The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Types Of Firearms: Beginner’s Guide To Guns

Today, we’re going to explore the different types and their unique characteristics. This will be old news to most shooters, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t know these terms. That’s who we’re speaking to with this article. If you’re starting from zero, this should help a lot.


Let’s start by talking about handguns. Handguns come in various sizes, calibers, and configurations to suit a wide range of purposes. Generally, however, handguns are designed for shooting only short ranges. 

Now let’s explore some different types of handguns:


First up, revolvers. 

Revolvers have a rotating cylinder that holds multiple rounds, most frequently six (which is where the term “six shooter” comes from), but there are plenty of revolvers that hold more or less. 

A chrome .38 police special revolver handgun with six hollow point bullets

With each trigger pull, the cylinder rotates so that a new round lines up with the barrel. Revolvers are known for their simple, reliable design, making them a popular choice for self-defense and concealed carry. They’re commonly recommended to beginners because they’re so easy to operate, but they do tend to have fairly heavy recoil compared to semi-autos, so there are ups and downs. 

They’re also known for their distinctive appearance and are often associated with the Old West. There are even Western-style shooting competitions, like Cowboy Action Shooting, that require competitors to use revolvers while dressed in theme costumes. 

Semi-Automatic Pistols

Historically, the term “pistol” referred to all types of handguns, including revolvers. These days, however, “pistol” is generally just used to refer to semi-automatic handguns.

Semi-autos use the energy from a fired round to cycle the firearm, ejecting the spent casing and chambering a new round. That means you can fire a follow-up shot just by pulling the trigger again. 

However, you still only get one shot per pull of the trigger, which is what differentiates them from fully automatic weapons. 

Apex Triggers CZ P10C advanced trigger kit

Semi-autos offer higher magazine capacity, faster reloads, and a wide range of calibers and sizes to suit various needs. Semi-auto pistols are popular among law enforcement, military personnel, and civilian shooters.

Now let’s take a look at firing mechanisms. These categories crossover with the ones above, so a handgun can be both semi-automatic and striker fired. Got it? Good. 

Hammer Fired

Hammer-fired handguns utilize a hammer mechanism that strikes the firing pin or directly contacts the primer of the round. Revolvers are always hammer-fired, but semi-autos can also be hammer-fired. There are three main types of hammer-fired handguns:

Single-action (SA) handguns require the hammer to be manually cocked before the first shot. Once the hammer is cocked, subsequent trigger pulls have a light, crisp break because the hammer is already in the cocked position. Single-action handguns are beloved for their precise trigger control and are a favorite among competitive shooters. One of the most popular single-action handguns would be the 1911.

9mm 1911
1911 pistol in 9mm, Nighthawk Falcon.

Double-action (DA) handguns, on the other hand, fire with a longer and heavier trigger pull that both cocks and releases the hammer. After the shot, the hammer stays in its decocked position. Double-action guns offer the advantage of a longer trigger pull for added safety, as well as the option to decock the firearm without discharging a round. 

True double-action-only pistols are relatively rare, though. Generally, if a handgun has a double action, you can also cock the hammer manually for a single-action shot. 

9mm revolver at the range
Shooting a revolver at speed requires different focus than semi-auto platforms.

Most modern revolvers are double-action, but not all.

Double-action/Single-action (DA/SA) handguns combine both double-action and single-action trigger modes. Initially, the first shot is fired in double-action mode, with a longer and heavier trigger pull that cocks and releases the hammer. 

After the first shot, the gun transitions to single-action mode, where subsequent shots have a shorter and lighter trigger pull. This offers the benefit of a consistent and lighter trigger pull for follow-up shots, but also the extra safety of the double action’s heavy trigger pull for the first shot.

Beretta 92X Performance Carry Optic

DA/SA guns are exclusively semi-auto since it is the slide that cocks the hammer for the following SA shots. An incredibly famous example of a DA/SA pistol is the Beretta 92FS or M9.

Striker Fired

Striker-fired pistols are, debatably, more popular than hammer-fired ones these days. These pistols feature a striker mechanism (a spring-loaded firing pin) that is partially cocked when you pull back the slide. 

Then, when the trigger is pulled, the striker is fully cocked and released, striking the primer of the chambered round. 

David's Glock 19 Gen 3 EDC CCW
David's Glock 19 Gen 3 EDC CCW

Striker-fired pistols are known for their consistent trigger pull, simplicity, and widespread use in law enforcement and personal defense. 

If you’re not sure what to picture, think Glock.


The origin of “rifles” were shouldered firearms with a rifled barrel, meaning the inside of the barrel has spiral grooves that impart spin to the bullet for improved accuracy. While both pistols and rifles have rifled barrels these days, the name “rifle” now denotes a shouldered firearm shooting a “rifle” cartridge, basically, not a shotgun.

Rifles come in three main types of actions:


Semi-auto rifles, also called autoloading rifles, fire a round with each pull of the trigger without the need to manually cycle the action. Just like with pistols, this allows for faster follow-up shots.  and is commonly used in sporting, hunting, and self-defense applications. 

DS Arms SA58 FAL
The DS Arms SA58 I Series has a unique appearance that may be off-putting to purists, but includes a full suite of modern upgrades.

Semi-auto rifles are available in various calibers and configurations and are used for a lot of different things, including sport shooting, hunting, and self-defense. The AR-15 platform, including rifles such as the Colt AR-15, is perhaps the best-known example of a semi-automatic rifle.

Bolt Action

Bolt action rifles require manual operation of a bolt mechanism to chamber and extract rounds. The shooter lifts the bolt handle, pulls it back to eject the spent casing, pushes the bolt forward to feed a new round from the magazine, and finally locks it back into position. 

Bolt action rifles are liked for their exceptional accuracy, reliability, and wide range of available calibers. They are commonly used in precision shooting, hunting, and military applications.

Lever Action

Lever action rifles utilize a lever mechanism, usually located under and behind the rifle's barrel, to cycle the action and chamber a new round. The shooter pulls the lever down, which extracts the spent casing and feeds in a new round from the magazine. 

Lever action rifles are known for their smooth and rapid cycling, as well as their Old West vibe, making them popular for hunting, cowboy action shooting, and sating a sense of nostalgia.

An adjustable two-point tactical sling by Sly Tactical, along with an Eagle Rifle Stock Pack for spare ammo.

Now let’s talk about a couple of categories that rifles can fall into that relate to features outside of the action. 

Short Barrel Rifle

Short barrel rifles (SBRs) are rifles with shorter barrels than what’s typically considered standard. Generally, SBRs are regulated by governments, but what qualifies as an SBR varies based on where you are. 

In the US, SBRs are regulated by the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934, which defines a short barrel rifle as a rifle with a barrel that’s less than 16 inches long or an overall length of less than 26 inches.

While SBRs are legal to own in the US, as Title II firearms, they are more regulated compared to most firearms. We’ll get into exactly what a Title II firearm is and how it can be legally obtained later on.

Assault Rifle

The US Army defines an assault rifle as “short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachine gun and rifle cartridges.” I know, that uses a lot of specific terminology, so let’s break that down a bit more.

“Selective fire” means that the rifle can be switched between semi-automatic, fully-automatic, and/or burst settings. As for the cartridge, the Army means a round that’s somewhere in power between a pistol and a standard rifle or battle rifle, two main examples being the 7.62×39mm (common for AK pattern rifles) or 5.56×45mm NATO (common in AR-15 rifles). 

You’ll sometimes hear “assault rifle” used in place of the phrase “assault weapon” which is not the same thing and is instead a more amorphous legal category. 

What qualifies as an assault weapon varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Most US states do not recognize “assault weapons” existing. A few states, like California, New York, New Jersy, and recently Washington, define an assault weapon based on its cosmetic features, not its mechanical action.


Shotguns are versatile firearms primarily designed for discharging a large number of small pellets (called shot, hence “shotgun”) simultaneously. They are highly effective for hunting, sport shooting, and self-defense. 

Shotgun Shell Holder Cover

Along with rifles, shotguns fall into the larger category of “long guns,” a name that obviously comes from these firearms’ longer barrels. 

Let's explore some common types of shotguns:


Semi-automatic shotguns operate pretty much the same as semi-automatic rifles: each pull of the trigger fires a single round and automatically cycles the action. Semi-auto shotguns are popular among hunters and sport shooters due to their fast follow-up shots and reduced recoil.

Beretta 1301 home defense tactical shotgun
Beretta 1301 Competition

Pump Action

Pump-action shotguns require manual operation of a sliding forearm to cycle the action. The shooter must manually slide the forearm forward and backward to extract the spent casing and chamber a new round. 

A Marine assigned to Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team Central Command (FASTCENT) runs a Mossberg 590A1 while training in Jordan. (USMC photo)

Pump-action shotguns are known for their reliability and versatility. Well, they’re probably actually better-known distinctive sound they make when chambering a round, but after that, it’s the reliability and versatility. 

Pump actions are a popular choice for hunting, sport shooting, and home defense. 

Lever Action 

Lever-action shotguns, though much, much rarer than lever-action rifles, utilize a lever mechanism more or less the same as the mechanism on lever-action rifles to cycle the action and chamber a new round. 

The shooter pulls the lever down and back, extracting the case from the previous shell and loading a fresh shell in. Lever-action shotguns have a certain amount of nostalgic appeal and are well-suited for both hunting and recreational shooting. 

Break-action Shotguns

Break-action shotguns are even less common than lever actions, though you do see them pop up in movies disproportionately often. These shotguns feature a hinge that allows the barrel(s) to be opened, providing access to the chamber(s) for loading and unloading. 

This means the gun’s capacity is limited to what can fit in the chamber(s), so double-barrel configurations are common on break-actions to give you an extra round before you reload. This limited capacity is a large part of why break-actions are so much less common than other types of shotguns, but the fact that they tend to be pricier doesn’t help either. 

On the other hand, break-action shotguns are very easy to use, very reliable, and require minimal maintenance to keep in great condition (though no gun allows you to skip maintenance entirely).

Over/Under Vs. Side by Side

Over/under shotguns have two barrels arranged vertically, one above the other. Side-by-side shotguns also feature double barrels but with one next to the other. Double-barrelled shotguns are popular among sport shooters and hunters, offering precise shot placement and a classic aesthetic appeal. 

Over Under .410
Over Under .410 Bore

Over/under and side-by-side shotguns are typically used for clay shooting, upland bird hunting, and traditional hunting pursuits. 

Machine Gun

Machine guns, often associated with military applications, are fully automatic firearms capable of sustained rapid fire. They can fire multiple rounds with a single trigger pull. 

What makes a Machine Gun a Machine Gun?

Machine guns are designed for continuous fire, typically using belt-fed or magazine-fed systems. They are built with features to dissipate heat, manage recoil, and withstand the stresses of sustained firing. Machine guns can provide suppressive fire, covering a large area or engaging multiple targets. Due to their high rate of fire and intended military use, machine guns are subject to strict regulations in just about every country.

Machine Gun Vs. Fully Automatic 

A machine gun is a type of fully automatic weapon, but not all fully automatic weapons are machine guns. The term “fully automatic weapon” refers to any firearm that is capable of firing multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger, as long as the trigger is held down. 

Machine guns are generally (though not necessarily) crew-served, larger, and designed for sustained suppressive fire.

Other fully automatic weapons include rifles, carbines, and submachine guns that can be operated by individuals. They are smaller, more versatile, and have a broader range of purposes. 

Machine guns and other fully automatic firearms are subject to strict regulations and may be restricted or banned for civilian ownership.

Transferable Vs. Pre-Sample Vs. Post-Samples

In the United States, the legality and availability of machine guns can vary. 

“Transferable” refers to fully automatic firearms manufactured and registered before the implementation of certain regulations, so they can be bought and sold among civilians who comply with the required licensing and background checks. 

“Pre-sample” refers to machine guns owned by licensed manufacturers or dealers for demonstration and testing purposes. 

“Post-sample” refers to machine guns owned by licensed manufacturers or dealers for law enforcement or military purposes and are not available for transfer to civilians.

Types of Semi-Automatic Systems

Semi-automatic firearms, also called autoloading firearms, can use a few different systems to operate, and since different types of guns all use these same types of systems, let’s take a second to talk about them separately.

Blowback-Operated Systems

Blowback operation is a firearm operating mechanism that uses the force generated by the rearward movement of the cartridge case to cycle the action. It is commonly used in handguns and some submachine guns. 

With its tiny sights, fixed barrel, and blowback operation, the Sauer 38H is definitely a product of the 1930s.

The expanding gases push the cartridge case backward, moving the bolt or slide with it. The bolt/slide then returns forward, stripping a new round from the magazine and depositing it in the chamber.

Recoil Operated Systems

A recoil-operated system uses the recoil force generated by firing a round to cycle the action. The barrel and bolt/slide are initially locked together, transferring the recoil force to the firearm. 

But as the pressure decreases, the barrel shifts back, compressing a recoil spring. The spring then propels the barrel and bolt/slide back forward, which extracts the spent case and puts a new round in the chamber. 

Recoil-operated systems are reliable and provide smoother recoil. They are used in handguns, rifles, and shotguns.

Gas Operated Systems

Gas-operated systems cycle the action using the gas generated when a round is fired. The gas is tapped from the barrel and directed into a gas piston or gas tube. The gas pressure drives the action, causing the bolt or bolt carrier to move rearward, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case. 

The recoil spring then returns the bolt or bolt carrier forward and a  new round is chambered. Gas-operated systems provide reliable functioning, reduced recoil, and versatility with various ammunition types. They are commonly used in ARs as well as the AK-47, but in two different forms: direct-impingement systems and piston-operated systems.

Direct-Impingement Systems

Direct impingement systems are commonly associated with the AR-15 platform, but this isn’t entirely true. Technically, the AR-15, M16, and M4 family of firearms are internal piston systems, not true DI systems.

Real DI systems include the French MAS-49, Swedish Ag m/42, and Egyptian Hakim rifles. 

Eighty years of French service rifles: MAS-36, MAS-49/56, and FAMAS

Gas is tapped from the barrel and directed through a gas tube to the face of the carrier group and pushes it rearward, unlocking the bolt,  and extracting and ejecting the spent casing. 

The recoil spring then returns the bolt carrier forward, chambering a new round. The direct impingement system simplifies the firearm's design but requires regular cleaning due to carbon buildup.

Piston-Operated Systems

Finally, piston-operated systems use a separate piston to cycle. Like with direct-impingement systems, gas is tapped from the barrel, but it’s then directed into a gas block or piston assembly. There, the pressure drives a piston back, transferring the force to the bolt carrier group. 

The bolt carrier unlocks, extracts, and ejects the spent casing, as well as compresses the recoil spring. Finally, the piston pushes the bolt carrier back forward. 

Piston systems come in three basic flavors, long stroke, short stroke, and internal.

Long stroke means the piston travels the same distances as the bolt carrier. Normally, these parts are connected or even made as one whole piece and operate together for their entire travel. This generally makes them robust, a bit heavy, and increases felt recoil, but also very reliable. The AK-47 is a long stroke piston system.

Short stroke means the piston does not travel the entire distance. Normally, the piston is attached to the barrel and only impacts the carrier group to get it moving. This is enough force to send the carrier group back to operate the system, but the piston does not actually move with it. As you might expect, short stroke systems are normally lighter, have less recoil, and less muzzle climb than long stroke systems. The main downside to them is they are generally more expensive to make. Examples of short stroke firearms would be the FN SCAR, SIG MCX, and VZ 58.

Shooting a Sig MCX in Florida

Internal pistons are like the kind found in AR-15s. While many mislabeled the AR-15 as a direct-impingement system, it really isn’t. Gas flows from the barrel, through the gas tube, and into the bolt carrier group where the bolt itself acts as a piston. The bolt stays in place while the carrier is forced backward. As it moves backward, the bolt unlocks and follows.

Parting Shots

The world of firearms offers a diverse range of options to cater to virtually any need or preference. 

Whether it's for personal defense, sport shooting, hunting, or professional use, understanding the different firearm types allows you to make sure you’re getting a gun that does the job you want (and that you can safely use it). Remember, firearm safety, proper training, and adherence to local laws and regulations are of utmost importance when handling any type of firearm.

Happy shooting!

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