You might be surprised to learn modern, powerful shotguns have a long and colorful history. Today’s shotguns’ ancestors originated in16th-century Europe. They were smoothbore firearms known as “fowling pieces” with 4.5 to 6-foot barrels, and were used primarily to hunt birds (hence the term “fowling”). Those firearms became known casually as “scatterguns” because they were loaded with multiple projectiles, or “shot” that scattered when the shotgun was fired.
Origins of the Shotgun
The Modern “Shotgun:” When Was It Made?
Until around 1776, the term “shotgun” wasn’t widely used. The first documented use of the term was when James Fenimore Cooper mentioned a shotgun in Frontier Language of the West.
Before this time, shoulder-held firearms of this sort were known as muskets, and there were both smoothbore and rifled varieties. The British military used smoothbore fowling guns and combined buckshot with musket balls to cause maximum damage and improve the potential for hitting enemy combatants.
Shotguns During the 1800s
Shotguns were used primarily for hunting during the 1800s. However, they also played a significant role in defense and law enforcement during the century.
During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate armies’ cavalries used shotguns in a limited capacity. Shotguns were the preferred choice of some mounted troops because of their close-range power and effectiveness for hitting moving targets. Military groups like citizen militias also frequently used shotguns, because those were the firearms they had.
Shotguns became popular among lawmen and guards throughout the frontier, making it a symbol of the American “Wild West.” The development of the shotgun cartridge, or “shell,” in the 1860s allowed for rapid development of better shotgun designs. Shorter-barreled shotguns became common among strongbox and stagecoach guards to protect passengers and cargo. The ease of use and effectiveness of double-barrel, break-action shotguns led to widespread popularity.
In 1887, John Moses Browning invented a shotgun design that changed the shotgun’s history forever. Browning developed his Model 1887 Lever-Action Repeating Shotgun and sold his design to the Winchester Repeating Arms company. This firearm used an action-lever that loaded a fresh cartridge from an internal magazine. (This shotgun found iconic status when it was featured prominently in Terminator 2.)
Later, Browning designed the first successful pump-action shotgun and the first semi-automatic shotgun, the Auto-5. Both of these John Browning inventions and their descendants are still widely used today.
Shotguns During the 1900s
Shotguns were used throughout the multiple wars of the 1900s. During World War I, the short-barreled “trench gun,” sometimes called a “trench broom,” was used for close-quarters fighting. In World War II, pump-action shotguns were the weapon of choice for many U.S. Marines. U.S. Navy SEALs used shotguns because of their effectiveness when shooting at close range. Some SEALs used guns with “duckbill” chokes that were modified to shoot buckshot in a wider horizontal pattern during the Vietnam War.
Shotguns: Still Popular after All These Years
Shotguns are still widely used as hunting, defense, sporting, and military firearms. They are indeed one of the most versatile and effective firearms types. Today’s shotguns have a long history of innovation that makes them highly adaptable to a wide range of hunting, sporting, and tactical applications.
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