Pistol vs. Rifle vs. Shotgun: The Complete Breakdown

Posted by Richard Douglas on 22nd Jan 2020

If you’re in the market for a firearm, you have three types to choose from: a pistol, a rifle, or a shotgun. Each of these is suitable for hunting or self-defense, but to know which of these suits you best, you need to ask yourself a couple of questions before making the purchase:

  • What do I need to know about the gun I choose?
  • Will my gun offer the greatest range and effect for what I need?

We’ll start with the basic anatomy of each firearm and explain its capacity for distance and effect. Once you’ve gotten familiar with each firearm, you’ll be on your way to choosing the one that’s right for you.

Main Parts of a Firearm

All firearm types have three main parts:

  • Stock (or grip)
  • Action
  • Barrel

The stock is the handle or end of the gun. For pistols, it’s shorter, called a grip, and you can fire it from your hand. Rifle and shotgun stocks are longer and placed against your shoulder for support. The action is the area of the gun where you load, fire, and reload your ammunition. It includes your trigger, magazine, and chamber, among other parts. The barrel is the tube your ammunition travels through. Accessories such as muzzle brakes, flash suppressors, compensators and more could be attached to the barrel. The inside of the barrel is called a bore.

The Bore

The bore of a pistol or rifle is cut with grooves to allow the projectile, or bullet, to spin while travelling through it. This maximizes the range and accuracy of your aim when shooting. Shotgun bores tend to be smooth; when loaded with shells filled with pellets, known as shot, smooth bores allow for shot to disperse properly. Shotgun bores can be rifled, but only if you use metal slugs. In this case, the rifled shotgun is more like a rifle than a typical shotgun. None of these firearms can generate the intended effect without the cartridge, a case composed of primer, gun powder, and a projectile (with a wad in between the parts to prevent misfire). Many parts of your gun will vary according to size, purpose, and ammunition, but the function is essentially the same for each firearm.


A pistol is a type of handgun, with a short barrel used for short, medium, and long-range fire. Its grip is used to hold the gun. The magazine is located within the grip of the pistol and holds all the rounds (except for the round in the chamber). The chamber holds a single round that will eventually be fired following the pull of the trigger. There are many types of pistols such as the single-shot pistol which needs to be reloaded manually or the semi-automatic pistol, which is reloaded by use of the gun’s recoil after you’ve pulled the trigger. You could also attach accessories like the best red dot for astigmatism.


A rifle is a long-barreled gun designed for mid- to long-range targets used primarily for hunting, target shooting, and self-defense (like the .45 ACP carbine). Unlike a pistol, you would brace the stock of a rifle with the shoulder of your non-shooting hand, while your primary, or shooting, hand will pull the trigger. Your secondary, or non-shooting, hand will be working the action of the gun. Eventually, your secondary hand will hold the forestock, also known as the front end of the stock, in order to keep the gun steady for aiming. There are many types of rifles including the bolt-action rifle which loads up cartridges into the chamber using a handle, and the AR-15, or ArmaLite Rifle, which is semi-automatic.


A shotgun is another long-barreled gun with a smoothbore barrel designed only for shells filled with pellets. Depending on the type of shotgun, the magazine will be internal (as with a pump-action shotgun), or external (as with an automatic shotgun). Most shotguns aren't rifled so that the shot travels through the gun's barrel smoothly with greater control of its spread. For shotgun barrels which do have a rifled interior, a metal slug, made typically of lead or steel, is generally preferred. Using shot, instead of a slug, will cause the multiple pellets to spin along the grooves and disperse too widely for effective impact. An example of a shotgun is the pump-action, the function of which is in the name itself, or the break-open, also named for its simple function, which tends to hold only one shell at a time and reload more slowly.

Impact of the Shot

With all firearms, the impact of your shot depends on many factors:

  • Distance at which you’re firing
  • Caliber of both the barrel and the rounds you’ve loaded
  • Amount of gun powder
  • Velocity
  • Wind conditions of your location
  • Your Stance
  • Strength and accuracy of your trigger pull

The pistol’s fire can reach as far as 200 yards, a rifle as far as 300 yards, and a shotgun as far as 200 yards, but the further away your target, the far less effective the impact will be. Of all three, the shotgun's fire is the least precise or accurate but covers a wider range to ensure you've hit your target in several places. Knowing the essentials of each firearm will help you determine which is best to use for whatever purpose you need. As an owner or prospective owner, you can’t choose your firearm without understanding the responsibility that comes with your right to bear it. You must educate yourself with the laws of your state as well as your country, for your sake and the sake of the lives around you. Most of all, never place your finger on the trigger until you are aimed and ready to hit your target. If you start with these basics, you are on your way to becoming a skilled and responsible gun owner. Author Bio: Richard Douglas is a firearms expert and educator. His work has appeared on large publications like The National Interest, Daily Caller, American Shooting Journal, and more. In his free time, he reviews optics on his Scopes Field blog.