If you’re new to guns, you may not understand the difference between the basic types of firearms. Even if you’re not new to guns, your knowledge might be summed up in something like rifles and shotguns are long, handguns are short or rifles and shotguns are for hunting, handguns are for personal protection.
We only know what we know, right?
Let’s dig into this a little bit more, because rifles, shotguns, and handguns all serve different purposes. In this article, we’ll make it easy by sticking with basic, general information. There are guns out there that don’t quite fit these basic rules (for instance, the Taurus Judge—a handgun that can shoot shotgun shells) but we won’t be talking about those things here.
Long guns: rifles and shotguns
Generally speaking, longer guns are meant for shooting longer distances. The longer a barrel on a gun, the more accurate it is to further distances.
As you will see, part of the difference between rifles and shotguns is best explained through their ammunition. You can learn more about ammunition as it relates to different types of firearms in my article Breaking Down the Basics: Ammunition.
Shoots one projectile
A cartridge (or round) is loaded into the rifle and one projectile is fired down range/at the target. It is important to distinguish this one projectile aspect because it makes a big difference in what you use this gun for and where it’s allowed to be used.
Generally intended for shooting a stationary target
In the example of hunting, most people are going to choose a rifle when shooting game that is standing still, or that—best case scenario—they’re going to wait until it’s standing still in order to take aim. (See note about deer hunting with a shotgun further down in this article.) By contrast, trying to aim one projectile from a rifle at a flock of ducks overhead or a pheasant your pooch has just flushed is far less effective.
Generally intended for shooting at longer distances
With a longer barrel, a rifle is accurate at further distances. But it’s also because…
Projectiles travel great distances
This chart shows some of the differences in how far a projectile from a rifle can travel. For instance, depending on several factors, a shot fired from a .22 can travel a mile. A shot fired from a 30.06 can travel over 3 miles. So while that makes it great for longer distance shooting, it also means you really need to know the area you’re shooting in and what’s behind your target before you decide to press the trigger. Safety first, right?
Measured in calibers
Rifles are measured in calibers, which is the diameter of the cartridge or the bore. Some calibers are measured in inches—.22 or a .308— while others use the metric system—6mm (more common in handguns; see below).
The action of a rifle refers to how the firearm handles the ammunition—meaning, how the gun loads, locks, fires, extracts and ejects the round. Common actions for a rifle are bolt action, lever action, pump, break action, or semi-automatic.
The barrel of a rifle is rifled, meaning the barrel has spiraled grooves inside that help to give spin to the projectile as it travels down the barrel. This improves accuracy drastically.
Shoots a spray of several projectiles:
A shell is loaded into a shotgun and, when fired, sends several pellets down range at its intended target. Essentially, you have a better chance of hitting your target, even though the actual pellets are smaller than the projectile that would come from a rifle. (Unless you’re shooting a slug—see note further down about deer hunting with a shotgun.) So multiple pellets being shot at a target is why shotguns are…
Generally intended for shooting a moving target.
Shotguns are generally chosen for hunting birds/small fast animals that are on the move, or for shooting trap/skeet. Shotguns are also commonly chosen as home defense guns. In a high stress situation of a 2 am home invasion, many of us would find the range and power of a shotgun more beneficial than the “precision” of a rifle or handgun—especially when that shotgun is loaded with buckshot (a shell containing 8-9 large caliber pellets).
Pellets don’t travel as far.
Again, it depends on many different things (shot, load, choke) but the effectiveness of the pellets from a shotgun shell isn’t usually much more than about 30-40 yards.
Measured in gauges:
Shotguns are classified by gauge—a measurement of the bore or the shot shell. Common shotgun gauges are 10, 12, and 20 gauge. The smaller the number, the bigger the shotgun bore.
As already stated in the rifle section, the action of a shotgun refers to how the firearm deals with the ammunition you’re giving it. Common actions for shotguns are break action, pump, and semi-automatic.
Shotgun barrels are often smooth, although you can get rifled barrels for some shotguns—to be used if you were shooting slugs instead of regular shotgun shells.
**Hey Amy, my parents always used shotguns when they were deer hunting. With all this information, why wouldn’t they have used a rifle?**
Great question! In some areas, rifles actually aren’t allowed for hunting—and, growing up, those were the areas my family hunted. As a kid, I just assumed that some people chose to use shotguns with “slugs”—a shell containing one bigger metal projectile instead of several smaller pellets—and some people chose to use rifles. Not true! States make their own rules about what guns are allowed for hunting large game, so make sure you check with your local DNR.
To sum it up, rifles shoot cartridges that send one projectile down range. The projectiles can travel a mile or more. Shotguns shoot shells which usually contain many pellets, and are desired when shooting at moving targets. Shotguns also have the option of being used as a slug gun (by shooting slugs instead of regular shot shells) in areas where rifles are not allowed. Slugs are said to be effective to 100 yards—depending on several factors. Regardless, the range of a shotgun as a slug gun is much smaller than a rifle shooting a cartridge.
The definition of a handgun is a short-barrelled rifle designed to be fired with one hand. With that in mind, what else do we need to know about them?
Generally intended for close range
A short barrelled gun is meant for shooting at a shorter distance. For a new shooter, a handgun isn’t accurate much further than 50 feet. An experienced shooter can push that out closer to 100 feet. But you certainly won’t be making any long distance sniper shots with your conceal carry gun.
More portable than a long gun; easy to conceal
Obviously a handgun is much smaller than a long rifle or a shotgun. And while there are many people who do competition shooting with handguns, the portability of a handgun makes them the clear choice for on person self-protection.
Shoots one projectile
Like a rifle, a handgun generally shoots one projectile. But perhaps you already caught onto that when you read that a handgun is a short barrelled rifle.
Projectiles travel far
As already stated, handguns aren’t intended for (or meant to be accurate when) shooting long distances. However, the ammunition will certainly travel quite a distance. Even though you’re not going to attempt to hit something a mile away, a round from a 9mm handgun has the potential to travel a mile.
Types available: semi-automatic or revolver.
A revolver has a revolving cylinder into which rounds are loaded, one round in each slot. After being fired, the casings stay inside the cylinder and have to be extracted before the cylinder is reloaded.
By contrast, a semi-automatic pistol has a removable, non-revolving magazine that holds stacked rounds to be fired. When rounds are fired, they are automatically ejected from the gun.
There is a difference in the grip with which you hold a semi-automatic gun in contrast to a revolver. If you use a semi-automatic grip while shooting a revolver, you risk being injured from the escaping gasses. In layman’s terms, you’ll blow your thumb off.
Measured in calibers
Handguns (like rifles) are measured in calibers. Common revolver calibers are .357 or .38. Common semi-automatic calibers are .380, 9mm or .40.
There is so much to learn about guns, isn’t there?
We all come from different backgrounds of experience with firearms. Some folks are absolute beginners, starting from scratch. But not everyone who was raised with guns understands all the differences—even things that others would consider basic.
For instance, maybe you were raised in a family that hunted and so you’re well versed in long guns, but know nothing about handguns because no one in your family owned one. By contrast, maybe you learned about handguns but had no reason to learn about long guns—or maybe you had no one to teach you!
The great thing is that we can all keep learning. Hopefully this article has explained the differences in a way that you can begin to understand the uses of each firearm and choose the one(s) best suited for your purpose(s).