Firearm Terminology Guide

Firearm terminology can be precise wording established by the government or the firearms industry, but it also encompasses words and phrases that were created within the firearms community for use when talking with each other. To further complicate matters, local and regional variations can occur, potentially creating confusion. When you’re dealing with items like firearms, however, where you’re investing hundreds of dollars in a tool your life might depend on, confusion is not a good thing. So whether you’re new to guns or just heard something you aren’t familiar with, we’re here to help you out with the most common firearms terminology used at Pennsylvania’s Largest Gun Show

Vernacular, Lingo, And Codes, Oh My!

The firearms community is thriving as a result of social change, global uncertainty, and a growing awareness that your American Second Amendment rights are more important than ever. Within our numbers, you’ll find military vets, law enforcement officers, concerned citizens, passionate patriots, and soccer moms who just want a force equalizer when they’re home alone with the kids at night and help may be too far away. Despite this broad cross-section of society, however, the right to keep and bear arms is constantly under attack by anti-gun media, legislators enacting increasingly strict gun control measures, and social media that deletes and bans users for any mention of firearms. Gun shows, range events, and organizations that meet in person have quickly become the predominant way citizens enjoy their rights to meet like-minded enthusiasts, talk shop, and trade firearms and parts. It’s no wonder we’ve developed a specialized firearms terminology that allows us to speak freely and specifically when discussing our weapons.

Gun Terms

Types of Firearms

When shopping for a gun, it’s good to know what you’re looking for or what the firearms dealer is trying to sell you. This covers the vast majority of firearms you’ll find commonly for sale.

Long GunsIn Pennsylvania, rifles with a barrel 16-inches or longer and shotguns with a barrel 18-inches or longer and a total length for either of 26-inches or longer are considered long guns. Private sales between third parties without a background check or FFL transfer are legal as long as the recipient is permitted to own the firearm.
Hand GunsAny derringer, pistol, or revolver with a barrel less than 15-inches and a total length less than 26-inches is considered a handgun in Pennsylvania.
Pistol While often used to refer to any handgun, the proper modern definition for this firearm terminology is a semi-automatic or automatic handgun with a chamber that is part of the barrel.
RevolverThe classic six-shooter, although five to eight-round capacities are common now. This handgun has a frame that holds a cylinder loaded with shells. As the gun is operated, the cylinder revolves, lining the next shell in rotation up with the barrel of the gun.
DerringerThe classic concealed carry pocket pistol, this small handgun is usually only a few inches long, carries no more than one or two rounds, and is meant for very close-range self-defense.
Ghost GunsA common term used to refer to homemade, non-serialized firearms. Critics use the imagery to try to make these firearms sound more dangerous, but their makers love the satisfaction of producing a quality firearm with their own two hands and avoiding government overreach.
RifleA long gun with a barrel that’s been rifled–machined with twisting grooves that provide stabilizing spin to the bullet as it is fired and exits the gun.
ShotgunAlso a long gun, this firearms terminology comes from the gun’s hunting origins. Smooth barreled rather than rifled, it fires shot, small metal balls (in some cases smaller than BBs), from plastic shotgun cartridges.


The weapon’s action describes how it cycles and fires bullets. Over the hundreds of years of firearms history, there have been a lot of variations and plenty of experiments, but the most common firearms terminologies for the weapons you’ll see are here.

Single ActionIn a single action firearm, pulling the trigger performs a single action–the release of the hammer or striker. The firearm’s hammer needs to be cocked before every shot.
Double ActionA double-action firearm has a trigger that performs both the cocking and release of the hammer. As the trigger is squeezed, the hammer will draw back until it reaches a “breakpoint,” at which time it slams forward, firing the weapon.
Semi-AutoSemi-automatic weapons use the recoil or expanding gasses of a fired round to extract the spent casing, cock the hammer or striker, and chamber the next round into the firearm. They can be single action or double action, however, only the first shot needs to be manually cocked for single-action pistols like the venerable Colt 1911.
AutomaticSimilar in mechanism to semi-automatic weapons, the difference is that a single trigger pull can fire more than one round, either in a short burst of multiple rounds or continuously while the trigger is held or until the ammunition is exhausted. These weapons are highly restricted and not legal for the general public without special licensing and permits.
Pump ActionThis common shotgun action is also available on some other firearms. A foregrip is slid back to manually open the chamber, extract the spent casing, and cock the hammer before sliding it back forward to chamber the next shell.

Common Gun Parts

There are a lot of moving pieces that go into making functional self-defense tools out of hunks of metal and polymer. If you’re looking to repair a weapon or customize it, there are plenty of guides with more in-depth firearms terminology, but it’s helpful to understand the options available to you at the gun show and how they may affect your weapon’s performance.

ChamberThe firing chamber is where the bullet or shell is positioned when the weapon is fired. It’s designed to contain and direct the expanding gasses from the round.
BarrelThe metal tube a bullet or shot is pushed through by the expanding gassed after it’s fired before leaving the gun on its way to the target.
SlideOn a pistol, the slide travels back along rails cast or molded into the frame, pushed by recoil and expanding gasses. It may house the firing pin, striker, extractor, sights, optics, guide rod, and more, depending on the model of firearm.
ExtractorThe extractor pulls spent casings from the firing chamber before directing them out of the weapon and away from the shooter.
Guide Rod/Recoil SpringA guide rod and/or recoil spring provide the force necessary to compensate partially for the weapon’s recoil and push the slide back forward, chambering the next round.
Gas TubeOn weapons where the backward force on the casing isn’t sufficient to operate the action, part of the expanding gasses traveling behind the bullet are diverted through a tube that uses these high-pressure gasses to extract the spent round, recock the action, and chamber the next round. 
Match-GradeThis designation is applied to high-performance, precision firearms parts that are competition quality. This is highly subjective firearms terminology, so make sure to research the manufacturer when deciding how much stock to put into the term “match-grade” being used by someone you don’t know.
Frame The frame of the firearm other components and parts are housed in or joined to. 
GripFirearm grips are the areas meant to contact your hand and are usually textured or designed to promote sure handling. A firearm may have interchangeable grips or have the grips directly molded into the polymer of the firearm. Aftermarket grips and sleeves are available.
Stock Usually used to refer to the portion of a long gun meant to be braced against the shoulder when fired.
MagazineThe magazine houses the rounds waiting to be loaded into the firing chamber by the gun’s action. Some firearms have internal magazines, but what most people commonly think of are the box magazines used on semi-automatic pistols that slide into the frame and that hang down in front of the trigger on semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 (although these are not the only locations removable magazines can be attached).
SearThe sear holds the hammer or striker mechanism back until the trigger has moved enough to release the tension on the hammer or striker, firing the gun. This is called the breakpoint and is usually calibrated to a set amount of force against the trigger spring needed to move the trigger that distance.
Trigger The gun terminology everyone knows–it’s the part of the gun you squeeze to fire the weapon. Often, it is protected by a loop of polymer or metal to protect it from accidental pulling called the trigger guard. Modern pistols may have a safety mechanism within the trigger, while some weapons specialized for accuracy may have two triggers, one to fire the round and a second trigger that lowers the amount of force needed to pull the firing trigger for more accurate shots.
Binary Trigger A trigger that fires a round both when pulled and when returned to its forward position. This is an aftermarket modification designed to give gun owners a legal alternative to an automatic weapon without the invasive licensing paperwork.
PortingPorted barrels and slides have precision holes, or ports, that use the expanding gasses pushing a bullet to help stabilize the weapon while firing and counteract recoil.
Iron SightsIron sights are sighting devices that rely on physically lining up guide markers attached to, cast, or molded onto the gun to aim the weapon. Commonly these are notch and blade, ghost ring, or barrel bead style sights.
OpticsAftermarket sights that are meant to provide more accurate aiming. Scopes, red dots, and glowing night sights are some of the most common.
80% LowerAn unfinished lower receiver that will need to be machined, milled, trimmed, drilled, or otherwise assembled before it is classified as a firearm. These popular gun parts are a favorite of self-reliant Second Amendment enthusiasts who want the satisfaction of making their own gun at home. This is the more accurate firearms terminology for the often pejorative “Ghost Gun.”
Manual SafetyA safety component that you manually set to prevent the firing of the weapon. The most common is a cross-block safety that rests near the trigger and blocks firing when pushed to its “Safe” setting by preventing the trigger from being pulled.
Passive SafetyA safety component that engages automatically, not requiring you to set it. Many modern pistols have firing pin block that arrests the pin and prevent it from moving forward unless the trigger is pulled.

Other Firearms Terminology You Should Know

Concealed Carry The act of carrying a firearm hidden on your body or about your person, such as in a shoulder holster or the glove box of your car.
Open CarryThe act of carrying a weapon openly, where it can easily and plainly be seen.
Concealed Carry LicenseA license granting the named individual the right to carry a concealed firearm in accordance with the law. These are issued by states and sometimes municipalities within a state, so laws can vary depending on where you are carrying the weapon. In Pennsylvania, you would apply for a License to Carry from the state, giving you the right to carry a concealed handgun.
Shall IssueStates with “shall issue” requirements for firearms licenses or permits must approve your application as long as it meets the approval requirements.
May IssueStates with “may issue” provisions are not required to approve license and permit applications, even if all approval requirements are met. Usually incorporating some element of discretion from the issuing authority, far too often this amounts to a “non-issue” provision.
Constitutional Carry/Permitless CarryIn these states, no permit is required to carry a weapon, although some specify a permit may still be needed under certain circumstances.
ReciprocityAn agreement by one state to accept another state’s concealed carry permit as valid.
Self-DefenseWhile not strictly firearms terminology, the right to bear arms is enshrined specifically so we can protect ourselves and others.
Castle Doctrine/Stand Your GroundSelf-defense terms protecting the right of a law-abiding citizen to defend themselves with deadly force if they feel their life or that of a loved one is threatened.  Pennsylvania is a “Stand Your Ground” state.
Duty to RetreatSome states require you to make every effort to defuse or escape a life-threatening situation before using lethal force in self-defense, forcing survivors to relive and replay their attack, justifying their actions to avoid prosecution.
HolsterAn article of clothing, accessory, or sheathe meant to safely hold a firearm ready for use. These can be for open carry, like those worn by an on-duty police officer, for concealed carry, such as inside the waistband (IWB) holsters or purse holsters, or for placement on objects nearby, like car and desk holsters. While traditionalists love their leather, modern holsters are also available in sturdy nylon and durable Kydex plastic, along with a host of other materials.
Background Check For commercial firearms purchases and private handgun purchases, your basic information is collected and entered into the Pennsylvania Instant Check System to ensure you can legally purchase a firearm.
Straw PurchaseThe act of buying a firearm for another person who cannot legally purchase it themselves. This is a crime. You will go to jail.
Private SaleA non-commercial firearms transfer between two private citizens. In Pennsylvania, long guns may be transferred without a background check through private transactions, provided the recipient can legally own a firearm.

Terms to Get You Started

We’ve covered the most commonly used firearms terminology, and you’re ready to visit your first gun show and look around with confidence. While you’re choosing the right firearm for you, don’t forget to pick up ammunition and find out more about your local firearms community. They’ll help you continue your education, develop your skills, and learn more about your American heritage. If you ask nicely, they may even let you try out a firearm at the range you’ll want to add to your next gun show shopping list. Book your tickets now for VIP access to your local Eagle Shows Gun Show today.

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