As you ought to have noticed, this blog is in part about guns. I haven’t written any direct firearms posts, but I sure will in the coming weeks and months. Some of those will include justifications for military small arms in the hands of US civilians, the relationships of firearms and the civil society, the morality of self-defense, and so on. Before I get into all that though, and especially based on a huge lack of gun education in America, I want to write a piece to explain terms and simply educate readers about guns in general. If you know little to nothing about guns then put on your learning cap, you’re about to be educated.
The first subject that should always be addressed when teaching anything firearms, is safety. Guns are dangerous machines that must be respected, and as long as that respect, that adherence to safety, is followed, then they are safe as the shovel in your garage. So here are the three rules of gun safety, learn them, know them, teach them to your children; even if you don’t own a firearm or know anyone who does, there are estimated to be 300+ million guns in America, you or someone you love is bound to come in contact with one. It’s best to know what to do around them, rather then not, but more about gun education later.
- Always assume every gun is loaded, even if you know it’s not. Also, keep guns unloaded until you’re ready to use (or carry it.) The “Oh it ain’t loaded,” is usually followed by, “sh**, there’s a hole in my TV!” or worse. When given a firearm, check it yourself 3-4 times to assure it’s unloaded. You can never be too sure about this.
- Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. Never point it at anything you’re not willing to kill or destroy. This also includes while you’re loading/handling the weapon. If you go to a range and muzzle sweep (momentarily point the gun at) somebody, you’re likely going to get yelled at in some not so pretty language and probably asked to leave.
- Always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Until you are absolutely ready, until your gun is pointed at your target and you’ve decided that yes it’s time to shoot, don’t touch the trigger. You have to assume that you have a 2 ounce trigger (triggers are usually 3.5-12 pound pulls depending on what type it is) and that thinking about touching it can make it go off. (Note on carrying: always use a holster that securely covers the trigger and trigger guard. Those cheap soft-back nylon one-size fits most holsters are a no-go, sorry.)
By following the above rules you can guarantee that you’ll have a safe and enjoyable experience with firearms. Some additional safety notes, especially for those new to guns, never attempt to fire a large caliber weapon if you haven’t worked up to it. Don’t grab that 12 gage 3.5” super magnum shotgun if you’ve never shouldered a normal 12 gage before, don’t grab aa .500 SW Magnum revolver if you’ve never fired a .44 Rem-mag, don’t get behind a .50 BMG rifle if you’ve never handled and fired a standard .30 cal rifle. On scopes, don’t put your eye up to it,; they are designed for your eye to remain 1.5-4 inches behind it (depending on the scope design,) some are even designed to have your eye 8 or 9 inches behind it. If you’re holding a gun do so firmly and confidently. Same goes for if you’re shooting one, maintain a firm and strong grip; if you’re shooting a rifle or shotgun, make sure it is seated firmly against your shoulder. When shooting don’t put your hands, fingers, or other body parts in the way of moving parts of the gun (see slide bite, garand thumb.) To be safe just abide by the three rules of gun safety, don’t be scared of the firearm, and have some confidence and sense about you as you handle it. Nothing will build your confidence around guns more than education and getting out and handling them.
So everyone knows what a bullet is right? Maybe not. The diagram above shows the different parts of a rifle and handgun cartridge. Popular culture usually refers to the whole cartridge, or round, as the bullet, but that is clearly inaccurate nomenclature. The bullet is the projectile stuffed in the end of the case that points forward and becomes the projectile when the gun is fired. Most bullets are made of lead alloy with a copper jacket, though recently, there’s been an advent of all copper, all brass CNC machined bullets as well as polymer-copper composites and more. Why lead? Well, lead is fairly cheap, easy to form, and is very dense, which gives a bullet a relatively high weight. Bullets need to have some weight because they need to have enough inertia to be stable in flight. Inertia, momentum, and ballistics is a fun subject I will be sure to visit later with a dedicated article. Another point to be made about bullets is their shape. You can see in the above illustration that the handgun bullet is relatively short and rounded, where the rifle bullet is longer and more pointed. The rifle bullet is the more aerodynamic of the two, it will fly with less drop and less resistance. The rifle bullets are the more ideal projectile, while the handgun bullets have to be designed to 1) fit in a pistol grip magazine 2) feed reliably into the chamber in a confined space. A bullet is more ideal in flight the longer and thinner it is (to a degree.)
The propellant is the gunpowder that is contained inside the case. When the powder is ignited, gases rapidly expand and propel the bullet forward out of the case, and through the barrel of the firearm. The gunpowders of today are actually very different from the black powder used before the 20th century. Black powder (still used in replica period firearms and muzzleloaders) is a simple mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur. When black powder burns it produces a lot of visible smoke, meaning it is not quite an efficient burn (a lot of material is not consumed in the exothermic reaction) and burns relatively slow (though still instant from our perspective.) Modern gunpowder is actually called “smokeless” powder; that being mainly because when it burns it produces relatively very little smoke. The main component in most of these modern powders is nitrocellulose, though the actual makeup of many powders varies depending on use and type. These modern powders, instead of black randomly shaped grains, are in the form of discs, wafers, pellets, or even more complex shapes. Typically the rule of thumb is, the more surface area exposed, the faster the powder will burn. The correct burn rates are determined based of a large number of factors such as case strength, case length, bullet weight, desired muzzle velocity, et cetera.
The primer is the “ignition” or “spark plug” of the cartridge.; it is a small metallic disc at the back of the cartridge that acts as a percussion cap. When the firing pin or striker hits the primer and dents it, the primer ignites and sends sparks into the case igniting the propellant. Primers come in different hardnesses and sizes depending on the cartridge size and use. Harder primers tend to be used in military cartridges where the firing pin may rest against the primer before firing. Primers that are slightly oversized and sometimes crimped or sealed are used in similar cartridges where case pressures are high; this extra tightness is to prevent the primer from blowing out the back of the case.
The case is the iconic brass cylinder that holds all of these things together. When the cartridge is fired the case is extracted either by auto-ejection or manual ejection and flies out of the gun, hitting the hard ground with a distinct ringing clatter; this empty case is usual called a “spent case” or “brass” when it’s in bulk. The great majority of cartridge cases are in fact brass, with some also being nickel plated brass (the nickel increases case wall lubricity and aids in extraction;) there are also steel cases, aluminum cases (limited to some handgun calibers,) and polymer cases. Polymer cases are not popular, and I myself would assert that they are dangerous. Aluminum cases are used in some handgun loadings where there aren’t hot loadings (a hot load is one with more explosive potential via extra powder or more aggressive powder,) and are not meant to be reloaded/handloaded. Steel cases are popular in certain surplus military calibers such as 7.62×39 or 5.56×45 and sometimes are not reliable in feeding/extraction (but that is a factor of the gun not necessarily the cartridge itself.) Brass is used most because of its desirable material properties, it acts as a good heat sink (absorbs heat energy readily,) it is malleable, and it is not brittle.
Primarily there are three types of modern firearms: handguns, rifles, and shotguns. Of these types there are numerous action types and loading configurations. Handguns are simply the small handheld firearms whose magazines are stored in the pistol grip (with the exception of the Mauser Broomhandle and some modern target pistols.) Handguns have generally short barrels all the way from 2-6 or more inches in length. Handguns are designed for defensive personal carry or as sidearms as opposed to primary offensive use weapons. This is due in part to their portable and concealable size as well as relatively underpowered cartridges useful only at limited ranges. Rifles are long-barreled firearms with fixed or adjustable stocks designed to be placed on the shoulder for stabilization. Barrel lengths on rifles can vary from 8 inches all the way to 30. The 8” rifles are usually short barrel carbines intended for close-quarters defensive, combat, and occasionally hunting uses. Rifles and handguns both fire metallic cartridges with a single projectile; that projectile going through a rifled barrel. A rifled barrel, is one that has grooves down its length in helical pattern. These grooves impart a spin on the bullet and increase its stability in flight through a gyroscopic effect. Shotguns have smoothbore barrels (with the exception of slug barrels) that fire multiple projectiles in a single shot. The cartridge design for shotguns also varies from that of handguns and rifles. The case is brass at the bottom where the powder is, but after that it is a plastic hull (LDPE/Low-Density PolyEhtylene.) Instead of a single bullet the shotgun shell holds anything from numerous BB’s to a handful of .38 caliber balls. A shotgun is much like a rifle with the exception of its smooth bore barrel and those barrels are generally longer. For hunting and competition shotgun barrel lengths are usually 26 to 30 or more inches long, while defensive use shotguns are usually 18-22” long. There are some special use shotguns whose barrels are around 8-10”.
Of all these firearm types there are single shot, rotating chamber, lever-action, bolt-action, and automatic actions. Firearms with a single action require a new cartridge to be inserted into the chamber after every single shot. The “chamber” is where the cartridge sits for the firing process. Rotating chamber actions, or revolving actions, are typically found in revolver handguns but also sometimes in old rifle or shotgun designs. These involve a cylinder with multiple chambers that rotates manually to place the cartridge between the firing pin and/or hammer and the barrel between shots. A lever-action firearm requires the actuation of a lever to load and extract cartridges. These cartridges are usually fed in from a tubular magazine that sits parallel and underneath the barrel. Bolt-action firearms require a different style of manual actuation where the rifleman unlocks and pulls the bolt back for extraction, then pushes it forward to reload the chamber. Automatic actions come in several forms, semi-automatic, burst-fire, and automatic (or full automatic.) An automatic action (of any type,) will automatically load the next round through the use of blowback or gas forces. In semi-automatic guns (the most abundant and popular action style) one trigger pull results in one projectile being fired and the next round being loaded to the chamber. In automatic fire, the trigger is depressed and held down, as long as the trigger is depressed the weapon will fired rapidly until it runs out of ammunition (this option is not readily available to the American public and a) costs as much as a brand new car, b) requires pages and pages of forms and authorizations to be filled out and filed with the ATF and FBI.) Burst-fire weapons will fire usually three rounds for one trigger pull and are just as unavailable to the American public as automatic action firearms.
Bolt action and automatic action styles are loaded from internal or external magazines except for the belt fed automatics (there are some semi-auto belt feds available to the American public but are costly and mostly for novelty.) Let me get this straight, the metal box you shove into your pistol or rifle is NOT a clip, it is a magazine. A magazine is a usually metal (sometimes polymer) box that holds the rounds together and pushes them upwards via a spring. The action will slide over the cartridges in the magazine and feed them into the chamber. A clip, is either a small portion of an ammunition belt, or most often, a stripper clip. A stripper clip is a metal bar that holds several rounds together that can be inserted quickly into a rifle’s internal magazine. Once the rounds are pushed into the magazine, the clip is discarded. Stripper clips (and other clips) were popular in early military bolt actions and semi-automatic battle rifles through World War 2 and the Korean War.
This article has been long, and hopefully helpful and informative. There will be additional articles in the future to expand on these details and explore the engineering and operation of different firearms. If you’ve got questions, there’s a comments section! I would be glad to teach and answer questions if you’ve got any. Share this with friends or family who know little or nothing about firearms. Education will be the key to restoring liberty. God bless!