The combat shotgun has come a long way. Today the weapon is used for a variety of specialized purposes. Special operations units use shotguns for breaching and close-quarters combat. Shotguns can even be used for riot control as they can be fitted with non-lethal types of ammunition. Although the military had used shotguns before, it was with the trench shotguns of World War I that the weapon properly established its footing in the ranks.
The American Army entered the fray in 1917. The Great War was essentially still fought, by both sides, using 19th-century tactics against 20th-century weapons such as the machine gun and more accurate artillery. This had led to tremendous casualties. General Pershing and the U.S. Army General Staff were determined not to commit the same mistakes committed by the combatants in the war’s first three years.
Pershing and the American staff had an idea about breaking the stalemate in the trenches and force the battle into the open countryside, which the Europeans were loath to do.
Pershing and many of the American officers had served in the Philippines. There, they had seen firsthand how devastating shotguns firing buckshot were at close range.
The U.S. knew that the Germans would amass their assault troops in the trenches before conducting large-scale assaults. Therefore, the American plan was to disrupt the assault troops, before they could attack, by using shotguns at close range.
The U.S. Army’s Ordnance Department decided that the Winchester Model 1897 would be the best choice for a trench shotgun. The Model 1897, later designated the “M97,” was a reliable weapon that had been around for some 20 years and had been used quite well in the Philippines.
The variant selected had a short 20-inch barrel that was perfect for both offensively and defensively use in the trenches. The M97 carried five rounds in the magazine with one in the chamber. It could be fired continuously while holding down the trigger and rapidly manipulating the slide. This resulted in a high rate of fire.
The Ordnance Department stipulated that the combat shotgun must be capable of mounting a bayonet. Winchester accomplished this by using an offset bracket attached to the end of the barrel to which, in turn, the bayonet was attached. However, this created another issue. It would be difficult for a soldier to grasp the barrel and use the bayonet, as the barrel got very hot after firing just a few rounds.
This was quickly solved by Springfield Armory, which worked with Winchester to design a ventilated metal handguard in a very short amount of time. This allowed for air circulation between the guard and barrel thus permitting control of the barrel and use of the bayonet.
Trench Shotguns Enter the War
In a relatively short period of time, the proposed new combat shotgun was officially adopted, becoming known as the “Trench Gun” or the “G-9778-S.” The weapons were typically hand-stamped with a “US” and “flaming bomb” marking on the right sides of the receivers in front of the ejection ports to signify acceptance by the U.S. Army Ordnance Department.
The shotguns were used with the new M1917 “U.S. Enfield” rifle bayonet, which was also manufactured by Winchester. They were fitted with sling swivels that permitted the use of standard service rifle slings, primarily the leather M1907 sling. One other unique aspect of the shotgun was that it had an external hammer. The M97 could be broken down completely in half in less than 10 seconds. Therefore, it could easily be carried in a rucksack.
Since trench shotguns had never been issued in large numbers before, the Army decided to test the weapons with the 26th (Yankee) Infantry Division, and the 42nd (Rainbow) Infantry Division. The Ordnance Department published a memo in early 1918 stating,
“1,000 shotguns, referred to herewith, together with ammunition are now available in Depots in France … . Instructions are requested regarding the issue and distribution of these weapons. It is suggested that they may prove a most valuable arm for the use of raiding parties, and that a practical test be made in the 26th and 42nd Divisions, and that full information be furnished to this office within 30 days, showing the difficulties experienced in maintenance, the susceptibility to jamming under trench conditions, and the effectiveness of the weapon. Fifty guns should be issued to each Division mentioned above, with 100 rounds of ammunition per gun …”
Later, several other divisions began using the Trench Gun. The results were mostly positive.
However, at first, the Army used paper-cased civilian ammunition that could easily become wet in muddy trench environments. This could cause the shells to swell and become useless. Later the Army went to an all-brass shotgun shell which resolved.
The Army also didn’t provide ammunition belts or pouches for shotgun shells, so many of the Doughboys, simply resorted to filling their pockets with shotgun shells, just as they did back home when hunting.
It is estimated that about 25,000 trench shotguns were sent to Europe during the war. To these, about 3,500 Remington Arms Model 10 “riot” shotguns were added.
Germany Protests Use of ‘Barbaric’ Weapons
The German government quickly took notice of the American use of shotguns in the trenches and lodged a protest against their use. On September 19, 1918, the Germans stated that the use of shotguns was prohibited under the laws of war.
The German statement read that “it is especially forbidden to employ arms, projections, or materials calculated to cause unnecessary suffering” as defined in the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare. The irony of Germany using mustard gas while lodging a protest against shotguns could not have been lost to the United States.
The Army’s Judge Advocate General and Secretary of State Robert Lansing rejected the German protest.
The Germans then turned to propaganda and in their newspapers tried to paint the American soldiers as barbaric. According to a Cologne Gazette article of the time cited by the American Rifleman “… Tommy-hawks and scalping knives would soon make their appearance on the American front […] Americans are not honorable warriors.”
The Germans then threatened American troops captured with a shotgun in their possession. “The German Government protests against the use of shotguns by the American Army and calls attention to the fact that, according to the laws of war, every prisoner found to have in his possession such guns or ammunition belonging thereto forfeits his life.”
Secretary Lansing’s response was quick and effective. He stated that if the Germans carried out their threats in even a “single instance” the American government would respond in kind.
No American soldiers were executed for possessing either a shotgun or shotgun ammunition.
However, the American Expeditionary Force censored photos of American Doughboys carrying trench shotguns to not inflame the situation.