The Basics

Posted: October 4, 2011 in Administrative, Beginner

This will be my catch-all administrative post. I’ll cover the rules of gun safety, hopefully help explain confusing terms, and generally put all the stuff you need to know to understand what I’ll be talking about in later posts.

First off, gun safety. Guns are potentially dangerous objects. If handled properly, there is no reason to fear them, but guns can hurt or kill if you aren’t careful. You need to be conscious of your actions and of those around you any time guns are involved. The best defense against “accidental” shootings is education and awareness. In the gun community these days, it’s more popular to call these “negligent shootings” so as not to absolve the shooter from blame. Whichever way you say it, know this: you are responsible for every bullet that leaves the gun in your control. It doesn’t matter if it’s your friend’s gun, your gun, if the manufacturer designed a stupid safety system or anything else. If it’s in your hand and it goes bang, the lawyers are coming after you. If you hang around shooters for very long, you will probably hear “Every bullet that leaves your barrel has a lawyer attached to it.” In order to avoid having that be an issue for you, you will need to learn and follow the rules of gun safety.

There are several sets of rules for gun safety. The NRA has a set of rules that I’m not a huge fan of. Mostly the third one. That’s personal preference, though. Wikipedia actually collects a few sets, including Col. Jeff Cooper‘s Four Rules. Those are the ones with which I’m most familiar, and they’re the ones that are most prevalent in the gun culture these days in my experience. I tweak them very slightly for my own use, but they’re still essentially the same. If you have questions or concerns about any of these, please let me know and I’ll do my best to explain.

Here they are in their entirety as written by Col. Cooper (link):

We hoped by this time that the standard rules of safe gunhandling would have become universal throughout the world. They have been arrived at by careful consideration over the years, and they do not need modification or addition. We trust that all the family have them by heart in all languages, but for those who came in late here they are again:

  1. All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
  2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for about 60 percent of inadvertent discharges.
  4. Identify your target, and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything that you have not positively identified.

Those will do. We need all four and we do not need five. It should not be necessary to belabor this issue, but life is not perfect.

If you follow all of these rules, you will never have a negligent discharge while the gun is in your hand. That is the purpose of the safety rules. They ensure that, by following them, you’re not going to hurt anyone unintentionally. If you look at accidental/negligent shootings, invariably one or more of these rules has been broken. Read them, learn them, live by them. They apply when you’re in your home, on the range, or fighting for your life.

*Update* I have always had a problem with Rule 1, specifically because it doesn’t provide any useful information to the person handling a gun. Rules 2-4 are really the rules that keep you safe, Rule 1 just…tells you to follow the other rules? I don’t know. It seems silly. I originally left out my disagreement because there’s a relative consensus in the industry about those rules (at least as much of one as there is about any list) and I didn’t want to confuse new shooters with a lot of squabbling and nitpicking. If you follow all four rules, you are by definition following the three that matter, so I didn’t think it was too big of a harm. However, I found this blog post by Grant Cunningham, and he changed my mind. So now, I am modifying my stance to suggest that Rule 1 is superfluous and potentially even confusing/dangerous. So, for future reference, I stand with Grant on this one. Rules 2-3 are sufficient and necessary. So, in that vein, I’m reposting the Three Commandments of Gun Safety, as Grant has them listed in his article, with credit to Georges Rahbani for the original work.

Never point a gun – any gun, loaded or unloaded – at anything you are not willing to shoot.
Keep your finger out of the triggerguard until you are ready to fire.
Know where your shots will land and what they’ll touch along the way.

I like those well enough that I will leave them as is, even though I kinda want to tweak them a little. But there you have it, the three rules that make sense, do not cause any cognitive dissonance, and don’t lead to a bunch of confusion or squabbling. Hopefully. *End Update*

Now that we have that covered, let’s get into a glossary so you’ll have a better handle on the jargon we’ll invariably be using. Here’s Wikipedia’s glossary of firearms terms for a much more comprehensive one than I’ll manage here. I’ll try to stick to the most important stuff for beginners.

Firearm/Gun – Any object that uses explosive force to propel a projectile through a tube. Kinda useless, eh? Yeah. You know what guns are. Airsoft, paintball, BB, pellet, blow dart, whatever are not “guns” in the sense we’ll be using it here.

Rifle – A long gun, with a barrel generally over 16″ and a shoulder stock. The barrel will have grooves cut in it (“Rifling”) to spin the projectile in order to stabilize it in the air.

Handgun/Pistol – A firearm with a shorter barrel generally under 10″ and no shoulder stock. The barrel is usually rifled.

Shotgun – A long gun that usually fires a number of pellets instead of one projectile. The bore is usually smooth inside. These tend to have a shoulder stock, but there are some that don’t. Barrels range from 16″ to 30″ long.

That’s all well and good, but what are those other words I used to describe those things? Here you go.

Bullet/Projectile – Often called a bullet or slug, this is the thing that actually gets shot out of the end of the barrel. There are tons of different types of projectiles and the specifics aren’t super important at this point. Just know that when you talk about bullets, you’re talking about the part that actually comes out of the gun, not the whole cartridge.

Cartridge – Thought I was going to leave you high and dry there, didn’t you? A cartridge is the whole shebang. It’s the primer, the powder, the projectile and a case to keep them all together. The invention of the metallic cartridge was a huge step in firearms development. It meant the end of powder horns, and it made rapid fire possible. You’ll also hear cartridges referred to as rounds, shells, and bullets. Calling cartridges bullets isn’t technically correct, but most people will know what you mean.

Primer – This is the explosive charge that starts the powder burning. The firing pin hits the primer which starts a chemical reaction and it sends some splodey through the flash hole in the case.

Powder – This is the fuel that burns to produce the expanding gases that push the bullet through the barrel. It’s not especially important, but it’s  interesting to note that gunpowder doesn’t explode, it just burns very quickly. As it burns, it gives off gas and the pressure builds up behind the bullet, pushing it out of the case, through the barrel and out into the air. Different cartridges will have different amounts of powder, not just between calibers, but also within the same caliber. All else being equal, more powder equals faster bullets.

Caliber – Finally, we get to this one. The caliber of a cartridge refers to the external dimensions of the cartridge, but can also have something to do with the amount of powder inside. A 9mm Luger cartridge is nominally 9mm in diameter. I say nominally because there’s a lot of wiggle room (the 9mm Luger bullet is actually 9.03mm). It’s better to think of the caliber as the designation for a certain cartridge, rather than just as a measure of the diameter. A .357 Magnum cartridge and a .38 Special cartridge are the same diameter, but the .357 is slightly longer and has much more powder inside. There are also a couple extras with regards to calibers. You may see a caliber designated as “+P” or “+P+” at some point. Those indicate increased pressure in the same external dimensions. A .38 Special +P is less powerful than a .357 Magnum, but more powerful than a .38 Special. A +P+ round is even more powerful, and is really pushing closer to the Magnum loading. If you’re planning to use +P or +P+ rounds in your gun, it’s important to make sure the gun is designed to handle the increased pressure.

That covers the cartridges pretty well, but what about the guns themselves? They’ve got all sorts of pieces and parts to them as well.

Barrel – This is the tube through which the bullet passes as it goes from the cartridge out into the air. Barrels come in many different shapes and sizes. Some guns even have interchangeable barrels so you can change the length or the caliber to suit different needs. Rifled barrels put a spin on the bullet, which helps to stabilize it in the air, making it more accurate over distance. Smoothbore barrels are generally used with shot pellets or rifled slugs (where the bullet has the grooves instead of the barrel).

Trigger – This is the lever or button that releases the hammer/striker to hit the primer and causes the gun to go off. Triggers have different pull weights required to activate them, so a 12-pound trigger is a trigger that requires 12 pounds of force to fire the gun. Triggers also have to travel different distances before they will release the firing mechanism, and this is referred to as trigger length. Longer triggers need to be pulled a longer distance to fire the gun than short triggers. Triggers also have a reset distance. When you pull the trigger, it needs to go back forward in order to reset the mechanism and allow another round to be fired. This distance is the trigger reset length. Triggers can be hinged at the top so they move in an arc, or they can be slide triggers so they just move straight forward and back. Some manufacturers integrate safety systems into their triggers as well.

Stock – The stock is the part of a long gun you hold against your shoulder. They can be made of wood, metal, fiberglass or any number of other things. Their purpose is to help transfer recoil to your body and to give you a more stable shooting platform. Handguns, since they don’t have stocks, require you to absorb all of their recoil with your hands, wrists, and arms. The stock transfers the force directly to larger body structures that can handle it more effectively, allowing for more powerful cartridges. You also pull the long gun into your shoulder, which gives you a more stable shooting platform. This is one of the reasons that long guns are generally more accurate than handguns.

Sights – These are what you use to aim the gun. They can be iron sights or an optical scope or any of a number of newer red dot or holographic weapon sights. They can even include laser sights that project a laser dot onto the spot where the bullet will hit. Different guns have different sighting systems. On handguns, you’re most likely to see iron sights. On a rifle, iron sights and telescopic scopes are both very common, with red dots and holographic sights being more common on military and police rifles used for shorter-range combat. Shotguns are almost always seen with a “gold bead” sight at the end of the barrel, though shotguns used for combat purposes can also have red dot or holographic sights on them. Telescopic sights for a shotgun are possible, but not common.

Magazine – Many repeating firearms (lever action, bolt action, semiautomatic, pump action) will have a source for ammunition inside the gun itself or in a detachable magazine. In guns where the magazine isn’t removable, it is usually referred to as an internal magazine or a magazine tube. They all operate in different ways, but generally they involve a spring that holds the cartridges close to the action so that the operation of the action (working a bolt, lever or pump, or a reciprocating bolt or slide on a semiauto) will pull a cartridge from the magazine and move it into the chamber, where it can be fired. When they magazine is empty, it can be refilled manually, or by using a clip. People will often say “clip” when they mean magazine. The two are different, but only real gun nerds get too uptight about it.  If you want to be correct about it, clips load magazines, magazines load guns. Some people even get anal about this and say that magazines are filled, guns are loaded. That’s even a bit too finicky for me. When a detachable magazine is empty, you must remove it in order to fill it up again. People who have guns with detachable magazines will almost always have more than one. One of the benefits of a semiautomatic firearm is the detachable box magazine, as it allows for very quick reloads. Some bolt action guns will have detachable box magazines as well, but it’s less common.

Chamber – This is where the cartridge sits in the gun when it is ready to fire. If there is no round in the chamber, the gun cannot fire. You will hear people talk about guns being “chambered” in certain calibers. That just means that the gun is designed to be used with that caliber. This can also imply a certain pressure capacity for the gun. For example, a rifle can be chambered in 5.56 NATO or .223 Remington. Both cartridges are almost identical in external dimensions, but the 5.56 NATO round operates at a greater pressure that could damage a gun only designed to handle .223 Remington. Saying a gun is chambered in 5.56 NATO means it has the internal dimensions to accept the cartridge and also that it was designed to withstand the pressure of the cartridge.

Action – The action of a gun is the mechanism that moves cartridges into place to be fired and moves expended casings out of the way. Actions are either manual or automatic. A manual action means that when you pull the trigger and fire a round, you need to perform some manual action to the gun to extract the spent casing and move the next round into place to be fired. An auto-loading action uses some of the force from the recoil of the last shot fired to extract the spent case and load the next round into the chamber. Some examples of manual actions are lever action, bolt action, pump action and revolvers (with a double action revolver, pulling the trigger pulls back the hammer, and rotates the cylinder, moving the spent case out of the way, the new round into place and drops the hammer on it, all in one motion). Semiautomatic handguns are usually operated by recoil or blowback, and semiautomatic rifles are usually blowback or gas-operated. Shotguns are usually pump action, break action, or semiauto, but there are also lever action and bolt action shotguns.

I think that about covers us for the most part. There is plenty more info out there, but this should give you a solid baseline of information. I’ll do my best to add more terms here as I come across them in later posts, so you don’t have to go digging through a bunch of drivel to find the information you want. Please comment on this post with any questions or requests for other definitions, or if you take issue with any of my definitions. I’m almost perfect, but not quite there yet.

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