There are a wide variety of handguns on the market today, each designed to perform a specific task or function. Here, you will discover the basic nature of handguns and their usage. Whether you own, are considering purchasing or don't particularly like handguns, please take a moment and review their functionality, how they discharge and the terminology used in identifying them as the basic operations will be similar for all weapons.
The two (2) primary breeds of handguns commonly circulated amongst firearm owners today are:
-A pistol with revolving chambers enabling several shots to be fired without reloading.
A revolver has a rotating cylinder in the frame that contains several firing chambers. Each chamber can be loaded with a single cartridge, and the cylinder swivels around a central pin to align the firing chamber with the hammer & firing pin in conjunction with the barrel.
-A handgun capable of semiautomatic or automatic fire. A pistol is a type of handgun that is semi or full automatic, utilizing the energy of the fired cartridge to cycle another cartridge. One cartridge is fired each time the trigger of the pistol is pulled.
A semi-automatic pistol has a single fixed firing chamber anchored to the rear of the barrel. Traditionally, a magazine feeds cartridges into this single firing chamber. When the pistol is fired, the energy from the cartridge activates the mechanism of the slide to unlock, extract, eject, and feed another cartridge into the firing chamber from storage.
**Side Note - Modern expressions & communications: when using, shopping or stating the term Pistol, this will usually refer to a semi-automatic pistol, not a revolver. A Revolver will almost always be referred to as a revolver.
Frame - Known to most as the body. The frame is the "main" structural support of a handgun or in this sense, a revolver, in which all primary parts (cylinder group and trigger group) are held together. Think frame of a house.
Cylinder ‑ The main part of a revolver that stores cartridges in separate chambers (traditionally 5 or 6 chambers depending on model). The cylinder of a revolver rotates as the handgun is cocked (pulling back the hammer), rotating each chamber into alignment with the barrel initiating the firing sequence.
Cylinder Release ‑ Has two primary functions: first, locking the cylinder in place in conjunction with the frame and secondly, allowing the cylinder to release from the frame, allotting for reloading of the weapon.
Barrel - The discharging tube of a gun. Barrels are meticulously engineered and bored out to provide an exit path for the fired projectile. Once the projectile is fired, it's guided through the barrel on rails (rifling) before exiting the muzzle by expanding gas forces.
Muzzle ‑ The business end of a gun (end-point of a barrel) where the projectile exits the firearm.
Trigger - A lever that is "pulled" or squeezed to initiate the firing sequence (discharge a cartridge) by releasing a hammer which then strikes the primer of the seated cartridge.
Trigger Guard - The portion of a firearms frame (lower body) that wraps around the trigger, providing for additional protection and safety.
Grip - A part of the firearm's lower frame that is gripped by the hand, usually textured to provide additional positive traction for a firm hold of a gun.
Hammer ‑ A mechanism of a firearm that impacts the firing pin, initiating the sequence of fire. Once the trigger is "pulled", the cocked hammer is released and impacts the firing pin which then strikes the primer of the chambered cartridge. This effect punches the primer on the cartridge and causes the powder to ignite and burn. The expanding gases that are caused as a result will then propel the projectile down the barrel of the firearm.
Sights ‑ traditionally two (2) devices are affixed or mounted onto a firearm (the one nearest to the muzzle is the [Front Sight] and the one to the rear of the frame [Rear Sight]) that enables the firearm to be aimed accurately while engaging the firing sequence.
Ejector Rod ‑ An extractor (similar to pistols) which are only found on revolvers. Allows removal of expended cases either singly (as in a fixed-cylinder single-action revolver) or all at once (as in a double-action revolver with a swing-out or top-breakcylinder).
Frame ‑ Known to most as a receiver (sometimes even referred to as the body). The frame is the "main" load bearing structure of a handgun in this case a pistol, in which all primary parts (slide, trigger group, magazine well) are attached and held together.
Barrel ‑ The discharging tube of a gun. Barrels are meticulously engineered and bored out to provide an exit path for the fired projectile. Once the projectile is fired, it's guided through the barrel on rails (rifling) before exiting the muzzle by expanding gas forces.
Muzzle ‑ The business or discharge end of a handgun (front end of a barrel) where the projectile exits the firearm.
Slide - The slide is the actual upper portion of a semi-automatic pistol and functions as the bolt carrier. It "slides" back & forth along rails fixed into the frame during the recoil process. The slide feeds cartridges from storage (magazine) into the barrel [chamber] thus chambering the cartridge, as well as extracts the spent casings after cartridges are fired (discharged). Generally speaking, the Slide's action serves three key functions - ejecting the spent casing, cocking the hammer or striker for the next firing sequence, and chambering another cartridge into the barrel.
Slide Lock ‑ Sometimes also referred to as a slide stop on semi/full automatic firearms. The primary function is as a visual indicator of when a handgun has expended all stored cartridges and facilitates faster rechambering as well as reloading by locking back the slide to advance a cartridge from storage. This lever can also assist in locking the slide (receiver) to the rear position on semi/full automatic pistols in order to clean and perform maintenance to the chamber.
Trigger ‑ A lever that is "pulled" or squeezed to initiate the firing sequence (discharge a cartridge) by releasing a hammer which then strikes the primer of the seated cartridge.
Trigger Guard ‑ The portion of a firearms frame (lower body) that wraps around the trigger, providing for additional protection and safety.
Magazine ‑ A container (ammunition storage device) that is spring driven to hold and allow the feeding of cartridges; can be fixed or detachable depending on the firearm.
Magazine Release ‑ A mechanism permitting the magazine to be locked or released from the frame of a modern semi / full ‑ automatic pistol.
Hammer ‑ A mechanism of a firearm that impacts the firing pin, initiating the sequence of fire. Once the trigger is "pulled", the cocked hammer is released and impacts the firing pin striking the chambered cartridge. This effect punches the primer on the cartridge and causes the powder to ignite and burn. The expanding gases that are caused as a result will then propel the projectile down the barrel of the firearm on guiding rails (rifling) and out of the muzzle.
Firing Pin - A hardened pin traditionally centered between the primer and hammer of a chambered cartridge aligned with the barrel. When a trigger mechanism is released, the hammer strikes the firing pin, impacting the primer of the cartridge and immediately discharging the cartridge.
Grip ‑ a part of the firearm's lower frame that is gripped by the hand, usually somewhat textured to provide additional positive control of the weapon.
Safety ‑ a mechanism that creates an extra safety measure; locks the trigger, hammer and slide from sequencing the firing mechanism of the weapon, and prevents negligent discharge.
Ejection Port ‑ an outlet in the slide (receiver) of a firearm through which the expended cases are ejected from the chamber (barrel) after a firing sequence.
Front Sight ‑ a device on a firearm nearest the muzzle (front of the slide); the sight is used in taking aim and target acquisition while sequencing the firing of the weapon.
Rear Sight ‑ a device on a firearm to the rear of the slide; the sight is used in taking aim and target acquisition as well as helping in identifying the front-sight while sequencing the firing of the weapon.
Slide Release ‑ refers to a lever either on the left or right side of a semi/full automatic pistol's frame and used to release the slide (receiver) for complete separation from the frame; traditionally performed for maintenance, cleaning and lubricating a pistol.
Guiding Rod ‑ thin straight bar (that includes an internal spring) traditionally positioned below the barrel on most semi/full automatic pistols for mechanically guiding the motion of the slide (receiver).
Beaver Tail ‑ engineered to allow a higher hold for a firmer grip of the firearm and essentially prevent hammer bite upon engaging the firing sequence.
An action is [the mechanism that makes a machine or instrument work]. The term action pertaining to a handgun refers to the mechanism that manages the sequence of fire (feeding, chambering, locking, firing, unlocking, extracting, ejecting, and cocking) and the process by which that mechanism functions through the sequence of fire. All modern handguns are action driven, from one form to another, as cartridges need to be fed through the breech rather than by way of the muzzle.
Actions can vary in functionality contingent to the firearm types & models. They can be engineered to be either manual or automatic, designed for single or double action, and perform in many variations such as pump-action,bolt-action or even break-action.
The two (2) most important actions to consider when referring to handguns are single action versus double action:
Double-Action: A prolonged trigger pull both cocks and releases the hammer, striking the firing pin which engages the primer of the chambered cartridge and initiates the firing sequence of a handgun.
Single-Action: The trigger can only be pulled in one single motion, allowing release of an already cocked hammer, immediately striking the firing pin which engages the primer of the chambered cartridge and initiates the firing sequence of a handgun. This action will NOT cock the hammer to lock and prepare the firing mechanism.
Modern day revolvers are manual operated action repeaters. They traditionally store cartridges in a revolving cylinder that align each cartridge with the barrel prior to each firing sequence. The cylinder is commonly rotated through either the pull of the trigger or cocking of the hammer, although some revolvers are manufactured to perform in double action.
Pistols are automatic short-recoil action operated. Semi and full automatic firearms use an action frequently referred to as "Recoil Operation", indicating this type of locked-breech action. Pistols use the energy generated after the actual firing sequence and are offered in either single or double action variations.
An unloaded firearm is by itself inert. Ammunition is an absolutely vital component to unlocking the full potential of a firearm. Following are some terms and standard measurements of ammunition and its components.
Ammunition ‑ a loaded cartridge consisting of a primed case, propellant, and a projectile (bullet).
Armor Piercing ‑ a projectile or projectile core that may be used in a handgun intended to pierce steel armor, traditionally constructed entirely, or has a core constructed from one or many tungsten alloys (beryllium, brass, bronze, copper, depleted uranium, iron, steel), or a fully-jacketed projectile larger than a .22 caliber intended for use in a handgun with a jacket weight of more than 25% of the total weight of the projectile.
Ball Ammo ‑ refers to a full metal jacket (FMJ) cartridge; a small-arms projectile consisting of a soft core (often lead) encased in a shell of harder metal usually copper or steel.
Ballistics ‑ The science of studying projectiles. Ballistics study can be based on the "interior" (inside the firearm), "exterior" (in the air after discharge) or "terminal" (at the brink of impact). Ballistic comparison is the attempt to scientifically match a cartridge to a particular firearm to maximize its potential.
Bore ‑ A firearm barrel's interior, forward of the chamber but behind the muzzle.
Bullet ‑ A non-spherical projectile for use in a rifled barrel.
Bullet Engraving ‑ The imprint, more commonly referred to as "Grooves", cut into the bullet by the barrels rifling as it travels down the barrel before exiting.
Bullet, Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) ‑ A projectile in which the bullet jacket (a metallic cover over the nose of a bullet) encloses most of the core with the exception of the base.
Bullet, Hollow Point (HP) ‑ A bullet with a cavity in the nose, exposing the lead core, and engineered to facilitate expansion upon impact as well as avoid excess penetration.
Caliber ‑ A term used to designate the specific cartridges for which a firearm is chambered. It is assessed by the diameter of the circle formed by the tops of the lands of a rifled barrel. It is also the numerical term included in the cartridge name to indicate a rough approximation of the bullet diameter.
Cartridge ‑ A single round of ammunition consisting of a casing, primer, propellant, powder, and one or more projectiles. A cartridge can be identified as follows:
Centerfire ‑ Any cartridge intended for compatibility with a pistol, rifle, and revolver that has a primer central base to the axis at the head of the casing.
Magnum ‑ Any cartridge or shotshell that is lager, contains more powders/weight, or generates a higher velocity than standard cartridges or shotshells for a specific caliber or gauge.
Rimfire ‑ A cartridge containing the priming mixture in the rim of the base, more commonly a .22 and .22 LR.
Small Bore ‑ A common term generally referring to rimfire cartridges. Mostly .22 caliber ammo used for target shooting, plinking and even small game hunting.
Casing ‑ holds the bullet, propellant and primer together. Most casings are made of brass, but can also be found in aluminum and steel.
Gauge ‑ A more common term used in identifying shotgun bores (with the exception of the .410 shotgun). Gauge always relates to the number of the actual bore diameter and the lead balls weighing one pound. The following are popular gauges and their respective diameters:
Jacket ‑ The material encasing the lead core of a bullet and is usually copper or steel.
Load ‑ All the components used to assemble a cartridge or shotshell. The term can also refer to the action of feeding ammo into a firearm.
Magazine ‑ A receptacle or ammo storage tool on a firearm that holds cartridges or shells for feeding the ammunition into the chamber. Magazines may appear in many variations, can be a box, drum, rotary cylinder, or a tube and can be fixed or removable depending on the firearm.
Nose ‑ The point or tip of a bullet.
Powder ‑ General term expressing the propellant inside a cartridge or shotshell. Powders also come in the following variations:
Black Powder ‑ The earliest loose grain made by crushing a solid generating a propellant, allegedly created by the Chinese or Hindus. Dates back to the 13th century, was a mechanical mixture of potassium or sodium nitrate, charcoal, and sometimes even sulfur. Commonly produces a large cloud of smoke upon discharge.
Smokeless Powder ‑ A modern-day propellant composed primarily of nitrocellulose or sometimes even combined with both nitrocellulose & nitroglycerin. Generates a small cloud of smoke upon discharge.
Pressure ‑ The outward directed force developed by the expanding gases generated by the explosive yet controlled combustion of the propellant. Allows everything to happen.
Primer ‑ The ignition component consisting of brass or gilded metal cup, priming mixture, anvil, and foiling disc. It generates a spark when struck by the firing pin, immediately igniting the propellant of the cartridge. Think of it as the fuse on a firecracker.
Projectile ‑ A bullet that is in flight after being discharged from a firearm.
Propellant ‑ The chemical mixture in which, when ignited by a primer, explosively generates a large volume of gas. The gas will then propel the projectile down the barrel and out of the muzzle.
Reload ‑ A round of ammunition that has been assembled using already fired casings (a refurbished round).
Round ‑ an individual, complete small arms cartridge.
Shotshell ‑ A round of ammunition containing multiple pellets, usually with a shotgun. The multiple pellets combined in a shotshell are referred to as the "Shot".
Small Arms, Ammunition ‑ Military connotation used in describing ammunition for firearms with bores (See definition of Bore), that are no larger than 1" in diameter.
Trajectory ‑ The path of a bullet following discharge from the barrel through the muzzle as it travels through the air.
Velocity ‑ The speed of a projectile at any point along its trajectory, commonly stated in "feet per second", or how far the round travels in 1 second upon exiting the muzzle.
The basic sequence of fire is the same across most weapon platforms. The trigger mechanism is pulled or squeezed, which then releases the tension that is holding back the hammer. The hammer then moves forward, striking the firing pin, which in turn impacts the primer of the cartridge. This ignites the powder in the casing thus creating a small controlled explosion. The expanding gases from the powder being consumed pushes the projectile or bullet down the barrel of the firearm and exits the muzzle along a set trajectory based on both the velocity as well as the direction it was pointed by the barrel.
Depending on the origin of its invention, ammunition is measured by the Unit of Measurement (UOM) of millimeters (mm) or calibers. For example, 9mm (9 x 19mm Luger or Parabellum) ammunition originated in Europe, whereas the .40 caliber (.40 S&W = 10 x 22mm) was engineered, designed, and manufactured in the USA. Ammunition is calculated and codified by the overall diameters of the bullet, rim, base, and neck. For instance, a 9 x 19mm Luger round has an approximate Bullet Diameter of .355" (9.01mm), a Rim Diameter of .392" (9.96mm), a Base Diameter of .391" (9.93mm), and a Neck Diameter of .380" (9.65mm), whereas a .40 Cal round has a Bullet Diameter of .400 inches (10.2mm), a Rim Diameter of .424" (10.8mm), Base Diameter of .424" (10.8mm), and a Neck Diameter of .423" (10.7mm).
For a more thorough understanding of measuring ammunition, PLEASE refer to our How-To-Guide:
-Understanding Ammunition (Volume 1)
First and foremost, please refer to your firearms "User's Manual" that is usually included with your purchase of your new firearm. If you don't have one, contact the manufacturer or download a version online. Your manual will help you to identify the manufacturer's specific guidelines for the proper ammunition recommended, laboratory tested and approved for your specific firearm make & model. If you are considering utilizing a different brand, load, or type of ammunition than the manufacturer's recommended & approved ammo, then you need to accept the responsibility of conducting your own research for intended ammunition completely. Employing the wrong brand, load, or type of ammunition can cause severe complications with engaging the sequence of fire; such as feeding issues, firearm malfunctions, discharge problems and other severe consequences, which can result in serious injury, damage to property, or even DEATH.