Guns and Ammo 101: Terminology Misses

It’s a safe bet that everyone here loves guns and ammo, and an even safer one to assume the majority of you own at least one. Personally, I believe guns are like potato chips: once you have one, you can’t stop. There are guns quite literally for everything, from hunting to self-defense to sport shooting to plinking. And I don’t know about you, but for this writer, walking into a gun store is not unlike a visit to the holy land; being surrounded by gleaming display cases of the latest, greatest firearms and the rich scent of new leather holsters is almost more than I can take. Happiness, thy name is guns and ammo.

Gun Safety RulesOf course, loving guns isn’t enough on its own. There are the golden rules:

  1. Don’t point a gun at anything you aren’t willing to destroy
  2. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re on target
  3. Know your target and what is beyond it, and
  4. Treat every gun as if it is loaded.

And then there is a practically endless slew of tips, advice, and training, none of which are our topic of choice today. No, today the topic is a combination of terminology and knowledge, a little guns and ammo 101. You never know when you might learn something new – or find something worth passing on to a newbie in the gun world. And if you love guns like I do (passionately, ridiculously, and possibly obsessively), you’re going to be nodding your head in agreement as you go, even as you roll your eyes. Yes, we love guns, so please, let’s get a few things right.

It’s Not a Clip!

Ah, yes, the old clip-versus-magazine discussion. In the world of journalism, there’s a joke about learning gun terminology to ensure the greatest possible accuracy in writing: it’s a clip. That’s right, it’s a clip, it’s a clip, it’s a clip. The “it’s a clip” assumption is made by many who should know better. For example, a friend going through the police academy grew increasingly frustrated listening to an instructor give a speech where he yelled, “You put it in your gun; you don’t read it, so it isn’t a magazine!”

Clip vs MagSo what’s the difference? I’m glad you asked.

There’s actually a simple explanation: the magazine feeds the weapon, and the clip feeds the magazine. Magazines hold rounds using a spring for pressure and are loaded into the gun so rounds can then be fed into the gun’s chamber. Just to confuse matters, there are several kinds of magazines, including tubular, box, drum, and rotary. Some magazines are removable, some are fixed.

A clip doesn’t have a spring, and it holds the rounds in a neat row so you can use it to charge particular gun’s magazines. There are also stripper clips which speed things up by helping you strip rounds into a magazine. The M1 Garand is frequently used as an example of clips being fed into the magazine; when all the rounds have been fired, the clip is ejected.

Faster Than a Speeding…

“Bullet” just might be the most misused word in the firearms world, and not just the firearms world but also the gun control world. A rather large gun control group recently released an advertisement admonishing gun owners for their possession of evil firearms, claiming guns take away children. In the ad is an image of a gun supposedly being fired, complete with a blurred-motion…cartridge. Yes, when I really want to stop someone, I use the entire round: it could be a new ad campaign, something along the lines of, “when just a bullet won’t do.”

A bullet is the projectile that exits the barrel of a gun. It is not the entire cartridge you see tucked in neat rows in fresh boxes of ammo. Bullets are usually made of lead or copper, and they’re the part that does the damage. Of course, without the other components, the bullet isn’t going to get very far. The term “cartridge” refers to the finished product, as does “round,” and the cartridge, or round, includes the: case, primer, propellant, and projectile (yes, that’s the bullet). So, members of anti-gun campaigns and certain others, kindly stop referring to a round as a bullet.

How Big Is It?

A brief word on caliber: caliber specifically applies to the bullet. The caliber of the bullet – yes, back to bullets once again – refers to its size. Caliber refers to the diameter of the bullet and is expressed numerically by millimeters or hundredths of an inch. We’ll avoid a riot by not starting a caliber debate today.

That Evil “S”

You haven’t lived until you’ve been firmly corrected by an ammunition expert about the “grain” versus “grains” issue. When you look at a box of ammunition, you’re going to see the weight on it by grain, usually shortened to “GR,” although, ever so often, you see it as “GRS,” typically on ammunition from another country. So what is grain? Grain is the weight of the bullet – please refer to the “bullet” issue above to clarify. The higher the number, the more grain the bullet has, and the heavier it is. There are a number of important issues related to this, but this is neither the time nor the place. “Grain” is the proper way to refer to the bullet’s weight; do not say “grains” unless you want a beat-down the day an ammunition expert – or just a stickler for accuracy – catches you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Accurate? Or Precise? Exactly…

Accuracy vs PrecisionThis is one not quite as commonly realized in the gun world: accuracy versus precision. There’s a tendency for shooters to use these terms interchangeably, but they really aren’t. Accuracy has to do with how consistently you’re able to hit a particular target. Precision refers to how tight your groups are. Still not convinced?

The source of this example might surprise you, but it’s such a great one we can’t pass it by. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) put out an article on this very topic with the clear title of “Accuracy vs. Precision.” For their example they used a rifleman firing four, four-shot groups, as follows:

  • The first time, all four shots are a mess, scattered all over. That’s neither precise nor accurate.
  • Then, the shooter manages a nice, tight four-shot group in the far corner of the target. That’s precise, because all four shots are tightly grouped, but not accurate, because they’re off-target.
  • Now our hapless shooter gets all four shots near the target’s center, but in a wide group. That’s accurate, because the shots are near the intended target, but it isn’t precise, because it’s such a wide group.
  • Finally, the shooter gets it right. He lands a tight four-shop group right on the bullseye. Now it’s accurate, because he hit dead center, and precise, because he has a nice, tight group.

The Sound of Silence

Suppressors versus silencers. Basically there is no such thing as a silent gun, unless you’re in Hollywood, of course. Suppressors reduce how much noise a gun makes by moderating escaping gas, and while they can make a significant difference, they don’t do away with sound entirely. According to the NRA, a suppressor is “a device attached to the muzzle of a firearm to reduce the noise of discharge. Sometimes incorrectly called a ‘silencer’.” Side note about suppressors: they’re more effective when combined with sub-sonic ammunition.

More Power to You

Manufacturing ammunition is a precise (yes, precise) process. The amount of propellant is of the utmost importance, because if too much is used it can set off an explosion of epic proportions. Not the fun kind, either, we’re talking the kind that peels your gun like a banana. That’s why SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute) has strict specifications for how much pressure particular cartridges can take. It’s also how innovative designers like Elmer Keith come up with awesome rounds like the .44 Magnum: fine-tuning pressure through handloading. Anyway, there are safe ways to make a small round more powerful. I’m talking about +P and +P+ rounds. Manufacturers create these overpressure rounds to make cartridges such as the .38 Special more effective for self-defense. Overpressure means they load them with more propellant than usual to create more pressure, which leads to more power. Giving them greater power grants them the ability to move faster, which translates to fantastic energy transfer and a more catastrophic wound channel – but I digress.

+P and +P+ are overpressure, or higher pressure, rounds, and shouldn’t be mistaken with high pressure rounds. High pressure rounds are the fantastically fun ones like the .44 Magnum. Without getting into the intricacies of internal ballistics, let’s just say overpressure rounds are small arms ammunition loaded beyond the standard amount for the caliber – but less pressure than for what we call a proof round. What’s a proof round? It’s a round used to stress test firearms to make sure they’re up to the task. Word to the wise: don’t use an overpressure round in your gun if it isn’t rated for it. And even some guns rated for use with overpressure rounds won’t do well if you make a habit of it. One more and – and, constantly firing overpressure rounds does wear out your gun faster. They’re great for self-defense, and that’s exactly why they exist.

From top to bottom, four assault rifles: M16A1,M16A2, M4, and M16A4. The M16 model was originally designed, as the civilian, semi-automatic AR-15, by ArmaLite, Inc. The military M16 and M4 models are manufactured by Colt’s Manufacturing Company and have been standard issue weapons for United States and NATO military forces since the 1960s.
From top to bottom: M16A1,M16A2, M4, and M16A4. The M16 model was originally designed, as the civilian, semi-automatic AR-15, by ArmaLite, Inc. The military M16 and M4 models are manufactured by Colt’s Manufacturing Company and have been standard issue weapons for United States and NATO military forces since the 1960s. Image Source:

Assault on Our Rights

Yes, it’s time to talk about what the media always refers to as an “assault rifle.” “AR” does not, and never has, stood for “Assault Rifle.” “AR” stands for “Armalite Rifle.” ArmaLite came out with the first AR-15 in 1958, but after some financial issues they sold the design to Colt, which is why many shooters think Colt is the creator of our beloved ARs. An ArmaLite Rifle is literally an intermediate-cartridge, magazine-fed, air-cooled rifle that certain people believe is an assault rifle because it’s big, black, and military-looking. The reality is that when you go pick up an AR at your local gun store, it only fires one round each time you squeeze the trigger, because it’s semi-auto, not full-auto. It’s also not designed for military use, and those facts remove the AR from the “assault rifle” category.

There’s always more where this came from, but this at least covers the highlights of common terminology misses in the gun world. Just imagine if Superman had been described as “faster than a speeding cartridge.” It just doesn’t sound right. Getting terminology correct may seem like a small thing, but it’s important to have a solid foundation for your knowledge base, because understanding the complexities of things such as ballistics requires knowing the aforementioned basics. Gun knowledge is power – +P power (Too far? Probably too far…).

What’s your gun world pet peeve?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the opinion of the writer and do not reflect the policies of this website or organization.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth

9 thoughts on “Guns and Ammo 101: Terminology Misses

    1. I’m afraid in the MSM every black long gun will always be an assault rifle and every mag a clip. All the better to push certain agendas with, unfortunately.

  1. Really good definitions and information. I will use this (with credit) for teaching NRA classes. Just curious about something – have you written any books? You are such as good writer I would be interested. If you haven’t written a book yet, you should! Can’t think of a topic for a book but you would do well what ever sugject it might be. You’re articles on soldiers have been quite good.

    1. Thank you David, I’m glad it resonated with you. Always nice to hear from you. I haven’t under my own name, no, but it’s something I’d like to do if I had the time someday.

  2. I’m with you on most of this article, but on the grain/grains I am afraid you may have been a bit too harsh. I did check and even Mr Webster uses grain for single and grains for plural in his rather widely accepted dictionary. 1 grain is correct but 20 grains is correct. A grain is a unit of weight just as is a pound or a gram you wouldn’t say “My dog weighs 20 pound”.

    It also can change with the context in which is is used.
    It is correct to say “This is a 200 grain bullet”, but it is also correct to say “This bullet weights 200 grains”. Just as it would be okay to say “That is a 200 pound man” or “That is a 10 pound dog”. And “That man weights 200 pounds”, etc.

    I have heard with some units such as I believe English weights (such as stone people not using the s “That man weighs 20 stone”) and that grain may have originated in England but we are not in England. They use grams for plural as well. So I am willing to accept that possibly in England the convention is to say grain for plural as I don’t know, but if its good enough for my Webster’s dictionary, I don’t think an ammunition expert is a the last word on a subject.

    And just because some “expert” thinks you need a beat down, doesn’t mean they are right.

  3. This is something like the 5th article I’ve seen about people getting all prissy about terms. News flash: if intelligent people owned guns this wouldn’t be an issue… which goes to show exactly why I own guns… because a lot of stupid people are allowed to own guns… I really felt I needed to explain that because some of those people are probably reading this now.

    1. I absolutely agree, but the reason I write these is to attempt to educate the uneducated. No one will learn if they aren’t told, and it does tend to take repetition as well. Just remember we all started somewhere with guns and although there are absolutely some foolish people out there, most responsible gun owners want to learn – they just don’t always have someone to ask or know where to start.

  4. My greatest firearms peeve is when anyone (reporters, civilians, even some soldiers) refer to an AKM or AK-74 as an ‘AK-47’. I once saw a picture of an AK-74M taken in Ukraine, and the caption called it an ‘AK-47’. Not impressed.

    1. That is definitely another rather common one. I’ve never understood why reporters don’t have someone proficient in firearms fact-check their work.

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