Gas Pains

Tom grew up in Milwaukee, bartended in Wauwatosa in the '70s and moved here in 1984.

Commentary, observations and musings about the outdoors, life in general and maybe Tosa politics and personalities will be the order of the day. He savors a lively debate as much as terrific cooking.

How to Understand Firearm Terminology


Notice to readers - In an effort to stave-off the onslaught of spam the staff here at Gas Pains has implemented a new comment moderation policy.  If you want to pitch fake Gucci handbags know this.  A stake will be driven into your heart, you will be dismembered and your lifeless remains incinerated upon a  pyre fueled by spam.  Afterwards, your ashes will be dumped on the doorstep of China Unicom Fujian Province Network.  Believe you will love it. 

Effective today if your comment does not appear immediately please be patient.  All of the foregoing steps are time-consuming given the limitations of staff that must deal with stakes, dismembering and clean-up.  Thank you, in-advance, for your forbearance.


There has been a great deal of talk about gun control in the papers, on the radio, on the television and all over the web following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  The President has convened a task force to assemble concrete proposals on addressing this complicated subject and I expect vice-President Joe Biden will issue comments today.  As I read the papers, the blogs and the Op-Eds I am struck by the general lack of understanding and confusion and general misuse of firearm terminology.  Plenty of people mangle it.  Not only is this evidence that they don’t know what they’re talking about – it makes me cringe. 

As an example I offer-up this comment lifted from an online discussion: Nobody should have an automatic assault gun that holds twenty bullets in a clip(I'll return to this later in the post).

So as the trial balloons are floated and the Congress, the President and various interest groups begin to choreograph (and telegraph) their positions - my contribution today will be a simple effort to educate my readers with a very basic primer of commonly used (and often misused) firearm terms.  I have my own ideas regarding gun violence and how to tackle that problem - but I'm saving that discussion for another day.  For any of you firearm enthusiasts or firearm critics out there feel free to add your thoughts and suggestions.

Here goes - in alphabetical order...

Action – The working mechanism of a firearm. This includes single-shot, multi-barrel, revolver, lever-action, slide or pump-action, bolt-action, semi-automatic and automatic. 

Assault rifle – Defined by the US Army as a selective fire rifle chambered for a cartridge of indeterminate power.

Automatic – A firearm that is designed to feed cartridges, fire them, eject their empty cases and repeat this cycle as long as the trigger is depressed and cartridges remain in the feed system. Includes machine guns and selective-fire assault rifles.

Bolt-action – A firearm mechanism activated manually. Think of a common door bolt. You lift the bolt handle, slide it back, slide it forward and turn the bolt down again to lock it.   

 K-98 Mauser bolt action

Bullet – The projectile that is discharged from the barrel of the firearm and goes to the target. One of the components that constitute the cartridge.

  .270 bullet

Case or casing – the container of a cartridge. For rifles and handguns it is usually brass or other metal; for shotguns it is typically plastic with a metal head and often referred-to as a shell.

  30-06 Springfield case

Cartridge – a single complete round of ammunition. Includes the case, propellant, primer and projectile or bullet.

  7mm Remington magnum cartridge

Civilian – A person who is not in the armed forces or the police department.

Clip – A device for holding a group of cartridges. Semantically the most confused term. (See magazine)

  Inserting an en-bloc clip into an M1 Garand rifle receiver

Cylinder – The drum of a revolver that contains the chambers for the ammunition.

Firearm – A rifle, shotgun or handgun using gunpowder as a propellant. By federal definition, under the 1968 Gun Control Act, antiques are prohibited. Under the national Firearms Act it includes machine guns. Air guns are not firearms.

Gun – Rifles, shotguns, handguns, air guns and cannon.

Handgun – Pistol

Lever-action – A firearm mechanism activated by manual operation of a lever.  (Think Lucas McCain of The Rifleman television series).  Unlike a bolt action you have to shift the lever to chamber a cartridge.

 Photo Wikipedia

Machine gun – A military firearm - often crew-served - that upon depression of the trigger automatically feeds and fires cartridges. Civilian ownership has been heavily curtailed and federally regulated since 1934.  (My pop was a US Army infantry machine gunner in northern France during WWII)

Magazine – A spring-loaded container for cartridges that may be integral to the firearm’s mechanism or may be detachable. Box magazines are most commonly located under the receiver with cartridges stacked vertically. Tubular magazines run through the stock or under the barrel with the cartridges lying horizontally (see lever action above).   Drum magazines hold their cartridges in a circular position.

  SKS stripper clip (left) and AR-15 box magazine (right)

Multi-barreled – A firearm with more than one barrel. Typically a double-barreled shotgun.

Plinking – Informal target shooting.   The most often-practiced shooting sport in the country.

Revolver – Firearm - usually a handgun - with a multi-chambered cylinder that rotates successively to align each chamber with a single barrel and firing pin.

Rifle – A shoulder firearm with a rifled bore.

Rifling – spiral grooves in a firearm’s bore that spin the projectile in flight to impart accuracy. Rifling is found in all true rifles, most handguns and some shotguns.

Round – A single complete cartridge.

Selective-fire – A firearm capable of fully automatic, semi-automatic or burst-fire mode.

Semi-automatic – A firearm that is designed to fire only a single cartridge, eject the empty case and reload the chamber each time the trigger is pulled.

Shotgun – A shoulder firearm with a smooth-bore barrel primarily intended for firing a shell loaded with shot, bird shot, pellets, buck shot or cylindrical slugs. Some shotguns have rifling for improved accuracy with slugs (bullet).

  12 gauge shot shell

Single-shot – A firearm mechanism lacking a magazine. Cartridges must be manually placed in the chamber for each firing.

Slide (or pump) action – A firearm mechanism activated by manual operation of a sliding handle almost always located under the barrel. Think of this like the slide on a trombone.  Every time you wish to load another round you slide the handle forward and then back.

Getting back to the comment above it should correctly read as follows: Nobody should have an automatic assault rifle that holds twenty cartridges in a detachable magazine.

We can argue all day long about whether or not a twenty round magazine is too big or not enough.  But whoever posted this was correct insofar as you cannot legally possess an automatic weapon of any sort without a special federal permit.  If you enlist in the military you would be taught to use a selective-fire assault rifle capable of fully-automatic fire. (Think barrage of covering fire during an infantry assault.) 

Civilians can legally own semi-automatic firearms.  Duck, upland bird hunters and plinkers use them all the time.  The colloquial use of the term assault weapon (or assault rifle) as applied to semi-automatic firearms sold to civilians is due to cosmetic features on the firearm that mimic those of authentic assault rifles.  I call it the Rambo Effect.  It's not the same as what you take into combat.  And that's where the interpretation gets mangled.  And innocent confusion ensues.

Sources: Dyer Labs - Scientific and Technical Translations

                  Nation Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action

                  Some of it the blogger just happens to know as fact

This site uses Facebook comments to make it easier for you to contribute. If you see a comment you would like to flag for spam or abuse, click the "x" in the upper right of it. By posting, you agree to our Terms of Use.

Page Tools