The Truth About WWI “Trench Guns”

Published: 17 February 2024

By Jonathon Krisko and Andrew Stolinski
via the National Rifle Association website


One of the few, if not the only, picture of a "trench gun" in use overseas during World War I—in this case being used on a firing line for either training or recreation alongside other shotguns not capable of mounting bayonets.

During the First World War, the Winchester M1897, fitted with the M1917 bayonet, (colloquially called the “trench gun” by collectors) became perhaps the most iconic and immediately recognizable American small arm of the conflict. It is unusual, it is intimidating and from the very start was surrounded by misconceptions, myth and mystique. The popular narrative generally lays out a linear tale of an initial general fielding to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), a panicked and plaintive German complaint in response to the brutal battlefield efficiency of the shotgun, and a cry to “send more shotguns!” from the Doughboys who were enamored with the tool. As with most history, there is much more to the story.

This article seeks to determine what actually went on “over there” with bayonet-tipped shotguns by using official military documentation from the AEF, Ordnance Dept. and State Dept. When comparing those sources against both newspapers and magazines of that era, and today’s popular beliefs about World War I shotguns, it reveals some glaring discrepancies. Specifically, this article will delve into the proper nomenclature of bayonet-equipped shotguns, the actual procurement and use of shotguns by the AEF overseas, the role that sensational journalism has played in the story and also take a closer look at the German protest.

There is no doubt about the brutal combat effectiveness of shotguns in certain combat situations, or the brave men of the AEF who fought in the Great War. But it is time to illuminate the divide between military fact and firearm collector lore when it comes to World War I shotguns.


A pressing issue to address early is that of official terminology. Although it has become the primary way of referring to any bayonet-capable shotgun, the term “trench gun” or “trench shotgun” was never an official U.S. military term. Instead, it appears to be largely a handy collector phrase born from the sensational news coverage of the era, as well as informal “soldier-talk” during and after the war. During World War I, these guns were never given a formal “United States Model of” designation. Official period primary sources instead used the following designations to refer to a shotgun with a heat shield fitted for a bayonet:

Read the entire article on the NRA web site.
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