What Are the Differences Between Rifles, Shotguns and Handguns?
Everyone can look at shotguns, handguns and rifles and tell they're different guns. They all look visibly different and are clearly different firearms. But have you ever thought about what makes them different? When you really break them down, the differences go beyond the surface level observations and can be interesting to learn about and consider.
The first thing most people notice about the different types of guns is their barrels. Shotgun barrels, for example, are noticeably different from rifles and handguns. Even the smallest shotgun, something like a .410, is clearly identifiable as a shotgun at a glance. Obviously, they’re much larger than handguns in length, but the barrel on a shotgun is also noticeably thinner.
Handguns and rifles have much thicker barrels than shotguns due in large part to the ammunition they fire. Handgun and rifle ammunition create tremendous pressure within the chamber of the firearm. Because of this, the barrels for these guns must be thicker to maintain their structural integrity. The design of ammunition for shotguns makes this unnecessary, which dramatically changes the overall look of the gun.
Also, the barrels on rifles and handguns are rifled to create a twist in the rounds they fire. This means they have grooves that span the length of the barrel and rotate as they go down the barrel. This is done to create a spin in the round — much like a spiral on a football pass. The spin helps stabilize bullets so they're more accurate over the distance traveled and less encumbered by air and wind resistance.
Shotguns, on the other hand, are smoothbores. They don’t have rifling in their barrels. This is because the shotgun was intended to fire shot, and the smooth barrel reduces friction. Shot flies out of the barrel in a group and spreads outward in a pattern, so the issue of accuracy is less important. With a shotgun, the intent is essentially to deliver as much power across the area of the target as possible.
Before someone tries to correct this: Yes, there are shotguns with rifled barrels. The vast majority are smoothbores, though.
As we’ve mentioned, shotguns fire shot, which is a group of small BBs held together in a shell. This shell construction is markedly different than that of handgun and rifle rounds.
Since rifles and handguns create tremendous chamber pressure, the ammunition meant for these guns must be able to withstand that pressure. This is why rifles and handgun cartridges are made of brass, and shotgun shells are made of plastic. Even with shotgun slugs, the casing is comprised of the same material.
Slugs represent another difference in ammunition. They are essentially bullets designed to be fired from a shotgun. But with slugs, the rifling is put on the round itself, since the barrels are smooth. Handguns and rifles do not use this type of ammo.
But handgun and rifle ammo aren't exactly the same, either. Rifle rounds are more powerful with more muzzle velocity. This is mainly due to the fact that the barrels are longer and can have more twist, allowing for better stabilization to handle that power and direct it to its intended target. Also, in general, most handgun bullets are rounded, while most rifle rounds tend to taper to a point. Check the dedicated blog on that topic for more explanation.
Lastly, many people probably think that rifle ammo is larger than handgun ammunition. This is only partially true. Most cartridges for rifles are considered larger because they often have longer rounds and more powder charge than handgun ammo. But this doesn't mean rifles shoot larger calibers. Many handgun rounds can be large in terms of caliber — looking at you, .50 AE.
Shotguns can be breech loaders, pump action and semiautomatic. Pistols can be revolvers, striker fired, hammer fired, double action, single action or semiautomatic. Rifles can be bolt action, semi automatic or lever action and occasionally breech loaders. Oh, and all of them can be fully automatic.
Each type of gun also has some differences in the way it cycles.
Most rifles utilize the gases created when firing the gun to perform cycling action in some fashion. Whether it's via direct impingement, an internal piston system or a long stroke piston depends on the gun. Rifles use either the pressure from the gas (direct impingement) or the gas itself to cycle the firearm to prepare it to fire again. The latter is the preferred method of most modern rifles, such as AR styles or those based on the AK platform.
Shotguns of the semiautomatic variety also use gas in a similar manner to modern rifles. While these are the majority of semiautos available, there are also shotguns that utilize an inertia system.
With an inertia system, the bolt of the gun is kept in place by a spring. When you fire the gun, the force of the explosion causes the spring to compress, sending the bolt backwards and ejecting the now empty shell. As that force subsides, the bolt travels forward again, loading the next round into the chamber.
Most modern pistols that aren’t revolvers, whether they be striker or hammer fired guns, utilize some form of a blowback system. Blowback systems are the simplest of semiautomatic styles.
In a blowback system, the bolt rests against the end of the barrel but is not held in place. When fired, the expansion of the gasses that propel the round forward also propel the bolt backwards. It’s Newton’s third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Blowback systems capitalize on this to eject the old and chamber the new round.
On top of all that, each style of firearm also differs in its usage. Each tends to fit a certain kind of situation better than the others. There can be some overlap or even interchangeability, but for the most part, each plays its part in such a way that you wouldn’t want to use the other to handle certain situations.
The shotgun, for example, is excellent at shooting smaller, fast-moving targets. Thanks to the smoothbore and shot spread pattern, it can cover an area to help you hit something that you might miss with traditional bullets. Plus, the power generated to disperse those BBs in their pattern can be quite a devastating blow if used in close proximity. This makes shotguns a solid choice for home defense in many people’s minds.
Speaking of defense, handguns are often a good choice for this purpose. They're easily carried and are light — even when you account for extra ammunition. Small and concealable, they make for a great tool to have on your person in case you must defend yourself. Plus, there are numerous calibers from the very small to the very large, providing you with multiple options for defensive use.
Rifles, on the other hand, can fill the gaps the other two options leave open. Rifles are accurate, especially over distances the other two styles cannot claim. They can be used with precision for hunting everything from small game to large wild beasts. While they might not be easily concealed, they can be used in self-defense situations as well as home defense. They are very utilitarian, serving multiple purposes simultaneously, and that is largely the reason behind the rifle being the primary firearm of every army in the world.
Rifles, shotguns and handguns each have their own area to which they are best suited. An area of expertise, if you will.
This post has touched on the differences between each gun type, but it really only scratches the surface. There are tons of nuanced differences among each — and even amid the guns belonging to these groups. Get out there, try out different types of firearms and see which suits you.