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First, if you’re new to the world of guns and shooting … welcome! Glad to have you joining millions of other law-abiding citizens enjoying fun, competition and the peace of mind to protect yourself and your family.
Second, you’re about to see just how confusing things can be. We’re talking about new terminology, mastering new skills and a seemingly infinite amount of gear from which to choose. Don’t feel bad if you’re overwhelmed. We were all at that stage at one point.
To tackle the question, “What are the types of guns?,” we need to look at three related categories.
While movie heroes can do pretty much anything one-handed, the mere mortal definition of “rifle” is a firearm designed to be held with two hands and shouldered for support. Technically speaking, a rifle also has a rifled barrel, which imparts spin on the bullet to help it fly straight and true. Virtually every modern rifle has rifling in the barrel, so we don’t really make this distinction anymore.
The federal government, through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE), extends the classic definition by clarifying that a rifle can only fire one projectile at a time with each press of the trigger. In the United States, rifles also have to have a barrel length of at least 16 inches.
Examples of modern rifles include hunting models (such as the Savage Model 110), modern sporting rifles (such as the Smith & Wesson M&P 15) and competition target rifles (such as the Anschutz).
Like rifles, shotguns are two-handed firearms designed to be fired from the shoulder. While there are shotguns that use portions of or have entire rifled barrels, the technical definition provided by the BATFE defines a “shotgun” as having a smooth — not rifled— bore. Also, a shotgun is designed to fire multiple projectiles at once with a single press of the trigger. To be clear, it’s not anything like a machine gun (where projectiles are fired sequentially with a single trigger movement). A shotgun can, but doesn’t always, contain multiple shot pellets in each cartridge or shell. To be legal, a true shotgun in the technical sense cannot have a barrel shorter than 18 inches.
As the name implies, “handguns” are designed to be fired from a single hand, although modern handgun technique usually recommends two-handed operation for stability unless there are specific reasons to use a single hand. There are two major classifications of handguns: pistols and revolvers.
Defining a pistol gets a bit sticky, so we will quote BATFE directly:
A pistol is a handgun that has the chamber integrated as part of the barrel. Ammunition is fed to the chamber from a separate magazine. (Photo by Tom McHale)
“The term ‘pistol’ means a weapon originally designed, made and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand, and having:
Common examples of pistols include the Glock, Smith & Wesson M&P and SIG Sauer P320.
A revolver is also a handgun, but the chamber is not permanently integrated or in line with the barrel. Instead, cartridges are stored in chambers bored into a cylinder and rotated into alignment with the barrel as needed.
A revolver has multiple chambers, and each rotates the barrel into position with its cartridge before firing. (Photo by Tom McHale)
Throughout firearms history, inventors have devised a host of ways for firearms to operate. The earliest firearms had to be loaded from the muzzle and ignited with burning rope or sparks. More modern arms are loaded from the breech (back) end and have a variety of action types that control how cartridges are loaded, spent cases are extracted and new rounds are loaded.
Usually applicable to shotguns and some rifles, pump-action firearms have a sliding mechanism operated by the user that extracts spent shells or cases, re-cocks the action or hammer, and loads a new shell. For each shot, the user must complete the pump sequence.
Often confused — and frequently deliberately — by the media, semi-automatic firearms harness some of the energy from a cartridge to extract a spent cartridge case, re-cock the firearm and load a new cartridge. A semi-automatic firearm only fires one shot with each press of the trigger. It is not a machine gun.
Semi-automatic firearms are the most popular (as measured by numbers sold and shipped) action type in the firearms world. Pistols, rifles and shotguns can all have semi-automatic actions. Virtually every pistol carried by law enforcement officers in the United States is a semi-automatic. As for rifles, the ubiquitous AR-15 is also a semi-automatic. Many shotguns also operate as semi-automatics too.
If someone asks you to picture a hunting rifle, you’ll likely picture a bolt-action. To be clear, hunting rifles have all action types, including semi-automatic. It’s just that a large number through the past 100 years have been bolt-actions.
Bolt-action rifles, such as this Savage M11, require the operator to cycle the bolt before each shot to extract a cartridge, cock the action and load a fresh cartridge. (Photo by Tom McHale)
Like a pump-action, a bolt-action requires the operator to cycle the bolt handle before each shot. Retracting the bolt pulls the empty (or unspent) cartridge out of the chamber, and pushing the bolt forward loads a new cartridge into place. Some bolt-actions cock the firing pin on the backstroke, while others do so on the forward push.
There are break-action handguns and rifles, but the most prevalent example is the double-barrel shotgun. A lever on the receiver allows the barrel(s) to tilt forward and away from the action, exposing the chamber or chambers for loading and unloading. To load a break-action, one just drops new shells or cartridges into the chambers directly before closing the action.
The most common examples of break-action firearms are double-barrel shotguns. (Photo by Tom McHale)
While historical guns were almost always muzzleloaders, there are plenty of modern examples too. As many states have muzzle-loader-specific hunting seasons, modern rifles from companies such as Thompson Center continue to innovate with single-shot, load-from-the-front rifles.
Because the topic comes up frequently in the news, we ought to mention National Firearms Act (NFA) firearms. You may have noticed that various types of firearms — rifles, handguns and shotguns — have very specific legal definitions. When firearms stray outside of those legal constraints, they may fall under the umbrella of NFA firearms. For example, a rifle with a barrel shorter than 16 inches is classified as a “short-barrel rifle.” They’re legal, but to build or buy one, you need to file special paperwork with the BATFE, pay a $200 tax stamp fee and undergo more rigorous screening.
Tom McHale is a perpetual student of all things gun- and shooting-related. He’s particularly passionate about home and self-defense and the rights of all to protect themselves and their loved ones. As part of his ongoing training, Tom has completed dozens of various training programs and is a certified National Rifle Association instructor for pistol and shotgun. He’ll be completing his USCCA Certified Instructor program in the near future.