Hand Cannon: The 20-gauge handgun

Throughout the history of firearms, there has always been a want and need for large caliber handguns. It began with the smooth-bore matchlock or flintlock muzzleloading pistols of the early colonial days. Many of these were approximately .69 caliber, making them 20-gauge handguns. Whether it was stopping a man, dangerous animal, or small game (with shot loads), the 20-gauge handgun proved itself to be an able and reassuring friend when the chips were down.

However, laws often get in the way of good ideas, and the shotgun-bore pistols were no exception. As muzzleloaders, they are unrestricted in many areas. But as cartridge weapons, the 20-gauge handgun (and other pistol-shotguns) run afoul of the regulations in many countries. In 1934 the United States Congress enacted the National Firearms Act (NFA). The NFA regulated and restricted machineguns, suppressors, short-barreled shotguns, and short-barreled rifles. This law ended the production of several useful weapons, the 20-gauge handgun among them. Let us have a look at some of these fearsome weapons that are still available and a couple that are not.

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The Pedersoli Howdah Hunter

Howdah pistols were typically double-barrel pistols of large caliber carried in the riding basket (called a howdah) of an elephant while traversing through Asian jungles. These big sidearms were a last-ditch weapon against large agile predators like the tiger and jaguar, who could be up the side of an elephant and into your basket faster than you could get your rifle up. A howdah pistol provided a little peace of mind and insurance for the jungle traveler.

Pedersoli’s recreation of this weapon is available in .50 and .58 caliber in addition to 20 gauge. However, the rifle-caliber Howdahs lack the panache and sheer cool factor of the 20-gauge version. Firing slugs, round ball, buckshot, or fine shot, the Howdah Hunter can handle any need. A shoulder stock can be purchased that attaches to the grip, turning the pistol into a compact coach gun. As a muzzleloading firearm, the Howdah is not restricted by the NFA and can be purchased without a federal tax stamp.

Hickok reviews the big Howdah

Lemat Revolver

The original Confederate hand-cannon, the Lemat was a 9-shot .44 caliber revolver with a 20-gauge shotgun barrel underneath the .44 barrel. Typically loaded with buckshot, the shotgun barrel provided an immediate solution to anti-personnel emergencies. Roughly 2500 were produced in France and smuggled into the Confederate States during the United States Civil War.

Modern reproductions of the Lemat are available from Dixie Gun Works and others. Like the Howdah, the Lemat does not fall under the NFA. The Lemat has several screen appearances as of late. First in the hands of Kiefer Sutherland in the father-son movie Forsaken. Then in HBO’s Westworld, the Man in Black carries a modified version of the big revolver that appears to have been converted to centerfire.

Ithaca Auto & Burglar

 Another rare specimen is the Ithaca Auto & Burglar. This double-barrel 20-gauge pistol was designed and marketed as a self-defense weapon for motorists, hence the Auto in its name. Produced from 1922 to 1933, the Ithaca was the premier close-range self-defense weapon of the era short of a Thompson submachine gun. Ithaca produced approximately 4000 before the NFA made them an AOW (any other weapon) requiring federal registration and a transfer tax. Registered examples are rare and valuable, but unregistered ones are contraband and can net you a 10-year prison term.

As a side note, last I knew, one example was possessed by the Holland Police Department in Holland, Michigan. The story was that it had been left behind during the robbery of the First State Bank in Holland, Michigan, by Eddie Bentz and five others in September 1932.

Defiance Pistol

Possibly the most robust weapon mentioned so far, the Defiance pistol-shotgun was built by the California Arms Company. It featured a frame of cast aluminum and was fired by manually cocked strikers. The gun also held two extra rounds in the grip frame, with each shell having its own spring-loaded trapdoor.

Ian from Forgotten Weapons did a video on the Defiance a while back, and to me, it is one of the coolest-looking guns made. It has a space-age look to it that was ahead of its time. Sadly, less than three hundred were built before the company closed its doors.

Southwestern Airguns FD-8P

A true air-powered shotgun, the 20-gauge FD-8P pistol has an eight-inch barrel and a two-shot magazine. A companion version with a fifteen-inch barrel called the FD-15T is also available. The FD-8P generates 180 foot-pounds of energy with a 400-grain slug. The FD-15T gets 375 foot-pounds with the same projectile. Both models are compatible with the stock assembly for AR-15s to make a short carbine. The FD-15T accepts threaded choke tubes, and both models can use either lead or steel shot.

These 20-gauge pistols could make great survival weapons. With their comparatively low noise, you can harvest game without drawing attention to yourself. As for supplies, a pump, wadding, and shot will suffice. Just like a flintlock musket but with a faster reload time.

Mossberg Shockwave

While not technically a pistol per the NFA, the Shockwave is as close as we can come to a 20-gauge handgun these days without an NFA tax stamp. Being just over 26 inches long with a smooth bore and using a receiver never intended to mount a stock, the Shockwave is simply a “firearm” and not a short-barred shotgun (SBS). If it was shorter than 26 inches overall, it would be an AOW. Mount a stock to the receiver and it becomes a shotgun, is subject to the same rules, and cannot be (legally) returned to its original configuration.

Final Thoughts

The 20-gauge handgun is another one of those useful weapons that ran afoul of firearms legislation. You can buy or build your own with the appropriate paperwork, but most of us do not have time for these shenanigans. While the double-barreled Defiance and Auto & Burglar are intimidating, the five-round capacity of the Mossberg Shockwave is far more practical and requires less paperwork.

Personally, I think it would make for a good parody of a Capitol-One commercial: The 20-gauge handgun, what’s by your bedside?

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