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Killing Them Not Softly: Talking to a Gun Expert About Sawed-Off Shotguns

Photo: Youtube

If you’ve seen enough movies, you’ve heard people talk about sawed-off shotguns (or sawn-off shotguns). And given the way that characters usually talk about them, it’s clear that it’s a type of shotgun that is somehow more intimidating than a regular shotgun. In Killing Them Softly, which came out this past weekend, an amateur criminal uses one in an attempt to look tougher than he is. But why? What are these magically terrifying weapons? Other than being alliteratively fun to say, what do they offer Joe or Jane Murderer? To shoot to the heart of this matter, we e-mailed with a gun expert who has spent a great deal of time researching, collecting, and competing with firearms. (Though, considering how KTS did at the box office, maybe we should’ve spoken with a bomb expert. BOOM!) As a gun developer and builder who has one design being tested by a Special Operations unit that shall remain nameless, our source asked to remain anonymous because, you know, gun reasons.

What is a sawed-off shotgun?
The legal term is a “short-barreled shotgun”. (National Firearms Act of 1936) According the NFA 36, a shotgun must have a barrel length of a minimum of eighteen inches and an overall length of 27 inches, I believe. Anything shorter without the proper procedure and paperwork and it’s a federal felony punishable by ten years and a $250,000 fine.

How does one make one? Is it hard?
Basically, one takes a hacksaw, sawzall, carbide chop saw, and cuts the barrel(s) to the desired length. If concealability is the goal, the butt stock can be cut to a crude pistol grip as well.

Is it legal?
Legal? They can be had legally, yes. First your state must allow them. Then the forms must be filled out in triplicate. Fingerprints are taken, as well a photograph to go on file. Then some of it is sent to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and some to the FBI. The FBI takes about 90 days, give or take, to conduct a serious background check investigation. If anything comes up hinky: application denied. In most urban settings, they are highly illegal.

Why do people (particularly bad guys) use them?
Short-barreled shotguns are devastating at close range. They can fire solid slugs, or multiple lead balls called “shot” (hence the name shotgun). There is buck shot (larger balls), bird shot, small game shot, target shot. The barrels are smooth bore, meaning there is no rifling to leave forensic evidence, such as tool marks behind on the projectiles. No. 12 (“rat shot”) can rip a man like canvas, blow hinges off doors, or eradicate someone’s features, making it more difficult to identify a body and to have an open casket. They are easy to come by, easy to make, easy to conceal, and difficult to trace forensically. And cheap, if disposal is necessary. Limitations are: Range is diminished greatly — to like across a room — and recoil is pretty serious on a twelve-gauge double, firing both barrels at once. Follow-up shots will be slower than say a handgun. Also, it’s kind of an old school “dangerous man” kind of thing among the criminal class. 

Is there a certain person who uses them?
The Irish, Scots, and English criminal class love ‘em. The Sicilians and Corsicans as well. Blacks and Hicks. Inner city, or back up in the hollers. It’s turning a tool of peasant subsistence into a weapon of foreboding severity. They are not all that, they just convey an air of brutality to the wielder that other weapons don’t as much. I can hit a target at 100 yards with a slug from a nineteen-inch barrel. Which is the more effective tool for the job? I’ve seen good God fearin’ folk have ‘em, drug dealers, cops, more than one sweet old lady. It’s a very egalitarian kind of weapon. Poor man’s machine gun. 

The movie is called Killing Them Softly. How softly would this kill someone?
No. 12 shot to the guts would not be a soft way to go. A slug to the cerebral cortex would be messy, but pretty painless for the victim … I would imagine.

Are there are other movie gun clichés that really bug you?
I’m glad you asked. Gratuitous pumping of pump shotguns. And cocking Glocks. Glocks do not have hammers to cock.

Talking to a Gun Expert About Sawed-Off Shotguns