Combat Shotgun

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Soldiers had been shooting buck shot — often in addition to a full-size musketball, as “buck and ball” — from smoothbores for centuries when the rifle, which accurately shot a single projectile, finally took over the battlefield, but the combat shotgun made an unexpected comeback during the Great War:

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.

John Schaefer shares some numbers to illuminate just how effective a shotgun can be at short range:

The table below shows the average results of firing at fifty and seventy-five yards at a full-length human silhouette with typical standard (non-premium) rounds of #4, #1, 00, and 000 buck from cylinder-bored, rifle-sighted, riot gun. Note: most of the hits at 75 yards were very “marginal.”

Loading Average Number of Hits
(Full sized humanoid target)
50 Yards 75 Yards
27 pellet 4 buck   10     3
34 pellet 4 buck     6     2
16 pellet 1 buck     6     2
20 pellet 1 buck     7     4
9 pellet 00 buck     3     1
12 pellet 00 buck     4     2
8 pellet 000 buck     1     0

This gives the shotgun a higher hit probability than any alternative weapon:

British examination of its Malaya experience determined that, to a range of thirty yards (27.4 meters), the probability of hitting a man-sized target with a shotgun was superior to that of all other weapons. The probability of hitting the intended target with an assault rifle was one in eleven. It was one in eight with a submachine gun firing a five-round burst. Shotguns had a hit probability ratio twice as good as rifles.

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