Automatic vs. Semi-Automatic vs. Fully Automatic Firearms: What’s the Difference?

Writing tips automatic difference guns firearms

What’s the difference between fully automatic, semi-automatic and automatic firearms? And who left this pile of guns here? (Shutterstock photo)

TLDR: When writing, clarify whether the gun in the story is “semi-automatic” or “fully automatic” upon first reference, then use “automatic” as shorthand. There is a functional difference that could affect the plot.

If learning about firearms feels like an exhausting exercise in vocabulary, thank you for reading this blog! That’s exactly what a lot of it is, but that doesn’t mean vocab is any less important. Plots hinge on characters using firearms. The words you use indicate functionality, which impacts what happens in the story. That goes double in the often conflated usage of “automatic” firearms.

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What’s the Difference? Machine Gun vs. Submachine Gun

What's the difference between a submachine gun and a machine gun?

The iconic Tommy gun fires .45 caliber handgun ammunition. That makes it a submachine gun. (Shutterstock photo)

TLDR: Submachine guns use handgun ammunition. Machine guns use rifle ammunition.

If a gun-toting character pulls the trigger and holds it there while the business end goes bang-bang-bang, then there’s an excellent chance that firearm is a submachine gun or a machine gun (warning: does not apply to characters requesting someone pull their fingers). But what’s the difference between those two terms? Or is there one?

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Assault Weapons vs. Assault Rifles vs. What You’ve Heard

m16 vs ar15

When it comes to researching firearms for a story, don’t go by looks. One of these is a genuine assault rifle, and it’s limited to military use. The other is a model any U.S. civilian with a clean record could own, and is not an assault rifle. Can you tell the difference? Leave a comment with your guesses. (Photos via Colt and Gun Digest)

One of my favorite crime writers, Benjamin Whitmer, author of my pick for the best crime novel of 2014, Cry Father, made a post on his website today that caught my eye. It mentions a bit about politics and the president, two subjects I try to avoid on this blog, but I couldn’t ignore his excellent point about the terms “assault weapons” and “assault rifles.”

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