A Gun Primer

With so much “gun talk” in the news I am finding that many people, especially, it seems, the media, are not that familiar with basic gun information.

Below are some high-level definitions of the most common terms I am hearing on the news.  I am not going to get into the distinctions between, say, a ‘pistol’ and a ‘handgun’ because this is intended to just be an introduction that covers the basic background that you will need in the coming months.  Please feel free to email me anytime at [email protected] with questions (or corrections, or things I have left out), which I will freely address to the best of my ability.

Automatic (or Fully Automatic) vs Semi-Automatic

An Automatic firearm is one that continues to fire as long as you hold down the trigger.  More commonly called a “machine gun” it is most used by the military.  Many people are surprised to find out that normal citizens can purchase and own an automatic weapon if they pay a pretty hefty fee and submit to a background check.  Automatic weapons can typically be set to fire in semi-automatic mode, in a three shot ‘burst’, or in Full Auto.

A Semi-Automatic firearm is one that only fires once each time the trigger is pulled.  To fire another round you have to release pressure on the trigger and pull it again.  While the Automatic weapon will fire as fast as the gun can cycle the next round, the Semi-Automatic will only fire as fast as you can pull the trigger.  Semi-Automatics are so named because all that the operator has to do to fire another round is pull the trigger again.  All the mechanics (ejecting the brass from the previous shot, loading another round and cocking the gun) are done automatically by the firearm itself.  This is the most popular type of gun sold today in the US.

Handgun, Long Gun, Shotgun and Assault Weapon

As used today, ‘Handgun” refers to any weapon that can be easily held and fired in one hand.  The Semi-Automatic Handgun is most often the black square looking gun you will see on a policeman’s belt, and the most popular model among law enforcement is made by a company named Glock, which is headquartered in Smyrna, Georgia.

A Long Gun is generally a gun that you place on your shoulder and aim by looking down the barrel.  Mostly, if it is not a Handgun it will be a type of Long Gun.

The Shotgun is a special Long Gun that fires pellets (B-B sized, more or less).  These pellets spread out as they move farther from the gun, to the point that the end of a football field the Shotgun is not effective at all.  The fact that the Shotgun is devastating at close range, very easy to aim because of the multiple projectiles but doesn’t carry far is why it is such a good choice for home defense.

The simple Long Gun is what you see as the Hunting Rifle.  It is most often Semi-Automatic, although it can come in manual and Fully Automatic versions as well.  Because the barrel is much longer on a Long Gun than a Handgun the bullet will carry farther with much greater accuracy.  While it is very difficult to hit a target at 50 yards with a handgun, the same shot is very easy with a Long Gun.

An Assault Weapon is not really a class of firearm, but as used today it refers to a Long Gun that looks very scary or ‘military’.  By far the most talked about type of Assault Weapon is the AR-15, which is the civilian (Semi-Automatic) version of the military issue M-16.  The AR-15 is actually made by a lot of different companies, such as Colt, Bushmaster, Smith and Wesson and DPMS.

Magazine or Clip

The container used to hold ammunition and feed it to an Automatic or Semi-Automatic weapon.  It must be loaded before you can begin to shoot, and when you are ready to shoot you slide the magazine into the gun.  The number of rounds it holds varies greatly with the caliber and type of weapon, but is commonly anywhere between 5 and 15.  Because each magazine is preloaded it is very easy (and fast) to simply eject a magazine when it becomes empty and slip in a fresh one.  Police will always have extra magazines on their belt, and an experienced shooter can change a magazine in a matter of seconds.

Revolver, Lever or Bolt Action Firearms

The revolver became popular during the Civil War and allows a gun to be loaded with traditionally 6 shots at a time.  The standard for police (and cowboys) for many years, it is extremely reliable and very rarely malfunctions.  Revolvers are considered a ‘manual’ gun because you must cock the gun in some way before you can fire the next round.  When you have used all 6 shots the gun has to be broken open and reloaded.

A Lever or Bolt Action is most commonly found on manual Long Guns.  Some of these guns have a magazine that feeds the next round each time the gun is cocked, a few are actually single shots and require a new round to be loaded after each shot.


This is a single unit of completed ammunition, or ‘ammo’.  A round is made up of the bullet (the lead or copper projectile that comes out of the gun) a measure of gunpowder, something called a primer and a case to hold the whole thing together.  When you watch CSI you see the bullet in the victim and the shell cases on the ground at the crime scene.  The powder and primer are both used up in the process of firing the gun.


The size of the bullet that the gun fires.  Calibers range from very small like the .22 used for hunting small game to very large like the .45 used in large handguns.  Bigger bullets require more powder to fire and have more power when they hit the target.  Police have told me of people being shot multiple times with a .22 handgun and it having little immediate effect.  Most police now carry a 9mm gun because it is a good balance between power and ease of use.  A 9mm round is slightly smaller than a .45 and so it also allows for a handgun to hold more shots before reloading.

Surprisingly Shotguns use a different system to determine the size of the gun, so for Shotguns the smaller the number the larger the gun.  A 12 gauge is more powerful than a 20 gauge.

Hollow Point Bullet

A solid bullet is very small and may not have that much of an effect on the target.  To make the bullet more effective many bullets have a hole in the tip or point of the bullet.  When this Hollow Point bullet enters an animal the bullet expands and releases much more energy.  Personal defense rounds are Hollow Points to ensure that the bullet has the desired effect on the criminal and that the bullet does not go all the way through and end up hitting something else.

Carry Permit or Concealed Carry Permit

While most anyone in the US who passes a background check can (for the moment, anyway) own a gun, many states place restrictions on where you can carry the gun outside of your home.  A Carry Permit is obtained from your own state, required a special background check, and usually allows you to carry your gun on your person in places unlicensed people cannot.

Does the Government know what guns I own?

Not really, but they could potentially find out.  Right now each gun purchased is registered to an individual, but as far as anyone knows there is no registration that goes the other way.  For instance, given a model and serial number of firearm law enforcement can track down who originally purchased that gun.  But given an individual’s name there is not (supposed to be) a link that goes the other way to find out the guns that the person owns.  I would bet that the next major step we see in gun control will be to require everyone to pay a tax each year on each gun that they own, which would allow the government to build a database of who owns what guns.