Nail guns are one of the most recognizable professional construction tools on the market, bridging the gap between a hammer and an industrial-sized rivet gun. They are great for all kinds of projects, ranging from small DIY jobs to major construction work by major companies – being able to shoot nails into solid surfaces in a quick and efficient way is incredibly useful.
However, even if you’ve seen them in action before or had the pleasure of using one yourself, it might still not be entirely clear how they work. Understanding the mechanism behind any tool is important if you want to stay safe, and nail guns are especially dangerous if mishandled. How does a nail gun work, and how can different designs vary from one another?
How Does A Nail Gun Work?
The Magazine and Loading System
Nail guns are called nail guns for a reason: they’re very similar to real guns and other magazine-fed firearms. The majority of nail guns have a bottom-fed magazine on the front, filled with connected nails that are individually fed into the ‘chamber’ and fired with each pull of the trigger. Once the magazine is loaded, the nails are pushed up by a weak spring at the bottom, meaning that a new nail will be loaded as soon as the current nail is fired.
Some models will have detachable magazines, while others will have integrated magazines that need to have nails loaded into them directly. When you pull the trigger, one of two systems will fire the nail:
- A hammer, like a conventional gun, which slams into the back of the nail to launch it forward.
- A spring kept under high tension that fires the nail forward when it’s released.
Both function similarly, with the end result being that the nail is fired forward. The glue that holds them together in the magazine melts off, meaning that the fired nail separates from the rest. By the time the left-over glue solidifies again, the nail is jammed into a surface. This can often mean that this glue helps the nail stick into the hole it creates, bonding it to the material.
Nail Gun Types
While the basic mechanisms are the same, there’s multiple different types of nail gun you could end up using, each with their own functional and practical differences. The three most common are:
- Electric nail guns.
- Combustion nail guns.
- Pneumatic nail guns.
Each of them operates differently and require different power sources or attachments to function correctly. There can also be notable differences in their designs and safety features, but this usually depends on the manufacturer.
Electric Nail Guns
Electric nail guns are generally the simplest and most reliable type, using a basic spring to drive nails into a surface. The spring itself is pulled back using an electrically-powered motor, which rotates to pull it back and produce tension. Once you pull the trigger, the spring gets released, putting all the built-up energy into firing the nail by slamming it with the internal ‘hammer.’ The exact amount of power depends on the size of the spring and the distance it’s been pulled back, so it can differ between brands.
Nail guns that use this design are very light, so they’re very easy to use and don’t cause much strain on your muscles. This is mainly due to the very lightweight parts they use, as well as their lack of a heavy power source – because of this, they’re also often the weakest type, especially when you’re trying to get through tougher materials. This limits them to minor roles and less heavy-duty projects, so they’re most often used as a DIY tool rather than a piece of professional construction equipment.
Pneumatic Nail Guns
Pneumatic tools use compressed air to generate force, and this kind of nail gun is no exception, using an air compressor and a connected hose to launch nails out of the barrel. This provides a good amount of strength, but the mechanism needs to be different to function properly, so there are extra parts that aren’t present in other designs.
Most pneumatic nail guns have a built-in safety mechanism, which needs to be released before it’ll fire properly. This is usually a valve below the trigger of the nail gun, which stops the compressed air from flowing in until it’s adjusted. Some will also require you to press the barrel into a surface, which moves back into the tool like a plunger.
Once all of the safety features are turned off or deactivated, you can pull the trigger to release compressed air into the rear section of the gun, which pushes the hammer into the loaded nail. Since there’s not much heat to melt the glue between each nail, a lot of models will have small knife blades built into the hammer, which slices the nail off from the rest of the magazine just before it’s fired.
The amount of pressure used to fire each nail can vary based on how compressed the air is, but most heavy-duty models will shoot with more force than the spring-based electric nail guns.
Combustion Nail Guns
It’s entirely possible that you’ve never seen a combustion nail gun since they’re often the most expensive and professional-looking version on the market. They’re the most similar to a real gun, having huge magazines and a built-in gas reservoir that’s meant to produce a miniature explosion, similar to how a normal firearm will use gunpowder.
The design has to be slightly bulkier to accommodate the combustion chamber at the very back of the tool, which uses a conventional battery (or power outlet connection) to create a spark when you pull the trigger. Gas feeds in from a section just above the trigger, which is ignited when this spark is created.
The combustion and the resulting force it creates is enough to fire out the nail with a hammer: the hammer usually also has the same blade attachment as the ones used in pneumatic nail guns, but not always. It generally also has the same ‘push into surface’ safety mechanism, since these tools can be strong enough to act like a real handgun if you were able to fire them at a person.
Because of their high power, as well as the tiny explosions, the live electricity and the fact that they’re full of combustible gas and sharp nails, these nail guns are generally harder to get hold of and aren’t usually seen in the hands of inexperienced users. They can also be heavy, since they technically need both power and fuel to work correctly, as well as a full load of nails and a larger, more durable body.
Which Are They Good For?
Like all tools with multiple versions, they can easily be compared when it comes to how they handle different situations, materials, and projects. Keep in mind that not all nail guns are designed equally, so it’s possible that there can be quite a lot of variation – just because one type of tool is usually weaker than another doesn’t mean that it’ll always be the case.
Most professionals prefer to use pneumatic nail guns where possible since their main downside is the extra cost, as well as the fact that you need a compressor and hose (at minimum) to make it work as it’s supposed to. However, in practice, they’re usually the best way to quickly drive nails into all but the hardest materials, and high-quality models will often be strong enough to pierce metals as long as the air has been compressed enough.
Not only that, but most pneumatic models are able to load long nails since they don’t need much behind the hammer – this leaves more room for the nails themselves. One flaw you might notice is that they’re often quite loud, and some might even require you to use earmuffs or other noise-dampening gear.
For DIY Work
When it comes to hobby work or jobs around the home, electric nail guns are the easiest to find and are probably the most common in the entire world. They’re near-silent and surprisingly cheap and rely on a simple electric motor and spring that make it easy for manufacturers to reduce their overall size. As mentioned earlier, they’re also very lightweight.
On the other hand, they’ll usually struggle to penetrate harder materials, even if the nails themselves are quite durable. They don’t generate as much force, and the nail can only move as fast as the spring moves. On top of that, they might lack some safety features that more complex designs have as standard, since the entire unit is based on moving parts rather than pressure.
For General Use
Combustion nail guns are more of an outlier, falling between the other two types while also offering its own unique upsides and downsides. Cleaning is a lot more important since a dirty or damaged nail gun will provide weaker combustion, but it’s also one of the most reliable types when it comes to driving nails without being connected to a power source. The battery and gas container are both usually built into the design, so it should function well no matter where you use it.
Because of this, it becomes one of the better options for any job that requires a lot of movement or a large workspace – things like repairing houses, building large objects or setting up multiple items at the same time across multiple different rooms. It also has no vertical limit, meaning that it’s excellent for repairing and building things on a roof or in a raised area where cables and hoses might not be practical.
But Which Is The Best?
There’s no single best type of any tool, nail guns included. However, now that we’ve answered the simple question of “how does a nail gun work?” you should be able to come to conclusions on your own, especially if you’re actively looking for one to start your next project. They’re all suited to different roles and situation, but you just need to apply some common sense and patience to your search.
It helps if you break each type down to a basic description, then handle the other details later on. For example:
- Pneumatic nail guns are strong, loud, expensive, and need compressed air.
- Combustion nail guns are medium-strength, self-contained, and need to be cleaned.
- Electric nail guns are cheap, lightweight, quiet, weak, and need a power source.
Once you know which features each type has, you should think about what you need most for your project. Are you going to be firing nails through tough materials, or is it just soft plywood and thin plastics? Will you have to move into places that power cables and air compressors might not be able to fit? Are you going to be the only person using it, or will you need to give it to people who might not be experienced in using nail guns?
A large part of buying any tool – not just nail guns – is understanding your needs and how you can fill them. There really isn’t a way to explain which is the best, since it all comes down to your requirements and the kind of tasks you are expecting to take on in the future. However, now that you’re informed on how they function and their various design differences if anybody ever asks you “how does a nail gun work?” you’ll be able to answer in a way that keeps them safe and gives them an idea of what to expect.