Written by Phillip Chambers

Everything You Need To Know About Gun Functionality

Hello everyone and welcome back for another gun guide. This is Tyson again coming at you through the internet with another gun article.

Today we’re gonna go through the timeless age-old question of “how guns work”

Let’s get right into it.

What is a gun?

But before we can answer how a gun works let us take a step back for a second and look at what a gun actually is.

As per the ATF definition of firearms, it is anything that is designed to expel a projectile by the action of an explosion.

This might sound super broad and slightly confusing but when it comes to government definitions of stuff, sometimes that’s the point.

So now that we have that out of the way, the easiest way to explain how a gun works is by feeding a projectile down a tube (barrel) on a device that should be at least somewhat ergonomic (not always the case) for a human to hold. 

This projectile will be forced down the length of this tube when an explosion takes place at the far end. 

As the projectile moves down the tube it will gather momentum as it takes the path of least resistance to find its way out of the enclosure it found itself in.

In order to deliver the maximum effect of energy distribution, the far end where the explosion takes place needs to be solid enough that it won’t bust open after the detonation. (Ideally, this will be the case after multiple ignitions.)

Today’s modern guns are built out of many different materials including steel, aluminum, wood, and polymer. These materials have been chosen over many years of testing what works and what doesn’t.

Not only that but gun designs have advanced drastically over centuries with many different action types, ammunition, and propellants being created over these years.

It really is awesome that these big minds were able to innovate over all this time, and we are still seeing significant advancements to this day.

Early Types Of Guns + A History Lesson

Time to go for a walk down memory lane.

Memory lane looks really nice in the fall

You might think that guns have only been around for a couple of hundred years but they go back… like waaay back.

You see the first record of a gun-type object being used was in China in 1132 during the siege of De’an.

Now this “gun” was called a fire lance and was actually attached to the end of a stick and used more like a flame thrower.

“That doesn’t jibe with the definition above” you may say, but they would also cram other objects down the barrel at times to act as shrapnel along with the flame.

Soon the gunpowder mixture changed allowing for more force to be delivered at detonation so at this time metal became the predominant barrel component.

Around this time is when they decided to also create projectiles that will fit more snugly down the barrel.

It was long known at this point that battles could be won with artillery and cannons started to appear that could shoot farther than arrows could hope to reach while also being able to do damage to structures that more primitive siege equipment was used for without the cumbersome setup.

Later we saw the introduction of the arquebus. The first gun closely resembled a rifle. Originally used as a defensive weapon on city walls, with the addition of a shoulder stock, priming pan, and matchlock they were eventually fielded as an individual arming device in the 15th century.

By this time people were already making pistol-style firearms.

Further developments with the arquebus laid the foundation of the muskets we know today. 

In the beginning, muskets were of a larger caliber than their predecessor and able to accurately shoot out to greater distances. They were made to combat the heavier armor that knights wore and were so effective at their job that they slowly killed off the use of heavily armored soldiers on the battlefield. You can think of a knight in full armor as the original tank.

The 1911 was a staple sidearm of the 15th century haha

Over time the musket was improved making them lighter and easier to use. When the flintlock mechanism was introduced for muskets it made the arquebus obsolete.

Soon caliber standardization was introduced. This laid the groundwork for having the same bullet that would fit down many barrels. Saving precious time in battle, whereas before each was specifically made for each musket.

Being able to replicate the same gun over and over made it easier to train. Especially since the weight was reduced allowing those with a smaller frame to be comfortable wielding this new technology.

The 15th and 16th centuries saw the mass adaption of firearms into professional armies. We also saw many variations of artillery pieces including cannons, howitzers, and mortars. 

There were many ignition devices created when muskets grew in popularity. The most popular were matchlock, wheel lock, and flintlock in the beginning.

Matchlock

A matchlock musket would allow the gun to ignite its powder charge by lowing a burning rope attached to the firearm that would touch the gunpowder at the control of the user with a lever (trigger) with their finger.

This was a very popular early ignition type for firearms.

Matchlocks immerged sometime in the 1400s.

Wheel Lock

This was the first advancement after the matchlock. The ignition device on these guns was a friction wheel that would cause sparks when it spun after the trigger was pulled, allowing the powder on the firearm to explode.

Although a major step forward over the matchlock, they did not see wide use due to the high cost to produce them. They also required a skilled hand when it came to maintenance, not ideal when you are raising armies with whoever you can find.

The first wheelock was invented in 1509.

Flintlock

With the invention of the snap locking system, the flintlock concept slowly grew in popularity and eventually became the standard ignition system for many muskets.

Early prototypes of flintlock-style guns come from the early part of the 16th century but it wasn’t until the late 17th century that they become widespread.

The flintlock fixed one of the biggest problems people had with guns up until this time. The powder that burned from the flash pan into the chamber was exposed until the 1500s. At this time they started to cover the flash pan, protecting it from the elements, but it still need to be manually moved when ready to use.

When a flintlock was fired it would automatically move the flash pan cover.

These guns would have a piece of flint on a spring-loaded lever. When the trigger was pulled the flint would fly forward and strike a piece of steel, creating a shower of sparks and burning the gunpowder.

This type of gun would remain virtually unaltered for almost a further 2 centuries until we got to our next invention…

Cap Lock

The final iteration of muzzleloading muskets came in the form of cap lock or percussion cap guns.

The cap itself was the first time we see an ignition device that closely resembles a modern-day primer. The cap was placed over a nipple that would safely and securely deliver a spark to the gunpowder resting inside the barrel of the gun.

These firearms would still have a hammer that would strike the cap at the pull of the trigger. Visually they closely resemble the flintlock muskets that came before them.

Cap lock muskets were easier and quicker to load compared to flintlocks, and unlike any other muzzleloader up until this time, they were able to be fired in almost any weather conditions thanks to the self-contained nature of the cap and how it delivers its charge.

Many flintlocks were later retrofitted to cap lock muskets to take advantage of the benefits they provided.

Other advancements

There were a few other things that changed the way we made guns a little after this time. 

Breechloaded muskets allowed for the rifle to be loaded at the breech end as opposed to the muzzle cutting down on loading time.

Paper cartridges further improved muskets by conveniently packing all the materials in a single 

Eventually, rifle barrels were introduced allowing much more accurate fire than the smoothbore firearms that the world knew to date.

In the beginning, rifles were still used sparingly and only the most distinguished marksmen in the military would have access to them.

By the mid-1800s brass started to be used for ammunition casings. This further enhanced the capabilities of the rifles since the brass casing was strong enough to hold all the components in place but would deform and seal the end of the barrel creating more force for the bullet to use as it left the gun. Another perk is that it became much less likely for the shooter to get hit by burning powder in the face after the gun was fired and it became far easier to mass produce the ammunition.

What is ammunition?

Now that we have been discussing ammo let’s get into a bit more detail on modern cartridges.

There are a few different types of ammunition that you can find today for guns.

Black Powder

The easiest to describe would be black powder ammo.

For a black powder gun nowadays you can still get the round lead ball that they have been using for centuries but here are now sabots available too.

You can think of sabots of a big bullet that doesn’t have the casing or powder.

Some sabots will come with a wad that will further help the round travel down the barrel and out of the gun.

You still need a powder charge to send the projectile flying but there is also the option for using a powder pellet giving you a perfect powder charge every time in seconds.

Centerfire ammo

Centerfire ammunition is a self-contained cartridge that has everything you need to make the gun go bang.

There is the bullet at one end of a casing and a primer in the center at the other end, inside the casing is the powder.

Rimfire ammunition

Very similar to centerfire ammunition, rimfire ammo also is a self-contained cartridge. The biggest difference between it and the centerfire variation is the location of the primer.

On these guys, the primer is located in a circle around the rim of the case at the opposite end of the bullet.

Shotgun ammunition

It’s time for something completely different.

Let’s talk about shotguns, the most versatile of firearm types.

A shotgun can fire either many pellets, also known as shot or a single large projectile, known as a slug.

The shot form of ammunition come in many different sizes for a wide assortment of uses, from hunting the smallest of birds and rodents, all the way up to hunting deer. Buckshot which is a certain type of this ammunition is also a very popular and effective choice for self-defense.

Slugs also come in 2 different flavors. You can get rifled slubs and sabots.

The rifled slugs are designed to be used for smoothbore barrels. They have wings on them that will help the slug spiral while it makes its way down the length of the barrel.

The benefit to this is that when the slug is going to be less likely to tumble as it moves through the air. This will keep the travel of the rounds consistent between shots and allows it to progress the maximum amount of distance.

The sabot slug is designed to be used in rifled shotgun barrels, yes that’s a thing, and it’s actually fairly popular for hunting certain animals.

Since the barrel itself has rifling the sabot has smooth sides, which makes it have less drag than a rifled slug. 

They can move a longer distance than a rifled slug and will have less of an arch, losing velocity slower.

Now that we have discussed in length how the ammo works let’s get into the guns themselves.

Every Major Gun Type & How They Fire (AKA Work)

How black powder guns work

Let’s start where it began with the black powder guns.

We covered different action types earlier so we won’t go in as much detail here about that but your big difference here is going to be muzzleloading black powder guns vs breechloading ones.

Muzzleloaders

Traditions Vortek Strikefire

To load a muzzleloader your first step should be to make sure that the hammer is in the half cock position and put your safety on if you have one.

Next, it’s time to put the powder down the barrel. Nowadays you can get measuring devices and funnels to assist with getting the perfect powder charge. As mentioned earlier the powder can also come in pellet form which takes away the need for measuring.

If loading loose powder a best practice would be to tap a couple of times on the side of the barrel to ensure that the powder is packed flatly at the end of the barrel.

The powder is followed by a cotton patch and a ball or a sabot.

A bullet starter will help seat the projectile the first few inches, as opposed to trying to use the full ramrod.

Finally, send the bullet down the rest of the length of the barrel until it reaches the powder charge. This should all be done in one smooth motion, no need to hammer it down or strong-arming it.

At this point, the next step depends on your firing mechanism.

If it is a cap lock this would be the time to put your cap in place, for guns with a hammer it’s time to fully cock them.

At the squeeze of the trigger, the gun will successfully fire.

Breechloader

Hall Rifle

On a breechloader all the loading is done at the breech end of the firearm, hence the name. This guy would usually also use a cap system since they gained popularity around the time that percussion caps started to dominate the musket scene.

On most of these types of firearms, there would be some type of a break action to allow the user to easily access the area where the round could be loaded.

They used a variety of munition and ignition systems, all dependent on the design of the gun. You can find them in traditional powder and ball, paper cartridge, and metal cartridge variants.

The first step would be to break the action open to gain access to the feeding port.

Insert the type of ammunition you are using.

Place down a cap if the firearm needed one.

Pull back the hammer.

Finally, pull the trigger.

How revolvers work

Now let’s get into a gun that can fire multiple times before the need to reload again.

Revolvers come in single action and double action with a variety of loading designs.

On a single-action revolver, the hammer needs to be manually cocked back by the shooter before a shot can be fired.

Double-action revolvers can be cocked and fired by the pull of a trigger.

Many double-action revolvers can also be manually cocked like a single action allowing the majority of the trigger pull and weight to happen before the need to pull the trigger leading to more accurate shot placement.

Some are strictly double action only and will require the trigger to do all the work for you.

Time to go over some of the more popular designs that you can find in revolvers.

Fixed cylinders

Colt Single Action Army (SAA) U.S. Artillery RAC – Wikimedia Commons

Fixed cylinder revolvers were the first type to be made.

The first generation of fixed cylinder revolvers required the cylinder to be removed from the gun to load and unload.

This was achieved by removing the base pin that the cylinder used to revolve around the gun.

Most of these guns are single-action only although some double-action models do exist.

Further innovations on fixed cylinder revolvers introduced the loading gate. 

First seen in the original Colt design, this feature allowed fixed cylinder revolvers to be loaded without the removal of the cylinder. This is achieved by opening the loading gate, usually found on the right-hand side of the gun, the shooter could also depress the ejection rod located under the barrel to remove any spent casing.

Each cylinder needed to be individually loaded in this way so the user would need to manually rotate the cylinder to eject and load each, one at a time.

This is probably the slowest way to load a revolver but they could be built very strong. Thus they are capable of firing the largest of magnum rounds safely.

Break open cylinders

Webley Mk VI patent 1918 revolver – Wikimedia Commons

These come in both top-break and tip-up designs which both work similarly.

Most models would feature extractors that would help break the spent casings from the cylinder and allow the shooter to remove them easily.

Some would come with ejectors that would physically throw the casings from the gun as the break action was used.

These types of revolvers could be loaded and unloaded much quicker than the fixed cylinders which further became the case with the invention of speedloaders and moon clips.

The one drawback to this design is that it is inherently weaker than the fixed cylinder so it cannot handle the more powerful magnum round that was already in existence and popular.

Swing out cylinders

Smith & Wesson 686 Target Champion – Wikimedia Commons

This is the most popular modern method of revolver design. The cylinder can fall free from the frame of the gun by pressing the cylinder release, usually found on the left side of the frame.

The cylinder will then pivot outward giving access to the user.

Most of these guns will have an operation rod mounted on the cylinder that makes removing rounds as simple as pushing it down. Letting gravity help you is a good practice as well.

Similarly to the break-open style, these cylinders can also take advantage of speedloaders and moon clips making reloading a breeze.

A word of caution

Often in movies, you will see actors swinging their cylinders shut at the flick or a wrist. THIS IS VERY BAD PRACTICE. 

Although yeah it does look cool, the pivot point on the cylinder is the weakest point on this type of revolver. If you swing it shut this way it can damage pieces of the swinging mechanism leading to the gun going out of timing and could also lead to catastrophic failure.

How lever action guns work

Winchester 94

Lever action guns are a repeating action that uses the lever to cock the hammer, send the next round from the tube/ magazine into the chamber, and eject the spent casing all with the manual operation of the lever from the user.

Different lever action designs were made over time.

Some are loaded through a loading gate on the side (usually the right side) of the firearm. Others are loaded through the loading port cut out in the tube underneath the barrel.

The second type will require the shooter to remove the rod inside this tube for the loading port to be accessed.

Then the rod would be reinserted and locked in place again before shooting.

Although small in number there are even certain lever action guns that will use a detachable magazine. They all are newer production compared to the previously mentioned designs.

Most lever-action rifles will be chambered in rimmed cartridges for the internal mechanisms to function properly.

I have seen people at the range before try to load .45 ACP in their .45 Colt lever guns, not understanding why it won’t work.

Rifles can be found chambered in pistol rounds, rimfire rounds like .22LR all the way up to heavy-hitting rounds like the .45-70 Gov.

There are even lever action shotguns such as the Winchester 1887.

How pump action guns work

Remington 870 Police – Wikimedia Commons

Pump action guns are repeating firearms that require the handguard to be manually cycled forward and backward in between each shot.

When pumped back the spent casing will be ejected from the gun and cocks the hammer and firing pin. When the handguard is pushed forward a round will enter the chamber and will be ready to fire again until empty.

Most pump action guns will use a tube-fed system to load the next round in the chamber and the round is usually loaded from underneath the chamber.

There are pump action guns that also use a detachable magazine as their loading system.

Although pump actions are mostly thought of as shotguns there are pump action rifles as well.

These rifles are usually older-style hunting rifles and rimfire gallery guns that you used to see at carnivals back in the day.

Since the manipulation of the pump can easily be done with the support hand, pump action guns can be shot faster than both bolt action and lever action guns.

How bolt action guns work

Springfield 1903 – Wikimedia Commons

A bolt action gun is a manually operated firearm design that requires the user to manipulate a bolt to eject spent casings and chamber the next round.

When the bolt is sent rearward the old casing is removed from the gun. At this time on some firearms, the firing pin will be armed, while on others this will happen when the bolt travels forward again.

When the bolt travels forward the next round is placed in the chamber.

Most bolt action guns use a rotating bolt design. This allows the locking lugs to provide a safer more effective seal. The majority of bolt action guns will have the bolt handle on the right-hand side.

For these guns, the bolt will need to be rotated upward to unlock itself before it can begin its backward movement and it needs to be pushed back down again after the bolt travels forward.

There are straight pull and left-hand bolt action guns as well but they are far less common.

Bolt action guns come either as magazine-fed or top-fed most commonly, but some older guns incorporate a tube-fed design.

Most bolt action guns are also repeaters, but there are single-shot variants as well.

Although autoloading rifles have taken a lot of popularity from bolt action rifles they still remain desired in long-range precision shooting due to accuracy and reliability.

How semi-automatic guns work

Here is our first look into autoloading rifles.

A semi-automatic gun is a repeating firearm that automatically ejects the spent casing and loads the next round into the chamber. 

During this cycle, the hammer and firing pin will be moved into an armed state and the gun will be ready to fire again at the manual pull of the trigger.

The trigger will need to be reset and pulled between each shot.

There are three ways the autoloading action is achieved, recoil operation, blowback, and gas operation.

Recoil Operated

Recoil-operated firearms use the energy delivered through the gun recoiling to cycle the action.

The M1911 is a great example of a recoil-operated pistol.

Blowback

On a blowback gun the force of the powder ignition forces the spent cartridge backward.

The Ruger 10/22 is an example of a blowback rifle.

Gas Operated

Gas-operated firearms divert a portion of the gas that travels forward down the barrel with the projectile to be manipulated to eject the spent casing, load, and rearm the gun.

This system will usually utilize a piston that will move rearward to cycle the action or a gas tube that would bring the gases right to the chamber.

The M1 Garand was the first gas-operated rifle to see widespread military service.

Semi-automatics can be found in rifles, shotguns, and pistols.

How fully automatic guns work

M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW)

Fully automatic and select fire firearms work essentially the same as semi-automatic with the notable exception being that as long as the trigger is depressed while the gun can maintain feeding, igniting, and cycling the gun will continue to fire.

Not all full autos are the same since they serve different purposes. 

Automatic Rifles

Automatic rifles are used as the standard service rifle for most countries nowadays.

Automatic Shotguns

Automatic shotguns also see a role in the military although to a much lesser degree.

Machine Guns

Machine guns come in three forms: light, medium, and heavy. The lightest of machine guns can be operated by hand but will still be heavier than auto rifles, whereas the larger ones will require a tripod to hold their weight. This type of automatic gun will usually be belt-fed.

Submachine Guns

H&K MP5 – Wikimedia Commons

Submachine guns are pistol caliber rifles that are usually shorter making them ideal for close-quarters shooting. Although still popular with civilians and law enforcement, they have fallen from the favor of the military due to the rising use of body armor.

Personal Defense Weapons (PDWs)

Personal defense weapons (PDWs) are a new take on the submachine gun. These guys will fire medium caliber rounds that would be found on rifles making them more practical for close defensive situations.

Machine Pistols

Machine pistols are basically handguns that have the capability of automatic fire. Many can be equipped with a stock to allow the shooter to maintain better accuracy.

Cyclic Rate and Rate of Fire

Automatic guns all have varying rates of fire, also known as the cyclic rate. Since they all serve a different purpose they all need to fire at different rates. Machine guns tend to fire faster than rifles which will shoot faster than shotguns.

Just because your gun is capable of automatic fire doesn’t mean that it should be used all the time.

Guns are mechanical devices that like operating in normal temperatures. The faster you shoot the more the gun will heat up.

As the gun gets hotter the parts become more prone to excessive wear and failure.

Theoretically, you could link a belt of 1000 rounds to a machine gun and hold the trigger down until all the rounds spit through the gun (if it makes it that far). But I definitely wouldn’t want to be behind it if a part were to fail.

This is not just true on automatic guns but on any gun. You can still cause your semis to get so hot they become scorching hot, you can blow your gas system, or otherwise destroy your gun. This does make for a hell of a YouTube video though.

Summary and Closing Remarks

And here we are at the end of the article. I hope you enjoyed looking at how guns work with a bit of a trip down memory lane.

We covered a lot of content in this article, if you are new to guns it was probably a lot to take in. Don’t worry though, you don’t need to know everything all at once.

Unless your veteran uncle is challenging you to a game of gun trivia at the dinner table tonight if this is the case good luck to you!

Thanks again for stopping by and letting me tell you what I know about how guns work. Keep us in mind next time you want to learn something new about guns and gear.

Until next time this is Phillip, signing off!

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