Top 5 Most Popular Guns - and Why

Different guns
Whether they’re antique rifles or modern handguns and shotguns, the U.S. has a lot of firearms. In 2007, U.S. companies manufactured 3.85 million guns, according to the ATF. Riou/Getty Images

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives all citizens the right to keep and bear arms. If data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics are any indication, many Americans are exercising this freedom. Nationally, 42 percent of people responding to a 2008 survey reported having a gun in their home. That's up from 36 percent in 1999, when gun ownership reached an all-time low.

Among gun owners, 58 percent own pistols, 63 percent own shotguns and 59 percent own rifles [source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003, 2008]. The sales data paint a slightly different picture. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a third of all gun sales can be attributed to handguns (such as revolvers and pistols), a third to rifles and shotguns, and a third to ammunition.


Unfortunately, these statistics don't drill down to specific models. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) offers some insights with its firearms manufacturing and export reports, which tally the number of guns produced by U.S. manufacturers each year. But production levels don't tell the whole story. For example, some custom gun makers may produce fewer than 20 weapons a year, yet their products stir intense customer loyalty.

Still, it's this article's job to present the five most popular guns in civilian hands. To facilitate the task, we made our final selections using several criteria, including manufacturing data, historical significance and anecdotal information from gun sites and enthusiasts. We also considered guns across five major small arms categories -- muzzleloaders, shotguns, rifles, revolvers and pistols. We won't discuss machine guns and other fully automatic assault rifles, which are heavily regulated and not generally considered civilian-friendly weapons.

Let's start with a throwback.

5: Thompson/Center Arms Encore Muzzleloading Rifle

Jim Parson, left, and Don Witke hunt with muzzleloaders in Serah, Wash. Parson shoots with an in-line .54 caliber, top, while Witke uses a Thompson/Center .50 caliber, bottom.
AP Photo/Yakima Herald-Republic, Sara Gettys

Muzzleloaders receive a bullet and propellant -- gunpowder -- through the muzzle, rather than through the breech, as is the case with modern firearms. Think of the long-barreled Springfield M1855 used during the American Civil War, and you'll get the idea. In fact, many still regard Springfield rifle-muskets as some of the finest weapons ever made.

Repeaters, such as the lever-action Spencer and Henry rifles, gradually replaced muzzleloaders in the late 1800s. They were in turn usurped by more advanced bolt-action rifles of World War I. For many years, few people beyond gun collectors and re-enactors sought out muzzleloaders. But two recent trends have renewed interest in this traditional gun. The first is the addition of primitive-weapons-only seasons in regions where whitetail deer populations have soared. The second is the introduction of improved rifle designs.


The inline muzzleloader defines the modern form of this firearm. Inline refers to the igniter, which sits directly behind the powder charge. Because the igniter and the charge are lined up, ignition is more efficient, and the explosion propelling the cartridge has more energy. More important, the ignition systems of inline muzzleloaders aren't exposed to the elements, eliminating the constant worry to "keep the powder dry."

Thompson/Center Arms offers a full line of inline muzzleloaders and accessories. Many hunters and sportsmen consider its Encore 209x.50 Magnum to be the most versatile muzzleloader available today. The Encore has a 26-inch barrel and produces a muzzle velocity of 2,203 feet (671 meters) per second, giving it stopping power out to 200 yards (183 meters).

The next gun on our list doesn't have the same range, but that doesn't diminish its popularity or its usefulness.

4: Remington Model 870 Pump-Action Shotgun

Remington Model 870 Wingmaster
Image courtesy Remington

Unlike rifles, which have grooves cut into the inside of their barrels, shotguns are smoothbore firearms. This design makes it possible to shoot multiple projectiles, most often large pellets (buckshot) or small beads (birdshot), in a conical spray that can be devastating at close range. Shotguns can even fire less lethal rounds, such as rock salt or miniature tear gas grenades, to help control crowds.

Flintlock shotguns were popular in the 18th century. The blunderbuss, a shotgun with a flared muzzle, was a favorite among coachmen who needed to repel highway bandits. Coachmen also made good use of the "coach pistol," which resembles today's sawed-off shotgun. But the real coming of age for shotguns came in the 1880s, when gun makers introduced pump-action models. Pump-action shotguns have a tubular magazine under the barrel that holds six or seven rounds. The user simply slides the forestock to chamber a new round.


Remington introduced the Model 870 in 1950, and it has since become the best-selling shotgun of any type in history. More than 10 million 870s have rolled off Remington's production lines into the hands of hunters, sportsmen, law enforcement officers and soldiers [source: Remington]. Every Model 870 shotgun features a receiver milled from a solid billet of steel. This increases the weapon's strength and durability and does much to bolster its reputation for quality and reliability, even in the harshest conditions.

Up next, we've got another wildly popular firearm -- this one a semiautomatic rifle related to a military standard.

3: Bushmaster AR-15 Semiautomatic Rifle

The Bushmaster Predator
Image courtesy Bushmaster

The AR-15, which designates a rifle platform, not a specific manufacturer's model, remains a controversial weapon. Why? Many people mistakenly believe that "AR" stands for "assault rifle." In reality, the AR-15 is a semiautomatic rifle, which means it fires one round with each pull of the trigger. True assault rifles are fully automatic weapons, such as machine guns, that have been primarily restricted from civilian ownership since 1934.

The "AR" actually stands for "ArmaLite rifle," the company that invented the design in the 1950s. ArmaLite's chief engineer, Eugene Stoner, sought to develop a revolutionary weapon, one that was lighter and offered less recoil. His early efforts resulted in the AR-10, which weighed less than 7 pounds (3 kilograms). U.S. Army officials asked ArmaLite to downsize the AR-10 in 1956, leading to the AR-15.


The military didn't show immediate interest, so ArmaLite sold the patents and designs for the AR-10 and AR-15 to Colt. Colt took the basic design and tweaked it to manufacture the M16, the primary weapon used by service personnel during the Vietnam War and beyond. But other manufacturers, including Bushmaster, began to produce civilian versions.

Today, Bushmaster remains one of the top sellers of rifles based on the AR-15 platform, and its Predator model stands as the typical form of the weapon. The 5.56 mm Predator features a 20-inch barrel and takes a five-round magazine that's legal for hunting in most states. Hunters favor it because it's easy to carry and highly accurate. With that said, many gun enthusiasts also like AR-15 models from manufacturers such as DPMS Firearms and Stag Arms.

Next, we're going to lay down our rifle and pick up a classic handgun.

2: Smith & Wesson Model 10 Revolver

When most people form a mental image of a gun, they see a revolver. And for good reason: Since the 1800s, millions of these simple, rugged, easy-to-use weapons have been used by pioneers, gunslingers, soldiers, police officers, homeowners and, of course, criminals. Over the years, the basic design of revolvers has changed little. They have a cylinder containing multiple chambers, each of which holds a round. When the trigger is pulled, the cylinder rotates and a new chamber lines up with the barrel. In single-action varieties, the user must manually cock the hammer before firing. In double-action varieties, the user pulls the trigger to rotate the cylinder and draw the hammer back to a cocked position.

Samuel Colt put the revolver on the map. During the Civil War, his new company produced 100,000 revolvers -- the M1860 Army Colt and the M1861 Navy Colt -- for both Union and Confederate troops. After the war, the Colt Peacemaker, more properly known as the Colt M1873, became the symbol of frontier life, westward expansion and outlaw justice.


It didn't take long for competitors to enter the market. Remington also sold large numbers of revolvers during the Civil War. But the gun maker that would take six-shooters to a whole new level was Smith & Wesson. The company made its first revolver in 1857 and never looked back. The Model 10 has been the anchor of the S&W product line since 1899. Also known as the Military and Police Model, the Model 10 fires .38-caliber rounds through a 4-inch barrel. Smaller models, known as J-frame revolvers, are also popular. Smith & Wesson introduced the first J-frame, the Model 36 or "Chiefs Special," in 1950. These guns, with little argument, are some of the most recognizable in the history of firearms.

Up next is the most recognizable semiautomatic pistol.

1: Colt M1911

Although revolvers functioned admirably, military personnel and gun enthusiasts wanted more. In particular, they wanted two things revolvers couldn't deliver -- faster reloading and greater capacity. Gun engineers designed the pistol to accommodate both of these requirements. A pistol is a semiautomatic handgun with a magazine that slides into the grip. It also tends to be lighter and more compact than a revolver. When a pistol is fired, some of the energy is used to eject the spent cartridge and load a fresh one from the magazine. The magazine commonly holds seven to nine rounds, but some current models hold 17, 19 or even 33 rounds.

Many of the early semiautomatic pistols came chambered for .38-caliber cartridges, but in battle, officers complained of the .38's inadequate stopping power. Enter John Browning. Browning already had a reputation as an innovative gun maker when he set out to improve the semiautomatic pistol, but his .45-caliber design for Colt set a new standard. It came with a seven-round detachable box magazine and performed flawlessly in any condition. The U.S. Army adopted Browning's new pistol in 1911 and designated it the M1911. It remained the standard U.S. military sidearm until the 1990s, when it was replaced by the 9 mm Beretta.


Even with its removal as the standard sidearm for U.S. armed forces, the M1911 remains popular, especially with civilians who participate in competitive shooting. Several companies continue to manufacture M1911-type models, and they all sell well. Many consider it to be the finest handgun -- and perhaps the finest gun -- ever made.

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Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bourjaily, Philip. "It Always Goes Bang." Field & Stream. Aug. 13, 2007. (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "2007 Firearms Manufacturing and Export Report." (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 2003." (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 2008." (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • Dougherty, Martin J. "Small Arms from the Civil War to the Present Day" Fall River Press. 2005.
  • National Shooting Sports Foundation. "Modern Sporting Rifle Facts." (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • National Shooting Sports Foundation. "The Writer's Guide to Firearms and Ammunition." 2006. (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • Quinn, Jeff. "High Standard's New AR-15 Rifles." Sept. 15, 2005. (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • Remington. "Model 870 Shotguns. The Most Popular Shotgun in Firearms History." (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • Sangster, Don. "Muzzleloader Buyer's Guide." Bass Pro Shops, OutdoorSite Library. (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • Schoby, Mike. "ArmaLite M-15A4(T) Review." Cabela's Field Guide Story. (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • Sigler, Derrek. "New to Traditional Muzzleloaders?" Cabela's Field Guide Story. (Oct. 16, 2009)
  • Wakeman, Randy. "Rating the Inline Muzzleloading Manufacturers." (Oct. 16, 2009)