The origins of today’s combat shotgun can be traced to the time that the earliest settlers reached America. This article examines this weapon’s development process

The evolution of the army combat shotgun—from the blunderbuss to the lightweight shotgun system: the origins of today’s combat shotgun can be traced to the time that the earliest settlers reached America. This article examines this weapon’s development process

Bo Barbour

From Blunderbuss to Fowling Piece

With the arrival of the first English colonists, soldiers brought an armory of weapons, two of which were the matchlock-ignited rifle and the blunderbuss. The rifle was used for long-range targets, the blunderbuss for short-range targets. This arrangement served the average English soldier well as he protected the Jamestown colony and hunted for food. The blunderbuss was the weapon of choice for close-range Indian attacks and shipboarding. This weapon had the added advantage of using (for ammunition) whatever small, sharp objects one could cram down the barrel on top of the black powder. Over time, the flintlock ignition replaced the matchlock, and the blunderbuss was replaced with the single- and double-barreled English fowling piece. In the South, during the Revolutionary War, faced with a desperate shortage of muskets, the colonists used the fowling piece as a close-quarters combat weapon while ambushing the redcoats on the flanks of their line formations and shooting the horses from under their cavalrymen.

One hundred years later, the flintlock was supplanted by the percussion system and the fowling piece by the shotgun we know today. As settlers moved west, the standard musket was loaded with shot to hunt birds and small game and single balls to hunt large game. The double-barreled shotgun had been developed by midcentury and, in an era of single shots and slow loading, was to be a major contributor in the coming conflict.

Shotguns and Cavalry in the Civil War

The Civil War was fought with every conceivable firearm available. Muskets, carbines, numerous repeating rifle systems, and shotguns were all employed. The shotgun was used extensively in all theaters of the Civil War, but most prominently by the Confederate cavalry who–much like their forefathers in the Revolutionary War–used it to skirmish with the Union cavalry at close range. The writings of Union cavalrymen contain indignant passages about horses and riders being shot with rocks, nails, and screws that were fired from the barrels of Confederate sawed-off shotguns. The combat shotgun had come into its own.

At the close of the Civil War, the Army was charged with protecting westward expansion; therefore, a variety of shotguns were pressed into use. By 1865, the Army had replaced percussion system weapons with centerfire cartridges similar to those used today. The newly developed “trapdoor” Springfield rifle was also built in a shotgun configuration using its same Allin system (named for the armorer who developed it). Until the turn of the 20th century, this was the shotgun that soldiers used in the West to fight Indians, guard prisoners, and hunt game. Meanwhile, in the 1880s, the demand for a shotgun with more firepower (needed for market hunting) produced the first true combat shotgun–the Winchester[R] Model 1897 (known as the Model 97).

Combat Shotgun in the World War I Trenches

The rifle and machine-gun fire of the Allied and Central Powers forced men to seek the safety of trenches. Taking to these trenches also underscored the weaknesses of the long Springfield and Enfield rifles in trench fighting. The conventional bolt-action infantry rifle was too long and lacked the firepower needed to overcome the interlocking trenches and determined German defenders carrying machine guns. The Winchester Model 97–firing a modern 12-gauge shell–with pump action; six-round magazine capacity; and short, 18-inch barrel was brought over by American military police and infantrymen and rapidly became known as the “trench sweeper.” The infantryman breaking into a trench could sweep both sides of it (to the depth of a passageway) with multiple buckshot rounds. Once leaders understood the 50-meter range of this weapon, they employed it with skill. A soldier with a shotgun, exceptionally fast to pump and fire, could quickly suppress German trench assaults and clear suspicious dugouts with devastating effectiveness. Out of the trenches, the Model 97 cleared Germans out of farmhouses and buildings in French villages with equal effectiveness. On 27 September 1918, Sergeant Fred Lloyd, using a Model 97, advanced alone into a German-held village and began methodically clearing the village, rapidly pumping and firing the shotgun as he moved. He finally collapsed with exhaustion after flushing and routing thirty German soldiers. The combat shotgun had earned its place as an Army secondary weapon.

At the close of World War I, the Army had 19,600 Model 97s on hand. These were used to guard prisoners and mail in the ’20s and ’30s. In this era, too, civilian law enforcement agencies added birdshot to the crowd-control ammunition inventory. Birdshot was seen as a less lethal alternative when fired over the heads of rioters but often had tragic results. Civilian law enforcement agencies soon embraced the pump shotgun, and it can now be seen in almost every police cruiser.

Shotguns in the World War II Jungles and Cities

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army found itself woefully short of the number of shotguns that was sufficient for jungle and house-to-house fighting. Shotguns were procured in great numbers and from multiple firearms manufacturers. As a result, there was no standard shotgun, a situation that has been rectified only recently. The shotgun was the secondary weapon of choice in the jungles of New Guinea. In the European theater, it was highly sought after in the house-to-house fighting across France. The shotgun had one major deficiency that placed a dilemma on the soldier: it forced the soldier to carry two weapons–the rifle (for long-range shots) and the shotgun. This was roughly 18 pounds of weapons for a variety of tasks. The result of this situation was that usually one man in the squad was assigned to carry the shotgun, forcing him to sacrifice the longer-range fire of the M-1 rifle.

With the formation of the Military Police Corps in 1943, the shotgun was used to guard prisoners and supply lines in the extended rear areas and lines of communication back to the continental United States. Its capabilities were ideal for the professional law enforcement missions taken on during the war.

Post-War Development and Renewal in Vietnam

During the post-World War II era, numerous attempts (over a fifty-year period) were made to develop a semiautomatic combat shotgun that was completely reliable under all combat conditions and with all varieties of ammunition. None proved to be completely satisfactory, and the American infantryman and military policeman were to fight in Korea and Vietnam armed with pump-action shotguns that repeatedly validated their effectiveness. In Vietnam, the pump-action combat shotgun was the weapon of choice for point men and dog handlers on combat patrols. Specially modified shotguns were developed to engage and neutralize the North Vietnamese guard force during the unsuccessful 1970 Son Tay raid that attempted to free American prisoners of war located deep inside North Vietnam.

Small-Scale Contingencies and the Employment of Nonlethal Munitions

The recent involvement of the Army in small-scale contingencies and stability and support operations has brought the requirement for an effective, improved combat shotgun into the forefront of small-arms development. Operations in Somalia demonstrated the need to address the half-century-long dilemma of a soldier carrying a rifle and a shotgun, multiple types of ammunition, and the added burden of additional ballistic armor that is essential to survival in house-to-house fighting. The soldier also had to have a response to noncombatant crowds that might threaten his lines of communication.

By 1993, the combat shotgun had undergone little evolution since World War I and, in size and weight (8.5 pounds), still resembled the venerable Model 97. To effectively fight in cities, the soldier was becoming overloaded with weapons. Additionally, technology had caught up to the requirements of civilian law enforcement with the development of effective, less lethal shotgun ammunition. The Army soon adopted a family of commercial off-the-shelf nonlethal (NL) munitions for the shotgun; it used rubber buckshot pellets (the M-1012) and fin-stabilized rubber bullets (the M-1013). These munitions were paired with the Mossberg[R] 500 (M-500) series shotgun associated with the Nonlethal Capability Set (NLCS) that was fielded in 1999. Both munitions and the M-500 proved to be highly effective in the hands of the military police who were encountering hostile crowds in Kosovo in February 2001. The blunt trauma produced by these munitions was sufficient to produce the pain necessary to make the most ardent rioter leave the most organized mob. The high volume of fire produced by the shotgun also enabled the military police to effectively gain the initiative and rout the rioters who were threatening their freedom of movement. However, the age-old problem remained: lethal weapons were still required to overwatch the soldiers who were armed with the less lethal loaded shotguns. The best solution would be to combine lethal and NL capabilities into one highly effective weapon with exceptional target acquisition capability.

Development of the Lightweight Shotgun System

In response to these mission needs, in June 1997, the U.S. Army Infantry Center developed an operational requirement for the M-4 Modular Weapon System (MWS) calling for an accessory attachment shotgun. The Dismounted Battlespace Battle Lab (DBBL) pursued an Advanced Concepts Technology II Program contract with Colt[R] firearms that asked them to produce an accessory attachment shotgun that met the specifications in the operational requirement. Colt produced four Lightweight Shotgun System (LSS) prototypes that were tested in a limited-objective experiment (LOE) conducted by the DBBL. The first prototypes were multishot, magazine-fed (three-round magazine), manually operated 12-gauge shotguns. Chambered to accommodate 3-inch magnum shells, the prototype fired a wide variety of lethal, NL, and door-breaching munitions. The LSS was operated by a reversible charging handle (could be used right- or left-handed) and most importantly, only added 2 pounds 11 ounces to the weight of the M-4 carbine. The length of the under-barrel shotgun was 16.5 inches. The test results validated the principle that the LSS was an effective delivery means for lethal, NL, and breaching rounds at the standard ranges for these munitions.

Coinciding with the LOE for the LSS, the Infantry Center decided to support the requirement for the joint service combat shotgun and dropped the requirement for an accessory attachment shotgun from the operational requirements document for the M-4 MWS. A second version of the LSS was developed based on the first LOE, and four prototypes were delivered to the DBBL. Subsequently, a third version was developed.

Version III was safety-released recently for a February 2003 evaluation funded by the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Program. It focused on the LSS in an NL role and its application as an associated item to the U.S. Army/ Marine Corps NLCS. A squad of Army infantrymen and a squad of Navy Seabees participated in the evaluation. Version III incorporates several features and improvements that are based on technical testing and feedback from the DBBL. Versions II and III come with a kit that allows soldiers to convert the attachment version to a stand-alone version with a pistol grip or to a standalone version with a pistol grip and buttstock.

Meanwhile, the Infantry Center has rescinded the Army requirement for the joint service combat shotgun. The DBBL, with the Program Manager, Soldier Weapons; the Program Manager, Crew-Served Weapons; the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command’s Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center, Close Combat Armaments Center; the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center; and the Infantry Center’s Directorate of Combat Developments, are evaluating the LSS for limited-issue operational experimentation. Soldiers could soon see the LSS operationally tested in any of the three current configurations as a 3-pound replacement for the 8.5-pound shotgun they carry today. Equally as important as reducing the soldier’s load is the capability to fire NL (12-gauge LSS) and lethal (5.56 millimeter M-4) munitions from the same weapon system with equal speed. As the LSS is fed from a vertical magazine, the soldier can replace a five-shot magazine of NL buckshot with lethal buckshot as rapidly as the situation requires. The skill necessary to fire the LSS is similar to the M-203, a skill that is taught to every soldier. The LSS enables the soldier to quickly accomplish door-breaching, entry, and room-clearing operations in an urban warfare environment where he may encounter a NL crowd-control situation on the next city block.


After a century of almost static development, the combat shotgun has evolved quickly, responding to the soldier’s need for new capabilities that meet the challenges of 21st century warfare. The LSS represents a bold approach, meeting these challenges by providing a rifle and a shotgun, lethal and NL capability, in one lightweight weapon system. The LSS is the first revolutionary combat shotgun of the 21st century.

Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Barbour is a program manager with ALION Science and Technology and was appointed as the Army Nonlethal Weapons Program Support Officer on 5 December 2000. He is a combat infantryman with more than 22 years of service and is a graduate of the Interservice Nonlethal Individual Weapons Instructor Course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. His last active-duty assignment was at Headquarters, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command as the chief of the Light Forces Branch in the Combat Arms Division of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Developments, where he oversaw the development of the Army Nonlethal Weapons Program.

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