Rifles And Shotguns: What’s?The?Difference?

Gun ownership in the United States for target shooting and hunting is a freedom appreciated for more than 200 years. Recently American citizens have become grateful for the freedom to own a gun for personal protection.

Last year when a photograph of President Barack Obama shooting a shotgun at Camp David appeared in news media, many people were surprised the president engaged this shooting pastime. One public response decried his action because he was “killing all those little skeet” when in reality skeet is a clay target thrown to simulate bird hunting. This discussion is an attempt to explain the technical difference between a shotgun and a rifle and briefly explain the mechanism of bullet propulsion. Personally, I own two shotguns both used for skeet shooting at a local club and for turkey hunting. I have yet to own or ever shoot a rifle so knowledge I hope to pass along is from personal communication with gun owners and from books, “The Rifleman’s Bible” by Sam Fadala (1987) and the hunting reference, “The Perfect Shot-North America” by Craig Boddington (2003).

A rifle is a long-barreled gun held at the shoulder which fires a single bullet. The barrel has spiral groves cut inside to grab the slightly oversized bullet creating a twist or rotation to the bullet before it leaves the barrel. These grooves called “rifling” make the bullet travel in a long accurate trajectory just as the football quarterback throws a spiral pass to his receivers. Without the grooves or rifling, the bullet tumbles in flight, decreasing its speed and accuracy.

Since each gun manufacturer produces a different rifling pattern, forensic scientists can identify the gun used at a crime scene by examining rifling pattern on the recovered bullet. Outdoor stores may sell 100 different rifle ammunition to accommodate large and small diameter barrels (caliber) and bullet weight. The popular 22 caliber rifle, a small rifle, has a barrel 22/100 of an inch in diameter which is slightly less than inch. Plinkers who shoot tin cans on gravel roads and woodchuck hunters might select this size gun. Deer hunters need a heavier bullet with increased speed leaving the gun barrel, called high muzzle velocity, to penetrate deer hide and bone so a 27 or 30 caliber gun, which fires a large volume of gunpowder in a large case or cartridge, will be selected.

A shotgun shoots ammunition called a shell which contains gunpowder and hundreds of pellets called “shot” hence, shotgun. Shotgun shells can be loaded with various size pellets, large for hunting geese and smaller for pheasants. As pellets leave a shotgun barrel they disperse, creating a pattern 30 inches in diameter on a target 30-40 yards from the barrel, which increases the chance of hitting a moving target. Pellets are made of lead or tungsten alloys. Hunting waterfowl requires steel pellets since lead pellets landing in water can be toxic to waterfowl if picked up while ingesting pebbles to grind food in their gizzard. Shotguns and shells are sized by gauge, 10, 12, 16, 20, 28 and 410. The smaller the gauge the larger the shell. Outdoor sports stores may offer more than 100 types of shotgun shells.

In recent years deer hunting with a rifle has been allowed in Chautauqua County, as is the rule in many New York counties and many states, which increases accuracy at longer distances than the previous shotgun shell containing a single lead bullet called a deer slug. Now it behooves the hunter to be aware of the background several hundred yards beyond the missed target.

A gun fires when the pulled trigger releases a pin that strikes a primer, sensitive to compression, in the rifle cartridge or shotgun shell producing a spark. Gunpowder is ignited creating rapidly expanding gases that push the bullet out the barrel.

Today target shooters and hunters have a myriad of choices for rifle and shotgun types. If one wishes to take up target shooting or hunting sports, current shooting clubs and hunters will welcome interested folks, young and old.