Folks who have been around long enough will recognize this as a repost, but an awful lot of people have joined up since this was originally posted in July of 2007 (yes, there WAS a DailyKos before ya'll got here), and with the heated-up debate over firearms it seems a good time to again try to interject a little factual information. This Diary is not going to change anybody's opinion, and doesn't try to, but we style ourselves a "Reality-based" Community here so knowing (something of) what you're talking (or arguing) about ain't a bad starting point. If you are relatively new around here and think you're really creative feel free to take a shot at insulting me somehow better than was done the first time I Posted this.
First off, let me clarify that I use "ignorance" in its literal sense, as in "lack of knowledge" rather than stupidity. Since the day I joined here I have been struck time and again by just how little most Kossacks seem to know about guns, although practically all have definite opinions. Somebody (I thought it was either MeteorBlades or FleetAdmiralJ, but apparently not) ran a poll a couple months ago with well over 1,000 participants, of whom something like 73% had never owned a firearm. Lack of knowledge explained.
I will not seek to change any opinions in this Diary, nor offer any. I will limit the Diary to factual information only, though I'm sure a variety of opinion will appear in the Comments.
I am qualified on this subject as follows: I owned guns continuously from the time I was 8 until I was past 50 , got training from my Father, the Boy Scouts, Army Basic Training, the Unit Armorer's Course at Fort Hood, and the Army Sniper School at Fort Benning. I have fired something well over a million rounds, and as many as 10,000 in a day.
The first thing to understand about guns is that almost NO categorical statements are true; there is an exception to EVERYTHING. If I chased every exception down every rabbit hole this Diary would take a year. I'll be happy to explain any in the Comments (or another Kossack will, none of this is secret). I am not including the plethora of links some prefer, as this is not intended to be a graduate course in the theory and practice of firearms design and use. For the sake of relative brevity I will confine this to the period encompassing American history; extensive discussion of matchlocks and wheellocks would add nothing.
At the time of the Revolution the state-of-the-art in firearms was the flintlock, made up of three parts, the lock, the stock and the barrel (yes, that's where that's from). The stock is self-explanatory, the wood part you hold onto. The barrel was either rifled (to spin the ball for stability) or smooth-bore (muskets). The lock consisted of the hammer, with a clamp to hold a chunk of flint, the frizzen and pan, where a small amount of fine-ground black powder was loaded (primed), and the trigger. Almost
Almost* all flintlocks were loaded by pouring a measured (or guesstimated) amount of powder down the barrel from the muzzle (the front, where the bullet comes out), then pushing a round lead ball (usually "patched", or wrapped in cloth or paper to form a tight seal between the ball and barrel) down the barrel firmly against the powder charge with a ramrod. Then the pan was primed with fine powder, the hammer was pulled back (cocked) and the weapon was ready to fire. When the trigger was pulled the hammer would strike its flint against the frizzen, throwing sparks into the fine powder in the pan, igniting it. Usually this sent a flame through the "touch-hole" into the chamber to ignite the main charge (when it failed to do so it was a "flash in the pan"). The rapidly expanding gas then pushed the ball down and out of the barrel, with varying degrees of accuracy. This was the weapon of the American Revolution, and the early westward expansion into western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc.
The next step in the evolution of firearms was the caplock, which became generally available (though not entirely supplanting the flintlock) in the middle of the 19th Century. Still a muzzle loader, the caplock replaced the pan and frizzen with a percussion cap filled with a shock-sensitive chemical on a nipple that screws into the touchhole,and eliminated the flint-holding clamp from the hammer. The caplock was considerably more reliable, particularly in damp or wet conditions, and was slightly faster to load and fire. This period also saw the development of the "conical" bullet, the basic shape still in use today. By molding the bullet with a hollow base the need for patching was largely eliminated, further improving rates of fire. The Civil War was largely fought with caplocks, although "cartridge" firearms were successfully used by units that could get them.
The development of the metallic cartridge represented a quantum shift in firearms, and made posssible much higher rates of fire and much improved accuracy (mainly due to consistency; accuracy depends on every load having exactly the same amount of powder). The metallic cartridge combined all the consumable elements (powder, projectile and primer) into a single, standard unit, and allowed the development of "repeating arms" that held multiple cartridges in a "magazine". Early cartridges were loaded with the same black powder used in flintlocks and caplocks. Late in the 19th Century "smokeless "powder was developed. Enough history.
Modern firearms fall into three main categories, and a hybrid; handguns (pistols and revolvers*), shotguns and rifles, and "submachine guns", which we'll deal with shortly.
Handguns are characterized by their short barrels and lack of a shoulder stock (illegal under Federal Law). While there are single-shot handguns and bolt action handguns, these are mainly specialized hunting weapons; the vast majority are either revolvers or pistols (semi-automatic).
I suspect revolvers need little introduction to most people; they have changed little since the 1880's and figure prominently in every Western movie ever made. Semi-automatics provide a good place to clear up a point of considerable confusion for non-gun folks.
Firearms that load themselves after being fired were originally developed just before the turn of the 20th Century, and were originally known as "self-loading", in that no action was required by the shooter to eject the spent round, load another into the chamber and cock the weapon (this is accomplished by using either the energy of recoil or by tapping off a small amount of gas from the combustion of the powder charge). Any firearm, handgun, shotgun or rifle, that "automatically" accomplishes this, but requires a separate pull of the trigger to fire each round, is properly termed a "semi-automatic"; unfortunately, this is frequently shortened to "automatic", which causes confusion with "fully-automatic" (fullauto) weapons, or machine guns, which continue to fire as long as the trigger is held back (until the ammunition runs out). This is a VERY important functional and legal distinction. While fully-automatic weapons CAN legally be owned by an American citizen they are comparatively very rare, require stringent background checks, are VERY expensive and are almost never used criminally.
Shotguns are "long guns" (having a shoulder stock) with (usually*) a smooth bore barrel (having no rifling) designed to shoot "shot" cartidges containing varying numbers of individual round "shot", ranging from very small intended for shooting clay pigeons to "buckshot" for use on large game (deer, black bear, etc.). Shotguns may be "single barrel" or single shot, double-barrel (either side-by-side or over/under), bolt action (largely obsolete but once fairly popular), pump action or semi-automatic. A very few models have been made that were fully-automatic but they are extremely rare; you'll likely never see or hear of one.
While handguns and rifles are designated in size by "caliber", or the diameter of the bore, shotguns (except for the .410) are classified by "gauge", designated by the number of round lead balls of bore diameter it takes to make a pound. Modern shotguns range from the 28 gauge (what Cheney shoots lawyers with) through the 20, the 16 (largely obsolete), the 12 and the 10 (mostly used for waterfowl and turkey hunting).
Rifles are characterized by the rifling in the bore that gives them their name, grooves cut lengthwise the length of the inside of the barrel that impart spin to the single projectile they fire, which tends to stabilize it. Rifles are available in single-shot (either beginner rifles, usually chambered for the ubiquitous .22 rimfire, or specialized hunting rifles), double-barrel (almost exclusively truly big-game rifles, for hunting buffalo, elephant and the like and frequently priced like a house), bolt action, lever action (like the classic Winchester in every Western movie), pump action and semi-automatic, and are chambered for an enormous variety of calibers from tiny .17 to the .50 BMG round used by U.S. Army 50-cal heavy machine guns. Caliber designations are an esoteric subject that could easily consume an entire Diary by itself.
"Assault Rifles" are a military weapon characterized by being "selective fire" (capable of both semi-automatic and fully-automatic operation), usually a less-powerful cartridge than a "battle rifle" (the American M-14, for example), a shorter barrel and, sometimes, a folding stock. Legally an assault rifle is regulated like any other fully-automatic weapon, which means they are rare. The much-debated "Assault Weapons Ban" prohibited weapons that look like Assault Rifles (and submachineguns, but I'm getting there) but were functionally no different from any semi-automatic rifle.
Submachine guns are fully-automatic weapons that (generally) have a shoulder stock (frequently collapsible), are smaller than Assault Rifles and fire pistol cartridges. The American Thompson, the WWII German Schmeisser
, and the Israeli Uzi are well-known submachine guns. In the United States, these are regulated like all fully-automatic weapons, but the AWB also banned firearms that looked
like SMGs but were functionally semi-automatic pistols.
With any short-and-dirty treatment of a complicated subject there will no doubt be numerous objections about omissions and over-simplifications, and I expect this Diary to be no different, but my intent is merely to offer a basic familiarization for folks who have spent their lives seeing guns on TV, in movies and on the evening news, and nowhere else. I accept responsibility for the inevitable flaws in this treatment, and will do my best to clarify any confusion I have engendered.