Firearms for Beginners, Part Three: Action types

by Road Warrior on April 10, 2013

Howdy!   Welcome to the third, and final (for a bit) installment of my Firearms for Beginners primer. We’ve covered ammunition types, basic firearms nomenclature, and now we’ll jump into a brief overlay of  types of actions and their respective operations.

The Action can be described in two ways: the “action” is the way a gun cycles through its funtions – Firing the cartridge in the chamber, extracting the empty cartridge casing, ejecting it out of the receiver, pulling a new unfired cartridge out of the magazine, then feeding it into the chamber to be fired again. The basic major action types available to the average citizen (i.e. non-military/law enforcement) in rifles and shotguns are as follows: Lever, bolt, semi-auto, break-open, and pump. In handguns, the two major actions are semi-automatic and the revolver. There are break-open types available as well in handguns, but they are not as commonly encountered and utilized except in more specialized applications.

The action is also referred to as the moving parts in a gun; its brain, so to speak. It is contained in the frame or receiver of the gun, and all of its functioning occurs inside the receiver.  I guess a way you could differentiate the two would be to say, for instance, “when the ejector broke on my pump action shotgun, it jammed up the action.”

There is, of course, the fully-automatic firearm. These are generally not encountered within the civilian circle. However, they ARE available to non-military and non-law enforcement with the rights combination of patience, a clean background, and a shit-ton of money. For instance, a search of yielded a standard Colt M4/M16A2 carbine going for the paltry sum of $11,500. Plus shipping. Yeah, rock ‘n’ roll full auto guns are cool as hell, but you’ll have to ask yourself if the added expense, ammo expenditure/storage, government knowledge of your purchase, and political pressure (a very, VERY viable worry these days. More on that in a following article) are worth it, when you can pretty easily obtain an AR-15 for 1/10th the price. Anyway, I digress.


Back to the action types. First up is a personal favorite, the lever action.

Marlin Lever action rifle. Marlin Lever action rifle with the action closed.


The lever action uses a (surprise) lever with a finger loop to manually cycle the action of the rifle. The lever is pushed down and forward in an arc to pull the fired case out of the chamber and eject it out of the action. Pulling the lever back up and into the stock loads an available cartridge from the magazine, and feeds it up and into the chamber, finally closing the bolt, making the rifle ready to fire again.


Marlin lever action rifle with the action open. Marlin lever action rifle with the action open.


They are usually loaded through a loading gate on the side of the receiver, though many .22 leverguns have a tubular magazine you load from the muzzle end. Some have detachable magazines. The lever action is very simple, very sturdy, rugged, very easy to handle and usually chambered in useful, easy-to obtain calibers, and they can be fired very quickly. Ain’t nothing wrong with a good lever action!


The bolt action rifle is very commonly encountered, and is probably the most popular sporting firearm action type sold today. The bolt has a handle on the side of it, that is lifted up and then pulled back to extract and eject the fired round.

Bolt action .22 Winchester with the bolt closed. Bolt action .22 Winchester with the bolt closed.


To chamber a new round from the magazine, (which is usually fixed in the gun, but some have detachable magazines) the bolt is then pushed forward and then pushed back down to lock the action back up. Bolt actions are very strong, and arguably the most accurate action type. They are chambered in every caliber from the diminutive .17 rimfire all the way up to the largest .50 BMG, handling pretty much every gamut one could think of. A quality bolt gun, like a Winchester model 70, Ruger 77, or Remington Model 700, in .30-06 could very well be the most versatile firearms combination out there, able to hunt game from varmints up past moose-sized critters with ease.

The semi-automatic uses the recoil impulse or expanding gasses of a fired cartridge to automatically cycle the firearm, negating the need for the shooter to do anything except aim and pull the trigger. In a semi-auto, each time the shooter pulls the trigger, the gun fires ONE round. In a fully-automatic gun, the gun will keep shooting as long as it has ammunition in it and the trigger stays pulled to the rear.

Semi-automatic Browning A-5 12 guage shotgun Semi-automatic Browning A-5 12 guage shotgun


To load the semi-auto, one only has to insert a loaded magazine or load the fixed magazine, pull a charging handle that actuates the bolt, which will pull a new round from the magazine. Letting the charging handle go to ride forward will feed the ammunition into the chamber.

Browning A-5 with the charging handle and bolt pulled to the rear. Browning A-5 with the charging handle and bolt pulled to the rear.


The AR-15, Ruger 10-22, Remington 1100/11-87, SKS, AK-47, and Ruger Mini-14/30 are all commonly encountered semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. Semi-autos have a very fast firing rate, and can be reloaded quite quickly. Calibers, like the bolt action, are quite varied, making them very useful for a wide range of tactical and hunting scenarios. A prepper with a good AR-15 should be able to handle most of the tw0-legged and four-legged(up to deer-sized animals) situations thrown his/her way.


The Break-open action is usually a single-shot or two-barreled firearm. It has a lever, usually on the “wrist” area of the rear stock, that swings to one side, and allows the action to unlock and hinge in half. This allows the shooter access to the chambers, where he/she has to manually load and unload the ammunition by hand.

Winchester break-open 12-gauge over/under shotgun. Winchester break-open 12-gauge over/under shotgun. Winchester break-open shotgun with the action open. Winchester break-open shotgun with the action open. Note the thumb lever on the back of the receiver that opens the action.


Break-open types of guns are commonly used afield, hunting. However, the prepper should not turn their noses up at this simple, extremely rugged action. A few types are perhaps the most versatile firearms platforms available, able to quickly switch calibers and shotgun gauges in less than a minute, allowing the shooter to hunt birds with a 12-gauge barrel one minute, and big game at 200 yards the next with the swap over to, say, a .308 Winchester barrel. The Thompson/Center Encore and New England Firearms Handi-Rifle are two examples of rifles that retain this immensely practical capability. Some, such as a Savage model 42, have a .22 barrel on top, with a shotgun barrel below it.


The Pump-action is most commonly encountered in shotguns, but a few die hard pump action rifles soldier on to this day. Pump action shotguns are extremely popular with sportsmen and for home defense use, where their sheer reliability and fast cycling, not to mention the ominous “shiiiick shiiiick” sound of the pump being actuated make an intruder think that maybe they had somewhere else to be at this very minute.


Rmington 870 pump action shotgun with the action closed and the pump forward. Remington 870 pump action shotgun with the action closed and the pump forward.


Remington 870 with the pump fore end back, and the action open. Remington 870 with the pump fore end back, and the action open.


The pump-action (almost always) is fed from a tubular magazine under the barrel. A push on the actuating lever (the small protrusion on the front of the triggerguard in the first photo) unlocks the action, and allows the fore-end, or front stock, to be pulled backwards, toward the shooter. “Pumping” the fore end back forward will cycle a cartridge forward into the chamber and ready the gun for firing. Upon firing, the gun automatically unlocks itself so the shooter does not need to push the actuating lever again to cycle the action.


When it comes to handguns, the semi-auto handgun works in the same way as the semi-auto rifle, except that the internal bolt is replaced by an actuating slide on top of the frame that moves back and forth, cycling the gun.


Semi auto pistol with slide forward Semi auto pistol with slide forward


Semi-auto pistol with the slide in the rearward position. Semi-auto pistol with the slide in the rearward position.



The revolver utilizes a rotating “cylinder” which is basically a multi-shot chamber. Upon cocking the hammer or pulling the trigger, the cylinder rotates, bringing a fresh cartridge in line with the barrel.

Smith and Wesson .357 revolver with the cylinder closed. Smith and Wesson .357 revolver with the cylinder closed.


Smith and Wesson revolver with the cylinder open, showing multiple chambers. Smith and Wesson revolver with the cylinder open, showing multiple chambers.


Revolvers usually come in five- or six-shot configurations; however, seven- and 10- shot rimfire revolvers are very common. Noted for their reliability and accuracy, as well as availability in some truly staggeringly powerful calibers, the revolver’s “six for sure” will serve you very well, functioning even when the most quality semi-auto will jam up.

To load or unload a revolver, a cylinder latch is actuated (depending on maker, you could push it forward, pull it back, or depress it.) and the cylinder is pushed out of the frame, to allow the shooter to load or unload the chambers. Pushing it back into the frame (don’t slap it or swing it in like the movies!!) will lock it back into place, allowing it to be fired.


Whew! Long-winded post today…and I really just breezed over the basics! There is so much that these posts didn’t cover, from minutia to some big items, but it’s up to the shooter to decide which firearm action/caliber combination(s) will work best for him/her. Research, ask questions, read books, and visit a gun store, where they will be more than glad to help you learn. Also definitely recommended is to take a training course. It will help you learn to utilize your gun in the most effective, absolute safest way possible.


Thanks for reading! Stay safe out there!!!



{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Charles,,,, April 10, 2013

Phew longggg post there, but a great array for beginners to know, with those basic’s they can pick up any brand, action of firearm and feel comfortable enough to know how to load and fire the thing, sometimes it may be necessary to pick up someone elses weapon to use…. good post !!!


irishdutchuncle April 11, 2013

thanks. all good info, TRW. (and so much more we need, want to know)


j.r. guerra in s. tx. April 11, 2013

That was a lot of good information condensed for a good read. Thank you for posting it.

You might want to clarify there are two types of revolver actions, the Double Action (pull the trigger which rotates the cylinder and fires) shown above, and the Single Action, where the operator must pull back the hammer manually for each shot. DA can often be fired SA, but SA do not.

Again, great post.


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