Let’s talk about guns

The objects, not the politics

Steven Barnhart
Nov 26, 2014 · 8 min read

This is part 1 of a multipart series concerning firearm basics of and will cover information pertinent to both long arms and handguns. Part 2 delves deeper into long arms, while Part 3 will cover handguns. And part 4 will cover differences in communication between pro-Second Amendment and pro-gun control advocates.

Guns are a touchy subject right now, and everybody has an opinion on them. Some like them, some hate them. Some want more of them, some want them all dropped to the bottom of the sea. But any way you look at it there is a huge communication gap between all sides. I’m going to try and do my part to rectify that problem.

When the media reports on firearms, too often they speak without subject knowledge; every rifle is an “assault weapon,” every handgun is a “Glock,” every firearm owner’s modest ammunition supply is a “stockpile” and every enthusiast’s collection is an “arsenal.”

This is lazy reporting. An “assault weapon” is a political term, a “Glock” is a particular brand of handgun, 500 rounds of ammunition can be finished up in a Saturday trip to the range, and four guns is a fairly small collection. It might sound like a petty annoyance, but to the firearm community these little things matter. In their opinion, inaccurate reporting shows that news outlets have no respect for them. To the firearm community it makes it look like the media has already made up their minds. And it’s to ban all guns.

And that’s just not cool. If we want to talk about firearms in a political context first we must all be on the same page. Language only works when all parties share it, and right now neither side shares language. We can do better.


Safety is the first thing anyone ever covers about firearms, so that is where I will start.

There are four rules held sacrosanct amongst the firearm community. They aren’t rules like the 10 Commandments or the US Constitution; everyone actually reads them and follows them. They are:

  1. Every gun is always loaded
  2. Never touch the trigger unless shooting
  3. Never point the gun at something unless willing to destroy it
  4. Know your target and what is beyond your target

Four simple rules that every gun owner should know. They’re part of any class, any competition, any first time shooter’s day at the range. They apply equally to cops, Marines and hobbyists. They apply to black powder muskets, handguns, shotguns and modern rifles.

Now these rules might seem simple, but they represent a very important fact about responsible gun owners: we are safe. We are well aware that we own deadly weapons, and we take safety very seriously.

Responsible gun owners don’t believe in accidental discharges. We only believe in negligent ones. Firing a gun when you didn’t intend to means you failed to follow at least one of these simple rules.

Responsible gun owners are probably more horrified by news stories about “cleaning accidents” than antigun folks.


First let’s talk about the two major classifications of firearms. There are long guns and there are handguns.

This is a long gun. As its name so cleverly implies, it is long. This rifle is about three feet long. It is braced against a person’s shoulder and requires the use of both hands to fire accurately.

This is also a long gun, see it’s about four and a half feet long and would require two hands to hold it as well.

This is a handgun. As its name implies it is meant to be held in a hand.

This is also a handgun, see how it also can be held in a single hand.

Within these two categories, literally, every single type of firearm is included. Longarms include everything from an English Brown Bess musket used during the revolutionary war, to your grandpa’s shotgun, to the modern M-4 carbine used by the US Army. Handguns follow the same track, they include the pistols fired by Blackbeard, the revolvers held by Jesse James and the Glocks used by everyday cops.

In Parts II and III of the series, I will cover the specifics of modern pistols and modern rifles. For now I’ll just focus on the general terminology and facts that apply to both long arms and handguns.

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Ruger Mark 2 .22 LR caliber pistol. (Courtesy CDFingers @ The Liberal Gun Club)


Caliber is an important word in firearms. It refers to the size of the bullet that a gun fires, but it’s also an easy way of telling how powerful a firearm is. Generally, the larger the caliber, the more powerful the firearm.

The caliber of a gun is determined by measuring the inner diameter of the barrel. Guns that fire rounds created in the US are measured in hundredths of an inch. For example, a Colt M1911 fires the .45 ACP cartridge, which is forty-five hundredths of an inch in diameter (almost a half inch). A Ruger Mark II fires a .22 Long Rifle (.22LR) round that is twenty-two hundredths of an inch in diameter.

Guns that fire rounds developed in Europe are measured in millimeters, the most common example of this is the 9mm Parabellum round. Another common example is the 5.56 NATO round which is the standard round for AR-15 style rifles, including the Army issued M-4 and Marine Corps issued M-16.

Caliber can get slightly confusing. A 9mm round is roughly the same diameter as a .38 special, a .357 Magnum and a .380 ACP round, but the three rounds are not interchangeable. The .357 Magnum is a very powerful round, while the .380 ACP is much less powerful. The difference in diameters is less than a hundredth of an inch, but the length of the bullet and the amount of propellant used to fire the bullet makes up the difference.

In the United States the most common handgun calibers are .22LR, 9mm and .45 ACP, with the relatively new .40 Smith & Wesson making steady gains. The most common rifle calibers are .223 Remington, 5.56 NATO, .308 Winchester and .22LR. In many jurisdictions, only rifles chambered at .30 or larger can be used for hunting large game like deer. Small game is commonly taken with .22LR, while .223 and 5.56 are popular rounds among ranchers for coyote control.


Ammunition can be complicated, so I’ll keep it simple.

Bullet: A solid piece of metal/plastic/rubber/lead that is expelled from the barrel of a gun when the trigger is fired.

Casing: The outer part that holds everything together.

Propellant: The substance that explodes and projects the bullet out of the barrel.

Primer: Small explosive that ignites the propellant.

These four parts combine to make an entire CARTRIDGE or ROUND. Usually that’s what people are referring to when they talk about a bullet. For our purposes I’ll refer to them as rounds.


As you can see, firearms have a lot of jargon associated with them. And while to outsiders the differences in terms doesn’t seem important, for gun owners, it makes for all the difference. Particularly when it comes to discussing guns in the media.

One bit of jargon that will almost always annoy gun owners is the difference between MAGAZINES and CLIPS.

A magazine is a part of the gun that holds multiple rounds and automatically loads them into the back of the barrel so they can be fired. Some magazines are internal and cannot be removed, the classic M1 Garand from WWII is the perfect example. Others are external and can be removed for reloading. Both the common Glock handgun and the much maligned AR-15 have external magazines.

A clip is a device that holds rounds together so that they can be loaded into a magazine. It does exactly what the name suggests and clips the rounds together. In some cases, it is placed in the magazine with the rounds, in other cases the rounds are pushed into the magazine and the clip is retained, an example of a weapon with this feature is the Springfield M1913 rifle, the predecessor of the M1 Garand.

Some modern external magazines can utilize a clip for faster loading, but in most cases it’s unecessary.

Magazine capacity is a topic that deserves particular mention. A few states in the US have laws banning “high-capacity” magazines. Usually this is applies to magazines holding more than 10 rounds. This term is a misnomer though, as the majority of modern handgun magazines are designed to hold between 13 and 17 rounds of ammunition. And the magazines for sale in jurisdictions with limits on magazine capacity are specially manufactured or modified by manufacturers to be reduced capacity.

In effect this means those states are banning standard-capacity magazines in favor of limited-capacity magazines.

For rifles, the usual magazine size for an AR-15 or AK-47 style rifle is 30 rounds. Again, in a few states their capacity is limited to 10 rounds.

In the next post I will discuss long arms, their unique attributes, what they’re good for and why they’re so much fun.

Editing for this piece was performed by, SenorGrand of the Liberal Gun Club. The photos not credited to myself are courtesy of various members of The Liberal Gun Club. The Liberal Gun Club is an organization devoted to providing a voice for gun-owning liberals and moderates in the national conversation on gun rights, gun legislation, firearms safety, and shooting sports. They also actively develop and foster a variety of programs for the purpose of firearms training and firearms safety education, for both gun owners and non-gun owners.

If you are a firearm enthusiast, or potential enthusiast, and turned off by the political extremism of online firearm forums and communities consider stopping by and joining. The LGC welcomes everyone regardless of political beliefs.

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