The home of Shooting Times and Sporting Gun

What’s the difference between a gun and a rifle?

Mike Morton explains the essential differences

air rifle in the back garden

Shooting an air rifle in the back garden safely

You hear people talk about airguns and air rifles but what actually is the difference between a gun and a rifle? Is there much? How do you qualify a gun and a rifle? (Read our guide to the best pellets for airguns.)

I’ve tried to explains things simply below in answer to a reader question I received.

Weihrauch HW 45

The Weihrauch HW 45 may have a rifled barrel, but it’s still a handgun

Difference between a gun and a rifle?

Q. I was told in the Army never to refer to my L85 as a ‘gun’, and now I’m shooting air rifles, my mates are telling me the same. So what’s the difference between a gun and a rifle?

A. Technically there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have been calling your L85 (SA80) a ‘gun’ – and there’s no reason why you can’t call your air rifle a ‘gun’ either. All rifles are guns, but not all guns are rifles.


Shooting a shotgun

So what is a gun?

The definition of a gun is a tubed device that uses pneumatic force (pressure) to launch a projectile. That means the sudden release of compressed air or CO2 in terms of airguns, or the pressure created by the expansion of gases caused by the explosion of the powder inside the cartridge case in terms of bullet-firing firearms. 

What is a rifle?

Shooting an air rifle

A rifle, on the other hand, utilises a barrel that has had rifling – a helical pattern of grooves – cut into the walls of the bore to stabilise the projectile. But that’s not the end of the definition of a ‘rifle’ – otherwise handguns, most of which have rifled barrels, and the main gun on tanks such as the Challenger 2, which also has a rifled barrel, would be called rifles as well. Therefore a rifle is further defined as being a gun with a rifled barrel that is intended to be held with both hands (unless shot with a front support such as a bipod) and braced against the shoulder when it’s fired. 

This article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.