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If you’re new to the gun world, you may hear all types of words to describe the different types of rifles but not really know what they mean.
In this guide, we’ll clear that up for you. We’ll talk about the various types of rifles and what makes them similar and different, including larger categories like automatic, semi-automatic, and manual but more specific categories based on action types, like direct impingement and bolt action.
All of this knowledge is based on my own personal experience as a lifelong gun owner and both professional and recreational rifle user.
Now let’s kick things off by talking about what a rifle is in the first place.
What Defines a Rifle?
According to the ATF, a rifle is a weapon that is intended to be shot from the shoulder, features a barrel with a rifled bore, and fires a single projectile with each pull of the trigger. More casually, a rifle will also feature a relatively long barrel.
Now let’s break each of these components down one by one.
First, a rifle is intended (or, in the ATF’s exact words, “designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended”) to be fired from the shoulder. That means a rifle will feature some sort of stock that you can brace against your shoulder for easier, more accurate firing.
Second, a rifle has a rifled bore. I’m sure you can identify the link there. But what is rifling? Rifling is a series of spiraling grooves along the inside of a rifle barrel. Rifling puts a spin on the bullet as it travels through the bore, giving the bullet a more stable flight and a flatter trajectory for greater accuracy.
The presence of rifling helps distinguish rifles from shotguns, the other main category of long guns.
Third, a rifle fires a single projectile with each pull of the trigger. In other words, a rifle fires one bullet at a time. Like rifling, this helps differentiate a rifle from a shotgun, which shoots shells containing many projectiles. However, this is somewhat complicated by the existence of automatic rifles, which can release multiple rounds, one after the other. We’ll talk more about automatic rifles in a moment.
Finally, a rifle will generally have a fairly long barrel. The ATF’s definition doesn’t require one, but most laymen will at least partially distinguish between a rifle and a pistol based on barrel length.
In addition, the ATF does have a 16-inch minimum barrel length for rifles before they’re considered short-barrel rifles, or SBRs. SBRs require additional paperwork, background checks, and cost to own legally because they’re regulated by the National Firearms Act (NFA). Because of this additional regulation, most rifles will have a barrel of at least 16 inches.
What Are the Different Types of Rifles?
Now that we’ve cleared up what a rifle is let’s get into the different types of rifles. There are a ton of different categories of rifles out there, and they’re not all mutually exclusive, meaning that a single rifle might fall into multiple categories and may fall into multiple categories by definition.
For example, a rifle that uses a direct impingement action will also either be automatic or semi-automatic.
In this guide, we’ll go over some of the types of rifles you’re most likely to hear about in the gun world.
Automatic rifles use the energy released when a previous shot is fired to load and new round into the chamber and fire it. The result of this is that the rifle continuously loads and fires fresh rounds as long as the trigger is depressed. This allows automatic rifles to achieve very high rates of fire.
In the United States, automatic firearms are regulated by the NFA, so getting one requires extra costs and hoops to jump through, just like SBRs. For that reason, automatic rifles are almost exclusively used by military and law enforcement organizations, and individual ownership is very rare.
Semi-automatics are a good civilian alternative to automatic weapons. They use the energy from the prior shot to load a new cartridge into the rifle’s chamber, but the shooter has to release and reactivate the trigger mechanism to fire the new cartridge.
Semi-automatic weapons are favored because they achieve a higher rate of fire than other types of actions but aren’t as regulated or expensive as fully automatic weapons.
Bolt action rifles use manual action, meaning the shooter has to manipulate the rifle to put the new cartridge into the chamber. With bolt action rifles, this is done using a little metal handle that protrudes from the side of the rifle (usually the right side, though there are also left-handed versions of some bolt action rifles).
The shooter moves the handle up and back to eject the previous empty cartridge, then moves the handle back forward to move the fresh cartridge into place.
Bolt actions are probably the most popular type of manual rifle action and have a long history of military, hunting, and recreational use.
The downside is that they’re slow to make follow-up shots: after every shot, the shooter has to move their trigger hand to operate the action, then move their hand back to the trigger.
Lever actions are probably the next most popular manual action and are also one of the oldest rifle action designs, dating back to the early 1800s. For this reason, lever actions are commonly associated with the Old West.
Lever actions are operated via a handle that protrudes from under the receiver and extends behind the trigger, ending in a loop for easier manipulation. The shooter simply pulls the handle down and back up to remove the previous cartridge and pull a new round into place.
Lever actions tend to be heavier and less accurate than bolt actions. Generally, they have the same problem with the shooter having to move their trigger hand to operate the action. However, the lever’s location makes weak-handed operation easier than with a bolt action.
On the other hand, lever actions frequently have a higher capacity compared to bolt actions.
Check out this article on Best BB Guns by Marine Approved.
Speaking of historic designs, muzzleloaders date even farther back in history.
As the name indicates, Muzzleloaders are loaded from the muzzle, which means the front of the barrel. Before each shot, the shooter has to insert a percussion cap, powder, and a projectile down the barrel, then insert a rod to ensure it all ends up in the back of the barrel for proper function. You’ve probably seen these types of guns shown in movies showing the Revolutionary War and other wars from more than a couple of centuries back.
Obviously, muzzleloaders are very slow to operate, which is why they fell out of favor when newer designs became available. However, they still have a passionate following among people who love historic guns, and some even hunt with them.
There are a lot of different German rifles. Currently, the German military primarily uses the G36, designed by the popular German arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch. Mauser is another major German arms manufacturer, and they created some of the best-known German rifles, including the Mauser 98.
The most commonly used rifle by the National Cadet Corps or NCC is the BRNO .22 Deluxe Models 1 and 2, variants of the CZ 452. These rifles are favored for NCC use because they are affordable, lightweight, easy to use, and relatively quiet while still being quite accurate.
“Deadly” can mean a lot of things, so it’s impossible to say which single rifle is the most deadly. The AK-47 is certainly a strong contender, with proven success on battlefields around the world, including frequent use by violent radical organizations like the Taliban. The M16 is certainly no slouch, either, though. And machine guns, by the very nature of their design, shouldn’t be ignored.
Obviously, there are a bunch of different types of rifles on the market, with the type of action being the easiest way to differentiate between them.
It’s also important to note that this isn’t a complete list. The world of guns is huge, and there are always some unusual exceptions, but these are certainly the most popular types of rifles and actions out there.
And, of course, there’s a lot of diversity even among guns that share different types of actions, so while the type of action you want to go with can certainly narrow down your rifle choices, there is still plenty more to deciding on the right rifle for you.
Fortunately, you have us here at Marine Approved. Whether you’re a newcomer to the world of firearms or have plenty of experience, we’re here to help you find the right rifle for you.