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A Guide to the Different Types of Firearms

Gun sales have been on the rise over the last couple of years, and a sizeable chunk of those purchases were made by first-time buyers. In fact, between January 2020 and April 2021, 5 million Americans bought their first gun. For context, that’s more than twice the number of first-time gun owners the previous year.

But any of these gun owners have little firsthand experience with guns, including the various types of firearms available.

If you plan to buy a gun, here are the key types of firearms that you can consider.


Rifles are usually described as a firearm meant to be fired from the shoulder and that discharges a single projectile through a rifled bore.

The word “rifling” refers to grooves engraved into the inside of the barrel. These grooves hug a bullet as it travels through the bore, stabilizing its trajectory with greater accuracy. The rifling also causes the bullet to spin like a thrown football, further helping to keep it stable and letting it fly farther.

Rifling became popular in the 19th century as smooth-bore muskets were fazed out or modified to have rifled barrels, and is now the foundation of most modern firearms.

Another defining characteristic of rifles is that they tend to have long barrels and receivers. A standard rifle will have a barrel between 21 and 24 inches long, though carbines and other shortened models may have a barrel as short as 16 inches.

Besides length, the other defining characteristic is the type of action — the mechanism a gun has to chamber ammunition — a rifle uses. Here are a few of the more common ones.

Bolt-Action Rifles

Bolt action rifles are about as basic as modern firearms get. You fire it by pushing forward a bolt to chamber a round, squeezing the trigger, and pulling the bolt back to eject the spent cartridge. Repeat to chamber the next round and fire.

Due to their simple construction and a minimal number of moving parts, bolt-action rifles tend to be more accurate than their counterparts. This comes at the tradeoff of a low rate of fire, as you have to manually chamber each round.

Lever-Action Rifles

If you’ve ever seen a western movie, then the heroes and villains alike probably had these rifles slung over their shoulders.

Working the rifle’s lever loads a cartridge into the chamber. After firing, working the lever again will eject the empty cartridge and load a fresh one in its place.

The position of the lever gives it advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it’s much faster to use than a bolt-action rifle. But on the downside, the positioning can make it awkward to use in certain positions, like trying to shoot from a prone position.

Semi-Automatic Rifles

These rifles come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but share one quality in common: a single squeeze of the trigger fires a single projectile. No manual working of bolts or levers is required.

Most semi-autos have mechanisms that use the gasses produced by the previous shot to cycle the action. Either that, or it uses the recoil from the previous shot.

Due to their ease of use and high rate of fire, semi-auto rifles like the M14 were designed with military use in mind. But those same qualities have made them popular with the general public. You can shop here to see how Springfield Armory, a firm that furnished the military with hardware for decades, now serves the civilian market.

Using a Rifle

The sheer length of these weapons limits their uses to mostly outdoor applications like hunting and target shooting, since trying to maneuver a full-length barrel around tight corners and confined spaces is a challenge.

And while short-barreled rifles exist, the power of the average rifle cartridge presents problems. Most interior walls are more fragile than they look, being made from plaster, drywall, and a few hardwood beams. A full-power rifle cartridge will pass right through them, potentially endangering anyone beyond it.

So if you want to buy a firearm for home defense, we’re probably not looking for a rifle.


Like rifles, shotguns are “long guns”. Under federal law, a shotgun must have a barrel at least 18 inches long, unless the owner has a special license and pays an additional tax.

Rather than firing a single bullet like a rifle, shotguns launch a spray of lead pellets in a conical pattern. This makes them optimal for hitting small, fast-moving targets like waterfowl and game animals. It also means that shotguns are smoothbore weapons, as rifling would serve no purpose here.

There are two common types of shotgun: breech-loading and pump-action.

The classic double-barrel shotguns you’ve seen in countless movies are breech-loaders. The gun snaps open at the end of the barrel, allowing the user to remove spent shells and replace them with fresh ones.

Pump-action shotguns have shells loaded into a tube underneath the barrel. By working a pump on the outside of this tube, the user cycles the action, ejecting spent shells and loading new ones.

Shotguns are used in a variety of applications. They’re excellent hunting weapons, and target and skeet shooting are popular with hobbyists. But they’re particularly popular for home defense.

Because they fire pellets in a cone formation, the user doesn’t need to be as precise when confronting an intruder. And they can be loaded with special home-defense shells that are less likely to punch through walls and endanger others.


When it comes to personal defense, handguns are the only viable option outside the home. They come in two main varieties: revolvers and pistols.

Revolvers are the classic six-shooter we all know from pop culture, though the actual number of rounds they can hold varies. They’re easy to use and maintain, making them an excellent choice for beginners. And you never have to worry about a revolver jamming.

When people refer to pistols, they’re usually talking about magazine-fed auto-loading handguns.

These guns fire faster, hold more rounds, and are easier to conceal than revolvers. But the mechanics that make that possible can fail and cause the gun to jam. So if you carry an automatic, it’s important to clean and maintain it.

Different Types of Firearms Serve Different Purposes

It’s important to remember that guns are tools. And like any other tools, some are better suited to certain uses than others. You wouldn’t use a hammer when the hob calls for a wrench, after all.

So having a clear understanding of the different types of firearms available and their purposes will help you make the right gun buying decision for your needs. But we’ve only scratched the surface today.

For everything that you need to know to handle a gun safely and effectively, be sure to keep up with our latest firearm guides and tips.

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