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 Trench-Breaker

Trench shotgun Enfield bayonet
Trench shotgun with ventilated handguard and Enfield bayonet. (Rock Island Auctions)

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.