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What is the difference between a gun and a firearm?

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When it comes to talking about firearms, few people understand exactly what are discussed, since not everybody is familiar with all the terminology that are used to describe the different types of firearms, the working of each as well as laws regulating the use of the different kinds of firearms.

Some of the terms may be completely wrongly used and such misused terms can be very harmful to the general understanding and responsible use or handling of firearms.

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Such terms aren’t just straightforward inaccurate; their frequent use may also negatively affect the public perception of firearms.

Many members of the general public still struggle with basic terminology, such as the difference between a gun and a firearm.

This article will shed some light on different definitions of firearms, other firearm terminology as well as the classification of firearms.

Definition of a firearm

According to Wikipedia the term “firearm” can include any weapon that will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive, or the frame or receiver of any such weapon, any firearm muffler or firearm silencer or any destructive device.

A firearm can include any type of gun designed to be readily carried and used by an individual. The term is legally defined further in different countries, like in South Africa, where before 2000, there was no statutory definition of a firearm.

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This lack of a proper definition was solved by the new Section 1 to the Firearms Control Act, Act 60 of 2000, in which a broad definition was adopted to include any device that can propel a bullet or projectile through a barrel or cylinder by means of burning propellant, at a muzzle energy exceeding 8 joules (6 ft-lbs); anything with the capacity to discharge rim-fire, centre-fire or pin-fire ammunition; any device that can be readily altered to be any of the above-listed firearms; any device designed to discharge any projectile of at least .22 caliber at a muzzle energy of more than 8 joules (6 ft-lbs), by means of compressed gas; or any barrel, frame, or receiver of a device mentioned above.

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Early history of firearms

The invention and development of firearms started in Ancient China with the discovery of gunpowder. The first firearms originated there in the 10th century, when bamboo tubes were filled with gunpowder and pellet projectiles were mounted on spears to make a portable fire lance that could be operated by a single person.

In the 13th century, fire lance barrels were replaced with metal tubes and transformed into the metal-barrelled hand cannon, technology which spread throughout Eurasia during the next century. Older firearms typically used black powder as a propellant, but modern firearms use smokeless powder or other propellants.

The use of rifles started in the mid-15th century and used elongated bullets. They were slow and difficult to load and the smoke from the black powder used in bullets could obstruct users’ sight, so they were mainly used in hunting and by sharpshooters.

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Among the world’s arms manufacturers, the top firearms manufacturers are Browning, Remington, Colt, Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Savage, Mossberg (USA), Heckler & Koch, SIG Sauer, Walther (Germany), ČZUB (Czech Republic), Glock, Steyr-Mannlicher (Austria), FN Herstal (Belgium), Beretta (Italy), Norinco (China), Tula Arms and Kalashnikov (Russia), while former top producers included Mauser, Springfield Armory, and Rock Island Armory under Armscor (Philippines).

Classification of firearms

Modern firearms are usually described by their caliber or bore diameter. For pistols and rifles this is given in millimetres or inches (e.g. 7.62mm or .308 in.), or in the case of shotguns by their gauge (e.g. 12 ga. and 20 ga.).

Firearms can also be described by the type of action employed, like a muzzleloader, breechloader, lever, bolt, pump, revolver, semi-automatic, fully automatic, firearm, together with the usual means of deportment like hand-held or mechanical mounting.

Further classification may make reference to the type of barrel used, like rifled, to the barrel length like 24 inches, to the firing mechanism, like matchlock, wheellock, flintlock, or percussion lock, to the design’s primary intended use, for example a hunting rifle, or to the frequently accepted name for a particular type, like a Gatling gun.

In the military, firearms are categorised into “heavy” and “light” weapons regarding their movability by foot soldiers. Light firearms are those that can be readily carried by individual infantrymen, although it might still require more than one individual to achieve optimal operational capacity. Heavy firearms are those that are too large and heavy to be transported on foot, or too unstable against recoil, hence requiring the support of a weapons platform to be tactically useful.

The difference between a firearm and a gun

This discussion can be summed as follows: All guns are firearms, but not all firearms are guns. With firearms already defined in the beginning of this article, the next question that arises is: What classifies a weapon as a gun?

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If the term firearm includes any weapon designed to or can readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive, the difference between a firearm and a gun is that a gun is a very portable, short firearm, for hand use, which fires bullets or projectiles, such as a handgun, revolver, pistol or derringer.

Although the term “firearm” is used as synonym for the term “gun,” only those high-muzzle velocity firearms which need a crew to handle such as field guns, tank guns, and artillery guns like cannons and howitzers are referred to as guns. Guns are artillery weapons that may be portable or mounted.

There are several types of guns: machine guns, hunting guns, and guns for training and entertainment.

Small and handheld firearms are not called guns by specialists since they are intended for use by a single individual. Such firearms are called pistols which are handguns with a chamber that is integrated into the barrel, carbines which are long arms that are shorter than a rifle, and rifles.

Rifles are also breech-loaded weapons that can be fired from the shoulder. They were first designed as single-shot firearms but have evolved into the modern assault rifles that can fire several rounds.

Different types of firearms

The main differences between types of firearms like rifles, shotguns, and handguns are their barrels, their intended targets, and the type of ammunition used.

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A rifle is a firearm that has a long barrel with rifling and thick walls to withstand high pressures. Its Rifling puts a spiral spin on the bullet when it is fired from a rifle, which increases the accuracy and distance. The bore of a rifle barrel is made for only one specific caliber of ammunition. Rifles are usually used for firing at stationary targets.


A shotgun is a firearm that has a long barrel and it usually has a smooth bore to reduce friction. The barrel’s walls are thinner than that of a rifle, due to reduced pressures. If a shotgun is designed to fire slugs, it might have a rifled barrel. The bore of a shotgun barrel is only made for one specific gauge of ammunition and shotguns are mainly used for shooting at moving targets in the air.


A handgun is a firearm that has a short barrel with rifling and thick walls to withstand high pressures. Like with a rifle, rifling in a handgun puts a spiral spin on a bullet when fired, increasing accuracy and distance. The bore of a handgun barrel is usually made for only one specific caliber of ammunition. Handguns are typically used for firing at stationary targets.

Because this type of firearm has a short barrel, extra care must be taken to control the muzzle of a handgun.


A revolver is a short or hand-held firearm with a revolving cylinder with typically five to nine chambers, which has to be manually loaded with cartridges. As the cylinder rotates into position, the trigger can be pulled, with will release the hammer that fires the cartridge. Expended cartridge cases remain in the cylinder until they are manually unloaded.

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Revolvers are usually repeating firearms and according to the system of operation of the trigger tail, revolvers can be of double or single action. Double action is when the trigger also cocks the hammer and single action is when the hammer is cocked manually.


A pistol is a short or hand-held firearm that is designed for semi-automatic operation. The pistol’s chamber is part of the barrel and cartridges are usually loaded into a magazine, which is then inserted into the grip. The action of the pistol feeds the next cartridge and expels the spent round.

A pistol’s action can be single shot, repeating, semi-automatic or automatic.


A carbine is a shoulder-fired long gun, with a series of spiral grooves cut inside the barrel (called rifling) which imparts spin to the projectile. Some rifles have a detachable magazine like the pistols mentioned above, while others have integral magazines. A carbine resembles a rifle but has a shorter barrel.

A carbine can have single-shot, repeating, semi-automatic or fully automatic action.

Assault rifle

An assault rifle can be considered as a subcategory of rifles and represent any of various intermediate-range, magazine-fed military rifles (such as the AK-47 or M16) that can be set for automatic or semiautomatic fire. They can have semi-automatic or fully automatic action.

Sub-machine gun

A sub-machine gun is a hand-held, lightweight short barrelled machine gun using relatively low-energy handgun-type cartridges and fired from the hand, hip or shoulder. It can have semi-automatic or fully automatic action. Where the firing system is automatic, the firearm would be classified as an automatic pistol or automatic sub-machine gun.

Machine gun

A machine gun is a firearm which is capable of fully automatic firing, that is firing more than one shot without manual reloading by a single function of the trigger and which fires rifle ammunition. When it has to be crew-operated it is known as a heavy machine gun, but some forms may be fired by single individuals and is then known as a light machine gun. Although some use magazines, most machine guns have their ammunition fed by belts. They can have semi-automatic or fully automatic action.

Firearm terminology, some of which are commonly misused

Misused firearm terms are often harmful apart from being just inaccurate and frequent wrong use can negatively affect the public’s perception of firearms. Anti-gun groups, politicians and biased members of the media may use such terms incorrectly, sometimes due to lack of knowledge but on occasion also with malicious intent.

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It is therefore important for gun owners to know and accurately apply firearms terminology so that aspiring shooters, genuine journalists or the public at-large receive reliable information.

The following is a list of some of the most commonly used, misused or confused firearm terms.


Caliber is used to describe the size of a rifle or handgun bore and the size of cartridges designed for different bores. It is the diameter of the bore of a rifle or handgun as measured from land to opposite land on rifled barrels and the designation for the size of ammunition for different bores.

Caliber usually is expressed in hundredths of an inch, thousandths of an inch, or millimetres. For example, a .270-caliber rifle bore measures 270/1000ths of an inch in diameter between the lands and has a larger bore diameter than a .223-caliber rifle.

There is, however, no standard established for designating caliber. In some cases, the caliber is given as the diameter of the bullet, which is the distance between the grooves.

Caliber designations sometimes have a second number that is irrelevant to the diameter. For example, the popular .30-30 is a .30-caliber cartridge, but the second number is a relic from the days when the cartridge took 30 grains of powder. The “06” in .30-06 refers to the year 1906, the year when it became the official ammunition of the U.S. military.

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Every rifle or handgun is designed for a specific cartridge; hence the ammunition must match the barrel stamp on the firearm. Having the same bore size does not mean different cartridges are interchangeable. For example, there are several .30-caliber firearms that use the same bullet size but are designed for different cartridges (the .30-30, .30-06, .308, and the .300 Savage).


Rifling describes the spiral grooves that are cut into the bore of a firearm barrel together with the lands – the ridges of metal between the grooves. The rifling makes a bullet spin in flight, increasing its accuracy and distance.

The bore of a rifle or handgun is grooved, which puts a spiral spin on the bullet for greater accuracy. The bore of the shotgun barrel is smooth because rifling would spread the shot pattern too soon.


This describes the spiral cuts in a rifled bore.


The ridges of metal between the grooves in a rifled bore is called the lands.


An automatic gun is one that continuously fires bullets as long as the trigger is pressed or held down and there is still ammunition in the magazine. It is often known as a “machine gun.”


Ballistics is the science and study of cartridge discharge, and the launch, flight, behaviour and effects of projectiles, in this case bullets. Ballistics experts can determine where a bullet was fired, where it went, and what it did.


A cartridge is a unit of ammunition, made up of a cartridge case, primer, powder, and bullet. It can also be called a round or load, but sometimes incorrectly called a bullet.

Cartridge case

The cartridge case is the container for all the other components that comprise a cartridge.


A blank is a round of ammunition that is loaded with black powder but no bullet. It is commonly used in film, TV, theatre, military exercises and for starting races.

Bolt action

A bolt action rifle is one that fires one round at a time. Once a round is fired, the user must manually pull back a metal, cylindrical mechanism, called the bolt, to unload the empty shell and load another round into the chamber.


What is the legal definition of firearms?

A firearm is any type of gun designed to be readily carried and used by an individual. The term is legally defined further in different countries. In South Africa it is described in Section 1 to the Firearms Control Act, Act 60 of 2000.

Is a rifle and a gun the same thing?

Although the term “firearm” is used as synonym for the term “gun,” only those high-muzzle velocity firearms which need a crew to handle such as field guns, tank guns, and artillery guns like cannons and howitzers are referred to as guns. The difference between guns and rifles is that guns are made up of a tubed body and fire on the target with the help of pneumatic force, while rifles are made up of helical loops inside, which are responsible for the stable release of the bullet into the target.

Are air guns considered firearms?

Airguns still count as firearms if used in a crime and can’t be fired in public areas. Airguns may be carried on one’s person concealed or openly. It is an offense to shoot animals and human beings, except criminals and animals which are attacking you.

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