The gun world, like any other hobby’s world, I suppose, kind of has its own language. Beyond the technical terms, of which there are plenty, there’s also the slang and general way of speaking that sounds foreign to the uninitiated. If that’s you, and you’re struggling to pick up on what’s being said in gun circles, we’ve got you covered. Read on for some definitions of terms you’re likely to come across, starting with the very basics.
Semi-auto (adj. or n.) A type of gun action where the next cartridge is chambered by the recoil of the previous shot. The shooter does not have to do anything after a shot in order to shoot again, other than pulling the trigger.
Full-auto (adj. or n.) A type of gun action where a single trigger pull will fire a round, chamber the next round, fire that round and keep going as long as the trigger is held down. These are considered machine guns and are highly regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE or ATF). Legally acquiring and owning one is expensive and paperwork-intense.
Bolt-action (adj. or n.) A type of gun action where the shooter must pull back a bolt to eject a spent round and push it forward to chamber the next round. Most common in rifles.
Lever-action (adj. or n.) A type of gun action where the shooter must flick a lever down and back up to eject a spend round and chamber the next round. Somewhat old-school but still popular; think Old West cowboy rifles.
Break-action (adj. or n.) A type of gun action where the gun hinges open at the receiver and the next rounds are either ejected or pulled out by hand. New rounds are inserted by hand. Most common in double-barreled shotguns but also used in some single-shot rifles.
Muzzleloader (n.) A type of gun where the projectile, and in most cases the powder and other components, are loaded from the muzzle. The user shoves all the components down the barrel from the front end in specific order and tamps them in place with a ramrod. Think Minutemen rifles. However, modern muzzleloaders look like any other 21st-century rifle.
Airgun (n.) Not legally a firearm, an airgun uses compressed air to fire a projectile. No gunpowder is involved. Airguns can range from simple BB gun-style to advanced, powerful precharged-pneumatic air rifles that are capable of taking big game.
Handgun (n.) Any gun designed to be held in and fired from the hand, not braced on the shoulder.
Long gun (n.) Basically anything that’s not a handgun. This includes shotguns and rifles.
Pistol (n.) A type of handgun. This term technically refers to a semi-auto but is colloquially used to refer to any handgun. Think John Wick’s handguns.
Revolver (n.) A type of handgun where the ammunition is stored in a cylindrical chamber that revolves to line each shot up with the barrel. Think Dirty Harry’s handguns.
Double-action (adj.) A style of handgun action where pulling the trigger cocks the gun (or finishes cocking the gun), making it ready to shoot, and also releases the hammer or striker, firing the gun.
Single-action (adj.) A style of handgun action where pulling the trigger fires the gun only; the gun must be cocked first in a separate action. In a revolver, this is accomplished by the shooter physically pulling the hammer back.
Hammer-fired (adj.) A style of handgun action where a spring-powered weight, called a hammer, is released by the trigger and strikes the firing pin, firing the gun. The hammer can be external or internal. In a hammer-fired gun, the firing pin is struck. Hammer-fired guns usually, on average, have better triggers than striker-fired guns. They tend to offer a shooter more versatility in manual manipulation. Think 1911s.
Striker-fired (adj.) A style of handgun action where, at the trigger pull, a spring impacts a striker, which then hits the ammo’s primer, firing the gun. In a striker-fired gun, the striker is not struck but rather does the striking. Striker-fired guns are, on average, cheaper, simpler and lighter than hammer-fired guns. Think Glocks.
Magazine (n.) A device that holds ammunition in the gun and feeds it into the chamber. In handguns and many rifles, magazines are detachable. Other rifles and shotguns use internal magazines that are built into the gun and are not removable without disassembling the gun.
Clip (n.) Technically, a device used to load a magazine. They are uncommon, especially on modern guns. Many shooters colloquially (and incorrectly) call their magazines “clips,” but we don’t recommend calling your mag a clip at the range unless you want everyone in earshot to correct you!
Sight in (v.) To fire a gun at a paper target and adjust the sights or scope until the gun is shooting where the shooter wants it to. Used with any firearm that launches a single projectile, including handguns, rifles and shotguns shooting slugs.
Pattern (n.) The disbursement of shot pellets fired from a shotgun at a given range. The farther away the target, the bigger and more spread out the pattern will be, with more “holes” in it.
Pattern (v.) To shoot a shotgun at paper, usually called a patterning board, in order to determine what the pattern looks like at a specific distance according to the shooter’s preference.
Choke tubes (n.) Cylindrical metal tubes, a few inches in length, that screw into the end of a shotgun barrel and constrict the pattern to various degrees. Choke tubes can be internal (cannot be seen when fully screwed in) or external (sticks out the barrel an inch or two) and come in many different constrictions so shooters can control the spread of the pattern they wish to shoot.
Porting (n.) Holes cut into a gun’s barrel near the muzzle (the end), designed to allow the gases generated by the gun firing to escape more easily. This reduces the amount of recoil the shooter feels and reduces the amount of muzzle flip, or the extent to which the muzzle “jumps” at the shot. Less muzzle flip allows the shooter to reacquire their sight picture more quickly, leading to a faster second shot. Porting makes a gun louder, and the holes must be swabbed out, which takes a little more time at the cleaning bench. Porting can be done on just about any kind of firearm.
Muzzle brake (n.) A device that screws into the muzzle of a gun barrel and serves essentially the same purpose as porting without having to modify the barrel. Mostly used on rifles.
Class III (adj.) An ATF-defined category of firearms and firearm accessories that are highly regulated. Citizens must obtain special permits or stamps and pay fees, sometimes extremely high ones, in order to own a Class III item. Examples of Class III items include suppressors, short-barreled rifles, machine guns and more.
Suppressor (n.) A device that reduces the report (sound) of a gun firing, generally reducing felt recoil as well. A suppressor reduces the noise to the level that your hearing will likely not be damaged, but the sound is still very much audible—thus the term “silencers” is inaccurate. (A true silencer does not exist.) A suppressor may be used on a handgun, rifle, shotgun or airgun, although they might work a little differently and you should buy one with the intended gun in mind. Most suppressors are aftermarket add-ons that screw into the barrel, but they can come integrated into the gun. Ownership of a suppressor (other than on an airgun) requires a Class III tax stamp—one for each suppressor you own—as well as some paperwork and a waiting period.
SBR (n.) Short-barreled rifle. The legal minimum barrel size is 16 inches for rifles and 18 inches for shotguns. A rifle with a barrel shorter than this is considered an SBR and requires a Class III tax stamp and paperwork filed with the ATF. (A shotgun with a barrel under 18 inches is referred to as a sawed-off shotgun, whether a saw was actually used to shorten the barrel or not.)
Now for some slang…
Tacticool (adj.) A somewhat mocking term applied to anyone who goes over the top with tactical gear and equipment, especially when it’s unnecessary.
Fudd (n.) A somewhat mocking term for a hunter or old-school shooter who eschews anything tactical.
Gun Bunny (n.) A somewhat mocking term for a woman who relies more on her appearance than her shooting skills to get ahead in the shooting sports or the gun industry.
Gun Fu (n.) A mostly fictional style of fighting combining guns and martial arts. Think John Wick and The Matrix.
Molon labe (phrase) A common pro-Second Amendment statement that translates to “Come and take them.” Legend has it that when Sparta’s King Xerxes demanded the Persian army surrender their weapons at the battle of Thermopylae, Persian King Leonidas’ response of “Molon labe” emboldened his troops.
Assault Weapon (n.) An object that is used to commit an assault on another person; can be applied to baseball bats, hammers or any other item used to commit assault. This is the only real definition of an assault weapon, despite what the government is attempting to tell you in order to restrict your right to keep and bear arms. Be wary of any definition that attempts to put firearms in categories like “assault weapons” or “assault guns.” Also, the “AR” in “AR-15” rifle stands for ArmaLite rifle, after the company that developed it in the 1950s. “AR” does not stand for “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.”