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3 Types of Guns: Pistol vs Rifle vs Shotgun

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 as well as some of our favorite 9mm Handguns and Best Concealed Carry Guns.

CA Roster Handguns
Circle O Guns


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.

Barrel Rifling, Criterion Barrels
Barrel Rifling, Criterion Barrels

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.

Mossberg Patriot 30.06 with VX Freedom 3-9x
Mossberg Patriot 30.06 with VX Freedom 3-9x

And why are they called bolt actions? Easy…check out me manipulating the bolt!

Semi-auto variants go bang with each press of the trigger. Popular variants include the AR-15.

Aimpoint Comp M5 on Daniel Defense DDM4 V7
Daniel Defense DDM4 V7

Check out some of our favorites in our Best AR-15s Buyer’s Guide.

How about AK-47s?

PSA AK 103 Left Side
PSA AK 103 Variant

Remember semi-auto equals one shot per trigger pull.

Looking for an AK? Check out our Best AK-47s article.


Shotguns have smooth barrels to fire a variety of different ammunition. The most common ammo involves lots of metal pellets that spread out. 

Smaller pellets are known as bird shot while bigger ones are buck shot. Single huge projectiles are known as slugs.

12ga Shotgun Shells, Opened (L to R: Bird, Buck, Slug)
12ga Shotgun Shells, Opened (L to R: Bird, Buck, Slug)

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. 

Mossberg 590A1
Mossberg 590A1

They have the characteristic chung-chung sound you always hear in movies. 

Semi-automatics usually utilize gas or recoil to move the shells.

Benelli M2 (3)
Benelli M2

No pumping needed.

Looking for some shotties? Check out our Best Tactical Shotguns and also Best Semi-Auto Shotguns.


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

Looking to choose what’s the best for home defense? Check out our Best Home Defense Gun: Pistol vs Rifle vs Shotgun article.

Benelli M2, CZ75, AR-15 (3)
3-Gun: Benelli M2, CZ75, AR-15 Stacked

Here’s an infographic you can save or pin!

types of guns

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20 Leave a Reply

  • Collins Frank

    I need this item

    August 5, 2021 11:46 pm
  • Jasmine

    thank you Eric for the substantial information on firearms i enjoyed learning from your article ..

    May 11, 2021 6:18 pm
  • sound awake

    i recognize those
    arent all three a variation of guns used by united states armed forces going all the way back to the vietnam war
    arent all 3 weapons of war
    shouldnt they all be banned
    hey wait...arent knives weapons of war too
    oh yeah and revolvers have been used in war
    and didnt the american indians wage war on us cavalry troops with bow and arrows..and hatchets

    April 9, 2021 5:33 pm
  • JB

    Can please review SMG: EXTAR EP9 9mm


    November 24, 2020 7:54 pm
  • Karlene Williams


    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.

    July 19, 2020 2:16 pm
    • Mary

      I think for this person, no matter what recover, or Rifle she would get, it still has to be loaded. She's better off with an automatic pistol because it can stay loaded with one in the chamber for unexpected co.pany which she could defend herself with just taking the Safety off. But always remember as with any gun you must consider it loaded at all times so you never have to guess. No.1 Rule. Mary

      April 24, 2021 11:03 am
  • 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.

    September 14, 2017 4:40 pm
    • Eric Hung

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

      September 15, 2017 5:40 pm
  • 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?

    July 28, 2017 7:53 pm
  • 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!

    February 12, 2017 4:13 pm
  • 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.

    October 25, 2016 4:31 am
    • 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.

      May 15, 2017 9:14 pm
      • 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.

        August 5, 2017 10:18 am
      • 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.

        January 9, 2019 7:50 pm
  • Jayden

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

    October 7, 2016 10:17 pm
  • 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?

    July 27, 2016 12:16 pm