Shotgun History: From the 1500s to Today



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Shotgun History: From the 1500s to Today

Story by Phil Bourjaily

• 8mo • 9 min read

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By the mid 1800s, hunters had shotguns that were capable of shooting birds from the sky.

By the mid 1800s, hunters had shotguns that were capable of shooting birds from the sky.© Heritage Images via Getty

Before the invention of rifling around 1500, every gun had a smooth bore, which means any gun could be a shotgun. You can dump whatever you want down an unrifled barrel, including pellets of all sizes, and shoot anything from small birds to big game. Once there were rifles, everything else was a musket or a shotgun. It took a while for muskets to fall by the wayside, but shotguns never did. Instead, they kept evolving to become, at close range anyway, the most versatile, deadliest guns of all. Here’s a complete guide to shotgun history.

Shotgun History: Table of Contents Early Shotgun History Guns for “Shooting Flying” Percussion, Pinfire and Primers The Modern Age of Shotgun History Begins Semiauto Shotgun History Restrictions and Standardization The Over/Under Early Shotgun History

Among the first known shotguns were “hail shot guns” made in the 1500s for shipboard use. The guns had rectangular bores and fired a load of cube-shaped iron dice shot, which scattered widely upon firing at close range to repel boarders and shoot onto crowded decks.

The most common early hunting shotguns were made for shooting swimming waterfowl out of necessity. Matchlock ignition was so slow and inconsistent that wingshooting was nearly impossible. Instead, waterfowl hunters aimed at and shot birds on the water with “long fowlers” developed in the 17th century, first as matchlocks, later as flintlocks. They got their name from their barrels, which were up to five or six feet long, the better to extract velocity from slow-burning black powder. Hunters changed shot size for different species, with swan shot being the approximate size of modern 4 buckshot.

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This early 10-bore smoothbore could be loaded with a variety of projectiles.

This early 10-bore smoothbore could be loaded with a variety of projectiles.© Rock Island Auction Company

Long fowlers were very popular in the Netherlands, where birds were often shot during the summer molt, at a time when they were flightless and could be driven together, then shot. Dutch settlers brought long fowlers with them to New York, where they found clouds of ducks and geese to hunt. Long fowlers were among the first guns made in North America. In addition to waterfowl hunting, long fowlers could be loaded with a round ball and/or buckshot for bigger game and used as weapons of war or for self-defense. Many of them had distinctive thick, heavy “club butt” stocks intended to counter-balance the weight of the long barrels.

This early 10-bore smoothbore could be loaded with a variety of projectiles. Guns for “Shooting Flying”

The widespread adoption of flintlock guns in the 17th century changed shotgun history and design. Long fowlers remained popular, but new guns took advantage of the comparatively faster, more consistent ignition of the flintlock. Now it was possible to shoot birds out of the air. The trend to “shooting flying” originated in France, and guns for shooting flying had to be much shorter, lighter, and less ungainly than the long fowlers. These new shotguns were often double-barreled, too. England’s King Charles II, exiled to France in 1651, brought the trend back to England when the monarchy was restored. Wingshooting and waterfowling were popular in the North American colonies as well. George Washington, among others, owned fowling pieces. Washington ordered his fowling pieces from the growing British gun trade, which would dominate double-gun design in the next century. Trap shooting, originally a game when live pigeons were the targets, began in the 18th century as well. It would one day become the clay target sport we now know.

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A cased Eugene Lefaucheux side-by-side pinfire shotgun.

A cased Eugene Lefaucheux side-by-side pinfire shotgun.© Rock Island Auction Company

Percussion, Pinfire, and Primers

The next big innovation in shotgun history came in the form of different kinds of locks and ignition sources. In the early 19th century, percussion locks replaced flintlocks. Flint ignition had made wingshooting possible, but the fast locktime of percussion lock made it much easier. Guns became shorter and lighter, the better to carry and swing at flying game, although there were also massive waterfowl guns, as big as 4-bore, and even bigger punt guns that had to be mounted in a boat like artillery. The firms that would shape gun design—Purdey, Holland and Holland, Westley Richards, and many others—were founded in London and in Birmingham, England, early in the century.

A cased Eugene Lefaucheux side-by-side pinfire shotgun.

It would be a French gunmaker, Casimir Lefaucheux, however, who ushered in the era of rapid change in shotgun design that marked the latter half of the 19th century. The Lefaucheux pinfire cartridge had a firing pin projecting from the rim of the shell. Pinfire guns broke open to load at the breech, which had holes in the top so the pins on the shell could protrude where they could be struck by the gun’s hammers. Within a decade, primed shotshells like those we know today became available, and the break-action side by sides began taking a familiar shape, although the guns still had external hammers.

The Modern Age of Shotgun History Begins

Around 1870-1880, three different English gunmakers patented “hammerless” shotgun designs in which had internal hammers inside the action. The most popular of the three was the Anson and Deeley boxlock, which is still used on break-action guns today. Shotgun cartridges also made repeating shotguns possible, and Americans took the lead in developing repeaters. Christopher Spencer, known for inventing a repeating carbine used by Union cavalry in the Civil War, introduced the first pump shotgun in 1882. The complex, top-ejecting Spencer included a novel backup trigger that could be used for a second attempt to ignite a shell with a balky primer. Ten years later, the great John Browning eclipsed Spencer’s gun with the Model 1893 Winchester, which, although an exposed-hammer gun, was much more shootable.

Smokeless powder replaced blackpowder in the late 1800s. Shotguns could now shoot at higher velocities, and stay much cleaner. Choke boring, in which the last two or three inches of the barrel tapered inside the muzzle, was developed in the latter half of the century. Chokes helped shot patterns fly tighter and remain denser, increasing the effective range of a gun to beyond 40 yards. One result of the change to smokeless powder and choke boring was that the 12-gauge became even more popular, supplanting the 10-guage, which had been used as an all-around shotgun in the 1800s.

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Two Browning-designed Auto 5 shotguns.

Two Browning-designed Auto 5 shotguns.© Rock Island Auction Company

The new powders required also new, stronger barrels. Damascus, or twist, barrels had to be replaced by fluid steel barrels during that time of transition. Browning’s classic Winchester Model 1897 pump, for instance, was very similar to the 1893 but made stronger for the increased stresses of shooting smokeless powder.

Semiauto Shotgun History

With hammerless break-action guns and pumps in common use by 1900, as well as few lever-actions. there was only one more type of shotgun action left to invent: the semiautomatic. It’s no surprise that prolific genius John Browning invented it. Browning often said the semiauto shotgun was the hardest of his many designs to get right. While he had already made semiauto rifles, pistols, and even fully-automatic machine guns, most of those only had to cycle one particular round or a narrow range of ammo. A semiauto has to cycle a wide range of ammunition while maintaining a fairly consistent bolt speed so as to function with light ammunition and not damage itself with heavy loads.

Two Browning-designed Auto 5 shotguns.

For his Automatic 5 shotgun, Browning used a long-recoil design in which the bolt and barrel moved backward upon firing. A spring and adjustable friction rings on the magazine tube controlled its bolt speed. Browning’s gun was a huge success. Because it was so forward-thinking and because Browning patented so many of its parts such as the bolt handle, it faced no competing designs for almost fifty years. Browning also licensed the gun to Remington and Savage, and millions were made.

Restrictions and Standardization

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The gas-operated Remington 1100 was a big step forward in shotgun history.

The gas-operated Remington 1100 was a big step forward in shotgun history.© Rock Island Auction Company

In North America, widespread overhunting, especially commercial hunting, devastated game populations, leading to restrictions after the turn of the century. Among other things, all gauges larger than the 10-gauge were banned for waterfowl, so the giant punt guns and 4- and 8-gauge guns disappeared into the hands of outlaws. Pumps and semiautos had to be limited to three shells for migratory bird hunting. Shotgun shell lengths were standardized in the United States, in part due to the requirements of the new game of skeet in the 1920s. The standard 2 ¾-inch load in 12-, 16-, 20- and 28-gauges, and the 2 ½-inch .410, were established. The following years would see the 3-inch .410, and 3-inch 12-gauge as well as the 3 ½-inch 10-gauge magnum introduced, the latter two primarily for waterfowl hunting.

The Over/Under

For a while side-by-sides dominated the American break-action market. A.H. Fox, Parker Brothers, Ithaca, L.C. Smith, and others made guns in grades ranging from utilitarian to lavishly ornate. You could get anything from them, so long as it was a side-by-side. Enter, yet again, John Browning. The Browning Superposed was designed to be much less expensive to make than the high-end, custom O/Us that English makers had been building since 1909. Browning wanted to offer a gun that was affordable to the average person who scrimped and saved for it. John Browning actually died while working on the gun, and his son, Val, finished it in 1931. Depsite being born into the Depression, then having its Belgian factory occupied, then destroyed by Nazis, the Superposed had its moment after WWII, becoming exactly the aspirational gun Browning had envisioned. Eventually, rising labor costs forced Browning to move its main O/U production from Belgium to Japan, where the Browning Citori, a simplified version of the Superposed, became a classic in its own right. Meanwhile, none of the great American side-by-side designs survived WWII, and the O/U became America’s break-action of choice, as it is today.

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Caesar Guerini's Revenant is a great example of modern manufacturing in shotguns today. Most of the engraving is done by a machine, then finished by hand.

Caesar Guerini’s Revenant is a great example of modern manufacturing in shotguns today. Most of the engraving is done by a machine, then finished by hand.© Caesar Guerini

Italian maker Beretta had begun work on a “sovraposti” of its own in the 1930s, and after the war when Beretta and other Italian makers could turn back to peacetime production, they turned to O/Us, and today, many of the most popular as well as the finest high-end O/Us come from Italy.

Gas Semiautos

World War II taught gunmakers a lot about semiautomatic actions of all kinds, including gas-operated actions in which the expanding gases in the barrel were bled off to drive a piston that opened the bolt, ejected the old shell, and loaded a new one. The war also imparted valuable lessons on the use of inexpensive stamped and cast parts in place of machined steel. Shotguns could be made much more cheaply without the need for much of the hand-fitting that had characterized gunmaking for so long.

The Remington Model 1100 encompassed both these trends to become the first modern classic. There had been gas guns before, but they weren’t reliable. Designed in part by computer, the 1100 shot reliably and, like most gas guns, recoiled very softly. Made with stamped, pressed, and common parts used in other Remington guns, the 1100 was affordable, reliable, and soft-kicking, and it became an immediate success among hunters and target shooters.

The gas-operated Remington 1100 was a big step forward in shotgun history.

Beretta, too, had learned about gas guns during WWII while making them for the other side, and after WWII they began making semiauto shotguns that went on to become synonymous with reliability. Berettas are the only gas guns you will see in serious sporting clays competition or at high-volume dove lodges.

Also in Italy, not long after Remington introduced the 1100, the motorcycle-making Benelli family met an engineer named Bruno Civolani who made shotguns that worked neither by gas like the 1100, nor by long-recoil like the Auto 5. Instead Civolani’s gun made use of the inertia of a heavy rotary bolt that stayed in place, actually locking tighter, when the gun moved back under recoil, the opening as the gun’s rearward motion slowed. The Benellis also liked to hunt and shoot, and they went into the gun business. Their inertia guns stayed cleaner, longer than gas guns, shot in cold, wet conditions, and have become a household name among waterfowlers.

Read Next: The 50 Best Shotguns of All Time

Into the 21st Century

With the 1100 celebrating its 60th birthday this year, and the pump, the O/U, side by side, and the long-recoil semiauto having been invented over 100 years ago, shotguns have actually changed very little in the 21st century. Choke tubes that improved both patterns and versatility are old news now, as are barrels that can withstand steel and tungsten-iron shot, and weather- and abuse-resistant synthetic stocks.

Caesar Guerini’s Revenant is a great example of modern manufacturing in shotguns today. Most of the engraving is done by a machine, then finished by hand.

What changes constantly is the way guns are made. C-n-C machines, computer design, and lasers can now do work once done by human hands to increasingly fine tolerances. Some of the finest guns in the world are made by machines, and so is some of the most beautiful engraving.

Shotguns are made differently now, and they look much different than they did 500 years ago. They have round, not rectangular, holes in the muzzle. But, we have only added a couple dozen yards of range to the shotgun in the course of five centuries. But, when targets are close and especially when they are moving, shotguns have no equal.

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