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July 27, 2018

Collecting: The Trench Gun

By Joel R Kolander

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Trench guns hold a fascination with collectors and a “cool factor” all their own. But why? Is it simply because they deviate from the rifles, muskets, and other single projectile arms typically carried during wars in previous centuries? Could reasons exist in other arenas as well?

A scarce U.S. World War II Contract Savage Model 720 semi-automatic riot shotgun sold for $5,463 in RIAC's December 2020 Premier Auction.

Personally, I feel that they provide a fine metaphor for the men who used them: they were regular, everyday implements placed in extraordinary circumstances. That said, trench shotguns are often viewed as more powerful, savage weapons – the type that caused the Germans to despise their use during the great war. So much so that Germany officially protested them and sent the following message to the U.S. Secretary of State on September 19, 1918 via the Swiss.

“The German Government protests against the use of shotguns by the American Army and calls attention to the fact that according to the laws of war, every prisoner found to have in his possession such guns or ammunition belonging thereto forfeits his life. This protest is based upon article 23(e) of the Hague convention respecting the laws and customs of war on land. Reply by cable is required before October 1, 1918”

The Germans were essentially citing Article 23(e) of the Hague Convention which prohibited nations “to employ arms, projections, or materials calculated to cause unnecessary suffering.” Needless to say the Americans did not take too kindly to such talk, especially from a nation that introduced chlorine gas, unrestricted submarine warfare, and flamethrowers into the fray. So the United States wrote the Germans a lengthy response letter that made two points. The first, it argued that a shotgun firing shot was not essentially different than shrapnel from the artillery or hand grenades being employed liberally by both sides. The second, was a promise and it stated,

“The Government of the United States notes the threat of the German Government to execute every prisoner of war found to have in his possession shotguns or shotgun ammunition. Inasmuch as the weapon is lawful and may be rightfully used, its use will not be abandoned by the American Army.

If the German government should carry out its threat in a single instance, it will be the right and duty of the government of the United States to make such reprisals as will best protect the American forces, and notice is hereby given of the intention of the government of the United States to make such reprisals.”

In other words, “If you kill our boys, we kill yours.” Strangely enough, no executions of American soldiers are recorded for shotgun possession or use.

The Trench Sweeper, one of the coolest weapon names around, was originally coined by Gen. Thompson for his Tommy gun. The Tommy never saw service in WW1, so the name organically moved to the Winchester Model 1897 shotgun instead.

While the Germans had cited the Hague Convention, that was likely not their primary grievance against shotguns. It is far more likely that they were upset at how incredibly effective shotguns were in their deadly work. This theory is made even more likely by the fact that numerous American messages were sent from the front line vehemently requesting additional shotguns. To make matters even worse for the Germans and better for the Americans, was the simultaneous use a lengthy bayonet, amplifying the psychological terror these efficacious weapons already enjoyed.

These were remarkable tools and the 2018 September Premiere Auction at Rock Island Auction Company contains a wide variety of trench guns. Here are four trench gun highlights.

1. Rare and Exceptional World War I Remington/UMC Model 10 Trench Shotgun

One of the trench guns that the Germans would have been protesting was the Remington Model 10 specially modified for military service by shortening the barrel to 23-inches, and with the additions of a bayonet lug and a wooden handguard-slash-heatshield mounted atop the barrel. It was designed by genius John Pedersen for Remington in 1908 to compete with the already wildly successful Winchester Model 1897. It made several improvements on the Winchester scattergun, perhaps most notably by the use of an internal hammer and by loading/ejecting through a single port on the bottom of the receiver. Both changes helped prevent detritus from entering the gun and fouling the action. Also, without a loading/ejecting port on the side, the Model 10 was usable by left handed shooters as well. It held five rounds of 12 gauge, 00 Buck shells in the magazine – a substantial amount of firepower.

Remington Model 10 trench guns in their original Great War configuration are quite rare, as most were later converted to a “riot” configuration for police use, or simply back into sporting shotguns. This Model 10 is in the correct serial number range for Model 10 trench shotgun production and remains in very fine condition. These are arguably the apex of any U.S. martial shotgun collection.

It wasn't just Winchester shotguns in the trenches of World War I. The Remington Model 11 (top) and M10 (bottom) saw action in the Great War

2. Late U.S. Marked Winchester 1897 Slide Action Trench Shotgun with Bayonet

The venerable Model 1897 Winchester trench gun is a design by the even-more-venerable John Moses Browning. It was a smokeless powder update to his pump action Model 1893, the gun he had wanted to make years earlier but delayed thanks to pressure from Winchester to stick to lever action designs, resulting in the Model 1887 shotgun.

An exceptional Winchester Model 1893 slide action shotgun sold by RIAC in September of 2019.

The 1897 was a ridiculously popular model in the commercial market and while not the first pump action to market, it quickly became the best-selling on the market with over one million produced from 1897 – 1957. It set the standard for performance and features in shotguns for decades to come, some of which are still seen today.

The Winchester Model 1897, one of the most popular Browning shotguns in the current collecting market.

While its first military use was during the Philippine-American War, it was officially adopted as the U.S. “Model of 1917 Trench Shotgun.” This particular model is in the correct serial number range for use in World War 2, another testament to its longevity and effectiveness. It bears all the correct stamps, proof marks, and 20-inch barrel. Note markings on the buttstock which would seem to indicate some sort of police department use after its military service. Also, take a look at how long that M1917 bayonet is and think about how enemy troops must have felt with that coming in their direction. This is one mean looking trench gun.

Winchester's shotguns led the way in the trenches with the company's Model 1897 (top) and Model 12 (bottom) and their 20-inch barrels and heat shields.

3. Rare World War II U.S. Army Contract Ithaca Model 37 Slide Action Trench Shotgun

Concerning rarity, the Ithaca Model 37 trench gun is second only to the Remington Model 10 in terms of all trench shotguns, making it the rarest of those trench shotguns that saw use in World War II. With a serial number range only extending from 57,820 – 61,450, this offering by Rock Island Auction falls safely inside with a serial of 57,972. It should be noted by collectors that Ithaca also produced Model 37 trench shotguns for use in Vietnam, but the serial number range is much higher and consistent with those being commercially produced at the time. This WWII trench gun example remains in excellent, all original condition.

The Ithaca Model 37 was introduced after World War II. Its ejection port was located underneath the receiver.

With the raging success of Winchester’s Model 12, Remington needed a shotgun that could compete. The second Browning design featured on this list, the Model 37 has a complicated origin story that we won’t get into – just know that it involves John Moses Browning, John Pedersen, a series of improvements, and patent expiration dates. At the end of it all, shotgunners were left with the Model 37, a shotgun known for a rugged reliability that lent it self perfectly to military service and kept it relevant for over eight decades. Models manufactured prior to 1975 can be slam fired. Its longevity has of course resulted in a number of police and civilian models.

Like many Browning shotguns, the Ithaca Model has stood the test of time.

4. Absolutely Outstanding As-Issued World War II U.S. Army Contract Winchester Model 12 Trench Shotgun with Winchester Box

Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is an absolute time capsule. If you have ever wondered what a Winchester Model 12 WWII trench gun looked like on the day it was issued, wonder no longer. It is as issued, unfired, covered in cosmoline, with its original instruction manual, wrapped in some of the original US Army preservative wrapping paper, and still in its original box. Based on its serial number it was produced in 1945 and is one of the very last ones made. Virtually untouched, it is also likely one of the last, if not THE last, Model 12 preserved so perfectly.

If the Model 1897 set many standards for shotguns, the Model 12 arguably perfected them. Finally discontinued in 1964 with nearly 2 million in production, it is largely what is pictured when asked to envision a pump action shotgun. It is THE quintessential “pumper gun” and rightfully marketed by Winchester upon its release as the “Perfect Repeater.” Only 80,000 were manufactured for various branches of the military and most saw use in the Pacific theater during WWII. Virtually unchanged from the Great War to World War 2 and into the Korean War, its six shot capacity and reliability allowed it to serve in any number of close-quarter duties.

Designed by Thomas Crossley Johnson, the Model 12 made several improvements on the Model 1897. Most notably, this WWII trench gun hid the exposed hammer of its predecessor, strengthened several of the internals, and added a separate bolt release that could be activated by pulling the trigger or pressing a button near the trigger guard.

Pauline Muerrle Master Engraved Winchester 20 Gauge Model 12 "Skeet Grade" Slide Action Shotgun with Letter of Authentication

The Trench Shotgun for Sale

With so many long-lasting, reliable shotguns designs being produced at the turn of the 20th century, one could argue that this “arms race” between a handful of manufacturers resulted in a golden age for mass-produced shotguns. So why are trench guns popular?

Stevens shotgun Models 620 and 520-30 were brought into military use in World War II.

Maybe its the battle-ready look of the heat shields, maybe it’s the renowned reliability, maybe it's people’s familiarity with the commercial versions of these shotguns, or maybe it’s just the ability to put a blade on the end of a shotgun – whatever the reasoning, the appeal and popularity of military shotguns is not going away anytime soon. And as long as people will want one of their own, you can expect to find them as a regular feature at Rock Island Auction Company.

A World War I era U.S. marked Winchester Model 1897 trench shotgun. The “Trench Sweeper” shotgun was feared by the Germans in WW1, who issued a diplomatic protest to America claiming that the weapon caused “unnecessary suffering.”

Rock Island Auction
7819 42nd Street West
Rock Island, Illinois 61201

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