Millions of combatants in World War I were killed by all manner of weapons, including aerial bombs, artillery, bayonets, hand grenades, pistols, revolvers, and rifles. The machine gun, the war’s most prolific killer, slaughtered untold thousands. Poison gas brought its own horrific casualties. Yet only one weapon—the pump shotgun American troops used beginning in 1918—led to a diplomatic protest. Ironically, the protest came from Germany, which during World War I had unleashed on its enemies such instruments of killing as the Zeppelin airship bomber, the Maxim MG-08 machine gun, the Type 93 U-boat, the Big Bertha howitzer, the Paris Gun, and, of course, chlorine gas.
On July 21, 1918, German soldiers captured a U.S. soldier from the 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division, near Baccarat, France. He was carrying a weapon they had never seen: a Winchester Model 97 pump-action shotgun. On September 11, near Villers-en-Haye, the Germans captured a U.S. soldier from the 6th Infantry Regiment, 5th Division, who was also carrying a Winchester Model 97.
On September 15, 1918, the German government officially protested the use of the shotgun in a note verbale—an unsigned diplomatic note—transmitted to the Spanish Embassy in Berlin, then to the Swiss Embassy, and eventually to the American legation in Berne, Switzerland. The note asserted that the use of shotguns by U.S. forces violated Article 23(e) of the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions and warned that any American captured with a shotgun or shotgun ammunition would be executed.
Although Secretary of State Robert Lansing didn’t receive the note until sometime in October, he had become aware of the protest almost immediately. On September 19 Friedrich Oederlin, the Swiss chargé d’affaires in Washington, presented Lansing with a cablegram from the German government protesting the use of shotguns by American forces on the Western Front. “The German Government protests against the use of shotguns by the American Army and calls attention to the fact that according to the law of war (Kriegsrecht) every prisoner [of war] found to have in his possession such guns or ammunition belonging thereto forfeits his life,” the cablegram said. It, too, cited Article 23(e) and demanded a reply before October 1.
The State Department immediately forwarded the cablegram to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, asking for guidance. The result, a week later, was a five-page memorandum from Brigadier General Samuel T. Ansell, the army’s acting judge advocate. Ansell began by stating the obvious—namely, that the purpose of the shotgun was to kill and to wound.
Ansell then noted that he assumed the object of the protest was a pump shotgun described this way several months earlier in Scientific American magazine:
When fired the new American gun sprays the contents of each shell over an area measuring nine feet horizontally and about three feet vertically, so that it is almost impossible not to hit a large number of enemy infantrymen coming to the attack in the typical mass formation of the Germans. As for the penetrating power of the buckshot, it is reported that during a recent test the hail of lead went through a two-inch plank with plenty of energy left for further damage, at 150 yards from the muzzle.
Ansell also cited an article in a New York newspaper, which said the shotguns, equipped with bayonets, could “stop the rush of German shock troops at close quarters.” The article went on to observe that “with a rifle a miss is as good as a mile, but with such a shotgun the user of it might aim three feet or more off his target and get his man.’”
Ansell pointed out that such a shotgun could be used to kill the enemy’s carrier pigeons and detonate enemy grenades before they could reach their target, but that “the chief purpose of employing it in combat is, of course, the highly necessary one of killing or putting out of action at close range as many as possible of the enemy in as short a time as possible.”
Ansell finally turned to Article 23(e) of the Hague Conventions, which prohibited the use of weapons or ammunition designed to cause “unnecessary suffering.” That article was not aimed at “efficiency in killing,” Ansell argued, but against “cruelty and terrorism.” Invoking the German word schrecklichkeit, which means frightfulness or horror, Ansell pointed to saw-toothed bayonets, flamethrowers, and chlorine gas as examples of German weapons that caused unnecessary suffering.
The Model 97 “trench shotgun,” as it quickly came to be known, was the brainchild of William G. Eager of Valdosta, Georgia, who had a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and was working as the general manager of a local lighting company. In September 1917 Eager prepared a full engineering report outlining his proposal—to modify the existing sporting shotgun in semiautomatic or pump models for use in trench warfare and shock action—and sent it to the War Department. A month later Major General Henry P. McCain, the army’s adjutant general, informed Eager that General John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front, had taken his idea under advisement. Just a couple of weeks later Eager got official word that, with Pershing’s enthusiastic approval, American soldiers in France would soon be armed with the modified shotguns. On April 20, 1918, American soldiers used them at Seicheprey, France, in the first significant U.S. infantry battle of World War I.
The weapon was designed to give American troops an important edge in close combat, and it did just that. With a 20-inch barrel, sling swivels, and a bayonet lug, the 12-gauge shotgun also had a perforated metal heat shield that allowed soldiers to use the bayonet even when the barrel was too hot to hold. The shotgun accommodated six shells—one chambered (“in the spout”) and five in its magazine—each containing nine 00 buckshot pellets.
A trained soldier using the Model 97 trench gun in slamfire mode—holding down the trigger while pumping—could unleash six blasts in a matter of seconds. Imagine 54 8.4mm buckshot pellets spraying laterally, with an effective range of up to 50 yards, and it’s easy to see why the guns also became known as “trench brooms” or “trench sweepers.”
In June, at the Battle of Belleau Wood, the trench shotgun allowed American soldiers to literally mow down the advancing enemy troops. “That shotgun volley was new to them,” J. H. Hoskins, a captain in an American engineering company, told the Nashville Banner, his hometown newspaper. “Every time a gun fired three or four Germans would go down. The more the surprise gripped them, the closer they would huddle and the deadlier was the fire.”
The German protest elicited mostly derision from American newspapers. This response, from the New York Sun, was typical: “It is hardly necessary to point out how ridiculous is this protest from a government that has used in war every foul means known to a foul mind. The inventors of poison gas objected to the use of a clean bullet!”
The U.S. government also found Germany’s apparent hypocrisy a tempting target. In 1899, Ansell pointed out, Germany declined to back an effort by the U.S. delegation at the Hague to add to Article 23(e) a specific list of outlawed weapons and ammunition. The proposed language would have banned bullets that caused unnecessarily cruel wounds, such as exploding bullets and other projectiles designed to do more than take a man out of combat by killing or wounding him. Ansell argued that even if the language the United States proposed had been adopted, the shotgun would not have been outlawed, as its 00 pellets were the same size as .32 caliber bullets.
Ansell interpreted Article 23(e) as requiring a comparison between the injury or suffering caused and the “necessities of warfare.” He summarized as follows: “An implement of warfare is not to be condemned because of its effectiveness to kill or to wound. It is to be condemned only when it wounds, or does not kill immediately, in such a way as to produce suffering that has no reasonable relation to killing or placing the man out of action for an effective period.”
Ansell next compared the shotgun with other weapons. He wrote that it was designed to put more than one of the enemy out of action, just as shrapnel shells and machine gun fire do. He also noted that the diameter of a 00 shot was scarcely greater than that of a rifle or machine gun bullet, and that rifles and machine guns could cause more injuries and suffering than shotguns.
“The protest is without legal merit,” Ansell concluded. “It would be ill-founded coming from an enemy whose conduct had evidenced the highest regard for the laws of war; coming from our present enemy, it is destitute of all good faith.”
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With Ansell’s memo in hand, Benedict Crowell, the assistant secretary of war (and a future president of the National Rifle Association), offered his own opinion about how the United States should reply. “I am at a loss to see any plausible basis for the protest,” he wrote, noting that the shotgun was an “ancient and approved” weapon that had fallen into disuse not because it was thought to violate the laws of war but because the changing nature of warfare had limited its tactical effectiveness. “The killing of combatants is not only lawful, but one of the chief means of warfare,” he wrote, “and no weapon can be objectionable merely because of its capacity to kill.”
In his formal response to Germany’s protest, Secretary of State Lansing maintained that the shotgun the army used could not be the subject of “legitimate or reasonable protest” under the Hague Conventions. As for Germany’s threat to execute American soldiers captured with shotguns or shotgun ammunition, Lansing promised that the United States would “make such reprisals as will best protect the American forces.”
The German government did not reply to Lansing’s letter, and no Americans are known to have been executed for carrying shotguns or for having shotgun ammunition. Fighting ended with Germany’s surrender on November 11, 1918—four months to the day after it discovered that Americans had brought shotguns into combat.
Germany’s real reason for objecting to the shotgun was undoubtedly its brutal effectiveness. As Peter F. Carney, the editor of the National Sports Syndicate, noted in 1918, the gun carried “more terrors into the hearts of the enemy than any other instrument of destruction that has been used.” Carney went on to say that Eager, who by then was an officer in the U.S. Navy, “was in large measure responsible for the defeat of Germany’s armies.”
In the 100 years since the protest, the U.S. government’s position with respect to the use of shotguns in wartime has never wavered. U.S. military forces used shotguns in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and even in post-invasion Iraq (to clear out suspected insurgent hideouts in house-to-house fighting). Germany’s protest against the weapon’s use in World War I not only proved ineffectual but was surely, to borrow Ansell’s characterization, “destitute of all good faith.”