Style Matters #30: It’s best to be precise when playing with firearms


At some point, many reporters and writers are likely to be describing firearms of all kinds, whether in a crime report, a feature or a fictional account.

Yet many of these writers may never have even touched a firearm, but they will be expected to write as if they have.

Having reported many armed robberies, shootings and other violent crimes, I’ve found a little precision goes a long way to preventing mistakes (and embarrassment) when writing about firearms, so here’s a few tips for the uninitiated:

  • a handgun is a weapon, a hand-held firearm that can fire from (one of) single shot, semi-automatic or automatic mode
  • rifles and shotguns (also referred to as longarms) are fired from the shoulder and, like handguns, can be fired from a single-shot, semi-automatic or automatic mode
  • there are many different handguns, rifles and shotguns
  • firearms of all sizes typically shoot cartridges which each contain a bullet, casing/shell, a propellant (such as gunpowder or cordite) and primer
  • air rifles and air pistols, collectively known as air guns, use compressed air or other gas to propel pellets or birdshot (small balls, usually made of lead)
  • there are no such things as live bullets nor empty bullets, but – after firing – there are such things as spent bullets and spent cartridges
  • some firearms hold multiple cartridges in a magazine
  • a handgun that fires from cartridges contained in a revolving cylinder is called a revolver
  • a non-revolving handgun is referred to as a pistol
  • with the exception of air rifles, which are air- or gas-propelled, longarms rely on cartridges that are made up of projectiles (bullets or lead shot), casings, propellant such as gunpowder, and primer
  • shotguns use a self-contained cartridge known as a shotgun shell that contains lead shot or a slug, propellant such as gunpowder and primer
  • shotguns are most commonly described by the size of the bore or gauge of their shells
  • rifles and handguns are typically described by the calibre of their barrels

It’s also worth noting that, in Australia, during the commission of a crime such as a hold-up, the law considers the production of a replica firearm – or the perceived threat from a concealed replica – is equivalent to brandishing the real item.

If you’re interested in learning more about firearms control and policy in Australia, a report on the Australian Institute of Criminology’s statistical information and analysis is accessible online.


If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters

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