Shotguns are such simple weapons but are honestly one of the most misunderstood. Somehow the myth of the shotgun has created a lot of silly ideas about the combat shotgun, its use, purpose, ad effectiveness. One of these myths is the utility of something known as slam fire. Bring up slam fire on gun forums or in military discussions. You’ll eventually find someone waxing poetically about slam fire, its utility, and how the ‘lawyers’ removed it from modern shotguns.
They are somewhat right about one thing. A company called Ithaca designed a shotgun in 1937, and it wasn’t uncommon for guns of this era to be slam-fire capable. The Ithaca 37 saw decades of production, and it wasn’t until 1975 that Ithaca discontinued the use of slam fire in their shotguns. They were the last holdout, and lawyers likely said it was a feature that needed to go.
Still, the rest of the topic is wrong. Slam-fire isn’t a good feature to have and is dang near useless in real life, and today we’ll talk about why.
What is slam fire?
Slam fire is a term that can apply to a multitude of weapons. It doesn’t just happen with shotguns. A slam fire is a discharge that occurs while a cartridge is being loaded into the chamber. This is an accidental discharge and signifies something is wrong with the firearm most of the time.
Today we are specifically talking about shotguns that slam fire as the action closes because the shooter is holding down the trigger and working the action. This type of slam fire is intentional (or is most often intentional) and done on purpose. You hold the trigger and work the pump action to slam fire a slam-fire capable shotgun. As the action closes, the weapon fires.
This feature was very common on early pump-action repeating shotguns. Guns like the Winchester 1893 and 1897 can both be slam fired. So could the Ithaca 37, the Winchester Model 12, and many more. Simply hold the trigger down and work the pump. The weapon will fire as long as the gun has ammunition and the trigger is held down.
Why people think it’s valuable
The combat shotgun was subject to a great pedigree in World War I. American forces famously used the Winchester 1897 trench shotgun, which became a legend. That legend was spurned by a protest issued by the German Kaiser. The Kaiser saw it as a violation of the rules of warfare, making it sound quite dangerous.
There is some missing context to that legacy. The Kaiser issued Diplomatic Protests all the time. The Winchester 1897 Trench gun was highlighted because it was a silly protest. In a war with poison gas, artillery, and machine guns, protesting shotguns seemed silly. The Kaiser was losing the war, though, and was doing anything to save face and blamed Allied forces.
While shotguns were effective weapons, they didn’t have a chance to make a big difference, even though Germany declared them inhumane. They arrived in France in April of 1918, and the war was over by November 11th, 1918. I assure you that the guns didn’t end the war in six months.
I told you that whole story because the 1897 had the slam-fire capability, which does separate it from most modern shotguns. People assume that slam-fire capability and the Winchester 1897 were so fearsome that the capability must have been useful.
The slam fire capability would seem to grant you an increased rate of fire because of the lack of the need to pull the trigger more than once. Just hold it down, pump the action and let it fire away. That will allow you to lay down a wall of lead and make the shotgun even deadlier.
Why is it silly
It sounds great, but in reality, it’s silly. Slam fire isn’t useful for a few reasons. First, it makes the shotgun impossible to control decisively. Shotguns are sharp-recoiling weapons, and control is a must-have. The most effective means of controlling a shotgun is the push/pull mitigation technique.
This technique requires pulling the stock rearward into your shoulder and pressing the pump forward. You create tension in the gun and reduce both muzzle rise and recoil. When slam firing, you can never lock that forward arm forward, meaning you never get maximum control over the gun.
When you lack control of the gun, it’s bucking, jumping, and kicking, ensuring you are much more likely to miss your target. Slam fire and its perceived advantages are also reinforced by a misunderstanding of how buckshot pellets spread.
This assumption is that buckshot almost instantly forms a huge pattern with a massive spread between each pellet. In reality, the Olin Military Spec buckshot used by the US Military only spreads between six to eight inches at ten yards or so. Modern tactical buckshot does even better than that.
It’s not faster
Second, it’s not faster either. I borrowed a Winchester 1897 clone and tested it against a standard, and the modern military issued Mossberg 590A1. I did two tests, first was a timed trial to just empty five rounds from the gun. The second test was an aimed fire drill to put five rounds on five targets as fast as possible. For both tests, I’d slam fire the Winchester clone.
There were no noticeable differences in the first test, and I fired the test four times. The guns could be emptied within fractions of a second from each other, with the Mossberg winning twice and the Winchester clone winning twice.
In the second test with aimed fire, the Mossberg won easily. Trying to slam firing moving from target to target was difficult. My support hand holding the pump rearward meant it was providing zero support to the gun, and since it fired without being able to effectively brace the gun, I had less control. This translated to slower-fired, accurately aimed shots.
What about XYZ’s video…
When it comes to this argument, I often get hit with a video from SASS. SASS is the Single Action Shooting Society. It’s a sport shooting group that use old west era firearms. They often use Winchester 1897s and clones in competition. You’ll see some impressive slam fire techniques.
Understand that these competitors use the lightest loaded, least recoiling rounds possible to give them the most control and fastest split times. These reduced recoil loads and heck, even the competition itself is not representative of military action or ammo.
If you want a faster shotgun, use a semi-auto like the military-issued M1014.
Slam fire facts
Slam fire isn’t necessarily more dangerous. It does present a possible failure point for new shooters to cause an accident, but it can be plenty safe. It’s ultimately not ended, and if it was valuable, the military would make it a required feature of modern combat shotguns. It’s just not useful.
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