What is a Long Gun? (Explained)

It’s a term most of us take for granted. A long gun is a rifle. If that were the only instance of its usage, wouldn’t a pistol or revolver be considered a short gun? We don’t refer to handguns as short guns, but we sure call rifles and shotguns “long guns.”

We get the term from the Old West, or at least Hollywood’s version of the Old West when we hear the phrase “long gun.” But, what exactly is a “long gun?”

What is a long gun?

What is a Long Gun?

Not to be confusing, but some pistols have longer barrels than some rifles, but we would never consider a pistol of any type a long gun, no matter how long the barrel is. A long gun by definition is one that takes two hands to hold, and that rests against the shoulder.

Yes, you could convert a pistol into a long gun with a folding stock. The German Army in World War II was the first military organization to do this regularly with a folding stock option that converted their machine pistols, into machine guns with the swing-out, folding shoulder stock.

It takes a bit of strength and great control, but you can shoot a long gun accurately with one hand. Skeet shooters with sufficient strength often show off with a 12-gauge in each hand, shooting a full-sized shotgun like a pistol at the sporting clays as they fly away from the thrower.

It’s not recommended, and not exactly safe, but it is an example of a long gun being fired, albeit improperly with one hand.

Long guns traditionally have one hand on the grip with a finger on the trigger, and the off-hand on the stock, under the barrel a foot or so in advance of the other hand.

If you’re right-handed you have your right hand on the grip with your right index finger hovering above the trigger, and your left hand steadying the rifle in front beneath the barrel.

Left-handed shooters do just the opposite with their left hand on the grip and trigger assembly and their right hand on the fore stock. Left hand models eject the shells to the left as well to avoid hitting the shooter in the face.

What’s in a barrel?

There are minimum lengths for shotgun and rifle barrels in the United States. The minimum length for a legal shotgun barrel is 18 inches, for a rifle, it’s 16 inches. The rationale behind these two different lengths is attuned to spread in a shotgun and accuracy in a rifle.

Sawed-off shotguns are often called “street sweepers” they’ve had their barrels cut below the 18-inch minimum and are illegal. A barrel under 18 inches on a shotgun is still considered a long standard designed shotgun.

The wider pattern was used by armed robbers, organized crime syndicates and in the trenches of World War I to do the most damage possible over the widest area possible. They are not sporting guns, and aside from their military applications are a nefarious way to illegally modify a shotgun.

The 16 inch length on a rifle is for accuracy, and bullet performance. The longer the barrel the greater the amount of time powder can continue to expand as it explodes and pushes a bullet down the barrel of a gun.

What is a Long Gun?

The velocity, energy, and bullet drop of lighter caliber weapons isn’t as affected with a longer barrel as heavier calibers with heavier weight bullets.

For every extra inch, and barrels are measured in two-inch increments aside from custom-designed guns, the faster the bullet will travel when it exits the end of the barrel.

That couple of extra feet per second at the muzzle translates to more energy at 100, 200 or 400 yards and beyond, the higher velocity at those same distances, and less bullet drop. That’s why a longer barrel was used initially.

A longer shotgun barrel works the same way. The ultimate long gun for waterfowl hunting was the 36” 10-gauge shotgun. The longer barrel with the largest legal round since standards were implemented in the early 20th century gives more power, more distance and with a full choke, a tighter shot pattern than any other shotgun.

The 36 inch 10-gauge shotgun was the preferred method for goose hunters working with shy geese that circled set patterns of decoys but quickly exited as they spiraled down just out of range of traditional 12 and 20-gauge shotguns.

What if a pistol has a 16 inch or longer barrel is it a long gun?

The quick answer is no, it remains a pistol. Thompson comes to mind as a manufacturer of long barrel pistols, but they are never considered a long gun.

A long gun, once again by definition, requires two hands to hold. You might need two hands to shoot a single-shot pistol with a .30-06 barrel since the recoil will be tremendous, but you don’t have to use two hands to hold and aim it, that’s the difference.

No matter the barrel length, if it’s a pistol, it will never be a long gun.

Where did the term “long gun” come from?

Here is a little history lesson to finish off the story of the long gun. Before rifling became common in firearms in the early 19th the only method of increasing accuracy was to increase barrel length.

Those images of dueling pistols at 20 paces to resolve issues of character and solve problems through dueling combat weren’t as dangerous, or brave as they’ve been recorded. At 20 paces the two dualists are about 40 yards apart.

The finest dueling pistols of the 18th and early 19th century could not hit a 30” target more than one out of 10 times at that distance.

That’s why the seconds in a duel, the men who supported the duelists split the scene, watching from 50 yards or more away since they were more likely to be struck by that ball of lead than the two shooters involved were.

The most famous instance of a long gun was Davy Crockett’s “Old Betsy” his 40 caliber flintlock rifle. The barrel on Old Betsy was 51 inches long, a monster by today’s standards, but not as long as some of the era.

The longest rifles of the 18th and 19th centuries measured almost seven feet in barrel length and required monopods, tripods, or a nearby tree or fence post just to hold up when firing.

Those were truly long guns. But that rifle or shotgun in your gun cabinet is a long gun as well.

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