Are Sawed Off Shotguns Legal?

Last Updated on July 8, 2024.
Are Sawed Off Shotguns Legal

If you’re interested in buying or building a sawed off shotgun, you should be aware of the laws governing this class of weapon. Sawed off shotguns are regulated but legal, depending on how you intend to buy it.

Sawed Off and Coach Guns

Sporting shotguns have traditionally had long barrels. But soldiers, including cavalrymen and security guards, have long realized the utility of short-barreled shotguns for both offensive and defensive applications. 

Wells Fargo Co. messengers, riding on stagecoaches, would carry short-barreled shotguns, sometimes sawed off, for defense against armed robbery. These weapons were typically double-barreled break-action shotguns firing 10- or 12-gauge shells. As a result, these weapons are called “coach guns” to this day. A shotgun messenger riding alongside the driver of a stagecoach is also where the phrase “riding shotgun” comes from.

U.S. soldiers have used pump-action shotguns with riot-length barrels for more than a century. While these weapons are not strictly sawed off, they reflect the need for reduced overall length, enabling increased maneuverability in trenches, inside vehicles, and clearing buildings. 

What do you need to know to join the ranks of heroes and villains who have carried these powerhouses into battle?

Sawed Off Shotguns and Other Compact Weapons

A sawed off shotgun is a short-barreled shotgun, or SBS, according to the National Firearms Act of 1934 and Gun Control Act of 1968. The unauthorized possession of a sawed off shotgun is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine

Congress passed the NFA following the rise of Prohibition-era organized crime and a slew of bank robberies in the early 1930s, perpetrated by such famous figures as John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. 

The sawed off shotgun was deemed a gangster weapon unsuitable for legitimate purposes, such as self-defense or hunting. This was partially due to its concealability. Bank robbers, such as Clyde Barrow, had transformed several firearms into concealable tools of the trade, including the Browning Automatic Rifle. These modifications enabled him to carry rifles and shotguns, far more powerful than any handgun at the time, under a coat. 

However, before the use of such weapons by gangsters and bank robbers, these weapons, or weapons like them, had already been in use by military personnel, both during declared wars and undeclared police actions. 

United States v. Miller (1939)

One of the earliest cases in which the United States Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment was United States v. Miller. In this case, the defendants Jack Miller and Frank Layton had been indicted for transporting a sawed off shotgun from Oklahoma to Arkansas. 

Having not registered the firearm and paid for a tax stamp, they had violated the National Firearms Act. In their defense, they argued, in part, that the NFA violated the Second Amendment and was, thus, unconstitutional. 

The U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment as protecting those firearms suitable for the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia.

However, the Court also ruled that, due to the absence of evidence showing that a sawed off shotgun had some connection to this objective, the Second Amendment did not protect it.

However, it could be argued that had the Court understood the historical use of sawed off and short-barreled shotguns by soldiers, sailors, police officers, and private citizens, they may have ruled differently. 

How Do I Buy a Sawed Off Shotgun?

What makes a sawed off shotgun legal? Despite being associated with criminals, sawed-off shotguns are legal if you file the correct form, complete a background check, pay a fee, submit photographs and fingerprints, and wait until you receive approval. In other words, the procedure for buying or building a sawed off shotgun is the same as buying or building a sound suppressor or machine gun. The same law regulates all three. 

Before contemplating buying a sawed off shotgun, or any firearm, you should ensure that you’re legally entitled to possess firearms. You’ll need to be at least 21 years of age to purchase an NFA firearm — the same as buying a handgun from an FFL. If you want to build a short-barreled shotgun, you’ll need to fill out ATF Form 1 (Application to Make and Register a Firearm).

Alternatively, if you’re more interested in buying one, you’ll need to fill out ATF Form 4. Both forms have the same list of questions as the ATF Form 4473, asking you, for example, whether you’ve ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor domestic violence. The purpose of these questions is to determine whether you’re what the ATF classifies as a prohibited person. That is, someone prohibited from either receiving or possessing firearms. Once you fill these questions in, you will have to successfully complete a background check

What Constitutes Short-Barreled?

While a short-barreled shotgun may seem like a relative classification — a legal riot gun is short-barreled compared with a full-length hunting gun — this category refers specifically to a gun whose overall length is less than 26” and whose barrel or barrels are less than 18”

This applies to the traditional sawed off shotgun, which is an exposed-hammer or hammerless double-barreled shotgun. In Italy, this weapon is called a lupara. Most depictions of this weapon, such as in The Godfather, demonstrate this weapon’s effectiveness as a close-range assassination tool. 

However, in addition to security guards, farmers and ranchers have also used these weapons for their ease of handling and power at short ranges.

If you have the right of self-defense, who’s to say that you shouldn’t be able to conveniently carry a more powerful weapon than a handgun? Well, your state may have a thing or two to say about that; therefore, you should check your local laws carefully. If your state declares that you may only carry a concealed handgun and not a short-barreled shotgun, you should heed that warning and proceed accordingly. 

Won’t the Spread Become Dangerous?

Unless you cut the barrels down significantly, the spread of buckshot in a cylinder-bore shotgun should not open up dramatically in comparison with the barrel of a riot-length weapon (i.e., 18–20”). 

However, you should always test the spreading pattern of your shotgun with different types of ammunition against paper targets at various distances to ensure that there is some degree of consistency. 

If you want to tighten the spreading pattern more than what different ammunition types can enable, consider installing a screw-in choke in one or both of the barrels. An adjustable choke also affords you the flexibility necessary for finding the perfect balance.

​Do I Need a Sawed Off Shotgun?

When asking what makes a sawed off shotgun legal, you should also ask whether you need one. A non-NFA shotgun is sufficient for most practical and sporting purposes. 

The reason some gun owners choose to buy or build sawed off shotguns is the added convenience of being able to carry or maneuver a more compact scattergun. However, unless you require a weapon tailored to accommodate specialized applications, what you can find at your local gun store or sporting goods store will probably be enough.

The Takeaway

You can own a sawed off shotgun, legally, depending on your state of residence. It’s just a matter of filling out paperwork and paying a fee.

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