Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Demystifying The Semi-Automatic Handgun

As a firearms trainer, I meet many people who desire to be better informed on the characteristics and safe usage of handguns. It should not be surprising that many of my students - first time gun handlers - have erroneous beliefs about firearms. The most pervasive yet incorrect perception about handguns is their misunderstanding of what the term 'semi-automatic' means. This article will clearly define what is meant by that designation.

What Does Semi-Automatic Mean?
The term 'semi-automatic' refers to a certain design of a pistol. A pistol is a firearm which has been designed to be operated with one hand. Thus, a pistol can either be a revolver or a semi-automatic.

Most people - including gun novices - can readily identify a revolver, as it has a characteristic cylinder within its frame which houses ammunition chambers. With the cylinder's constituent chambers loaded with ammunition cartridges and the cylinder closed back into the revolver's frame, the pistol is ready for use.

Amongst other things, when a revolver's trigger is pulled, the cylinder rotates to position a different chamber into alignment with the barrel such that a round of ammunition is available for firing. The fully completed trigger pull also raises and drops the hammer which causes the firing pin to strike the ammunition cartridge's primer area and causes the pistol to discharge.

To recap, one trigger pull of a revolver causes one round of ammunition to be positioned for firing - via the rotation of the cylinder - and the revolver discharges one time.

In contrast, the loading process for a semi-automatic pistol - also known as an autoloader - is different. A loaded magazine containing ammunition cartridges is firmly inserted into the magazine well of the pistol's frame. To enable the semi-automatic for firing, the slide must then be pulled completely backwards and released like a slingshot.

This 'racking of the slide' loads a single round of ammunition from the magazine and loads it into the pistol's sole chamber. When a semi-automatic pistol's trigger is pulled, the hammer raises and drops the hammer which causes the firing pin to strike the ammunition cartridge's primer area and causes the pistol to discharge.

The resultant force of the semi-automatic's discharge 'blows-back' the slide which causes the extractor to expel the spent casing. The slide travels backwards until the pistol encounters the opposing force of the shooter's hand which causes the already expanded recoil spring to snap the slide forward. The forward motion of the slide causes a round of ammunition to be auto-loaded into the chamber.

To recap, one trigger pull of a semi-automatic pistol causes the handgun to be discharged only one time.

False Differences
Since one trigger pull causes a pistol - either a revolver or an autoloader - to be discharged only one time, it is false to believe that autoloaders are 'automatic' firearms. In contrast, a truly fully-automatic firearm would keep discharging rounds the entire time its trigger was fully engaged.

In addition, it is also false to believe that autoloaders are 'faster' firearms than revolvers. The speed of a pistol's ability to fire successive rounds is based on the ability of the shooter to quickly make repetitive trigger pulls.

Further, a semi-automatic pistol is not 'more deadly' than a revolver. For example, a buyer can purchase a 9mm caliber handgun in a revolver model or in a semi-automatic model. If a threat was engaged with either style, it would still be hit with 9mm ammunition. There is no discernible difference between the two pistol styles with respect to lethality.

Bottom Line:
The style of a handgun is not a material fact with respect to how many times it discharges with one trigger, how fast it can fire successive rounds, and how 'deadly' it is when used against threats. Many of my students have assumed semi-automatic firearms were assault weapons (i.e. fully automatic firearms) due to the way that firearms terminology are incorrectly specified by the media's ignorance or the intentional lies spread by both anti-gun politicians and policy advisors.
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