Handguns primer

Types of Handguns

The term to describe a firearm designed to be held and fired from one hand is “handgun.” Although some use “pistol” as a generic term for all types of handguns, that is not technically correct.

Technically, a pistol is any handgun in which the chamber is part of the barrel. That includes semi-automatics, single shot handguns, or multiple barrel pistols such as multi-shot derringers. A strict application of the term excludes revolvers where the chamber is found inside the cylinder. Nevertheless, “pistol” has become a generic term applied to virtually all handguns.

There are many handgun variations, both modern and antique. While the handgun designs popular in the 19th Century are enjoying a resurgence thanks to “cowboy” and Civil War marksmanship competitions, the two most popular and widely-used modern handgun designs are the revolver and the “auto-loader” or semi-automatic.

Semi-automatic and revolver handguns can be either double action or single action.

Single Action: An action that requires a manual cocking of the hammer before sufficient pressure on the trigger releases the firing mechanism.

Double Action: An action where a single pull of the trigger cocks and releases the hammer.


The two most common configurations for revolvers each have solid frames. One has a fixed cylinder, whereby a bushing and cylinder rod extend through the frame holding the cylinder in place, while the other has a cyclinder that swings out from the frame for loading and unloading.

Fixed Cylinder Revolvers

The fixed-cylinder design is the oldest. Perhaps the most widely-known model is the Colt Single Action Army, used by the post-Civil War U.S. military and relied upon by old-time law enforcement and western cattlemen, homesteaders and even the Old West’s legendary outlaws. The originals are valuable collector’s items.

How to load a fixed cylinder revolver

  1. Loading the fixed cylinder revolver requires manually placing the hammer on “half cock” (a position aptly named as the hammer literally is thumbed halfway between its resting position and its fully cocked position toward the rear of the frame). This allows the cylinder to freely rotate without working the trigger.
  2. Point the muzzle toward the ground. Next open the hinged “loading gate” located on the right side of the frame to the rear of the cylinder. With the loading gate swung to the outside, load a fresh cartridge via the “loading ramp” into the empty chamber. Manually advance the cylinder to expose access to the next chamber and repeat the process.
  3. While on half-cock and with the loading gate open, rotate the cylinder and visually inspect all individual chambers for a “high” or protruding primer. Unless the primer is seated properly, it may cause the cylinder to free and not freely rotate. Remove any cartridge with a “high primer.”
  4. Keep the sixth chamber in the cylinder empty. For safety reasons, 19th Century hand gunners developed this practice. The hammer with its fixed firing pin was lowered onto the empty chamber in order to avoid accidental discharges that might occur if the hammer is accidentally struck, the handgun dropped, or if the revolver swept from its holster by a branch or brush while in pursuit of a lost calf. The practice is a standard safety procedure today.

As its name states, the Single Action Army is a “single action” style revolver. That means the hammer must be cocked each time a shot is to be fired. Cocking the hammer moves the cylinder to align a chamber with the forcing cone at the breech of the barrel at the front and the firing pin at the rear. A cylinder stop rises from the bottom of the frame and engages the cylinder notch to hold the cylinder in place for firing. As the trigger is brought rearward, the hammer falls and its firing pin strikes the primer at the center of the cartridge base.

In “double action” variations, the fixed cylinder revolver cycles the cocking of the hammer and revolving of the cylinder to line up the next cartridge in ready to fire position via the rearward motion of the trigger prior to the point where the hammer falls and firing pin strikes the cartridge primer. Obviously, this takes more pressure on the trigger and more complex mechanical functioning. For this reason and because of the crisper trigger release, traditional revolver target shooters prefer firing even double action revolvers in single action mode.

How to unload a fixed cylinder revolver

  1. To unload, return the hammer to the half-cock position.
  2. Point the muzzle of the handgun skyward and push the ejector rod, located beneath the barrel, to the rear. The rod will pass through the cylinder pushing the spent cartridge case out of the cylinder.
  3. Once all the spend casing is removed, manually rotate the cylinder to the next chamber and repeat the procedure.
Swing-Out Cylinder Revolvers

The solid-frame swing-out cylinder design revolver has been the dominant revolver style throughout the 20th century to the present day. Invariably, they allow “selective” firing in either single action (manual hammer cocking) or double action, unless the hammer is covered by a shroud.

The cylinder is mounted on a “crane” assembly that, upon activation of a release latch, allows the cylinder to swing away from the frame for ease of loading and unloading. Cylinders in American-made revolvers of this style swing out to the left of the frame. The cylinder release latch is manufactured in a variety of styles and is usually found on the left of the frame and to the rear of the cylinder.

Smith & Wesson-type revolvers traditionally employ a cylinder release that is pushed forward. Early Colt revolvers had a knob-like release that had to be pulled to the rear. Ruger elected to employ a push-button release. Later designs borrowed from the innovative Dan Wesson revolvers, which had a cylinder lock-up approach that was forward of the cylinder. This improved accuracy through increased strength.

Because of this variety of manufacturing techniques, it’s critically important that you get to know your revolver thoroughly before using it.

How to load a swing-out cylinder revolver

  1. Loading or unloading the left-swinging cylinders of these revolvers is perhaps easiest when the revolver is held with the left hand positioned under the frame. Cradle the revolver with the barrel between the thumb and index finger and the trigger guard resting on the palm of the hand.
  2. Unlock the cylinder with the right hand, push the cylinder open using the second and third fingers inserted through the frame’s cylinder opening. Keep the tips of the second and third fingers on the cylinder itself to hold it steady. Hold the revolver with its muzzle pointing toward the ground. This position exposes the cylinder’s chambers for ease of access.
  3. Load fresh cartridges by feeding each individually into the cylinder chambers or by means of a “speedloader,” a device that holds the correct number of cartridges for the specific revolver model by the base of the cartridges with the bullet free to slip into each chamber in the cylinder. The speedloader allows the entire cylinder to be loaded with one quick movement. With the bullets positioned in the chambers, the speedloader’s release is either pushed or turned, freeing the cartridges to drop into place.
  4. Push the cylinder back into place, and then securely snug the revolver into the trigger hand.

How to unload a swing-out cylinder revolver

  1. Unloading reverses the procedure, with one difference. Once the cylinder is swung open, use your thumb to push the ejector rod that extends through the middle of the cylinder. This forces the ejector head out of the rear of the cylinder, which lifts each spent cartridge case from the cylinder chambers.
  2. With a quick, fluid turn of the wrist, shift the muzzle from pointing to the ground to pointing skyward, dumping the empty cartridges.

Semi-automatic handguns are commonly known as “automatics” and also as “auto-loaders” (a term that describes only part of the process). A single pull of the trigger causes a semi-automatic handgun to perform a complete cycle of firing, unloading of the spent cartridge case, reloading of the chamber with a fresh live cartridge from the magazine, and cocking of the firing mechanism.

Mechanical Functioning

From the point of view of how the firearm functions, “automatic” would be the most correct descriptive term. Where the term “automatic” becomes misleading is when the reference is to rate of fire. Strictly speaking, an “automatic” firearm fires all the cartridges in a magazine by pulling and holding the trigger once. A “semi-automatic” firearm fires one cartridge with each pull of the trigger.

Note: It is illegal to convert a semi-automatic to an automatic weapon. Please check with local law enforcement authorities for further details.

In general, when the trigger of a semi-automatic handgun is pulled, a force caused by the energy of the gases released by the ignited propellant not only sends the bullet down the bore of the barrel toward the target, but also propels the breech mechanism backward. A disconnecting unit disengages the sear from the trigger bar. This keeps the firearm from firing more than one shot per trigger pull. Normally, the union of the sear and the trigger bar holds the hammer or striker at full cock.

Smaller-caliber semi-automatics (.22, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, and .380 or 9mm Kurz) use a “blowback” operation design. A spring keeps the breechblock tight against the head of the cartridge. The recoil is caused by the gases acting according to the laws of physics, namely, the gases move in the opposite direction of the bullet traveling forward. This recoil forces the head of the cartridge case back against the face of the breechblock.

Traditional larger-caliber semi-automatics such as the .45 ACP use a “locked-breech” design whereby the breech remains firmly locked until the bullet has left the barrel. The same rearward force as in the simple blowback design occurs, but the breechblock that is locked to the barrel draws the barrel a short way to the rear also. Once the bullet exits the muzzle, the rearward movement of the barrel is stopped and it is unlocked from the breechblock. Only then does the breechblock continue its rearward movement to complete the cycling process.

The locking mechanism in Browning-style semi-automatics consists of ribs on the top of the barrel that lock into grooves in the slide. The two disengage as the barrel swings downward on a link during its brief movement toward the rear.

In general, semi-automatic handguns can be seen as having three main components: the receiver, the barrel , and the slide. The receiver has a hollow handle into which the magazine is fitted. The firing mechanism is typically found at the rear of the receiver and includes the hammer, sear, disconnector and a variety of springs and safety devices. The slide is attached to the receiver to allow the smooth forward and rearward motion necessary to allow the handgun to function. The rear section of the slide is the breechblock.

Semi-automatic handguns can have a variety of safeties incorporated into their design. Some, such as the 1911AI Colt .45, have a manual thumb safety at the left rear of the receiver that locks hammer and sear and prevents the slide from moving. It also has a grip safety that requires pressure from a firm hold to depress the safety and allow the trigger and sear to engage prior to firing.

Many modern semi-automatic handguns have “ambidextrous” safety levers that allow access from either side, depending on whether the marksman is left- or right-handed.

Tips on Handling

While storing handguns safely is undoubtedly important, handling it properly is also of utmost concern. Below are some tips on the proper handling of handgun.

Safety Note: Always visually inspect a semi-automatic’s chamber before and after inserting or withdrawing a magazine.

How to load a semi-automatic

  1. Loading a semi-automatic requires several steps. First, cartridges must be loaded into the magazine.
    • Be very careful to load only the correct caliber ammunition for that particular firearm.
    • Equally important, be sure to check that each cartridge is loaded facing the correct direction. That is, each cartridge loaded into the magazine must be pointing bullet-first toward the chamber of the barrel.
  2. To load cartridges into the magazine, the cartridge must be placed on the magazine follower or platform at the opening or mouth of the magazine. Push the cartridge toward the rear of the follower under the magazine’s bent metal or polymer lip. The addition of cartridges depresses the spring beneath the follower.
  3. After the magazine is loaded, a common practice is to tap the back of the magazine against the palm of your hand to settle the cartridges uniformly in the magazine.
  4. Typically, the magazine can be inserted into its magazine well opening at the bottom of the handgun’s grip with the slide either locked in its open position, that is, to the rear of the receiver. Alternatively, it can be inserted with the slide closed.
  5. If the magazine is inserted with the slide locked back, closing the slide will strip the top cartridge from the magazine and seat it into the chamber. If the magazine is closed when the magazine is inserted, the slide must be manually opened, then closed before a cartridge from the magazine can be placed in the chamber.

How to unload a semi-automatic

  1. Unloading the semi-automatic reverses the procedure. First, the magazine release button (usually on the left side of the receiver near and slightly below the area where the rear section of the trigger guard meets the grip) must be depressed. Remove the magazine. Next, and this is extremely important,Always open the slide to visually inspect
    the chamber for any remaining cartridges.
    Simply removing the magazine
    does not guarantee the firearm is unloaded.
    A cartridge can remain in the chamber.
  2. Resist any temptation to pull open the slide by grasping it between the thumb and one or more fingers in a “Y” or “slingshot” fashion. You should avoid this technique bacause it does not provide the most secure grip. Instead, take the non-shooting hand and, with the palm over the top of the slide, grasp the slide with four fingers and the thumb and push it to the rear.Working the slide, in traditionally-designed handguns, loads the chamber and cocks the firing mechanism. If the handgun in question is single action, this puts it in the firing mode. If it is double action, simply pulling the trigger will cock the hammer device for the first round. Many handguns have a “decocker” that when engaged drops the hammer from cocked and ready to a dormant, non-firing state even if a cartridge is in the chamber.
Handgun Ammunition

There are two basic categories of handgun ammunition: rimfire and centerfire. The difference is the location of the primer. (Cutaway illustrations of typical .22 long rifle cartridge and centerfire pistol cartridge – indicate bullet, cartridge case, powder charge, primer in each)

Handgun ammunition ranges from the .22 long rifle rimfire cartridge to the very new, very powerful .480 Ruger. Handgun calibers include the .25 ACP, .32 magnum, the .380 ACP, .38 Special, .38 super, 9 mm, .357 SIG, .357 magnum, the .40 Smith & Wesson, 10 mm, .41 Special, the .41 magnum, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, the .45 ACP, the .454 Casull and a variety of “wildcat” calibers.

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