The Much-Maligned Myth of the Video Game Shotgun

I own guns. That’s not meant to be a threat or anything. I live in a rural area, and I’ve been around guns my whole life. It has earned me the dreaded reputation as “the gun guy” on the Dread XP Discord server. I don’t mind. It’s usually a form of light derision wherein I’m expected to know all things about all guns. While my knowledge certainly isn’t encyclopedic, it is expansive. I have to be up front and let you all know that I don’t own guns for any real reason. I’m not protecting my house, or fighting off 30 to 50 feral hogs, and I don’t hunt. I just enjoy the mechanics of it. I’ve probably spent far more time cleaning and displaying my firearms than actually using them. Thus began my problem with the video game shotgun.

Shotguns, in their earliest form (the harquebus) were around since at least the 16th century. They were generally used for shooting down fowl like ducks and quail. In this first incarnation, they were described succinctly as a, “fowling gun”. The 1728 description of a fowling gun is actually hilarious.

Of Fowling Pieces, those are reputed the best, which have the longest Barrel, vis. from 51⁄2 foot to 6; with an indifferent Bore, under Harquebus: Tho’ for different Occasions they shou’d be of different Sorts, and Sizes. But in all, ’tis essential the Barrel be well polish’d and smooth within; and the Bore all of a Bigness, from one End to another…

That’s a lot of old-timey-speak to say, “It should have a long, smooth, barrel with a large opening. The flair-barreled blunderbuss being used as a long gun in video games is wrong. Most blunderbusses had barrels below two feet long, whereas a musket would have a barrel well over 3 feet. Blunderbusses did excel at throwing smooth lead balls in a giant diameter, though. It’s accurate to say they were inaccurate at range. We, as a society, didn’t start calling these guns “shotguns” until 1776 . The invention of a term for the weapon was probably, hands-down, the most important thing that happened in 1776 in America by far.

If you were to look at the shotgun family tree, it begins to split off from the harquebus, blunderbuss, and musket in 1875, with the invention of the boxlock action. When you’re playing a game with a double barrelled shotgun and get that satisfying *plunk* as you break the gun over to reload? That’s the boxlock action. I could go on, and talk about the history of shotguns for a long time, so I’ll leave it at this: Blunderbusses were inaccurate at range.

When you get into modern shotguns as shown in games, they are notorious confetti cannons. There is this belief among game developers that a shotgun is only effective 3 feet in front of the user. This is caused by two things:

  1. Blunderbusses were inaccurate, with flaired barrels.
  2. Police and military favor shotguns for close, indoor conflicts

I honestly think it’s that second one that gets people. It’s assumed that shotguns are used for indoor combat due to their devastating damage in close quarters. While this is true, it isn’t the main reason the shotgun is favored for those environments. Since a typical shotgun fires a shotshell full of lead pellets, instead of one solid bullet, it doesn’t go through walls as well. The shotgun is ideal for indoor clashes because it has a much lower chance to punch through an exterior wall and dunk on someone sleeping next door.

Video games are not the only media that has done this to shotguns. Movies and books are guilty of it as well. In most games, after roughly 5 yards, a shotgun isn’t effective. This is so completely wrong that it hurts. It seems like the pellets fly out in a 1 meter diameter spread before completely disappearing when they get out to 10 yards or more.

At the absolute max of 50 yards, your average 12 gauge can put 160 of 250 pellets in a 30 inch circle. If you need a very American measurement for that, it’s half a football field. A shotgun remains deadly and pretty dang accurate…for half a football field. I get it, games want to put in a weapon for close quarters. That can be done without sacrificing the range, and awesome power of a shotgun. The myth of the inaccurate shotgun is just that; a myth. Are they more effective at close range? Yes! All guns are more effective the closer you are to the target! It’s not a trait exclusive to shotguns.

The spread on a full-auto assault rifle is insane when compared to a shotgun. You might land one bullet on target, with the rest flying off into the aether, never to be seen again. One bullet will, of course, do the job, but games need to get better about guns. I’m sorry, but Far Cry’s full-auto assault sniper rifle isn’t a thing. In horror games, I feel like Resident Evil trained a whole generation of us to think that a shotgun could only be used at the shortest of ranges – pointed up to inflict the most zombie damage, of course – and we’ve just stuck with it.

We shouldn’t expect unparalleled realism in our games. I don’t get upset when I see a full auto glock, or a magically 29 shot revolver (that’s a whole other editorial). I just want shotguns to have their day in the sun. It’s been relegated to the second weapon slot, only used in specific circumstances. DOOM got it right. You should be able to use the shotgun through the whole game. It’s not a specialist weapon. Given it’s due, the shotgun would probably be the best all-around weapon in any horror protagonist’s arsenal.

At the end of the day, I know not much will change. I’ll rant endlessly about gun things, and everyone will shake their head and say, “damn Jans, it’s not that important.”. It kinda is to me. A special shout-out to the games that do shotguns right: DUSK, DOOM…that’s it. If you can think of other good ones, let me know.