Michael On Everything Else

What You Should Know About Guns

The gun debate is in full swing right now but there is still a lot of confusion surrounding a few, specific gun terms. Given the way a lot of people today consume news — Facebook is not a great way to consume news — it’s not surprising that an informed, intelligent, civil debate about guns is nearly impossible.

In order to have an effective discussion about guns, we need to be talking about the same thing, using the correct terminology. If you are not a gun person, having a solid, technical understanding of the following few terms will greatly improve your ability to effectively discuss the issue with a gun person.

Fully Automatic
Burst fire
Select fire
Assault Weapons


Semi-automatic firearms will only fire one round per pull of the trigger. The term “semi-automatic” means that when the trigger is pulled, one round is fired and the next round is automatically chambered to be fired on the next pull of the trigger.

Most modern guns are semi-automatic. Non-semi-automatic guns are called “single-action” guns and examples are bolt-action rifles and some six-shooter guns with a cylinder, a.k.a. wheel guns. Single-action guns fire only one round per pull of the trigger and the next round must be manually chambered by working the gun “action,” i.e. using a rifle’s bolt to chamber the next round or cocking the hammer on a wheel gun.

Fully automatic

Fully automatic firearms will continuously fire and chamber rounds “by a single function of the trigger1” and as long as there is ammununition available in the magazine/cylinder/belt.

Full-auto firearms are highly regulated in the U.S. and are very difficult to obtain. In a nutshell2:

  1. It must have been manufactured and registered with the BATFE prior to May 19, 1986
  2. You must obtain approval for the purchase from ATF
  3. You must obtain a signature from the Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) who is the county sheriff or city or town chief of police
  4. You must provide two finger print cards
  5. You must provide two passport photos
  6. You must complete and submit ATF form 4
  7. You must fully register it
  8. You must pay a $200 tax on it
  9. You must pay for it, and given their rarity (must be manufactured prior to May 19, 1986) they are quite expensive, often over $10,000
  10. If you are buying it from out of state, there is additional paperwork that must be pre-approved before it can cross state lines

In the following video, you can see the confusion that is caused by using the wrong term:


Burst-fire or sometimes burst-mode is a term designated for firearms that can fire short bursts of two or three rounds per pull of the trigger. The shorter burst, compared to full-auto saves ammunition and provides for better control of the firearm.


This term identifies a firearm that is capable of firing in two or three of the following modes: semi-auto, full-auto, and/or burst-fire.

Assault Weapons

This is a purely political label, which varies greatly in use but mainly includes firearms that have cosmetic features that make the firearm appear similar to a military firearm. However, despite their appearances, “assault weapons” are still semi-automatic firearms and are no more lethal than non-assault weapons.

The two rifles pictured below can fire the exact same round at the exact same rate and can have the exact same round capacity. The rifle in the bottom picture could be classified as an “assault weapon.”

"Mini14GB" by Jan Hrdonka - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine.JPG
"AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine" by M62 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

2. WiKi: National Firearms Act