A Brief History of the Evolution of the Shotgun

DunnBy Robert Dunn 
AGI and GunTech Video Producer, 
AGI Pro Course Graduate, GCA Charter Member

The shotgun can be defined just as the word implies; a gun that fires shot. Shot is defined as spherical balls, varying in size, which are used as ammunition. The history of the shotgun goes back as far as that of the firearm itself. Early firearms have many traits in common with the modern shotgun and there is a sort of gray area as to what could be considered a shotgun until the features of a rifle became more individualized. The predecessors of the shotgun, such as the arquebus, blunderbuss and even the musket could be considered a shotgun of sorts, as they could all launched both single and multiple projectiles at once when the weapon was fired. These firearms all had smooth bores and were shoulder fired, just as a shotgun.

The blunderbuss really is the shotgun’s older brother. The blunderbuss could be loaded with all types of nasty things like glass, rocks and other angry projectiles that would spread out when fired and cause a lot of damage at close range during battles on sailing ships as well as land engagements. During times of war, “buck and ball” loading was used to great effect by charging a musket with both a ball and buck shot to be fired at the same time, creating devastating and usually fatal injuries.

As the evolution of firearms continued, the shotgun’s features and uses became more clearly defined. A firearm that had a larger bore diameter and could be loaded with several projectiles had a much better chance of bringing down various species of fowl (birds), thus these guns were called fowling pieces. Guns that used smaller bores, fired only a single projectile per shot, and contained rifling in their barrels became known as rifles. The term shotgun started to be used sometime in the 1770s. Firearms during this time period were muzzle loading flintlocks.

An example of a flintlock blunderbuss on display at the California Military Museum.

We must look to England to learn how the shotgun became a refined sporting and hunting tool. In London, Joseph Manton (1766-1835) designed a muzzle loading double barreled side-by-side shotgun with external hammers. His shotguns were works of art and were sought after by the nobility and society’s elite. Manton became well known and praised for his detailed engraving, fine Damascus barrels, and precision gunmaking.

As an example of how excellence breeds excellence, some of Manton’s employees were William Greener (www.wwgreener.com), James Purdey (www.purdey.com), Charles Lancaster, William Moore, and Thomas Boss (www.bossguns.com). All these gentlemen became famous gunmakers in their own right. As a matter of fact, some of these gunsmiths’ companies, including Charles Manton, are to this day producing remarkable shotguns of the finest quality. If you want to be inspired and see some of the most beautiful and amazing examples of double guns, visit these gunmakers’ websites!

Chiappa Firearms three barreled Triple Threat 12 gauge shotgun.

After the percussion cap ignition system was invented by Scotsman Alexander John Forsyth in 1807, advancements in shotgun design followed. British shotgun makers continued to excel in their craftsmanship during the 19th century. Gunmakers such as Westley Richards & Co, Holland & Holland, E J Churchill and John Rigby & Co produced exquisite examples of double barreled shotguns during this time period.

Developments such as breech loading firearms and self-contained cartridges in the mid 1800s were the next steps in the evolution of the shotgun. Exhibition and sport shooting became popular and also helped to increase the sales and usage of the shotgun. Many types of shotguns varying in price were available for purchase.

A Confederate muzzle loading shotgun used during the Civil War on display at the NRA Show. This English Moore double barrel muzzle loading percussion shotgun is representative of the many shotguns used by the Confederate infantry and calvary units. It has an old paper tag on the stock that reads: “This gun was found on the battlefield at Shiloh.”

During the American Civil War, the shotgun was popular among the cavalries of both the North and the South. Civilian shotguns were often used by the South. The Confederates, not having as many armories or the funds to purchase stockpiles of small arms as the Union did, used their shotguns far more than the North. Many of these shotguns came from home and were even family heirlooms. The Southern soldiers grew up hunting with these shotguns and were really good at using them. Some of these shotguns were single barrel, but most were double barreled. The shotgun was not the best at long distances, but they were unbeatable for skirmishing and close quarter battle. The shotgun proved to be a very versatile weapon as one barrel could be loaded with buck shot and the other loaded with one large projectile for 100 yard shots simulating the effectiveness of a smoothbore musket. The spread of the shot could be widened by shortening the barrel, which was popular amongst cavalrymen.

A major jump in shotgun technology occurred in 1875 when William Anson & John Deeley, while working for Westley Richards, developed the simplified boxlock hammerless action, as opposed to the side lock system. Their break-open boxlock action used self-cocking concealed hammers. The Anson & Deeley boxlock had fewer parts, was easier to manufacture than the sidelocks, could be sold at a cheaper price, and thus slowly gained popularity with sportsmen and hunters alike.

When Americans began fur trapping and migrating to the West during the years of the mountain man, the shotgun was an extremely useful tool. Like today, the shotgun can be used for hunting birds, small game, and even larger game like deer or bear. The shotgun could also be used for protection/self-defense.

The double barreled “coach shotguns” protected the stage coaches, their passengers, and cargo during the days of the Wild West. Have you ever heard the phrase “riding shotgun?” Well, that comes from the Wells Fargo and stage coach practice of having a shotgun armed guard sitting next to the driver on the box to provide protection from Indian and bandit attacks along their routes.

Shotguns were also popular with the gold miners in the California and Oregon territories during the Gold Rush. A quality shotgun could be purchased cheaper than a crummy rifle, so, understandably, many folks chose to own a reliable shotgun rather than a rifle that might not work and cost them their lives. Though many people refer to the Colt single action army revolvers and lever action rifles as the guns that won the West, shotguns are more likely the type of firearm that actually won the West.

Some of the John Browning designed Winchester Shotguns to be seen at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.

The first repeating lever action shotgun to be a success was the Winchester Model 1887 designed by John M. Browning. The lever action Winchester Model 1901, also designed by Browning was much improved. The first pump-action shotgun, the Model 1890 was developed and patented in 1882 by Christopher Spencer and Sylvester Roper, though the patent for the pump-action shotgun was filed in 1854 by Alexander Bain of Britain.

John Browning designed the Winchester Model 1893, which was a much more refined pump-action shotgun and fired black powder cartridges. Winchester then came out with the Model 1897 (Model 97), which had a much stronger action and could handle the new smokeless powder cartridges. Winchester introduced the Model 1912 (Model 12) pump action shotgun which used an internal hammer and was designed by T.C. (Thomas Crossley) Johnson. It was based on Browning’s earlier designs. The Model 12 is still a much used shotgun today!

“Hardware store shotguns” were affordable firearms purchased by farmers, ranchers, homesteaders, and city folks in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Companies like Hartford Arms, Crescent Firearms, H&D Folsom, and Hopkins & Allen made these utilitarian shotguns, which they stamped with the names of choice by the various hardware firms and stores who ordered them in sufficient quantity. Many of these guns were purchased and today you can find them for a fairly cheap price. Until recently Sears, Montgomery Ward, JC Penney, Western Auto, and others all had their own brand names on firearms produced by the major manufacturers.

During World War I (1914-1918), the shotgun was extremely effective in the nasty, close quarter trench warfare that occurred in that conflict. Pump activated 12 gauge shotguns were a fast and reliable way to dispatch a great number of enemies. The Winchester Model 97 pump action shotgun, with its 20” barrel and “slamfire” feature, was so devastating to the Germans they considered it inhumane. This coming from the users of poison gas and such!

The Browning Auto 5 and Remington Model 11, basically the same John Browning designed shotgun, was also used as an effective trench gun during the Great War. Other shotgun heroes during WWI were the Remington Model 10 (M10), Stevens Model 520 (M520) and the Winchester Model 1912 (Model 12) scattergun. The shotgun would continue to play an important role in every American war that followed.

In between World War One and Two, John Browning continued to work on his Superposed shotgun design, which he had been improving since the 1880s. The Superposed shotgun used a single selective trigger, an inertia block mechanism, and an over and under barrel design, thus the barrels were superposed.

A John M. Browning designed Superposed shotgun.

John died in 1926, before the Superposed was manufactured, but his son Val finished the design. Manufacturing began in 1931 and was stopped in 1940 because of WWII. The Superposed started production again in 1948 and it went through some design changes in 1960. The Superposed was taken out of the Browning catalog in 1975. The Superposed can still be purchased from the Browning Custom Shop, but you better save your money and get on the waiting list! The fit and finish as well as the reliability and durability of the Superposed are legendary.

During WWII (1939-1945), the shotgun was still a much used weapon for close quarter battle. John Browning’s semi-automatic long recoil A5 made by Fabrique Nationale (FN), Remington Model 11, and Savage M720 shotguns were all used. Many different pump-action shotgun models were used, such as the Ithaca Model 37, the Stevens M520 and M620, Remington Model 10, Winchester Model 97 and Model 12. Many of these same shotguns were also used in the Korean War (1950-1953) and then again in the Viet Nam War (1955-1975).

By the time the Viet Nam War began, other shotgun models and designs had come along. The popular Remington Model 870 pump-action, which came out in 1950, was now being used by the Navy, the Marines, and the SEAL teams. The Stevens M77E and Winchester Model 1200 were also used during the fighting in Southeast Asia. Many of these 12 gauge shotguns came equipped with bayonets and were effective and intimidating weapons.

Shotguns continue to be valued weapons for warfighting in the 21st century. The Remington 870, the Mossberg 500 and 590, and the Benelli M series of shotguns are used to great effect in “the sandbox” of the Middle East.

Today, the shotgun has even more uses than it did 100 years ago. The shotgun is a relevant tool for civilians, law enforcement, and the military. The wide selection of types and models of shotguns can be overwhelming. You just have to decide for what you will be using the shotgun to narrow your choices and select the right shotgun for your purposes.

Once again the varied capabilities of shotguns are beneficial. Civilians use the shotgun for sporting, hunting, and home defense/self-protection purposes. Law enforcement uses the shotgun for door breeching, crowd/riot control, and as a nonlethal weapon when firing bean bags or rubber bullets. The military uses the shotgun for door breeching, close quarter battle, and the delivery of finned incendiary devices with a big bang!

Some other honorable mentions of modern shotgun designs should include; the fully automatic AA-12 (Atchisson Assault shotgun), the rotating cylinder Armsel Striker, the magazine fed Saiga-12, the Kel-Tec KSG. and Standard Manufacturing’s DP-12 double barrel pump shotgun.

I personally love all types of firearms, but I have to say shotguns are among my favorites. I was thrilled to death when I produced the Pivot Barrel Shotgun Course with Master Gunsmith Bob Dunlap for the American Gunsmithing Institute. I learned so much more about shotguns than I knew before and I have an even greater appreciation for their brilliant designs.

I have a small collection of long recoil shotguns, including Browning A5s, Remington Model 11s, and a Savage Model 755A. I love the look of both side by side and over and under shotguns and that is what I picture in my head when I hear the word gun. I am still hopeful one day I will own a Browning Superposed, but I am quite happy with my Browning Citori and my Dad’s B.C. Miroku/Charles Daly Model 700.

A fine example of one of Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company’s magnificent shotguns.

If there is one gun I would buy if I had a surfeit of cash, it would be a highly engraved over and under double gun with gold inlay made by the Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company. These shotguns can cost around $275,000 and they are a sight to be seen! Other mind-blowing shotguns, like a nice Italian Perazzi or the previously mentioned “Best” English doubles are also on my “opulent firearms fantasy list.” I am looking forward to the future and seeing some more innovative shotgun designs. Whether it is cryogenically treating barrels, a new type of action, or some type of glass filled polymer to make stocks out of, the shotgun continues to evolve!


One Response to A Brief History of the Evolution of the Shotgun

  1. I never really thought about shotguns as a complex firearm, until I took the level 1 course. It is really a treat to see a well crafted double gun.