Can I Own a Short-Barreled Shotgun Under the NFA

Can I Own a Short-Barreled Shotgun Under the NFA?  What’s The Big Question About These? It Seems Like Everyone Is Confused.  

As an attorney and gun shows today blog contributor, who sometimes addresses NFA questions in the scope of my profession, I have encountered variations of these questions several times. The answer to whether you can own a short-barreled shotgun under the NFA is MAYBE! This blog post should increase your knowledge and help you understand how the law may apply in your state.

A close look at “why” the answer is “maybe” explains why there is such confusion. As a caveat, this blog post does not address other weapons that may be made from shotguns, or are similar to shotguns, and provided for under other NFA provisions. Instead, it focuses specifically on a shotgun as a long gun, which is designed to be fired from the shoulder, with a barrel less than 18″ in length.

To get to the bottom of the confusion, a quick peek into history is necessary. At least back to the Roaring 20s, a sawed-off shotgun (i.e., one with short barrels, although sometimes the stock), usually a double barrel, has been associated with a criminal’s tool-in-trade for handling an immediate live-or-die encounter with the good guys–be it a citizen fighting back when being shaken down for money by a Mafia figure or bad guy trying to avoid capture and arrest in a police encounter.

This weapon (although limited in rounds) is an immediate game-changer and has been rightly or wrongly associated with the criminal (usually) – the infamous sawed-off shotgun. Sometimes this is also referred to as a Coachman’s gun, as a similar firearm was used by stage coach drivers for fighting off bandits up close, where precise aim was not possible with the simultaneous handling the horses.

In its most elementary and crude form and statement, a sawed-off, double barrel shotgun put everything in front of it, and to a fairly significant range to the right and left, in the kill zone. Precise aim was not needed.

The short barrel and dozens of pellets from shot shell made a wide pattern of projectiles (buckshot) and multiple people could be injured or killed from a single shot. On a larger scale, and by analogy to anyone not familiar with this weapon, it is akin to a Claymore Mine on a smaller scale: shoot a bunch of pellets over a wide area in front of the weapon.

For this reason and somewhat due to almost mythical powers and harms associated with short-barreled shotguns, many states, within their firearms criminal laws, made specific penal provisions for sawed-off shotguns. In some cases increased the crime for possession or use of a sawed-off shotgun versus other firearms.

However, many states have other criminal provisions that except NFA weapons, and allow their possession by state residents with the proper federal licenses (tax stamps), which would or could include short-barrel shotguns.

ATFE’s NFA examiners took and followed this position for a number of years and short-barreled shotguns (as long guns) were routinely approved for individuals (tax stamps) on application. However, in the last several years, ATFE, advised of states that have sawed-off shotgun penal provisions, has used this basis to deny transfers or making of short-barreled shotgun, unless there is a clear state-law NFA provision allowing short-barreled shotguns.

In reality, a majority of short-barreled shotguns in the marketplace, such as the 14″ inch Benelli and Nova entry team shotguns, were manufactured in this short length and are not “sawed off” to shorten their length. This is a distinction that ATFE has not found determinative.

All said, if you live in a state that has a specific criminal provision for sawed off shotguns, and your state’s NFA exceptions do not specifically address short-barreled shotguns, it is unlikely an NFA application will be approved. This frames the historical and technical background relating to short-barreled shotguns and NFA approval or denial.

Is this your state? Now that you have the facts, perhaps you may want to work with your legislators to clarify the law. Education is a powerful tool to aid in this process.

Presumably, any state that has penal exceptions that allow possession of machineguns and is silent on short-barreled shotguns, but also have a sawed off shotgun statute on the books, has unintentionally caused their bar by ATF by imprecise drafting of the statute at the state level. This assumes, of course, you work from the assumption machineguns are overall more lethal and in need of the greatest regulation because of their high capacity, rifle caliber (i.e., velocity) and high cyclical rate or fire.

This blog post is written for GST ( by Bryan L. Ciyou, attorney at law, who practices in Indianapolis, Indiana. It is intended for general educational purposes.

Disclaimer/Warning: This Blog is not intended to provide legal advice nor a solicitation for legal representation. Specific questions relating to carrying a firearm should be directed to knowledgeable counsel in your state or the state of proposed carry.