Short Barrel Shotguns: 4 Informative Facts You Must Know

1. History of the Short Barrel Shotgun

During prohibition, gun violence was on the rise. This was largely due to gang and mafia activity.  Gangs grew increasingly brazen, and were emboldened to begin robbing banks, kidnapping, and shooting law enforcement on what seemed like a regular basis. This quickly caused fear throughout the country, as front pages of newspapers regularly featured story after story of another shooting—with tommy guns, short barrel rifles, or shotguns.

There were calls for federal regulations and restrictions on firearms to include tommy guns, short barrel rifles, short barrel shotguns, and handguns. While handguns were the weapon most often used in these crime sprees, the popularity of handguns caused such regulations to stall.  Handguns were the most prominently owned firearm among legal gun owners, and handgun owners opposed federal imposition on their rights. The proposals to restrict ownership of these firearms were shelved due to lawmakers’ inability to come to an agreement. 

In 1936, famous cases such as the Kansas City Massacre and the kidnapping of St. Paul Brewer William Hamm, Jr. by the Barker-Karpis gang were still on peoples’ minds, having only occurred a couple of years prior. When John Dillinger broke out of jail and began a crime spree, robbing banks and having multiple shootouts with federal agents, there was a national outcry for the control of what was then known as “gang guns”.  Congress removed handguns from the original firearms restriction proposal and quickly passed the National Firearms Act.

Short barrel shotguns got the short end of the stick, since they were rarely used in such crimes; but because the “sawed-off shotgun” received such a severe reputation in association with these crime sprees from—its damage capabilities, to its frightening ease of concealability—it was included in the National Firearms Act, and short barrel shotguns now require registration and a tax stamp for legal ownership.

2. What is a Short Barrel Shotgun?

When beginning to read up on the legal definitions of what constitutes a short barrel shotgun, one can quickly find himself in need of a law degree. The breakdowns from buttstock, to manufacturing designation, to modifications and ammunition and what is/can/might/could be a short barrel shotgun become overwhelmingly convoluted. 

For simplicity’s sake, let’s start with those characteristics that define a shotgun:

  • The weapon must have a buttstock (or be designed to be fired from the shoulder)
  • The weapon must have a smooth bore
  • The weapon must, per trigger pull, shoot either ball shot or a rifled slug

Next is the crucial definition as to what differentiates a shotgun from a short barrel shotgun. It is on this designation that we will be focusing the most. The measurements that make a shotgun a short barrel shotgun are as follows:

  • The weapon must have a barrel or barrels less than 18 inches long, AND/OR
  • The weapon must be less than 26 inches in overall length

If the shotgun that you own or are looking to own has a barrel (or barrels) less than 18 inches long, or if the overall length of the shotgun is less than 26 inches, then you are talking about a short barrel shotgun, and you should be familiar with the laws and regulations that surround it.

3. Laws Regarding Short Barrel Shotguns

While in most cases short barrel shotguns are illegal to own or operate, there is a way to legally and responsibly own and operate one. Once identified as a short barrel shotgun, a firearm becomes a weapon under the National Firearms Act, or an NFA weapon.  In order to legally own or create a short barrel weapon, you must submit an application with the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau. Once approved, you will then have to pay a $200 transfer tax stamp to legally own the firearm.

When this is obtained, you can legally own and operate your short barrel firearm. However, be aware of the rules and regulations that surround your NFA weapon. Legally transporting the weapon across state lines can be tricky, and most importantly: no one else can be in control of and/or operate the short barrel shotgun except for you. If you go to a shooting range and a friend wants to fire it, you are looking at possible felonies. To bypass this rule, you would have to place the short barrel shotgun in a gun trust; named trustees would then be able to legally use the firearm.

Keep in mind that the NFA is federal law, so individual states have the right to create limiting laws regarding specific firearms. Be aware of the current and ever-changing laws in your state.

4. What are Short Barrel Shotguns used for?

Many people ask, “what would you want a short barrel shotgun for?” The answer, of course, will vary.  

Some sportsmen use short barrel shotguns for hunting. Turkey hunters, for instance, may choose a short barrel shotgun because turkeys have amazing eyesight/hearing and will quickly flee once they have an inkling that they are in danger. The short barrel shotgun’s overall length makes it easier to maneuver in the woods quietly and comfortably, without losing the ability to shoulder the shotgun quickly when it’s time to take a shot.

Another reason to own a short barrel shotgun is for home protection. In general, a pump-action shotgun is a great choice for home protection, because the sound of pumping a round is universally understood and can act as a deterrent for any would-be intruders or attackers. A short barrel shotgun adds to this the ease of maneuverability indoors and within tight spaces (around hallway corners, for instance, or hiding in a closet). Standard shotguns are long and heavy, making them difficult to keep up in the ready position, while taking longer to raise from a lowered position before taking an effective shot.

“Shorty” Firearms (Non-NFA “Shotguns”)

If the idea of a short barrel shotgun sounds intriguing, but waiting for the federal registration check and paying a $200 tax stamp sounds like a headache, there are other comparable options. Known as “shorty” shotguns, these firearms are manufactured with the legality of a standard shotgun, but the maneuverability of a short barrel shotgun, in mind. Some may even seem like genuine shotguns due to the ammo they shoot, but will not fit the definition of an NFA shotgun based on stock or bore. The barrel length and/or overall length is legal.

Here are some of the best “shorty” shotguns on the market today:

Mossberg Shockwave – Pump Action

Without a shoulder stock installed by the manufacturer, this firearm is not considered a shotgun according to NFA regulations. When laying eyes on it, however, one would most immediately liken it to a pump-action shotgun. With a 14-inch barrel, it is definitely a highlight in the “shorty” community.

Remington TAC-14 DM – Pump Action

This is a home defense firearm with all the power desired from a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, but with added maneuverability and quick reload ability. With a detachable box magazine and the quick pump action, its 6 rounds can be quickly and effectively fired without loss of maneuverability. Remington itself describes the firearm as “the shortest allowable distance between powerless and prepared.”

Charles Daly Honcho Tactical Triple – Break Action

This triangular three barreled shotgun represents the combination of simplicity and effectiveness at its finest. With the break-action allowing for three shots—one per barrel, with each trigger pull—this “shorty” is brilliantly designed. While pump-action and semi-automatic firearms require space to chamber rounds, in the case of this tactical triple, the rounds are already chambered. Thus, though the barrels themselves are longer than pump-action, the overall length remains the same; the “shorty” is legally allowed without losing the shotgun feel.

Closing Thoughts

As you can see, there are a variety of reasons why someone would want to purchase and hold a short barrel shotgun. As always, we recommend you keep aware of state regulations, and consider establishing a gun trust (such as what we offer at Gun Trust NFA) in order to maximize advantages for allowing others to use your firearm. As always, stay safe and enjoy firearms and your 2nd Amendment rights.