Four For Fighting

The Greatest Quartet Of Combat Shotguns
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The Winchester M12 saw heavy use in the Pacific during WWII.
Nearly two million were made; this late ’40s model was converted
to 1918-era riot configuration and blued by Turnbull.

Presumably, it would take a bit of effort to get the WWI Germans to accuse you of war crimes but the 12-gauge Winchester 1897 managed it. The great granddaddy of all combat shotguns, the ’97 is best known in trench guise with a 20″ barrel, bayonet mount and heat shield.

Designed by John Moses Browning — who basically invented everything — the M97 is a refinement of his earlier 1893. Its popularity was one of the things that broke Winchester’s long-standing relationship with Browning, delaying the introduction of the gun that eventually became the Remington Model 11.

Torched off by an exposed hammer, the ’97’s externally reciprocating bolt bites the web of the shooter’s hand, the carrier mechanism appears to disassemble itself when stroked and the rear-set trigger guard gives it an unusual, awkward look. However, what it lacks in pretty is made up for in trench-war ugliness, where its six rounds of 9-pellet 00 buck were absolutely devastating.

Since the ’97 slam-fires — hold the trigger, run the pump and the gun discharges when the pump comes home — the rate of fire was tremendous against the bolt-action German Mausers. A line of doughboys so armed produced a wall of metal through which no sane man would wish to advance, inspiring the Kaiser’s War Crime complaint. The ’97s were also reportedly used to down carrier pigeons and deflect incoming hand grenades flung towards the U.S. trenches, though there’s a fair degree of skepticism about the latter.


The Model 1897 Winchester was the first commercially successful pump.
Slam-firing 00 buck, it provided a fearsome volley of fire in trench warfare.
Photo: Turnbull Restoration

First Stop

The Great War, however, isn’t the first place the ’97 saw battle. It was fielded in the Philippines during the Moro Uprising, where the gun was brought into play against the Moro juramentados. It’s hard to encapsulate the pure ferocity of these charging warriors and it’s no wonder some U.S. soldiers preferred the bison-flattening power of the obsolete .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield to the standard issue .30-40 Krag bolt action. The 1897 offered the same features distinguishing it later in the trenches: increased hit probability, better rate of fire and devastating stopping power. For battles determined at bolo length, it was uniquely effective.


Essentially a Browning A5 by any other name, the Remington Model 11 is a
recoil-operated semi-auto. In the close fighting of the Pacific, it proved dispositive.

A New Design

Browning understandably had high hopes in 1899 when he sent Winchester a newly-designed shotgun he considered “the best thing I ever made.” The long-recoil mechanism was less sensitive to fouling than gas operation, a major advantage as some shotshells of the day still used black powder. The barrel’s movement back into the receiver required its distinctive “humpback” shape, and a clever series of friction rings around the magazine tube adjusted the gun for more or less powerful loads.

The new design immediately put Winchester in a quandary: failure would sully their reputation, while success would take a painful bite out of the 1897’s profitability. Seeing no good options, Winchester slow-walked the new design for nearly two years until Browning, justifiably angry, forced the issue. When Winchester refused his request for royalties, Browning collected his prototypes from the drafting room and left.


The Model 11’s barrel, like the A5, has a distinctive “Humpback” shape.
Due to wartime exigencies, many military shotguns still had a hunting
scene stamped on the receiver.

In the A5/M11, Browning incorporated a clever series of fouling-insensitive
friction rings around the magazine tube to adjust the gun for differing loads.

Across Town

Browning promptly made an appointment with an enthusiastic Marcellus Hartley, president of Remington Arms. Browning reported to Hartley’s office, prototypes in hand, and was duly waiting for his appointment to start when Hartley died of a heart attack.

No doubt feeling snakebit, Browning then contacted Fabrique Nationale in Belgium, which had already produced his first pistol design. Thus, in 1903, production began on the Browning Automatic Five (usually called “Auto-5” or A5), so named for its 4+1 capacity. It was the first mass-produced semiautomatic shotgun.

Remington also produced the design in the U.S. starting in 1905. The Remington version, lacked the magazine cutoff of the A5, was named the Model 11 in 1911.

Seeing little use in WWI, the Model 11 was much more widely used in World War II where sporting versions were used to teach aerial gunnery. Remington delivered over 60,000 M11s during the war and Savage produced an additional 14,000 identical Model 720s. Early military M11s still have a stamped-in game scene on both sides of the receiver and a commercial-level polish. Later guns with a rougher finish were stamped “military finish,” perhaps because it would have hurt Remington’s pride for people to think it met their standards otherwise.

T.C. Johnson, the firearms designer tasked by Winchester with creating a semiauto shotgun to compete with the A5, said it took him nearly a decade to design one not infringing on Browning’s patents. The end result, the Model 1911, fared poorly, partially as a result of having no charging handle, a feature Browning had patented. Instead you grasped a checkered portion of the barrel and pulled it backwards, an awkward arrangement leading to unsafe handling and enough deaths to give it the nickname “Widowmaker.”


A holdover from the Model 97, the M12’s takedown feature is a clever,
tool-less way to break the gun down. It can also be adjusted to accommodate for wear.

The Model 37 both loads and ejects through the bottom of the receiver, with no opening on top or sides to allow in water, dirt or garbage into the bowels of the receiver.

Getting It Right

Johnson did much better with the Model 12 pump, introduced first in 1912 in 20-gauge and followed quickly by 12- and 16-gauge versions. Sleek and clean of line, the hammerless Model 12 is elegant as a cobra and even with the passage of a century, its classic lines don’t look dated. It was quickly nicknamed the “Perfect Repeater” and renowned for smoothness.
Like the ’97, the Model 12 slam-fires, which makes it possible to fire very fast — so fast Ernest “Papa” Hemingway claimed he could shoot one faster than a Sten submachinegun.

The Model 12 arrived too late to see widespread use in WWI. It remained in inventory long enough to serve in Vietnam but the perfect repeater came into its own in the bloody Pacific during WWII. They were available either as a 20″ riot gun or in trench configuration with heat shield and bayonet mount. The ’12 was much beloved by Marines who did the heavy lifting in the Pacific’s bunkers, caves and jungles — they often resorted to outright theft from supply depots and other units to acquire enough shotguns for their task.


The Ithaca 37 was the longest-made of the four guns profiled, with over
two million produced. It saw its greatest usage in Vietnam and even had
a memorable role in Miami Vice!

Ithaca Model 37

Perhaps as a bit of repartee Browning designed his last repeating shotgun, a pump, in 1913 right after the M12 surfaced. Initially produced in 20-gauge as the Remington Model 17, Ithaca waited patiently for the patents to expire before marketing its version in 1937.

Also slam-fire-capable until liability concerns led to a rework eliminating the feature, the Model 37 both loads and ejects through the bottom. There is no opening on the top or either side of the receiver. A unique shell carrier does double duty, flinging the empty out the bottom while the next shell rides along its upper surface, ready to be pivoted up and into the chamber as the pump comes forward.

Helpful for lefties, it leaves a bit more of the mechanism visible from the bottom than we’re used to seeing but this is offset by the benefit of only having a single downward-facing entry point for debris.

Arriving too late for WWI, the M37 nonetheless saw action in WWII, though it’s one of the rarer military shotguns of the era. Used in training, trench and riot versions, just under 6,600 were delivered as the Ordnance Department quickly decided Ithaca’s manufacturing capacity was better spent making M1911A1 pistols.

Where the 37 made its greatest impact, though, was in Vietnam. Ithaca produced somewhere over 40,000 riot Model 37s, 22,000 of which were for the South Vietnamese Army. A smaller number of trench guns were made, most of which were for a 1967 contract with the Navy and reportedly used by the SEALS.

An unusual accouterment was the muzzle-mounted “duckbill” diverter, a choke-like device intended to broaden the gun’s pattern. Whatever its effectiveness in the field may have been, it hasn’t really lived past the conflict. Vietnam also saw the advent of the Remington 870 as a military shotgun, but that starts another list of shotguns …

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