How A Gun Works

How A Gun Works

To best understand how a gun works,  let’s take a look at the two types of handguns, revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. They each work differently and each has advantages and disadvantages.


The Revolver

S&W model 60ls

Revolvers have a cylinder with multiple chambers and each chamber and each chamber holds a round of ammunition holds a round of ammunition. Most models hold 5 or 6 rounds. Pulling the trigger rotates the cylinder and aligns the loaded chamber with the barrel and the gun then fires.

A revolver is a very simple machine; therefore there is little that can go wrong with the firing process. This makes a revolver a good and reliable choice for self-defense. Although all guns should be cleaned regularly, the simplicity of the mechanics makes the effectiveness of a revolver less dependent on meticulous cleaning. Revolvers however are bulkier and heavier than pistols and tend to hold fewer rounds of ammunition. They lack many of the safety features commonly found on semi-automatic pistols but do have safety features. Revolvers have long and hard trigger pull, which makes it very difficult to accidentally pull the trigger; this acts as a safety feature.

What About Caliber?

The best defensive calibers in a revolver are: .38 Special, .357 Magnum, (If you buy a .357 caliber revolver, it can also shoot the less powerful, but sufficient .38 special ammunition,) .40 S&W and .45. There are a number of lightweight and smaller, hammerless revolvers. (“Hammerless” revolver still has the hammer that works to fire the round, but it is shrouded within the gun) The .38 Special and .357 models are very popular with women. The larger the caliber, generally the larger the recoil.

Revolvers are available in three different action types. The action type describes the way a gun functions. The three action types of revolvers are; Single Action (SA), Double Action (DA) or Double Action Only (DAO)

Single-Action Revolver (SA)

Ruger LCRIn a single-action revolver, the hammer is manually cocked, usually with the thumb of the firing or supporting hand. This action rotates and advances the cylinder to the next round and locks the cylinder in place with the chamber aligned with the barrel. The trigger, when pulled, releases the hammer, which fires the round in the chamber. To fire again, the hammer must be manually cocked again. This is called “single-action” because the trigger only performs a single action, the releasing the hammer.

Double-Action Revolver (DA)

In a double-action revolver, the stroke of the trigger pull generates two actions: (1) the hammer is pulled back to the cocked position while the cylinder is being rotated to the next round, and then (2) the hammer is released to strike the firing pin. This allows for uncocked carry while also allowing draw-and-fire using only the trigger. A longer and harder trigger stroke is the trade-off, but this drawback can also be viewed as a safety feature, as the gun is safer against accidental discharges if dropped.

Most double-action revolvers may be fired in two ways. The first way is single-action, that is, exactly the same as a single-action revolver; the hammer is cocked with the thumb, which aligns the cylinder, and when the trigger is pulled, the hammer is tripped and the round fired. The second way is double-action, that is, from a hammer-down position, which means you do not have to manually cock the hammer into position. In this case, the trigger when pulled, first cocks the hammer and revolves the cylinder, and then trips the hammer at the rear of the trigger stroke, firing the round in the chamber.

Double-Action-Only (DAO)

Certain revolvers, called double-action-only (DAO), lack the latch that enables the hammer to be locked to the rear, and thus can only be fired in the double action mode, using the trigger to perform this action. With no way to lock the hammer back, DAO designs tend to have bobbed or spurless hammers, and may even have the hammer completely covered by the revolver’s frame (i.e., shrouded or hooded, shown above). These are generally intended for concealed carrying, where a hammer spur could snag when drawn from clothing or from a concealed carry purse, so makes a good choice for concealed carry use.

For self defense, a Double-Action or Double-Action-Only are recommended as a single action revolver requires cocking for each round to be fired which takes precious time and it is harder to shoot multiple rounds quickly.

Let’s list and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of revolvers.


  • Extremely reliable
  • Simple to operate. Not necessary to “rack the slide”. This is a real advantage to anyone with weak or limited hand strength
  • Highly accurate – Accuracy at greater distances (approximately 15 yards and farther) this accuracy decreases down with the smaller, shorter barreled revolvers
  • Generally more moderately priced
  • Double-Action models shoot multiple rounds quickly
  • Can allow multiple calibers of ammunition The .38 Special and .357 Magnum, is an example
  • A better choice for concealed carry purse carry (The slide of a semi-auto needs ample room to fully cycle, shooting from a purse does not allow for this room)
  • Easy to clean and don’t require as meticulous a cleaning


  • Bulkier
  • Heavier
  • Harder trigger pull
  • Holds fewer rounds
  • “Typically” greater recoil
  • There is no safety catch on a revolver (There are a few models that have locking trigger features such as many Taurus models.)
  • Single-Action models require cocking for each round to be fired. Harder to shoot multiple rounds quickly

Semi-automatic Pistol

colt defenderA semi-automatic pistol is a handgun where the magazine that holds the ammunition which slides into the grip of the gun. A semi-automatic pistol uses some of the energy created from firing of the gun to eject the spent cartridge and load a fresh one. Semi-automatic pistols have the benefit of magazines that can hold a larger number of rounds. They also typically have an easier trigger pull, have the ability to shoot multiple rounds very quickly and are slimmer and more compact in shape.

Semi-automatic pistols; however, are not as mechanically simple as revolvers and require very good cleaning to insure proper function. Their semi-automatic action is dependent on the first round firing successfully so the next round is cycled into the chamber properly. The reliability of modern pistols is exceptionally high though and makes this less of an issue. The best defensive semi-automatic calibers are: .380, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP. All of these calibers are available in small sized (compact) pistols suitable for concealed carry.

Special note: In general, a pistol with a long trigger pull that requires a very deliberate and strong pull of the trigger in order to fire is recommended. Under stress when the adrenaline is flowing you want to be sure you really want to pull the trigger and not do so accidentally.

Let’s list and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the semi-automatic.


  • Slimmer, lighter and easier to conceal
  • Magazines can hold more rounds of ammunition
  • Can fire rounds of ammunition in rapid succession
  • Easier trigger pull
  • “Typically” have less recoil
  • Easy to reload



  • Meticulous cleaning required
  • More likely to misfeed
  • More likely to be “ammunition sensitive”. May not feed all brands of bullets well (practice and trying different brands can minimize these issues).
  • Overall more expensive
  • Takes more hand strength to “rack the slide” to chamber the first round.

Note: the difficulty in racking a slide may depend on which parts of your hands are weak or may be related to technique. Utilizing the proper technique can make all the difference! Some women with hand issues find it more difficult to pull the trigger on a revolver. If this is a serious issue for you, you may want to look at tilt-up barrel semi-automatics. This type does not require the user to rack the slide for loading. Beretta has one, but I believe it is no longer in production. They are however readily available used.

What next?

We have taken a look at both revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. If you are ready to purchase a gun for yourself, here is a helpful article to guide you in the process. “The Best Gun For A Woman” . We also have a collection of gun reviews written by women. Here you can learn what they like or dislike about a variety of gun models.

Once you make your selection, get some training and practice. Learn all the safety rules for the proper handling of a gun and handle it often (unloaded only) to get acquainted with it. Learn how to disassemble and clean your gun. And finally, find a suitable firearms instructor and learn how to use it properly. Once you are proficient at using your gun and have had some good training, you’ll be amazed at how natural the gun feels. Most importantly, you will be armed with the confidence that you can handle the unthinkable, should it ever come your way.

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One response to “How A Gun Works”

  1. I am now alone. Living in a relatively safe small town. BUT, I do know that I don’t want to become complacent, I need to be proactive on my own well being.

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