Types of Guns: Top 3 You Need to Know

There’s tons of types of guns…it really depends how specific you want to get.

For us, we consider the three main ones — pistol, rifle, & shotgun.  We’ll walk through the main characteristics of each and start to break down sub-categories.

Benelli M2, CZ75, AR-15 (4)
3-Gun: Benelli M2 (Shotgun), CZ75 (Handgun), AR-15 (Rifle)

Please be sure to check your specific state laws regarding the following definitions.

Looking for something more substantial?  How about our full video Handgun Course that takes you from beginner to gunslinger in no time.


We will be using “pistol” and “handgun” to mean the same thing.  When you start combining federal and general state law, a handgun has the following characteristics:

  • Fired from one hand
  • No support from the shoulder
  • Barrel length of under 16 inches
Pistol Illustration, ATF
Pistol Illustration, ATF

Subsets of pistols include revolvers and semi-automatic pistols.  Below is a good representation of handguns with the one on the right being a revolver while the rest are semi-autos.

Learn more about how to shoot pistols/handguns.

Bunch of Handguns, Actions Open
Bunch of Handguns, Actions Open


A rifle usually has the following characteristics:

  • Fired with two hands
  • Braced against the shoulder
  • Fires only one projectile with each pull of the trigger
  • Barrel has rifling which helps spin and stabilize the bullet
  • Barrel length of over 16 inches
  • Rifle Diagram

Here’s a better close up of the “rifling” where rifles get their name.

Rifling, wikipedia
Rifling, wikipedia

We’ll be breaking down rifles into two subsets—bolt action and semi-automatic.  Popular bolt actions include the Remington 700 series, while the two most popular semi’s are the AR-15 and AK-47.

Remington 700 SPS Bolt Action
Remington 700 SPS Bolt Action
Daniel Defense AR-15
Daniel Defense AR-15


Shotguns have smooth barrels to fire a variety of different ammunition.  The most common ammo involves lots of metal pellets which spread out.  The mishmash of federal and state laws show shotguns to have:

  • Fired with two hands while braced against the shoulder
  • Fires once per pull of the trigger
  • Smooth barrel
  • Barrel length of over 18 inches
  • Shotgun Diagram

We’ll consider two main subsets of shotguns with the pump action & semi-automatic.

Pump actions require you to physically move the pump handle to chamber fresh shells and remove spent shells.  They have the characteristic chung-chung sound you always hear in movies.  Semi-automatics usually utilize gas or recoil to move the shells.

The two most popular pumps are the Mossberg 500 series and the Remington 870 series.  In the semi-auto world, there are the Benelli’s.  Want to learn how to shoot shotguns?

Benelli M2, Semi-Automatic Shotgun
Benelli M2, Semi-Automatic Shotgun
Remington Model 870, Pump Shotgun
Remington Model 870, Pump Shotgun
Mossberg 500, Pump Shotgun
Mossberg 500, Pump Shotgun


There you have it…a quick primer on pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

Here’s an infographic you can save or pin!

types of guns

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16 Leave a Reply

  • JB

    Can please review SMG: EXTAR EP9 9mm Thanks

    1 month ago
  • Karlene Williams

    Hi, I have very limited experience with weapons and that was over 60 years ago. Now I’m a 72 year old woman with severe spinal issues and some arthritis in my hands. I want to select a hand gun with minimal recoil (easier on my back, neck and hand) for self defense. I live in a mobile home park with my husband and one spectacularly dumb but cute, dog. I want to also pay attention to the mechanics of loading my weapon, just in case the arthritis becomes significantly more challenging. Do you have any specific guns you suggest I consider? I very much look forward to your response.

    5 months ago
  • Alan

    I always thought that there were two types of handguns: pistols and revolvers. Is it really true that a revolver is a type of pistol (along with semi-auto pistols)? From Wikipedia: 'A pistol is a type of handgun, especially one with a chamber integral with the barrel.' That would seem to indicate that a revolver is not a pistol.

    3 years ago
    • Eric Hung

      It's one of those things where there's a small difference but almost everyone uses them interchangeably.

      3 years ago
  • Daniel

    Quick question, Daniel Defense AR-15 and Glock 17. how many bullets can be in them at one time. and what size and name would their bullets be called? thanks!

    3 years ago
  • Shelly

    Have you put together a book with all of this information, or is it all only on your website? Great site by the way!

    3 years ago
  • willock flame

    one of the characteristics listed above of the rifle is it fires only one projectile per pulling of the trigger. there is a difference between marksman rifle which fires only one projectile per pull and assault rifle which fires multiple projectiles per pulling of the trigger.

    4 years ago
    • Connor

      Not so. Most "assault rifles", are semi-automatic. They only fire one bullet per one trigger pull. There are full auto versions, but as far as civilians are concerned in the US, it is incredibly rare to have one for 3 reasons. One it is a long and hard process of getting a license through the ATF. Second, it is illegal to purchase any automatic weapon made after may of 1986. For this reason, you must purchase an older one, which are tens of thousands of dollars.

      3 years ago
      • Ronald

        There is a much easier way to attain fully automatic rifles and handguns that are made after 1986 and are new. I would recommend going to Rocket FFL for more info on how to easily obtain an FFL as well as you SOT. With a type 7 FFL and a type 2 SOT you can buy semi and full automatics directly from distributors without having to go through the middleman. Even better, you can sell these guns. IMPORTANT NOTE: MAKE SURE YOU NOW WHAT TYPE OF FFL YOU WANT AND/OR SOT. HAVING THE WRONG TYPE CAN GET YOU INTO A LOT OF TROUBLE WITH THE LAW!!!!! I WOULD RECOMMEND HAVING AN EXPERIENCED FIREARM ATTORNEY GO THROUGH IT WITH YOU!!!!!! It may sound super difficult but if you do it you get huge savings on guns and you can own several guns that would normally be illegal.

        1 year ago
      • Curtis

        In military terminology, assault rifles are carbines that can fire full-auto or can fire two or three rounds per trigger pull. Most of these rifles are illegal to possess in the US, although a few older types can be bought after a rather extreme background check and law enforcement interviews and lots of money changing hands. Most gun people use this definition. In news casts, almost any gun that looks vaguely "military" or scary is an assault rifle., including cheap semi-automatic look-alikes of full-auto carbines and sub-machineguns.

        3 years ago
  • Jayden

    how hard is it to set up and load a pistol?

    4 years ago
  • Jess RB

    In the very first image of the gun, shotgun, and rifle, what is that rifle? Does it have additions or does it come like that?

    4 years ago
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