This article is intended to be a 5 minute explanation of the types of legal guns currently available to citizens of the United States. I hope to provide a basic understanding for those new to or just interested in the definitions of the basic types of weapons.

For this article, I am not going to include exotic, military, illegal, homemade or prototype weapons. This basically comes down to 3 categories: pistols, rifles, and shotguns. First though, there are some terms that apply to all three types. I’ll cover them first.

Single action refers to pulling the trigger firing a round after the weapon is cocked, either manually or by gas recoil from a previously fired round.

Double action refers to being able to cock and fire the weapon with a single trigger.

All of the weapons below are available in single or double action. Semi-autos are also available in double/single action. Meaning that the first pull of the trigger is double action and all subsequent pulls are single action.

We have individual shots, which are usually bolt, lever or break, and are fed with ammunition manually, by tube or clip. Revolvers and semi-automatic weapons automatically load the next round to be fired on the next trigger. The ammunition is held in the cylinder or fed by tube or clip. The words clip and magazine mean the same thing.


The term pistol refers to handguns that do not use stocks. These range in size from derringers to subcompacts, compacts, full-size, and specialty weapons. There are single-shot, revolvers and semi-automatics, and they are fed ammunition manually, by cylinder or clip. All types are available in a wide range of calibers. Pistols are generally designed for targets less than 100 yards away.


This refers to weapons with a stock and a barrel longer than 16 inches. Rifles are designed to accurately shoot farther than pistols. Beyond 100 yards, a skilled marksman with the proper equipment could accurately shoot 1000 yards or more. Rifles can be bolt-action, lever-action, or semi-automatic, and the bullets are fed manually, by tube, or clip. The rifles also have a wide range of calibers available.


Shotguns fall into the rifle category in size, but fire a buckshot-filled projectile instead of a bullet. Projectiles vary in caliber and power and can contain a single bullet or hundreds of pellets. Shotguns are available in break, bolt, pump and semi-automatic versions, with cartridges fed manually, by tube or clip. Shotguns are designed to fire a pattern of shot over a short distance.

It is also worth mentioning the machine guns. That is, a fully automatic weapon that fires more than one round for each time the trigger is pulled. These are not available to the public without a broad license.

Another honorable mention is Assault Weapons. This is just a name that many people unfamiliar with guns associate with fully automatic weapons. While the military version usually is, the civilian versions are not. “Assault rifle” simply refers to a military looking weapon. It has nothing to do with function or ability.

I hope this has been informative. I will discuss, in more detail, each of these types of weapons, their respective functionality and uses, calibers, ammunition and accessories in future articles.

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