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Pistol vs. Rifle vs. Shotgun: What’s The Difference?

1/24/20

by: Natchez Shooting Supplies

– Contributing Writer: Richard Douglas –

Professor Plum. In the billiard-room. With the revolver. Or is it a pistol?  Are those the same thing? It’s for sure not a rifle or shotgun. Right?

What’s the difference between all these firearms anyway?

Okay. So most likely you’re not playing an actual real-life classic board game wondering these things. It’s more likely you’ve seen many kinds of guns in movies or TV shows you’ve watched. But there are definitely differences you’ve noticed about the guns and those differences are actually quite pronounced.

You notice different styles. Different sizes. Different calibers (like the best home defense .45 ACP carbine). But which is which? How do you tell the difference? What characteristics make each gun appropriate for a certain task or situation?

Here’s the first thing you should know…
There are three main types of guns:

  1. Pistols
  2. Rifles
  3. Shotguns

While each type can have similarities to the others, there are distinct and unique differences that put each into its own category.

So what exactly are those characteristics?
Read on to find out…

Pistol

Let’s start with the smallest.

Generally speaking, a pistol is a handgun with a rifled barrel that is less than 16 inches in length and which a shooter does not support from the shoulder. It is fired from one hand.

A revolver — which is indeed the gun used in the classic version of Clue ‒‒ is classified in the pistol category. However, a pistol can also be a semi-automatic.

If you’ve ever seen a police officer’s gun, you’ve most likely seen a semi-automatic pistol.

If you’ve ever seen an old western movie duel, you’ve likely seen a revolver — probably a Colt.

Rifle

A rifle, by contrast, requires two hands to shoot as well as shoulder bracing.

Its barrel ‒‒ which is 16 inches or greater in length ‒‒ has rifling.

Rifling, or the grooves within the barrel which give a rifle its name, force the bullet to spin which results in greater distance, accuracy, and stabilization of the bullet.

One bullet is ejected from this firearm with each trigger pull. A rifle can be either semi-automatic or bolt action. Hunters often use rifles. Snipers, (think Mark Wahlberg in Shooter), do too.

Shotgun

If you’ve ever seen an action movie (and let’s face it, there are plenty out there to see!), chances are you’ve seen a shotgun.

Like a rifle, a shotgun must be braced against the shoulder and also requires two hands to shoot.

Where it differs is that a shotgun’s barrel is typically smooth and thus lacks rifling. It also differs from a rifle because it can fire different kinds of ammunition. For instance, a shotgun can fire “shot,” which is generally composed of pellets that scatter when shot from the gun.

It can also fire a “slug,” a solid projectile which has immense force and leaves a deeper wound than shot. A shotgun is also 18 inches or longer. Additionally, out of the three categories of guns, the shotgun’s barrel has the thinnest walls.

But like a rifle, a shotgun also has two subsets:

  1. Pump action
  2. Semi-automatic

Considerations

The characteristics of each gun make it useful for different situations. Before selecting a gun, think about what you need it for and how the characteristics of that gun-type will help or inhibit your purpose. Here’s a general guideline:

Pistols (or handguns) are mostly used for self-defense/home-defense. The reason? They’re small, compact, and easy to maneuver with.

Rifles could be used for about anything you can think of:

  • Hunting
  • Plinking
  • Home Defense
  • Target Shooting
  • Lots more

Lastly, shotguns are primarily used against small moving targets (for example, birds). It could also be used for home defense and hunting.

And that’s it! Next time you’re playing Clue, be the expert at the table. Don’t just call it a gun.

Call it what it truly is:

A revolver.

Author Bio: Richard Douglas is a firearms expert and educator. His work has appeared on large publications like The National Interest, Daily Caller, American Shooting Journal, and more. In his free time, he reviews various optics on his Scopes Field blog.

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