Guns have been a part of the lives of Alaskans for many generations.
Previous to the development of rifles, shotguns, and handguns, people
used bows, snares, harpoons, and traps. The advent of guns changed
the lives of Alaskans as new techniques for hunting were developed.
Harvesting game became easier than before. Guns were very important
trade items in the early days of contact with the Western world.
A gun is a very personal item to most people living in remote areas.
A quick look at the guns in a village shows that there are many
different makes and models all designed for different applications.
Some of the differences are important and some are the result of
personal preferences. If we hunt caribou with the same rifle that
we hunt ptarmigan, there will be problems. Either the caribou will
escape wounded, or the ptarmigan will be blown to a pile of feathers,
depending on the direction of our error.
A 5, 6,
B 1, 3
D 1, 3
F = MA
A = R
Forms of energy
Three Types of Guns
There are basically three types of guns:
Rifles usually have a barrel over eighteen inches and have
rifles (grooves) inside the barrel. They are most often
used on animals rather than birds. They shoot bullets one at a time
for long distances with great accuracy.
Shotguns shoot round lead or steel balls of varying sizes.
We use shotguns mostly on birds. As birds are often flying fast
or sitting low in the water, they are hard to hit with only one
bullet. A shotgun throws many smaller lead or steel pellets at the
birds, increasing the hunters chances of hitting them. While
they are quite effective up close, they dont shoot far at
Handguns are seldom used for hunting. They dont have
as much power as most rifles and arent very accurate for long
distances. Handguns are much easier to carry which is why so many
Alaskans use them for protection against bears and wolves. They
are also used to kill large animals still alive in traps, such as
wolves, lynx, and wolverine.
Cartridges are made of several different parts:
- The bullet
- The primer
- The powder
- The brass (or in the case of a shotgun, plastic) cartridge
bullet increases surface area and damage
The lead bullets are large and small, hard and soft, naked and
jacketed, pointed and blunt. They all have different applications.
If a bullet is too large it will destroy the meat, like shooting
a ptarmigan with a 180 grain .30-06 bullet. If it is too small,
it will not do enough damage and will only wound the animal. For
that reason, it is against the law to shoot a moose or caribou with
a .22. The diameter of the bullet is referred to as the caliber.
A .22 caliber is smaller than .30 caliber which is smaller than
Bullets are weighed in grains. A .22 is commonly 55 grains. A
.3006 might be 120, 150, 180, or 220 grains. Different shapes
make bullets hard to estimate the weight. Accurate measurement is
Hard and Soft
If a bullet is too hard, it will go through an animal without
doing enough damage to knock it down. The animal might escape wounded.
If the bullet is too soft, it will spread out (mushroom) on impact,
and will not penetrate deep enough to reach vital organs. Again,
the result is a wounded animal.
The bullet that is right for the animal will mushroom on impact,
and still penetrate to do the most damage in the internal organs.
Naked and Jacketed
The rate at which a bullet mushrooms on impact is controlled by
a copper jacket around the soft lead. A naked lead bullet will splatter
too easily if it hits big bones. A completely jacketed bullet will
not mushroom at all if it doesnt encounter resistance in the
A .22 caliber bullet is not jacketed, but is covered with a wax
to minimize friction as the bullet is driven down the barrel. Without
the wax, too much lead would deposit inside the barrel.
If the bullet is pointed, it will have a minimum of wind resistance,
traveling farther and faster, but will be easily deflected. If the
bullet is blunt, it will encounter considerable wind resistance,
reducing the impact at a distance, but it will go through small
obstacles like brush and grass. [This view is commonly held, but
everyone isn't in agreement]
The bullet is almost always made of lead. The high density of
lead gives it the most force on impact of any reasonably priced
metal. It is also soft enough to mushroom. Look at lead on the Periodic
table. What is its atomic weight? Is it heavier than iron?
The jacket around the lead is most often of copper. Copper is
harder than lead, holding it together for slower mushrooming. Copper
also provides low friction going cleanly down the barrel of the
Shotgun pellets used for hunting waterfowl are now made of steel.
It was determined that waterfowl were eating the lead pellets, poisoning
themselves. Steel is less dense than lead, with less ability to
bring a bird down. Hunters compensate for this by using one size
bigger BB shot.
The Perfect Bullet
It is easy to see that the choice of bullets depends totally on
which animal is being hunted under what conditions. There is no
perfect bullet or caliber.
For hunting caribou at a distance, I use a pointed, lighter bullet
that is rather soft. For hunting bears in the brush I use a heavy,
The goal is to effectively and safely harvest animals with no
wounded animals escaping. I would rather miss an animal entirely
than have it escape wounded.
Primers are the small silver colored inserts in the center of
the back of the cartridge (except .22s). They are like the caps
in a childs toy gun. When they are struck, pressure and friction
within cause them to ignite. The primers have little power by themselves.
They couldnt drive the bullet out of the barrel. Their job
is to ignite the powder which drives the bullet.
Primers can only be used once and must be changed if the cartridge
is reloaded. Reloading is inherently dangerous and should only be
done under supervision by a trained adult. However, when done sensibly
according to the directions, it provides a great savings and sense
of satisfaction for the hunter.
How can the little bit of energy we release, as we squeeze the
trigger, cause such a noise and drive a bullet with so much force?
Our pressure on the trigger releases the stored kinetic energy
of the spring behind the firing pin. When this is released, it strikes
and releases the stored chemical energy of the primer. The ignition
of the primer releases the stored chemical energy of the powder.
This creates high pressure gasses which push the bullet out of the
barrel of the rifle. The bullet now has tremendous kinetic energy.
Our pressure on the trigger releases a chain reaction that looses
many forms of stored energy.
A cartridge stores energy until the split second we need it.
There are a multitude of powders available. The greatest variables
in loading different powders are:
Quantity. Obviously, more powder will provide more power
or impulse than less powder.
The surface area of the powder helps to determine the rate
of burn. The same amount of fine powder will burn faster than a
like amount of coarse powder.
Types. Different powders burn at different rates. This
is most important. If the powder burns too slowly, the bullet will
be out of the barrel before the powder is completely consumed. Energy
is wasted. If the powder burns too fast, the powder will be burned
before the bullet leaves the barrel.
Rifle and Handgun Powder
Rifle powder will not burn fast enough in a handgun. Handgun powder
burns far too fast to be loaded in a rifle cartridge in the same
Old time Alaskans used to reload their own cartridges, but the
lack of proper measuring devices caused many accidents that led
people to prefer store-bought ammunition. Proper storage of powder
also presented problems.
It is important that powder burns clean. A dirty barrel might
explode when bullets force their way down a clogged barrel. Many
chemical reactions will create the force necessary to drive a bullet
down the barrel, however, modern powders burn quite cleanly.
Oxygen or What?
For years I wondered where the oxygen came from to burn the powder.
Later it dawned on me that there is no oxygen. A quick look at the
Periodic table of elements shows that sulfur is in the same group
as oxygen. In old-time black powder, sulfur, a solid, takes the
place of the large amounts of oxygen that would be required to efficiently
oxidize (burn) the other elements in the powder. [Sulfur has two
free valence electrons like oxygen.] In more modern powders, nitrates
take the place of oxygen and sulfur in oxidizing the powder.
Rifle and Handgun
Most cartridges are made of brass. Brass is soft enough to slip
in and out of the rifles chamber without causing a lot of
wear by friction. When fired, the soft brass cartridge expands against
the strong heavy steel of the firing chamber which holds it in shape.
The cartridges of different calibers are unique. They have long
and short necks, and bodies which are straight or tapered. A cartridge
collection is fun and has rich history involved.
Shotgun cartridges have brass on the back end, but they are made
mostly of plastic. The plastic protects and seals, keeping the cartridge
Within the plastic shotgun shell is a plastic cup called wadding
that holds the pellets. When the primer ignites the powder, the
cup and pellets are driven out of the barrel. When it hits the open
air, the light plastic wadding slows down and the pellets are carried
along their course by inertia. The cup provides very low friction
for the pellets to get out of the barrel. Without it, the pellets
would jam tightly in the barrel, greatly reducing velocity.
Before plastic, a cotton wad separated the pellets and expanding
Like a football
A look down the barrel of most shotguns shows that the barrel
is perfectly smooth. A shotguns pellets are thrown straight
out of the barrel.
A rifle is different. The word rifle actually means
a groove. A look down the barrel of any rifle shows grooves that
spiral the full length of the barrel.
Early gunsmiths understood science very well. A round bullet that
is shot out of a barrel with no spinning motion will wander terribly,
making accuracy impossible. If a long slim bullet didnt spin,
it would tumble wildly in the air for a short distance.
When a bullet is driven down a spirally grooved barrel, the spinning
motion keeps the bullet from wandering. Once the bullet has rotational
inertia, it resists changing its direction, just like a spinning
top or football quarterbacks pass.
Without the grooves (rifles), modern hunting wouldnt be
the same. Long distance shooting would be a matter of chance, rather
Types of Actions
A rifle or shotgun can have five different types of actions, or
ways, of getting the cartridge into the firing chamber.
Single shot. This is the simplest action. The gun is opened,
and the cartridge is inserted by hand. It is removed by hand after
it is fired. Most young people are given a single shot .22 for their
first gun as they are safe and simple.
Bolt-action rifles are the safest, most reliable, and tend
to be the most accurate. They arent the fastest to operate,
as they require the hunter to take his/her eye off the target to
reload. It is very easy to bore sight a bolt action rifle. This
will be explained later. Bolt actions dont seem to work as
well for shotguns.
Pump actions allow the hunter to continue to eject spent
cartridges and insert new ones while his/her eye remains on the
target. However, they arent as strong as a bolt and the sliding
parts tend to slow down with friction if the gun is at all dirty.
They also freeze easily in the winter. Pump-action shotguns have
long been favorites for their speed over bolt action, and for reliability
and safety over semiautomatics. We seldom use a shotgun in winter.
Lever action is a reliable rifle action, but there are
many moving parts and the cartridge isnt locked in as safely
as a bolt action. It is very difficult to bore sight a lever action.
They have made their way into all of our hearts through Western
movies. They are fast. The hunter can lever a cartridge into the
chamber without dropping the rifle and taking his eye off the target.
When they are working, semiautomatic weapons are amazingly fast.
However, they are very sensitive to dirt and weather, and tend to
malfunction much more than bolt, pump, or lever actions. They are
also terribly dangerous. As soon as a bullet is fired, another is
there in its place. The hunter must be very careful.
Heavy objects have greater inertia, or resistance to motion than
light ones. Handguns, because they are lighter, can easily be pointed
in different directions. They are far more dangerous than rifles
for this reason.
no shell for safety
Handguns have two common actions.
Revolvers usually hold six cartridges. They are slower
than automatics but are totally reliable. Most wise hunters leave
one cartridge out, keeping the hammer on the empty chamber so the
handgun cannot be accidentally fired. This leaves five safe shots.
Semiautomatic weapons can shoot faster than revolvers with
greater ease of holding on the target. Their lack of reliability
in Alaskas harsh weather make them more dangerous than rifles.
It would be interesting to discover whether there have been more
hunters or bears shot with handguns. In the hands of a mature experienced
person, they are useful, but the handgun hazard is often greater
than the bear threat.
Our first question about a gun is often, How hard does it
kick? Obviously, a gun with more powder and a bigger bullet
will have more recoil. Action equals reaction. When the bullet is
forced out the barrel, the gun is forced backward.
There are other factors that influence recoil. The mass of the
gun makes a big difference. A light [light and heavy are in reference
to mass] gun will kick considerably more than a heavier
gun. For example, if you step out of a small boat onto a dock, the
boat will be pushed away and you might fall in the water. If you
step out of an oceanliner onto the dock, the force of your step
is the same, but the mass of the oceanliner keeps it from moving
away from the dock. In the same way, the lighter gun will move more
in response to the bullet leaving the barrel than will a heavy one.
A small person might be hurt by a light single shot 12 or 20 gauge
shotgun. The same person might be able to shoot a heavier shotgun
with less discomfort.
Many guns have a soft rubber recoil pad. This absorbs much of
the shock from the gun.
Handguns kick rather hard because they are light and must force
the bullet out of the barrel in a very short period of time. While
a rifle isnt gentle, it pushes the bullet more gradually and
therefore kicks less sharply than a handgun.
Hunting seasons are getting shorter and shorter. There is little
opportunity to make mistakes and still come home with meat. The
hunter must be sure his rifle is sighted in properly.
Automatics, pumps, and lever actions are difficult or impossible
to bore sight. A bolt action has three distinct advantages here:
- Remove the bolt.
- Set the gun down on a rest where the barrel is pointed at an
object 100 to 200 yards away.
- Look down the barrel and sight down the sights. Are they both
pointed at the same thing? If they are, the gun is sighted in.
If not, move the sights. The bullet will fall a few inches by
the time it goes 200 yards. Adjust the sight so it is pointing
a few inches above the target at 200 yards and it will fall right
into the target.
When bore-sighting, I usually look down the bottom of the barrel,
although sighting down the middle of the barrel is almost as good.
You are making sure that the line-of-sight of the barrel and line-of-sight
of the sights are nearly parallel. Bore sighting gets a rifle close,
but the hunter must shoot at a target and fine tune the sights as
all bullets shoot differently.
Sights vs. Scopes
Before scopes were available, open sights were the only choice.
Open sights are good because:
- They are reliable.
- They are inexpensive.
- They are easy to fix.
- They arent easily bumped out of adjustment.
The disadvantage of open sights are that the hunters eye
is trying to focus in three places:
- Very close. The rear sight.
- Near. The front sight.
- Far. The target.
This is difficult enough for people who have good eyes and far
more difficult for those who dont.
Scopes have become popular for several reasons:
- They allow the hunter to see the target much more clearly,
magnified by the lenses.
- A scope allows the hunter to focus on one placethe lens
close to his eye.
- They seem to gather light in the twilight, and
allow the hunter to shoot in conditions too dark for open sights.
Scopes have some distinct disadvantages:
- They easily fog and condense. Often hunting is done in bad
weather and the scope, in the moment of greatest need, is blurred
with moisture even if there has been protection over the lenses.
- They are more easily bumped out of adjustment.
- A high power scope is dangerous in the brush. It is hard to
find the animal as the field of view is so narrow. I once went
after a wounded bear in the brush with a high powered scope. Never
- They make the gun heavier to carry long distances.
- They are rather expensive.
Whatever a hunter chooses will be determined by the needs and
Shotguns dont have scopes for hunting birds, nor do they
have open sights. The shotgun needs to be an extension of the hunters
body. It isnt sighted. It is pointed. If the stock of the
shotgun doesnt fit the face and body of the hunter well, he/she
will continually miss. The stock needs to be shaped until the place
where the hunter is pointing the gun is the same place the eye is
looking when the gun is at the shoulder. The importance of this
cannot be overstated.
In the Lower 48, deer and elk hunters put scopes on shotguns using
one-ounce slugs. Slugs dont travel as far as rifle bullets,
which is important in highly populated areas.
The trajectory of a bullet is the path that it takes between the
gun and the target.
One bullet is dropped from a place 3 from the ground. Another
bullet is shot at the same time from a rifle barrel that is 3
from the ground. The rifle barrel is perfectly parallel to the earths
surface. Which bullet will hit the ground first?
Most people say that the one that is dropped straight down will
hit the ground first, but in theory, they both will hit the ground
at the same time.[This is in theory. The curvature of the earth
would cause the bullet that is shot to fall a greater distance.]
The bullet that is shot will travel outward farther and faster,
but gravity works downward on both of them identically.
Once a bullet leaves the barrel, it starts to drop. If we want
to shoot a long way, we must aim above the target so the bullet
will fall down into the target.
Surprisingly, heavy bullets and light bullets fall at the same
speed. A light bullet might travel faster, and get to the target
sooner, therefore falling less, but a heavy bullet doesnt
fall faster than a light one.
If we are shooting a short distance, we probably wont have
to raise the gun much at all. However, after 200 yards, the drop
can be considerable. The hunter needs to know the rifle and the
facts surrounding the trajectory of the different bullets. It may
be necessary to aim six to ten inches above the target to hit it
at a great distance.
Some people have made a great study and hobby of guns. The rest
of us use them to get meat from the woods to the table. Most important
are hunter safety and not losing a wounded animal.
- Ask the people in your village what kinds of guns they have.
Is there a favorite manufacturer? Favorite caliber? Favorite action
(bolt, lever, semi-auto)? If people dont want to answer,
be sensitive. Some people in the bush feel that the government
is threatening their rights to have guns and they are reluctant
to let people know what they have.
- Does anyone in your village reload? Ask them about the best
bullets and calibers for hunting in your area. Ask them to demonstrate
reloading a few cartridges.
- Start a collection of different cartridges. Do not take them
from live ammunition! This is very dangerous. Get them from reloaders
in your village, hunters, or from gunshops when you go to town.
Research the history of each cartridge. They all have a story.
- Usually someone has saved a bullet that has been cut out of
a moose or caribou. Ask around the village for one. Can you see
the grooves imprinted in the bullet from the rifling in the barrel?
Draw the mushroomed bullet. Do you think it hit a bone?
- Try filing the different parts of the bullet. Is it hard or
- Ask your local reloading expert to put a primer in a cartridge
and omit the bullet and powder. Let him shoot the primer outside.
Do you now have a sense of how little power is in the primer?
- Ask your reloading expert to put a little powder on a flat
surface and light it with a match. Does it explode or burn quickly?
Smell the burned powder.
- Scrape the lead on a .22 cartridge with your fingernail. Can
you detect the wax to lubricate the bullet?
- Handle lead and steel shot from a shotgun. Can you feel the
difference in weight?
- If a bullet came out of a rifle without spin it would wander.
The best way to observe this is to hit a volleyball underhanded
in the gym. If you hit it with no spin, people on the receiving
end will see it wander, and will have a hard time hitting it.
Research what a knuckle ball is in baseball and how
it is thrown. What is the relationship of this phenomenon to shotgun
- With the bolt removed from a bolt action rifle (to remove all
danger) look down the barrel. Can you see the rifles? How do you
think police verify that a certain bullet was shot from a certain
- Feel the recoil pad on some of the rifles and shotguns in the
village. Do you think they would help reduce the kick of the gun?
Do you find recoil pads on .22s? Why?
- Bore sight a bolt-action rifle according to the directions
given in the text. Are the sights or scope on target?
- Ask people in your village which they prefer: open sights or
a scope. What are their reasons for their preference? Does it
vary with the animal hunted?
- From a ballistics chart, compare the three top favorite rifles
in your village for velocity of bullet, drop of bullet, and foot
pounds of energy at 100, 200, and 300 yards. Note the differences
for different weight bullets. What are the favorites in your village?
- Draw the trajectory of those three favorite rifles and three
favorite bullet weights.
- Ask the oldtimers what the favorite rifles were long ago and
- Drop two balls of the same size but different weights at the
same time from a given height. Does the heavier one fall faster?
Why or why not?
- Ask the good hunters in your village whether they shoot with
one or both eyes open.
- Test the students in your class. Which eye is dominant? Do
they shoot right handed or left handed? Does anyone shoot right
handed with a left eye dominant or vice versa?
- What are the three types of guns?
- Draw a loaded cartridge and label the parts: cartridge, powder,
primer, and bullet.
- What are the four differences that must be considered when
choosing a bullet?
- What is the material most often used in making bullets? What
is the jacket material?
- What are primers and what do they do?
- What energy conversions take place as we squeeze the trigger?
What kind of energy is stored in a cartridge?
- What is the difference between handgun and rifle powder?
- What element is used in the chemical reaction in a cartridge
that replaces oxygen in the burning process?
- Draw the rifling in the barrel of a rifle.
- What are four kinds of actions of rifles? Name one advantage
- What are the two kinds of actions of handguns? Name one advantage
- In your own words, what is recoil?
- Draw the side view of the process of bore sighting a rifle.
- List three advantages of open sights.
- List three advantages of scopes.
- Draw the trajectory of a fast bullet.
- Draw the trajectory of a slow bullet.
- Phil reloads his own shells for $.30 each. A box of 20 shells
costs $19.95 in the store. His reloading equipment cost $65. How
many years does he have to reload (if he uses an average of 3
boxes a year) in order to pay for his reloading equipment?