How handguns work

by | Aug 11, 2009 01:00 PM ET

This past weekend they had the Dixie Gun and Knife Classic at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds here in Raleigh, NC. Admission was $8, and once you had paid your fee you entered a 100,000 square foot world where thousands of guns were available for purchase from dozens of vendors.

If you want to purchase a handgun for self defense, a show like this would be one place to do it. They had handguns of every possible description, ranging in price from $150 to more than $1,000. Your local gun shop or pawn shop would be another option.

You have three possibilities to consider. There is the classic revolver, the semi-automatic pistol and the Taser. Let's take a look at how they work.

The advantage of the revolver is simplicity, and from that simplicity comes reliability. A revolver typically holds six bullets in a revolving cylinder. Unless something has gone catastrophically awry, there is nothing that will stop the cylinder from rotating and the gun from firing. When you pull the trigger, three things happen. First, the hammer pulls back against its spring. As this is happening, the cylinder revolves one notch to align a new bullet with the barrel. Finally, the hammer releases and its spring rams it forward into the firing pin, launching the bullet. See How Revolvers Work for details.

The two disadvantages of a revolver are the six-bullet limit and the relatively large amount of trigger force required. These two disadvantages are eliminated by the semi-automatic pistol at the expense of reliability. The bullets in a semi-automatic pistol are held in a magazine instead of a rotating cylinder, and the magazine typically holds more than six bullets. Each time you fire a semi-automatic pistol, the recoil powers a mechanism that ejects the casing, strips a new bullet off the top of the magazine and loads it into the chamber for the next shot. At the same time the hammer cocks, meaning that you are not required to compress the hammer spring with your trigger finger as with a revolver. See How Pistols Work for details.

Compared to a revolver, a pistol has more parts and is harder to clean. The mechanism can also jam, although jamming is rare in a properly maintained weapon. The key feature is the ability to fire and reload the pistol faster. Whether you will actually need more than six shots in a typical self-defense situation is an open question.

The Taser is a completely different animal. It uses compressed air to shoot two darts (which look and act like heavy, barbed fish hooks) at the assailant. Trailing behind the darts are two thin wires that are 15 feet long. The wires connect to a high-voltage generator inside the gun, and once the darts hit the assailant the voltage enters his or her body with amazing intensity. See How Stun Guns Work for details.

I have been tased at the Taser factory as part of a TV show I host, and I can tell you that a Taser causes every major muscle in your body to contract. It also causes startling, excruciating pain. I was tased for only five seconds, but because of the pain it seemed like a lifetime. One problem is that once the Taser turns off, the pain vanishes and the assailant is able to attack once again. The person who fired the Taser can reapply the voltage, but only for so long, and you get only one shot. If the assailant is able to remove a dart, the Taser is useless.

This video shows the incapacitating power of a Taser, along with its short-lived effects:

To purchase a handgun, you have probably heard that there are background checks and waiting periods. So how can people purchase guns at a gun show? In North Carolina there are two ways. The first is to apply with the county sheriff's office for a pistol purchase permit. The application process certifies that you are legally allowed to own a gun. With a pistol purchase permit in hand you are able to immediately purchase one handgun. The second way is to take a class and earn a concealed carry handgun permit. This is like a drivers license for handguns. With a concealed carry permit you can purchase handguns and carry them anywhere on your person in any area that allows concealed carrying. Places that typically disallow concealed carrying include airports, establishments that serve alcohol, etc. Most other states would have similar statutes.

There are a lot of things to think about if you are considering a handgun. Revolver or pistol? Which caliber? Size of magazine? Polymer frame or metal frame? And so on. If you have questions about handgun ownership and use, a local gun shop or firing range would be a good place to start.

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