3 Firearm Modes of Operation (& How They're Powered)

It's very common for those unfamiliar with guns to misunderstand how their operating systems work.

posted on October 4, 2023
Pump Gun

It's very common for those unfamiliar with guns to misunderstand how their operating systems work. The simple version is this: There are three basic "modes of operation" for guns, and three basic ways to power that mode of operation. Today we'll explore both.

Modes of Operation

Manual (Single-shot)

After a single shot has been fired, the mechanism of the firearm must be manually cycled by the shooter to unlock, extract, eject, feed, chamber and fire a subsequent cartridge. 


After manually loading the first round, this method of operation uses recoil or gas from the fired cartridge to power the action cycle. A single shot will be fired each time the trigger is pulled until the magazine is empty.

Full Automatic 

A fully automatic firearm will fire repeatedly with a single pull of the trigger until the trigger is released or the magazine is empty unless the gun is equipped with what's known as a "burst-limiting" device. (Firearms of this type are classified as Class 3 Firearms, and civilians cannot own them without permission from the ATF and paying a $200 federal tax stamp.)

Powering an Operating System

Manual Power:
Exactly what it sounds like! Human muscle performs the cycle of operation, as in with single-shot firearms and pump- and lever-action firearms.

Self-Loading: The forces generated by firing the cartridge are harnessed to perform the cycle of operation. 

Externally Powered: An outside mechanical power source is used to perform the cycle of operation, as in with some large military full-autos. Examples would include the Gatling gun.


Realtree Santa
Realtree Santa

What Camo Does Santa Wear?

Here's how Santa helps keep hidden from the prying eyes of children (if not NORAD).

Video: Gun Safety Beyond the "Big 3"

The "Three Rules of Gun Safety" always come first, but there are many other important ones right behind them!

Rising Shooting Stars: Gianni Giordano

Shooting competitor, straight-A student, small-business owner and farmer ... this rising shooting star has it all.

Throwback Thursday: Quantrill's Raiders

During the American Civil War, they called it "Bleeding Kansas." This is the story of the man who bled it.

Video Review: Davidson's Gunsite Glock Service Pistol

This iconic Austrian pistol's specially outfitted with features and accessories chosen by the elite team of trainers and shooters at Gunsite Academy.

Modern Semi-Automatic Pistol Triggers & How They Work

DA, DA/SA, DAO ... you'll see these terms and abbreviations in gun reviews. Here's what they all mean.


Get the best of NRA Family delivered to your inbox.