Firearms, handguns, pistols, and guns. These are all words for the same thing, so it follows that it’s no wonder why many gun owners get confused by terminology. There aren’t hundreds of gun terms, there are thousands, and it can be a challenge knowing where to start your verbal gun education. To help you along the way, we’ve put together this guide to handgun terminology.
ACP: Acronym for “Automatic Colt Pistol.” A designation for a specific cartridge; i.e., 45 ACP designed by John Moses Browning in 1904.
Action: The part of a firearm that controls functions such as loading, firing, extracting, and/or ejecting ammunition. There’s more than one type of firearm action.
Airgun (pistol): A platform that fires plastic or metal pellets of varying calibers typically using compressed air.
Backstrap (of a gun): The rearmost portion of a handgun’s grip; the more narrow, back portion of a handgun’s gripthat makes contact with approximately the middle of the palm of your strong-side hand.
Barrel: A metal tube manufactured from various types of metal with varying finishes in different sizes that’s designed to have a bullet fired through it.
Battery (firearms): When a gun is properly in battery it means the slide or bolt is fully closed and ready to fire. Gunsout of battery have the slide or bolt stuck partially open.
Beavertail: The rearmost part of a handgun’s grip that curves up and outward, away from the frame. It’s meant to improve the shooter’s grip on the gun. Some guns, such as Glocks, are sold with different sizes of interchangeable beavertails to fit varying hand sizes.
Blade sight: A narrow, raised front sight with an appearance similar to that of an inverted blade. Usually seen on revolvers.
Bluing: The process of electrochemical conversion coating a gun both to protect it from rust and wear, and also to give it a specific aesthetic.
Bolt: A tubular, metal mechanism containing the firing pin, extractor, and sometimes the ejector. The bolt face—the end facing the muzzle of the firearm—is the part that holds the base of a cartridge when the gun has a round chambered.
Bolt-Action: A type of firearms action requiring the shooter to manually manipulate the bolt of the gun using an angled arm or knob to cycle cartridges in and out of the chamber. Bolt-action firearms require the shooter to pull the bolt back to eject the spent cartridge before the next round can be loaded.
Bolt Handle: The lever, or arm, attached to the bolt of a bolt-action firearm.
Bolt Pistol: A pistol with a bolt-action, rather than a striker-fired or hammer-fired action.
Break (trigger): Refers to the moment the trigger is pulled back far enough to release the hammer (the exact sequence of events within the action depends on the type of action). When speaking positively about a trigger break, words such as “clean” and “crisp” are used.
Bull barrel: Barrels that are thicker and heavier than standard barrels and often don’t taper between the action and the crown. In a 1911-platform handgun, a bull barrel doesn’t have a bushing. Bull barrels reduce felt recoil and are often more durable. See bushing.
Bullet: The projectile component of a round of ammunition. The bullet is the component that exits the barrel when a gun is fired.
Bushing: Part of a 1911 barrel that fits over the muzzle end and is removeable and replaceable. The barrel bushingis meant to provide stability and improve accuracy. It also affects barrel lock-up. Proper fitment of the barrel bushingmatters for overall performance of the gun.
Bushing compensator: A compensator made to replace the bushing of a 1911 for the purpose of reducing felt recoiland muzzle rise which, in turn, can improve accuracy.
Bushing wrench: A tool used to remove the barrel bushing of a 1911. Different manufacturers often have varying sizes required to remove the bushings of their 1911s.
Caliber: Refers to the diameter of the bore of the barrel and also the size of bullet the gun is chambered in. At its simplest, in ammunition, caliber refers to the width of the bullet; for example, 9x19mm is 9.01 mm (0.355-inches) in diameter.
Cartridge: Often used to refer to a completely loaded round of ammunition, but also used as “spent cartridge” when referring to the empty brass left over after firing. Sometimes interchangeably used with “case.”
Centerfire: Cartridges with the primer located in the center of the base of the case; the firing pin strikes the primer at the center to fire the bullet through the barrel of the gun. Sometimes used to refer to guns that use centerfire ammunition; i.e. “centerfire fire.”
Chamber: The part of a firearm where a cartridge is loaded so the gun can be fired.
Channel liner: A plastic tube used to protect the metal of a firearm from friction created by the firing pin within the slide.
Clip: Clips are devices made to feed the magazines of guns. The firearms term “clip” isn’t interchangeable with “magazine.” They’re not the same thing. An easy way to remember it is that clips feed magazines and magazinesfeed guns. See magazine.
Co-witness: When your iron sights are aligned with your red dot sight’s zeroed dot and can be used to back them up if need be.
Commander (1911): The model of 1911 that’s more compact than the full-size Government. A Commander has a 4.25-inch barrel. Some manufacturers refer to models as being Commander-sized when they technically aren’t.
Compensator: A device that connects to the threaded barrel on the muzzle of a gun for the purpose of reducing felt recoil and muzzle rise which, in turn, should improve accuracy and target re-acquisition.
Conversion cylinder: A drop-in cylinder that allows certain revolvers to fire a different type of ammunition than they were originally made to shoot. For example, a conversion cylinder allows a cap-and-ball revolver to fire modern centerfire ammunition.
Crane (revolver): The part of a revolver with two sides, one that inserts into the frame and one that inserts into the cylinder, for the purpose of facilitating the swinging-out action of the cylinder away from the frame of the revolver so the gun can be loaded, unloaded, cleaned, or disassembled.
Cylinder: The cylindrical metal component of a revolver that contains multiple chambers, each of which holds a round of ammunition, and rotates so the revolver may fire as the trigger is pulled.
DA (firearms): See double-action.
DAO: See double-action only.
Decocker: A lever or mechanism that allows you to de-cock a pistol. For example, de-cocking returns a DA/SA pistolto double-action for the first shot fired, after which it’ll be single-action until the magazine is empty. See cock.
Defender (1911): A compact, or sub-compact, 1911 manufactured by Colt that has a 3.0-inch barrel and a gripapproximately one-half-inch shorter than the Commander size.
Derringer: An extremely small break-action pistol originally designed in the early 19th century by Henry Deringer. Shouldn’t be confused with a miniature revolver such as the North American Arms 22 Magnum.
Disconnector: Both a passive safety and a functional part of semi-automatic pistols. For example, the disconnectorprevents the firearm from firing when it’s activated (in the 1911 pistol it’s part of the grip safety). It also serves to disengage the trigger and sear when the trigger is fully pressed rearward. The trigger must be reset to reconnect the trigger and sear, allowing the next shot to be fired.
Double-action: An action where the trigger both cocks the gun’s hammer and releases it. Some double-action guns are double-action only (DAO) and some are DA/SA (double-action/single-action). If the gun is DAO, every shot firedwill require a longer, heavier trigger pull; if a gun is DA/SA, the first shot fired will be double-action with all subsequent shots being single-action. See single-action.
Double-action only: A gun that only fires double-action as opposed to one capable of both double-action and single-action. The acronym for double-action only is DAO. See double-action.
Double stack: A gun designed with a magazine that holds ammunition in two columns, resulting in a wider grip and greater capacity overall. For example, the majority of Glocks are double-stacks, although the manufacturer also now makes a few Slimline and single-stack pistols.
Dovetail: Refers to the shape of the notch cut into the firearm, typically for mounting iron sights. Dovetail notches are wider at the base and narrow at the top, typically allowing sights to be tapped in and out although they’re sometimes held in place by a set screw.
Draw: The action of removing your firearm from its holster or other storage place so it can be fired, stored, or otherwise handled.
Drop safety: A mechanism in modern firearms designed to prevent the gun from firing if it’s dropped. Most modern firearms have drop safeties.
Drum magazine: A magazine with a cylindrical base designed to hold far more rounds of ammunition than a basic box magazine.
Ejection port: The open section in a gun’s slide or receiver meant for the spent brass/case/shotshell hull to eject during firing. The majority of firearms are designed with right-side ejection ports, but there are some left-side ejection ports on the market made for left-handed shooters.
External safety: A safety that’s visible on the outside of the gun that can be manipulated by hand such as an external thumb safety. Many firearms, such as Glocks, have internal safety mechanisms rather than external thumb safeties.
Felt recoil: The amount of movement the shooter is aware of, or feels, as a result of the firearm’s momentum during live fire. Different calibers, barrel lengths, and platforms produce more or less movement and varying degrees of felt recoil.
Field strip: Taking a gun apart for cleaning or inspection. This term is often used when referring to taking a gun apart just enough to give it a basic cleaning as opposed to fully disassembling the gun for in-depth repairs, inspection, or parts replacement.
Finish: The type of coating, or lack thereof, on a firearm.
Firearm: A readily portable weapon designed to expel a projectile utilizing explosives.
Flintlock: A firearm with an ignition mechanism involving a hammer with a flint that strikes a steel frizzen, creating a spark, igniting the black powder, and causing it to fire a bullet. The flintlock is an old single-shot firearm invented in the 16th century that was used until the 19th century, when it was replaced by percussion weapons.
Frame: The part of a firearm that houses the action. The frame can be made from a type of metal or plastic.
Front sight: A post or bead located at the muzzle end on the top of a handgun’s slide or barrel that’s used in conjunction with the rear sight for accurate shots.
Government (1911): A traditional, classic 1911 that has a full-sized frame and a five-inch barrel.
Grip: On a handgun, the portion of the frame held in the shooter’s hands so the firearm can be fired.
Grip panel: A part in the correct shape and design to fit onto the grip of a handgun, usually attached by screws, meant to either customize the gun’s appearance or provide a firm grip through texturing and/or width.
Gun: An inanimate object made from metals and plastics that has a metal tube designed to expel projectiles at high speeds through the use of explosives.
Handgun: A gun designed to be fired while held in one or both hands that’s not made for and doesn’t require support from the shoulder.