SBS, SBR, AOW, DD, NFA, tax stamp. I’m guessing only one of those terms would be familiar to any reader, and only mildly so at best. So legally speaking, what is a sawn off shotgun? Any shotgun with a barrel shorter than 18 inches, and an overall length shorter than twice that. So generally, a sawn-off shotgun has both a shortened barrel and stock, down to nearly pistol size in some cases. This type of shotgun may be pump action, lever action, break open (like your typical double barrel), though generally not semi -automatic due to space constraints.
Are sawn offs illegal? In a way, yes.
If you don’t have permission, absolutely. However, in the US, a private citizen can apply to the government for a NFA (National Firearms Act) Tax Stamp costing 200 USD to register their firearm as an SBS (Short Barreled Shotgun), and after a series of background checks, the gun is now fully legal. If such a gun is made by a firearms manufacture, it is classified as a AOW (Any Other Weapon), as it was not modified from it’s original format, and only requires a $5 tax stamp.
By law, the customized Mossberg 590A1s used by the NYPD are the same class of firearm as the stereotypical sawn off shotgun, only differentiated by legal process. Another example is the Serbu Super Shorty, a pump action shotgun scarcely larger than a pistol. So by law, a sawn off shotgun is illegal, but a registered one is not, and it is perfectly legal to use such a SBS in self- defense.
What does shortening a shotgun do, realistically speaking? If the stock is removed, recoil is greatly increased, making accurate shooting difficult. Shortening the barrels increases muzzle flash due to unburned powder left in the muzzle. Ballistically, the patterning of the shot (pellets) will be severely hampered and the range decreased. Contrary to popular belief, it will not blow a man off his feet or blast couches into smithereens. On average, OO buckshot (the most common police and military load) at fifty feet makes a pattern roughly the size of a dinner plate.
Shotguns are very much point and shoot weapons, but they are not indiscriminate, sawn off or not. Deliberate aim is required to make such a weapon effective, as well as an effective choke to put enough pellets into the same place to be lethal. When the barrel is shortened too much, less than 10 inches or so, the spread becomes so wide the sawn-off is nearly useless as a weapon. This is made even more obvious when the most common type of shotgun ammo is used: 7 1/2 Birdshot, which without an effective choke becomes a cloud of pellets, each individually smaller than that fired out of an airsoft toy. Again, contrary to popular belief.
A somewhat less-known aspect of shotguns is that slugs (Single, solid projectiles, like rifle bullets) are commonly used in hunting, and can reach out to a much farther range than normal bird or buck shot. Some police forces, forbidden or unable to afford rifles, use slugs to treat their shotguns like cheaper rifles.
So why are they still used? For the military and police, the smaller size can make all the difference. Ever since shotguns have been around, so have sawn-off ones. Sawn-off shotguns were used to great effect by cavalry in the Civil War, and by Confederate soldiers, who did not have the same industrial strength as the Union. Even perfectly legitimate “coach guns” used to guard wagons were short shotguns by modern standards due to simple utility. The earlier example, the Mossbergs used by the NYPD, were a change simply due to the fact that a full sized shotgun was too cumbersome to fit into an officer’s patrol car and still be within accessible reach in an emergency. In tactical use, these short shotguns are used to blast open doors with special breaching ammo, not getting into the officer or soldier’s way when they switch to their primary weapon.
But the history of these infamous weapons in crime is undeniable. “Sawn-off” is a name constantly stuck in with the media giants like the “Uzi” and “AK-47” when gun crime is reported. Infamous prohibition-era criminal Clyde Barrow was known for inventing the first “whippit” style shotgun, a sawn-down pump action hung under his shoulder by a strap of leather (Think Kyle Reese in the original Terminator movie.)
However, the reason for the sawn-off shotgun’s use in crimes is very, very simple. Not because a shotgun is devastating in such a short format compared to an original, but to substitute pistols. Few countries allow open ownership of handguns, especially centerfire designs suited to actually killing, but shotguns are allowed near universally, especially simple double barrel models. In this role, it is stalwartly effective.
It seems slugs are rarely used, likely due to the need to aim carefully, so birdshot and buckshot tends to be the dominant ammunition choice. Buckshot is not very effective against the body armor of a police officer or the door of a car, but a SBS loaded with such ammunition can be astoundingly effective against flesh at close range.
It’s important to understand that the firepower offered by such a short shotgun pales in comparison to a hunting rifle, or even full-sized shotgun. The only asset of a sawn-off is portability. Indeed, the sawn-off shotgun is another tool into the criminal’s arsenal, but the legalized cousin, the SBS, is just such a tool for the police and the civilian alike as well. The political ramifications of any such weapons are beyond the scope of this article, but there are sources on the internet debating both sides of the gun control issue. Hopefully, with hard facts in hand and a few less common myths in mind you, the reader, can find out for yourself.