1. Home
  2. Guides
  3. The Different Types of Guns: What They Are and Why You Need One
Brian Zerbian Jan 21 2023 15 min read

The Different Types of Guns: What They Are and Why You Need One

Introduction

Firearms have existed since first century China, and they came to America in 1602. Needless to say, it’s been a while, and today there are a few different types of guns.

Manufacturers have been experimenting with these different types of firearms for a long time, all in pursuit of creating the best in their respective roles.

That has left us with hundreds of different handguns, rifles, shotguns, and machine guns. Neither you nor I have enough time to go through them all, so let us focus on the basics (for now).

We won’t talk about the guns they had in ancient China, but for those new to guns and want to know what the different types of guns are, or maybe need a refresher, boy, do we have something for you.

We’re gonna discuss all of it. The types of firearms, when they were invented, how they work, and the best ways to use them.

This could help if you’re in the market for your next firearm or hopefully point you in the right direction for the next money pit.

Let’s jump right in.

Handguns

springfield armory xdm elite 10mm 4.5 in hands on review

What is a Handgun?

As the name suggests, handguns are small barreled firearms that are designed to be shot with one hand. This applies to both pistols and revolvers. Yes, they are both handguns.

Although many individuals get confused by the two, I’m here to clear it up. If it’s a revolver, then it is a handgun. If it’s a pistol, it is a handgun as well.

Here’s more information about the specific parts inside of a handgun.  

History of Handguns

Handguns have been around since flintlock pistols were used in first-century China and were used as badges of office (like ceremonial swords) since they were more expensive than long guns of that era.

Until the man, the myth, the legend came along.

Samuel Colt made the first handgun that was mass-produced in 1836, the handgun was named the Colt Paterson, and it quickly became popular with Americans all over. And gained a bunch of attention from the military.

After that, Colt would go on to make many handguns and repeater rifles that would help farmers and outlaws alike in their day-to-day lives in the wild-west.

Most famously, the Colt Single Action.

As the saying goes, “God made man, Colt made them equal.”

Different Types of Handguns

There are a few different handguns, but the ones you will see most in use today are the revolver and the semi-automatic pistol.

Revolvers

Ruger LCR .22LR

Revolvers are repeating firearms that use a revolving cylinder to chamber a new round after one is fired. The cylinder usually houses five to six rounds at a time, hence the term six-shooter.

This is the design that was used on the first handguns in America and is still in use by many Americans to this day for home defense, self-defense, and sometimes seen in duty use.

These handguns are pretty reliable since there are fewer moving parts, but they fall short due to ammo capacity when you compare them to modern handguns.

The Colt Single Action is the holy grail of revolvers. The sidearm of the Wild West.

We even went far enough to create a list of the best revolvers in today’s market.

Semi-Automatic Pistols

Springfield Armory Hellcat Pro

Semi-Automatic Pistols are repeating firearms that use the gasses from the previous round to chamber the next round but still require the trigger to be pressed again for the next round to fire.

These are the most popular types of handguns and are favored for their ability to house a detachable magazine that can hold anywhere from eight to 30 rounds, lessening the need to reload.

Many Americans trust semi-automatic pistols for home and self-defense alongside being in use by law enforcement and military personnel.

The Glock 17 is an example of a semi-automatic pistol.

Uses for Handguns

Handguns are typically used for home and self-defense.

Since they can easily be concealed and hidden from the public eye, you won’t scare the old lady walking through the canned soup aisle at your local grocery store.

But it will be there when you need it. Hopefully, you won’t.

They are also used as sidearms for military and law enforcement personnel, favored by those who like to LARP around the deep woods with $20k worth of night vision at three in the morning.

I say that from experience. It’s fun; you guys should try it.

Handguns are best used when you need to keep a weapon concealed or you need a sidearm that can be used when the big gun goes down. But, if you had to grab a handgun or a long gun in a split second, grab the long gun.

Handguns should not be the first option for any situation where a long gun could be used. There is more felt recoil with handguns, whereas shotguns and rifles allow you to shoulder them and absorb more recoil with your body.

Shotguns

benelli m4 review

What are Shotguns?

Shotguns are long-barreled firearms that shoot shotshells with spherical and pellet-like pieces often referred to as “shot.” There are other cartridges, one of them being slugs, which still use shotshells but feature a single projectile, known as “slugs.”

The barrels can also be shaved down, which you see on sawed-off shotguns, hence the name. So, they don’t always have to be long-barreled, but you usually see shotguns sporting a long barrel.

Pump Shotguns are synonymous for the sound they make when the action is racked back. You see it used in movies all the time.

Side Note: The most awesome shotgun of all time is the Model 1897 Trench Shotgun. Also known as the “War Crime Stick.” It was so deadly in World War Two that Hitler wrote a letter to Washington D.C. calling for banning the shotgun since it caused “unnecessary pain and suffering.”

Imagine that.

I wanted to add that last part. The Trench Shotgun is awesome.

History of Shotguns

Shotguns date back to 16th century England, where they called it the “Haile Shotte Peics.” It was used by aristocrats, one of them being Henry VIII, and from what they called it, I guess they liked it.

We also used it during the revolutionary war, but the term “shotgun” was not used very much. They just called them muskets.

But, they played a medium-sized role in the revolutionary war and civil war, where mounted troops favored the shotgun for its effectiveness in close-quarters battle and the ability to hit a moving target.

Anyhow, the shotgun as we know it today was created by the venerable John Browning. In 1887, Mr. Browning created the lever-action repeater shotgun known as the Model 1887. This changed everything since shotguns were usually break-action (double barrel).

Then, the pump-action shotgun was created. Again, by John Browning.

I think it’s safe to say that although shotguns go back to the day when men wore stockings and breeches, John Browning pioneered the platform and gave us the modern shotgun.

Different Types of Shotguns

Break Action

break action shotgun

Break action, which includes double barrels (both side by side and over and under), are shotguns that are hinged at the breech. This allows the shooter to break open the breech and load two shotshells into the shotgun. Think of breaking the shotgun in half.

The downside is the low ammo capacity.

The upside is reliability.

Most break-action shotguns only house two shotshells at a time, so once those two shotshells have been fired, the shooter has to break the shotgun open again to remove the spent shells and reload two fresh ones.

An example of a break-action shotgun is this Browning Citori 725 Trap Shotgun in an over-and-under configuration.

Lever Action

Sawed off winchester shottie lever action shotgun

Lever action shotguns work similarly to the Henry and Marlin rifles, which use a lever located under the trigger to eject the spent casing and cycle in a new one. But lever-action shotguns do it with shotshells.

You don’t see these too often now, but back in the day, big John Browning was out here building and selling them like hotcakes with the Winchester Model 1887.

They were used by law enforcement and stagecoaches in the Wild West to protect against outlaws and bandits while transporting goods or criminals.

Pump Action

winchester sxp defender profile photo

Pump action shotguns are the ones that are infamous for the sound they make when the handguard is racked back. They can house more shotshells than a break-action and are loaded by manipulating the sliding handguard to chamber a new shotshell and eject the spent cartridge.

The ammo sits in a tubular magazine under the barrel and is loaded by racking the handguard back and feeding shotshells into the port.

The upside to these shotguns is the ability to hold more ammo than break-action shotguns, and in shooting situations, it can be favorable since you can rack the handguard back while still keeping your sights on target.

Think of the Winchester Model 1897 Trench Shotgun, the best shotgun ever created. Also created by the great John Browning.

Semi-Automatic

beretta a400 xtreme plus side view

Semi-Automatic shotguns use similar gas blowback action that pistols and some rifles use, where the gas from the spent round or shell casing is utilized to cycle a new shotshell into the chamber and get rid of the old one. You still have to depress the trigger for each shot.

This relieves the shooter from having to having to rack the handguard back after every shot,

But you still have to rack the handguard back for the first shot, like pulling the charging handle back on an AR-15 or the slide on a pistol.

Think Benelli M1014, which has been in use by the Marine Corps since August 1998. Perfect for engaging multiple targets in a room-clearing situation.

Automatic

Automatic shotguns are exactly as the name suggests. As you hold down the trigger, the shotgun will continuously fire one shot after another until the magazine is empty. No handguards and no racking; just pull the charging handle back and hold back the trigger.

These shotguns are harder to get because they are automatic, but they are not impossible to add to the collection. They are amazing to shoot, but because they are so expensive and scarce, most of us may never get to shoot one.

Do you guys remember FPS Russia? Here’s a video of him shooting the Atchisonn AA-12. 

Roles for Shotguns

There is not much that you can’t do with a shotgun. They are often used as breaching tools in combat scenarios and could serve as a perfect home defense weapon.

Since they excel in close combat, it is best to keep them as such unless you have a hunting shotgun to reach further. They are one of the most versatile weapon platforms on the market.

I suppose concealed carry is one area you can’t use a shotgun. Unless you’re into that stuff, then carry on.

If you get a tax stamp, you could shorten the barrel on your shotgun and have a sawed-off. It recoils harder, though, so be careful.

Rifles

Rifles go back to the days of muskets when it took you almost a minute to reload. That was a long while back, which is a testament to how far rifles have come.

These days, you have rifles with detachable magazines that can hold up to 100 rounds. And they come in all shapes and sizes.

Let’s talk about the main ones.

History of Rifles

As I stated before, the rifle goes back to the days of muskets, which were invented by Marin Le Bourgeoys in 1610 for King Louis XIII.

There’s a long history of rifles; we’ll talk about the ones you’ll see most often these days.

Different Types of Rifles

Bolt Action

cz 457 safety and scope

Bolt Action rifles use a manual action involving a handle on the bolt to remove a spent cartridge and feed a new one, which could either be held in a magazine or have the shooter fill the chamber.

These rifles have been used in combat and hunting, and the bolt action platform is still used in most long-range sniper rifles today.

An example of a bolt action rifle is the Springfield M1903, which was widely used by Snipers in World War Two.

Lever Action

Winchester Model 94 Saddle Ring Carbine (3)

Lever Action rifles work similarly to bolt action rifles but utilize a lever under the trigger that has to be pushed down to cycle the next round and get rid of the old one. These were loaded using a loading gate on the rifle or could be tube fed from the front.

If you’re a fan of John Wayne, you probably remember his famous method of manipulating the lever by spinning the gun around. Long live ‘The Duke.’

Think of the Browning-designed gun that won the west, the Winchester Model 1873.

Semi-Automatic

daniel defense ddm4 v7 review full photo

Semi Automatic rifles use gas blowback after firing a round to cycle out the old round and feed a new one. The rifle will only fire one round per trigger pull and has a detachable magazine to hold extra ammunition.

Unless you live under a box, you know what an AR-15 is. You may even have one in your safe. The AR-15 is a prime example of a semi-automatic rifle, and there are around 10 million of them in the U.S.

But semi-automatic rifles come in many different shapes and forms.

Here is a video from Classic Firearms on the best semi-auto rifles that aren’t AR-15s.

Automatic rifles will be mentioned in the next category.

Roles for Rifles

Rifles have been used anywhere there was a major conflict. From home defense situations, police work, and overseas by our military.

This goes for all of these types of rifles.

If you need a home defense weapon that almost anyone can use, we recommend the AR-15. The recoil is low, the magazine capacity is high, and they can be fitted with thousands of different attachments.

Machine Guns

What is a Machine Gun?

They are probably the coolest firearms on the planet. Period. This also makes them highly illegal (without a tax stamp, anyway) because everything that is fun is either illegal or highly dangerous.

Machine guns are one trigger press away from carving your name into the broadside of a barn. No need to take your finger off the trigger; just hold it back and let the gun run until it runs dry.

Unless you have the correct paperwork, you can’t just pick up a machine gun at your local gun store, unfortunately.

History of Machine Guns

Some people say that the machine gun was invented by Richard Jordan Gatling in 1861 when he created a rotating gun that used a crank and could fire 200 rounds per minute.

Others say that Sir Hiram Maxim invented the machine gun in 1884 when he created the Maxim Gun, which could fire 600 rounds per minute.

I think it’s safe to say that Sir Hiram Maxim was the one who invented the machine gun since the Gatling gun needed to be cranked like an old Ford by the shooter to fire.

Different Types of Machine Guns

For assault rifles, we will be using the M16/M4 assault rifles and comparing them to the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Assault Rifles

Assault rifles work by utilizing the gas from the spent cartridge to chamber out the old shell casing and load a new one, much like a semi-automatic.

While the M16/M4 assault rifles may look like AR-15s, the assault rifle has an auto sear that is pushed down by the bolt carrier group when a new round is chambered, allowing the shooter to keep his finger down on the trigger and shoot multiple rounds.

This is not to be confused with semi-automatic rifles, like the AR-15, where the trigger must be released to reset and be fired again.

Here is the M4/M16 in action.

Light/Medium Machine Guns

Light Machine Guns or Medium Machine Guns, like an M240 used in the military, use a belt that holds 100 rounds. It is loaded by opening the feed tray cover, placing the first round on it, closing the cover, and riding the bolt forward.

These medium machine guns are used for suppressive fire in the military, which keeps the enemy behind cover long enough for riflemen to maneuver.

Here is the M240 medium machine gun in action.

Heavy Machine Guns

Heavy machine guns work similarly to light machine guns but fire a heavier round. Heavy machine guns like the M2 Browning, which has been used in the Armed Forces since 1919, fire a .50 caliber round at 750 to 850 rounds per minute.

No thanks. That’s insane, like most weapons created by John Browning.

Heavy machine guns like the M2 Browning weigh as much as a teenage male, so they are not to be lugged around, and always have to be secured with a tripod on the ground or a stand on a moving vehicle.

Here’s a look at the M2 Browning heavy machine gun.

Roles for Machine Guns

Fun at the range and absolute mayhem on the battlefield.  

FAQs

What are the universal safety rules?

  1. Treat every weapon as if it was loaded.
  2. Never point a weapon at anything you don’t intend to shoot.
  3. Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
  4. Keep your weapon on safe until you are ready to fire.

What are the “conditions of a weapon”?

These are used to know the status of the gun. For example, these are used for rifles:

  1. Condition 4: Chamber empty, no magazine, hammer down, safety on.
  2. Condition 3: Chamber empty, full magazine loaded, hammer down, safety on.
  3. Condition 2: Round in the chamber, full magazine in place, hammer down, safety on.
  4. Condition 1: Round in the camber, full magazine in place, hammer cocked, safety on.

What type of gun is the best for first-time owners?

An AR-9, which is an AR-15 chambered in 9mm, is my choice. Low recoil and is a bunch of fun to learn on.

Conclusion

Did you learn anything new? We hope that we were able to clear the air for you or give you an idea for your next purchase.

Guns are ever-evolving, and it is always interesting to see who is pioneering what in each category; hint, that’s why I started writing about them.

Now that you know the different types of guns, which one is your favorite? Do you like to twirl your lever action around like John Wayne? Or maybe you prefer something with the capabilities of the M2 Browning?

For me, the M1897 Trench Shotgun will always be the best. I mean, imagine owning a gun that was considered a war crime.

Happy shooting!

Written by Brian Zerbian
Brian is a USMC Veteran and avid gun enthusiast from New Jersey who loves to spend his time shooting, writing, listening to classic rock, and learning new things. His goal is to help new gun owners and people who are getting into guns get all the best knowledge in the simplest ways. With no technical jargon and seasoned with fun.

COMMENTS

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Explore more

Brady Kirkpatrick Jan 31 2023 12 min read

Taurus Curve Review: A Solid .380 ACP Handgun

I’ll explain why. Subpar precision? Sure. Reliability? Not good. But, I still feel that this handgun went through some overly harsh roasts and I don’t think it should be regarded as a laughing stock in the CCW community. What Taurus intende...

Brady Kirkpatrick Jan 31 2023 12 min read

Taurus Curve Review: A Solid .380 ACP Handgun

I’ll explain why. Subpar precision? Sure. Reliability? Not good. But, I still feel that this handgun went through some overly harsh roasts and I don’t think it should be regarded as a laughing stock in the CCW community. What Taurus intende...