Understanding the Basics of Firearms

Firearms, guns, the most manly of items. They can’t even be mentioned without evoking the glory of combat or the legacies of some of history’s greatest men. Yet, many modern men know nothing about them. Hopefully, I can remedy that today. 

Types of Guns


Rifles are the most common type of gun. Originally, they were defined as having a “rifled” barrel (more on that later) but now it’s a catch-all term for guns that don’t fall into any other category. 


Carbines are a sub-type of rifles, defined as being shorter than a typical rifle but still significantly larger than a pistol. They’re commonly used by navies and marine corps because they’re easier to handle in confined spaces, like warships, but are still effective in combat. 


Shotguns have exceptionally large smooth bore barrels. They usually fire several projectiles at once which makes them extraordinarily powerful at close range. 

Machine Guns

Machine guns are similar to rifles but are typically larger and designed around a high rate of fire. They’re generally illegal for civilians to own because they aren’t good for anything but killing people. 

Submachine Guns

Submachine guns are a sub-type of machine guns that fire a smaller bullet, the same as what pistols fire. The iconic “tommy gun” is a submachine gun designed to clear out trenches during the Great War, although it never saw service there. 


Pistols are small guns that can be carried on one’s person at all times. They fire a smaller bullet and can be handled with one hand. 


Revolvers are a type of pistol with a single distinguishing characteristic, the ammunition is carried in a rotating cylinder that brings it in line with the barrel to fire. 

Gun Parts


The barrel is deceptively simple. In the most basic terms, it’s a metal tube that guides the bullet on a path to its target. Most modern guns have rifled barrels, meaning there are helical grooves cut into the inner surface, causing the bullet to spin and drastically improving accuracy. A gun that lacks this feature is described as “smooth bore.” The inner diameter of the barrel is called the bore and determines the size of bullet the gun can fire. 

There’s a trade off in the length of the barrel. A longer barrel is more accurate, but a shorter barrel is easier to handle. 


Sometimes called the butt, the stock is an extension of the body of a gun that allows the shooter to brace it against his shoulder to improve his aim and more comfortably absorb the recoil. Some stocks can be retracted or folded away and some can be used for storage. 

Firing Pin

The firing pin is hidden away within the guns action. It’s a spring loaded pin that slides forward and strikes the primer cap, thus firing the bullet, when released by the trigger mechanism. 


A hammer is the alternative to a firing pin. It works on exactly the same principle except that it swings into the Primer cap and is typically on the outside of the gun. Some hammers don’t hit the primer cap directly but rather strike a firing pin. 


The trigger is the mechanism that ultimately initiates the firing sequence. When squeezed it releases the hammer or firing pin and fires the bullet. A trigger that only does that is “single action.” A “double action” trigger can also cock the gun and rotate the cylinder of a revolver to bring the next bullet into position. 

Trigger Guard

The trigger guard is a loop fitted around the trigger to prevent the trigger from being bumped and accidentally firing the gun. 


The magazine stores ammunition and feeds it into the chamber to be fired. It can be designed to be installed in the gun preloaded or loaded while attached. Some can’t even be easily removed. 


The muzzle is the “Business end” of the barrel, where the bullet ultimately leaves the gun. Some muzzles are simply a machined end, others are the mounting point for accessories that make the gun easier to handle or stealthier. 


The chamber is at the back end of the barrel and serves a single purpose, to hold the bullet in position to be fired. Most guns have one chamber per barrel but revolvers have several in a rotating cylinder. 


The breech is the back end of the barrel. It closes off the barrel so the path of least resistance is to send the bullet out the muzzle. The breech can be fixed in place or closed off with a moving bolt. 


A bolt is a piece of metal that slides into the breech to close it and then moved out of the way to “cycle the action.”


There’s a plethora of different kinds of sights. They all work differently but they all serve the same purpose, the make the gun easier to aim. Most come with very simple sights but many can have better sights mounted later. 


The action is the mechanism by which a gun is fired and prepared for the next shot. 


Bolt action is extremely popular for civilian rifles and, thanks to their slow rate of fire, one of the least regulated. A handle is attached to bolt which locks it on place to fire and is lifted and pulled back to cycle the action before being pushed back and locked in place. 

Bolt action rifles were perfected over as hundred years ago. In fact, some rifles that saw service in the Great War have been in continuous use ever since, like the Lee-Enfield 303.


The most popular type of shotgun is the pump action. They have a sliding front grip that’s “pumped” back and forth to cycle the action. 


Lever action is the fastest action that doesn’t require a special technique and isn’t considered automatic or semi-automatic. It has a loop attached to the trigger guard that the shooter’s other fingers fit through. This turns the trigger guard into a lever that’s swung away from the grip and back in to cycle the action. 


Break action guns have hinged barrels that swing down to open the breech. The next round is then inserted directly into the chamber. 

Recoil Operated

Al true semi-automatic and automatic firearms use some form of recoil operated action. Recoil operated firearms are based on Newton’s Third Law of Motion;

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

-Sir Isaac Newton, paraphrased 

In shooting terms, this means;

A force is transmitted into the gun and shooter that is equal to the force propelling the bullet towards its target. 


By redirecting an infinitesimal portion of that force into the action, it can be cycled without any input from the shooter. This is usually achieved with a free floating bolt that provides significantly less resistance to movement. 

Recoil operated actions can also be cycled manually, for preparing to fire the first time. 

Gas Operated

Gas operated actions redirect gases from the barrel into the action, rather than using the recoil force directly. 

Legality & Safety

Being inherently extremely dangerous, firearm laws and safety need to be mentioned.

Laws vary between jurisdictions so the best option is to speak with your local police. They should be happy to help you stay in compliance. 

The most important safety rule is to treat every gun as if it’s loaded. Always point guns in the safest possible direction and keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire. When in storage or transport, keep guns unloaded and ensure all appropriate safety measures are taken. It’s also best to store ammunition separately. The harder it is to get a gun from storage ready to fire, the less likely it’ll be fired unintentionally or without due consideration. 

This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll likely write more firearm articles in the future. In the meantime, there’s sure to be clubs or stores in your area that would love to teach you everything you need to know. 


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