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By Mason Carteri

Guns have been a part of American culture and political discourse since the revolution, and the gun control debate is among the key issues in many national and state elections today. Although firearms remain at least somewhat present in the majority of political campaigns and modern political discourse, it’s not hard to find an elected official or voter discussing guns with seemingly no knowledge whatsoever on the subject. No matter your stance on firearms, it is important to be informed to properly debate the issue. For that purpose, this rudimentary guide to firearms should help you better understand the basic jargon, mechanics, and classifications most firearms operate under.

Long Guns vs Handguns

Most handheld guns can be roughly classified into two groups: long guns and handguns – but the world of firearms is complex and extremely diverse, so some exceptions and overlap between these categories exist.

Long guns are usually considered weapons that are meant to be held in both hands and can be braced against the shoulder when firing. Most long guns are either classified as rifles, carbines, or shotguns; a rifle is a long gun with a rifled barrel that spins the projectile as it is fired, while a carbine is a shorter rifle often meant to be mobile and lightweight. Some long guns, like the weapons used in the revolutionary war, have no rifling, and are thus usually called muskets. Shotguns use a different type of ammunition than the traditional round, called a shell, and are named so because of the multiple projectiles of “shot” traditionally loaded in each shotgun shell. In general, rifles and carbines are meant to provide the user precise and longer-range shooting, while shotguns are less precise weapons meant for use at shorter range.

Handguns are firearms meant to be held in one or both hands, without any other brace. Most handguns today are either revolvers like the classic weapons of Dirty Harry and the gunslingers of the wild west, or semi-automatic pistols. These weapons generally fire similar rounds of varying caliber, with their largest difference being the action by which they fire multiple rounds. Revolvers have a revolving cylinder which cycles the next round to be fired after the previous shot, with some “single action” revolvers requiring the users to do this manually, while other “double action” models automatically move the cylinder following a trigger-pull. Semi-automatic pistols automatically load the next round to be fired after a shot. Most handguns are meant to be less precise weapons used at close or medium range with easy mobility.


In firearm lingo, the action is the system by which a new round is chambered and readied to be fired. Almost all guns not loaded like old muskets (through the muzzle) or semi/fully automatically are considered to have an action of some sort.

Lever action rifles and shotguns user a lever mechanism to chamber the next round, while pump and bolt action guns operate similarly with different mechanisms. Most weapons using these three actions are rifles or shotguns, although some pistols like the 1800’s Volcanic Arms pistol (which used a lever action) do as well.

The break action is also popular across both handguns and long guns, often used with weapons that only hold one or two rounds/shells. In this mechanism, weapons like the classic double-barrel coach gun are “broken” at the back of their barrel to load new ammunition.


Automatic firearms have a complex mechanism that loads and chambers new rounds for the user automatically. Semi-automatic firearms load the next round at the firing of the last, but only fire one round per trigger pull, while fully automatic firearms will fire new rounds as long as the trigger is depressed, until they run out of ammunition. Fully-automatic weapons are broadly unavailable to civilians in the US without special permits and are used most often by military forces.

Fully-automatic weapons like the AK-47 are also sometimes called machineguns, while those fully-automatic guns that fire smaller pistol rounds may be called submachineguns.


Traditional rounds of ammunition are made up of a casing, a bullet, and an explosive charge of gunpowder. The casing contains the bullet itself and the gunpowder, while only the bullet is actually “fired” from the gun. These rounds are most commonly measured in caliber, which is a measure of the diameter of the projectile and the barrel from which it is fired (for example a .45 caliber round is .45 inches in diameter), in addition to other metrics like the length of the total round or the amount of black pounder loaded into it.

On the other hand, shotgun shells are made up of a wax casing with a metal end, an explosive charge, and a load. Most shotgun loads are either shot or slugs – shot is usually made up of many small spherical pellets meant to spread out when fired, while slugs are single large projectiles meant to impart heavier damage on the target.

Many guns are loaded either by placing each round individually into the weapon, or through a detachable clip or magazine. Clips are simple pieces of metal used to anchor several rounds together to be loaded at once, while magazines are fully or partially enclosed “boxes” around the ammunition that both hold the ammo and help load it into the gun (usually with a spring or by gravity).

With this simple guide to firearm functionality and terminology, you should be better equipped to engage in discussions about guns, although remember, there are many more unique and rare terms, systems, and classifications of firearms not discussed here. And should you choose to exercise your Second Amendment rights, remember: firearms are lethal instruments, and proper safety should be practiced at all times when shooting or handling guns!

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