The double-barreled shotgun is a weapon almost as old as the world as firearms. In the early days of firearms, having one shot was nice, but having two was infinitely better. Double-barrel shotguns have stuck around long past the advent of pump-action, semi-autos, and mag-fed shotguns. What happens when you keep adding barrels? Like a triple-barrel shotgun? Or even a quad-barrel shotgun?
And today I do have a quad-barrel shotgun for you. It’s from the depths of the early 1960s and was the product of a partnership between Winchester and a man named Robert Hillberg. The gun was known as the Winchester Liberator, and it might be the only quad-barrel shotgun ever considered for military use.
The name Liberator might sound familiar. It harkens back to the World War II pistol designed to be dropped to resistance fighters looking to kill Nazis and take their guns. Well, that name was chosen for a reason. The Winchester Liberator had the same purpose but a different enemy. The idea was that the Winchester Liberator could be dropped behind enemy lines to arm guerillas.
A quad-barrel shotgun seems like a weird choice, but it made some sense. Shotguns fire buckshot and a round of buckshot contains several small pellets. Each pellet by itself can be lethal. A shotgun requires less training to use effectively than a handgun and is not as complicated as a rifle. Every time the weapon is fired, the likelihood of hitting the enemy is higher with a shotgun.
Plus, shotguns could be extremely simple and relatively cheap to produce. They don’t require rifles or much fitment of parts. The old single- and double-barrel designs are relatively simple and cheap to produce. A quad-barrel shotgun offered more rounds but could be built as simply and affordably.
Winchester and Hillberg approached DARPA with the idea. DARPA encouraged it and wanted to see it explored more. Hillberg, backed by Winchester, began producing various examples and variations of the Winchester Liberator.
Why a Quad-Barrel Shotgun?
Well, the idea was to produce the weapon as simply and cheaply as possible. They wanted to keep the weapon short and easy to hide as well. A quad-barrel design produced mostly from castings could be quite simple.
These shotguns were like big double-action revolvers essentially. They could be fired almost as fast as a semi-auto weapon without the complication of a semi-auto shotgun. A quad-barrel shotgun offered four fast-firing rounds of buckshot. A poorly trained guerilla could easily score hits with ambush-style tactics while wielding the Winchester Liberator.
The Liberator in Design
Original Liberator shotguns lacked stocks and featured a forward grip. These were 16-gauge shotguns that packed a punch. Initially, the gun would fire proprietary ammo that had a built-in speed loader. The gun opened up like a derringer or double-barrel shotgun and displayed the empty chambers for quick reloading.
While the Winchester Liberator was a quad-barrel shotgun, it functioned much like a derringer. A liner hammer with an integral firing pin rotated with a fixed breechblock and fired one barrel at a time.
Hillberg designed the Liberator to be basically four barrels floating in a magnesium cast. Sadly, this turned out not to work very well. The barrels shifted and rarely sat properly. Different variations existed, and the later models featured a steel block that kept the barrels in place.
A stock was also added because only firing a quad-barrel shotgun from a pistol grip wasn’t easy. The stock was a metal wire stock that could be removed and stored on the front of the gun to reduce size. The proprietary ammo was dropped, and variations were made in both 16- and 12-gauge.
Small tweaks were applied here and there to the gun to further refine it and make it easier to wield. It eventually became a rather well-made weapon with a fascinating design.
So What Happened?
Well, by the time the weapon was refined and ready, we weren’t interested in arming guerillas with shotguns. The Vietnam War had kicked off. Things were quite kinetic, and we gave our Vietnamese allies Thompsons, Grease guns, and M1s. The need for an insurgency weapon simply wasn’t there as the military was a bit busy fighting a war to consider an insurgency weapon.
Winchester tried to attract police and corrections contracts for the gun, but they never took off. Hillberg sold the design to Colt, who made an eight-barrel shotgun, but that was also a failure.
Hillberg had a lot of success in the firearms market and contributed to successful designs like the Browning BPS shotgun. He never abandoned the idea of a multiple-barrel weapon and produced something called the COP derringer, which was a four-barrel .357 Magnum derringer.
While the quad-barrel shotgun never took off, it stands tall as a fascinating design. It’s a product of its time. But sadly, I doubt we’ll see a quad-barrel shotgun ever again.