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Common Features of Firearms

All types of firearms have actions and sights, and they may have safeties or magazines. Features unique to rifles or shotguns are discussed in the following sections.

Firearm Actions

Firearms can be classified by their action type. The action of a firearm is made up of parts that load, unload, fire, and eject the shotshell or cartridge. Actions are either singleshot or repeating styles. Singleshot firearms must be reloaded each time the firearm is fired. Repeating firearms have extra cartridges or shotshells ready in a magazine, cylinder, or extra barrel.

Identifying and Operating Firearm Actions

You must be able to recognize which type of action a rifle or shotgun has, understand how it works, and operate it safely and correctly. Before handling any firearm, open the action and determine whether it is loaded or unloaded. TREAT EVERY FIREARM AS IF IT WERE LOADED even if you have checked and know that it is unloaded.

Bolt Action: A bolt-action firearm operates like opening and closing a door bolt. The bolt solidly locks into the breech, making it accurate and dependable.

  • To open the action, lift the handle up and pull it to the rear.
  • If the firearm is loaded, the cartridge or shotshell will be ejected as you pull the bolt to the rear. To make sure it’s unloaded, visually check both the open action and the magazine for extra cartridges or shotshells.
  • You can store a bolt-action firearm safely by storing the bolt separately from the firearm.

Lever Action: The lever-action firearm has a large metal lever located behind the trigger. This handle usually forms the trigger guard as well.

  • To open the action, push the lever downward and forward, which extracts the cartridge case from the chamber and ejects it. If a magazine holds extra cartridges, another is immediately ready to be loaded into the chamber.
  • It’s often difficult to tell if a lever-action firearm is loaded. To unload, push the lever downward and forward repeatedly until no more cartridges are ejected. To make sure it’s unloaded, visually check both the chamber and the magazine for additional cartridges.
  • Most models also have an exposed hammer, which can be dangerous.
  • Always use extra caution to keep your hands away from the trigger while working the lever action.

Pump Action: The pump-action firearm is fast and smooth. It allows the shooter to re-cock the firearm without taking his or her eye off the target. The pump action also is referred to as “slide action” or “trombone action.”

  • To open the action, slide the forestock to the rear, which extracts the cartridge from the chamber and ejects it. Sliding the forestock toward the muzzle closes the action and loads another cartridge. A pump-action firearm will open only after it’s fired or if a release lever is pressed and the forestock is pulled to the rear.
  • To make sure it’s unloaded, you must visually check both the chamber and the magazine for cartridges.

Semi-Automatic (or Autoloading) Action: As each shot is fired manually, the case of the cartridge or shotshell is ejected automatically and the chamber is reloaded automatically.

  • To open the action, you must pull back the bolt’s operating handle (on a rifle or shotgun) or the slide (on a pistol). Most semi-automatics, when the bolt or slide is pulled back, will lock in the open position if the magazine is empty. If the firearm does not lock open, it means that a cartridge from the magazine has gone into the chamber, making the firearm ready to fire. A few semi-automatics do not lock open and must be held open to check the chamber.
  • To unload, first remove the magazine and lock the action open. Then make sure it’s unloaded—visually check the chamber for an additional cartridge or shell.
  • When closing the action for loading, pull back to unlock the bolt or slide and then let go, allowing it to travel forward on its own. Do not guide it forward with your hand, because it may not seat properly.
  • On a semi-automatic, the trigger must be pulled each time a shot is fired. This makes the semi-automatic different from the fully-automatic firearm, which fires continuously as long as the trigger is held down. The fully-automatic firearm may not be used for hunting.

Break (or Hinge) Action: The break-action firearm operates on the same principle as a door hinge. Simple to load and unload, a hinge action is often chosen as a hunter’s first firearm.

  • To open the action, point the barrel(s) at the ground. A release is pressed, and the stock drops downward. This allows the cartridges or shotshells to eject or to be removed manually if the firearm is loaded.
  • Hinge-action firearms have a separate barrel for each shot rather than a magazine. Most models have one or two barrels, but some have up to four.
  • Some models also have an exposed hammer(s), which can be dangerous.

Revolving Action: The revolving action takes its name from a revolving cylinder containing a number of cartridge chambers. One chamber at a time lines up with the barrel as the firearm is fired. Revolving cylinders may rotate either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending on the manufacturer. This type of action is usually found on handguns but may be found on some older rifles. Revolving actions are referred to as either “single action” or “double action.”

  • Single Action: Will fire only after the hammer has been cocked manually.
  • Double Action: Pulling the trigger both cocks and releases the hammer. A double-action revolver typically also can be hammer-cocked like a single-action revolver.
Four typical handgun actions

Continue to the next page to see common actions on rifles and shotguns.

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