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I am of the opinion that everybody should know something about guns. Every country on earth has guns in the general population. And as such everybody could get in contact with guns. Even in those countries that are very restrictive about gun ownership. Not knowing about guns can be dangerous.

Personally, I have been in the army (we had a draft at the time) so I know a little about guns. However most people only know about guns from the movies or the press. Neither of those sources seem very informed. As a result most people don’t know, or worse, have false expectations about guns.

I this post I simply want to give an overview of the different types of guns.


There are three different types of projectiles that are used.

  • Small caliber: This refers to penetrating power more than to the size of the projectile. Nearly the same projectiles can be called ‘small caliber’ or ‘large caliber’ depending on the speed at which they leave the gun. Never make the mistake in believing that ‘small caliber’ projectiles are not dangerous. They can be as deadly as large caliber, despite the name. However since a small caliber projectile has less energy than a large caliber projectile it is less certain that it will stop an opponent, and it is easier to protect against.

  • Large caliber: This is likely the most used caliber by police, military and hunters. Its a high energy projectile that can do considerable damage over considerable distances.

  • Shotgun shells: This is a bunch of small (often metal) balls that are all shot at the same time. The bundle of projectiles disperse gradually after they leave the barrel. The effective range is much shorter than that of the other two projectiles.

Note: differentiating between “small” and “large” caliber should not be taken to imply that there are only two calibers. There are and have been probably over a hundred different calibers.


There are a great many different type of guns, the main categories are:

  • Revolver: A hand held gun that contains a few bullets, each bullet in its own chamber. The typical “cowboy gun”. The chambers rotate such that after each a shot a new chamber is positioned for the barrel. Typically the number of bullets is small, 5 or 6. Because there is a small gap between the chamber and the barrel, this can be dangerous for the shooter as the hot gasses that escape through this gap can do severe damage to hand and fingers. While easy, it takes a little time to reload.

  • Pistol: A hand held gun with the bullets in a magazine that is usually ‘hidden’ in the grip. Pistols are more common than revolvers and are used often in movies. The top of the pistol can usually slide back in response to firing ejecting the fired cartridge and grabbing a new cartridge while it slides forward again, loading it in the camber. Magazine capacities are usually from 8 to 17 depending on the caliber. Larges magazines do exist but are not widely in use. Pistols are more complex than revolvers and can be more susceptible to failures. Changing a magazine can be very quick.

  • Single shot rifle: This type of rifle is -like a revolver- a very simple mechanism. The bolt must be moved back and forth manually to reload a new cartridge. A single shot rifle may contain an external or internal magazine. Some don’t have a magazine at all and can only take one cartridge at a time.

  • Semi-automatic rifle: This type of rifle compares to the pistol. It has a magazine and each time the trigger is pulled the rifle fires one shot. No manual operation necessary between shots. Changing the magazine is fast. Magazines can take anywhere from 5 to 30 cartridges. Like with a pistol, larger capacity magazines do exist but are not often used.

  • Automatic or fully automatic rifle: This type of rifle keeps firing when the trigger is pulled back. It is almost everywhere forbidden for private use. The military uses this type of rifle. Often this type of rifle has a switch that toggles between single shot, three shots and “full auto”. At full auto an effect called “muzzle climb” causes the bullets to strike higher and higher as a result of recoil.

  • Break action shotgun: Often double barreld. This type must be “broken” in order to remove and place cartridges. They can fire only 1 (or 2) cartridges before they have to be reloaded. A shotgun usually does not have sights (i.e. aiming support)

  • Pump or lever shotgun. A single barreld shotgun that has an internal magazine. The pump or lever action reloads the gun and can be used repeatedly to remove the cartridges. Like the break action shotgun, it usually does not have sights.


All guns can be deadly for humans. There is no such thing as an “almost harmless” gun. But their capabilities differ greatly.

The small caliber cartridges are used for competitions and small varmin hunting. Larger animals will get away when shot making the caliber useless for hunting. While they can be deadly, it is not reliable deadly for self-defence purposes. Accuracy for pistol and rifle in competitions is very good. Effective range is up to 100 yards (meters) for rifles, about 25 yards for pistol (keep in mind that I am talking in very general terms)

The large caliber cartridges have a wide range of capabilities, and there are many heated discussions about which cartridge is ‘best’ for a given purpose. Suffice to say that the large calibre cartridge is used for all purposes, except maybe small varmint hunting. The kinetic energy in a bullet is simply too high for small varmints and the risk to the surrounding area to too big. The useable range also differs widely, but for pistols and revolvers the range is up to 25 yards. While the bullet can do damage much further out, the average person does not have the skill to use the weapon beyond that range. For rifles the usable range extends much further. Using open sights to about 100 yards out, and using a scoped rifle on a good stand 300 yards should be possible for the larger targets and with a little training. Note that for shots further out than 300 yards secondary factors that have nothing to do with the rifle or shooter take an ever bigger role.

The shotguns are used for small game and self defence in close quarters. While very effective the range is limited to about 30 to 40 yards. The advantage for self defence in close quarters is that the pellets will usually not penetrate walls. Making it a safer choice than a pistol or revolver. Since aiming is not very precise, the spread makes up for lost precision. However the spread also means a rapid loss of effect.

Since this subject is very dear to many gun enthousiasts, I do want to point out that the above is a broad generalization. There are many special type of guns that cross boundaries. However with the above in mind it should be possible to identify a gun as being a special case since it would fall in multiple categories.

Also, keep in mind that I am not a specialist in gun matters. So if you would like to improve this article, please do so in the comments. I will update this article from time to time based on a.o. the comments.

Originally posted at: 2016-11-27
Last modified on: 2016-11-27