shotgun not as a weapon, but as a useful adjunct to their wilderness survival skills and a means of avoiding living off tinned meat and jerky.
    • The real fun comes when the PCs are in combat and find that they're down to birdshot rounds only…
  • Although fairly fringe as a military weapon, shotguns would likely become a lot more useful if there was a serious problem with small, fast moving targets such as giant rats, giant insects and similar nasties, let alone anything that might fly like a (cinematic) vampire bat.
  • The shot-shell revolver can be quite an impressive weapon - if very short ranged. Quite possibly idea for home defence or car-jacking prevention.
  • The Burgess gun would be a cool cameo for a late period Western game, or maybe even into the pulp era. Replicas or descendants would still be pretty cool in the modern era or twenty minutes into the future.
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