Love them or hate them, guns are a part of life. Over the last thousand years, guns have driven the progress of human technology and manufacturing like no other invention.
Guns are tools. As they say, we sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf. The military dominates the development of firearms. The designs and calibers popular on the civilian market today have mostly trickled down from military use.
But guns have far more uses than just national defense. Whether you want to put meat on the table, a trophy on the wall, a medal in the display cabinet, or a home intruder in his place, a gun will help you do it.
From biathlon to trap shooting, there are about ten shooting events represented at the Olympics, but that’s just scratching the surface of the competitive shooting sports that are out there.
Hunting offers chances for recreation, bragging rights, bringing home the healthiest meat you’ll ever eat, and pest control. Protect your garden from rabbits, stalk a record buck, or set your sights on some larger-than-life African safari game. The options are endless.
If you are concerned about protecting yourself and your family, having the right firearm on hand at the right moment can mean the difference between life and death. Keep in mind, no gun will protect you if you are not thoroughly practiced in using it.
Types of firearms
There are guns out there to suit every shooter and situation. Gun nuts spend their lives debating what the best gun is for any given scenario, and there is never an easy answer.
There are three major types of gun available to the civilian:
Shotguns are the original type of gun going back many centuries. They are easily the most versatile of firearms. In most cases, a shotgun is the best option for home defense. Shotguns were so effective at clearing trenches in WWI that the Germans tried to get them banned under the laws of warfare. You can hunt everything from pigeons to bear with them. Sporting clays, trap, and skeet shooting are thrilling examples of shotgun sports. You will not likely have more fun with any other firearm than you will with a shotgun.
Generally speaking, shotguns do not fire bullets, rather, they fire shot, as the name implies. Shot refers to a mass of heavy metal pellets, usually made of lead.
If you’re equipped to hunt ducks, each time you pull the trigger, the shotgun will fire hundreds of tiny pellets, called ‘birdshot.’ They will spread out as they travel away from the barrel, creating a wide pattern, like a cloud of lead, giving you a better chance of hitting a small, moving target like a duck.
You can adjust how quickly the cloud of pellets spreads after it leaves the barrel by trying different choke tubes. A choke tube screws into the end of the shotgun’s barrel and changes the diameter of the muzzle, that is, the mouth of the barrel. The farther away your target is, the slower you want the pattern, the cloud of pellets, to spread, so you would use a tighter choke.
If you are hunting something bigger like a coyote or a buck, birdshot pellets will probably be too fine to make an ethical kill, to dispatch the animal with minimal suffering. Unless you’re extremely close to your target, they may not kill it at all. That’s where buckshot comes in. While birdshot pellets are barely larger than grains of sand, buckshot pellets are the size of the average bullet, around a third of an inch in diameter. Each shotgun cartridge will hold maybe 6 to 12 buckshot pellets. Like birdshot, they will spread out as they fly, giving you a better chance of hitting your target. Buckshot is an outstanding home defense option.
There is a vast spectrum in the size of shot available. It all depends on what exactly you plan to shoot. For example, birdshot for shooting geese will have bigger pellets than birdshot for shooting ducks.
A shotgun also gives you the option of shooting a single, massive projectile called a slug. A slug fired from a shotgun will be less accurate than a bullet fired from a rifle and will have a much shorter effective range, around 70 yards. However, you can be sure that any American animal hit with a slug is going down and not getting up again. Rifled barrels and choke tubes are available for shotguns to increase the accuracy of slugs.
There are three common styles of shotgun:
- Break action, like double-barrel shotguns
- Pump action
The classic style is the break action. This is what double-barreled shotguns are. You pull a lever and the barrels open on a hinge, exposing the chambers, the back ends of the barrels. You slip a couple of shells in, close the action and you’re ready to fire. break-action guns are simple and reliable.
Pump-action shotguns have a magazine, usually a tube under the barrel, that holds several extra shells. Once you fire, simply pull the foregrip backward and push it forward again to load the next shell. Pump-action shotguns are very reliable and give you a few quick follow-up shots.
Semi-auto shotguns closely resemble pump-actions, but the mechanism automatically loads a new shell into the chamber every time you take a shot, ready for you to pull the trigger again. Given the near-infinite variety of shotgun ammo on the market, sometimes you have to tune your semi-auto shotgun for each cartridge type so that it will reliably load them into the chamber. Semi-autos are generally less reliable than pump-actions, but the technology has come a long way and the gap is narrowing.
A shotgun, no matter the style, will shoot a specific size of cartridge, which is the thing that holds the shot and gunpowder together. By far the most common size is 12 gauge. It can kick your shoulder a bit, so some smaller shooters prefer something lighter, like 20 gauge or the tiny .410. Generally speaking, you can shoot birdshot, buckshot, and slug cartridges out of the same shotgun, as long as they all match its gauge. Shotgun cartridges also come in different lengths, for example, 12 gauge cartridges can be 2.75 or 3 inches long. Longer cartridges hold more shot or bigger slugs. Like the gauge, the maximum length that a gun can accept is always engraved into its barrel. Always read the barrel engraving before loading a firearm.
Just like a football, a bullet flies better if it spins. If you cut grooves along the inside of a barrel in a corkscrew pattern, the grooves will force a bullet to spin as it flies, greatly increasing its accuracy. Those grooves are called rifling. A rifle cartridge has a lot more gunpowder relative to the weight of the projectile than a shotgun cartridge. This means that rifle bullets are not only more accurate, but they can also fly many times faster and farther than shotgun projectiles. High-velocity projectiles, although they may be small, can transfer a lot of energy to a target, imparting devastating damage.
There are two main kinds of rifle cartridge:
With a rimfire cartridge, the rifle’s hammer strikes the back rim of the brass casing, where the primer is located. The primer is a compound that sparks on impact, igniting the gunpowder and firing the bullet. In a centerfire rifle, the primer is in the center of the back of the cartridge.
Rifle cartridges come in different sizes, or calibers. Almost all modern rifle calibers are centerfire. The main exception is the tiny rimfire .22 long rifle caliber. It is ubiquitous in America, effective for hunting small game like rabbits, and the most common caliber to learn to shoot with. Besides .22 long rifle, the most popular rifle calibers in the US are current or former US military standards. The big three are:
The .30-06 is the most popular caliber in the world for hunting large game, anything from deer to bear. The .308 is an outstanding sniper and long-range shooting caliber. It’s great for hunting mid-sized game like deer. Almost identical to the current NATO standard, .223 is great for home protection or varmint hunting, which means shooting small pests like coyotes and prairie dogs. Shooters tend to get lost down the rabbit hole of selecting the best caliber. Some other outstanding calibers include .243, .270, and .375 H&H, but there are hundreds. Always read the barrel engraving before loading a rifle.
There are three common styles of rifle on the market today:
- Lever action
- Bolt action
Lever action rifles include the classic Winchester and Henry weapons that won the west. A lever-action rifle has a handle behind the trigger that you swing forward and back again to load a cartridge from the magazine into the chamber, making the gun ready to fire. Most lever-action rifles have tube magazines like shotguns. Since cartridges are stored end-to-end in the mag, their bullets cannot have sharp points, or they could set each other off. Besides, working the lever can be awkward when lying on the ground or resting the gun on an object. Lever-action rifles are effective and full of history, but most shooters have moved on.
Bolt-action rifles are the most accurate rifles you are likely to find. To load a cartridge from the magazine into the chamber, you lift the bolt handle on the upper side of the rifle, pull it back, and return it to its original position. It’s like how you work a simple bolt on a bathroom stall door. But man, is it effective. Bolt actions are commonly used as sniper rifles. They are great for hunting all kinds of mammals, especially if you’ll be taking long shots in wide-open terrain. Just choose the right caliber for your game.
Semi-auto rifles include America’s favorite firearm, the AR-15, or ‘modern sporting rifle.’ These are based on the M16 and M4 rifles used by the US military. When you pull the trigger on a semi-auto rifle, it will fire a bullet and part of the energy produced will be used to load a new cartridge into the chamber. One tap, one shot, no fumbling around in between. The ability to make an immediate follow-up shot can mean the difference between life and death in a self-defense situation. It can also mean that you don’t lose your quarry when hunting. However, semi-autos are generally not as accurate as bolt actions.
There are two main kinds of handguns:
Revolvers have a rotating cylinder that holds the cartridges, usually six of them. Revolvers are extremely simple to use. Usually, if it’s loaded, all you have to do is pull the trigger and it will fire, there are almost no other controls. However, there is one thing to keep in mind. Revolvers have a hair’s-width gap between the cylinder and the barrel that allows some of the high-pressure gasses from each shot to escape sideways. If one of your fingers is in the wrong position, you may be severely injured.
Semi-auto handguns operate on much the same principle as semi-auto shotguns or rifles. Pull the trigger and it will go off. Pull again, it goes off again. However, there is a bit more of a learning curve than with revolvers. You will have to get used to operating a safety, a slide, a slide release, a magazine release, a take-down lever, and whatever other bells and whistles the manufacturer has included. Semi-auto pistols are the standard for military and law enforcement today.
Both revolvers and semi-auto handguns with a hammer can be single or double action. Double-action means that pulling the trigger not only releases the hammer to fire the gun, it first pulls the hammer back into position. That can mean a long, heavy trigger pull and an inaccurate shot. A handgun capable of single-action fire gives you the option to pull the hammer back with your thumb. Without the extra work to do, the trigger becomes much easier to pull, giving you a more accurate shot. Some handguns are striker-fired, meaning they have no hammer. They are lighter and simpler but tend to have worse trigger pulls than a single-action.
Often, the calibers used in semi-auto handguns are specifically designed to fit in, and work with, them. The best examples are the ubiquitous 9mm, the FBI’s 40 S&W, and the big old 45 ACP. Revolvers often fire more powerful calibers than semi-autos, such as my favorite, the .357, or the .44 magnum.
Handguns are mainly used for personal protection or law enforcement work. These are very short-range weapons that require a lot of practice to use effectively.
Whatever kind of gun you choose, you will need a way to aim it. There are three common sighting options:
- Open sights
- Reflex sights
Iron sights are the classic option. You will have something that resembles a notch at the rear of the barrel and something that, while aiming, resembles a post at the business end. When shooting, you line these up just under your target. An aperture sight switches the notch out for a peephole or a ring, which is far more accurate than the notch. There is a huge range of iron sight designs. They are very reliable and hard to damage but can be useless in the dark. They are often used as a backup for one of the sighting systems below.
Most shotguns have a brass bead or fiber-optic sight at the muzzle and nothing at the rear, no notch or peephole. This makes it easier to acquire a quickly flying target.
Scopes have been around a long time. There is a lot to consider when choosing a scope. Scopes are often marketed with figures like ‘4-12x 50mm.’ That means the magnification range is 4-12 times what you’d see with the naked eye. The magnification range you need depends on the type of shooting you will do. 50mm refers to the objective lens size. The larger the objective lens the more light it will admit and the brighter your sight picture will be, especially under high magnification. Scopes also come with a huge variety of reticle designs. The reticle is the crosshair image or alternative that you place on your target. That’s largely a matter of taste. Scopes are a necessity for long-range shooting.
Reflex sights, AKA red-dot sights have been around for a while. They are a simple, reliable, non-magnifying yet high-tech sighting option. They are great for rifles, shotguns, or handguns. A reflex sight bounces a reticle, often a red dot generated by an LED, off a pane of glass that you look through. Unlike with iron sights or a scope, no matter where your eye is positioned, the reticle will accurately mark where your shot will go. Holographic sights differ from red-dot sights in that their reticle appears to be on the same plane as your target, making them a bit easier to use. They are a lot more expensive, too. The US military makes heavy use of the ACOG, which provides a bit of fixed magnification, under 6x, and generates its reticle with luminescent phosphor rather than with electricity.
Guns offer you all the fun of making a lot of noise and breaking things. However, they are designed to kill, and hundreds of accidents happen every year. Go out, have fun, and practice as much as possible, but always keep some basic rules of firearm safety in mind:
- Treat all firearms as if they were loaded.
- Always keep your firearm pointed in a safe direction.
- Keep your trigger finger outside the guard and off of the trigger until you are ready to fire.
- Be certain of your target, your line of fire, and what lies beyond your target.
- Use the correct ammunition.
- Always wear appropriate eye and ear protection when shooting and maintaining your firearm.
- Keep your firearm unloaded when not in use and secure it from unauthorized use.