Why Are Sawed-Off Shotguns Illegal? [Solved]

When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Learn more.

A weapon as excellent as it is devastating, the sawed-off shotgun is a favorite of everyone from farmers to law enforcement to criminals. But things aren’t that simple for this short-barreled weapon. Owning a sawed-off shotgun is generally illegal in America, but why?

Sawed-off shotguns are illegal since they are easily concealable but fire shotgun shells. Their short barrels blast pellets over a wide radius, making them highly dangerous at close range. The NFA 36 restricts short-barrel shotguns, but you can still acquire them with an ATF permit in some states.

Read on to learn the laws surrounding sawed-off shotguns, what counts as one, why they’re illegal, and how you can still get one yourself. We’ll take a thorough look at their uses and history too, plus advice on if they’re the gun for you.

Why Are Sawed-Off Shotguns Illegal

How Is A Sawed-Off Shotgun Legally Defined?

The government refers to sawed-off shotguns as short-barrel shotguns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) controls the sale and ownership of short-barrel shotguns. The term short-barrel shotgun came with the National Firearms Act of 1936 (NFA 36), which regulated them. It made them more complex for civilians to acquire.

According to the ATF, a short-barrel shotgun has a barrel length of under 18 inches. Not only that, but it must have a total length of fewer than 26 inches.

Compared to the length of the regular shotgun (anything from 18 inches to over 24 inches), this length is relatively short. Of course, the term short-barrel shotgun refers here to a sawed-off. While some manufacturers do sell short-barrel shotguns, most are homemade.

So then, a sawed-off shotgun has a shorter-than-average barrel, resulting in a shorter overall length. Sometimes a weapon with a full-length barrel can count as a sawed-off – that can happen when you cut down the shoulder stock to a pistol grip.

Remember that the term “short-barrel shotgun” only applies to shotguns that originally had shoulder stocks – even if you removed that stock.

A handgun that fires shotgun shells isn’t legally considered a shotgun in America. Instead, the ATF classifies these pistol-grip shotguns under the Any Other Weapon (AOW) category. Even if you need two hands to fire such a weapon correctly, this classification is the case.

Regardless of whether sawed-offs are considered AOWs or short-barrel shotguns, the ATF regulates these weapons because of how dangerous they are. Unlike pistols and revolvers, initially under the NFA 36, sawed-off shotguns are incredibly devastating. They remain regulated in ways handguns aren’t.

Why Are Sawed-Off Shotguns So Dangerous?

Sawed-off shotguns are considered dangerous for several reasons, which is why they’re so strictly regulated. Although many of these reasons also apply to AOWs or handguns, discussing that isn’t this article’s purpose. Sawed-offs are interesting enough as is.

Easy To Conceal And Maneuver

A primary reason why sawed-off shotguns are dangerous – and therefore illegal – is because they are so easy to conceal.

Unlike the long barrels and stocks of other shotguns, a sawed-off is straightforward to hide on your person.

Since sawed-offs aren’t much larger than a handgun, and you can conceal them in many of the same ways. You could slip one under your coat, keep it in your glove box, or hide it in your backpack or suitcase while walking down the street.

While this is great for self-defense purposes, this level of concealability makes sawed-off shotguns remarkably dangerous. Law enforcement can’t be sure without patting you down that you’re carrying one – and they’re much more deadly than the average handgun.

Their small size means makes them easy to maneuver too. Unlike full-length shotguns, you can swing a sawed-off around in close quarters.

Suppose the police pull over a man for speeding. If he’s carrying a standard shotgun, there’s no danger. However, if he has a sawed-off, he could shoot at the cops from where he’s sitting in the driver’s seat. And that would be a more devastating shot than if he used a pistol.

The same rationale applies to bank robbers – who are often stereotyped as using sawed-offs. One minute, everything is normal. The next, three men just pulled sawed-off shotguns out of their coats and are taking hostages.

Deadly At Close Range

Not only are they simple to hide, but sawed-off shotguns are also deadly at close range. Their short barrels might be highly inaccurate, but this is an advantage in many fights.

You won’t use a sawed-off to shoot at a target any further than across a room, but you typically won’t have to. In contrast to a standard shotgun, the sawed-off’s shortened barrels spray the pellets in a wide arc. Anything nearby gets obliterated.

Because a sawed-off is likely to hit anything roughly in front of it, aiming becomes far less important at close range. That’s another reason why sawed-off shotguns remain illegal.

Sawed-off shotguns fire the same shells (usually 12 gauge) as regular shotguns do. And if you’ve ever gone hunting with a double barrel, you’ll have seen first-hand the damage that buckshot can do.

Imagine the damage of buckshot spread across a multiple-yard radius. That’s what a sawed-off can do. Similarly, sawed-offs are easier to handle in fights because of their shorter barrels.

And while you might need to aim with your handgun to kill somebody, merely pointing the sawed-off in their direction and pulling the trigger will do the job if they’re close enough. And getting close up is easy because you can hide the shotgun better than a full-length model.

History Of Criminal Use

Sawed-off shotguns have a long history of illegal use. Although there are several legal uses for them (the military and police make heavy use of these weapons), the stereotypical break-action sawed-off stays in the gangster’s hands.

Being easy to hide and move around while retaining a far larger gun’s lethality makes sawed-off shotguns a favorite lightweight weapon of criminals.

Those characteristics make the sawed-off shotgun the perfect choice for anyone who needs to draw a devastating weapon suddenly. Bank robbers, muggers, and gangsters have all found extreme, tragic success wielding a sawed-off.

They’re also cheap to make (as we’ll show later in this article.) Shotguns are commonly available and affordable, and so are the hacksaws needed to shorten their barrels. You don’t need money or excellent skills to make a sawed-off.

Furthermore, like all shotguns, sawed-offs are smooth-bore. Unlike rifles and pistols, the insides of their barrels do not have rifling (grooves than spin a bullet inside the barrel). Sawed-offs being smooth-bore means that police ballistics can’t track their shots to specific guns.

So, not only is a sawed-off shotgun a deadly weapon you could make with household tools, but it does not leave as many traces as its competitors.

Since you’ll also be firing shotgun shells with it, it has the potential to disfigure your target too. Buckshot can take a man’s face clean off, making it difficult for forensics to identify him. Of course, the government would be uncomfortable with criminals having easy access to a weapon that can do that.

Lastly, sawed-off shotguns are intimidating weapons. Although being shot by any gun is a terrifying prospect for most people, a sawed-off looks deadly. It looks illegal. A sawed-off shotgun is ideal if you need to pick a firearm to scare civilians.

Legal Issues Surrounding Sawed-Off Shotguns

First, each state regulates short-barrel shotguns differently. The information we provide is accurate at a national level. Keep in mind that certain places will impose additional restrictions or ban sawed-offs outright.

We also aren’t lawyers. Although this information is accurate, it’s for entertainment and educational purposes – it isn’t legal advice. If you’re seriously considering acquiring a sawed-off shotgun, go for it but check your local laws first.

Now that’s out the way, the first thing you’ll need to do is decide if you’re buying an existing sawed-off or going to make your own.

Buying A Sawed-Off Shotgun

If you’re allowed to do so in your state, the first thing you’ll need to do is file Form 4. This price of paperwork is the Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration, which is necessary for the sale of firearms like short-barrel shotguns.

Next, you should submit two passport-sized photos and your fingerprints to the ATF so that they can run a background check on you. Don’t try to buy a sawed-off shotgun if you have a criminal history, as the ATF and FBI will reject your request.

Afterward, you’ll need to purchase the $200 Tax Stamp. You’ll need to do that before each interstate and intrastate transfer you do with the sawed-off.

Finally, if everything is approved, you should receive your permit for the sawed-off shotgun in anywhere from six to nine months. After it arrives, you can keep the weapon in your own home (while you might be able to purchase it before, you won’t be able to carry it).

Modifying An Existing Shotgun

It’s also possible – and popular – to make a sawed-off shotgun. Of course, don’t do that to a rare shotgun or one you rely on in daily life. As we’ll show later on, sawed-offs have some downsides that make them unable to act as regular shotguns most of the time.

However, once you’ve decided which shotgun you will shorten, there’s some paperwork you’ll have to do. While you could immediately cut down the gun, there are legal implications to that.

It would help if you began by filling out Form 1, the Application to Make and Register a Firearm. Then send your fingerprints and photos to the ATF as you did before. After you pass the background check, you can start making your weapon.

Keep in mind that you must also still pay for the $200 Tax Stamp in this case. Failing to do so results in your sawed-off being unregistered, which comes with a severe fine. Not only that, but you’ll also lose your gun rights for life.

If you have everything in order, though, then we can begin. To convert a shotgun into a sawed-off, you’ll need to use a cutting tool to cut the barrels down to your desired length (which you had to specify in Form 1). Hacksaws are the go-to here, but you could also use an angle grinder if you’re precise enough.

After cutting the barrels, square the muzzle off using a milling machine. Depending on the shotgun-style you used, you might also need to fill the gaps between the barrels using a filler material like lead solder.

You may also want to adjust the weapon’s forend, ideally so the woodwork or plastic doesn’t extend past the shortened barrels. Sanding it and polishing it is a good idea, especially if you have to cut it down to size.

Implications For Illegally Possessing A Sawed-Off

We know we’ve harped on about the laws surrounding acquiring sawed-off shotguns legally. We’ve done so because failing to follow them has dramatic consequences.

Possessing an unregistered sawed-off shotgun is punishable with a $10,000 fine or ten years in federal prison. You’ll also have your gun rights revoked.

Not only does that give you a criminal record for something easily avoidable, but this issue can also count as aggravating circumstances. Suppose you get caught doing anything else illegal (like speeding) and the police discover an unregistered sawed-off on you. In that case, you can quickly receive a far harsher sentence.

Legitimate Uses Of Sawed-Off Shotguns

Police And Military

Although theirs aren’t homemade, the police and military also use sawed-off shotguns. They use short-barrel shotguns to breach doors. Getting forcible entry like this is helpful not only for SWAT raids – it’s a vital part of urban warfare.

Tank crews also use short-barrel shotguns as sidearms. Similarly, troops specialized in close quarters combat carry them too. A sawed-off’s lightweight and small size are vital when fighting in caves, tunnels, or room to room.

Civilian Applications

One of the best uses for a sawed-off shotgun is in self-defense. You’re combining the concealability of a handgun with shotgun shells.

While a single shot from a 9mm isn’t going to put everyone down, blasting them with a sawed-off will kill them.

As we know, this lethality is significant because certain drugs make people immune to pain. Therefore, if you can’t drop them with your shot, they’re not going down.

Sawed-off shotguns are excellent against these resilient attackers, as rare as they may be. They’re effective against everyone else, too, including hijackers. Unlike a typical shotgun, you can keep a sawed-off in the front seat of your car.

Remember that sawed-offs have a widespread (unless you’re using slugs, which defeats the point). People often use hollow points in self-defense for a reason. You don’t want to be picking buckshot out of your walls or television.

Of course, not everyone needs a sawed-off for self-defense. If you’re reading this article, you probably own a handgun for that already.

No, you might want a sawed-off shotgun because they look fantastic.

We’ve all seen Mad Max. There’s no denying it. Despite their criminal associations (or maybe because of them), sawed-off shotguns are iconic weapons. Even if you’d only take yours to the range once a month, they’re still something extraordinary to keep on your mantlepiece.

Downsides Of Short-Barrel Shotguns

Shortening a shotgun’s barrel has significant downsides, however. Even though you might make the weapon easier to maneuver and conceal, sawed-off shotguns aren’t as practical as their standard barrel counterparts.

Sawed-offs are far less accurate than standard shotguns. While they are more devastating up close, you can’t use them for hunting or sports shooting. Since they don’t have a choke, their pellets will scatter randomly across a vast radius.

Similarly, sawed-off shotguns are difficult to aim. Of course, you probably won’t need to, but you need to aim the gun on the off chance you’re out of luck. Many sawed-offs aren’t sighted, and there’s no standard for the ones that are.

The weapon’s lighter weight also increases its recoil. Even though a sawed-off is portable, you’ll still feel its kick. And, because you’ve taken half a barrel off and cut down the stock, there’s far less mass to absorb that kick. The recoil from a sawed-off is among the worst of any gun.

The shorter barrel also reduces muzzle velocity. That means that, while your pellets hit a wider area, they’re also moving slower. Each shot is less deadly overall.

This recoil is terrible with pistol-grip sawed-offs. They’re effective at what they do, but shooting them will hurt your wrists no matter who you are.

The stereotypical break-action sawed-off has another downside to it, too. Most people fire both barrels simultaneously. Doing so wastes ammunition and damages the weapon’s durability.

Not only that, but the recoil from a double-barrel shot is tremendous. You probably won’t hit much, and anything you would hit, you could destroy with one shell. Two is overkill.


To conclude, sawed-off shotguns have barrels less than 18 in long. Although they aren’t outright illegal in most states, they are regulated by the NFA 36. You’ll need to submit paperwork to the ATF before buying or making one.

The reasons for their regulation are that sawed-offs are concealable weapons that do heavy damage at close range. Combined with their long history of criminal use, these characteristics make them intimidating weapons.

Even though they do have legitimate uses, sawed-off shotguns have many downsides that make them unviable in several situations. They are far less accurate than standard shotguns, with worse recoil and durability.

Regardless, sawed-off shotguns remain iconic weapons, and you can own one yourself if you follow the correct procedures.

Related Articles