Understanding Firearms


A rifle normally fires a single bullet and generally range in calibre from .17 to .45. All are used for target shooting.

  • The .17 and .22 rimfire is suitable for small animals such as rabbits and hares.
  • The centrefire .22 is suitable for hunting goats and foxes.
  • Minimum legal calibre, cartridge length and projectile weight are set for deer hunting in Victoria. Please check with the Game Management Authority at www.gma.vic.gov.au.
  • Some cartridges such as the .308 Winchester, .270 Winchester, 30.06, and the .303 British are popular for hunting pigs and deer.


Shotguns are used for clay target shooting and to hunt small animals such as rabbits. They are the only firearms allowed for hunting game birds on the wing. There are a number of pellets in a 12-gauge cartridge that spread out when they leave the muzzle.

Different sized animals require different sized shot to ensure effective pellet penetration for a humane kill. Hunters must not use a shot gun with a gauge greater than 12 gauge to hunt game birds.

Some recommended shot sizes are:

  • 7, 8 and 9 for smaller birds
  • 4, 5 and 6 for rabbit
  • 3 and 2 for foxes
  • buckshot, or a single solid slug, for pigs
  • duck hunters cannot use or possess toxic shot in Victoria whilst out in the hunting area.

Recommended non-toxic shot sizes for Australian game birds can be found at www.gma.vic.gov.au. 

The size of the shot for clay target shooting depends on the competition.

Please contact the Game Management Authority at www.gma.vic.gov.au for more information.

Types of actions

All cartridge firing firearms used for target shooting or hunting have the following things in common: the cartridge is fed into the chamber; it is locked there by the action; the action is cocked; it is fired; it is unlocked; and the empty cartridge case is extracted and ejected.

The bolt action is one of the simplest and most trouble-free firearm actions. Starting from the unloaded condition, the action is unlocked by lifting the bolt handle and pulling it back. A cartridge is fed into the chamber by pushing the bolt forward. The bolt handle is then turned downwards, locking the bolt and cartridge in place. A firing pin is usually cocked by movement of the bolt or bolt handle, and when the trigger is squeezed the pin is released, firing the cartridge. The empty cartridge case is then ejected by lifting the bolt handle again and pulling the bolt back.

The lever action works on the same basic principle, except that a lever is pushed down to unlock the bolt and move it backwards. This movement also cocks the action. When the lever is pulled upwards again it feeds a cartridge into the chamber and locks, ready to be fired by the trigger. After the cartridge is fired the empty case is ejected by once more pushing the lever down.

pump action is again similar. A pump slide is pulled backwards to open the action and cock it. When the slide is pushed forward the action feeds a fresh cartridge, locks, and is ready to fire.

self loading also known as a semi-automatic action, operates in the same way as the above firearms. However, ejection and loading is carried out automatically by the force of either the recoil or by gas pressure. Because of the automatic reloading, a cartridge is ready to be fired each time the trigger is squeezed.

The most common shotguns in Australia are the breakopen variety where the barrel(s) hinge downwards. There are over-and-under, side-by- side and single barrel shotguns.
Some shotguns are self loading or pump action.

Cutaway drawings of four different types of cartridge. Clockwise from top left: a) A shot cartridge; b) A centrefire cartridge; c) A rimfire cartridge; d) A rifled slug for use in a shotgun (single projectile).
Common firearm actions, from top to bottom: a) A bolt action; b) A lever action; c) A pump action; d) a self loading.

Where and when you may use firearms

Before you do any shooting, whether with a firearm or airgun, you need to know when and where it can be safely and lawfully used.

You should take steps to ensure that your shooting does not endanger property or frighten, annoy or put neighbours at risk. Telling your neighbours about what you are doing is always a good first step.

The permission of the land owner is required before shooting anywhere.

.22 Rimfire rifles

A .22 rimfire rifle has been the traditional first rifle of many shooters. It is regarded as a safe and inexpensive firearm for a young person. This rifle can be just as deadly as any other firearm and must be handled with respect caution and care.


A shotgun is the only firearm suitable for shooting at birds on the wing. Firing a rifle in the air carries the danger of some person or property being struck when the bullet falls back to earth. Although shotgun pellets fall too, they do not travel so far and are much lighter. This means they are less
likely to endanger someone.

The shotgun is used for fast moving game on the ground and in the air. A shotgun is also used for competitive shooting at clay targets.

Centrefire rifles

Centrefire rifles in various calibres are suitable for a whole range of game and target shooting. There is a considerable variety of calibres, projectile types and weights however and no single firearm or cartridge is suitable for every purpose. It is important, therefore, to think about where and for what purpose you intend to use your firearm before buying one. Ask someone who is involved in that sport. 

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