A rifle is a firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder, with a barrel that has a helical groove or pattern of grooves (“rifling”) cut into the barrel walls. The raised areas of the rifling are called “lands,” which make contact with the projectile (for small arms usage, called a bullet), imparting spin around an axis corresponding to the orientation of the weapon. When the projectile leaves the barrel, the spin averages out curve from imperfections improving accuracy and prevents tumbling which improves range, in the same way that a properly thrown American football or rugby ball behaves. The word “rifle” originally referred to the grooving, and a rifle was called a “rifled gun.” Rifles are used in warfare, hunting and shooting sports.
Typically, a bullet is propelled by the contained deflagration of an explosive compound (originally black powder, later cordite, and now nitrocellulose), although other means such as compressed air are used in air rifles, which are popular for vermin control, hunting small game, formal target shooting and casual shooting (“plinking”).
In most armed forces the term “gun” is incorrect when referring to small arms; in the military, the word “gun” means an artillery piece or crew-served machine gun. Furthermore, in many works of fiction a rifle refers to any weapon that has a stock and is shouldered before firing, even if the weapon is not rifled or does not fire solid projectiles (e.g. a “laser rifle”).
Formerly, rifles only fired a single projectile with each squeeze of the trigger. Modern assault rifles are capable of firing more than one round per trigger squeeze; some fire in a fully automatic mode and others are limited to bursts of three to five rounds per squeeze. Thus, modern assault rifles overlap somewhat with machine guns. In fact many light machine guns (such as the Russian RPK) are adaptations of existing assault rifle designs. Generally, the difference between an automatic rifle and a machine gun comes down to weight and feed system; rifles, with their relatively light components (which overheat quickly) and small magazines, are incapable of sustained automatic fire in the way that machine guns are. While machine guns may require more than one operator, the rifle is an individual weapon.
A carbine , from French carabine, is a longarm similar to but shorter than a rifle or musket. Many carbines are shortened versions of full rifles, firing the same ammunition at a lower velocity due to a shorter barrel length.
The smaller size and lighter weight of carbines makes them easier to handle in close-quarter situations such as urban or jungle warfare, or when deploying from military vehicles. The disadvantages of carbines relative to rifles include inferior long-range accuracy and a shorter effective range. Being larger than a submachine gun, they are harder to maneuver in tight encounters where superior range and stopping power at distance are not great considerations. Firing the same ammunition as rifles gives carbines the advantage of standardization over those personal defense weapons (PDWs) that require proprietary cartridges; however, they lack the higher penetration capabilities of many PDW rounds.
Carbines are issued to high-mobility troops such as special-operations soldiers and paratroopers, as well as to mounted, supply, or other non-infantry personnel whose roles do not require full-sized rifles.