Firearms 101: Know your Terminology

If you’re going to debate or discuss something, you better understand what you’re talking about.

The Internet is a double-edged sword, providing the average person with a partial education filtered through mass and social media. This is dangerous, because now you have a bunch of people who know just enough they think they’re experts when they know precisely jack. The Internet is, in essence, the impetus and personification of Dunning-Kruger.

If you wanted to take the fight to the pharmaceutical companies, you better understand topics like medicine, biology, psychiatry, psychology, etc. If you want to make a convincing argument for educational policies, you better be informed on epistemology, child development, teaching techniques, and so on. So, if you want to start a nationwide discussion on firearms, from safety to regulations, you need to know what you’re saying and focusing on.

That means more than reading personal blogs, .org websites, Vox, Mother Jones, etc. I already warned that those sources provide only partial information (if not misinformation). You don’t argue with a doctor because you checked WebMD and you shouldn’t tell a history professor they’re wrong because some dude on the History Channel says differently.

Don’t target your vitriol against things that may or may not be real. Don’t ask for legislation banning something you don’t know what it is. Don’t use snarl words, appealing to the emotions and bias of your audience.

You’re only going to tick knowledgeable people off, even if they might agree with you on many other fronts. They’ll look at you like an idiot and tune you out, or even label and disregard you.

So, I’m going to go over some important terms to explain what they mean, especially in relation to the issues we’re facing. If you already know these? Fine, this isn’t for you. If you think you know these? Please listen, because you may not… especially if your information came from the aforementioned sources.

Semi-Automatic

This is the biggest one I see mentioned. “People don’t need semi-automatics.” “Semi-automatics are meant only to mow mass numbers of people down.” “If only we’d had a ban on semi-automatic weapons.”

All of those statements show complete ignorance for what semi-automatic means and how it relates to the history of firearm technology.

Semi-automatic simply means the firearm reloads the chamber after you’ve fired a round. It is not a machine-gun; that would be an automatic (or fully-automatic) weapon. It only fires as fast as your finger can pull, but the weapon reloads itself meaning you don’t have to do anything else to fire the next round.

This is part of the natural progression of firearm technology. Early firearms required minutes to load powder, shot, light the fuse, etc. The 19th century introduced rounds pre-packaged into cartridges, meaning they just had to be loaded into the firearm. Chambering a new round initially was done manually, but eventually firearms could reload through the use of bolt-actions, lever-actions, pump-actions, etc.

That brings us to the semi-automatic, a firearm that evolved from these action mechanisms to chamber a new round without the operator’s help. Now shooters could focus on firing rather than reloading.

When did this deadly change in technology enter the scene?

1885.

The late-19th century was the first successful semi-automatic rifle. By the turn of the 20th century, the technology was perfected and grew popular on the civilian market.

I note that “civilian” part because semi-automatic firearms are not a military technology. They were designed for the general population, to allow ease of use in hunting and sport. In fact, semi-automatic technology wasn’t regularly used by the military until WWII.

Semi-automatic firearms are now the basic technology for most handguns and rifles, and have been for over a century. Guns used in self-defense, hunting, sport, etc. are often semi-automatic. That’s why there is no legislation targeting “semi-automatic” firearms in general… because that’s most guns.

Contrary to popular (mis)belief, semi-automatic firearms are not military weapons or machine-guns. When you say you want to ban “semi-automatic” weapons, you’re showing that either you want to ban the entirety of 100+ years of firearm technology… or that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Please, let’s leave “semi-automatic” out of the argument; instead focus on firearms in general or very specific ones.

Assault Weapons / Rifles

OK, you’re fine with semi-automatic handguns and hunting rifles, but not those military “assault weapons” or “assault rifles”, right?

Sorry, but you’re using a term that was basically misappropriated and oft-misused.

First, let’s clarify that “assault rifles” and “assault weapons” are not the same thing. An assault rifle is a fully-automatic weapon and what the military uses. Real M16s, AK-47s, etc. are all “assault rifles”, the standard weapon of service members, particularly soldiers. As such, they are already highly restricted under federal law and not easily acquired by the general public.

“Assault weapons” originally referred to other military gear, like grenade launchers. However, in the 1980’s they began to be used to refer to semi-automatic (see above) variants of “assault rifles”. Whether this was to demonize them (by anti-gun movements) or promote them (by pro-gun manufacturers) is irrelevant. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 only helped make “assault weapon” synonymous with their fully-automatic cousins in the eyes of the public.

Technically, they’re no more lethal than a hunting rifle. They fire at the same rate, they use the same action technology, and they usually fire rounds of a lower caliber than most hunting guns. None of the features that make them “assault weapons”, such as pistol grips, flash suppressors, barrel shrouds, etc. do a thing to make them more efficient at killing.

Ironically, “assault weapons” are not even the preferred weapon of mass shooters. Handguns outnumber all other firearms when it comes to these tragedies.

I will note, however, that I used to support ownership and I don’t. Why? They do have one thing that might contribute to added lethality, and that’s magazine size. Of course, you could always purchase a larger magazine for your hunting rifle, but the fact that “assault weapons” automatically come with 20+ round magazines is important.

Although, that doesn’t mean we jump to conclusions and start arbitrary bans like…

High Capacity Magazine

Ok, this is an area I will also be going into further detail on when I discuss “assault weapons” in general and why I changed my mind about them. Most people even agree there’s no reason to have 100-round, 50-round, or even 20-round magazines.

Yet, far too often I see people throw out arbitrary numbers. “Why do you need 15 bullets?” “If you can’t hit something in less than 10 rounds, you shouldn’t have a gun.”

Again, these statements are often made in complete ignorance of how firearms are used and what the norm is.

A pistol magazine is often 10- or 15-rounds, depending on the weapon’s size. Revolvers generally hold 5- to 7-rounds. Semi-automatic hunting and sporting rifles usually come with 5- or 10-round magazines. Pump-action shotguns can hold anywhere from 7- to 9-rounds, or more if they’re a smaller gauge.

These have been industry standards for decades, long before mass shootings were on the rise.

Why so many bullets? While hunters usually only get one (maybe two shots), the average person firing in self-defense will need more. In addition to not being able to aim in a high-stress situation (that’s Hollywood magic most of the time), single bullets don’t necessarily stop people.

So yes, a person with a firearm might indeed need 10 or more rounds to stop someone intent on harming them.

That’s why, I believe “high capacity” should apply to 20+ round magazines or similar devices. It’s not an arbitrary number – that is the point we move beyond the industry standard for firearm magazine size and to where even the most unskilled person should be able to hit a target in a high-stress situation.

Please, if you’re going to debate magazine size, make sure you’re not just throwing numbers that “sound good” out there.