TLDR: The term “riot gun” usually refers to a shotgun or rifle featuring either a shortened barrel or less-lethal ammunition, or both.
I had a great time last year presenting a webinar for The Writer’s Store called The Secret to Writing Firearms. (Pro tip: You can download it here, but I recommend you sign up for my newsletter first to get a code for 50% off.) One of the attendees popped a question to me during the presentation that might apply to your project: What is a riot gun?
Three Key Features of Riot Guns
There isn’t a distinct category of firearms called “riot guns” in the same way there are for “submachine guns,” “revolvers” and the like. Instead, what makes something a riot gun boils down to three key features:
- The firearm is a rifle or shotgun.
- A shorter-than-normal barrel.
- Less-lethal ammunition (aka “non-lethal,” although that term phased out a la “safe sex” and “safer sex”).
However, a riot gun doesn’t necessarily need to meet both 2 and 3. Let’s break out each.
#1 – Rifles and Shotguns
Riot guns, as the name suggests, utilize features for confronting mass groups of disorderly people. They’re almost always in the hands of law enforcement officers. Shotguns are the norm because of their versatility, but rifles can also count as riot guns. I’m not sure if handguns have ever been considered riot guns, but it would seem odd to me.
#2 – A Shorter-than-Normal Barrel
Other than crowd control, there’s another reason law enforcement types are usually the ones using riot guns: barrel length. The longer the barrel, the easier it is to wrestle away the gun in close quarters. A shortened barrel makes good sense.
However, federal law places restrictions on shotgun barrels less than 18 inches and rifle barrels less than 16 inches. Civilians can own these items, but it’s not an easy process. Law enforcement agencies are exempt.
That doesn’t mean every riot shotgun and rifle barrel must be less than 18 and 16 inches, respectively. It just means the barrel is shorter than normal. Lengths around or above 18 and 16 certainly qualify.
#3 – Less-Lethal Ammunition
Because of their applications, riot guns don’t fire traditional ammunition. Instead, they use less-lethal ammunition, such as bean bags, crowd control sponges, rubber bullets flares and even a sort of Taser shotgun load (pictured above).
The “less-lethal” term is because any projectile hammering into a human being has the potential to kill. Here’s a news piece on a 95-year-old World War II veteran who died after being hit by an officer’s bean bag round. Young, healthy adults can suffer life-threatening injuries, too.
It appears the switch from the “non-lethal” to “less-lethal” terminology took place in the early 2000s. I don’t have a definite date, but this article from 2002 offers a ballpark year. That might be helpful if cop talk is important to your story.
One or Both
A riot gun can sport either a shortened barrel or less-lethal ammunition, or both. There are riot guns that use less-lethal ammunition with standard barrels. Some have shortened barrels and use traditional ammunition. Others take both features into account. Either way, if it meets the requirements, it can be called a riot gun in a story.
One caveat to consider is with grenade launchers. These tubular devices are typically attached beneath the barrel of a tactical rifle or are a standalone device. However, they don’t always fire explosives. That same launcher can pop out flares, tear gas, smoke bombs, beanbags and crowd control sponges.
Even if a rifle doesn’t have a shortened barrel or fire less-lethal ammo, it can still be considered a riot gun if it uses a grenade launcher for crowd dispersal purposes.
One Last Point: Sawed Off Shotguns
If shortened barrels on shotguns has you thinking about “sawed off shotguns,” then you’re on the right track. Because of their shortened barrels, it would be appropriate to refer to sawed off shotguns as riot guns.
However, in the context of fiction, where sawed offs are typically the domain of criminals, it might be confusing to readers to put them in the hands of law enforcement.
Get the Book
The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers: