Friday, January 9, 2015

Basic Firearm Nomenclature

I have to admit that I am a pedant. Being somewhat overzealous about correcting small and large infractions of grammar and spelling is one of my character flaws. This stodgy behavior carries over into the realm of firearms when people use terminology wrong. Regardless of where you stand on the inaccurate use of firearm nomenclature, it definitely separates the educated from the uneducated. Therefore, if one wishes to sound knowledgeable about the topic of firearms, one should understand the vocabulary.

Clip or Magazine?

This is probably my biggest peeve. Calling a magazine a clip. When used in fiction by persons who are supposed to be familiar with firearms, I immediately flip the table and exit stage right. A magazine is a device that stores ammunition and feeds the cartridges into a repeating firearm. They are responsible for making the stored cartridges available to the action to be loaded into the chamber.

Using a clip to load the integral magazine of an SKS
There are many different types of magazines and most of them use a spring and follower (often incorporating a partial shape of the cartridge the corresponding firearm is chambered) to move the cartridges into position for the action. In the case of many air guns, gravity is used to position ball ammunition into place from the ammunition reservoir.

Glock Magazine Diagram


Magazines come in many types and may be detachable or integral (fixed). Some magazines may be loaded with clips, either by inserting a clip of ammunition into the magazine or via a speed loading device.

AR-15 Box Magzine


Box magazines are the most common type found in rifles and pistols today. The detachable box magazines are found in almost all autoloading pistols (the C-96 Broomhandle Mauser being an exception) and modern service-style rifles. Fixed or integral box magazines are usually found in bolt-action rifles and older design service-style rifles (many SKS rifles and the venerable M1 Garand, which also used clips to load the magazine). There are a couple of variations on the vertical box magazine worth mentioning: casket and horizontal box magazines.

The casket gets its name from the shape, where the part that feeds inside the magazine well is thinner than the rest of the body which utilizes a quad-stack design to considerably increase capacity. The FN P-90 personal defense weapon uses a horizontal feed box magazine, but this author thinks vertical and horizontal is a misnomer.

Technically, some rifles accept so-called vertical box magazines in a horizontal position (such as the famous WWII British Sten) and even on top (similar to the FN P-90, except the magazine is still vertical). I personally believe the terminology on how cartridges feed out of the magazine should be linear or perpendicular while vertical and horizontal should be used for magazine orientation while bottom, side, or top can be used to describe where on the firearm a magazine is accepted. But again, that's the pedant in me.

Beta Saddle Drum Magazine


Drum magazines differ from box magazines in that they store ammunition in a cylindrical fashion. Standard drum magazines store the cartridges parallel to the axis of feed rotation. All drum magazines I'm aware of are detachable and the firearms they attach to often accept box magazines. The advantage of drum (and rotary) magazines is their capacity to length ratio. Their disadvantages are their weight and occasional awkwardness. Not to mention the often time-consuming process of loading (many need to be disassembled, loaded, reassembled, and finally wound). But hey, you wanted the capacity so you don't need to reload, right?

Drum magazines also have several variations: helical, pan, saddle, and snail drum magazines. Helical magazines widen the drum so that cartridges follow a spiral path and thus extends the capacity, Pan magazines store the cartridges perpendicular to the axis of feed rotation, are usually top-mounted, and can sometimes accept clips (such as the Imperial Japanese Army Type 89 machine gun). Saddle drum split the ammunition into two drums on either side of the magazine well, thus reducing the overall height, but making the magazine significantly wider. Snail magazines look like have of a saddle drum and can feel very lopsided.

Rotary Magazine


Rotary magazines are well-known for their use in the popular Ruger 10/22 rimfire rifle. They differ from box magazine in their use of a torsion spring actuated sprocket. They also tend to have a lower capacity than box magazines but may also be detachable or integral.
SRM 1016 Detachable Tubular Magazine


Tubular magazine are popular on pump and lever action shotguns and rifles. They are often fixed, but some recent innovative shotguns, such as the SRM 1216, provide a detachable magazine.
Magazine & Clip Differences


Clips simply store multiple cartridges of ammunition together as a unit. What separates clips from magazines is the lack of a feeding mechanism. There are several types of clips.
Stripper Clips


Often called a stripper clip in reference to action one takes to charge a magazine with it. Stripper clips are often used with speed loader tools on modern magazines but the process for charging the magazine involves aligning the clip pushing down on the cartridges to load the magazine, thus stripping the clip of rounds.
En Bloc Clips

En Bloc

The en bloc clip is used to charge fixed magazines in older service rifles such as the M1 Garand and Mauser. Unlike a charger clip, the entire clip is placed inside the magazine and is often ejected (or able to be pushed out by a new clip) once all the ammunition is spent.
Moon Clips


Moon clips are used to speed load and extract revolvers and are ring shaped, like the moon. Since they also come in semi-circular versions there are also half-moon clips (which usually require two to fully reload).
Cartridge Diagram

Bullet or Cartridge?

Incorrect usage of the term bullet may be even more common than clip, but it doesn't quite set off my pedantic rage (as much). A bullet is merely the projectile that is propelled from the business end of a firearm. Before being fired, yet after being seated, and while in a packaged form that can be called ammunition that is loaded into a magazine or stored on a clip, a bullet is part of a larger assembly called a cartridge or round.

A cartridge consists of many components other than the bullet including the case (which when empty is often called brass), a powder charge, and a primer. It's an important distinction, because if you purchase a box of bullets, you better have a loading press.

Assault Rifle or Semi-Automatic Rifle?

An assault rifle is different from a sporting or semi-automatic rifle in the fact that it must be capable of selective fire (which also separates assault rifles from the even more menacing machine gun). Selective fire means that it can operate in at least one semi-automatic mode and one automatic mode (either burst, full, or both). It must also have a detachable magazine.

Some other features are used (such as being an individual weapon instead of crew-served, effective range, and intermediate cartridge power) to distinguish it from other military firearms such as a battle or sniper rifle.

It's a common misconception that the AR in AR-15 stands for Assault Rifle, but it does not. Instead, it stands for ArmaLite Rifle, the company that originally developed it. I think most people who misuse assault rifle really want to say assault weapon because they are referring to United States legal definitions of weapons that were originally regulated by the NFA[1] in response to the Prohibition-era gangland crime and the iconic Thompson sub-machine gun, known colloquially as the Tommy Gun.

Assault weapons, as defined by the now expired Federal AWB[2] must be a semi-automatic firearm that accepts a detachable magazine and two or more of the following features (however individual states may have expanded definitions):
  • bayonet mount
  • flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor
  • folding or telescoping stock
  • grenade launcher
  • pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon

Accidental Discharge or Negligent Discharge?

An accidental discharge is the unexpected and undesirable discharge (firing) of a firearm caused by circumstances beyond the control of the handler, This terminology misuse is often employed by those who were mishandling firearms in order to smokescreen their negligence. If the firearm safety rules are being followed, there hopefully will not be any injury. Unfortunately, unplanned firearm discharges are most often negligent discharges and are caused by failing to observe the firearm safety rules.

Silencer or Suppressor?

I have yet to hear a firearm (as in a weapon that launches a projectile via explosive force) that was completely silenced. The correct nomenclature is suppressor, as it merely reduces decibels, but even the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms uses the silencer misnomer on their official forms and documents[3].
.The 45 Colt (left) & the .45 Schofield (right)

.45 Long Colt or .45 Colt?

For the cowboy action shooters out there, the iconic pistol cartridge that won the west is technically just .45 Colt as there is not, nor has there ever been a .45 Short Colt. However, there is a historical context in that the .45 Colt was often referred to the Long Colt in order to differentiate it from the other popular .45 caliber cartridge of the era, the .45 Schofield (which was shorter).


[1] National Firearms Act of 1936
[2] Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994
[3] ATF's Silencer FAQ

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