The Reporter’s Guide To Firearms
(NOTE: sadly, this article is what we journalists call “an evergreen” meaning it’s written once and then re-used many times.)
UPDATE: As of Sunday, October 1, 2017, I have to retract the statement about no shooter ever using a fully automatic weapon in a mass shooting. The Las Vegas shooter did NOT have a fully-automatic weapon but instead used an adaptation called a “bump fire stock” that permits the semi-automatic rifle it’s mounted on to fire very rapidly — almost as rapidly as a fully automatic weapon. So, for all practical purposes, a “bump fire” is an (almost) automatic weapon that anyone can buy for a few hundred dollars. Disregard my older comments below about fully-automatic weapons. We live in a new time now. Get used to it.
This is not an attempt to take sides in a gun debate. But it does the discussion no good to use incorrect, misleading, often inflammatory terminology in your reporting. If nothing else, it focuses readers on your ignorance when they should be focusing on your story.
So here’s a short, handy primer:
The notion of mass shooters using automatic assault rifles is a myth. Let’s get our terminology straight. More on assault rifles to come. First let’s look at the weapons themselves:
WEAPONS: Guns that are privately owned are divided into long guns and short guns. Long guns are shotguns or rifles. Short guns are handguns and are either revolvers or semi-automatics.
Automatic versus semi-automatic weapons. An automatic weapon is one that, when you pull the trigger, fires and keeps on firing until you let go of the trigger or the ammunition supply runs out. Think of a machinegun you saw in a war movie. Almost no one in civilian life has access to automatic weapons. (It’s possible but requires special licensing.
To my knowledge, there has never been an instance in recent memory of a mass shooting in the U.S. with an automatic weapon.)
A semi-automatic weapon (rifle, shotgun or handgun) is one that must be cocked first to fire the first shot but which thereafter loads in the next round from a magazine and cocks itself again. It’s not fully automatic; you still have to pull the trigger for each shot. That’s why we call it a semi-automatic.
A shotgun may fire various sorts of shot (lots of little pellets) or a big slug. At close range it’s about the worst thing to be shot with, regardless of the load in it. At longer ranges it quickly becomes useless.
A rifle is much more powerful (see below about ammunition) than a handgun because it uses much more propellant from a much larger cartridge. It’s the choice for long range and lethality.
Short guns are handguns and are either revolvers or semi-automatics.
A revolver holds, typically, five to six rounds in a revolving cylinder. They’re what Wyatt Earp used and they’re still popular for their high reliability. Reliable, yes. Lots of shots, no.
Semi-automatic handguns are often called ‘pistols’ though the term may be used for revolvers too. They have a magazine (not a ‘clip’) that holds the ammunition and feeds a fresh cartridge up into the chamber each time the previous round is fired. They shoot each time the owner pulls the trigger. They’re popular mostly for ease of reloading (you just slide in a fresh magazine when the old one runs out of cartridges) and because they typically hold more ammunition than do revolvers. Reliable? Not so much; unless carefully maintained they can jam. Lots of shots, yes.
Mixed-Ammunition Weapons: Some rifles shoot handgun ammunition (the popular .22-caliber, for example, is used in both handguns and rifles. The iconic Thompson Submachine gun shoots .45-caliber pistol ammunition.) A subset of rifle called a carbine is a shorter-barrel rifle that is sometimes designed to shoot pistol ammunition.
MAGAZINES versus CLIPS: This is one of the most-abused terms. I saw a Connecticut highway patrol spokesman, in a television interview, refer to “thirty-round clips” and he should know better. No one in the history of mankind has used a thirty-round clip.
A clip: is a metal strip that holds some rounds of ammunition ready to load into a rifle (or, sometimes, into a magazine). Once the bullets are loaded, the clip is pulled out and discarded. It’s not a magazine. Its simply a faster way to reload than pulling the cartridges out of the box, one by one.
A magazine is an enclosed box that contains both the cartridges and also a spring. It actively pushes up on the cartridges so that the next one in line goes into the gun’s firing chamber when it’s time. Most semi-automatic weapons today use magazines, not clips. A magazine may hold anything from five to a hundred cartridges, depending upon the gun design.
Any time you refer to a ”clip”, it’s a good bet that you’re wrong.
AMMUNITION: Caliber, bullets, cartridges, more:
Cartridges: A cartridge is a brass casing that holds the propellant, the primer, and the bullet. When you pull the trigger a small pin or hammer hits the rear of the cartridge where the primer is. The primer is sensitive to shock and makes a small fire. This sets off the gunpowder in the cartridge. The expanding gas forces the bullet out of the cartridge and down the gun barrel. The barrel has spiral grooves in it called “rifling” (confusing, no?) that imparts a spin to the bullet, increasing range and accuracy.
Only the bullet goes down the barrel. The brass cartridge case is then ejected (semi-automatics) to one side or the shooter has to remove it (revolvers) to load in fresh ammunition.
Shells: Though this terms is often used generically, technically a “shell” is the brass-and-plastic case that goes into a shotgun. It’s got a primer, gunpowder, and lots of little balls. Shotguns are usually smooth-bore (no rifling).
Rifle versus Revolver versus Pistol Cartridges:
Pistol cartridges tend to be short — an inch or so — since they have to fit into a magazine that slides up into the handgrip of the pistol.
Because a revolver has its cartridges in the revolving chamber in front of the trigger, revolver cartridges can be longer. More length equals more powder, more powder equals more velocity to the bullet.
Rifles typically use longer cartridges and those are usually bottle-shaped to hold even more powder. Rifles offer long range, greater penetrating power to go through obstacles, and greater lethality.
Magnum rounds are just longer cartridges with more powder, designed for certain handguns. It’s a way to get some of the rifle-cartridge advantages in a relatively small handgun cartridge.
Cartridges and Fornsics: The act of “chambering” the cartridge inside the gun to make it ready to shoot can scratch small marks on the soft brass casing. The rifling and accumulated wear and tear on the interior of the barrel can mark up a passing bullet. These two items — the cartridge casing and the bullet — can be examined, microscopically, to determine which gun they came out of. Sometimes. That’s why the mafia killers drop the gun and only take home the canoles.
Caliber: Refers to the diameter of the bullet in inches. Thus a .25-caliber would be a bullet one-quarter-inch in diameter. A .45-caliber is 45/100ths of an inch in diameter. The smallest shotgun is actually called a .410 and is a caliber measurement. Most other shotguns are the larger 12-gauge, with some other types used for specific sorts of game, and “gauge” is a complex formula.
Dum-Dum Bullets: Which I’ve sometimes seen referred to as “military” ammunition are anything but. These are bullets — technically called hollow-points — designed to expand to maybe one-and-a-half times their original diameter when they hit something. They often cause more severe wounds and they tend to stay inside the body rather than passing on through and hitting someone else in the background. Expanding bullets are banned by Geneva Convention rules so armies generally don’t use them. But many police forces do because they regard them as safer for bystanders.
ASSAULT RIFLES: Simply put, almost no one owns an assault rifle (see fully automatic, above). It’s a term first used in World War One for a fully-automatic rifle such as the Thompson sub-machinegun or the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). It’s a portable machinegun. An M-16 or an AK-47 is an assault rifle, capable of firing single-shot or full-automatic.
But almost all civilian rifles are semi-automatic. Some are designed to look like military rifles and shoot anything from the 7.62mm (.30-caliber) round used by the NATO armies to as small as the .22-calibers used for target practice. But the look doesn’t make them assault rifles. The caliber of ammunition used doesn’t make them assault rifles. Frankly, nothing about them makes them assault rifles.