Gun LawHow are Modern Firearms defined under federal law?

March 5, 2018by rjshooklaw0

Modern Firearms, as defined under Title I generally include any firearm which is not an antique, curio, or relic. Title I also defines Title II firearms, and indicates that they are unlawful to possess, unless the item falls under Title II and meets its requirements.

What is a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3)?

“any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; the frame or receiver of any such weapon; any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; or any destructive device. Such term does not include an antique firearm.”

There are essentially two main categories of Title I firearms sold in most retail gun shops; handguns and long guns:


Under 18 U.S.C § 921(a) (29) a handgun is defined as follows:

“A firearm which has a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand.”

There are two (2) general types of handgun: Semi-Automatic and Revolver.

  1. Semi-automatic: A semiautomatic pistol has a magazine into which the rounds are loaded, which is then inserted into the base of the handgun. When the magazine is empty, it is removed from the handgun, and a new magazine is inserted to resume firing. Semi-automatic handguns fire a single round for each squeeze of the trigger. Energy is released upon detonation of the cartridge. This energy is harnessed to reciprocate the slide of the handgun, expel the empty shell casing, and to chamber a new cartridge each time that the handgun is fired. The most common magazine size for semi-automatic handguns is fifteen rounds, but there are magazines on the market that hold between thirty and one-hundred rounds per magazine. Fully automatic pistols do exist, but they are regulated under Title II.
  2. Revolver: Instead of a removable magazine, a revolver has a cylinder affixed to the frame of the handgun into which cartridges are inserted. One round is fired upon each pull of the trigger. When the trigger is pulled, and a round is fired, the cylinder rotates to chamber the next round. Most revolvers hold five or six rounds. When the revolver is empty, the cylinder must be manually tilted out of the frame of the handgun, the empty shell cases are emptied, and the handgun must be reloaded by hand. Because of the design of revolvers, they are generally much slower to fire, and slower to reload. They also hold fewer cartridges than semi-automatic handguns.

The “action” of a handgun can be “single action” or “double action.” Single action guns must be cocked by the thumb each time the gun is fired (think cowboy revolvers.) Double action guns cock upon each pull of the trigger. The differences in these types of actions can become important in criminal defense or products liability cases when the amount of pounds of pressure needed to fire the gun is at issue.

Long Guns

Long guns are meant to be fired from the shoulder, and require the use of two hands. Long guns are more complicated to define than handguns, but are generally comprised of rifles and shotguns. The biggest distinction between the two types of long guns is their lethality and range. Rifles contain “rifling” or grooves in the barrel that spin the round as it is expelled from the barrel of the gun. This spinning results in improved accuracy of the round over a distance. Shotguns barrels may also contain rifling, which increases their range when used with a slug rather than shot. Rifles and shotguns also differ in chamber pressure. Rifles require more chamber pressure because they are used to fire at greater distances than shotguns, which usually have a lower chamber pressure. In short, rifles are designed to be lethal at longer ranges, whereas shotguns are designed for shorter ranges.

  1. Rifles: Rifles may be single shot, bolt action, lever action, pump action, or semi-automatic. Fully-automatic rifles do exist, but they are regulated under Title II. Under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(7), a “rifle” is defined as:

    “A weapon designed to be fired from the shoulder to use the energy of an explosive to fire only a single projectile through a rifled bore for each single pull of the trigger.”

    In addition, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(28):

    “A semi-automatic rifle is a ‘repeating rifle which utilizes a portion of the energy of a firing cartridge to extract the fired cartridge case and chamber the next round, which requires a separate pull of the trigger to fire each cartridge.”

  2. Shotguns: Shotguns may be pump operated, lever-action, or semi-automatic. Fully-automatic shotguns do exist, but they are regulated under Title II. Under 18 U.S.C. §921(a)(5), a “shotgun” is:

    “a weapon designed to be fired from the shoulder to use the energy of an explosive to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each single pull of the trigger.”

If you are having trouble classifying a modern firearm, contact Attorney Ronald J. Shook to help you. He has handled hundreds of cases involving firearms, and he can guide you through the process of classifying a particular firearm.


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