words mean things #2: clip vs magazine

I’ve been reading (with horror) about the execution of a police officer in Texas last night.  A man walked up behind the policeman, shot him in the head, then emptied his gun into the policeman as he lay on the ground.

This is a terrible situation, and there’s a lot that bothers me about it. Since I’m coming to you to talk about words and their meanings, let’s look at one of the numerous reasons you should be skeptical of media reports. When a reporter uses a word incorrectly, it not only shows disrespect towards our language, it shows carelessness in word choice and a lack of understanding.  I find it difficult to trust a journalist that doesn’t know the definition of a word.

In relation to this terrible situation, I have read in several accounts that the killer “emptied his clip” into the policeman.

He did not empty his “clip.”  He used a semi-automatic handgun; therefore, he emptied his “magazine” into the policeman.

A clip – invented in the very early days of long guns (rifles) that could store more than one round of ammunition (a “cartridge”) and be operated in that familiar bolt-action movement – looks like that on the right in the photo below.  (photo borrowed from Wikipedia & used under common license)


It was originally called a “stripper clip,” which was later shortened to just “clip.”  The basic function of the device is to “clip” together a number of cartridges, which can then be “stripped” quickly into the rifle’s magazine. When this is done, the clip itself falls free of the weapon and the cartridges are stored inside.  (In the photo above, the thing on the left is called a “box clip” or “block clip” and is the precursor to the detachable magazine. A block clip is stored inside the magazine along with the ammunition and gets ejected when it’s time to reload. It’s less fiddly than a stripper clip.)

A magazine, then, is an enclosed box of some sort that stores ammunition.  It can be permanently affixed to the weapon, as it would be for a rifle that uses clips, but it can also be detachable, as seen in the photo below.


A magazine contains a spring that keeps the ammunition under pressure so loading can be achieved quickly and efficiently, generally without any intervention or action on the part of the person firing the weapon.  Magazines in most modern firearms are detachable.

To remember the difference between these two things and thus have a small measure of credibility when you discuss firearms, keep in mind that a clip puts ammunition into a magazine, and the magazine stores the ammunition.  You could also remember that the military calls places where ammunition is stored – no matter its size – a magazine.  A magazine can hold six 9mm cartridges or 6,000 155mm artillery rounds.

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