Gun Basics for Writers: Long Guns, Part 1 of 2: Rifles

Some basics about writing rifles.

Back in July, we did a couple of posts on the basics of handguns for writers. I’m running low on questions again, so this week will be two posts on how to write long guns.

Again, these are the basics only—if you'd like more details on any part of this, feel free to request such in the comments or by writing in! I like to consider myself a very “friendly” sort of person to advise on firearms, and I’ve helped out writers of all political stripes with their gun questions.

Long Guns

Long guns are just that—long guns, so called because they have longer barrels in contrast to something like a handgun.  Most are designed to be fired braced against the shoulder. Most places have laws on a minimum length for the barrel of a long gun; this minimum length can be anywhere between 16 and 24 inches depending on the jurisdiction and the type of weapon. Long guns are usually less restricted than handguns because they are less concealable—at least, that's the reason I've always been told. For example, it used to be legal in California for people to buy long guns at age 18, even when handguns were already restricted to 21 and up.


The reason a rifle is called a rifle is that the bore (the inside of the barrel) is rifled, meaning that it has grooves that curve around the the inside—think drawing a very loose spiral up the inside of the barrel. Those grooves spin the bullet as it exits the bore. This spin stabilizes the round as it flies through the air and VASTLY improves the the accuracy of the shot.

In fact, rifling was a huge technological advancement in weaponry. Even modern handgun bores have rifling, though the shorter barrel length means that even with rifling, handguns are not as accurate as rifles. On the other hand, if you look down the barrel of, say, an old muzzle-loading musket (Theoretically! Don’t ever point a gun at your face, ever!), the bore will be smooth instead of having the rifling grooves, because rifling hadn't been invented yet.

Here is a picture of what rifling looks like if you looked down a rifled gun barrel:

Rifled barrel

Looking down a rifled barrel. Wikimedia Commons / GFDL.

Rifles are long guns with rifled barrels that are designed to be fired with the stock braced against the shoulder.  Here is a picture of a rifle:

Mosin-Nagant Rifle

Mosin-Nagant Rifle. Photo by / Wikimedia Commons / attribution required.

Rifles have quite a bit of variation, starting with .22's that are little more than BB guns (but can still of course be dangerous), and ranging through hunting rifles, sniper rifles, and fully automatic assault rifles. Here's an assault rifle:

H&K G36 Assault Rifle

H&K G36 Assault Rifle. Wikimedia Commons / public domain.

Modern civilian rifles would generally not include fully automatic weaponry, and mostly fall into two main categories: bolt action and semiautomatic. Semiautomatic rifles work like semiautomatic handguns: rounds are loaded into a magazine and each trigger pull fires one round and re-chambers the weapon so it is ready to fire again. Many military selective fire weapons (read: capable of fully automatic weapons fire) have civilian variants that look nearly identical and that are only capable of semiautomatic fire.  So, for instance, you might see a semiautomatic version of the G36 in the above picture, and it would look pretty much the same.

I’m going to pause for a moment to highlight the difference between automatic and semiautomatic, because I see people mix this up a lot—and it isn’t helped by the fact that even gun people sometimes use the word “automatic” to mean a semiauto. Semiautomatic means one shot per trigger pull (no matter how long you hold it down), and automatic means that when you hold down the trigger, the weapon fires continuously. Automatic weapons are regulated far more heavily than semiautomatic weapons.

I also want to note that “semiautomatic” only describes the mechanism of the action—it doesn't necessarily correlate to the rifle being more dangerous than a bolt action one. In fact, those .22 “plinkers” I mentioned could be semiautomatics, whereas a sniper might prefer a bolt action. Here's a picture of a semiautomatic rifle that looks very different from the G36 above:

Semiautomatic Rifle. Photo by Atirador / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

A bolt action rifle, in contrast, has a manual action—the bolt must be operated by the shooter between each shot.  (Another type of manual action is the lever action rifle, popular in the Old West, but those aren't in widespread use in contemporary times, so I won't cover them here.)  The Mosin-Nagant in the first rifle photo is a bolt action rifle. Many other varieties of rifle exist, but again, you don't see much in modern times outside of these two categories—and they're broad categories already—so I'll focus on bolt action and semiautomatic rifles today.

How a Character Would Load a Rifle

This is tricky to generalize, as rifles have a lot of variation here.  Some rifles (most semiautomatic rifles, for instance) have detachable magazines that load the same way a semiautomatic handgun magazine would—you can see the detachable magazine sticking out from the bottom of the G36 above, for instance. Other rifles (particularly bolt action ones) have internal magazines that have to be loaded by hand, one round at a time.  Still others have magazine tubes.  And still others have fixed magazines that have to be loaded with some type of clip (a clip and a magazine are not the same thing, by the way—only some types of weapons even use clips at all).  Etc., etc..

So I’m afraid this is really something you’ll have to look up for the particular rifle you choose for your character.

Then, like with semiautomatic handguns, once the magazine (whatever form it takes) is loaded, the rifle must be chambered.

On a semiautomatic this involves drawing back the the bolt and releasing it. You do this by pulling back the charging handle (which can take many forms—sometimes it's a small handle or knob sticking out the side of the gun, sometimes it's a handle you have to pull straight backwards) and releasing it—or, if the bolt's already back, hitting the bolt release to let it slam forward. If you read the newsletter on semiautomatic handguns, you'll notice the similarities between doing this to chamber the first round and racking the slide on a handgun. Both are doing the same thing: sliding the first round from the magazine and into the chamber of the firearm.

On a bolt action rifle, you have to chamber the first round by drawing back the bolt and then sliding it back forward, or by sliding the bolt forward if it's already back—this will push the first round into the barrel, ready to be fired. You also have to do this between every round fired from a bolt action—see the next section.

How a Character Would Fire a Rifle

Generally, the stock is braced against the body while the shooter holds the rifle up with one hand and pulls the trigger with the other. Rifles can be fired from many positions; I’ve trained firing rifles from standing, sitting, kneeling, and prone. Prone (lying on one’s stomach) is the easiest position for most shooters and tends to give the greatest accuracy. This is partly because it removes the weight of the rifle by allowing the shooter to brace their arms against the ground.

When firing, semiautomatic rifles work just like semiautomatic handguns—you pull the trigger, and that's it.  The gun fires and automatically re-chambers itself for the next round. You keep pulling the trigger for as many times as you want to shoot (or until your magazine runs out of ammo). Also like with semiautomatic handguns, the casings eject out the right side of the gun with every shot. Since rifle ammunition can be so much more powerful than handgun ammunition, for powerful rifles these casings can have a lot of velocity—I've seen them fly probably twenty feet.

For a bolt action, between every round you have to pull the bolt back manually and slide it forward again to chamber the next round (good bolt action rifle shooters can do this very, very fast).  Pulling back the bolt also ejects the casing from the round that was just fired, but since it's your hand doing it, it doesn't have the power the shell ejections from a semiautomatic have; the casing just falls on the ground.

A good rifle can be extremely accurate, and a rifle would definitely be your character's choice for any long-distance shooting, so it shouldn't be surprising that a major aspect of rifle shooting is sighting. The rifle has iron sights on it (the metal markers on the top of the gun that the shooter can line up to aim—handguns have these too), but for distance shooting most people would add optics in the form of a scope (basically a mini telescope that uses lenses to magnify the target and allows accurate aiming of the rifle). Here's what it looks like to look through a scope:

View through a rifle scope

View through a rifle scope. Wikimedia Commons / public domain.

How a Character Would Reload a Rifle

The character would reload much the same way she loaded it in the first place, depending on the type of rifle.

For some semiautomatic rifles the bolt locks back when the magazine is empty; in that case the empty magazine would be swapped for a new one and the character would hit the bolt release and be ready to fire again.

How a Character Would Clear a Rifle

Because rifles are so different, there's a lot of variation here.

For a semiautomatic with a detachable box magazine: Eject the magazine, and pull back the bolt to eject any round in the chamber and then show that the chamber is empty.

For a bolt action, you often have to operate the bolt for as many rounds as are left in the rifle, pulling it back-then-forward to chamber the next round, and then pulling it back-then-forward again to eject that round (without firing it—this is the same thing you'd do to eject the casing if you HAD fired it) and chamber the next one, and then pulling it back-then-forward to eject that round and chamber the next one, and so on until all the rounds left have been ejected and pulling the bolt back shows the gun is empty.  You don't have to do this on all bolt actions, though (the Mosin-Nagant in the first picture, for instance, has a plate at the bottom of the magazine that can be opened to unload whatever ammo is inside, and then you only have to work the action once to eject any round that may already be chambered).  And you do have to do something like this on some semiautomatics (on the SKS, for example, which has a fixed magazine). Again, lots of variation.

How a Character Would  Clean a Rifle

Just as much variation here as with loading and clearing them—some rifles can be taken down into components, some the most you can do is open the action.  You'd always have to run a rag down the bore to clean it, though, which, since this is a long gun, requires a nice long cleaning rod.

Why a Character Would Prefer a Rifle

As mentioned, a rifle of some type would be used for any kind of distance shooting. Snipers and hunters would use rifles. Rifles are also used in modern warfare. And on the other end of the spectrum, in some regions and cultures the most tame rifles are given to kids to plink at cans in the backyard.

In other words, if you want something more powerful and more accurate than a handgun, you'll want a rifle of some type. On the other hand, if you want something tamer and less dangerous-feeling than a handgun, you'd also want a rifle, but (obviously) a different one from if your characters are going into combat.

Other Useful Notes

  • Many (though by no means all) rifles fire much more powerful ammunition than handguns do. This means more kick for those sorts of rifles. I've seen people who weren't ready for the recoil get knocked in the head quite badly by the scope.  (Despite the slapstick comedy scenes popular on television, I've never seen someone try to fire a handgun and have it recoil back enough to hit them in the forehead.)

  • Whether a malfunction is likely depends on the operation of the rifle. On a bolt action, for example, it would be very, very unlikely. Semiautomatic assault rifle? Definitely plausible.

Okay, that’s it for rifles. On Thursday, we’ll tackle shotguns.

Questions? Write in and let me know!