Is it "to reload" or "to shoot"? I figured out that "to pump bullets" means "to shoot", but I don't know if there isn't a difference with shotgun.

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    It's a specific type of reloading. A pump-action shotgun is "one in which the handgrip can be pumped back and forth in order to eject a spent round of ammunition and to chamber a fresh one" (Wikipedia).
    – eijen
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 21:14
  • 2
    Neither, exactly. A pump-style shotgun is reloaded by inserting cartridges into a spring-loaded tube. Then, "pumping" the shotgun (pulling back and then forward on the wooden "pump" parallel to and under the barrel) loads a round into the firing chamber. Once fired, you pump the shotgun again to eject the discharged cartridge and to load the next round in a single "pump." So, "to pump a shotgun" is technically to chamber a cartridge, and/or to eject a spent cartridge. Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 21:15
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    This clip shows Sarah Connor pumping her shotgun: youtube.com/…. (Pump, fire, pump, fire, pump, fire, ...) Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 21:19
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    I believe you are confusing a shotgun's pump-action reloading mechanism (see answers below) with the phrase "pump them full of lead", which is a colorful way of saying to shoot someone.
    – user11628
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 21:21
  • By comparison, one would rack a lever-action long gun, cock a handgun, or prime a musket. These are among the last steps before aiming and firing.
    – Criggie
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 3:43

3 Answers 3


Some of the other answers are pretty close, but still not quite right. Pumping a shotgun doesn't reload it, and it does more than eject the spent shell casing. When you pump a pump-action shotgun, you are cycling the action - that means you are doing whatever the gun is designed to do automatically from a single movement.

This can all be pretty confusing to a person unfamiliar with guns, whether or not you are a native English speaker!

The firing of a gun consists of a few steps. First, you have to get a round into the chamber - this is called "chambering a round." The chamber is the part of the gun that holds the cartridge in place prior to firing it. This might involve removing a spent cartridge if it has not already been ejected. Then you have to close the bolt, which makes sure propellant gases and the cartridge can't escape from the open chamber when you fire the round. Next you have to cock the hammer. The hammer is the part of the gun that is under spring tension and is released when you pull the trigger to hit the firing pin. After all that is done, you can finally fire!

The "action" of a gun is all of the parts of that process that happen automatically in response to one action. For a pump-action shotgun, that includes opening the bolt, ejecting the spent cartridge, chambering a new round from the magazine, and cocking the hammer.

"Reloading" usually refers to inserting rounds into the magazine so that they can later be chambered by the pump action. You can put a round directly in the chamber, and that might technically be called a reload, but in that case you wouldn't operate the pump action until after you had fired the round.

"Shooting" or "firing" is the act of depressing the trigger, causing the hammer to strike the firing pin which in turn strikes the primer and ignites the propellant in the cartridge.

Other types of guns have different actions. There are pump-action rifles which operate in basically the same manner as pump-action shotguns, but there are also bolt-action, lever-action, falling-block action, break-action, and gas-operated and recoil-operated weapons. Revolvers can have single- or double-actions - in a single action revolver, the next chamber rotates into the firing position when you pull back the hammer, and then you pull the trigger to fire. In a double-action revolver, the hammer is cocked and the cylinder rotates as you pull the trigger.

In all of these cases, the "action" is the part of the process that the gun does for you. Cycling the action sometimes has a common name based on what the most obvious movement is - pumping in this case.

  • This animated gif shows part of the cycle: i.imgur.com/CQcWpbk.gif It is taken from a MidwayUSA video where the CEO makes a cutaway shotgun to show the inner workings: youtube.com/watch?v=_uuMJ9grq-0
    – Freiheit
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 20:01
  • Also worth noting that many firearms share common characteristics and action types each model will have some differences in exactly how it does it.
    – Freiheit
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 20:02
  • youtube.com/watch?v=vrBVZyRca1c
    – TecBrat
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 14:57
  • Might be worth mentioning the idiom "pumped full of lead," if only to point out that it's different.
    – fectin
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 18:05

It comes from a pump action shotgun or rifle.

A pump-action rifle or shotgun is one in which the handgrip can be pumped back and forth in order to eject a spent round of ammunition and to chamber a fresh one.

Here is a tutorial on shotgun pumping. So you're not actually loading the shotgun, you're ejecting the spent round when you pump the shotgun. You can imagine that if you run out of rounds, you can pump all you want, but the shotgun will not be loaded.

Here, the person is loading/reloading the shotgun.

  • According to your blockquote, "eject a spent round of ammunition and chamber a fresh one", and the video, the forward action of the pumping is definitely part of the loading process. Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 12:00
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    @USER_8675309 Chambering a round is usually done at the end of the reloading process, but that does not mean it is part of the reloading process. In fact, for safety reasons, a firearm might be reloaded and a round not be chambered, since a chambered round can go off fairly easily, whereas a gun without a round in the chamber would have to have a round chambered first before it can go off. A gun can be "loaded" with no round in the chamber, although "fully loaded" often means a round has been chambered and then one more round added to the magazine so that it is full again. Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 14:24
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    Thanks for the clarification. I agree on this -- I guess the differences are much easier to consider when you think about reloading a clip into, for example, a handgun. Chambering a round is absolutely a different action from loading a clip. Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 14:40
  • Exactly. A clip is a removable magazine. Shotguns are not the only type of gun that commonly has a fixed magazine. I've fired .22 lever action rifles before that have a fixed, shotgun-like magazine underneath the barrel. Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 15:12

Pumping a shotgun means to reload. The action of pumping discards the spent shell and loads a new one in the chamber.

Yes, there is a difference as shotguns don't have bullets to pump. It's conceptually different either way.

  • 2
    My opinion: to "pump a shotgun" certainly refers to the chambering of another round. But there is certainly nothing to prevent you from "pumping bullets down range" while using a shotgun -- especially one that allows you to fire every time you pump it, like in this video: military.com/video/guns/shotguns/shotgun-demo-with-funny-ending/… Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 12:03
  • 2
    Sure, in common speech, you can "Pump 'em full of lead." with a shotgun or any gun. But since a shotgun doesn't use bullets, there's not bullets to pump. The pumping action though is unique to the shotgun, well, and air rifles.
    – DTRT
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 13:06
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    chambering, not reloading
    – njzk2
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 14:13
  • 7
    To clarify @njzk2's comment, firearms from the late 19th century onward feature a magazine of some sort - a place where ammunition is stored inside the body of the weapon in such a way that it can be automatically or semi-automatically moved from the magazine to the firing chamber. The action people take all the time in movies to prepare a weapon that makes a lot of noise is this action - it is manually actuating that automatic system. Reload usually means "put rounds in the magazine". Pump here means to move a round to the chamber from the magazine.. Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 14:22
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    @USER_8675309 There is one thing that prevents a shotgun user from "pumping bullets down range" - shotguns are loaded with shells, not bullets. Shotgun shells have casings and powder loads like bullets, but ahead of the powder in a shotgun shell is shot, which is small metal balls, and then wadding ahead of that to hold the shot in the shell. It's called a shotgun for that reason. The idea is that the shot pellets spread out after they leave the barrel, giving you a better chance to at least hit your target with something. At close range it can be pretty destructive. Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 16:59

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