Posted on 02/14/2020 by FFL Dealer Network

Complete Gun Breakdown: Pistols vs. Rifles vs. Shotguns


Complete Gun Breakdown: Pistols vs. Rifles vs. Shotguns

The gun world can be an intimidating place, with a lot of jargon thrown around while referring to every aspect of guns and gun ownership. If you're just beginning to learn about firearms, sorting through the differences in gun types is a great place to start. 

Not all guns are made for the same purpose. This article will break down the difference in gun types, how to tell them apart, and which one is ideal for your purposes. Just like you wouldn't want to show up with a knife to a gunfight, you probably don't want a pistol for your hunting trip, or a rifle for conceal carry. 

There are three main kinds of guns: 

  • Pistols
  • Rifles 
  • Shotguns  

And several subsets within each of those categories. We'll go over the three main kinds and a few ways to tell them apart. 

Pistols

Pistols are considered a type of handgun, and we'll use the two words interchangeably. They've been around since the 16th century and before they began getting mass produced, owning one signified something. That something was that you could afford one; they were more expensive and less useful than other guns on the market in ye olde days. Sometimes people will use the word pistol to differentiate from a revolver. They're both handguns, which means:  

•   Fired with one hand.  

•   A short barrel, under 16 inches. Otherwise you really wouldn't be able to use it with one hand.  

•   Doesn't need shoulder support. Because, again, one-handed usage. 

Basically, they're smaller and lighter than other guns. There are two main kinds of pistols: 

•   Semi-automatic: the first (successful) one dates all the way back to the end of the 19th century and developed the technology still used today where the recoil action reloads the pistol. 

•   Revolver: has a revolving (get it?) cylinder that holds loaded ammunition. In the early days a shooter had to pull a hammer back & then release it with the trigger. Nowadays the trigger pushes the hammer back & releases it. 

Much less common, but still seen sometimes in hunting: 

•   Single-shot pistols: they only hold a single round of ammunition and shooters must reload after every shot. Not great for home defense, but fine for hunting.   

Rifles  

Rifles are portable guns used for accurate long-range shooting. They go back to the 18th century, designed as an improvement to the muskets everyone used at the time. For centuries before archers knew that adding a spin to their arrows improves the accuracy over long distances.  It's the same thing quarterbacks do when they throw footballs down the field. Throwing a perfect spiral improves the accuracy over distance (then you just have to hope that someone's open to catch it).  

Rifles feature two adjustments to achieve this; spiraled ridges (called "rifling", get it?) got added to the inside of the barrel. The peaks of the rifling (called "lands") put torque on the projectile. And elongated ammunition cut through the air more efficiently (again, same as a football). 

TL:DR: Rifles are more accurate over long distances. A few other notable differences between rifles and other guns: 

•   Long barreled, for putting torque on projectiles and long-distance shooting. Over 16 inches.   

•   You shoot rifles with two hands, and brace the gun against your shoulder for stability.  

•   Some rifles used compressed air to fire. They're great models for target shooting, casual shooting, and vermin control around the house.  

There are three subsets within rifles to be aware of:  

•   Bolt action: A bolt on the side of the gun manually operates the loading of cartridges into the chamber of the gun. 

•   Semi-Automatic: A self-loading gun, that automatically cycles a new round into the gun's chamber after every shot. The trigger must be released to initiate reloading.  

•   Fully Automatic: As long as the trigger is pressed, the gun will continually fire and re-load.   

Rifles serve a wide-range of purposes including sport shooting, hunting, and home defense. 

 Shotguns

Also called scatterguns, which gives you an idea of how they're different from handguns and shotguns. The barrels of these guns are historically smooth, unlike in rifles (no rifling) and they shoot a different ammunition. They're meant to fire from the shoulder and instead of a single projectile they use a single shell to shoot lots of small pellets called "shot" (ah, there's where they name comes from).  

 It's possible these days to find shotguns that include rifling inside the barrel, and to get ammunition that shoots a single projectile, called a "slug." Some general characteristics of shotguns: 

•   Held with two hands and braced against the shoulder, they have some serious recoil energy: up to 62 foot pounds for a 10 gauge shotgun. 

•   One shot per trigger pull, so make it count.  

•   Longest barrel, over 18 inches.  

There are three subsets of shotgun: 

•   Break-Action: This gun has a hinge that splits the gun open for removing spent ammunition and reloading. This is basically the gun you see in old Western movies. 

•   Pump-Action: Using a pump with this gun, you eject spent cartridges and reload the chamber. This would be the shotgun you see in action movies.   

•   Semi-Automatic: This gun ejects spent ammunition and reloads a new shell from a cartridge every time the shooter squeezes the trigger. They're banned for hunting in some states.   

Shotguns are a common choice for home defense, and hunting when loaded with birdshot (for birds), and buckshot (for small-medium game).     

Now you're basically a gun expert. OK, well maybe not "expert" but hopefully you're well informed enough to know what kind of gun you're interested in learning about more, or learning how to shoot.


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