There are A LOT of different types of firearms available for you to shoot.
For simplicity though, we would recommend putting them into 3 different buckets.
We’re going to walk through these 3 major gun types, and their subtypes, so you get a deeper understanding of what firearm type you might be shooting at the range.
You might even impress seasoned vets with your new gun knowledge!
As always, make sure to check your local state legislature for any additional or specific information.
Let’s get started…
Best place to start when describing different firearm types is with the handgun.
No reason, I just wanted to start here.
So… What Is A Handgun?
The U.S. justice department defines a handgun as follows:
“a firearm which has a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand”
And to be fair, I think they pretty much nailed it.
That’s exactly what a handgun is. It has the following characteristics:
- Short Barrel – typically less than 9 inches in length.
- No Stock – normally a handgun doesn’t have a stock you put to your shoulder for firing support (although there are pistols with this but those are typically attachments).
- Compact – The compact nature of a handgun means you can fire it accurately with a – you guessed it – single hand.
Handguns will also come in a variety of different sizes like:
- Micro – These handguns will generally have a 3 inch (or less) barrel and are tiny enough to put it in your pocket.
- Sub-Compact – Generally you’ll see barrell between 3-4 inches for these handguns.
- Compact – Now you’re getting into a larger handgun. Usually the barrel will be between 3.5-4.5 inches in length.
- Full Size – These are the largest barrell types clocking in between 4-5+ inches. Most of your handguns will fall into this category.
Now that you know the specifics, let’s get into the most common subtypes of handguns.
Different Types Of Handguns
When you see an action movie, and the hero is carrying around a handgun, you’re most likely looking at a semi-automatic pistol (unless you’re watching an old western classic or Serpico).
In fact, most people use the term pistol to refer to a handgun. Although that’s technically not correct as you’ll read about revolvers below.
A pistol is a class of handgun where a magazine feeds ammunition directly into the chamber automatically after discharging a round.
Using the awesome laws of physics and crafty engineering, when the pistol strikes the primer and discharges the bullet, the energy causes the slide of the pistol to slide back which then feeds the next round into the chamber for another trigger pull without needing another clocking pull.
This is a pretty decent video animating how a semi-automatic pistol works.
I know I put semi-automatic pistols first of the classes for handguns, but revolvers actually came first in terms of production.
Because they’re so darn simple.
In fact, the basics of a revolver look like this – pull a hammer back (cock it), line up the cartridge to get fired, and release the hammer by pulling the trigger – and that’s it.
Really simple right?
The hammer will hit the primer which then lets the rest of the work get done by the cartridge itself, and the only thing necessary is to turn the cylinder so the next round is ready to be hit by the firing pin.
Here’s a decent video showing an animation of this process:
Now, there are a couple different types of revolvers:
Single Action – this is where the hammer of the revolver is actually clocked by you, the shooter. By doing this you rotate the cylinder into place and put the hammer into a position for striking the primer with the firing pin. So pulling the trigger produces only one action, dropping the hammer.
Double Action – compared to single action, a double action is where the trigger produces separate actions from one trigger pull. As you pull the trigger the hammer gets pulled back and as you continue pulling the trigger the hammer then gets released to hit the primer. Most modern revolvers are both double action and single action.
Double Action Only – these kinds of revolvers are especially useful for conceal carry by women (particularly in concealed carry purses). These revolver types are often very compact and don’t have a hammer exposed for pulling back. The hammer is covered and if you want to fire the revolver you have to pull the trigger.
When you think of a rifle, what’s the first image that pops into your mind?
For me – it was the John Wayne film “True Grit” and his Winchester Lever Action rifle.
For others, it might be Chris Kyle (the soldier being represented in American Sniper) and his .300 win mag.
Either way, you probably have a sense of what a rifle is.
But if not, let’s get into the details
What Is A Rifle?
The justice department defines a rifle in the following way:
“The term “rifle” means a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder and designed or redesigned and made or remade to use the energy of an explosive to fire only a single projectile through a rifled bore for each single pull of the trigger.”
That was a mouthful.
But, that really is what a rifle is.
Rifles are a long barreled firearm with a “rifled” bore meant to shoot a single projectile at an object.
Rifles are so named because of the special grooves within the bore firearm. These grooves help to spiral the bullet which increases distance and accuracy of the projectile.
You can categorize a rifle by their different action types.
Different Types Of Rifles
Bolt Action Rifles
These rifles have a single bolt which you need to pull and push to feed (and eject) a round of ammunition into the chamber.
Lever Action Rifles
You know that True Grit rifle I was talking about earlier?
Yea, that’s a lever action rifle.
This kind of rifle requires you to pull a level down and back to chamber a new round.
Semi-automatic rifles now move into a class of rifle where instead of manual effort being used for chambering a round, the firearm now uses the gasses released after a cartridge is fired to push a bolt and rechamber a new round.
You’ll need to get a round into the chamber manually the first time, but after that you’ll be able to fire a new round immediately after firing your first round.
Fully Automatic Rifles
Biggest difference between a semi-automatic and a fully automatic rifle is what occurs after the trigger pull.
A fully automatic doesn’t require a trigger pull for EACH unique round being fired. With a fully automatic, you pull the trigger and hold it down to continuously fire rounds.
Fully automatic rifles are not legal to own for the average U.S. citizen unless you own special licenses and certifications.
Ahh the shotgun.
Elmer Fudd’s best friend during “wrabbit” season.
What Is A Shotgun?
A shotgun is defined by the U.S. justice department as:
“a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder and designed or redesigned and made or remade to use the energy of an explosive to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each single pull of the trigger.”
Shotguns and rifles are very similar. But there are two very specific differences which require a shotgun to be placed into its own category.
The first significant difference is in the cartridge a shotgun fires.
These cartridges are called “shotshells” and differ significantly to rifle or handgun cartridges.
Because a shotshell is an ammunition type that holds many tiny (or large) steel or lead balls which expand upon being fired from a shotgun.
Instead of only a single projectile, a shotgun will often shoot multiple projectiles.
There are some shotgun cartridges which contain a “slug”, which is a single bullet enclosed by a shotgun cartridge. However, the shotgun is used primarily to spray a target with multiple pellets.
The second biggest difference is the bore.
Instead of a rifling for the bore (remember that’s the special grooves which cause the projectile to spin) a shotgun has a smooth bore.
The smoothness of the bore allows the shotshell to be fired without spin, which allows the projectiles to be shot more accurately (strangely enough).
Different Types Of Shotguns
There are 2 primary types of shotguns.
This kind of shotgun allows you to “break” the barrel and load/unload new rounds into the chamber for firing.
This is the simplest type of shotgun and are only able to accept 1 shell at a time (per barrel of course)
I’m sure you’ve probably seen the movies where the hero grabs a shotgun and “pumps” it while saying something catchy.
Those are pump action shotguns.
These are the most common(modern) form of shotgun today.
These shotguns allow you to carry multiple shells which are preloaded, and then when you need a new round you just pump and BAM you now have a new shotshell in the chamber.
There you have it!
Now you know every major gun type and their uses. Along with some pretty good firearms to try out if you’re so inclined.
Leave a comment if you want to add anything below!
- Gun 101: The Ultimate Resource to Getting Started and Learning The Basics of Firearms
- Bullets: Types, Calibers & Sizes
- How To Grip A Pistol
- 5 Key Firearm Safety Rules You Should Know
- Clip vs. Magazine
- How Guns Work
- How to Shoot a Handgun