When people debate about guns, they’re often uninformed and/or misinformed about some very basic aspects of guns and the terms relating to them. Some of the worst offenders when it comes to using incorrect gun terms are journalists and politicians. This article will hopefully serve as the definitive guide to using the correct gun terminology.

One thing to understand is that there are many, many different kinds of guns. Still, if you’re going to talk about such an important subject, it’s important to know at least a little about it. Below I’ve listed some of the common types of guns.

“Assault rifles”


Although not many “gun people” use this term, I’ll still include it. Technically, the rifle that have been used in the recent U.S. mass-shootings are not “assault rifles.” By definition, an assault rifle must have select-fire ability. A select-fire weapon is only available to military, police, and citizens who go through rigorous application processes and have a lot of money to spend. In other words the average American cannot buy an assault rifle.

Semi-automatic rifles


It may appear almost identical to the military’s m16, internally, the ar-15 is very different. The ar-15 is visually the same as the m16 (minus the selector switch) but functions in a different, more restricted way. Instead of choosing between fully automatic, burst, and semi-automatic, the operator is limited to semi-automatic only. This is what separates a true assault rifle from a sporting rifle like the ar-15.

Semi-automatic pistols

Beretta M9
Beretta M9

Semi-automatic pistols are used by law enforcement, military, and civilians. They work in the same way that semi-automatic rifles do. For each pull of the trigger, a round fires until the magazine is empty.


Colt Anaconda .44 Mag ---Photo © by Jeff Dean
Colt Anaconda .44 Mag —Photo © by Jeff Dean

Revolvers can be either handguns or rifles, though handgun revolvers are much more common. A revolver uses a–you guessed it–revolving mechanism. Most revolvers hold six rounds of ammunition. A revolver can be either double-action or single-action. With a double-action, you can keep pulling the trigger and a round with go off with each pull until you’ve fired each chamber. Contrastly, a single-action requires manual manipulation of the cylinder using the cocking hammer. Most double-action’s allow you to operate the cylinder using the hammer as well.


Vz 24 --- Photo © Szuyuan huang
Vz 24 — Photo © Szuyuan huang

Bolt-action rifles are a very old design. A bolt-action often has an internal magazine but can also have a detachable one. The operator of a bolt gun must manually actuate the bolt before each round can be fired. Some shotguns and even handguns can have bolt actions.


Win Model 1873 ---- Photo © Bob Adams
Win Model 1873 —- Photo © Bob Adams

You don’t see many of these anymore, besides in westerns. These are esentially the same idea as the bolt-action except instead of actuating a bolt, you use the lever. Again, lever-guns are not limited to rifles. They can–although very uncommon–come in the form of shotguns or pistols.

Black powder


Finally, black powder guns; also know as muzzleloaders. These are the oldest of all firearms. The firing process of a black powder gun is extremely inefficient. With a black powder gun, the rounds are not self-contained. They need to be assembled in the firearm by packing different components down the barrel. You’d be a proficient black powder shooter if you could reload in two minutes.

Chance Moschell

Chance Moschell

Founder, marketer, creator.


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