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Firearms 101

Aimed At The Beginner, Here Are Some Shooting Basics

Being around shooting enthusiasts can be daunting. They toss the lingo around with such ease, and if you don't know the basics, you can soon be lost.

There's no big mystery - most of the language makes perfect sense, especially once you begin to understand where the words come from. So here are a few to start you out.

(As I write this, I'm assuming that you're a complete beginner when it comes to firearms.)

Types Of Weapons

There's quite a bit of confusion about types of weapons, partially fueled by the media. So here are the basics:

Rifle: Usually a long gun fired from the shoulder. The name comes from the "rifling" in the barrel, which is actually a groove that twists along the barrel to make the bullet spin and give the weapon greater accuracy.

An automatic rifle fires as long as the trigger is held down until the ammo runs out. A semi-automatic rifle, like the so-called "assault" rifles, fires a single round with each pull of the trigger. A bolt-action rifle fires a single round, then the shooter manually pulls back the bolt to eject the shell, then pushes it forward again to slide a new round into the chamber.

A pump-action rifle also fires a single round, but the shooter "pumps" the next round in by pulling the front handgrip back then pushing it forward again. A lever-action rifle is the kind "The Rifleman" used. There is a lever on the bottom of the gun that you pull down and then back up to load the next round.

There are other kinds of rifles as well, including single-shot rifles which hold only one round, so you have to reload after every shot.

Strictly speaking, the AR- and AK- style rifles that are so popular today are not assault weapons, no matter what the media tells you. A true assault weapon has the capability for automatic fire (like a machine gun).

The reason these guns are so popular is their modular design, which allows you to customize the rifle to your style of shooting. You can add sights, scopes, lasers, hand grips - all kinds of things.

Pistol: A pistol is a firearm designed to be held in one hand. A revolver is the kind of pistol you see in the old westerns-there is a cylinder that holds six rounds (usually), and it turns a bit after each shot to place a new round in position for firing.

A semi-automatic pistol has a magazine that holds the ammunition. There is a spring in the magazine that pushes a new round up when the shell is ejected. As a semi-automatic rifle, this pistol fires one round per trigger pull.

Speaking of magazines, a magazine and a clip are two different things. A magazine holds ammunition and fits into the firearm, and a clip is used to load a magazine quickly.

Shotguns: A shotgun, like a rifle, is fired from the shoulder. However, a shotgun usually shoots many small, round projectiles at once. A shotgun is sometimes called a scattergun or a peppergun. The bore of a shotgun is usually not rifled - it is smooth.

Shotgun and shotgun shell sizes are given in gauges, not calibers, but the gauges are still related to the interior diameter of the barrel. But, in this case, it means the weight of a lead sphere that would fill the barrel.

For instance, in a 12-gauge shotgun, a sphere of lead weighing 1/12 of a pound would fill the barrel. A 20-gauge would be filled by a 1/20th pound ball, etc. The most common size is the 12-gauge, but the 20-gauge is very popular with upland bird hunters since it is lighter and easier to carry.

Larger guns like the 10-gauge are getting more popular now that non-lead shot is required for waterfowl hunting.

Just to mix things up, there is also a shotgun called the .410 bore. It is called the bore, not the gauge because the interior diameter of the barrel is .410 inch. This is a very small shotgun that some people like to use for kids because of the easy recoil.

But there is a lot less shot in a .410 shell, which actually makes it harder to hit the target. The larger the shotgun, the larger the shell, which means more projectiles.

There are many different types and models of shotguns. Semi-automatics and pump actions are popular, but there are also shotguns with two barrels. An over-and-under has one barrel on top of the other and a side-by-side has the two barrels next to each other.

The actual projectiles in a shotgun shell are referred to as shot. The smaller the number, the bigger the shot, and the bigger the shot, the fewer there will be in each shotgun shell.

Generally, shotgun shell boxes will state what kind of game or sport they are most suited to, which makes it easy on you when you want to buy some shells to go duck hunting, or some for sporting clays.

Chokes are tubes that screw into the front of the barrel to change the diameter of the bore. As you tighten the bore, it has the same kind of effect that holding your thumb over the hose has. The smaller the opening, the farther the shot will hold a pattern.

So, with an open choke like a cylinder, the shot will open up right away, which makes it great for close targets. At the other end of the spectrum, a full choke keeps the shot closer at first, so they don't spread out until they get much further out, which makes a full choke excellent for long shots.

In between, there are several other choices. Generally, starting with the most open, they go cylinder, skeet, improved cylinder, light modified, modified, improved modified, light full, full, and extra full. These different chokes let you fire an efficient pattern anywhere from less than 20 yards to over 40 yards away.

Most shotguns don't have every one of these chokes, and you usually won't need that many anyway, but chokes can be crucial when you shoot sporting clays.

In a hunting situation, the reason that over and unders and side by sides are so popular is that you can put a different choke in each barrel. There is a switch on the gun that lets you choose which barrel to shoot from, so you can choose the best choke based on the distance to the target.


First of all, you should know the parts of cartridge. A cartridge is also called a round. Some people call cartridges "bullets", but the bullet actually refers to the part of the round that actually comes flying out of the barrel toward the target.

The casing holds powder that is ignited by a primer in the center of the bottom of the casing when the firing pin strikes it. This is a centerfire cartridge.

A rimfire cartridge has primer around the rim at the back of the cartridge. One very common rimfire cartridge is the familiar .22. Once the primer has been struck, it ignites the gunpowder and the quickly burning powder builds pressure that forces the bullet out of the case.

The casing is often called brass, even if it's made out of some other kind of metal. The phrase "police your brass" means to pick up the empty casings after you are done shooting. In a semi-automatic weapon the empty brass can fly pretty far when it is ejected.

Caliber simply refers to the size of the bullet or the interior diameter of the barrel. It is usually in millimeters or in hundredths or thousandths of an inch.

For instance, a .22 bullet is 22/100 of an inch in diameter. A 9mm bullet is – you guessed it – 9 mm in diameter. A .44 caliber bullet is 44/100 inches, a .50 caliber is half an inch, etc.

The caliber refers only to the bullet portion of the round - the case may be bigger, and in fact, the actual bullet may even be a bit smaller or larger than the caliber given. But basically, that's it.

Other common pistol calibers are .357 and .45. Common rifle calibers include the .22, .223, .243, .308, 30-06. The 30-06 (pronounced thirty-aught-six) is .30 inches in diameter. The '06 refers to the year it was adopted by the U.S. Army. It's a very popular hunting round.

Just to confuse things, the .308 is also called the 7.62x51 NATO , and the .223 is also called the 5.56x45mm NATO.

That's It In A 'Nut' Shell

So there you have it. This is a very basic beginners' guide to some of the more common shooting terms. There's no big mystery. Maybe sometime we'll delver deeper into it and get into some gun vocabulary.


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