Every now and then, the gun world cringes when a journalist or a writer who’s never held a firearm before puts their fingers to a keyboard and says things like “assault weapon” or “clips that hold fifty bullets.” Likewise, sometimes the authors of what would otherwise be good fiction sometimes fail to do research. A writer whose only firearms experience comes from movies might make outlandish claims about a character being able to dual-wield 12ga shotguns and reloading them with a flick of the wrist. Writing about firearms in fiction without knowing how to write about guns destroys one’s suspension of disbelief and could probably result in a bad review at best, or public shame on the Internet at worst (like that old guy from Pennsylvania who said 9mm rounds can blow a man’s lung out of his body).          

If you don’t know the difference between a clip and a magazine or between a cartridge and a bullet, please read on.

Clips, magazines and feed systems

Tom Hanks, who is by all means an incredibly talented actor, is remembered by everyone by his masterful portrayals of Forrest Gump and Woody as well as his performance in Castaway. However, I will forever remember him for calling an AK magazine a “clip” in 2013’s Captain Phillips.

You see, you can’t put a clip in an AK47. AKs and other rifles like the AR15 feed from magazines. One of the most basic things in learning how to write about guns is learning how they are loaded. A clip is a strip of metal which holds cartridges to be pressed into a weapon, or in some cases, a magazine as an alternative to hand-loading.

Inserting a clip into an SKS
Inserting a clip into an SKS
Kalashnikov Riffle Cartridge Bullet Clip Reloading Load And Unload Ak47  Stock Photo - Download Image Now - iStock
loading a magazine into an AKM

A magazine, on the other hand, is a detachable box filled with cartridges which is attached to a weapon as a feed system. The ammo is loaded into the weapon by the constant pressure of a spring.

Magazines (right) are more prevalent in weapons today than clips (left)
Magazines (right) are more prevalent in weapons today than clips (left)

Clips used to be quite common in the early 20th century. Back in those days, nearly every bolt-action and semi-automatic rifle from every nation involved in the world wars was loaded with clips. A bolt-action rifle requires the user to cycle its bolt each time it is fired, while a semi-automatic rifle fires each time the trigger is pulled. In today’s world, almost every type of small arm uses detachable box magazines aside from revolvers, shotguns and lever-action rifles.

A revolver uses a six shot cylinder, with some variants carrying five. Shotguns and lever-action rifles (cowboy guns), on the other hand, use tubular magazines, which differ from box magazines in that they cannot be detached from the weapon. In a weapon with a tubular magazine, ammunition is loaded one at a time down the barrel, making reloading far slower than changing out a box magazine or a clip.

Loading a shotgun through the tubular magazine
Loading a lever action rifle through the tubular magazine
Loading ammunition into the tubular magazines of a shotgun (top) and a lever-action (bottom).

If anyone says anything about a “machine gun” using a clip, they clearly don’t know how to write about guns and they’re usually wrong. Almost all modern machine guns use either ammo belts or magazines. Two of the rare exceptions to this rule are the Hotchkiss and the Japanese Type 3 machine guns. In the modern world they’d be considered obsolete since their limited ammo capacity only allowed these early machine guns to maintain a sustained amount of fire for about five seconds before they needed to be reloaded.

Japanese Type 3 machine gun
M240B machine gun
The World War I-era Japanese Type 3 (top) is fed with a 30-round clip, while the modern M240B (bottom) is fed with a belt.

Modern machine guns can keep spitting lead as long as their barrels aren’t melted and their ammo belts keep feeding them… which brings us to our next section.

Machine Guns and Rifles

When one thinks about how to write about guns, one must remember this: an AK47 is not a machine gun, an Uzi is not a machine gun and an AR15 is definitely not a machine gun. Journalists tend to slap the machine gun label on anything “spitting bullets fast.” In reality, anything that continuously fires rounds as the user holds down the trigger is called an “automatic weapon.” While all machine guns are automatic weapons, not all automatic weapons are machine guns.


Even though the National Firearms Act defines a machine gun as “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger,” no true gun owner will refer to something like an AK47 as a “machine gun.” This is because a military issue AK47’s select-fire mode allows it to switch between semi-automatic fire (one shot per pull of the trigger) and fully automatic fire (continuous fire as the trigger is held down.) In most situations, the AK47 is meant to be used in semi-automatic mode, since full-auto fire would very quickly deplete its magazine and be woefully inaccurate. Any weapon meant to be fired in semi-automatic mode or in short bursts is called a service rifleand not a machine gun. The vast majority of true machine guns have no semi-automatic firing modes, since they are meant to spray an area with rounds to suppress an enemy and keep them pinned in place.


The Uzi, a gun popularized by the Terminator, Tony Montana and inner city gang culture, is neither a service rifle nor a machine gun. While it’s meant to be fired in full automatic mode like a true machine gun, it doesn’t have the range or stopping power of its larger counterparts. The Uzi is an example of a submachine gun, so called because it’s a smaller weapon which uses pistol rounds instead of the full size rounds of a true machine gun.

Submachine guns don’t have the long range capabilities of a service rifle either. The Uzi, for example, has a maximum effective range of 200 yards, half of the AK47. While neither weapon is accurate, it would be more reasonable to expect better shot grouping from an AK than an Uzi, since the shorter barrels typical of submachine guns typically make them less accurate. Submachine guns are usually used for urban fighting and are more common among police tactical teams than military units. In simple English, just because a weapon has a maximum range of x yards doesn’t mean the weapon will be accurate at x yards. The Uzi is estimated to only be accurate at about ten yards, and will have a man-sized grouping at 50 yards. At 200 yards, the shooter is only guaranteed to hit the earth and not much else.


An AR15 can never be called a machine gun, since in its basic configuration it’s incapable of firing more than one round when the trigger is pulled. It can also never be called a service rifle for the same reason. The preferred term for the AR15 is a modern sporting rifle, since its appearance is more “modern” than traditional rifles with wood stocks, and it’s used for “sporting” purposes like hunting, recreational shooting and competition shooting.

No military on earth uses it as a standard issue weapon, so it cannot be called a weapon of war. The last large army to use a semi-automatic weapon as its standard issue rifle was the Chinese with their SKS, all the way back in the 1950s.

The only reason why American media villainizes the AR15 as a military weapon with “no place in the home of an average American” is because of its resemblance to a military M4, which is in fact a true service rifle, thanks to its select-fire feature. Neither the AR15 nor the M4 should be referred to as “assault weapons” since this term is almost always used by gun control groups and the liberal media to demonize them. The fact is the AR15 is functionally the same as an M1A: a semi-automatic rifle with a wooden stock. The media never villainizes the M1A because of its tame, hunting-rifle like appearance and the fact it has yet to be used in a mass shooting. In fact, the M1A’s .308 round has much greater penetrating power than the AR15’s .223 round and would deliver much greater trauma to the human body. However, people who don’t know how to write about guns think once you’ve seen one “bullet”, you’ve seen them all.

Ammunition Types

Those who don’t know how to write about guns almost always refer to the small objects inserted into a firearm as “bullets,” and some of them think all “bullets” are the same. Not every round is created equal, and not every round is a bullet alone. The word “bullet” actually refers to the business end of a cartridge – the part which penetrates a target. It’s part of a complete cartridge, not the cartridge itself. The cartridge (or round) is what you put into a firearm’s magazine to load it.

The modern cartridge consists of a bullet (the projectile), powder (the propellant) and a primer which is used to ignite the cartridge and send it flying out the barrel of a weapon. The propellant and primer are contained inside a brass case, which is ejected from the firearm as it fires. Sometimes these cases are made of steel, especially in Russian ammunition. A fiction writer who wishes to describe the sight of these “bullet-left-overs” hitting the ground as a fully automatic weapon fires can describe them as either “cases” or “casings.”

Unlike rifle and pistol bullets, shotguns do not normally fire a single projectile unless they use slugs. A slug is a single large projectile which strikes a large hole in a target. More often, however, shotguns use small metal pellets called “shot.” These small metal balls devastate anything at close range and fly out of a shotgun in a general direction, hitting a target with multiple projectiles rather than a single bullet.

Some writers who both don’t know how to write about guns and hate the AR15 may be tempted to compare modern firearms to the muskets of the 18th century. The anti-gun argument usually goes like this: Since the musket was slower, more cumbersome, less accurate and less devastating than modern “weapons of death,” it’s a far safer weapon, and thus something the founding fathers had no problem with. This particular group of people says the founders would never allow the “evil” AR-15 to be in the hands of the average American since it had enough power to take down an entire army.

Now, while the premise of the argument is absurd (if the British had laser blasters, the founders would’ve decreed everyone had the right to laser blasters) the arguments about the musket’s accuracy and cumbersomeness are correct – the musket was indeed slower to load, heavier, and far less accurate than a modern sporting rifle. However, to say it was less devastating is a bit of a stretch. The Charleville 1766, the weapon favored by Colonial troops during the American Revolutionary War, used a .69 caliber (17.5mm diameter) ball. This is larger than even the .50 caliber (12.7mm) rounds used in modern heavy machine guns.

A musket ball is also the only type of ammunition which must be extracted from a victim after it is shot. A modern bullet punches a nice, clean hole into a victim, so the duty of anyone providing first aid is to simply stop the bleeding and patch up the wound. However, because of a musket ball’s slow velocity, it rips a ragged gaping hole in its target, taking bits of flesh and cloth with it as it embeds itself into the guts of its victim. Given time, these bits of contaminant will cause an infection, which is why musket balls must be removed with all haste. Writers who don’t know how to write about guns always make their characters remove bullets from the body of their hero or heroine. This is not always the best solution. Digging around in someone’s wound cavity will do much more damage to the person’s body than the bullet itself, since the prodding of instruments and fingers may jostle the foreign body around. If an artery is severed by mistake, the gunshot victim will die. Whenever a person is shot by a modern bullet, it’s often best to simply leave the bullet inside.


The following list details various types of rifles, pistols, submachine guns and machine guns that have made their mark on pop culture.

AK47Russian service rifle. Nearly indestructible, used in countries around the world.400 yards7.62x39mm
AR15American civilian sporting rifle.400-600 yards.223 (among others)
Barrett M82High-caliber sniper rifle. Used for long range kills. Can take out vehicles1,969 yards.50 BMG
Gatling gunEarly machine gun. Its hand-cranked mechanism determined its rate of fire. Inaccurate.500-1,000 yardsVaries; usually .45-70 Gov’t or .30 cal
Hunting rifleBlanket term for any number of weapons used for hunting. The pictured example is a Weatherby Vanguard.Varies, generally longWidely varies; from .22LR to .308 and others.
M134 MinigunModern version of the Gatling gun. Normally used on aircraft. Extremely high rate of fire.1,000 yards7.62x51mm NATO
M1911Semi-automatic handgun. High stopping power.50 yards.45 ACP
M1919Heavy machine gun. Inaccurate.1,500 yards7.62x51mm NATO
M4US military service rifle. Capable of full-auto fire, unlike the AR15.400-600 yards5.56x45mm
MP5Submachine gun. Used by tactical teams like SWAT.200 yards9mm
RevolverBlanket term for any semi-automatic firearm with a revolving cylinder. Pictured is a Colt 1878 Double Action Frontier.25 yardsWidely varies; from .22LR to .44 magnum and others.
Snub nose revolverUmbrella term for any revolver with a short barrel. Pictured is a Rock Island Armory M206 .38 Special25 yardsWidely varies; from .22LR to .44 magnum and others.
UziSubmachine gun. Inaccurate.200 yardsVaries; mostly between 9mm or .45 ACP

Reading Calibers

People who don’t know how to write about guns might automatically assume a larger number corresponds to a more powerful round. This is simply not the case. A 9mm is a small pistol round, much less powerful than a .223, which is a mid-size rifle cartridge. What makes this even more confusing is the fact there are two types of caliber designations. Just as it is with length, weight and mass, calibers are measured in both imperial and metric units. In imperial, calibers are measured by hundreds of an inch, while ammunition in metric is measured in millimeters.

It is important to note calibers mathematically equivalent to one another (for example, 5.56mm is equivalent to .223) are not necessarily the same round. The following is a brief chart of the most common rounds used in military and civilian firearms, sorted from smallest to greatest.

CaliberRead asUsageRecoilStopping power
.22LRTwenty-two or twenty-two long rifleTiny civilian rifle and pistol round, for shooting very small animals like rabbits. Also used for backyard target shooting.Almost noneVery low
9mmNine millimeter or nine-milSmall pistol round.LowLow
.38 SpecialThirty-eight specialSmall revolver round. Popular with private detectives and early police.ModerateModerate
.45Forty-fiveLarge pistol round.ModerateHigh
.44 MagnumForty-four magnumLarge revolver round. One of the most powerful handgun rounds.HighHigh
.223Two two threeMedium-sized rifle round. Used by the AR15.LowModerate
5.56×45Five five sixSimilar to the .223, with higher velocity. Used by the M16, M4 and its variants.LowModerate
7.62×39Seven six twoMedium sized Russian rifle round. Used in the AK47.ModerateHigh
7.62×51Seven six two NATOLarge European round. Used in precision riflesHighHigh
.308Three-oh-eightLarge caliber American round similar to the 7.62×51 NATO.HighHigh
.50 BMGFifty cal or fifty BMGLarge rifle and machine gun round. Synonymous with “overkill.”Very HighVery High

While this article doesn’t go too deep under the surface, it should give you a good springboard for further research. Hopefully, from now on you’ll never refer to an AR15 as an “assault weapon” ever again, and after reading this article you know the difference between the most basic types of weapons and calibers. It is my sincere hope that this guide has helped you learn how to write about guns without sounding like the equivalent of a kid waving around a loaded 9mm pistol for Instagram likes.

If you’re a writer learning how to write about guns, tell us what you learned in the comments below!

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