Types of Guns: Everything You Need To Know

Types of Guns: Everything You Need To Know
February 21, 2023 Edited November 8, 2023 1043 view(s)
Types of Guns: Everything You Need To Know

Before you plunk down your hard-earned plastic, you need to know what you’re buying. The way to do that is to figure out what you’re going to do with it – what do you want a gun for? Are you looking for a concealed-carry pistol or revolver? How about home defense? Just want something to take out back and make tin cans dance?

Guns can serve several purposes, but some are better at one thing than another. For example, take home defense. I live in the woods, basically. I have a 100-yard range in my backyard, so I can shoot whenever I want, within reason.

My main need in a home defense scenario is to protect our chickens. We have 4-legged interlopers (and two-winged, as well) that have gotten in amongst the flock and have taken several of our egg-layers out. Varmints to date include possums (2), a weasel, a very brazen coyote that walked in 25 yards from where I was sitting, and a hawk. My needs can be met with a 9mm, either pistol or carbine. (We put a net over the coop to keep hawks out).

But, your needs most likely are different. A shotgun makes a pretty good home defense gun in some situations, as does a high-capacity pistol. And, if you’re looking to protect your home against two-legged predators, that’s a different story. Many employ a shotgun for this role. This is just one example of how one basic need can be filled by more than one type of gun.

Anyway, here are the main types of guns…

 

Long Guns:

  • Rifles

  • Shotguns

Handguns:

  • Semi-Auto Pistols

  • Revolvers

 

Each has its own special area of usage, but overlap can occur. Let’s look at each type and talk a bit about the basic strengths and weaknesses of each type.

LONG GUNS

Rifles are good at reaching way out there and getting the job done. That job could be hunting, home defense, competition, sniping, or just plain plinking. Calibers range from .17 to ginormous. You can have a lot of fun with a rifle like a Ruger 10/22 or a BC-15 .22LR rimfire rifle – that ammo is now fairly available again and, even at today’s prices, still allows an afternoon of shooting for not a lot of money. In terms of more serious uses like hunting or defense, the sky’s the limit on calibers, types of actions, and cost.

Breaking down this category, we find these types of rifles:

Bolt Action

Single-Shot

Semi-Auto

Lever Action

Pump

Each serves a purpose. Here are some generalities that may help you make a decision one way or another.

Bolt-Action Rifles

Bolt-Action rifle side view

Image: gundigest.com

Bolt guns tend to be very accurate and work well in the hunting environment. Centerfire guns are limited to (usually) 3 - 5 rounds in the magazine, but for hunting purposes that’s usually sufficient.

Bolt Gun Pros:

  • They tend to be very accurate

  • Scope or optic mounting is easy

  • Many calibers and configurations are offered

Bolt Gun Cons:

  • Some can be pricey

  • Capacity is limited

  • Follow-up shot speed depends on the expertise of the shooter

 

Single-Shot Rifles

Single shot rifles side view

Image: grabagun.com

Single-Shot rifles can be very inexpensive – say, $150 for a new one. They allow you to experiment with different calibers without dropping huge bucks. My son has a single-shot rifle in .45-70 – talk about a cannon! My shoulder is still sore…

Single Shot Pros:

  • Usually very affordable

  • Can be found in many calibers

  • Lightweight

  • Inexpensive way to experiment with different, “exotic” calibers

  • No complicated action mechanism to break

Single Shot Cons:

  • You have only one shot before needing to reload. Better make it count!

  • Light weight translates into pretty severe recoil with some calibers

  • There are no moving action parts (like a buffer spring) to help soak up recoil

  • Optics mounting options are limited with some guns

 

Semi-Auto Rifles

Semi-Auto rifle side view

The semi-auto rifle can spit bullets as fast as you can pull the trigger. This is, at the same time, both good and not-so-good. The good part is you have a fast follow-up shot ready if needed; it’s not so good in that some folks tend to go through a whole lot of ammo quickly because it’s so easy to do.

In centerfire calibers, there are several styles of self-loading rifles. At the present, the most popular is the AR-pattern guns. The .223/5.56mm seems to be the king of those calibers, with the .308/7.62x51 a close second. In terms of rimfire rifles, I’d say the most popular .22 going is the Ruger 10/22. This little guy has been chugging along since the mid ‘60s, with several million sold.

There is a myth that semi-autos are inherently less accurate than bolt actions. I say that ain’t so. Maybe once upon a time that nugget had some truth to it, but not anymore. With a quality AR and good ammo, it’s common to shoot sub-MOA groups at 100 yards or further. So, if you want a self-shucker, go for it. Just be ready to buy more ammo!

Semi-Auto Pros:

  • Follow-up shots can happen as fast as you can pull the trigger again

  • Magazine capacity is greatly increased over the bolt action, with 30 rounds not uncommon

  • The MSR (modern sporting rifle) has a ton of accessories available; accessorizing the MSR is easy, with its built-in rails

  • Caliber-swapping is easily accomplished by changing the upper and possibly the magazine

  • Prices tend to start in low-to-mid range, so the guns tend to be affordable

Semi-Auto Cons:

  • You can go through a whole lot of ammo during one range session if you’re not careful

  • Semi-auto actions tend to be a little bit more complicated than that of the bolt gun

  • Many semi-autos are in the AR platform, i.e. black rifles. Many shooters prefer old-school wood and metal. This is a subjective topic that I included only because I hear it a lot

 

Lever-Action Rifles

Lever action rifle side view

Image: henryusa.com

Lever guns were once the tactical go-to for the military and for civilian settlers, cowboys and other outdoor-types. They appeared during the Civil War but were not widly used until the latter part of the 19th century. They offered fast follow-up shots – a definite advantage over the Sharps and other single-shots of that era.

Originally offered in revolver calibers, they provided the benefit of only having to pack one caliber – shoot the same round in both your lever action and 1873 Peacemaker, say, .44-40. I have a beautiful Henry Big Boy .44 Magnum lever action rifle that the company provided for review. Talk about a beautiful gun! Polished brass receiver, octagonal, deep-blued barrel… what’s not to like?

Lever Rifle Pros:

  • You can get 10 or more cartridges in the magazine tube depending upon caliber

  • Revolver cartridges show greatly amped-up ballistics when shot out of the lever gun

  • Guns tend to be short and light and handle very well in tight places

Lever Rifle Cons:

  • Reloading can be slow, even with a side gate

  • Calibers are fairly limited, although a greater variety is available nowadays

  • Optics mounting can be a pain

 

Pump Rifles

Pump rifle side view

Image: remarms.com

Pump rifles are not as common as they once were, but companies like Remington have helped keep them in the forefront. With a detachable box magazine holding five or so rounds, the pump is easily fed as extra mags can be carried. Plus, they are easy to operate… most shooters have run across a pump shotgun sometime in their shooting experience and these guns work the same way. They make sense.

Pump Rifle Pros:

  • Rifles tend to be fairly light and handle easily

  • The action type is not as finicky as some semi-autos and will feed most any ammo

  • Safety is built-in; you must manually cycle the action for each shot

Pump Rifle Cons:

  • There is not a huge variety of pump guns out there – the selection is a bit limited and can be pricey

Shotguns

Shotguns come in four basic flavors. They include:

Single Shot

Side-By-Side or Over/Under

Pump

Semi-Auto

Let’s look briefly at each type.

 

Single Shot

Single shot shotgun side view

Image: runnings.com

 

A single shot shotgun has a lot going for it. Lacking complicated actions, the single shot can be made shorter and lighter. There is really not much to learn with one of these guns… break the action open and swing the barrel down. Stick your shell in the chamber – close the action, cock the hammer and fire.

Where I live we have a lot of Amish around. My favorite gun shop sells a lot of single shot shotguns to the younger Amish, which they take to the fields and woods. Lots of deer have fallen to these young hunters and their “simple” single-boomers. They fit in their wagons and buggies easily. They are popular!

Single Shot Pros:

  • Very short, with no chamber adding to length, and very light

  • Available in all popular gauges

  • Inexpensive

  • VERY safe – only one shot at a time, and that only after manually opening the gun

  • Handy – easy to fit in tight places

Single Shot Cons:

  • No such thing as a fast follow-up shot (you define “fast”)

  • Recoil can be brutal with no buffer like semi-autos have

  • Hard to mount an optic on

  • Tends to not hold its value for resale

 

Side-By-Side, Over/Under

Side by Side shotgun top view Over Under shotgun top view

Images: shootinguk.co.uk, americanhunter.org

These guns represent, to many, the pinnacle of shotgun development. Many shotgunners will only own guns with two barrels, attached together beside or above/below each other. You can find both side-by-sides and over/unders in all price ranges, so price isn’t really an issue…

I’ve seen new imported guns go for as little as $450, and on the other hand have seen some really fancy models bring five figures. Not being an avid shotgunner, I would not appreciate the guns in the hoity-toity price spectrum, but my brother would. He’s owned some pretty sophisticated artillery over the years. Either of these styles would be an excellent choice for the experienced scatter gunner. 

Side-By-Side, Over/Under Pros:

  • Safety is enhanced – you only have 2 shots, and you must manually open the gun to load them

  • Guns, like single-shots, are shorter and lighter due to no extra chamber length – easy to maneuver in tight spaces, or to swing onto the target

  • Some of these guns are downright beautiful, with engraving, plating, etc.

  • Cost is not a factor, with prices going from under $500 to nose-bleed astronomical

  • Your shotgunning skills will be proven – you only have two shots before reloading

Side-By-Side, Over/Under Cons:

  • Guns can be very pricey

  • Probably not the best shotgun for home defense – “two-and-done” in terms of shots

  • Recoil can be stout, especially with 12-gauges

 

Pump Shotguns

Pump shotgun side view

Image: gundigest.com

I started off with a very old, at that time, J.C. Higgins 12-gauge pump on which someone had clumsily shortened the barrel… a hacksaw job. I got it for cheap at a gun shop, near where I was teaching at the time. I got good at racking that slide… you’d have thought I played trombone, but I was a trumpet player (sorry…).

Pumps are the working class of the shotgun world. There are many different brands and styles of slide-action guns. They tend to be cheaper than semi-autos, since the action is not quite as complicated. You can get a really decent pump gun for around $500 – the Mossberg 500 is one example that comes to mind.

Pump Shotguns Pros:

  • Price. Some are fairly inexpensive but are well-made

  • Ammo interchangeability – you can load different types of shells of the same caliber and they will feed

  • Reliable operation – pumps are less prone to stoppages than many semi-autos

  • Great for home defense

Pump Guns Cons:

  • Some lesser-expensive models use one action bar; they can bind a bit in operation

  • A few very inexpensive imports have been proven to be jam-o-matics; stick with the mainstream models

  • Many models make it difficult to mount an optic on

 

Semi-Auto Shotguns

Semi-Auto shotgun side view

Image: americanrifleman.org

A good semi-auto shotgun is a thing of beauty. The engraved Remington 1100 shown here is a good example of that. The only part(s) that move when you fire one of these is the bolt. Well, technically that’s not true but it’s the only moving part you see. You have a gas system and operating bars inside, but the bolt ejecting and loading the chamber is what you see. The semi-auto tends to be the easiest of all shotgun types on your shoulder, since the moving bolt helps mitigate some of the felt recoil.

There are two main sub-species of this critter: gas operated, or recoil operated. Gas guns work by bleeding off a bit of the gases generated upon firing to cycle the bolt. Recoil guns use a spring that cycles the bolt. I own a gas gun now but had experience with a recoil gun many years ago. Semi-autos are fun to shoot, for sure.

Modern, “tactical” (whatever that means) semi-autos look a lot like AR-15 rifles, but are chambered in 12 gauge and have detachable box magazines. There are even bullpup versions – talk about a Buck Rogers gun!

Semi-Auto Shotgun Pros:

  • You can push pellets or slugs out of the muzzle as fast as you can pull the trigger

  • Follow-up shots are a piece of cake

  • All sorts of styles are available, from tradition wood/metal to AR-15-style, 15-shooters

  • Great for home defense

Semi-Auto Cons:

  • As with semi-auto rifles, ammo costs can rise rapidly

  • Gas actions require cleaning regularly in order to function properly

  • Can be more picky about ammo types; some will usually work better than others

  • Can be very pricey

 

HANDGUNS

Pistols: Semi-Autos

Semi-Auto handgun side view

Image: wikipedia.com

The semi-automatic pistol is the defacto handgun that many shooters seek to own. After all, GLOCK is the best-selling gun in the world, right? All those buyers can’t be wrong, right? Are they better than revolvers? Certainly, for some shooters. I tend to like and shoot both semis and wheelguns. No matter where you stand, self-loaders have taken over the LEO and concealed carry worlds, for sure.

Two Types Of Actions

There are two main types of semi-autos, just like revolvers that you’ll read about below: DA (double-action) and SA (single-action). SA guns need to have their hammer or striker cocked manually by racking the slide. The 1911 above is one such gun. DA guns can fire, once the chamber is loaded, by simply pulling the trigger.

There is a combination pistol: the DA/SA. This is a gun that, once you rack the slide and load the chamber, can have its hammer “de-cocked”, or lowered, by flipping a lever on the frame or slide or by physically lowering the hammer with your thumb. This gun can then be fired by pulling the trigger, without having to manually cock the hammer.

Why go through this? Some shooters consider it to be safer. A lowered hammer puts people at ease, the thought goes. The first practical DA/SA pistol to be used in combat was the Walther P-38, and the type grew from there.

The “modern” pistol uses a striker, not a firing pin as such, to ignite the primer. GLOCK has grown massively over the years by using what it calls a “safe action”. These are striker-fired pistols that many people trust and carry. There is no hammer as such, so the gun is considered to be safe. Be that as it may, Glock is one of the most popular pistol brands out there. Glock pistols are found in approximately 68% of U.S. police agencies, ground that was heretofore owned by revolvers.

Why are semi-autos so popular? Why would you want to consider buying one?

Semi-Auto Pros:

  • Capacity – I own a 9mm that holds 18 + 1 rounds… no revolver can do that.

  • “Carry-Ability” – Semis tend to be flatter than revolvers, due to the width of their cylinder

  • Quick Reloads – Slap in a new magazine and you’re good to go. No loading of individual chambers

  • Optics Options – The current trend in optics-ready pistols allows a red dot to be mounted easily

  • Holsters Abound – There are holsters for thousands of pistols out there

Semi-Auto Cons:

  • Reliability can suffer… some guns can experience FTFs and/or FTE

  • Grip Is Important… Grabbing a pistol with a loose grip can result in FTFs.

  • Ammo Is Important… Some semis only function with certain brands of ammo, and specific bullet weights. Revolvers have no such issues.

  • Safety Confusion – Some pistols have an external safety lever, some don’t. For some new shooters, this can be confusing. Pistols are inherently safe, even without a lever, but some shooters still want one on their pistol of choice.

 

Revolvers

Revolver handgun side view

Image: smith-wesson.com

Our final gun type is the revolver. I’ve had a lot of experience with wheelguns over the years and have grown to really like them. I own several. I guess that’s partially because when I started shooting in the mid-70s, revolvers were prevalent. If you shot any centerfire semi-auto pistol, chances are it was a 1911… there weren’t that many around back then, and police carried revolvers. So, I “grew up” with them.

Let’s get the difference between single-action and double-action revolvers out of the way. Just like the semi-auto above, revolvers can come in single- or double-action. Single-action (SA) guns… think Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke”. An 1873 Peacemaker is a good example of a gun that you have to manually cock the hammer in order to fire. Double-action (DA) refers to the ability to trigger-cock the hammer, and also to the ability to still thumb-cock it as well.

Revolvers that are carried for self-defense are almost always shot in DA mode. Trainers insist on that. But, if you are shooting informally and want to experience a lighter, shorter trigger pull, you might thumb-cock the hammer and then shoot. Traditionally, the DA pull is longer and heavier than the SA pull, but DA is the way to go for self-defense practice.

Why would a new gun owner want to consider buying a revolver over a semi-auto? A couple of reasons come to mind. First, they are simple to operate. Fill the DA revolver cylinder’s chambers with cartridges, close the cylinder (NEVER by swinging the gun and slamming it shut), and just pull the trigger to start shootin’. As mentioned above, if you need to hit that tin can out there a ways, thumb-cock the hammer and let fly. In terms of plinking, a SA .22 revolver can fill that need inexpensively.

Revolvers can be a lot of fun, and also are still viable as self-defense weapons...

Revolver Pros:

  • Easy to operate – As I said above, fill the cylinder and start shooting. No safeties, magazines, FTEs, FTFs (hopefully!)... just shoot

  • Reliability – Wheelguns tend to be less prone to stoppages than some semi-autos. This is a very general statement that does have exceptions. This is especially true with rimfires

  • Easy to carry – I carry a Taurus 85UL .38 Spl. in a pocket holster with no troubles

  • “Reloadability” is easy – some semi-autos are very picky about overall cartridge length, but not so much are revolvers. As long as the cartridge fits the chamber, you’re good to go. Being a reloader, that’s important to me.

  • Variety – buy an inexpensive SA Heritage Manufacturing or Ruger Wrangler for .22 plinking fun, then add a snub-nosed .357 Magnum for concealed carry, or pick up a Taurus Raging Bull in ,44 Magnum for hunting… variety is the name of the game

Revolver Cons:

  • Capacity – you are limited to anywhere from 5 – 8 rounds in most self-defense revolvers

  • Concealability – most semi-autos are an inch or less wide; revolvers tend to be an inch and a half or more, depending on capacity and caliber

  • Bias – many shooters will not consider buying a revolver due to opinions of other shooters. This is too bad, and is very subjective but it is out there and needs to be mentioned

 

There you have all the major gun types in some detail. Now let's look at How to Buy a Gun Legally

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Mark Bernard
February 23, 2023
I have purchased a 300 blackout and 223 Wylde. Great product on both calibers. I use both for hog hunting, have enough power to get the job done.
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