FIREARMS PRIMER FOR JOURNALISTS

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Guns and gun ownership have sparked some of the most passionate debate in our society, pitting those who wish to ban firearms outright against those who contend that the Second Amendment is an absolute law allowing private citizens any kind of firearm. Somewhere in the middle are those who do not oppose private gun ownership but want some restrictions.  As in any emotional debate, objective facts are sometimes hard to come by.

That makes reporters’ and editors’ jobs all the more difficult.  Whether the topic is crime, military affairs or even some sporting events, reporting on firearms involves a literal minefield of potential mistakes.  Vigilant – and knowledgeable – readers on both sides of the issue can and will pick apart any factual error, undermining your credibility; sometimes, they use these mistakes to bolster their arguments that journalists are trying to advance an agenda.

Generally, reporting on firearms is pretty poor – not because of hidden agendas, but because most journalists are not familiar with firearms. That lack of knowledge can lead to reporting errors that are not caught by equally unknowing editors.

Popular culture is no help.  The portrayal of firearms in movies and television ranges from inaccurate to ridiculous.  Rambo-style characters fire heavy machine guns from the hip; in real life the recoil from such weapons would send Rambo tumbling like a bowling pin.  Movie heroes blaze away with their pistols while somersaulting to cover – a maneuver that most likely wouldn’t work and might even lead to a self-inflicted wound.  Their pistols never run out of ammunition, and never malfunction.  Heck, they hardly ever miss.

What follows is a basic primer on firearms, with some caveats about usage and warnings about some common mistakes.  There will also be some suggestions about how to learn more about firearms, as well as examples of stories in which journalists’  knowledge of firearms made for insightful, compelling reading.

There are two major types of long guns: rifles and shotguns.

Rifles

Remington Rifle

Remington Model 7600 Rifle. Source: Remington.

Rifles are shoulder-fired weapons that shoot single projectiles known as bullets. Spiral grooves cut into the barrel, known as “rifling,” make the bullet spin like a football, increasing its aerodynamic qualities and accuracy. They also give the weapon its name.

A carbine is a shorter, lighter version of a rifle, designed to be easier to carry and handle. It may fire the same cartridges as full-length rifle but is generally less powerful.

Common types of rifles include bolt actions, lever actions, semi-automatics and pump actions. More on this later.

Rifles generally are described by caliber, which is the measure of the opening in the barrel, known as the bore. A .22 caliber rifle fires bullets that are .22 inch in diameter. Especially in the U.S., calibers are expressed in terms of fractions of an inch, but metric measurements are often used as well.

Rifle Cartridges

(L-R) 7x64mm, .243 Winchester, .222 Remington and .22 Long Rifle.
SOURCE: WikiMedia Commons

After that, it gets tricky. There are many calibers that fire the same diameter bullet but differ in other ways. For example, the .308 Winchester, the .30-‘06 Springfield and the .300 Winchester Magnum all use .308 caliber bullets – but they can vary widely in power.

Some common rifle calibers are:

  • .22 rimfire – a small caliber generally used for target shooting or the hunting of small game such as squirrels or rabbits.
  • .223 Remington – a high velocity cartridge popular with target shooters and varmint hunters. Its military incarnation is the 5.56 NATO cartridge – used by the U.S. military’s M-16 rifle.
  • .308 Winchester – a mid-power, highly accurate cartridge used for deer hunting and target shooting, and in a military incarnation is known as the 7.62x5mm NATO round.
  • .30-30 Winchester – this is the most common cartridge used in lever-action, “cowboy” style rifles. It gets its name because it was a .30 caliber cartridge that held 30 grains of gunpowder.
  • .30-’06 Springfield – one of the most popular hunting cartridges in the world, it originally was designed as a military cartridge. It gets its name from the .30 caliber bullet, and the year of its birth, 1906.
  • 7.62x39mm – a Soviet-developed cartridge that is usually used in military-style weapons such as the AK-47 and SKS rifles. Because those rifles have become common worldwide, the cartridge has proliferated as well.

Other common civilian cartridges include the .270 Winchester (mostly a deer hunting round) and various 7mm rifles (they fire a bullet .284 of an inch in diameter and range from military rounds to high-powered cartridges suitable for hunting elk and moose.)

About the largest rifles commonly seen are .416 and .458 caliber weapons used for big game hunting. They have ferocious recoil, are expensive to shoot and are unlikely to be used in crimes.

In recent years, .50 caliber rifles have been developed as military sniper rifles, capable of hitting and killing enemies at well over 1,000 yards. Though there has been great consternation over their sale to civilians, they are highly specialized, heavy weapons, difficult to transport, and they have not been used frequently in crimes.

Shotguns

Model1100-American-Classic

Remington Model 1100 shotgun. SOURCE: Remington.

Unlike rifles, shotguns generally are used to fire multiple metal pellets, or shot. Their barrels are smooth with no rifling, and unlike rifles, which can be lethal at 1,000 yards or more, shotguns are short-range weapons that are not especially potent beyond 50 yards.

History.com demonstrates the differece between three types of shot in shotgun shells.

Up close, they are devastating. The pellets spread after leaving the barrel, mushrooming into a lethal cloud that can be two feet wide. For this reason, soldiers and law enforcement like shotguns for close-range use.

Civilians, however, use shotguns mostly for hunting birds and small game, or to shoot clay target games such as trap and skeet, versions of which are Olympic sports.

Shotguns are described not by caliber but by gauge or bore. This represents the number of lead balls of a certain diameter that would make up a pound. For example, a 12 gauge shotgun’s barrel has an interior diameter of about .729 inch; 12 lead spheres of that same diameter would weigh a pound.

(L-R) .410, 28 gauge, 20 gauge, 12 gauge. SOURCE: WikiMedia Commons.

(L-R) .410, 28 gauge, 20 gauge, 12 gauge. SOURCE: WikiMedia Commons.

Common shotgun gauges are 10, 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge, and .410 bore, the only exception to the naming convention. The 10 gauge is the largest commonly seen gauge and usually is reserved for hunting large waterfowl such as Canada geese.

The most common gauge is 12, followed by 20. Both are popular with target shooters and hunters.

The 28 and .410 are less powerful and most often are used for target shooting or hunting small birds, rabbits and squirrels.

Law enforcement and military shotguns are almost uniformly 12 gauges.

Common types of shotguns include break actions, semi-automatics and pumps.

RIFLE AND SHOTGUN ACTIONS

Break-action firearms swing open, allowing cartridges to be loaded. They are then closed before firing. These are most often shotguns, though there are some break-action rifles.

Break actions can have single barrels, or more commonly in shotguns, two barrels. Double-barrel shotguns that have the barrels in horizontal alignment are called side by sides; when the barrels are stacked, the guns are called over-unders.

HELPFUL RESOURCES

  • The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group that is pro-firearm, has a writer’s guide to firearms with an expanded glossary and good illustrations, an overview of firearms law and some examples of journalists getting their facts confused.
  • David Petzal, the shooting editor of the outdoor magazine Field & Stream, has an illustrated, somewhat opinionated guide to the way rifles are operated.
  • Another glossary, this one from the magazine Mother Jones.
  • Dummy’s guide to gun jargon.
  • Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute has a website that is a clearinghouse of firearms information for journalists. It’s very good on law and forensic science but is a bit hard to navigate.
  • The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is one of the more potent partisan groups on gun legislation. It’s named for James Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, who was badly wounded in an assassination attempt against the president.  It has a great deal of research on gun legislation and violence.
  • The National Rifle Association is the leading advocate of gun rights in the country.  Once a group designed to promote marksmanship, it now is a powerful lobbying group popular with many gun enthusiasts.
  • Gun basics for writers. 

Bolt-action firearms cycle ammunition through the manipulation of a small handle on the side of the breech, or loading port. After a shot is fired, the shooter lifts the handle, pulls back to eject the spent cartridge, and then pushes the handle forward to chamber a fresh round. Lowering the handle makes the weapon ready to fire. The action is similar to throwing a bolt on a door.

Though they do not fire especially quickly, bolt actions generally are the most accurate rifles, making them popular with deer and big game hunters and a frequent choice of military and law enforcement snipers. They often have telescopic sights installed to take better advantage of that accuracy. Bolt action shotguns have been manufactured but are uncommon.

Pump firearms get their names from the way they are operated. Once a cartridge is fired, the shooter cycles the weapon manually by pulling back and pushing forward (pumping) the fore-end; this ejects the fired cartridge and loads a new one. The most common form of pump-action firearm is a shotgun, though pump-action rifles do exist and function similarly.

Lever action firearms should be familiar to anyone who has seen a cowboy movie. A lever located near the trigger is manipulated after each shot to eject a fired cartridge and load a new one. Lever-action firearms are usually rifles and carbines, though a few lever-action shotguns have been made over the years.

Semi-automatic firearms are designed to fire a cartridge and then use the energy generated by the shot to eject the spent cartridge and chamber a new one. All the shooter has to do is to continue to pull the trigger until the firearm is empty. Semi-automatics often have less recoil, or kick, than other weapons of the same caliber and as such are popular among target shooters and other high-volume shooters. Their rapid rate of fire also makes them a popular choice for military and law enforcement, and some semi-automatic rifles are exceedingly accurate.

Do not, however, call them automatics. That term is reserved for weapons that fire continuously as long as the trigger is held down.

Handguns

Handguns come in two basic configurations: Semi-automatic pistols, and revolvers. Like rifles, they fire single projectiles down a rifled barrel.

Revolvers are the cowboy’s handgun, as well as the old-time police officer’s. They usually hold five or six cartridges in a revolving cylinder. The cylinder advances either as the trigger is pulled, or as the gun is manually recocked by the shooter. A single bullet is fired each time the trigger is pulled; the bullet travels down a short, rifled barrel that can range in length from a couple of inches to nearly a foot.

Reloading a revolver involves swinging open the cylinder, removing the spent ammunition casings and replacing them with fresh cartridges. It is not an especially rapid operation, though it allows the shooter to collect the casings.

Revolvers are technically not considered pistols. But the horse is probably out of the barn on this point of distinction.

Semi-automatic pistols carry cartridges stacked in a magazine, a spring-loaded box that commonly is inserted into the pistol’s grip. A semi-automatic fires once for every pull of the trigger; recoil forces or gas generated by the shot then ejects the spent casing and loads a fresh cartridge into firing position. Semi-automatics do not fire any faster than a revolver; however, they tend to hold more cartridges and thus can be fired more times without reloading.

Reloading a semi-automatic involves ejecting the magazine and inserting another magazine pre-loaded with cartridges. Many shooters carry multiple loaded magazines to allow for rapid reloading, either in competitive shooting or in combat/law enforcement situations.

DO NOT call semi-automatic pistols “automatics.” Automatic weapons fire continuously so long as the trigger is depressed and cartridges remain in the weapon. Civilians are generally prohibited from owning them. Probably 90 percent of the firearms described as “automatic” in news reports are actually semi-automatics.

GUN KNOWLEDGE MAKES YOU A BETTER REPORTER

Early on in my career, a smart reporter covering a mass murder came up to me and said, “Well, I’m pretty sure the perps used a revolver, and I bet they weren’t very rushed for time.”

I looked at him as if he were crazy. How could he possibly know that?
Simple, he said. “The cops said they didn’t find any bullet casings at the scene.”
What does that mean? Well, a semi-automatic pistol ejects spent cartridges as they are fired. The brass casings bounce around on the floor, roll into crevices, hide in corners. But a shooter with a revolver swings open the cylinder that holds the cartridges before removing the brass and can easily pocket the empties before reloading.

The fact that no casings were found hinted to this reporter that a revolver probably was used. The fact that the victims had been shot more than two dozen times indicated to him that they had time to fire and reload that revolver several times.

As I said, smart reporter. His hunch turned out to be exactly correct. But he wouldn’t have had that hunch if he didn’t know something about guns.

Stephen Hunter

Hunter

One of the most knowledgeable journalists ever to write about firearms is Stephen Hunter, the former film critic and Pulitzer Prize winner from the Washington Post. Hunter is a firearms enthusiast who has written many popular novels featuring a heroic sniper; gun enthusiasts like his work because he clearly likes guns, understands them and writes about them accurately. And he’s a great writer.

In the fall of 2002, as a sniper terrorized the Beltway region, Hunter wrote an essay for the Post that deflated some of the hysteria surrounding the shootings and used his expertise to paint a portrait of the killer, based on what was known at the time. Most notably, Hunter hypothesized that the shooter was not some highly trained marksman, graduated from a sniper program, but rather a person with a rather rudimentary skill that could be easily learned. Turned out he was right.

Not every journalist is going to be capable of such insight. But a little more knowledge and a lot more skepticism would make most reporters a lot better.

— Kerry Luft

Common handgun calibers include:

  • .22 rimfire – the same cartridge used in many rifles. Popular target and small-game round.
  • .32 ACP – a .32-diameter bullet, not very powerful; popular in small, pocket-sized pistols. ACP stands for Automatic Colt Pistol.
  • .357 Magnum – a high-powered cartridge generally used in revolvers.
  • .38 Special – related to the .357 Magnum, it is less powerful but was a standard and popular revolver cartridge for many years.
  • .380 ACP – another Automatic Colt Pistol cartridge, it too is used in smaller, easily concealed pistols and is not considered very powerful.
  • 9 mm Parabellum – German-developed, it is used in semi-automatic pistols and is the most popular military and police cartridge in the world. Currently used by NATO countries in their military pistols.
  • .40 S&W – another popular law-enforcement cartridge, it gets its name from the company that developed it, Smith & Wesson.
  • .44 Magnum – made famous by the movies, particularly “Dirty Harry,” this is a heavy, powerful cartridge usually fired out of large revolvers. Its fierce recoil and the weight of the guns made to handle it make the .44 Magnum a specialist firearm, usually favored by hunters and some target shooters.
  • .45 ACP – for decades, this round was used by the U.S. military in its pistols and submachine guns. It was developed to have tremendous stopping power against an attacking enemy; it also is popular for target shooting.

All About Ammo

Reporters and editors frequently make technical mistakes when describing ammunition. Here is a basic glossary.

  • A bullet refers to the metal projectile fired by a rifle or pistol. The metal is usually lead, or lead with a jacket made from another metal. In casual use, some people refer to the entire cartridge as a bullet, but this is technically incorrect.
  • A case or casing is the metallic cylinder that holds the bullet, as well as the gunpowder and primer that fire the cartridge. Typically, the case is made of brass, and can be saved and reloaded with fresh powder, primer and bullet. In casual use, shooters often refer to fired cases as brass.
  • A primer is an explosive cap in the bottom of the casing. When it is struck by the firearm’s firing pin, it ignites the gunpowder, sending the bullet down the barrel.
  • A cartridge is the complete package – bullet, case, gunpowder and primer. It is also sometimes called a round; firing 100 rounds means you shot 100 cartridges.
  • Cartridges are held in a magazine. Some magazines are detachable, allowing for fast reloading. Others are integral to the firearm, often in the form of a tube under the barrel. Magazines can hold just a few rounds or dozens; their capacity frequently is limited by law.

Do not call magazines clips. Clips are metal devices that hold cartridges at the rear; magazines fully enclose them. In practice, clips are rather rare; the only common rifle that uses them is the M-1 Garand, which for many years was the U.S. military’s rifle. Calling a magazine a clip is one of those seemingly insignificant errors that drive gun enthusiasts up a wall.

Shotgun cartridges are usually made out of plastic and metal and are called shotshells or shells.

They contain pellets made from lead, steel or other metal, known as shot. Reporters and editors frequently make the mistake of calling all shotgun pellets buckshot. Buckshot is especially large pellets designed to be fired at deer, hence the name. It also is used in some military, law enforcement and home defense scenarios.

Smaller shot used for hunting or target shooting is more accurately described as birdshot. When in doubt, call it shot.

The shot is held in a plastic or fiber wrapping or cup called a wad. The gunpowder is held beneath the wad. As in rifle and pistol cartridges, an explosive cap called a primer is used to ignite the powder.

A shotshell can also fire a slug, a single projectile usually made from lead and weighing an ounce or more. Slugs are often used by deer hunters in heavily populated areas; they are devastating at close range but quickly lose power and accuracy.

CONTROVERSIAL TERMS

Assault rifle is a loaded term, no pun intended. It generally is applied to semi-automatic military-style weapons with certain characteristics, such as a collapsible or folding stock, high-capacity detachable magazines and a pronounced pistol grip. Legislation banning assault weapons usually lists these features; if a firearm has a certain number of those features it is considered an assault weapon under that law. Some of those laws also ban specific firearms.

Ak 47

An AK-47 Assault Rifle. SOURCE: WikiMedia.

What is often missed – and is pointed out by gun enthusiasts – is that functionally, many assault rifles are similar to more conventional-appearing firearms that are not banned. For example, the Ruger 10/22 is a popular .22 caliber rifle sold by the tens of thousands and used for casual target shooting and hunting. But there are aftermarket accessories such as folding stocks, laser sighting systems and extended, higher-capacity magazines that will make the 10/22 appear much like a military battle rifle. The basic operation, function and accuracy of the weapon have not changed.

SIGHTS AND MARKSMANSHIP

The truth is, most people are lousy shots – even people who say they are avid hunters and shooters. Movies and television would have you believe otherwise, but some of the feats performed on screen would be impossible for even champion shooters.

Rifles often have telescopic sights, complete with crosshairs. But those crosshairs must be carefully calibrated, a process that requires firing several shots at known distances and making adjustments until the bullets are striking exactly at the desired spot. This painstaking process must be repeated every time the shooter changes the type or brand of cartridge fired in the gun; one brand or weight of bullet may fire to a completely different spot than another.

Without this sort of calibration, a rifle is virtually useless at all but the closest ranges.

In the same manner, some handguns and military-style weapons use laser sights that project a dot onto the target. Some people believe that this laser guides the bullet onto the target. Not true. At best, the laser dot is an approximation of where the bullet will strike, and if it is haphazardly mounted on the firearm it may not be close at all.

Even the best sights are useless unless the shooter has some ability to use the firearm. A telescopic sight or a laser sight does not automatically turn the shooter into the second coming of Buffalo Bill. A poor marksman with a great sighting system still is not likely to hit his target. But a trained shooter can use those devices to wring more accuracy out of his weapon

One of the more popular rifles of this type is the AR-15, which is the basis for the military’s M-16 battle rifle. Journalists often assume that the “AR” stands for “assault rifle.” This is incorrect. It stands for Armalite, the weapon’s original manufacturer.

Some gun manufacturers now refer to their military-style weapons as “modern sporting rifles.” This is a marketing tactic, but it is true that many such rifles are used by target shooters and hunters. They are particularly popular with varmint hunters.
Automatic weapons will get you into trouble in more ways than one. As explained previously, an automatic weapon fires continuously as long as the trigger is depressed. Machine guns and submachine guns are automatic weapons. Semi-automatics, which are far more common in civilian hands, fire once and rechamber another cartridge every time the trigger is pulled.

Automatic weapons are heavily restricted by law. While some civilians legally own them, they must possess special licensing that is difficult to acquire.

Some military weapons can fire both in automatic and semi-automatic modes. These are called selective fire weapons and usually are not seen in civilian hands.

Even law-enforcement officials frequently misuse the term automatic. If a police officer tells you an automatic weapon was used in a crime, follow up. Almost certainly, it was a semi-automatic.

High-powered weapons: Frequently used, frequently wrong. In many cases, the term “high powered” is used as an inaccurate synonym for “high capacity.” For example, the popular AR-15 military-style has detachable magazines that can hold 20 or more cartridges. But those rifles usually are chambered for the .223 Remington cartridge, which in many states is considered not powerful enough for deer hunting.

Remember that “high powered” is a relative term. A .357 Magnum revolver is high powered compared to a .22 rimfire, but not compared to a rifle like the .308 Winchester. And the common deer hunting rifles sold in many sporting goods stores fire much more powerful cartridges than most so-called “high-powered assault rifles.”

Magnums are cartridges and shotshells that are designed to hold larger amounts of gunpowder and to be more powerful than the cartridges from which they are derived, as well as the firearms that shoot them. Popular wisdom holds that magnums are far more powerful than regular firearms and ammunition, but again, remember that “high powered” is a relative term. A .22 Magnum cartridge is only slightly more potent than a .22 rimfire, for example, and is not nearly as powerful as many conventional cartridges.

Sawed-off shotguns: Criminals often take a saw to the wooden stock and metal barrels of shotguns, cutting them down to a shorter length to better conceal them. This renders them useless for hunting or target shooting but makes them a fearsome weapon at close range.

Under U.S. law, it is illegal to possess a shotgun with a barrel less than 18 inches long or shorter over than 26 inches without special permission. Some jurisdictions ban them altogether.

Saturday Night Special

Raven Arms MP-25, a Saturday night special.
SOURCE: WikiMedia Commons.

Saturday night special: A slang term used to describe poor quality, cheaply made handguns, chambered for low-powered ammunition and easily concealed. Many laws have been written to regulate or ban these pistols.

“If you see a revolver with a silencer in the movies, laugh – it’s a mistake.”

Silencers: Also called suppressors, these are attached to the muzzle of a rifle, carbine or pistol and muffle the sound of a gunshot. They are heavily regulated by law and not many civilians possess them legally.

Also: They don’t work on most common revolvers! The gases and noise created when a revolver is fired escape from a small gap between the revolving cylinder and frame. So if you see a revolver with a silencer in the movies, laugh – it’s a mistake.

People who are unfamiliar with firearms often assume that any device attached to the end of a barrel is a silencer. It usually isn’t. In fact, many powerful rifles use devices called muzzle brakes that disperse gases rapidly to decrease recoil. Though muzzle brakes may look like a silencer to untrained eyes, they actually make the firearms louder.

HOW TO LEARN MORE

By no means is this essay a complete guide to firearms.  Rather, it is a rudimentary overview.  Journalists who cover crime, police and the military would be well advised to seek out more information, particularly if they are not firearms enthusiasts themselves.

Where should you go to do that? Some links are listed earlier this essay.  But here are some other ideas.

  • Local police and law enforcement agencies.  See if you can’t spend some time at the range with local law enforcement officers.  Most departments of any size have weapons specialists called armorers who work on and maintain firearms; they can be great sources of information.  If you can meet technicians in a ballistics laboratory, that would be helpful as well.  Find out what they can learn from evidence gathered at the scene of a crime. Security training companies that provide safety courses for journalists may be able to teach you some things about guns as well.
  • Local gun clubs/shooting ranges.  Go to a shooting range and ask if you can learn how to shoot.  You might be able to join a class, or get some one-on-one instruction from an employee. It may cost you a few bucks to rent a weapon and buy some ammunition, but it will be money and time well spent. At the very least, you will get a grounding in firearms safety, as well as an understanding of how various firearms operate and how difficult it is to shoot well.  You may come to understand why shooters like their hobby and don’t want to give it up.  Perhaps you will enjoy it yourself.
  • Advocacy groups.  Remember that they have an agenda, but groups such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation and gun-control organizations such as the Brady Campaign can be valuable sources of information and statistics.

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About the author

Kerry LuftKerry Luft is the Nation & World editor of the Chicago Tribune, where he has worked since 1985. He has held many positions at the paper, including Washington bureau chief, associate managing editor for national and foreign news and deputy metropolitan editor, among other leadership roles. In the mid-1990s he was a foreign correspondent based in Brazil, covering all of South America. While there, he was part of a reporting team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

He is a frequent lecturer on journalism at local colleges and universities and also has spoken to journalism conferences in China and Italy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

In his spare time, he is an avid competitive shotgun shooter and bird hunter.