A large amount of jargon and terminology is involved in gun culture, so it's no surprise people become confused. Misused gun terms are extremely common. Many of these misused terms get passed down to new shooters from people who learned them from others.
But words do have specific meanings, and to say what you mean is extremely important. That's especially true when it comes to guns, because misinformation about firearms can lead to miscommunication and even inappropriate fear. So, take some time to learn about nine commonly misused gun terms below.
This one is the most commonly seen in the media and political arena. Most times, it’s people calling a magazine a clip. There is indeed a device involving ammunition that is referred to as a clip, but that thing you fill with ammo and insert into your AR ain’t it.
Sure, it might be used as slang in some kinds of music and movies, but a clip and a magazine are two completely different things. There’s nothing inherently wrong with slang terminology; it can be a fun way to discuss things with your friends. But when it comes to firearms, there’s enough misinformation out there that it’s important for gun owners to educate others when given the opportunity.
A magazine is essentially a spring-loaded box designed to be inserted into a firearm to load the rounds into it. It encloses the rounds within that box on all sides except for one. This opening allows rounds to feed into your firearm while the rest of the magazine offers some protection.
A clip, on the other hand, is just a device that holds rounds together in a group. It doesn’t enclose them; it just holds them together at the end. In most cases, a clip is used for transporting and storing the rounds, although clips can also be used to help load magazines and certain firearms. For example: stripper clips are used for storage, transport, and loading weapons and internal magazines. Moonclips and other speed clips can be used for revolvers as well.
2. Assault Rifles
Next to clip, the term assault rifle is one of the most commonly misused gun terms. There is also a bit of conflating between the terms assault rifle, assault weapon and semiautomatic. In some cases, these misuses are simple ignorance and nothing more than repeating what‘s been heard from other sources. In others, it’s a deliberate action meant to advance an agenda.
Unfortunately, the latter is often the reason for the ignorance of the former. Anti-gun groups and politicians deliberately misrepresent these terms to make certain guns seem more dangerous than others. Contrary to what’s repeated in the media, an AR-15 isn’t an assault weapon. Neither is it an assault rifle — and no, the letters AR don't stand for automatic rifle.
In fact, AR simply stands for Armalite Rifle. It was just a designator used because Armalite was the first company to produce the gun.
Additionally, “assault rifle” and “assault weapon” are often used interchangeably, but technically there’s no such thing as an assault weapon. It’s really more of a generic term, like gun, that gets used instead of assault rifle. But the term assault rifle actually has a definition.
The U.S. Army first defined the term assault rifle in 1970 in the intelligence document FSTC-CW-07-03-70: Small Arms Identification and Operation Guide - Eurasian Communist Countries. According to the Army, assault rifles are “short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachine gun and rifle cartridges.” Selective fire means a gun is capable of selecting multiple rates of fire, to include automatic. This actually excludes the AR as it’s not select-fire but a semiautomatic.
Lastly, assault rifles have been illegal in the U.S. since 1986. The Hughes Amendment to the Firearms Owners Protection Act banned the importation and manufacture of full-automatic firearms for sale to civilians. So, despite the use of the term, assault rifles aren’t available within the United States.
3. Accuracy vs. Precision
These terms are a little more interchangeable than some of the others, but differences still exist. Accuracy is the ability to hit the target whereas precision is the ability to place the shot in a specific location.
An accurate shooter is one who can consistently hit the target they’re aiming for. A precise shooter would be one who’s able to get consistently tight groupings of shots. The goal for most shooters is to combine the two and consistently put tight groups on target in as many conditions as possible. But remember, just because a shooter is accurate, doesn’t mean they’re precise — and vice versa.
4. Pistol vs. Handgun
These two terms are actually interchangeable despite what others might tell you.
Sure, some will argue that “pistol” describes a semiautomatic hand-held gun and not a revolver. This one really is a semantics issue, though, which is why it's included here. In reality, the term pistol has been around for centuries and predates semiautomatic firearms by a few hundred years. So, in this case, call it what you want: You’re not wrong.
5. Pocket Pistol vs. Subcompact Pistol
This one’s a case of a generic term versus an actual technical description. Your subcompact might actually be a pocket pistol and your pocket pistol might be a subcompact. But the opposite is also true: They might not be.
A pocket pistol is a generic term for any gun you carry in your pocket. A subcompact gun is just a smaller version of a full-sized gun intended for use in concealed carry. This is why the crossover, and therefore the confusion, exists.
6. Cartridge vs. Bullet vs. Caliber
A gun cartridge is the entirety of the round. It’s the primer, the casing, the powder load and the projectile.
The bullet is the projectile portion of that complete package.
The confusion exists because people tend to shorten language for efficiency. When you say you’re going to buy bullets, unless people know you reload your own, they understand you mean the entire cartridge.
Caliber gets added to the mix because people often refer to the rounds they purchase by their caliber. Caliber by definition is a reference to the diameter of the gun’s barrel. So when you say you’re going to get some 9mm, or even 9mm bullets, people know you mean the ammunition for your 9mm firearm.
7. Extractor vs. Ejector
The terms extractor and ejector are referring to two specific actions performed by your firearm. They’re correlated and work in tandem, but they’re different things.
The extractor is the mechanism that pulls the empty casing from the chamber and the ejector is the piece that throws that empty case out of the firearm. Because these actions happen almost simultaneously, it’s easy to see the confusion. Also, there are some firearms that are extractor only, like shotguns. They require the removal of the empty brass by hand.
8. Shells vs Shotshells
Shells can actually mean any cartridge for any gun because all cartridges have some kind of shell casing. Shotshells are specifically the ones for shotguns.
This one is a case of common usage and slang versus the function of the item. For the record, no one in the firearms industry outside of the ATF uses the term silencer, least of all manufacturers, because it’s not accurate.
Silencer is a term in common usage for similar reasons ARs are called assault rifles by some. It’s common because of use by media, movies and anti-gunners. Those involved with the use of these devices will tell you there’s no such thing as a silenced gun. There are only devices to suppress the sound.
The accurate name is suppressor. These items work by attaching to your firearm to disperse the gasses and minimize the explosion’s sound as a result. Even if you combine a suppressor with subsonic ammunition, it’s still far from quiet. Suppressors just bring the sound down to a safer level for your ears, and most manufacturers still recommend using hearing protection even when shooting with a suppressor.
If you have used any of these terms incorrectly, don’t feel bad. It’s genuinely happened to everyone at some point. The important thing is that you know the distinctions now and can make sure you’re saying exactly what you intend to say when talking about firearms.