Imagine going to your local range and approaching the firing line with a small case. Most assume what’s inside is a large pistol, the package is that small. You unzip the case and pull the weapon out. It looks like a shotgun with a barrel that’s 8-10” long (the whole package is about as big as a magnum revolver). You fire off the first shot, a 12-gauge slug, then, using the fore grip, you pump another round in the chamber, shooting off two more until the weapon is empty. Your target, at ten yards, has three ragged 12-gauge slug holes dead center. As you smile and set down the still smoking weapon, you’re tapped on the shoulder.
Behind the legions of curious onlookers, an off-duty policeman asks you why you’re in possession of what he calls a short-barreled shotgun (SBS), and wants an explanation pronto, before you wind up in handcuffs. You casually reach inside your range bag and hand him your Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) tax stamp and registration, and inform him that the weapon isn’t a short-barreled shotgun at all – it’s an AOW, which stands for Any Other Weapon.
If you’re new to AOWs, you’re probably just as confused as the officer would be upon seeing what clearly looks like a pistol grip Remington 870 or Mossberg 500 with a folding fore grip and a barrel that’s impossibly short – 8-10” or less. It looks like a shotgun. It fires standard shotgun rounds. How can it not be a shotgun? Well that’s where a curious wrinkle in BATF regulations emerges.
The BATF, in their official guidebook (and in United States Code), has the following definition of an AOW:
For the purposes of the National Firearms Act, the term “Any Other Weapon” means:
- Any weapon or device capable of being concealed on the person from which a shot can be discharged through the energy of an explosive;
- A pistol or revolver having a barrel with a smooth bore designed or redesigned to fire a fixed shotgun shell;
- Weapons with combination shotgun and rifle barrels 12 inches or more, less than 18 inches in length, from which only a single discharge can be made from either barrel without manual reloading; and
- Any such weapon which may be readily restored to fire.
Such term shall not include a pistol or a revolver having a rifled bore, or rifled bores, or weapons designed, made, or intended to be fired from the shoulder and not capable of firing fixed ammunition.
If you are intrigued by this, you’re not alone. In plain English, what the BATF is saying is that a smooth bore shotgun that is capable of being concealed upon the person, and cannot be fired from the shoulder is an AOW! So why then is an ordinary short-barreled shotgun, i.e. a shotgun with a barrel length of under 18” a restricted weapon? Why is the possession of an ordinary shotgun with a short barrel an offense that could get you ten years in a federal prison? Simple – because a short-barreled shotgun has a shoulder stock and is designed to be fired from the shoulder. An AOW is the exact same weapon, but with no shoulder stock, and is not designed to be fired from the shoulder, and that’s the difference. We know, it sounds ridiculous, but such is federal law at times.
Keep in mind that there are other types of AOWs, such as pistols with fore grips and a whole host of other weapons like pen guns, knife guns, and wallet guns, but for the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on shotguns only.
Don’t Make Your Own
Even though AOWs exist, this isn’t to say you can take you trusty Mossberg or Remington, detach the shoulder stock, and saw the barrel down. That’s a great way to get an all expenses paid trip to Club Fed. The BATF has a procedure to purchase such weapons, and it must be followed. While the following does not constitute legal advice, this is generally what needs to happen:
- Realize that AOWs are NFA (National Firearms Act) weapons. This means that they are grouped and controlled in the same manner that machine guns and other NFA weapons are.
- Realize that AOWs are created as such by a Class 07 Federal Firearms Licensee and manufacturer, and are not simply cut down shotguns. Simply cutting down a shotgun to less than 26” overall makes a short-barreled shotgun, while an AOW is a receiver that starts life as an AOW, and is always an AOW.
- Pick the model of your choice from the store. The Serbu Super Shorty is one of the more popular ones.
- Pay for the weapon.
- Fill out an ATF Form 4, and submit your application to register an AOW in your name along with the tax stamp fee of $5.
- Wait 6-10 weeks for the ATF to send you back your tax stamp and certificate, and then take your new AOW home.
It’s more or less that simple, and very possible in most states.
Who Needs An AOW?
Well no one needs one, but now that we’ve introduced you to the amazing coolness and sheer awesomeness of having a shotgun that’s the length of your average revolver, don’t you want one? Realistically, shotguns that short have no real tactical purpose other than as sheer intimidators. While their stopping power would literally be off the charts at close range, they would be even more range limited than a normal shotgun, and they carry few rounds. But an AOW isn’t about practicality. It’s a weapon you own because you can, and because it’s fun. Go give one a try!