If you want to get technical, sawed-off shotguns aren’t necessarily against federal law, though they may be against your state laws. What are federally illegal are “short-barreled shotguns”, which have a very specific definition and may not include every single shotgun that has had some of the barrel sawed off.
If your first thought was, “don’t handguns exist?”, the answer is yes, in my not-so-humble opinion, this law makes zero sense and the only reason it hasn’t changed is because 80% of the voting population has no understanding of firearms whatsoever.
What Are Sawed-Off Shotguns?
Sawed-off shotguns are those that have been cut shorter than they were originally manufactured. This is done by cutting down the barrel or stock of a shotgun, usually to make it more compact and easier to conceal. This only becomes a problem when the barrels are shorter than 18 inches and/or the overall length is less than 26 inches.
In those cases, sawed-off shotguns are also referred to as “short-barreled shotguns” (SBS) or “sawed-off shotguns”, and the term “sawed-off” is often used as a slang term for these weapons. The classification of what does and does not count can get complicated, so we’ll only give the highlights in this article and focus more on the “why.”
As mentioned, short-barreled shotguns are those with barrels shorter than 18 inches, or an overall length of less than 26 inches. These weapons are typically more compact and easier to conceal than their full-sized counterparts. An important distinction here is that the “overall length” is measured from the butt of the stock to the end of the barrel.
That will become important later.
Why Are Sawed-off Shotguns Illegal?
Sawed-off shotguns are illegal because they are deemed to be a threat to public safety. This is supposedly due to their shorter barrels, which can (supposedly) cause more damage and make them easier to conceal.
The federal government’s National Firearms Act prohibits the possession of sawed-off shotguns, defining them as “destructive devices”. The law also states that it is illegal to modify a shotgun to make it a short-barreled shotgun.
It is worth noting that having a shorter barrel makes the pellets spread out faster as they fly, but we’re talking about a difference of centimeters even for an incredibly short barrel. Additionally, the shorter barrel reduces the velocity of the projectiles, meaning they don’t penetrate as far as they would out of a typical shotgun. In this sense, they are actually less dangerous than a full-length shotgun.
What the Law Actually Says
Short-barreled shotguns were made illegal in 1934. Specifically, it classifies short shotguns into a few different categories depending on the circumstances. If it is a shotgun (as they define it) that has a barrel shorter than 18 inches, it’s automatically an SBS (short-barreled shotgun), which is an NFA item and requires you to jump through the same hoops as a suppressor if you want to legally own it.
If it’s a literal sawed-off shotgun that has been modified to have a barrel shorter than 18 inches or an overall length less than 26 inches, it’s now a “weapon made from a shotgun” and boom, it’s an NFA item with a $200 tax stamp.
There are other cases where it might be classified as an AOW (any other weapon) or a destructive device, but those are less common. A shotgun might be an AOW if it’s essentially a pistol designed to shoot shot shells. It might be a destructive device if it has a bore larger than .5” in diameter.
The Rationale Behind the Law
The rationale behind the law is that sawed-off shotguns are a threat to public safety due to their shorter barrels, which can (again, supposedly) cause more damage, and make them easier to conceal. The law is intended to prevent these weapons from being used in violent crimes.
State Laws Regarding Short Barreled Shotguns
There are a few states that won’t allow you to have a short-barreled shotgun even if you are willing to go through all the federal hoops to do so. These states are the usual culprits – California, Rhode Island, Delaware, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, Illinois, Hawaii, and D.C.
Why the Law Makes No Sense (To me)
The rationale that a shotgun with a shorter barrel could cause more damage seems like pretty weak tea to me. I would counter any argument you could make about the shot spread being wider with the limited tube or magazine capacity and firing rate.
I suppose each individual round might have more destructive power, but what about a gun with triple the rounds? For instance, even a Glock 43 gives you more shots than 99% of shotguns out there, and a spare G43 mag is much easier to pack along wherever you go than an extra magazine full of .12 gauge.
The other argument is supposedly that a short-barreled shotgun is easier to conceal, to which I would respond with confusion! No usable shotgun is going to be easier than handguns that are literally designed to be concealed.
Perhaps this law made more sense in 1934, but it makes zero sense now. While the law annoys me on the level of principle, I would consider it not a particularly urgent fix, since reasonably short shotgun options still exist (described below). I also have a hard time thinking up scenarios in which a super short-barreled shotgun would be the best tool for the job. That’s not to justify unnecessary gun control measures either, it’s just a question of picking the most important battles.
Short Shotguns Options That Are Legal (as of the writing of this article)
1. Mossberg 590 Shockwave
The Shockwave uses some loopholes to get around length requirements. Since a shotgun’s length is measured from the end of the stock to the end of the barrel, if a firearm does not have a stock, it cannot be considered a shotgun, so the Shockwave isn’t required to have at least an 18-inch barrel.
Also, since the pump on the forward grip is required for operation, it cannot be considered a pistol, which would make it an AOW, so it’s just a “firearm”, meaning it can be bought and sold just like any other “firearm” that doesn’t fall under the NFA.
Mossberg 590 Shockwave
The price of Mossberg 590 Shockwave varies, so check the latest price at
3. Black Aces Tactical Pro S
This is a semi-automatic version of the same form factor as the Shockwave, and uses the same justification for not being illegal. It’s still considered illegal in California and Massachusetts, but everywhere else it should be fine. The tube magazine that requires a forward grip makes the difference here.
Black Aces Tactical Pro S
The price of Black Aces Tactical Pro S varies, so check the latest price at
If you could pump it before it was sawed off, you can pump it after. If you find that’s not the case, something has gone horribly awry.
The length of the shotgun barrel is the number one thing that will affect the spread of the projectiles as they come out. A competitive shooter told me that the length of the barrel will affect the spread even more than the choke. If you’re measuring “damage” by spread, then I suppose a sawed-off shotgun has the potential to do a lot more than a standard-length shotgun.
However, a longer barrel also increases muzzle velocity because it gives the gases more time to push on the projectiles with full force, so if you’re measuring “damage” by penetration or stopping power, I would say that a sawed-off shotgun has the potential to do less than a standard-length shotgun.
18 inches, assuming that the firearm meets the ATF’s legal definition of a shotgun. Firearms like the Mossberg and Black Aces Tactical mentioned above are not considered shotguns because they do not have a stock: they have a pistol grip. That is why they are allowed to have barrels that are only 14 inches long.
In summary, short-barreled shotguns (often referred to colloquially as “sawed-off shotguns”) are considered NFA items. They aren’t “illegal” per se, any more than suppressors are illegal. The reasons for this are (in my opinion) silly, but rest assured they are strictly enforced. I would advise you not to do anything against either federal or state law.
If you have a need for some of the functionality that a short-barreled shotgun might offer, then one of the two options above might be a workable solution.