Short & Sweet, Down & Dirty: How to Shoot a ‘Cruiser’ Shotgun

Editor’s Note: The following is a syndicated article by author Ed Combs that first appeared in USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine Volume 14, Issue 8, November/December 2017 under the title, “Short & Sweet, Down & Dirty.” 

Both in films and in reality, different shotguns are shorthand for different things. In fact, if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that shotguns are kind of like tobacco in that they’re employed as character-defining totems in Hollywood.

Say you’re writing a script for a Vietnam picture and you intend to make McNamara the hardcase in the group. Well, if you always have a cigar stub sticking out of his jaw and cover his LBE suspenders with 12-gauge rounds, your work’s done. Similarly, if you need to properly wrap up your sci-fi piece, for everyone in the audience to understand that overalls-clad Old Man Clemens is got-dang sick and tired of this got-dang alien invasion, he’d better be holding a side-by-side, double-barreled shotgun and he should probably be able to punctuate his lines with a stream of chaw spit. To have him dispatch an alien with a $2,700 Browning Citori and then light up a Virginia Slim just wouldn’t seem … proper.

Which brings us to the most Hollywood of all the shotguns: the “Cruiser.” We’re not talking about a shotgun that’s kept in a squad car (or “cruiser”) and we’re not talking about a shotgun that’s kept aboard a patrol vessel (or “cruiser”) for maritime use. We’re talking about the stockless shotguns you see in films and television and behind the gun counter with the handguns. They’ve been called by many names over the years, but for our purposes here, we’ll just say “cruiser.”

ON PATROL

Whether you’ve ever heard the term or not, you’ll recognize the profile: either wood or polymer pistol grip, barrel that is barely longer than 18 inches (and sometimes shorter in law enforcement contexts), often a barrel shroud to protect the shooter’s hands after 15 or 20 rounds fired in rapid succession and sometimes even a folding stock either up over the top of the receiver or along the port side. (Additional rounds are, of course, affixed to any available surface on the firearm and shooter.) Remington 870s and the Mossberg 500/590-pattern are the most common models from which such shotguns are made.

Shotguns that are augmented for close-quarters use are nothing new and, in fact, are as old as shotguns themselves. Everyone from Old West marshals to none other than the NYPD’s elite “Stakeout Squad” employed shortened double-barrel shotguns in circumstances with a high likelihood of close-in shooting. Plenty were fully stocked, but some were bobbed on both ends, especially if they were likely to be used in tight hallways or from vehicles.

The pistol grip, or cruiser configuration of shotgun, came into its own in the 1970s. As law enforcement agencies assembled “Special Weapons and Tactics” teams to deal with the rising drug crime that was flattening entire neighborhoods in some of the nation’s biggest cities, many of those men brought techniques and weapons systems from the battlefields of Vietnam to the streets of New York, Los Angeles and other major American cities. Among those techniques and weapons systems was how to deploy a shotgun in close quarters and how to modify a standard Remington 870 or Ithaca Deerslayer Police Special to do so.

SPREAD THEORY

Shotguns with barrels shorter than usual are in our DNA, along with revolvers, lever-action rifles and 1911 pistols. The hard part about a cruiser-style shotgun is that it’s a very specific piece of equipment designed for a very specific type of situation.

Right off the top, we all have to get on the same page about something: You don’t dock the barrel on a shotgun to speed up the spread of the pellets. You remove part of the barrel to make it more maneuverable in a vehicle, hallway or other tight area. More tests have been run on this old saw than we’ve released issues of this magazine, and I’m going to leave it at that.

What’s made that myth so easy to pass along is that a shotgun does, of course, afford the shooter a higher probability of scoring a hit on an attacker at close ranges. With off-the-shelf 12-gauge 00 buck, the spread will include nine pellets, each only a few hundredths of an inch smaller in caliber than a 9mm bullet. At indoor distances, the spread of pellets you’ll send at an attacker will be somewhere between the size of a baseball and the size of a softball, both of which are a heck of a lot easier to locate on a map than a cherry pit.

That said, shotguns aren’t the magical cannons movies make them out to be, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to miss with a shotgun than ’80s action flicks would have you believe. Look at it this way: If someone’s never thrown a baseball and then has to throw a baseball at something while literally responding to an attacker who is trying to murder him or her, what do you think the chances are of him or her missing that attacker with that baseball from 20 feet away?

RECOIL IN HORROR

You’ll notice that when someone’s describing a new firearm or cartridge they’ve just tried for the first time, there are a few firearms that are pretty much standards for comparison. Not a lot of recoil? “It was like shooting a .22.” A halfway decent amount of recoil? “It was like shooting a .30-06,” or, “No more kick than a 12-gauge.”

Both of those last two are the end of the scale that means, “This is stout recoil, but it’s totally controllable by the average person.”

Thing is, that’s assuming the firearm in question has a buttstock and that the recoil in question is absorbed through the shooter’s shoulder and the slight amount of rearward movement that goes along with discharging a shotgun chambered for 12-gauge shells or a rifle chambered for the .30-06 cartridge.

Discharging a 12-gauge shotgun with a pistol grip and no buttstock is entirely doable, but it isn’t necessarily pleasant. This is because cruisers aren’t exactly designed for wiling away pleasant hours on the trap range. No, like punching an attacker as hard as you can, cruisers are to be deployed only during the direst of emergencies, and this is where they really shine like a solid right hook behind the earlobe. Just because it might smart a little doesn’t mean accurate fire from a cruiser isn’t entirely possible (and potentially extremely valuable).

GET ON TARGET

Though I’ve owned and enjoyed a pistol-grip Mossberg 500 for many years, no other firearm I’ve ever handled more brutally and thoroughly drives home the fact that true point-shooting is a heck of a lot harder than the average person would think.

The easiest way to shoot a cruiser is to hold it up as you would a normal shotgun but without the cheek-stock weld and out about a foot away from your face. Then hold on tight; if you forget that last part, the whole works can come crashing back into your nose and severely limit your effectiveness. For optimal performance, you’ll have strong hands, forearms and shoulders, which means plenty of you will just plan to fire the shotgun from the hip. I don’t love this, but I understand this. As such, the goal here is to help you become as accurate a shot as possible from the hip with a cruiser-style shotgun.

I’ll stand a shooter — sometimes even a regular pistol shooter — in front of a large sheet of white paper with a silhouette target in the center. I’ll have him hold the shotgun at his hip as he’s seen in the movies time and again, and tell him to fire when he thinks he’s ready to send a shot into the center of the target’s chest.

It’s not that no one ever gets it on the first try; it’s that almost no one ever does.

The hits are usually way to the shooter’s non-dominant side, as he ends up instinctively sighting with the position of his dominant hand. That hand is lined up as it would be when firing a pistol, but his off-hand, which has a vise-grip on the pump, is all the way on the other side of his torso. As such, a right-handed shooter will usually get pulled wide left.

There’s a much simpler, much more effective way, though in its easiest form, it involves a laser. In a pinch, you can make do with a flashlight.

First and foremost, you’ll need to perfect your grip. Your stance will be no different from your pistol-shooting stance: non-dominant foot forward, shoulders slightly bladed away from your target and your feet set so you’re ready to move. If possible, brace your firing hand against your hip and lock it in there. As you grip the forearm of the shotgun, keep your thumb pointed forward along the slide rather than in a C-clamp around the forearm and barrel; this will allow for smoother operation of the pump and reduce the extent to which you pull wide.

At home, with a cleared gun and in a room that contains no ammunition, get a roll of electrician’s tape and a Mini Mag-Lite. (If you don’t have one but still want to run this drill, consult the checkout line of the nearest hardware store for a Mini knock-off.) Wrap the head-end of the flashlight just below the neck with tape until it will tightly slide into the muzzle of the shotgun, as in until it won’t drop out by gravity. If necessary, turn the flashlight on and then pass a few wraps of tape around the whole works after it’s in place; any adhesive residue will come off easily with a little CLP.

Now get into what you would consider your appropriate shooting stance and see where the beam of the light is shining. You might be surprised to see that though you know where you want it to be pointing, it will likely not be … well, you’ll likely realize that there’s work to be done.

The good news is that you can use this technique along with dry-fire training or a training cartridge like those available from Laser Ammo to work out almost all of the acclimation to a cruiser. The bad news is that, at some point in time, you’re going to have to get out to the range and practice shooting from the hip if that’s what you know, deep down, you’ll end up doing during a crisis. Trust me, you should look into training to fire a cruiser as you would a normal shotgun but out away from your face. The recoil will be absorbed through your wrists and biceps, which will be steadily locked and ready for impact. When you fire from the hip, all of the force goes straight into your wrist, which, for even the young, is an unpleasant experience.

OLD FRIEND, NEW CENTURY

Cruiser shotguns are one of those odd spots in the gun market: They’re extremely popular with a wide variety of individuals, but they’re dang-near rarely spotted on the range. To a lot of consumers, they sound better on paper than they feel on the firing line, and, like other weapons systems that have a tendency to really wallop a human wrist, it’s not uncommon to find thrice-fired units at a nice discount on the used gun rack. If you feel that a cruiser might be a good fit for your lifestyle, ask around in your local shooting community; it almost seems as if some cruiser shotgun shooters share the zeal for experience-sharing of blackpowder shooters, and, like with any firearm, it’s always a better idea to try before you buy. If it turns out you’re a fan, one of these Disco-era layovers might be just what the doctor ordered.

Discover how you can join nearly 300,000 responsibly armed Americans who already rely on the USCCA to protect their families, futures and freedoms: USCCA.com/gunsamerica.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Dave Brown January 10, 2020, 11:28 am

    First Scatter Gun I bought at age 16, and the last one I bought at 19 which was 48 years ago, and of course it was a Rem WingMaster 12ga 30″ full. I added a 18,5 with adjustable choke that same year and never looked back. My nickname was Automatic as I could make the Rem Hum, but I also missed A Lot! Now in the last few years I picked up a few pumps and SemiAutos on the cheap. Made in Turkey, and a lot of Big Names put their name on these guns. I found a SemiAuto is perfect for house cleaning, yet I know most real life self defense pros still believe the pump is best. /// I have made a couple of Pistol Grip stocks that I extended a wide, tall, and ugly Stock from. The Stock is only about 6 inches long, and it allows me to Shoulder or Arm Pit the semi auto. The Lack of Recoil a Semi Auto adds is almost unreal. Now beside my old Rem I also shot a lot of doubles side and over with double triggers and 3″ Mag Max loads so I know a little about Recoil, and these light weight Semis just don’t move much. Max close range fire power with little weight or recoil has sold me on the Semi for Home Defense. Yes there is a learning curve to burn the Manual Of Arms into my old Pump Brain, but it is worth it. All of this saves my 48 Rem from more use and abuse, and it deserves a little rest. Thanks For the info.

  • James January 10, 2020, 8:55 am

    I have a Rem 870 12 Ga ( with two barrels , one legally short , one for hunting) . I detest pistol grips, they DO hurt your wrist. The new short “firearm” versions that have a rounded short grip at the same angle as normal buttocks , seem Much preferable . But one can shoot a normally stocked shotgun “from the hip” . As far as close quarters use , they can be held at “low ready” (essentially pointing at the feet of any surprise assailant) for quick use with a slight raising of the barrel ( stock already at shoulder ). I Love a mounted flashlight , mine is zoomed to the approx size of “spread”. With diffuse lighting around it wide enough for a hallway. PS: 8 rd mag tube , 5 rd side saddle , first rd loaded is #4 High Brass. Then Buck,slug , buck , slug, buck , buck , buck. Probably would not need to reload , methinks .

  • Will Drider January 9, 2020, 2:46 pm

    Duckbill chokes or duckbill barrel extensions (silver soldered in place) greatly enhance horizontal spread of shot. The only normal restriction is no slug shell use. This significantly changes that “in room/20 foot pattern. Any close quaters shotty from Cruiser to shotgun shell chambered “firearms”can benefit from it.

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