Reader Philip M. Greeley writes:

So guns are scary. They’re evil. They’re dangerous. At least, that’s what you think, what your friends think, and it’s what those you read, watch, and listen to think. But fear is a human reaction, and you have control over your fear. And evil is a potential of humans only, not of objects; this isn’t Dungeons and Dragons. As for their danger, guns are dangerous only under certain circumstances. And in about all cases, a gun is only dangerous when it’s pointed at someone and the trigger is pulled.

What is scary is ignorance, especially when ignorant people make decisions on the basis of their ignorance. It’s even scarier, when their decisions affect others besides themselves. And its especially scary, when they are proud of their ignorance and are willing to foist their decisions on others, ignorant and educated alike.

How do you get control over your fear? It begins by dispelling ignorance. That starts with acknowledging that guns are objects, capable of no independent thought, feeling, motivation, agency, or action. They require human hands, and human intentions, to wield.

Those human hands and intentions are of utmost importance when you handle a gun, as is the attention you pay when you do. You pay attention to the possibility that the gun is loaded; so you treat it like it is. You pay attention to the fact that the gun only fires when the trigger is pulled; so you keep your fingers off it until you are ready. You recognize that a bullet fired from a gun has destructive power; so you only point it at things you are willing to damage, and you’re aware of what’s beyond it, in case you miss.

And what happens when you pull that trigger? It fires one bullet. When a single bullet is fired for each pull of the trigger, this is known as a semi-automatic action. Most guns fire only a single bullet for each trigger pull; some of them reset to fire again on the action of the fired bullet — semi-automatic — and some require manual activation on the part of the shooter to reset.

When more than one bullet is fired with one pull of the trigger, this is known as automatic fire. Guns that do this are known as automatic weapons, select-fire weapons, or machine guns. They’re typically owned only by police and the military.

No matter what you may have read, machine guns were used in none of the recent shootings in the U.S. The AR-15 is not an automatic weapon; it is semi-automatic only. In the U.S., it’s difficult and very expensive to obtain an automatic weapon; the government has made it so. Most people are content to use semi-automatic and other types of weapons, which are more than sufficient for most cases of hunting, target-shooting, sport, and self-defense.

The AR-15 is the most commonly owned rifle in the U.S., but it’s not a military weapon. The military uses the M-4 carbine, which is a select-fire (automatic) rifle. Although they look similar, the two guns are distinctly different in how they fire and in their availability to the general populace.

When a politician, journalist, or someone else conflates or confuses the two kinds of guns, don’t be deceived. They are either ignorant or they are willfully misrepresenting the truth in order to deceive and scare you for their own ends.

A gun is loaded with cartridges or rounds, of which the bullet is only a part. Bullets are no more deadly than a small stone when they are all by themselves. The bullet is seated in a cartridge case or shell, which is filled with a powder (gunpowder) that burns very rapidly. When the trigger is pulled, the powder doesn’t explode…the rapid burning is known as deflagration, and it’s set off by the final piece of a cartridge, the primer.

A round must be seated in the chamber at the end of the barrel for the gun to be fired. When you pull the trigger, you engage a mechanism that uses mechanical energy to strike the primer with a firing pin (see animation at top). The primer’s chemical compounds then ignites, in turn setting off the rapid burning of the powder charge. The hot, rapidly expanding gases are what drives the bullet out of the casing, down the barrel, and out of the gun.

Rounds in a semi-automatic weapon are fed into the chamber from a magazine. This is the box-like affair that you see at the bottom of an AR-15, in front of the trigger. In semi-automatic handguns, it’s typically seated in the pistol grip (below).

A magazine is not a “clip”; very few firearms are loaded using clip any more. The World War II-era rifle known as the M1 Garand was loaded with what is known as an “en bloc” clip. “Stripper” clips are often used to load magazines, which are then loaded into a gun. It is a safe bet that news articles and politicians that talk about “clips”, especially in regards to the AR-15, are doing so out of…you guessed it…ignorance.

There are many different types of cartridges, and even more varieties of bullets. Though they’re frequently called “high power” weapons, the AR-15 typically fires a small round known as the 5.56mm or .223 Remington. These bullets are so small, it isn’t legal to hunt deer with them in some states.

There is much more that can be said about guns, whether we’re talking about rifles, pistols, or shotguns. Indeed, whole libraries worth of books have been written about all aspects of them. Likely, a similar amount has been written out of fear and ignorance of them. You should now be a little more comfortable with learning more about them, and better able to assess the knowledge, experience, and perhaps motivation, of those who write and talk about guns. Good luck, and enjoy.

27 Responses to A Primer on Guns (for Those Who Are Afraid of Them)

  1. Nicely done.

    Unfortunately, very few people who could benefit from this, will likely come across it. Fewer will bother to read it fully.

  2. Oh great, an article suggesting people go out and bruise their shoulder and get a case of PTSD!

    Nah, good job. However as John L points out, I doubt the target demographic will see it.

  3. No lube, no clean? What am I supposed to do weekend nights? Watch network TV? This strikes me as a ‘bug’, not a ‘feature’.

    • “No lube, no clean? What am I supposed to do weekend nights?”

      Find a romantic partner and a different kind of lube?

      • The only thing you will want to do weekend nights is sleep, since your ‘romantic partner’ will be keeping you exhausted with a never-ending parade of chores…

        🙂

  4. “which are more than sufficient for […] self-defense.”

    Don’t spread this kind of lie Greeley. When the government tries 9066 again you want a full-auto with AP round aimed at the door.

    When rioters break down the front door of your shop to take everything but the father’s day cards and straight hair shampoo nothing will scatter them quicker than full auto. Koreatown proved that.

    Plus when some big new innovation comes out you can be absolute sure congress is for sure going to claim our existing guns are “more than sufficient” to try to ban it (The stocks of M4s won’t be “more than sufficient” for the military though of course).

    To make amends for your ignorance you must call your congressman and senators tomorrow and demand they introduce a bill to repeal the NFA.

    • I am agreeing with you so hard.

      These pro-gun primers, 101s, introductions, etc. are everywhere, and they are all getting so MUCH so WRONG.
      Three points, among many that could be made:

      (A) CHECK YOUR TONE. Laypersons making technical mistakes about gun terminology does not show such profound ignorance that the speaker’s views should be automatically disregarded. People know how guns work for functional purposes: you load the thing, ready it, point it, pull the trigger, and heavy metallic pellets come flying out at high speed. Try to ease up on the “mansplaining” tone of voice when writing these things.

      (B) The clip-magazine trope is the worst of “gun nut” psychology. “Clip” has been use as a colloquialism for decades to describe a detachable box magazine, even by police and military personnel. As the article itself reveals, there is more than one kind of “clip,” and extending the word colloquially to detachable magazines is no sin against the English language.

      (C) NOBODY CARES THAT YOUR RAPID-FIRE BULLET-HOSE DOES NOT MEET THE DICTIONARY-DEFINITION OF A “MACHINE GUN.”
      Machine guns were banned to civilians in 1986, with grandfathering for those already registered (many thousands in number). Under federal law, a machine gun is any gun that fires more than one round with a single operation of the trigger. Most machine guns in the AR-15 family with the U.S. Armed Forces have been 3-round burst, not full-auto (and, yes, that will change as 3-rd-burst is phased out). The 1986 law forbids all burst fire, not just full-auto fire. Burst fire could be very useful to civilians, especially in defending property during civil disorder. Stop “negging” and “sour-graping” machine guns.

      But semi-auto high-cap versions of machine guns are plenty good for mass shooters. Full-auto-fire would burn through a lone gunman’s ammo too quickly, and force him to reload too frequently. Semi-auto is the ideal setting for mass murder. Face it. Admit. Deal with it.

      • The military variants of the M-16 came in semi, burst, and full auto. I don’t even think the modern M-4 has a burst fire option anymore. Also, civilians can still buy and own full auto firearms, they just need to be registered and jump through a bunch of hoops. The 1986 states no full auto weapons could be legally made after that.

    • I dislike the term “more than sufficient” as well, but I guess I don’t have quite the reaction to it that you did. My complaint about it is that the language of it is very conciliatory; it seems like the author is ready to accept more limitations on semi-automatic weapons. After all, they are MORE than sufficient; why not regulate them down until just exactly sufficient for these purposes?

      I would use the word “excellent” or “workable” or “provide reasonable utility” instead. That way it is clear that these tools will perform the particular functions, but that there is always room for improvement, even if there may also be room for degredation.

  5. He obviously has penis issues since he spends the entire article talking about a high-powered rifle and a .45 ACP soul killing pistol. (/sarc)

    That’s what you will hear from any anti who happens across the article.

    • My response to any anti-gun liar, who tries to use that kind of ridiculous argument is:

      “Name calling, slander, and hyperbole are a sure sign that the other person has lost the argument and has nothing else to say. We see this all of the time.”

  6. What this very good post does not fully explain is the difference between ignorance — lack of knowledge — and stupidity — lack of reasoning ability.

    My grandfather used to say that a person who knows and knows that he knows is wise — follow him.

    A person who knows and does not know that he knows lacks confidence — encourage him.

    A person who knows not and knows that he knows not is ignorant — teach him.

    But a person who knows not and knows not that he knows not is an @ssh0le. Don’t vote for him.

    Granddad knew what he knew.

  7. There is a fatal flaw in the premise of the entire article. You are assuming people are afraid because they lack technical information. Their fear is almost 100% emotional. No amount of explanation or diagrams are going to change that. You could teach them how to build a gun from scratch and they would still be horrified of them.

    You can’t *reason* someone out of an opinion they *felt* their way into.

    • While this is certainly true of some people, others have simply defaulted to a fearful state due to a combination of lack of personal knowledge about guns, well-distributed anti-gun opinions/fake facts, and the “If it bleeds, it leads” media reports. It is this second group that can benefit from a skillful introduction, functioning explanation, and chance to safely shoot a firearm under carefully controlled conditions.

  8. Is anyone else annoyed by the way Hollywood portrays firearms? I cannot stand it when they put the sound of a gun being cocked every time it is pointed at a someone. Or how you people fly 10 feet when shot. Or a shot from a gun blowing up an entire car while the good guys were getting shot at in their car but they were protected by the door and windows. I actually saw a scene in the show Person of Interest where they are getting chased by an SUV that has a mini gun mounted on top shooting out .308 rounds at a bmw and it only has dents on it. The lady driving the BMW then climbs out the sunroof with a .338 Lapua that is a bolt action but somehow fires 2 shots within a 1 second and it causes the SUV’s engine to blow up which then forces it to flip over. People believe this crap and it probably plays a role in why some people don’t believe we should own this “high powered” guns.

  9. The AR video animation is incorrect and misleading.

    It shows the gas from the gas tube just blasting back into the action around the bolt/bolt carrier, when in fact the gas is directed by the gas tube into the gas carrier key, and from there to an expansion chamber inside the bolt carrier, at the rear of the bolt. When the gas enters this area and expands, it forces the bolt and bolt carrier to simultaneously move away from each other, but because the bolt is still locked into the barrel extension, only the bolt carrier moves at first, which allows the cam pin to rotate the bolt, unlocking the bolt lugs from the barrel extension. The gas from the expansion chamber is exhausted through two ports on the right side of the bolt carrier, and vented out through the ejection port as the carrier starts moving rearward. Some excess gas does end up in the action area after the gas carrier key slides off the end of the gas tube as the carrier starts rearward, but by then, the gas pressure in the gas tube has dropped-off to almost nothing, because the bullet has left the barrel.

    That animation makes the AR look like a straight blowback .22LR.

      • Lacking in detail is what they did with the trigger group, which I ignored. In the action area, lacking in detail would mean not showing what happens to the gas at all. They are showing incorrect details (or enhancing the minimal effect of minor residual gas in the receiver area, making it seem more important), to support the “need” for their product.

        It also ignores what happens to the gas in the bolt carrier’s expansion chamber, where carbon buildup can be a problem in the long-term. By not showing the expansion chamber at all, it probably reduces awkward questions about how well their product “functions” in that area, and it may leave users with the mistaken impression that their rifle doesn’t need cleaning because the exterior of the parts still look clean, while the interior of the action parts may be suffering from potentially excessive carbon buildup.

        You’d think that being only two generations past Vietnam, we’d still remember the problems with the concept of guns that don’t need cleaning or lubrication. It’s really not that hard folks; every year or so, break down your DI AR and clean/lube it, and you’re good for another year (or two, depending on usage).

  10. And for God’s sake, don’t illegally carry revolvers in California, or semi -legally in Illinois.

  11. I dunno, but starting with the title you are presumably insulting your intended reader base, whether you are correct or not in assuming people are afraid, and afraid through ignorance

    I also think the argument that the m4 and ar-15 are totally different because of a seldom used full auto selector and sear is fundamentally a dishonest one, they are in fact extremely similar in every way except for an nfa induced technicality

    And the clip vs mag thing is just annoyance as well. Lots of old vets with experience call them clips, wrongly, who cares?

    So basically insulting people over pedantry that is currently popular on gun sites is half the article

  12. Did everyone miss it?!!
    The animations are pretty good except they omit an important detail.

    In the AR15 animation the trigger is only pulled back one time and then the gun is fired.
    The trigger is reset, but then after that,
    the gun keeps firing while the trigger is still in the reset position and does not move again!!!

    In the pistol animation, the trigger never moves as if the gun can go off all by itself!!!

    OMG!!
    The gun gun phobic gun grabbers have been actually correct all this time.

    If the guns can go off all by themselves then they are too dangerous for anyone and
    we should ban all guns.

  13. “The AR-15 is the most commonly owned rifle in the U.S.”

    I would love to see some data on that. If I were to guess, the now 50 year old Ruger 10/22, would be my first choice for the most commonly owned rifle in the US. Any thoughts?

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