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The First Firearms

Firearms have been around for over 500 years.

The first firearms were called "muzzleloaders." The shooter had to put black powder down the bore of the barrel from the front end of the barrel, called the muzzle. Muzzleloaders had to be loaded in a proper sequence or else they would not fire.

Muzzleloaders were slow to load, heavy, did not shoot far and performed poorly in damp and wet weather.

To ignite the gunpowder several different types of ignition systems were developed. The most common types of ignition systems still available today are the flintlock and percussion cap.

The Flintlock System

A piece of flint is held in a "cock." When you move the cock to the rear and
pull the trigger, the cock moves forward. The flint strikes the steel,
causing sparks to fall into the flash pan. This ignites the priming powder.
The priming powder burns, igniting the main black powder charge in the bore.
The flintlock system does not work well in rain or wind and requires
shooters to carry two different types of black powder.

The Percussion Cap System

About 1850, the percussion cap system was introduced. A percussion cap contains a chemical that causes a spark when struck. This spark ignites the main black powder charge in the bore. This allowed for quicker reloading and worked better in poor weather conditions compared to the flintlock system.

Evolution of Firearms: 1850-1900

The world saw many changes from 1850-1900 in the development of firearms and ammunition. Muzzleloading firearms were replaced with breech-loading firearms, otherwise known as our modern firearm.

The modern firearm barrel is loaded from the rear or breech of the barrel. This allows for quicker reloading. Modern ammunition is far more dependable than black powder, especially in poor weather conditions such as rain or snow.

How Modern Firearms Fire

Modern firearms use the same principles as muzzleloading firearms. The ignition and burning of gunpowder create pressure. This pressure propels projectile(s) down the bore and out of the muzzle. The first modern firearms used black powder. Since about 1890, modern firearms are designed to use smokeless gunpowder. Smokeless gunpowder creates greater pressures and should not be used in firearms designed for black powder. Watch what happens when the trigger is squeezed on this bolt action rifle.
How Guns Fire

Types of Firearms

Modern firearms can be classified as

In each of those classifications you will find rifles, shotguns and handguns.

Modern Firearms

The first modern firearms were single shot. These firearms contained no magazines to hold ammunition. After each shot, the shooter had to open the action, remove the spent cartridge and load a new one. A hinge or break action shotgun is an example of a single shot firearm.

Manual-repeating Firearms

Eventually, with improvements in cartridge case materials and designs, improved manufacturing processes and the development of the magazines, manual-repeating firearms were developed.

Manual-repeating firearms allow shooters to fire more quickly. Simply by working the action, the shooter could eject a cartridge from the chamber and then load a new cartridge from the magazine.

A lever action rifle is an example of a manual repeating firearm.

Automatic (Self-loading) Firearms

By the late 1800s the semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms were developed. These are classified as self-loading firearms. These firearms contain a magazine. When the trigger is pulled, the cartridge in the chamber is discharged. The action recoils by itself and ejects the spent cartridge. The return springs causes the action to close. As the action closes, it chambers a new cartridge from the magazine.

Semi-automatic means that with each squeeze of the trigger one cartridge is fired. Hunters use semi-automatic rifles and shotguns.

Fully automatic means that with a squeeze of the trigger the firearm keeps shooting until you release the trigger or run out of ammunition. Fully automatics are generally only used for military and police purposes today.

Rifles and Shotguns: What's the Difference?

There are four basic differences between rifles and shotguns.

Grooved Bore
Single Projectile
Long Range
Front & Rear Sights
Smooth Bore
Multiple Projectiles
Short Range
Front Sight Only

These differences determine the specific uses of each of these firearms. Rifles are designed for accuracy to hit a precise point. Shotguns are designed to shoot a spread of shot at moving targets.


A rifle gets its name from the presence of spiral grooves in the bore called "rifling." These grooves spin the bullet, thereby increasing the rifle's range and accuracy.

A shotgun's barrel wall is thinner than that of a rifle and its bore or inside surface is smooth.

Cartridges and Shells

A rifle cartridge has a single bullet or projectile contained in a case.   A shotgun shell has a number of shot pellets inside a paper or plastic hull.

Caliber and Gauge

The caliber and gauge are measures of the bore or inside diameters of the barrel used by a particular rifle or shotgun.

The caliber is a direct measure of the inside diameter of a rifle barrel. It is expressed in hundredths of an inch; for example, a .22 caliber rifle has a bore of 22/100 inch in diameter. It can also be given in metric terms such as 5.56 mm.

The gauge refers indirectly to the bore diameter of a shotgun. It is not a direct measure, but is calculated as the number of lead balls of a bore diameter required to make up one pound. This is an old British measurement system. Thus, a 16-gauge shotgun has a bore diameter such that 16 lead balls of the bore diameter would weigh a pound.

Gauge measurement has no connection to the variety of shot sizes that may be found in shotgun ammunition. The one exception to the indirect measurement of gauge is the .410 shotgun. In this case, the measurement refers directly to the actual bore diameter or caliber.


Actions contain the parts that load, unload and fire the cartridge.

Actions come in various styles. You will find rifles, shotguns, and handguns with these actions.

Let's look at the parts of the action: frame, trigger, safety, magazine and action release. How these parts are assembled determine a firearm's action.



The magazine is a device that holds ammunition. There are two types of magazines: tubular and box. These pictures show where the magazine is located on different firearms.

Tubular Magazines
tubular magazine

  Box-type Magazines

box magazine

How to Operate a Bolt Action

A bolt action firearm operates on a lift, pull and push sequence similar to a door bolt.

On some models of bolt action the action may not open if the safety is on. Release the safety and then open the action.

If the bolt action rifle has no magazine it is a single shot firearm. If the bolt action rifle is equipped with a magazine it is classified as a manual-repeating firearm.

To load a bolt action firearm, the shooter will install the ammunition in the magazine. When the shooter closes the action a round of ammunition will be fed from the magazine into the chamber. By simply operating the action the shooter will eject and load ammunition from the magazine.

How to Operate a Lever Action

list bullet Open the action by pulling the handle in a downward direction, pivoting it towards the barrel. This movement ejects any cartridges or shells and brings new ammunition up from the magazine. Normally, lever action rifles have tubular magazines. Some may have a box magazine.
lever action

How to Operate a Semi-automatic Actions

Some models of semi-automatics lock open when the firearm is empty.

How semi-automatic firearms work:

Semi-automatic firearms are either recoil- or gas-operated. Gas-operated means that some of the pressure from the fired cartridge is tapped off the barrel and pushes a piston backwards, causing the action to open.

No matter whether a semi-automatic firearm is recoil- or gas-operated, it is important to keep the firearm clean and use proper ammunition.

Single- and Double-Action Handguns

Some handguns are single-shot, but most have either a magazine, in the case of a semi-automatic, or a cylinder, in the case of a revolver.

Revolvers come in either single or double action. A single-action revolver must be manually cocked first, then the trigger is squeezed before it can fire. A double-action revolver is cocked and fired in one motion when the trigger is squeezed.


Parts of a Cartridge

A rifle cartridge has four parts.

Rim-fire or Center-fire?

The location of the primer tells you if a cartridge is rimfire or centerfire. Generally, center-fire cartridges are more powerful than rim-fire cartridges.

bulleted listThe center-fire cartridge has a primer located in the center of the base.

bulleted listThe rim-fire cartridge has no noticeable primer. Instead, the priming compound is placed and spun into the case rim. When the rim is struck by the firing pin, the priming compound explodes, igniting the powder.

center fire         


Bullets come in different shapes and sizes, and are commonly made of lead. Some bullets have a metal jacket, making them travel faster. Full metal-jacketed bullets cannot be used for hunting! They are okay for target shooting.

Ballistics is the science that studies the motion of projectiles. Changing ammunition changes the ballistics for your firearm.

For example, a .30-06 Springfield cartridge with a 180-grain bullet has different ballistics than the same cartridge with a 150-grain bullet.

Pages and graphics from International Hunters Education Assosiation (


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