My friend and renaissance man, Lawton Clites (potter, archer, wilderness man, carpenter, hunter, chef, firearms expert) is a helpful soul. He’s frustrated with the general lack of understanding about firearms and has put together this glossary of terms to help set your ill-informed friends straight.
I’ve been seeing a lot of ignorance out there when it comes to firearms terms. I don’t expect everyone to be experts, but we can be educated. Here’s a quick glossary to help avoid making common mistakes.
Bullet: the solid projectile that is fired out of a rifle or pistol.
Cartridge: the shell casing, primer, powder, and bullet packaged together.
Caliber: the specific size of bullet or cartridge.
Rifle: long guns with shoulder stocks and twists carved inside the barrel (called “rifling”) to make the bullet spin when fired.
Pistol: shorter gun with rifling but without a shoulder stock.
Magazine: what holds the cartridges. It may be built-in or detachable.
Clip: an item used to load magazines. Do not call magazines clips.
Automatic: a loose term. Avoid using it.
Fully automatic/full auto: pulling the trigger once and holding it down will cause the gun to continue to fire until the trigger is released or the magazine is empty. These are already essentially banned* for civilian ownership.
Three-round burst: one pull of the trigger fires three rounds. This is essentially banned for civilian firearms.
Semiautomatic/semi auto: one pull of the trigger causes one cartridge to fire and another to load, but the second cartridge will not fire until the trigger is released and pulled again. One trigger pull fires one cartridge. The majority of pistols are semi-automatic.
Single shot: only loading one cartridge at a time. Also a firearm that will only hold one cartridge at a time, and so can only fire one cartridge before needing to be reloaded.
Modern sporting rifle: an industry term for modern semi automatic rifles like civilian AR-15s.
Assault rifle: an intermediate caliber (smaller than most hunting cartridges) rifle capable of fully automatic or three round burst fire. These are essentially banned for civilian ownership. Civilian AR-15s are not assault rifles because they cannot fire fully automatic or three round burst.
Battle rifle: a large caliber (like deer hunting cartridges) rifle capable of fully automatic or three round burst fire. These are already essentially banned for civilian ownership. Civilian AR-15s are not battle rifles because they fire too small of a cartridge and because they are incapable of fully automatic or three-round burst fire.
Assault weapon: a recently invented term to refer to certain semiautomatic firearms with certain collections of features (accepting detachable magazines that hold more than 10 rounds and/or that had various cosmetic features). The term only really has meaning in reference to the 1994-2004 Assault Weapons Ban and the specific firearms banned by that law, but since swapping out one external feature like a grip or muzzle device could change the same firearm from being an “assault weapon” to not being an assault weapon, it’s not a great term.
*Civilians in certain jurisdictions can own some antique fully automatic firearms manufactured and/or imported before 1986, but only after paying a special fee, waiting about 6 months, and getting special approval/permission from the ATF. Such firearms are VERY expensive, and not available to most firearms owners.
BTW: AR does not stand for Assault rifle. It’s a reference to the manufacturer: Armalite.