If you’re brand new to guns and want a non-political, rational, easy introduction, then this guide is for you. It’s the ultimate one-page guide that covers all the basics, along with practical tips for you to get started.
Maybe you thought you’d never even own a gun until recently. Or you fired your cousin’s shotgun out at the farm that one time 20 years ago. Regardless, new gun owners have started buying firearms in record numbers.
Regardless of politics or background, all of you are welcome at The Prepared. We believe in safe, sane, and rational approaches to firearms, and we think more people should learn the basics, even if just to understand this often misunderstood world.
In this guide we do not touch on the politics of guns, their role in preparing for emergencies, or next-level stuff like zeroing or accessories. There will be other articles in the future for those topics.
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Important gun safety rules
Before we talk about anything else, you must commit to these simple but very important rules:
- Treat every firearm as if it’s loaded.
- Only point the firearm at things you are willing to destroy.
- Only put your finger on the trigger / inside the trigger guard when you are safely ready to fire.
- Always be sure of your target and what’s behind it.
It is your responsibility that firearms are safe, secure, and locked away from people or children who shouldn’t get to them.
There are 1.7 million children in the US that live in homes with loaded but unlocked firearms. There are often serious legal punishments if you are careless with a gun, like leaving a loaded gun where a small child can access it. Don’t be stupid.
A gun is just a hunk of metal and plastic. Modern, quality firearms do not just fire on their own, even if dropped or bumped. Human error is the cause of 99.99% of gun accidents. The core rules are basically abstinence for guns – if you don’t point loaded weapons at things you shouldn’t destroy, then you can avoid almost all the problems to begin with.
Basic firearm lingo
To understand guns, it’s helpful to start by understanding bullets.
What many people call a bullet is actually called a “round” (like a “round” of drinks) or “cartridge.” But you’ll still hear people use the word “bullet” as slang for the whole package.
The bullet is specifically the part of the round that is meant to fly down the barrel to your target.
Other parts of the round are the casing, which is typically brass, steel, or plastic. Sometimes people just call that part the “brass,” and it ties everything together, holding the primer, gunpowder, and bullet together until the exploding gunpowder forces the bullet to separate from the casing.
Inside the casing is gunpowder. On the back of the casing is the primer, which is like a little spark plug that ignites the gunpowder inside the casing.
Shotgun ammunition is a little different because it fires lots of little projectiles instead of one bullet. That’s why shotguns are used in bird hunting – it’d be too hard to hit a flying bird with just one pellet, so you fire a bunch of pellets at once that spray out in a larger zone.
Shotgun ammunition is called a “shell,” or “shotshell.” But the principles are the same. You have a casing with a primer, gunpowder, and then the projectiles that are launched down the barrel.
A gun itself can have lots of pieces and names, like “buffer tube” and “bore.” But for now we’ll focus on the most basic names:
- Barrel. The long tube the bullets fly down. The longer the barrel, the more stable (and usually faster) the bullet will be when it comes out.
- Magazine. If the gun uses a detachable container to hold the ammunition, that’s called a magazine. Not a ‘clip’. Sometimes the magazine fits inside the gun, like inside the grip of a pistol, or it attaches to the outside of the gun.
- Stock or buttstock. On rifles and shotguns, this is the part you put up against your shoulder when firing.
- Grip or pistol grip. The part of a pistol you hold in your primary hand’s palm. Some rifles and shotguns also have a pistol grip in addition to the buttstock, where you hold it against your shoulder and hold a vertical grip with your dominant hand.
- Safety. A mechanical lever that blocks the gun from firing.
How guns work
The purpose of a gun is to accelerate an object (like the heavy piece of metal called the bullet) to very high speeds so that it can hit something far away with enough force to destroy it.
How that happens is similar to how a car engine works. Gasoline goes into a small space, the spark plug causes it to explode, and that expanding gas can only push in one direction, forcing the piston to move, which eventually turns your wheels.
When you pull the trigger of a gun, a spring-loaded piece of metal strikes the back of the round on something called the primer. The primer is like an engine spark plug. This causes a spark inside the casing where the gunpowder is held, creating an explosion.
Explosions want to expand, but the explosion is trapped inside the casing. So the ammo is designed to give that expanding gas only one place to go. The explosion pushes against the back of the bullet, forcing it to separate from the casing. This catapults the bullet down the barrel and leaves the casing behind.
Almost every gun is built around that principle. The differences between guns are things like how they load the ammo into the barrel and what size ammo they use.
Types of guns
- Pistols or handguns. They are small and can be held in one hand. Good for targets 1-10 meters away.
- Shotguns. They have long barrels and require two hands. You might have seen them in use by hunters or people who shoot clay pigeons (the sport where people yell “pull!”) Good for targets 1-75 meters away.
- Rifles. These are large, long barreled guns that take a lot of different shapes. They are held up against a shoulder and fired with both hands. Good for targets 100-500 or more meters away.
Each type of gun uses it’s own type of bullets. You can’t put ammunition for a shotgun into a pistol, and so on.
Pistols are used when people want something small and light. Which is why police officers carry them on their hip at all times or people carry pistols tucked inside their pant waist.
There is a trade-off though. In order to be small and light, their barrels must be shorter and the bullets must be less powerful. This means that pistols are effective at very close range, like 1-20 feet, but they are not good for shooting longer distances.
Single action vs. semi-automatic vs. fully automatic
Labels like “semi-automatic” or “full auto” refer to how the gun performs a full cycle or “action.” A cycle is the process that starts with loading a round through firing it and removing the spent casing.
Think about the original guns back in the 1700-1800s. You’ve seen in movies how people would fire one shot, then take an absurd amount of time to reload the gun with the next bullet. Fire, manually reload, fire, manually reload, repeat.
Those are single-shot guns, formally known as “single action.” You manually load a round and cock the gun, pull the trigger, and that’s it. The gun doesn’t “do” anything else once it’s fired.
There are still guns like that today. For example, some precision snipers will use this style to reduce the number of moving pieces to keep the gun more stable while they aim and fire.
With semi-autos you pull the trigger, the gun fires, the gun cycles itself, and is ready to fire the next time you pull the trigger. You don’t have to do anything else.
This was the fundamental innovation that took us from the old Civil War-style guns to modern ones. The semi-auto gun is designed to use the gas and energy created by the gunpowder explosion to move various pieces that kick out the spent casing and load in a new one. So it becomes a loop that ‘feeds’ itself every time the trigger is pulled and released.
Fully automatic is basically the same thing as semi-automatic, but you can just hold the trigger down once and the gun will keep firing and cycling itself until you release the trigger.
A well trained person using a semi-auto gun can fire up to 100 rounds per minute. Just try and see how fast you can twitch your trigger finger. In reality, you might fire 50 rounds per minute with a semi-auto if you really needed to.
The types of full-autos that civilians can (very rarely) own are able to fire 300-900 rounds per minute. Military versions can fire up to 4,000 rounds per minute.
This is why most full autos are illegal for civilians. If you have to pull the trigger for each bullet, that theoretically makes things ‘safer’ than if you could just squeeze once and send a lot of bullets firing very quickly.
“Assault rifles”, “assault weapons”, AR-15s, and AK-47s
We’re specifically calling out these labels because even though they are often used in gun control conversations and by the media and politicians, there are some serious misunderstandings that create roadblocks in the conversation.
Sometimes these are called “black guns” or “black rifles” because they’re usually a flat black color. This somehow makes them seem more aggressive or dangerous. But make no mistake: a tactical, military-style rifle and a quaint wooden hunting rifle can be equally deadly.
“Assault weapon” is a made-up term. In spirit, people who use it are typically trying to categorize guns that are built more for fighting, and less for precision target shooting or hunting. That doesn’t make them inherently more “evil,” it just means they’re built for a particular job, such as home defense.
“Assault rifle” actually does have a proper definition, but it has been misused so often that, in practice, most people using that label are trying to communicate the same thing as “assault weapon”. In reality, an assault rifle must have certain criteria, such as “select fire” functionality that lets the user switch from semi-auto to full-auto mode — but those features are already very strictly controlled by law, so very few civilians actually have an assault rifle.
None of the weapons used in any recent mass shooting event are actually assault rifles. That’s not a political statement, it’s just fact.
An AR-15 is technically not an assault rifle. Nor does the “AR” stand for Assault Rifle. It actually stands for “ArmaLite rifle,” with ArmaLite being the company that first designed this gun. Over time, it became the most popular rifle platform in the western world and hundreds of companies now make their own variations of the AR-15 design. You can buy an AR-15 part from one company and it will usually work with an AR-15 part from another company.
So the name AR-15 has become one of those ubiquitous names like Kleenex or Xerox, and it morphed over time to mean any rifle based on that design. This term is often misused by the media and politicians when referring to any rifle that looks “black” or different than an old-school wooden hunting rifle.
The AR-15 is the civilian equivalent of the military’s M4 or M16, the standard issue rifle for US front line soldiers since the Vietnam War.
AR-15s are typically semi-automatic rifles. It is extremely rare for someone to have an automatic AR-15.
Their magazines usually hold 10, 20, or 30 rounds of ammunition, although it can be as little as 3 and as high as 100. Many states regulate the capacity of the magazine as a way to prevent someone from just spraying lots of bullets in a crime.
An AK-47 is basically the Russian equivalent of the AR-15. It has many design differences but fulfills the same role for shooters. The AK-47 was cheap to make and maintain, which was important in the Soviet Union. It became very popular in the former Soviet countries and has since spread on the black market to be the weapon of choice for Middle Eastern terrorists, African warlords, and civilians in many countries.
Ammunition types and calibers
Within the same category of gun (pistol, shotgun, rifle), the biggest difference from one gun to the next is the caliber of the ammunition.
Caliber basically means the size of the round. Numbers like “5.56” or “.203” are referring to the widest diameter of the bullet. There are other measurements that matter as well, such as the length of the casing, so sometimes you’ll see a label like “9×19” which means the diameter is 9mm and the length is 19mm.
Unfortunately, caliber won’t always be measured in millimeters or even follow a logical pattern. Because America is stubborn and refuses to join the rest of the world, sometimes things are measured in imperial and sometimes in metric.
You’ll eventually learn the equivalent matches, like how the .223 inch imperial measurement is essentially the same as the 5.56 mm metric measurement.
Sometimes you’ll see NATO in the name, which refers to the NATO military organization. Basically all of the western world has standardized so their militaries can fight using the same ammo. A 5.56 NATO round just means it’s the standard round NATO uses.
Sometimes the differences seem small, like the 9 millimeter round vs the 10 millimeter round. But these are precision built machines with exploding parts, so every fraction of a millimeter matters.
There will often be a word or name after the numerical part of the caliber, like “.223 Remington.” This usually refers to the person or company who originally designed the round. For example, Remington is a gun company and designed the popular .223 Remington round used in AR-15s. But you don’t have to use that round in a Remington gun and plenty of non-Remington companies now make the .223 round.
The differences in size create real differences in how the round fires and performs. Ammo will be designed based on desired qualities like distance, speed, force, loudness, etc.
Calibers are one of those endless debate things that internet forums continually argue about. Most of it is based on myth and folklore.
You’ll probably run across debates about “stopping power”, which refers to how a bullet can stop whatever you’ve shot at. Some bullets create little holes, some create big holes, some shard into little fragments, etc.
Trust us when we say you should ignore almost all of that for now.
We will release full articles in the future just about different calibers and when to use each one. But for now we’re keeping it simple and those differences don’t matter until you become an expert who wants to optimize and specialize.
There are almost 200 different pistol calibers. But there are only a few that are popular, and even fewer that will matter to you as a new shooter and prepper.
The most common pistol calibers are:
- .22 Long Rifle
- .380 ACP
- .40 S&W
- .45 ACP
The best round for most new shooters is the 9mm, formally known as the 9x19mm Luger or 9x19mm Parabellum.
Frankly, the 9mm round is probably the best pistol caliber for almost any prepper, regardless of experience. Personally speaking, I have owned pistols across all of those popular calibers, but over time I’ve standardized all of my prepping gear to 9mm.
It is one of the most common rounds used by police forces and militaries around the world. The FBI recently switched all of their agents over to the 9mm after decades of research.
The 9mm is an excellent mix of the things you would care about in an emergency situation. It’s extremely popular, so you’re more likely to find it for purchase in normal life and when scavenging after SHTF.
It’s easy to handle for new shooters and won’t kick you back on your butt. People will often describe the 9mm as fun to shoot because it packs power but doesn’t make you feel like you’re holding a cannon in your hand. As a new shooter, you want to learn control, so having something you can handle without intimidation is important.
It is a smaller round than the other popular calibers, which means you can fit more rounds into the same sized magazine.
Until you become an award winning crack shot, being able to hit your target is more important than how hard the bullet hits your target or if the wound is 10% larger. That’s a big reason the FBI made the switch — they found that it’s better to have 15 rounds of a bullet with 90% stopping power than 8 rounds of a bullet with 95% stopping power.
If you’re extremely nervous about handling a firearm, or maybe you want to teach your children in the 8-15 age range, the best caliber choice is the .22 Long Rifle.
It is the weakest of the popular calibers and, to be honest, the butt of many gun jokes. But the 22 LR is a great way to start, especially for children, because the gun will barely move when you fire it.
There are at least 300 rifle calibers. These five are the most popular:
- .22 Long Rifle
- .223 Remington (5.56x45mm NATO)
- .308 Winchester (7.62x51mm NATO)
- .30-06 Springfield
- .30-30 Winchester
Notice the .22 LR is in both the pistol and rifle lists. It’s a unique round used for target practice and training for new shooters, but is special in how it works and underpowered when you’re in an emergency situation. The same advice applies – if you want to start very cautiously and/or with children, the .22 LR is a great place to start.
The two most common rounds and what we would recommend for new shooters are the .223 and .308 rounds.
They also happen to be the most popular, because the .223 is for AR-15s and the .308 is for AR-10s (a bigger version of the AR-15, even though the number is smaller).
Just like the 9mm pistol round, the .223 is used by frontline soldiers because it’s smaller and they can carry more of it, but still packs a punch and can travel a decent distance at high speed. The .223 round is excellent at 100 meters to 300 meters. Although technically different, you can think of the .223 round as the same as the 5.56x45mm NATO round.
The .308 round is a bigger round that packs more punch over long distances. The rifles that shoot .308 are typically heavier, bigger, and are great for targets at 100 to 600 meters. The .308 is essentially the same as the 7.62x51mm NATO round.
The other rounds tend to be popular specifically for things like hunting or precision competition shooting. But for everyday people and survival situations, the risk of having too many calibers isn’t worth the benefits a more niche specialized round might give you.
When you look at pistol and rifle ammo side by side, they basically look the same but in different sizes.
Shotgun ammo is quite different because instead of sending one bullet through the air the way pistols and rifles do, shotguns spray multiple smaller pellets in a wider range.
That’s why shotguns have been so popular for close quarters self defense and bird hunting. If someone breaks into your home at night and you shoot at them down the hallway, you’re more likely to hit them with the big cone of sprayed shot than if you used a pistol.
But you’re also more likely to hit other things, too, and the effective distance drops off pretty quickly. There are various pros and cons to shotguns in emergency situations, but we’ll cover them in a future guide.
The terminology is different too. Instead of caliber, shotshells are measured by “gauge.” Instead of bullets, a shotgun sprays “shot” and have extra words like “00 buckshot” or “birdshot” that refer to the size and number of the pellets that are shot through the air.
Thankfully there are only about eight shotgun calibers. These two are the most popular:
- 12 gauge
- 20 gauge
In yet another example of ammunition labeling craziness, the 12 gauge is bigger than the 20 gauge.
We recommend the 12 gauge for most people.
It is by far the most popular shotgun round in America, with over 50% of total shotgun and ammo sales. Plus, there are a wide range of useful options for 12 gauge rounds that shoot things from lots of tiny little pellets to fire breathing “dragon’s breath” to two big ball bearings with a steel cable between them.
Some people prefer the 20 gauge because it has less recoil. We think that if recoil is that big of a concern, for preparedness reasons you’d want to go with something other than a shotgun altogether. So the benefits of the 12 gauge, like better power and distance, win out over the 20’s easier handling.
Shotshells have different lengths. The most common lengths are 2.75 and 3 inches. Many shotguns can shoot both, since the only difference is the length but not the diameter. We don’t have a recommendation between them — just be sure you’re not putting the wrong length into a shotgun that wasn’t built for it.
How to buy a gun
Different states and cities have wildly different laws about the types of guns you can buy, who can buy them, what you can do with them, and so on. Some places like San Francisco, Chicago, and D.C. try to ban most or all guns altogether.
Be sure to google for your local laws. Wikipedia has a nice breakdown summary by state.
Some general requirements:
- Over 21. Some areas allow people 18-21 to buy rifles and shotguns for hunting.
- Have not been convicted of a felony.
- Have not been declared mentally incompetent.
- Are not using medications or drugs that will impair your ability.
In almost all cases there will be a criminal background check. You’ll fill out a form and the store will run you through a federal database that usually only takes a few minutes to verify.
Note that even if you live in a state with legal marijuana, it’s still a crime at the federal level to use marijuana and own guns. These forms will ask if you are a user of illegal drugs including marijuana. There are no drug tests or verification.
Every gun has a serial number. Some states require you to register your gun and serial number in a government database.
Some states require a waiting or “cooling off” period, which means you pick your gun, pay for it, and do the background check, but then you can’t take it home for a while. The political thinking is that if someone is angry and walks into a store to buy a gun, by making them wait 7-10 days to carry it home they will cool off and not commit whatever crime they were intending.
Again, check your local laws.
Go to your local gun shop
For new shooters, we always recommend starting at your local gun store. You get the benefit of a friendly face who can answer any questions, and you can try different things before buying.
Don’t be intimidated by going into a gun shop. Even if you’re the most peace-and-love liberal with your Bernie 2020 shirt on, any store worth your business will treat you with the same respect as a gun-totin’ cowboy.
Thankfully, the vast majority of legit businesses conduct themselves this way. If they don’t, then say thank you, leave, and share your experience on Yelp.
Don’t be ashamed of being new. They love new shooters because you’re a new customer that will keep buying new toys. Just say you’re new at this and looking for help.
Don’t buy online or from private parties (yet)
Guns take a lot of abuse during their life from all the explosions, cleaning chemicals, moving parts, and rough days in the field. It can be hard for you to tell if a used gun is in good shape, even when looking in person.
It’s generally fine to buy a used gun from a gun store because they will help you if there are any defects or lemons.
Avoid buying any gun, new or used, from private parties through sites like Craigslist or GunBroker. There are bonafide people and good deals in those marketplaces, but as a new shooter you probably don’t know enough yet to spot the really bad deals, and once you find out it’s probably too late.
Try before you buy
We believe that there are clear “best of” winners when it comes to guns. Especially for emergency preparedness scenarios where things like quality, durability, and performance really matter.
But there is still value in touching and feeling a gun. Particularly with pistols, where the grip in your hand can be very different from one to another.
Some gun stores and shooting ranges allow people to rent various guns. If you’re able to, this is always a good idea before spending at least a few hundred dollars on your own gun.