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Guns and Ammo
4. Firearms Glossary
GUNS AND AMMO: Terminology - Firearms
Not long after the first cannon, some were made in sizes that one person could hold and fire. Those hand cannon, German "Handfeuerwaffen", or handguns, are now generally 'firearms', though the term 'handgun' is now often used to mean a pistol (originally a "Faustfeuerwaffen"). There are three species (and one or two hybrids) which have developed over 7 centuries from a common ancestor (hackbut, arquebus).
Hand cannons were hard to use at all, and especially so from horseback. The rider needed at least one hand for the reins, at least one to hold the gun, and one to insert a red-hot wire into the 'touch-hole'. The first improvement was a small pile of gunpowder in a 'pan' around the touch-hole, ignited by lowering a smoldering 'slow match' into it. This "matchlock" was an improvement for foot soldiers, but not a lot of help for riders. It was followed by the wheel-lock, which used a steel wheel spinning against a flint to throw sparks into the powder (rather like a cigarette lighter). The mechanism was very expensive then. Wheel-locks were used extensively by mounted troops (and by anyone else who could afford them). Firearms began to be important on the battlefield after introduction of the much cheaper flintlocks. (Experts distinguish between a snaphaunce, miquelet, and true flintlock.) With those, the jaws of the 'cock' (or 'dog') were clamped onto a piece of flint held in a thin sheet of lead or leather. On firing, the cock scraped the flint across a rough steel 'frizzen' to throw sparks onto the priming powder in the pan. Sometimes the flash of the powder did not propagate through the touch-hole into the chamber, giving rise to the phrase 'flash in the pan'. The firearms of the American Revolution were flintlocks.
Early firearms were sensitive to rain and dew because they required loose priming powder to be more or less exposed in the pan. That problem was cured with the percussion cap, which was widely used after about 1840. The cap was a thin copper cup containing a small amount of an explosive sensitive to impact (originally mercury fulminate). The cap fit over a matching 'nipple'. When the hammer struck the cap, it flashed, with the flash being carried through the hole in the nipple to the powder charge. As the projectile was usually a lead ball, these were called 'cap and ball' firearms. They were the principal firearms of the American Civil War (1861-65), and the early 'Wild West' pistols (think Jesse James) were cap and ball revolvers.
With minor exceptions, mostly unsuccessful, firearms and artillery up to this time were muzzle-loaders. The theoretical advantages of breech-loading were known, but there had been no practical means to seal the breech to prevent escape of gas at high pressure near the shooter's face. The brass cartridge case provides such a seal. When fired, the cartridge expands enough against the inside of the chamber to keep the gas from flowing back around it, while the mechanical parts of the firearm support the brass sufficiently to prevent its bursting. The impact-sensitive explosive was moved from the percussion cap to the inside of the case, so that everything was in a single package. All that happened about 1850-1880. About 1900, black powder was mostly replaced with the much safer smokeless powder made of nitrated cellulose. Sometimes nitroglycerin was added to make a 'double base' powder and sometimes nitroguanidine for "triple base" powder.
Cartridges (German Patronen) were originally hollow wood tubes with plugs, each holding the powder and ball to fire one shot. Later cartridges were paper. Now they are metal, almost always brass. Note that cartridges are very commonly and very incorrectly called 'bullets'. The bullet (Geschoss) is only the projectile.
With a breech-loading arm, the breech is opened to load; but it is essential that it not open accidentally at the time of firing - chamber pressures are in the range of 30,000 to 60,000 pounds/in2 (20 - 40 MPa). Some low-power arms get by with 'blow-back' action (Feder-Mass Verschluss) in which the inertia of a heavy 'breechblock', with some help from a spring, keeps the breech closed until the bullet is out of the muzzle and the pressure has dropped. More powerful firearms must have a locked breech. The most common type, for rifles, is a 'bolt' (Zylinderverschluss). It is named for the common door bolt operated by raising a handle, sliding the bolt into its locked position, and lowering the handle into a notch. The firearm bolt action differs in that the force is applied longitudinally to the end of the bolt, not transversely, and extra 'locking lugs' are usually provided. The next most common system uses a 'breechblock' that slides forward and back and is held in the forward closed position by a 'breechblock lock' that slides or pivots vertically.
In spite of advances in other designs, muzzle-loading firearms using black powder (or modern versions of it such as 'Pyrodex®') are still widely used.
While those other mechanical developments were going on, the arquebus
was evolving into the shotgun, rifle, and pistol.
Shotguns (Flinten) have barrels that are smooth on the inside (smooth-bores). That is, they are not rifled. They usually fire, from the shoulder, a large number of small lead pellets (shot) with a total weight of 1-2 ounces (30-60 g). They can also fire single projectiles ('slugs'). The bore diameter ranges from about 0.41 inch (410 gauge) to about 0.78 inch (12 gauge). The 'gauge' is 'bore' in British English. It is approximately, the number of lead spheres of bore diameter that would make one pound (except that the 410 gauge is really 0.41 inch). Note that smaller numbers mean larger bores. Shotgun cartridges are commonly called 'shells', and typically have brass only at the base, with the remainder plastic or paper. They are described by the gauge, the length of the case after firing, the pellet size, the total weight of pellets, and the powder charge (often in 'drams equivalent', the amount of black powder needed to give the same effect). Pellet size designations are not always consistent, but smaller numbers indicate larger pellets. The largest pellets in common use are 00 Buck, about 8 mm in diameter (about 9 pellets in one shell), and the smallest are 9, about 2 mm (about 500 in one shell). As noted above, shotguns can also fire single "slugs". In German, a shotgun shell is a "Schrotpatrone" (not a 'Granate") and the "Kaliber" is the gauge, often with the length stated in millimeters.
Some shotguns have one or, more commonly, two barrels with the breech
opened by 'breaking' (unlocking and tilting the barrel forward and down)
(break action; much less commonly, tilt-up action or hinge action) The
two barrels may be 'side-by-side' or 'over-under'. Repeating shotguns
are common in the US. They have a single barrel and usually a tubular
magazine holding 2 - 5 shells under the barrel. Bolt-action shotguns exist
but are uncommon. Most repeating shotguns have a slide action operated
by a manual pull-push motion on a separate piece of the stock that extends
forward under the barrel. These are often called 'pump' guns. In many
repeating shotguns the manual operation is replaced by an autoloading
('automatic') action utilizing the force of recoil or of the powder gas
to operate the mechanism. Shotguns typically have no sights, but often
have a 'rib' along the top to help pointing.
Rifles are designed to be fired from the shoulder. Rifled barrels
have spiral grooves (Züge) on the inside to make the single projectile
spin for much better accuracy.
Rifles typically have a single barrel, though double rifles have been common for hunting in Africa, and there are firearms with three barrels ("Drilling"), such as two rifle calibers and a shotgun barrel. There are some single-shot breechloaders, but nearly all are repeaters, distinguished by whether the mechanism (action) is operated by a bolt, lever, or slide ("pump"). As for shotguns, manual operation is often replaced by an autoloading mechanism powered by recoil or gas.
Although rifles typically fire a single bullet, some military cartridges
have been made with two or even three smaller bullets in the hope that
if one misses, another might hit.
Pistols are designed to be fired from one hand, though both hands
can be used. Essentially all are rifled and fire single projectiles. The
major types are:
Action has several special meanings, especially for rifles and pistols.
Automatic: this is a term with contradictory and confusing meanings.
Technically, and legally in the US, any firearm that will fire more than one shot if the trigger is pulled and held back is "automatic". A firearm which uses the force of firing to eject a fired cartridge case and load a fresh cartridge, but can fired again only after the trigger has been released and pulled again is "semiautomatic" (or an auto-loader). Historically, though, the first arms that would reload themselves were called "automatic", and the term is still commonly used with that meaning. Because of this contradictory usage, arms that are really semiautomatic are often called "automatic" (such as the 'Colt .45 automatic'pistol). Arms which are technically "automatic" may be called "full automatic" to distinguish them from semi-automatics (autoloaders). As a rule of thumb, no firearm generally advertised or stocked in a store in the US will really be automatic. Since the National Firearms Act of 1934, possession of any (full) automatic arm requires (by Federal law) a background investigation, a license from the Secretary of the Treasury, and payment of a special fee. The various states have their own laws, some prohibitive or effectively so.
At the end of World War II, there was widespread demand for troops to
be armed with rifles having the ability to fire either fully automatically
or semiautomatically (selective fire). Experience has shown, for the most
part, that because of recoil ("kick") only the first round fired
automatically is likely to hit any specific target, and there has been
a shift back to limiting bursts to three rounds. Actual automatic pistols
have been attempted, but not successfully. Submachine guns (British "machine
pistols"; German "Maschinenpistolen") are military automatic
weapons still in use. As they use pistol ammunition, but are much heavier
than pistols, they are relatively manageable, but have short range and
2. RIFLE AND PISTOL NAMES, CALIBERS AND CARTRIDGES
The two most important things to remember is that most of the names should not be translated, and that the numbers are usually nominal, not actual.
Continental European designations are relatively easy to understand. They indicate the caliber in millimeters, usually in the range of 5 mm to 13 mm, and the length of the empty cartridge case in millimeters. The numbers may be followed by an 'R' to indicate a rimmed case. Some have names appended, but they are rarely needed to distinguish between cartridges. Some of these cartridges are also used in the US, where they usually retain their original names.
British and US nomenclature is more complicated. The first number always indicates (approximately) the caliber in inches (usually in the range of .17 to .50). The caliber is often followed by some further name or number. The name may be that of the manufacturer or designer, or a name given by the designer. A second number often indicates a powder charge (in grains, each about 64.8 mg), while a third number may indicate a bullet weight (in grains). Note that in American usage the decimal point in the caliber is not preceded by a zero, and is not mentioned when speaking: the caliber is .22, not 0.22, and is spoken as 'twenty-two'. Note also that the powder charge might be either black or smokeless powder (not interchangeable) and that actual current powder charges may be quite different from the number.
Some common examples:
3. Rimmed, rimless, rimfire, centerfire
When a cartridge is loaded into a chamber, something has to keep it from falling on through, or at least from moving in so far that the firing pin cannot reach it. Early cartridges were cylindrical, with the base slightly wider, leaving a rim which held the cartridge in place. When the thin brass was folded in to leave the wider base, there was a circular groove on the inside of the rim, which could hold the impact-sensitive priming compound. As the case must be thin and soft enough to be dented by the firing pin, rim fire works only for low-power cartridges such as the .22 LR. Center-fire cartridges have a much stronger base, with a 'cup' into which the primer is pressed. The cup has a 'flash hole' into the powder charge. When several cartridges are stacked in a magazine, the rims get in the way. As a rim is no longer required to hold the cartridge in modern firearms, modern cartridges are usually 'rimless'. (They have a groove around the base where they are caught by the 'extractor' which pulls the fired cartridge out of the chamber.) Straight-sided cases, usually for pistols, are held in position because the chamber is slightly larger than the bore for just the length of the case. Bottle-necked cases, common in rifles, are held in place by the 'shoulder' at the base of the 'neck'. There are also 'belted' cases which have wide rims.
4. BULLET ENERGIES AND RANGES
The effective ranges of the M1 and M16 rifles are arguable; somewhere in the range of 200 to 500 yards, with the M1 toward the longer end of that range and the M16 toward the shorter end. The cartridges used in the two rifles are effective at greater ranges in rifles designed for long-range accuracy, when used by well-trained shooters.
5. SOME SPECIAL TERMS EASILY CONFUSED:
Assault rifle (Sturmgewehr):
Here, 'assault' is not the crime, but the military term: the final advance over the
Typically a large-bore cannon mounted on an armored vehicle for close-up assault on fortifications. Mostly of German design.Assault weapon:
A political/legal term variously defined in laws, ordinances, and speeches.
Fitting the metal parts of rifle to a wood or plastic stock. Often uses a glass fiber - epoxy resin combination ('glass bedding').
1. A heavy table from which a rifle or pistol can be fired.
A cartridge made without a projectile (bullet) to produce only sound. It uses a special fast-burning powder that must not be used with a bullet and is dangerous within a few meters distance.
1. A zinc-copper alloy ('cartridge brass')
Producing a thin layer of iron oxide on iron or steel to protect against rust. Usually done by immersion in hot salt solutions, but there are 'cold bluing' methods. A metal part to be blued later is "in the white". But note that John M. Browning was a major US designer of firearms, and that 'Browning' is a major current manufacturer.
A rifle in which the action and magazine are behind the trigger (effectively, in the stock, making a relatively short rifle).
The diameter of the bore; but for artillery and naval guns, the length of the barrel in numbers of diameters. For instance, a 5 inch 38 caliber gun would have a barrel 190 inches long.
(German: Karabiner). Typically a variation of a military rifle with a shortened barrel, used especially by mounted troops. Some carbines, though, do not have a longer version. The US M1 carbine, for instance, was not a shortened M1 rifle.
It was originally the part of the barrel that held the gunpowder. Now it is the part that holds the cartridge at the time of firing. The chamber is at the breech end of the barrel and may be enlarged somewhat to hold the cartridge. Revolvers have several separate chambers in a 'cylinder'.
Shotgun muzzle design or attachment to reduce spreading of shot.
Not a magazine. A clip is either:
Commonly means the US Model 1911 or 1911A1 pistol, adopted in 1911 and
A kind of muzzle brake which diverts powder gases upward to reduce the upward recoil.
A British type of smokeless power made in long thin cords. Often encountered in fiction as "the smell of cordite". No longer in production.
Refers to a primer which contains potassium chlorate.
A kind of rifle or shotgun barrel used until the late 19th century, made by a
The part of a semiautomatic firearm which prevents a second cartridge being fired until the trigger has been released and pulled again.
A three-barreled firearm, primarily European, with both rifle and shotgun barrels.
An early form of expanding bullet made at Dumdum Arsenal, India, in the 1890s, in an attempt to make the small bullets (.30 caliber) used in modern rifles as effective as the much larger and heavier bullets (up to .75 caliber) used with black powder muskets.
Generally, a ‘gun’ carried and used by one person. Note, though, that US legal definitions are variable and inconsistent, often using “firearm” to refer to a specific prohibited or specially regulated item.
Free rifle, free pistol:
A firearm designed solely for extreme accuracy in 'international' target shooting
(German): a firearm, usually a rifle. A 'Maschinengewehr' is usually a 'machine gun', not an 'automatic rifle'.
Hammer position, held away from the primer but with not enough spring
The process of putting a fresh primer, powder charge, and bullet into a used brass cartridge case (the most expensive part).
Perceptible delay between hammer or firing pin impact and actual firing
(Verschlussabstand): The space available for the cartridge between the face of the breechblock and the part of the chamber that keeps the cartridge from going forward. A critical dimension. With insufficient headspace the breech cannot be closed and the arm will not fire. With excess headspace, the cartridge is not supported adequately and may separate into front and rear segments when fired. Then the arm cannot be reloaded until the front segment has been removed from the chamber.
(Maschinengewehr). Generally, an automatic weapon with ammunition
The part of a repeating (including semiautomatic) firearm that
Refers to a primer composition containing a mercury compound. Non-mercurial primers are desired because traces of mercury in a fired cartridge case make it brittle and less useful for reloading.
Angular change in aim that moves the point of impact of an artillery projectile one meter at a range of 1000 meters.
Minute of angle (MOA):
In this context, angular change in aim that moves the point of impact of a rifle bullet one inch at 100 yards; only approximately a true mathematical minute of angle.
An attachment to the muzzle which diverts powder gases backward to reduce recoil.
The pistol, and especially the 9 x 19 mm cartridge for it, designed by George Luger and adopted by the German army in 1908.
Used in the German sense of test (Prüf) (but the German word for it is 'Beschuss'). Testing a firearm with a particularly heavy charge to make sure that the firearm is strong enough for use.
A single cartridge.
(British 'safety catch'). A mechanical device used to prevent a cocked rifle, shotgun, or semiautomatic pistol being fired by an accidental pull on the trigger. In spite of much English and American mystery and adventure literature, revolvers and single-shot pistols do not need or have safeties because they are not cocked until one is ready to fire. As a rough estimate, rifles and shotguns with exposed (visible) hammers do not have safeties, while those with concealed hammers or spring-loaded firing pins do. Other even less well-known safety devices, particularly on semiautomatic pistols, include a grip safety which will not allow firing unless one is holding the pistol grip firmly; a trigger safety which prevents a firing pin striking the primer unless the trigger has been pulled, and a magazine safety that prevents firing when there is no magazine in the pistol. Firearms are typically right-handed, and a semiautomatic pistol safety that can be operated with either the left or right thumb is "ambidextrous".
(British 'sawn-off'). A shotgun (very rarely a rifle) with a barrel cut down to a few inches. In US law, the minimum barrel length is 18 inches for shotguns and 16 inches for rifles.
German: to guard or protect; or to shoot, especially at targets. In US English, a particular kind of rifle target shooting, and the rifle used for it, introduced by Americans of German descent.
Competitive shotgun shooting at 'clay pigeons' thrown from two different locations.
Military shooting at specific enemy personnel at long range, typically 400-1000 meters. The term is commonly misused in the US media.
An optical sight which shows the shooter a magnified image of the target, with an indication (cross-hairs, for instance) of the point of aim. Because that display is in a single plane, a 'scope' sight does not require the shooter's eye to focus on both the front sight and the target at the same time - particularly useful for anyone above middle age.
Competitive shotgun shooting at 'clay pigeons' thrown from a single location.
(Abzugswiderstand). The force which must be applied to the trigger to fire; measured by hanging a weight on the trigger. It is typically around 4 pounds (2 kg) if the arm is cocked. About 12-18 pounds (5-8 kg) must be applied to cock a double-action pistol.
(Drall) Pitch of rifling, expressed as one turn in a distance along the barrel.
Variant of 'vermin', meaning small animal(s) considered pests and often not protected by game laws. They are not only small but very alert so that a hunter cannot get close. A "varmint rifle" is generally of small caliber (.22 - .25) but must be very accurate at 200-400 yards.
German. The sighting system, including both front and rear sights.
(Flachkopfwettkampfgeschoss) A cylindrical pistol bullet with a completely flat
To adjust sights for a specific range by firing several trial shots at that range.
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