Firearms: In Depth

Humans first employed gunpowder for battlefield pursuits back in the medieval period—also known as 'The Middle Ages'—roughly spanning the 500s to the 1400s. Towards the end of this era, some of the first handheld firearms bearing a passing resemblance to modern guns arrived on the scene. Great big wooden-stocked contraptions with rudimentary smoothbore barrels were common by this time. Weapons such as the arquebus harnessed a clever combination of components to initiate firing. This consisted of a slow burning match (flammable cord), priming pan, and trigger. Once the hulking machine was loaded with powder and a lead ball (or whatever else) was rammed down the barrel, the arquebusier would then shoulder the weapon and pull the trigger. This dropped the match, which in turn lit the charge, and that propelled a projectile down the bore. If you’ve shot a gun, or even seen someone shoot a gun, this should all be pretty familiar stuff. This was all happening in the 1500s! 

At this point in history, the arquebus and its ilk were more supporting cast than major players when it came to actual combat. Though fearsome to witness in action, and altogether more terrifying to face in battle, the accuracy, range, and reliability of these guns were all quite poor–when they fired at all. Arguably, the arquebus was just as likely to blow up the operator as it was to dispatch his foe, with its ever-smoldering match. However, even if/when it stopped going bang, soldiers still had a heavy club to pound their enemies with. Pretty handy in a fight, yes, but you can see why battlefield tactics weren’t exactly based on these boomsticks…yet.

Before long, arquebus became musket, a term that most of us know far better. A series of locks, or ignition systems, which governed fire control followed one after the other during the musket’s rise to prominence. Match locks gave way to wheel locks (which did away with the smoldering bits), and then to flintlocks within a hundred years or so. This tech, which relied on striking a spark into a charge of priming powder, wasn’t just for long guns, either. Flintlock pistols were used alongside the much longer muskets in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Long-gun barrels with rifling, or grooves that imparted spin to the projectile also started to pop up more often towards the end of the 18th century, including during the United States War for Independence ( Kentucky rifles ). Shotguns, often called fowling pieces, were also around, and typically used to hunt birds (as their name would imply).  

As the story of firearms moved forward, ammunition started playing a larger role; it’s been pretty important ever since. For instance, starting in the early 1800s, paper ammunition packages, which sported projectiles along with enough gunpowder to shoot them, began to find their way into soldiers’ hands. These were called cartridges. More on them later.  

Percussion ignition came next, and with it one more step towards modern ammunition. This new system depended entirely on percussion caps to ignite the main charge, rather than the flint, steel, and priming powder of years past. With this change came better reliability, especially in damp conditions. The 1861 Springfield rifled musket, famous for its role in the Civil War, used percussion caps, as did Samuel Colt’s Model 1860 revolver, which served alongside the rifle on the Union side. In addition to its caps, the Springfield rifle was also highly notable for its projectile. The bullet contained in its paper cartridge, known as a Minie Ball, was pointy, rather than sphere-shaped, and using the spin it gained from the barrel’s rifling, it was especially accurate and long ranged. Governments the world over took careful note of this rifle’s devastating effectiveness during the war. 

A further breakthrough in cartridge tech–the brass case–soon changed the very nature of ammunition. Finally, primer, powder, and bullet were effectively sealed off from the elements, further enhancing the reliability of pistols, rifles, and shotguns. By the 1870s and 80s, breech-loading (as opposed to muzzle loading) brass cartridge rifles and revolvers were standard equipment for militaries around the world. Troops could fire exponentially faster with these guns compared to cap-and-ball muzzle loading firearms; it wasn’t even close.

However, the next few advances would be the biggest of all. What emerged after a major discovery–smokeless gunpowder–combined with large-scale industrial production at the end of the 19th century was nothing short of miraculous for firearms development. More accurate, easier-to-repair guns that were capable of shooting farther and faster than ever before were products of this time. This is the era that birthed the Mauser rifle, the spitzer bullet, and the .45 ACP . The machine gun wasn’t far behind, either. By the end of WWI, contemporary firearms like the Browning M1917 heavy machine gun and Auto 5 shotgun had joined the ranks of the US military, alongside the 1903 Springfield rifle and Colt M1911 pistol. Many of these weapons would serve in combat for the US until the Vietnam War era. 

Innovations such as the plastic shotgun shell, magnum cartridge, intermediate rifle round, and expanding hollow point bullet all emerged in the 20th century; in fact, some of these inventions are close to turning a century old. So, it may be that many–if not most–of the Eureka moments in firearms development are well behind us. Yet, there’s still an incredibly strong spirit of creativity and invention that endures in this industry. Just take a look at some of the more recent breakthroughs: for one, bullet tech for rifles and handguns alike has improved remarkably in the last twenty years. Also, ammunition in general has gotten a lot better. Factory Match rifle ammo is now capable of rivaling even the most carefully hand loaded rounds, which definitely wasn’t the case in the past. New bulk pistol ammo from most suppliers is also better than it used to be, and shotgun loads have benefitted from modern metallurgy and design as well. Firearms themselves are more modular than they were even a decade ago, too; so upgrading, outfitting, and customizing your gun is no longer the domain of the gunsmith alone. We’ve truly seen the dawn of a golden age of firearms–or a brass age, if you like. Happy shooting!

Firearms: Components of a Gun

All guns work similarly to one another. You unleash a whole bunch of energy behind a projectile, and the only place that projectile can go is down the barrel. Beyond that, it’s just what you add onto the front, back, top, and bottom of the receiver–or frame–that makes a rifle different from a shotgun or a pistol. The following components do the work, or help YOU do the work when decide to use the gun:

Receiver (Rifle, Shotgun) / Frame and Slide (Handgun)

  • This is where the trigger, hammer, and many of the other important mechanicals are located.
  • A receiver or frame is kind of like the brain of the gun.
  • Up until recently, this was what most jurisdictions considered “the gun”, since it was where manufacturers stamped the serial number. Some manufacturers now apply serial numbers to trigger packs, instead.


  • Imagine a steel tube. Now imagine it has spin grooves on the inside, or not
  • There’s also a perfect spot for a loaded round to nestle into at the very beginning of the tube. That’s called a chamber.


  • For rifles and shotguns, a stock is used to brace the gun against the shoulder. 
  • Wood was the number one choice until pretty recently. Now, most are made from a heavy duty polymer.


  • Iron Sights - Traditional system for aiming. Can take many forms, but usually it’s a combination of front and rear sights which must be aligned to get a sight picture.
  • Optics - Scopes, red-dot sights, other glass-bearing systems for aiming. 


  • Each different kind of action describes how ammunition cycles through a particular firearm. 
  • For rifles, you have a bunch of choices: bolt-action, lever-action, pump-action, gas-operated, single shot, etc. Shotguns are similarly laid out. 
  • For pistols, actions are typically blowback (simple) or recoil operated (a little more complicated). 
  • Revolvers are…revolvers. Most people know how a revolver works, right?
  • When it comes to getting the next round into the chamber, guns can be manually operated (you do it) or auto-loading (the gun does it). 
  • Unless you own a machine gun, your auto-loader is actually semi-automatic.
  • Handguns–both pistols and revolvers–can be double action or single action,and pistols can also be double/single action
    • Double Action - Pressing the trigger cocks the gun and then drops the hammer in the same motion. Some double action pistols use strikers rather than hammers, and are known as striker-fired guns.
    • Single Action - Pressing the trigger drops the hammer only. The gun needs to be cocked before the trigger is functional. 
      • For a pistol, you only need to do this once–when you load the gun, by pulling the slide back and releasing it–and then the gun will do it automatically every time you fire a round. 
      • For a revolver, single action means you’re cocking the hammer back before every shot.
    • Double/Single Action - Some pistols have a double action trigger pull for the first shot, and a single action pull afterward. Generally, the double action pull is much heavier than the single action pull, which can be a safety feature.


  • Of course, none of this works without ammo. Unless you’re a muzzleloading enthusiast, ammunition means a modern cartridge or shotshell.


  • For repeating firearms (as opposed to single shot firearms) this is where the ammo is housed when you load the gun. 
  • Magazines can be internal or external (detachable).

Firearms: Types of Guns

Good news: as a species, we’ve moved on from the arquebus and the musket! Modern guns work a whole lot better than muskets and are less prone to exploding in your face, too. Really, the worst situation you’ll ever confront is probably a dud rimfire round. The firearms of today are far safer. Although the variety of guns on the market can seem overwhelming, most of what you’re likely to encounter will fit into one of the these three categories:


  • Pistols - Pistols are handguns that use detachable mags to hold ammo. Autoloading.
  • Revolvers - Typically holds 5, 6, or 7 rounds in a swing out cylinder. Manually operated.


  • Bolt-Action - A lot of hunting rifles, target rifles, and older military rifles are bolt action. They feature a handle on the bolt to work the action, and are manually operated.
  • Semi-Auto (Gas Operated) - Uses gas pressure from the barrel to cycle the bolt, typically detachable mag-fed. Autoloading.
    • Direct Impingement - AR-15 style gas system: gas pressure travels down a long tube and impinges on the bolt carrier to cycle the action.
    • Gas Piston - AK-47 style gas system: gas pressure encounters a piston (which is attached to the bolt and bolt carrier) and this cycles the action.
  • Semi-Auto (Blowback) - Rimfire rifles like the Ruger 10-22 use this system, which works similarly to a blowback pistol. It’s typically only used on less powerful rifles or pistol-caliber carbines. Autoloading.
  • Lever-Action - Lever actions use an extension of the trigger guard as a means to work the bolt. A tubular magazine sits beneath the barrel or is sometimes detachable in newer models. Manually operated.
  • Single Shot - The first breechloading rifles were single shot only. Replicas and reproductions of older firearms and occasionally some newer models are single shots. Manually operated.


  • Pump-Action - Cycles the bolt with forward and backward motion of the handguard. 
  • Semi-Auto - Autoloading shotguns can be inertia (recoil) or gas operated
    • For repeating shotguns, the magazine can be a tube underneath the barrel or, more rarely, a detachable box mag.
  • Side-by-Side and Over/Under - These are two flavors of the classic double-barreled shotgun. Manually operated.
  • Single Shot - Just like a single-shot rifle, it’s manually operated, and fires one shell at a time.

Firearms: Use Cases

Any effective strategy for gun use will be laser focused on safety above all else. If you can’t store, transport, and operate your guns in a safe manner, the consequences will suck for you and probably those around you, too. So, check out some safety guidelines if you haven’t already. 

Lecture over. Now, it’s time to look at the strengths of each platform. Believe it or not, some folks own just a single firearm, and while that’s certainly better than owning zero firearms, remember: guns are tools. Depending on the task at hand, there’s probably one kind of tool that will excel at the task compared to all the others. The point is, you’re going to need more than one! Luckily for us, there’s really only three categories we have to be concerned with:


  • Handguns are small. This means they can be concealed easily and/or carried on the body without difficulty. 
  • For self defense, it’s hard to beat a handgun. At the close ranges where self defense is likely to occur, a handgun is very capable.
  • 9mm Luger is the de facto standard for concealed carry these days. Advances in bullet technology have all but eliminated the need to carry something larger.
  • Newer pistols like the Smith and Wesson M&P Shield EZ have addressed the issues than some folks have with racking the slide.
  • .38 Special and .357 Magnum revolvers are available in compact frames that are super concealable.
  • Revolvers in particular have a very simple manual of arms. In other words, they are simple to load and use, and there is no magazine to lose or potentially have malfunction / break.
  • Not only is it possible, but it’s actually quite common to hunt small and medium-sized game with handguns. Handgun ammo manufacturers load specialty rounds for this purpose. 10mm Auto , .44 Magnum , and .45 Colt are often used for critter defense, too.
  • Target shooting with handguns is fun!


  • Rifles are powerful. Rifle cartridges have bigger powder charges than handgun cartridges, so you can shoot at stuff that is a) bigger, b) farther away.
  • It’s much easier to shoot a rifle well vs. a handgun. You have more points of contact (three), and your sighting system is typically better.
  • Speaking of shooting well, rifle bullets are very efficient in the air. They will usually buck the wind better and group more accurately than pistol bullets.
  • Modern cartridge designs and muzzle brakes mean that rifles don’t have to kick like a mule to be effective.
  • AR-15s and similar semi-autos are capable options for home defense.
  • For hunting, rifles are where it’s at. Some cartridges, like .308 Winchester , are great for tons of different game animals. More powerful rounds, like 7mm Remington Magnum or .300 Winchester Magnum , are generally for larger critters. .223 Remington is suitable for varmints. 
  • .22LR and other rimfire rounds like .22 WMR and .17 HMR can also pull varmint control duty. Or, you might just want them for aluminum can control, instead.
  • Competitive rifle shooting sports are on the rise. 6.5 Creedmoor and 6mm ARC are both newer cartridges that excel at long distance shooting.


  • Shotguns are versatile. A 12-ga. shotgun with a 3” chamber is one of the most useful hunting, target shooting, and self-defense tools on earth.
  • If you hunt birds, there is no better option than a shotgun. These days, if you’re looking for a little less recoil, there are great 20-ga. loads that will work where a 12-ga. was needed in the past.
  • Buckshot is a solid choice for hunting medium-sized game, and it’s good for home-defense, too.
  • Non-toxic ammo is available now that’s addressed the problems with steel shot.
Shotgun shooting sports like skeet and trap are great for the entire family. Shotguns are available as small as .410 bore and 28-ga. , too, for the smaller-statured folks.

Firearms: Frequently Asked Questions

Not really. The shotgun probably fits this description better than the other two, but there’s no way you’re going to carry one concealed.

Remember: guns are tools. Make sure your toolbox is complete; it’s ok to have more than one gun! 

Look for something that a) you can operate safely, b) you can shoot well, c) is the right tool for the job. Check out the Use Cases in this article for more info to get started.

This should go without saying, but make sure you’re legally able to purchase the firearm you’re shopping for. Check out your State Laws, since they’re typically more restrictive than Federal Laws. If you’re outside the US: sucks, man!

Remember: you’re going to have to practice! After you buy a gun, your job has just begun. Take a lesson, go to the range, repeat.

The tried-and-true advice is to start with a .22LR– rifle or pistol. They aren’t as loud and don’t cost much to shoot, either. Just be warned: .22LR pistols are usually hot garbage and are not suitable for much else besides plinking.

Revolvers have several advantages over pistols when it comes to carry: 

You can shoot them until they run out of ammo from inside a coat, fanny pack, purse, etc. There’s no slide that will get caught up in the fabric or other items in the vicinity. It’s even better if you have a hammerless revolver or one with a shrouded hammer.

At least when it comes to common self-defense calibers, the smallest revolvers are often easier to conceal than the smallest pistols.   

You don’t have a magazine that might fail or be lost.