Sawed off shotguns are some of the most iconic firearms in the history of America. They’re often associated with gangster films, home defense, video games, and many other activities! Despite all of that history, however – and because of it – sawed-off shotguns are widely considered to be illegal.
But is that really the case? And if so, why are sawed-off shotguns illegal in the first place? In this article, we’ll break down why sawed-off shotguns are broadly considered to be illegal. But we will also go over the exceptions to that general rule. Furthermore, we’ll break down what constitutes a legal vs. illegal sawed-off shotgun.
Let’s get started.
Sawed-Off Shotguns According to the ATF
Firstly, sawed-off shotguns aren’t technically illegal as a weapon class. Instead, any shotgun is illegal if the barrel is shorter than a certain length.
The ATF or Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, is a federal organization that regulates the creation, sale, purchasing, and use of potentially hazardous items and materials. Firearms fit under its purview.
According to the ATF, a shotgun is always illegal if it fits either of the below descriptions:
- A shotgun’s barrel length is below 18 inches
- The shotgun’s overall length is less than 26 inches
With this in mind, it’s perfectly possible to purchase a shotgun with an overall length of 28 inches and a barrel length of 19 inches. If you saw off one inch of length from that shotgun, the barrel will still be at 18 inches, and the overall length will be 27 inches long. As a result, the shotgun won’t be illegal!
So, Are Sawed-Off Shotguns Illegal?
Technically, no. But in a practical sense, all real sawed-off shotguns are illegal because shotgun barrels are sawed-off down to several inches. In other words, if you are going to saw off your own shotgun’s barrel, you’ll probably take it below the 18-inch mark, as noted by the ATF.
Why Sawed-Off Shotguns Are Illegal
There are many reasons why sawed-off shotguns are “illegal” at the federal and state level, and it mostly stems from their potential capacity for harm and their association with criminal activity. Let’s take a look at each of these elements in turn.
They’re Easy to Conceal
Firstly, sawed-off shotguns are much easier to conceal compared to other shotguns and rifles. For example, if you start with an 18-inch shotgun, then shave off five or more inches from the barrel, you could end up with a very short, deadly weapon you can conceal in a coat or bag.
This easy concealment makes it harder for law enforcement to track sawed-off shotgun use. It’s much easier for a criminal or potential murderer, for example, to sneak a sawed-off shotgun into a public place compared to a much longer rifle or traditional shotgun weapon.
They Can Be Deadly at Close Range
Furthermore, sawed-off shotguns are illegal because they can be very deadly at close ranges.
Like all shotguns, sawed-offs are easy to aim and likely to hit whatever they are pointed at. While it’s true that sawed-off shotguns aren’t usually accurate at long ranges, most of the time, users don’t aim that far, anyway.
Sawed-off shotguns have always used the same kinds of shells as regular shotguns: 12-gauge in most cases.
These shells can do a lot of damage to a human target in short succession. They don’t even require as much accuracy as a common handgun to kill somebody.
They Have a History of Use by Criminals
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, sawed-off shotguns have historically been used by America’s criminal element, particularly in the gangster era of the 1910s to the 1930s.
Because of the above factors – that they can be concealed and easily used at close range to deadly effect – sawed-off shotguns were popular gangster weapons for burglaries, robberies, and violent criminal activities. Unfortunately, sawed-offs are smooth-bore weapons, meaning their barrels don’t have rifling. Therefore, their projectiles are not able to be tracked by police ballistic teams.
Compounding that, sawed-off shotguns are and were very cheap to make. Thus, a criminal could purchase a standard shotgun and relatively easily modify it to gain the above benefits to concealment and close-range use.
This factor, above all else, led to the American government banning sawed-off shotguns in most cases.
When Did Sawed-Off Shotguns Become (Mostly) Illegal?
Sawed-off shotguns became illegal when the National Firearm Act of 1934 was signed into law. Under this legislation, concealed and sawed-off shotguns became essentially illegal in all practical contexts. The law was explicitly put into place in order to control gangster activity and to reduce deadly shootings with these weapon types.
Can You Buy a Sawed-Off Shotgun?
Actually, yes! Even though sawed-off shotguns are mostly illegal, you are allowed to purchase this firearm type. Here’s the step-by-step process to do just that:
- First, you have to file Form 4: Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration. This is the necessary paperwork to sell any concealable firearms like sawed-off or short-barrel shotguns
- Next, submit two passport-size photos and a set of your fingerprints to the ATF. The ATF will do a background check on you, and you will not be allowed to purchase a sawed-off shotgun if you have a criminal history.
- Then, purchase the $200 Tax Stamp. You’ll have to purchase this anytime you transfer the weapon, as well.
If you follow all of those steps, you’ll receive a permit for a sawed-off shotgun in between six and nine months. After you receive your sawed-off shotgun, you can keep it in your home.
On the downside, the ATF does not allow you to actively use a sawed-off shotgun under any circumstances. Because of this, most people who purchase sawed-off shotguns are collectors or those who want them as wall decorations.
What About Modifying a Shotgun?
You can modify an existing shotgun by shortening its barrel. However, you have to fill out Form 1: Application to Make and Register a Firearm.
Once more, you’ll have to send photos and your fingerprints to the ATF to go through a background check, plus pay a $200 Tax Stamp. This registers your sawed-off shotgun as a legal weapon.
Even though it’s possible to modify an existing shotgun and make it a sawed-off, there are few reasons to do that. You won’t be able to use the shotgun in the same cases as you would a standard shotgun firearm, nor will you be able to take it out hunting or into public in any cases.
Who Else Can Legally Use a Sawed-Off Shotgun?
In addition to the above exceptions, certain individuals can legally use sawed-off shotguns under some circumstances. These include:
- Law enforcement officers who work for a duly authorized agency. For instance, a SWAT police officer can use a technically sawed-off shotgun in the course of their duties
- Military or National Guard members. An Army servicemember, for example, could use a sawed-off shotgun in combat
These individuals do not need to fill out dedicated paperwork to use sawed-off shotguns in the course of their duties or work. If they ever choose to reenter the public as civilians and have their own sawed-off shotguns, however, they will need to follow the same process as described earlier.
What is the shortest legal shotgun barrel length?
The shortest legal shotgun barrel length is 18 inches long. If your shotgun’s barrel is fewer than 18 inches long, it is technically “sawed-off” and is illegal.
Is a shotgun with a pistol grip legal?
The legality of a shotgun with a pistol grip depends on state and local laws, as well as the overall length of the firearm.
In some jurisdictions, a shotgun with a pistol grip and an overall length of less than 26 inches might be considered an “Any Other Weapon” (AOW) under the National Firearms Act and subject to similar restrictions and requirements as short-barreled shotguns.
Why can’t you saw off a shotgun barrel?
The ATF prohibits individual citizens from sawing off shotgun barrels without filing paperwork to prevent criminal activity and to prevent shotguns from being concealed or used at close ranges.
All in all, sawed-off shotguns may not be technically illegal, but they are practically illegal for all real purposes. If any shotgun has a barrel below 18 inches long, or if a shotgun is below 26 inches long overall, it’s illegal to buy, sell, or use, full stop.
That said, it is possible to purchase a sawed-off shotgun under certain circumstances.
If this article was helpful or you have another question, leave a comment below. Or let us know if you have any other information about sawed-off shotguns and federal laws regarding them!