Classic C&R Short-Barrel Shotguns

By Robert G. Segel

Short-barrel shotguns are gaining a resurgence in popularity for a number of reason that include impressive firepower in a compact package for personal defense, home defense and pest control. These weapons are regulated under the 1934 National Firearms Act with registration with the government and a transfer tax. However, prior to the passage of that Act, several companies offered to the public their version of a small, highly effective, close combat short-barrel shotgun.

Often times the term “sawed-off shotgun” is used, but that has a different legal meaning.

A sawed-off shotgun is generally a fully stocked sporting shotgun with a barrel length of 18 inches or longer and has the barrels shortened to less than 18 inches by literally sawing the barrels with a hacksaw or band saw. This alteration requires prior BATFE approval and a $200 transfer tax. However, if the shotgun was originally manufactured with a less than 18-inch barrel and never had a shoulder stock attached, it is classified as an Any Other Weapon (AOW) and only a $5 transfer tax is involved.

The concept of a small compact shotgun is not new, and there are a few examples of classic AOWs that were made in the early 20th century that are classified as Curio and Relics (C&R). The advantage of such a weapon is compactness, firepower, and, with short barrels, the shot pattern expands quickly at a shorter distance making it a close-combat type of weapon not meant for long-distance hunting work. A close quarter shotgun blast has devastating effects.

In the first decades of the 20th century, in the 1920s and 1930s Depression era, lawlessness abounded with home invasion and bank and highway robberies. Not only did banks and other institutions have to protect their valuables and assets with their own security personnel, because there was no government Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to cover losses from holdups, but civilians too had to take it upon themselves to protect their welfare; particularly motorists who were considered easy prey and were frequently robbed on rural and suburban highways in a then-up-to-date version of stagecoach robbery. Homeowners as well were targets and needed a weapon to confront housebreakers. All of these dangers were present in the immediate post-World War I era. Additionally, ranchers and farmers needed a small lightweight weapon of this type to use against snakes and other small pests as they worked the farm or fields.

Ithaca Auto and Burglar Gun

It was in this climate that the famed Ithaca Gun Company of Ithaca, New York, was the first to recognize the need and introduced a fighting shotgun in a small and potent package that seemed to address these concerns. Well known for producing a wide array of fine sporting shotguns, they introduced in 1908 a box-action frame designed and developed by Emil Flues. This was the action used in their first model of the Auto and Burglar Gun.

Model A

On June 5, 1922, Ithaca introduced their Auto and Burglar Gun, commonly called the “Model A.” Designed with security in mind to be compact and lightweight, it featured a hammerless action with side-by-side, 10-inch, cylinder-bore barrels chambered in 2-1/2 inch 20 gauge with double triggers and a curving pistol grip resembling that of old dueling pistols with a large spur extending off the top rear of the grip to assist in control during firing. Opening the breech was accomplished by pushing the lever to the right and breaking open the barrels by pushing them down in standard shotgun fashion.

Ithaca was known for their fine quality of workmanship, fit and finish in their sporting guns, and their Auto and Burglar guns featured this same excellence. The Model A was produced from 1922 to 1925 with an estimated 2,500 guns being built with a retail price of $37.50. They were not, however, produced on their own production line. All the Auto and Burglar guns were made on current sporting gun frames, and as inventory was depleted, 100 new sporting frames were taken off the assembly line and made into Auto-Burglar guns. As was typical of all Ithaca Gun Company products, the Auto and Burglar guns featured high quality bluing and colored case hardening on the frame with fine wood with detailed checkering on the grip and forestock.

Model B

By 1925, Ithaca had developed, and began marketing, a new sporting shotgun frame called the NID (New Ithaca Double). Accordingly, all Auto and Burglar guns assembled after this change-over also had the new NID frame.

The NID was still a hammerless box-lock action but was quite different internally. Loaded chamber indicators located on the top of the frame behind each barrel breech were also added. The new NID frame is considered stronger than the Flues frame.

Besides the new NID frame, the new Model B had a redesigned pistol grip. It is this feature that makes visual identification easy to tell apart the difference between the
Model A and the Model B.

The pistol grip on the Model B was changed so that the grip was perpendicular to the barrel-thrust line, and the stock spur was eliminated. The Model B pistol grip has been likened to that of a plowshare by extending straight back and then down. The forestock on the Model B is also slightly thicker and heavier than on the Model A.

The only accessory offered was a leather holster made for the Auto-Burglar Gun, similar to common military holsters of the time, and was available for $4. It was designed to be either worn on the hip attached to a trouser’s belt, hung from the steering column or stored in a car door side pocket or other suitable place in an automobile to provide secure storage yet allow easy access if needed. The holster was long enough so that the entire gun fit within and possessed a flap that covered the butt.

Since both models were pulled from the sporting model production line, the frames of both models contain engraving on each side of the frame of an Irish Setter on point: an incongruous decoration on a fighting shotgun. For a brief period of time of about one year during the transition between 1925 and 1926, the new NID frame Model B Auto and Burglar Gun had rosettes engraved on the frame as decorations and the barrels remained at 10-inches. The rosettes were quickly eliminated, and the barrels were lengthened to 12 inches and chambered for the new 2-3/4-inch, 20-gauge shell. Approximately 800 NID frame Model Bs were produced between 1925 and 1934, when production ceased. As with the Model A, Model Bs were produced in 100 gun lots as needed from Ithaca’s sporting gun production line. One source states that total production of both models was 3,300 guns. Another source states that as many as 4,500 were assembled but not all sold. Though unconfirmed, there is some speculation that Ithaca transferred their remaining unsold stocks to the British during World War II to arm Home Guard and military units after the fall of Dunkirk. Production of Auto and Burglar guns came to an abrupt end in 1934 due to the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934, which effectively killed the market for all short-barrel shotguns—the leaders of the time being the single-shot H&R Handy Gun, the double-barrel Ithaca Auto and Burglar Gun and the 5-shot pump-action Remington Model 17.

The Ithaca Auto and Burglar Gun was designed for the honest citizens to protect themselves and their property from petty criminals with close-range firepower superior to that of any handgun a bandit, thief or assailant might be armed with. Bank and payroll guards, paymasters, night watchmen and express agents and messengers also purchased the gun for use on their jobs.

Testimonies exist that detail the effectiveness of apprehending or subduing criminal activity often with just the threat of brandishing such a potent weapon at close range. A double-barrel charge of buckshot, each with 15 projectiles, was an effective deterrent. Law enforcement personnel within police and sheriff’s departments around the country found the Auto-Burglar Gun ideal for their special situations that required a weapon that possessed their unique characteristics. One of Ithaca’s selling points was, “Even a Nervous Bank Employee Can Hit with an Ithaca Auto and Burglar Gun.”

Though a simple modification of a sporting gun, the Ithaca Auto and Burglar Gun was the right gun at the right time that answered the call for which it was designed. Civilian users, motorists, homeowners, security and law enforcement all recognized the value of a compact, lightweight, hand-held scattergun. One didn’t need to be absolutely accurate as with a single bullet fired from a pistol. With a 15-buckshot projectile blast available from each barrel, the devastating effects were quickly grasped by even the dimmest criminal. The Auto-Burglar Gun is considered to be one of the finest home defense guns ever devised.

Remington Model 17 Special Police Gun

Shotguns have always provided the hunter with a valuable tool. While relatively limited in their range, hurling a number of projectiles in a single blast helped ensure a hit on a moving target whether rabbit or squirrel or pheasant, goose or duck. While the value of the shotgun has always been recognized as a viable implement for guards and security, as a fighting weapon with offensive capabilities, the shotgun came into its own during World War I. Police departments, too, also recognized the potential of the shotgun in their duties.

In an effort to reduce production costs, to create a shotgun that had bottom ejecting capabilities, and to generally redesign the gun to be more efficient operationally, Remington began to look for a new version of their Model 10 shotgun. It was John Browning, with the help of John Pederson, who came up with the new design and applied for a patent on November 26, 1913. The new gun kept most of the basic design features of the Model 10 but was bottom ejecting with a vastly improved operating mechanism with an internal hammer rather than a striker and a twin-forked, spring-steel carrier rather than a flapper type as well as a simpler takedown system. Before the patent was granted on June 15, 1915, Browning made a production agreement with Remington for the manufacturing rights to the gun. As it turned out, when John Browning died in November 1926, this gun was the last slide-action, magazine-fed shotgun he designed.

Remington intended to produce and market this new and innovative sporting five-shot, pump action shotgun in 20 gauge only in 1917, which is why they designated the gun as the Model 17. But World War I soon interfered with their plans. Their manufacturing facilities were swamped with wartime orders for Britain, Russia and American contracts from 1915 through 1918, and tooling for their new shotgun had to be delayed until after the war.

It wasn’t until early 1921 that the new shotgun began to go into production. Originally intended as a sporting gun, it was offered in Standard Grade, Special Grade, Tournament Grade and Expert Grade. The gun was later offered in Riot Grade and Police Grade. The Model 17 was produced from 1921 to 1933 with approximately 73,000 guns being made, in all grades.

Model 17R Riot Gun

In an effort to attract police department sales, Remington introduced the Model 17R Riot Gun as soon as the first production run of sporting guns was completed. This model was essentially their sporting gun that featured a cylinder-bore barrel 20 inches in length with a four-shot magazine capacity, an overall length of about 39 inches and unloaded weighed approximately 5.25 pounds. With a round in the chamber, the overall capacity of the gun was five rounds. The Model 17R was the first 20-gauge riot gun that Remington produced. It should be noted that there was no disconnector to the trigger mechanism thus allowing a “slam-fire” technique of operation if the operator so chose. This means that if the trigger were held back and the pump action cycled, the gun would fire upon the action closing. This allowed a rapid fire operation as fast as the operator could pump the forearm back and forth.

The target market for this gun was relatively small, and the gun did not sell particularly well though those police departments that did purchase it found it useful in some special-purpose situations. During this time period, Ithaca Arms Company introduced in 1922 their 20-gauge Auto and Burglar Gun with 10-inch barrels and pistol grip. This compact little double-barrel shotgun was noted for its ease of operation and particularly for its small size that allowed for easy concealment and use in confined areas. The Auto and Burglar Gun’s major drawback was its two-shot capacity. Remington decided to market their Model 17 to police departments to compete with the Auto and Burglar Gun and produce a “whipit” weapon (so called for its easy concealment and ability to quickly “whip it out” from under a long coat or loose fitting clothing) by retaining all the operational features of the gun in a package that allowed superior firepower in a repeating shotgun in whipit form. This resulted in another extension of the Model 17 product line: the Model 17 Special Police Gun.

Model 17 Special Police Gun

The Model 17 Special Police Gun was a further modification of the standard 20-gauge Model 17 sporting shotgun that now featured a 14.5-inch cylinder-bore barrel with the stock replaced with a wood pistol grip.

This brought the overall length of the gun down to 25.5 inches and an unloaded weight of 4.5 pounds while still maintaining a five-shot capacity. This model is sometimes just simply referred to as the Police Special. There were no special markings to the gun that identified it as the Police Model.

The early production guns of the Model 17 Special Police Gun had a spur to the top of the wood pistol grip that would fit just in front of the webbed portion of the hand between the thumb and forefinger. The early Model A Ithaca Auto and Burglar Gun also had this feature. This spur proved to be undesirable for two reasons: it was uncomfortable to the hand upon firing due to the recoil impulse, and the spur would tend to catch on clothing and hinder a smooth whipit motion in bringing the gun from concealment into action. In the early 1930s, Remington eliminated the spur from the pistol grip that resulted in a smooth curve to the handle. (Ithaca also removed the spur from their gun on their Model B Auto and Burglar Gun.)

The Model 17 Special Police Gun was fitted with a button mounting bolt on the left side of the receiver frame just above the trigger. This allowed the gun to be hooked into a belt to be carried on the hip. One of the gun’s biggest advantages was that it was truly ambidextrous since it loaded from the bottom and ejected from the bottom–a distinct advantage in confined spaces.

The New York City Police Department was one of the first to purchase the Model 17 Special Police Gun where it was well received. Other police departments around the country soon also found favor with this gun including, among others, St. Louis, Missouri and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The exact number of Model 17 Special Police Guns that were sold in the late 1920s and early 1930s is unknown, but the number is low; perhaps several hundred or so. The production of all models of the Model 17 ceased in 1933, and the Model 17 was the last bottom-ejecting gun that Remington produced—though the Model 17 lived on in the form of the Ithaca Model 37 once Browning’s patents had expired.

The Model 17 Special Police Gun found favor with police departments due to its ability to be easily concealed in special operational situations and undercover work beneath a top coat or even rolled up in a newspaper. It was small in size, light in weight, had a low recoil impulse and provided an acceptable number of rounds in a repeating shotgun. In the confines of narrow stairwells and other confined spaces within buildings, this 20-gauge scattergun proved to be up to the task.

H&R Handy Gun

The final classic short-barrel shotgun discussed here is the Handy Gun made by the Harrington and Richardson Company of Worcester, Massachusetts.

It was a simple single-shot, small-gauge shotgun for use by farmers and ranchers primarily as an anti-snake and anti-vermin gun but also could also be used as an anti-bandit and household protection firearm. The Handy Gun was made in several different models that included a smoothbore shotgun barrel and a rifled center fire barrel. In all versions, some 54,000 Handy Guns were produced.

The smoothbore variant was produced from 1921 to 1934 and was available with an 8-inch barrel or 12¼-inch barrel in a choice of calibers with the most popular being the .410 bore (2½-inch chamber except for the last 2,000 guns made that had a 3-inch chamber). It was also available in 20 and 28 gauge. Some of the .410 gauge barrels were choked, and some were not. None of the 28-gauge barrels were choked.

The H&R Handy Gun is a single-shot, breech loading smooth bore pistol. It is often said that it is based on the H&R Model 1915 (No. 5) single-barrel shotgun that was made at the same time as the Handy Gun, but this is not quite correct. The frame for the Handy Gun is a unique frame and the barrel, stock and forends will not interchange with the Model 1915.

The Handy Gun was available in many variations with two styles of pistol grips, two styles of trigger guards and could be had in blue, nickel or color case-hardened finishes.

The H&R Handy Gun was their economical answer to the Ithaca Auto and Burglar Gun. Though it was not manufactured as a fighting weapon, it was designed with individual protection in mind. It was lighter in weight, and, though single shot, it was very useful against snakes and other small game while still being an effective deterrent to home invaders. It was an inexpensive alternative to the Ithaca priced in the area of $12 depending on options. It was well liked by its purchasers, and mainly due to its low price it captured a large part of the market. A leather holster that encased the entire gun was also available to be worn on the hip or placed on the steering column in a car or tractor.

As with all these short-barreled shotguns, their production ceased in 1934 due to the passage of the National Firearms Act, which outlawed all shotguns with barrels less than 18 inches unless registered with the government and a tax paid. This effectively killed the market for this type of weapon to be produced and offered to the public on a large scale.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N4 (May 2017)
and was posted online on March 17, 2017


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