Reading a recent after-combat report from Iraq I came across the observation that shotguns were far superior to pistols for CQB. That's not exactly news to many of us. In fact all combat longarms are better than handguns. Quite simply, they have greater inherent accuracy and more power. The virtues of a pistol are its portability, concealability and that it can be carried as a back-up to other weapons. It can be operated with one hand, which is useful if you have to work door handles or toss Flash-bangs. The pistol, however, is not the only weapon that fulfills these criteria. There is also the shortened double barreled shotgun, aka the Sawn-off or Sawyer.
The sawn-off shotgun is by no means a new weapon, but it is certainly a unconventional weapon with scope for wider (although specialized) application. Let's look for a moment at some selected examples of the use of sawn-offs and similar weapons.
During the gunfight at the OK corral Doc Holiday carried a sawn-off made from a 10 gauge Belgium hammer gun.
In Sicily the sawn-off is called a Lupara and is a traditional Mafia weapon of execution.
Sawn-offs do not automatically eject spent cases, which denies the enemy some forensic information. So too does the use of shot rather than a projectile with distinctive rifling marks. Tool marks at the muzzle may leave distinctive markings on the wad, however.
The sawn-off was the preferred weapon of British bank robbers, since it is intimidating and easily concealed.
At one time the sawn-off shotgun was a common British police weapon. In a non-hostage situation it a very good weapon, since its reputation would cause many miscreants to doubt they could escape injury and be more predisposed to surrender peacefully.
In the movie Southern Star one character wears a pair of single barreled sawn-off shotguns in hip holsters. He always fires these from the holsters, using them to help control the weapons.
Some Special Forces units in Vietnam used sawn-off M79s loaded with canister. In the illustration I saw the weapon was carried horizontally by the right hip, and the Soldier also carried a Swedish K (Carl Gustav SMG)
The above examples give some hints at the correct application of this weapon. The Sawn-off is a close range weapon, and more easily concealed than other shotguns. It's size and weight allows it to be carried in addition to other weapons. It makes a fairly bold opening statement and this may also be the closing argument and full stop ;-)
Although the sawn-off is a good weapon for the opening shot, it should not be regarded as the primary or sole armament. It is probably prudent for the butt of the gun to be provided with a hole or screw eye for the attachment of a lanyard or cord baldric. This allows the user to drop but not lose the shotgun and draw another weapon once one or both barrels have been fired. In a squad operation the user can withdraw to reload under the cover of his comrades' armament.
Most sawn-offs have been created by taking a conventional double-barreled gun and chopping the barrels and usually most of the stock too. There have been a few purpose designed guns. In the 1920s Ithaca produced the Auto & Burglar gun(left) with 10 barrels (some models had 12¼), 16 loa and a weight of around 4.5 lb (this source quotes a contemporary advertisment that claims 1¼lb). Grip resembled that of a revolver but on the early models had a comb or spur like projection designed to spread recoil forces into the hand. Some models had barrels of 12.5. Similar was Holland's Auto-Burglar gun and Defiance's Anti-Bandit. All of these were 20 gauge in either 2 ¾ or 3 chambering. A French company makes a 12 bore OU pistol, the GC54. This is mainly used with riot rounds such as CS cloud and rubber shot.
20 gauge offers a shade less recoil and weight, yet at the ranges these weapons are used are probably just as effective as a 12 bore. Russian experiments have indicated that at ranges of under 10m 20 gauge offers better penetration than a 12 bore. These tests were made with longer barreled guns, however.
The little information I've found on Sawn-off performance has been using bird-shot, not the buckshot that is a more likely choice for serious combat. Rounds that project a cloud of tear-gas are another possible choice.
The typical sawn-off shotgun hold only two shots, and I don't think there are any truly practical ways to overcome this. An Italian company used to sell a three barreled shotgun, but increasing the number of barrels will probably increase weight, bulk and mechanical complexity to unacceptable levels. Existing revolver mechanism guns are too bulky for easy concealment and magazine fed guns are several inches longer than double guns for the equivalent barrel length. There are several short barreled magazine shotguns available, including offerings from Remington, Mossberg, Franchi and Ithaca. Most have barrels of 12-14 and the Ithaca Stakeout is offered in 20 bore as well as 12. The advantage of these guns is that most hold at least two extra rounds. Downside is that they are longer and most of the models offered are pump guns, so require two handed operation for a repeat shot. The former is a consideration for weapon that is required to be concealable, the latter an important tactical consideration. The other hand may be wounded, or required to drive a vehicle or help an injured comrade or principal. The self-loading Ripley proposed elsewhere would address these needs, as would the proposed Canister DGL barrels.
Correct application of a sawn-off shotgun can tip the balance in a CQB situation, particularly in one where combatants may not carry weapons overtly.
While we know that it is an effective weapon, the big question is how effective? What is hard to find is necessary information on the performance of such weapons.
What is the effective range of weapons with such shortened barrels? There is some theorizing that muzzle velocity (and therefore energy and penetration) is higher due to reduced friction from shorter duration of barrel contact, but no chronograph readings to support this. (I've also seen it reported that the South African Protector Bulldog with a 171mm barrel has a higher muzzle velocity than the version with a 300mm.)
How does short barrel length effect the spread of shot? A pattern from a conventional length barrel without choking spreads by about an inch for every yard of range, and half an inch for a full choke. Is there a similar rule of thumb for a sawn-off? The only pattern I've found for a sawn-off actually puts the majority of its shot (over a third) into a six inch area at six yards.
Some short barreled pump guns are choked to limit spread - How do these perform?
Some Franchi combat shotguns had an adapter, spreader or diverter that spread shot in a more horizontal pattern. With long barreled guns this spread the shot laterally in a 4 to 1 ratio. Can this be applied to a short/double barreled weapon? Can such devices be fitted to a side by side gun, and does a sawn-off need to be side by side? An O/U would holster and conceal more easily.
How would a shot speader perform on a sawn-off? On a conventional shotgun such devices are claimed to give a 4 to 1 spread ratio, although in practice a good rule of thumb seems to be to assume a spread of 2.5-3 for every yard of range. Whether this holds true for a sawn-off remains to be seen.