The Sawed-Off Shotgun: From Trench Sweeper to Police Power

Shotgun Squad, September 1922 (

Sergeant Fred Lloyd became an instant American wartime legend in September 1918, when he singlehandedly cleared an entire German-occupied village by walking the streets “pumping and firing” an army-issue, 12-gauge, Winchester Model 97 shotgun.

Stateside, the shotgun had been the firearm of choice for game hunting. On the battlefields of World War I, it earned the nickname “trench sweeper.” Germans considered the weapon so lethal they filed a diplomatic protest, charging it caused “unnecessary suffering,” that its use violated the Hague Convention.

After the war, American police put the shotgun to work on city streets, claiming it outperformed the submachine gun.

Philadelphia police had already adopted the motorcycle as a crime fighting tool. In 1915, the department argued that a “Flying Squadron” of 200 officers on motorcycles “would be equivalent to 1,000 footmen …more effective than men on horseback” and less costly. When they added shotgun-wielding sharpshooters in sidecars to the mix, urban policing would take an aggressive turn.

“A new era in the development of the Philadelphia Police forces is scheduled to begin today,” reported Richard J. Beamish in the Inquirer of December 23, 1920. “Philadelphia’s Christmas presents for motor bandits are ready: 150 armed motorcycles, most of them with sidecars, a stack of sawed-off shotguns, each pumping six shells of buck shot in rapid succession. A battalion of intensively trained motorcycle and automobile drivers whose daring and sharpshooting will make them deadly foes to bandits.” A handpicked, photogenic “squad of ‘bandit hunters’” would overcome getaway cars going as fast as 80 miles per hour. With their “sawed-offs,” police were “guaranteed to blow the tire from a motor car or end the career of a fugitive robber.”

For sheer effectiveness, but also for the optics of power, shotguns became the go-to weapon. In 1954, Police Commissioner Gibbons’ “shotgun squad” aimed “a stepped-up war on violent crimes, especially those committed by ‘hop-heads,’” referring to drug users. Every squad car in the detective division had at least two men with sawed-off shot guns, not stowed away, but on full display.

“Shotgun Squads Patrol the Streets” read the headline.

It was only a matter of time before the shotgun became a symbol of police power in a racially divided city.

According to the The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, the police department, then 95 percent white, “fielded ‘shotgun squads’ of officers patrolling in cars with sawed-off shotguns leaning out the windows in a show of force” in African-American neighborhoods. On repeated occasions, in the 1950s, Police Commissioner Thomas J. Gibbons “ordered mass arrests of hundreds of young black men.”

“Of the thirty-two people shot and killed by police between 1950 and 1960, twenty-eight—87.5 percent—were black, even though blacks made up 22 percent of the city population.”

As a symbol of power, the shotgun would be brought by police and brought up by protestors. During the 1964 campaign for the integration of Girard College marchers “announced their readiness to physically resist police violence,” wrote Matthew J. Countryman in Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. “To the tune of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ the protesters sang ‘We Shall Overrun.’ One favorite chant promised violent revenge on the police: ‘Jingle Bells / shotgun shells / Freedom all the way / Oh, what fun it is / To blow a bluecoat man away.’ Another began ‘Cecil’s got a shotgun,’” referring to leader of the protests, civil rights activist and later City Councilman, Cecil B. Moore.

Two years later, police Commissioner Frank Rizzo “organized four squads of shotgun-toting cops to raid offices and an apartment associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) heavily armed police backed by 1000 uniformed officers raided four buildings.”

Rizzo’s men would arrive in bulletproof vests carrying sawed-off shotguns.

(Sources: Tom Laemlein, “The Trouble with Trench Guns,” The American Rifleman, January 23, 2018;  Glenn H. Utter Guns and Contemporary Society: The Past, Present, and Future of Firearms and Firearm Policy (ABC-CLIO, December 1, 2015); “’Flying Squadron’” is Potter’s Plan,” The Inquirer, March 5, 1915;  “New Police Plan Before Council’s Committee Today,” by Richard J. Beamish, The Inquirer, December 1, 1920; “Bureau of Police Ready for Bandits,” The Inquirer, December 23, 1920; “Philadelphia’s ‘Bandit Chasers’ and their ‘sawed-offs,’” The Inquirer, August 8, 1922; “City’s War on Crime Calls for Frontal Attack,” The Inquirer, September 20, 1954; “Gibbons Places Top Police on 24-Hour Crime Vigil – Shotgun Squads Patrol the Streets,” The Inquirer, November 21, 1954; Matthew J. Countryman, Up South:  Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Jake Blumbgart, “The Brutal Legacy of Frank Rizzo, the Most Notorious Cop in Philadelphia History,”, October 22, 2015.)


2 replies on “The Sawed-Off Shotgun: From Trench Sweeper to Police Power”

What’s the location of this photo? There’s a gas mask photo of the same era in the No Address files. Just wondering. Thanks.

Unfortunately, we don’t know the location for any of that series. Could it be maybe Kelly Drive?

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