The Gun Fight (Part 1): Actions

*Posted by Kirk Spencer

Assault Weapons
It seems that immediately after a mass shooting there’s a gun fight—not a literal fight with guns but a fight over guns.  When there is a literal gun fight during the shooting (which does happen) there is not a figurative gunfight after the shooting stopped… because very few people are shot.   As a matter of fact, even in the case of mass shootings, it is usually when authorities arrive and return force with force that the shooting stops, usually with the shooter shooting himself.    We may be in the process of learning a lesson which has already been learned in less “civilized” areas of the world—the shooting stops as soon as someone starts “shooting back.”   I covered this aspect of gun control in an earlier post on “Gun Spree Zones.”

In the next three posts, I would like to address the recent actions that are being taken (or at least, being planned).  The executive is planning on taking executive actions and the legislature is planning on taking legislative action and citizens across the country are lining up outside of gun stores to take action buying and keeping and bearing arms before the executive and legislative actions go into action.   In this post, I too want to talk about actions, not the executive or legislative kind, but the mechanical actions of the guns we are talking about taking actions about.   Such details may not be of interest to many or even most, but it seems that if we are going to talk about guns we should understand a little of how they have developed and how they work.  This is even more significant considering that the actions that are being taken by our executive and legislators very often presuppose that the public will understand (or maybe misunderstand) the terms that are being used.  After we consider gun “Actions” in this post, I will address gun “Re-actions” in Part 2 and gun “Responsibilities” in Part 3.


Muzzle Loaders

Muzzel Loading Actions

The earliest “guns” were called “muzzle loaders” because each “shot” was loaded individually down the barrel from the open end of the barrel, called the “muzzle.”  First a measured amount of explosive powder was poured in the muzzle, then a lead ball with a greasy linen patch around it was rammed down the barrel with a ram rod.  The patch gave a tight fit to the lead ball or bullet and helped it engage the spiral grooves (rifling) on the inside of the barrel which caused the ball or bullet to spin and make it more stable in flight.  (Eventually these components—powder, patch and ball—were prepackaged in paper “cartridges” and rammed down the barrel at one time)   The other end of the barrel from the muzzle (or “bore) called the “breech” end was solid without an opening; only a small hole (vent) in the side of the barrel to allow the explosive powder of the charge inside the barrel to be ignited from the outside by various mechanisms or “locks.”  The earliest handheld firearms called “hand canons” and later “muskets” appeared in the 15th century, the “cartridge” created in the barrel was ignited by a burning wick which falls slowly into power (“matchlock”); then in the 17th century, by a falling flint held in a hammer-like vise that shaves sparks from a hard “frizzen” plate to ignite the powder (“flintlock”); and then, in the 19th century, a small powder charge encased between thin copper foil as a “cap” which is ignited by the falling “hammer” which then ignites the powder charge in the barrel.  This action is called a “cap-lock” and the gun a “cap and ball.” 

[These types of muzzle loading single shot guns, both as rifles and pistols, could shoot only one or two shots or “rounds” per minute.]


Single-Shot Breach Loaders

Breech Loaders

The development of different loading “actions” in guns began in earnest when the paper of the paper cartridges was replaced with a brass tube, called a “casing” or “brass.”  The exploding percussion “cap” (now called a “primer”) of the “cap-and-ball” guns was placed in a recess at the breech end of the brass cartridge.  When this cap was busted (thus the vernacular today of “busting a cap”) by the “firing pin,” it explodes and ignites the main charge in the brass cartage and (if confined) the explosion will push the lead bullet out of the cartridge through the barrel of the gun at a high velocity.  The loaded brass cartridges are often called “bullets” but technically the bullet is just the lead projectile (This is an example of “synecdoche” where a part of something stands for the whole).  So a gun does shoot bullets out the end of the barrel; however, what is loaded into the gun are not bullets but cartridges or ammunition.

The lead bullets that come out of the end of the gun barrel come in many shapes and sizes.  The size of the bullets (lead projectiles) is designated as the measure of its diameter in calibers (a caliber is one tenth of an inch).  So a 38 caliber firearm has a bullet with a diameter of 0.38 inches, a 45 caliber is 0.45 inches, and a 50 caliber is 0.50 inches.  The bullet of a 50 caliber has a thickness of one-half inch.

The brass cartridge is an invention that is over 150 years old, but remains virtually unchanged to this day.  With the invention of brass cartridges, many different types of loading actions begin to appear.   These new types of actions are often called “breechloaders” as the cartridges were placed in the back end or “breech” of the barrel rather than the muzzle end.  These breech loaders function in allowing the solid closed end at the breech end to be moved back or down out of the way to allow the cartridge to be placed in the breech end of the barrel called the “firing chamber.”  The action is then reversed to move the solid block (firing block) back into place at the back of the barrel behind the cartridge, making a firm and tight containment when the cartridge is discharged.   When the trigger is pulled, the hammer falls and strikes the firing pin that moves through the breech and dimples the cap in the cartridge igniting the cap which then discharges the round.  These actions are called “single-shot breechloaders” because they are loaded from the breech end and each shot is loaded one at a time (or two at a time if there are two barrels).  In the following, I will describe three of the most popular single-shot breech loading actions:

Falling Block Action:

A small lever below the action pulls the solid firing block down so that a single cartridge can be loaded by hand into the firing chamber.  When the lever is pulled up again, it lifts the firing block firmly behind the cartridge.

Rolling Block Action:

A small flat thumb bolt rolls the firing block down out of the way so a single cartridge can be placed in firing chamber by hand.  When the thumb bolt is pushed forward it rolls the firing block back into place behind the cartridge.


A small toggle or lever behind the action on the back of the stock (wood or plastic housing for the action) is pushed sideways with the thumb which allows the gun to hinge in the middle or “break open” exposing the breech end of the barrel where cartridges can be loaded by hand.  When the gun is pulled back to close, it locks the barrel back into place.  This action is used primarily for shotguns.  Shot guns have a smooth bore (smooth walls on the inside of the barrel) rather than being rifled (spiral grooves inside the barrel) and shoot pellets of lead called “shot.”  The smaller pellets are called “bird shot” and the larger pellets are called “buck shot.”  The size of the barrel is measured in gauges.  A “gauge” is the fraction of a pound in weight of a lead ball that would fit perfectly in the end of the barrel.   For instance the lead ball that fit into the end of a 12 gauge shotgun would be one twelfth of a pound.  As such, the smaller the diameter of the barrel the larger the number of the gauge—common gauges for shotguns from smallest to largest are: 410 gauge, 28 gauge, 20 gauge, 12 gauge, 10 gauge, 8 gauge.  Often break actions have two barrels called “double-barrel” they can be “side-by-side” or “over-and-under.”

[These types of single shot breech loaders, both as rifle and pistols, could shoot one or two shots or “rounds” about every five seconds.]


Multi-Shot Breech Loaders or “Repeaters.”

Lever Pump Bolt

About the time of the Civil War, rifles began to develop experimental multi-shot actions, such as the Spencer Carbine (a “carbine” is just a smaller and more mobile version of a longer rifle).  The cartridges were stored in tubes or boxes called “magazines” which involved a spring to put the stack of cartridges in the box or tube under pressure which forced each cartridge out of the magazine when the repeating mechanism “auto-loaded” them into the chamber.  Most tube magazines were permanently attached under the barrel and filled from the ends.  Most box magazines, which were generally detachable, we inserted just under the loading chamber or receiver at the breech end of the barrel.  In the following, I will describe three of the most popular forms of multiple shot breechloaders.


By far the most popular of these multi-shot actions with spring loaded magazines was the Winchester “Lever Action.”  The Lever Action involves a mechanism where a looped lever under the action, when pulled down, pulls back the firing bolt which is the central part of the firing block.  The firing bolt contains the “firing pin” which punctures the cap in the cartridge when the hammer falls on it.  As the firing bolt moves back it does two important things, it pulls the spent (fired) cartridge brass from the firing chamber and ejects it out of the way.  It also pulls the hammer back into a “cocked” position ready to fall and ignite the next cartridge when the trigger is pulled.  In the early lever actions, there was a carriage or elevator type block that carried the cartridges up from the magazine.  Later lever actions have a ramp structure that allows the cartridges to slide up the ramp and into place.  When the looped lever of the lever action is pulled up, the “elevator” firing block (or elevating ramp) carries the cartridge up to the breech end of the barrel where the returning firing bolt pushes the loaded cartridge (live round) into the firing chamber and locks in behind the cartridge.  When the trigger is pulled, the hammer falls, hammering the firing pin, extending through the firing bolt, busting the cap, and discharging the round.  Then it all starts over again when the lever of the lever action is pulled down again.


Similar mechanisms were employed in firearms which activate not with a lever under the action but a wooden cylinder around the magazine under the barrel.  Instead of a lever being pulled down and back up again, the cylinder is pulled back and pushed forward in a “pumping” motion.  These “pump-actions” are more common on shotguns.

The Bolt Action:

The back and forth movement of the firing bolt in bolt actions is not by a complex mechanism, but is activated directly by hand.  Attached to the firing bolt is another bolt that sticks out of the side of the action with a ball on the end.  When lifted and pulled back, it moves the firing block back and opens a chamber between the firing block and the breech end of the barrel.  The spring loaded magazine was placed as a separate box magazine that was inserted under the action.  This was an important development because it allowed rapid replacing of a detachable box magazine rather than the rather slow loading of an attached tube magazine as in the pump and lever actions.  The spring in the box magazine below pushes a cartridge up into the gap and when the bolt is pushed back into place, the firing bolt returns, pushing the cartridge into the firing chamber and locks behind the cartridge.  As with the lever actions, when the bolt of the bolt-action is pulled back with the firing block, it pulls the brass casing out of the firing chamber of the barrel and has a mechanism that flips it up out of the chamber and away from the rifle.

[Multi-Shot Breechloaders could shoot one or two shots or “rounds” accurately every few seconds but could shoot a sequence of approximately 10 shots, before having to reload the attached magazines which could take 30 seconds to a minute.  Pre-loaded, detachable box magazines could be replaced in a matter of seconds.]


Multi-Shot Handguns

The earliest popular multi-shot handguns were called “revolvers” from the fact that the cartridges were placed in a cylinder which revolved, allowing a succession of cartridges to be fired by the falling hammer as each round came into alignment with the barrel.  The cylinders generally held six cartridges and so these early revolvers were often called “six shooters.”  These six shooters actually pre-date the invention of cartridges.  During the Civil War, there were “cap and ball” revolvers.  When brass cartridges were invented the old cap-and-ball revolvers were often converted to cartridge guns.  All the earliest revolvers were “single action” which means that the hammer had to be pulled back by hand and so when the trigger was pulled there was only a single action—the hammer fell.  After the cartridge was discharged, hammer had to be pulled back with the thumb which engaged the cylinder and rotated the next cartridge into place.  “Gunslingers” can fire in rapid succession by “fanning” the pistol.  This is where the gun is held steady with one hand with the trigger held down while the other hand “fans” the spur on the top of the hammer with the palm.

Eventually a revolver action was devised which did not require the hammer to be pulled back and cocked each time with the thumb.   These revolvers were called “double action” because as the trigger was pulled back two actions occurred.  First a mechanism pulls the hammer back, and rotates the cylinder until the trigger engages.  Once the trigger engages the second action occurs in that the hammer falls and the cartridge is discharged.  When the trigger is released it falls forward and the process begins again by pulling the trigger again to fire the next round.  So, with double-action revolvers, the gun can be fired as rapidly as the trigger can be pulled.

[Single action revolvers can fire about one shot per second.  Fanning single action revolvers and double action revolvers can fire multiple shots per second.]


Automatic Actions

When a cartridge is discharged, there is a recoil or “kick” as the exploding charge is confined in the firing chamber.  In the late 19th century, an action was designed which harnesses some of this recoil energy to work the firing bolt, ejecting the fired (spent) brass and loading the next round.   These types of firearms were called “automatic” because they loaded automatically when each round was discharged without having to work any mechanism by hand, such as a lever, bolt or pump.  Automatic weapons are divided into two types.  There are “semi-automatics” which fire only one round each time the trigger is engaged (like a double action revolver).   And there are “fully-automatics” which will fire a stream of bullets when the trigger is engaged and held down.  Fully automatic weapons only stop firing when the trigger is disengaged or the magazine is empty (or the mechanism jams).  It is this type of fully automatic weapon that was referred to as “machine guns” or more correctly “sub-machine guns.”   (Recently the terms “automatic weapon,” “machine gun,” and “assault weapon” have become confused and just means anything that looks like a military weapon.)   In the first half of the 20th century, private citizens could own fully automatic “machine guns” as with the “Thompson Machine Gun” designed and used in WWII.  However they were very expensive (They cost about half the price of a car, so by today’s standards about 15 thousand dollarsand.) so only government agencies and gangs could afford them. Tom Hanks carried one in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” as a military weapon and he carried one in “Road to Perdition” as a gangster.  Because of such gangster activity, fully automatic weapons cannot be owned by private citizens now except with a special class III license which is very difficult to obtain, and fully automatic weapons are still very expensive.

[Semi-Automatics can shoot about two shots or “rounds” per second accurately and with high capacity magazines can shoot 30 to 60 rounds (or more) before having to stop and reload. These magazines can be replaced in a matter of seconds, so with semi-automatic weapons and high capacity magazines it is possible to lay down an almost constant rate of fire; the only limitations being the amount of ammunition, the heating of the barrel and the action or magazine jamming.]


With the recent attention on “automatic” weapons, it is easy to believe that it was the invention of these automatic actions and high capacity magazines that precipitated the recent gun violence and that these actions—especially the really scary looking ones—should be banned.   Anyone who believes this should consider that automatic actions and high capacity magazines have been around since the 19th century (this fact was showcased in the movie Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows).   If it is true that gun violence is reaching epidemic proportions recently, the fact that automatic actions and high capacity magazines have been available for many generations yet only used with such violent abandon in our generation is only one clue, among many, that we are being confronted with something that is not specifically a “gun technology,” or even “gun availability” issue.  For instance, it could also be a media illusion (and glorification) issue.  The issue may be something deeper than just the gun actions and their availability. The recent violent events which have been showcased by the media and coopted by so many political agendas may only be the symptom of something much more troubling—something that will not be solved by demanding a plan from our executive or a vote from our legislature, something that cannot be solved by just forming a new bureaucracy or spending more money.  This is what I would like to address in Part Two… our re-actions.   And Part Three… our responsibilities.

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