Follow TV Tropes


Useful Notes / Firearms

Go To

See also: Modern Battlefield Weapons This article describes firearms in a more general fashion, however. For examples of various types of firearm, see Cool Guns and Rare Guns.

It is very important to read up on Gun Safety regardless of whether or not you want anything to do with firearms. Safety is of the utmost importance at all times. Everybody should learn safety.

Gun Accessories can show you some related stuff.


Definitions of commonly misinterpreted words used in this article:

  • 1. A "gun" and a "firearm" are technically two different things, although outside of the military and even in most units in the military, you can almost definitely get away with using the former word to refer to the latter. Both use chemical reactions to propel a projectile through a tube and then to a target. The difference is size. A "gun" is either a direct-fire (meaning that it is not intended to hit the target at a high angle) crew-served weapon that is too large for an individual to operate or a weapon mounted on a ship that launches its projectiles in the described manner. The most common guns in modern military use are tank cannons and autocannons. Guns are ordnance, meaning that they cannot be operated by one person alone, while firearms are small arms, meaning that they can be operated by one person alone.
  • Advertisement:
  • 2. A "clip" is NOT the same as a "magazine." A clip is a device used for loading a magazine, which gets its name because it is basically a small piece of metal that clips a number of cartridges together. A magazine is something that may or may not be detachable and if it is, it may or may not be disposable. It holds a
  • 3. A "bullet" is just the projectile. That thing with a brass case containing the projectile, the propellant, and a primer is called a "cartridge."


Basic principles by which a gun or a firearm operates.

A gun or firearm has three major components that are essential to the basic principles by which every single one of them works. Everything else only affects how those components interact with each other. It needs a barrel, a tube containing the other two components. It needs a propellant, a low-explosive (often referred to as "powder"). It needs a projectile (often referred to as a "bullet"). While the propellant and projectile are in the barrel, with the projectile closer to the opening (the "muzzle") than the propellant, the propellant can be lit in some manner (there are many ways to do this, depending on the action). This causes the propellant to rapidly expand into a gaseous state. Because there is not enough volume available to contain these gases, it pushes the projectile, causing it to move through the barrel and toward the target..


Gunpowder was invented in China. The first weapons to use gunpowder was the fire lance: a bamboo tube that would be lit to shoot out a short jet of flame. It did not have a projectile. The design was refined into two developments: rockets were a refinement in one direction and guns and firearms were a refinement in another.

When guns reached Europe, they were manufactured in many sizes. The smallest early European gun was the Hand Cannon, the first man-portable projectile weapon using gunpowder. It was slower to fire than the longbow and much less accurate than either a longbow or a crossbow, while also having shorter range, though it could penetrate plate armor, while longbows were only able to penetrate mail.

By the 16th Century, the hand cannon was refined into the arquebus (from Dutch hakebusse, meaning "hook gun"). Although most were smaller than the typical hand cannon and therefore less powerful (the term "bulletproof" comes from armor-makers demonstrating that their plate armor would protect a customer by shooting it with an arquebus and using the dent from where the bullet bounced off as the "proof"), they were both lighter and easier to both aim and fire because of the matchlock action.

The next major development in firearm technology was the musket. This was at first basically a longer, heavier, more durable arquebus with a stock. The stock made this weapon easier to aim, though it was still an inaccurate weapon compared to the longbow (in the second half of the 18th Century, there were still proposals from British Army officers to replace the musket and bring back the longbow, which would have been Awesome, but Impractical because of how much training it takes to become proficient: somebody can be trained enough to be an expert with a musket in a couple of weeks, while the adage describing how long it takes to train a similarly-skilled longbowman is "you must start with his grandfather"). During the time of the musket, the matchlock design became obsolete, replaced by the wheel lock, the flintlock, and the cap lock actions.

Another development in technology during the musket's era of dominance was the bayonet. Boar hunters decided that instead of carrying both a firearm and a spear, they could reduce the weight that they carried by making a plug that fits into the muzzle of a firearm and has a spearpoint at the end. This was quickly noticed by militaries, as hunting was a common passtime of the Blue Blood officers who commanded the troops and chose their equipment. It allowed firearms to be the only weapon carried by a unit, something that had never happened before. Before, they needed formations of "pike and shot," containing soldiers with firearms as well as soldiers with pikes (long spears) to protect them from cavalry. As each musket could be converted into a makeshift spear, the pike became obsolete. The plug bayonet was supplanted later on by the ring bayonet, which had, instead of a plug, a ring that fits tightly into the muzzle, so can be fired without causing the weapon to explode due to an obstruction in the only escape for the projectile and the expanding gases. Finally, by the late 18th Century, the socket bayonet had been developed, which alleviates the obvious problems that can come from sticking something down the barrel by creating a socket right at the muzzle (at first, usually at the side, in modern military rifles with bayonets, the bayonet lug is usually at the bottom). This was both sturdier than the plug or ring design and could be more easily attached or removed because it did not depend primarily on friction to be held in place.

Another development in the age of muskets was rifling. A rifled barrel is one that is forged with spiraling grooves going down its length. This makes guns and firearms more accurate (and therefore, longer-ranged) by causing the projectile to spin, making it more stable. However, because a spherical projectile could not be loaded into a rifled barrel anywhere near as fast as a smoothbore barrel (it must be put inside a spherical patch coated in some sort of lubricant in order to slide down the barrel), it was not the primary weapon of most armies until the final days of muzzle-loading weapons, after Claude-Étienne Minié designed a projectile that was just as easy to load in rifles as it was in smoothbore weapons, but was not prohibitively expensive, though specialized soldiers would often carry them, typically as the era's equivalent of a sniper rifle.

The percussion caps that muskets used starting in the early 19th century to ignite the propellant, combined with another contemporary invention, the paper cartridge, paved the way for muzzle-loading weapons to become obsolete. Instead of using loose powder to ignite the propellant like in a flintlock or wheel lock action or a fuse like in a matchlock action, a percussion cap is a piece of metal containing a shock-sensitive explosive such as fulminate of mercury, which explodes when the trigger is pulled and the hammer drops on it, causing the propellant to ignite. A paper cartridge is basically a piece of paper containing both the propellant and the projectile. Initially, they were either ripped open and the propellant poured down the barrel with the projectile following faster than it could without paper cartridge or they were rammed down the barrel as a single unit, but the needle gun changed that. The needle gun was the first breech-loaded weapon, in which the propellant and projectile are not loaded through the muzzle, but through an opening at the other end of the barrel. A paper cartridge with a percussion cap would be loaded into the breech. After the breech was closed and the trigger pulled, a firing pin (the "needle" that this kind of weapon was named after) would strike the percussion cap and ignite the propellant. This greatly increased the rate of fire.

The breech-loading firearm was followed in short order by the invention of the self-contained cartridge. It is essentially the same thing as a paper cartridge with a percussion cap, but it is made of metal instead of plastic, so is therefore more durable. It is what you see coming out of the firearm in the Cartridges in Flight trope.

The self-contained cartridge enabled another development: the repeating firearm. A repeating firearm can fire multiple shots without being reloaded.

Types of firearm:

Two basic types:

  • Longarms are firearms with a long barrel that are meant to be held to the shoulder when aimed and fired.
  • Sidearms are firearms that can be held and fired with one hand. They do not typically have stocks and so are not meant to be fired from the shoulder. Often referred to as pistols or handguns.
    • Revolvers are a type of sidearm that in recent decades has become considered to be not a pistol under US usage of the term (although they are still legally considered pistols under the National Firearms Act, Gun Control Act, and most state or local laws that regulate them). It contains a cylinder that can hold multiple shots before reloading. The cylinder can revolve into place so each chamber containing a round is able to line up with the barrel at some point during the rotation. After it gets fired, another chamber can rotate into place and be fired.

Types of muzzle-loading action:

  • The first muzzle-loading action was just sticking a lit match into a touch hole in the barrel to ignite the propellant. This made it difficult to aim the weapon—since one couldn't look down the barrel while holding the weapon in one hand and the match in the other—and was only used in the earliest weapons, the hand cannons. It also meant that handgunners had nowhere safe to put the burning match while they were reloading, and there was always danger of one accidentally setting his or his neighbors powder off while juggling between the match and the weapon in the middle of fighting.
  • The arquebus appeared during the mid-15th century. The main things distinguishing an arquebus from a hand cannon were a proper wooden stock and a match lock to ignite the powder. The lock was a trigger-activted ignition assembly: a curved lever arm called a "serpentine" with a smoldering slow match clamped on the end provided the ignition. Early serpentines were S-shaped with the lower portion acting as the trigger, while later versions had a separate trigger. Pulling the trigger lowered the end of the burning match into a pan of priming powder, and the resulting fire would travel from the pan through a touch hole into the barrel and ignite the main powder charge. This was a lot more ergonomic than the hand cannon because you could aim by looking down the barrel and steady it with your hands and shoulder. However the burning match was sill a nuisance that glowed and produced smoke, giving away soldiers' positions in the dark, and it could cause an accidental explosion if they weren't careful. The match could be extinguished in bad weather, and unless you kept your match constantly lit your weapon was nothing but (in the other wiki's words) a "very expensive club". It was also uneconomical to keep it ready all the time, since one sentry every night would burn a mile of matchcord per year. At least it was relatively simple and cheap to make.
  • Wheel locks were invented around 1500. It may have been invented by Leonardo da Vinci, who made early drawings of such a mechanism, but it also could have been an unknown German gunsmith. The wheel lock had loose powder held in a pan connected to the hole in the barrel. The loose powder would be lit by a sparks created in the pan by a piece of pyrite (in the jaws of the "dog" or hammer) striking a toothed steel wheel that was spring-loaded to rotate very fast. The wheel was wound for each shot using a spanner that fit a square section of the wheel shaft. This lock did away with the dangerous and cumbersome burning matchcord, and eliminated the telltale glow and smoke: The fact that they could be concealed led to fears that they would be used as assassins' weapons. The wheel lock action was expensive and high-maintenence due to its complexity, so common soldiers continued to be given matchlocks instead. However, the wheel lock was extremely significant in that it allowed for the first practical pistols that could be used on horseback. It was also used on the carbines and long arms of rich people, and especially for fine hunting weapons. This hunting use persisted even after the invention of the flintlock because the sparks were produced directly in the pan instead of having to fall from the frizzen, so that there was less of a delay between the pulling of the trigger and the firing of the bullet ("lock time").
  • Flintlock in its broadest sense refers to a family of lock types in which a piece of flint held in the jaws of the cock arm is struck against a steel or frizzen to produce sparks that fall into the pan and ignite the priming charge. Early versions including the snapchaunce and miquelet. In the French or "true" flintlock developed in the early 17th century, the frizzen is part of the pan cover so that striking the frizzen simultaneously opens the pan. The true flintlock largely replaced all the lock types that came before it because it was simple, cheap, and reliable.
  • The caplock or percussion lock, first invented and patented by the Reverend Alexander Forsyth in 1807, removed the need to pour loose powder into a priming pan. It got rid of flintlock's lock time and telltale smoking pan, as well as the flintlock's tendency to misfire in damp weather. A small brass or copper cap containing a shock-sensitive explosive such as fulminate of mercury was placed over a metal "nipple" at the end of the gun barrel, which contained the tube leading to the main charge inside the barrel. The hammer would strike this percussion cap and the explosion would travel down the tube and ignite the powder charge in the barrel.

Types of breech-loading action:

  • The bolt action was the most common type of breech-loading action in military use up until the 1950s and the second-most common in private hands outside of the United Statesnote , after break-action shotguns. A bolt with a perpendicular handle is used to push the cartridge into the chamber and is then locked into place. While all breech-loading firearms have bolts except for break-action and falling block-action firearms, it is only in this one where the standard manual of arms includes directly operating the bolt.
  • Break-action firearms are non-repeating firearms that have a hinge that allows the weapon to swing open, allowing cartridges to be placed directly into the chamber. They are most often seen in shotguns, though the Great White Hunter's elephant rifle would probably be this as well and there are a few other kinds of break-action rifle. Nearly every breech-loading firearm with multiple barrels is this and the others are all Awesome, but Impractical.
  • Falling block-action firearms have a block keeping the breech closed. It can be opened with a lever and a new cartridge can be placed in the chamber. Almost all are single-shot.
  • The lever action was the first major repeating action. It is the typical cowboy rifle in Western fiction. The early designers included Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson (whose design was a failure due to not using cartridges, so they started another company, Smith & Wesson, which is to this day one of the top manufacturers of revolvers). Their business partner Winchester kept the company that they abandoned, gave it his name (Winchester is still one of the top names in firearms, although the company is now owned by FN), and brought another designer, Benjamin Tyler Henry on board to design the first successful lever-action rifle, the Henry Rifle (along with its competitor, the Spencer Carbine, designed by Christopher Miner Spencer, which was more common in the American Civil War, but saw its market share drop drastically afterward). The Henry Rifle is the design from which almost all lever-actions originate. It uses a lever to operate the bolt and load cartridges from the magazine into the chamber.
  • The pump action (or slide action) is very similar to the lever action in most respects, though the action is operated by the supporting hand instead of the trigger hand. The first pump-action weapon was designed by the aforementioned Christopher Miner Spencer after his lever-action rifle company went bankrupt and was bought by Winchester.
  • The semi-automatic action uses the force of the previous shot to load the next shot into the chamber, usually by either collecting the recoil force with a spring or by collecting some of the gases escaping from the muzzle. The gas-operated action was first envisioned by John Moses Browning, who also designed the best falling block rifle and whose designs all modern lever-action or pump-action firearms trace their heritage to. The recoil-operated design is more common in pistols than in rifles because it is harder to design one that can safely handle the recoil force of rifle ammunition. Almost every single one of these recoil-operated weapons has Browning's designs in its heritage as well. The semi-automatic action allows for one shot to be fired with every trigger pull without having to do anything in between. It is possible to fire a pump-action or lever-action firearm faster with enough practice, but this is Awesome, but Impractical.
    • Semi-automatic weapons (and fully automatic weapons as well) can fire from either a "closed bolt" or an "open bolt." An open bolt is the more mechanically simple of the two; rather than a hammer or a spring loaded striker, the firing pin is permanently fixed to the bolt. Upon releasing the trigger, the sear will release the bolt, which will strip a round from the magazine, chamber it, and strike it with the firing pin. In a closed bolt design, the sear simply releases the hammer or striker onto a round pre-chambered by the bolt motion. Open bolt designs are common for submachine guns and machine guns due to the relative simplicity and the fact that the open chamber dissipates heat and prevents a chambered round from "cooking off." A closed bolt design is more accurate and compact, making it more useful for pistols and rifles. Most jurisdictions that allow civilian ownership of semi-automatic firearms require them to be of a closed-bolt design, since an open-bolt semi-auto can be converted to a fully automatic firearm with very little effort. Fully automatic firearms are mechanically simpler than semi-automatic ones. As a result, it's often legally required that semi-automatic weapons for civilian sale be designed to impair full-auto conversions. Prior to this requirement, it was not unusual for both criminals and ordinary people wanting to have fun "spraying" ammo at targets to carry out such conversions.
  • The fully-automatic action is similar to the semi-automatic action, but the trigger does not have to be pulled multiple times in order to fire multiple shots. This is what a "machine gun" is. This type of action was invented by Hiram S. Maxim (his son, Hiram P. Maxim, invented the sound suppressor). However, some of the most influential ones were designed by John Moses Browning (that guy designed a lot of stuff).
  • The select-fire action allows the user to select between semi-automatic and either fully-automatic or a burst setting (usually three rounds), sometimes all three, depending on the weapon. They became popular starting in the 1950's (though the concept had existed decades earlier, it wasn't until the arrival of assault rifles that it was deemed a military necessity) and are now used as the standard service rifle of almost every military, aside from a few that still use semi-automatic battle rifles.
    • In the United States, select-fire and fully-automatic weapons are so highly regulated as to be practically impossible to buy (and are almost never used in crimes). In many cases, there's a civilian (semiautomatic-only) version of a military weapon. For example, the AR-15 is an extremely popular rifle that's quite similar to the military M-16; it takes the same attachments (and is familiar to a vet who trained with an M-16), but is semi-automatic only, whereas the M-16 is selective-fire.

Example of: