How does a nail gun work?

If you are always working on woodwork projects or in a team at a construction company, you have undoubtedly come across a nail gun. Either you own a pneumatic nail gun, a combustion-powered nail gun or an electric nail gun. While appreciating all the work done thanks to the nail gun, you might have wondered how the nail gun works its magic.

So, how does a nail gun work? Nailing this question down boils down to either its firing mechanism or its intended purpose. It is important to know how a nail gun works so you can operate it efficiently and safely.

Nail Loading Mechanism

Nail guns are typically loaded with a long strip of nails that are lightly glued together. You will take this strip of nails and load it into the nail gun through the magazine. At the end of the magazine, there is a barrel from which you shoot the nails. The nails are pushed into the barrel by a spring at the base of the magazine.

Depending on the type of nail gun you are using, your nails will be fired through two different firing sources.

  1. Using a hammer forcefully driven down each nail at the barrel, firing them out at high speed and pressure.
  2. Through a powerful spring that, when released, hits the hammer that forcefully fires a nail through the nail gun barrel.

Once the nail has been driven out of the barrel and into the material you are fastening, the glue that was used to secure the nails together on the nail strip secures it into position. Glue melting comes about as a result of intense friction created as the nail pierces the material.

How Does a Nail Gun Work?

Now that you have familiarized yourself with the different types of nail guns available at the market, as well as the nail loading mechanism, we can dive deeper into how nail guns work. We will look into the working mechanisms of the following types of nail guns:

  1. Pneumatic Nail Gun
  2. Combustion Powered Nail Gun
  3. Electric Nail Gun.

After this in-depth explanations, choosing the right nail gun for the right kind of job will come naturally to you.

1. Pneumatic Nail Gun

How does a nail gun work Pneumatic Nail GunThese types of nail guns are powered by compressed air. To use this type of nail gun, you will need an air hose and compressor, which you will connect to your nail gun. The compressed air from the compressor is what will drive down the hammer onto the nails at the barrel.

Before the compressed air is released, there is a safety mechanism you will have to surpass. Pneumatic nail guns use the trigger valve mechanism for powering. The valve blocks the compressed air from entering the chamber. In addition to that, the nail gun will not fire unless the plunger is pressed onto the material you wish to fasten.

Pulling the trigger releases the valve allowing compressed air to flow into the chamber. Inside this chamber is another plunger and the hammer that is attached to a blade. Before the compressed air can reach the hammer, you must depress the plunger onto your material. Once you do this, the compressed air lifts the plunger and acts on the hammer. The compressed air creates enough force to drive the hammer down, firing the nail through the barrel and into your material.

Attached to the hammer is a blade. The blade separates the nail being fired from other nails on the nail strip as the hammer is forced down. The blade makes sure that only one nail is fired with one shot of the nail gun.

2. Combustion Powered Nail Guns

How does a nail gun work Combustion Nail GunsSo, how does this nail gun work? You can take a good guess, judging by the name of this nail gun. The combustion powered nail guns rely on internal combustion to create enough pressure for driving the hammer. Instead of having a plunger above the hammer, the combustion powered nail gun has a combustion chamber.

The combustion chamber is supplied with a gas through a canister. To create combustion within the chamber, a battery is used to provide a momentary electric spark. Your nail gun could also be connected to a power outlet instead. Pulling the trigger releases the electric spark into the chamber causing a combustion to take place.

The combustion increases the pressure acting above the hammer, forcing it down and driving the nail into your material. There is also a blade attached to the hammer of the combustion powered nail gun too, with a similar function as explained above. Basically, the blade makes sure that one nail is fired during one shot of the nail gun.

Before the combustion powered nail gun can shoot, the muzzle must be pressed onto the material you are fastening. This acts as a safety mechanism, above all else. Care must be taken when handling these types of power tools.

3. Electric Powered Nail Guns

How does a nail gun work Electric Nail GunsCompared to the two previous nail guns, electric nail guns are the simplest in design and function. Whereas other types of nail guns use the explosive force of combustion or the high-pressure compressed air to drive nails, the electric nail gun utilizes a powerful spring.

We can answer the question of how a nail gun works, focusing on electric nail guns. The electric nail gun consists of a rotating motor that holds back a powerful spring. When the trigger is pulled, and the muzzle is pressed firmly on the material being fastened, the spring is released, driving forward a hammer with enough kinetic force to launch a nail.

Electric powered nail guns are light in weight, so they will not put so much strain on you when using them. However, they are not as powerful as the pneumatic or the combustion powered nail guns in their firing. This limits electric guns to lighter projects such as securing trimmings.

The question, how does a nail gun work, has been answered in full. Now that we understand the working mechanisms of nail guns, we can shed some light on each nail gun’s pros and cons.

 * See Video How does a nail gun work:

Pros and Cons of Nail Gun Types

Distinguishing between advantages and disadvantages of nail gun types pivots mostly towards project needs and simple user preference.

Pneumatic Nail Gun

The pneumatic nail gun is a professional’s favorite type of nail gun. This could be due to the heavy tasks that can be accomplished in a fraction of the time with their help, such as framing walls. Pneumatic nail guns are capable of loading nails of more than three and a half inches in length too.

However, pneumatic nail guns are more expensive compared to the other two nail gun types. This is because they need a compressor and an air hose to function. The firing sound made by pneumatic nail guns is much louder compared to an electric nail gun, forcing users to budget for ear muffs.

Combustion Powered Nail Gun

The combustion powered nail guns offer as much functionality as their pneumatic counterparts, although without the need for extra components. You can load your combustion powered nail gun with nails of over three and a quarter inches in length, enabling you to carry out framing jobs with ease.

On the downside, combustion powered nail guns require frequent cleaning. This is as a result of poor combustion, especially when operated during cold seasons. However, as much as cleaning of the nail gun goes, combustion powered nail guns are the way to go.

Electric Nail Guns

These are the latest type of engineered nail guns present in the market. They come with some advantages. Electric nail guns fire quietly, something the pneumatic and combustion powered nail guns are not capable of. They are also cheaper, compared to the pneumatic nail guns. Electric nail guns can be used in tight spaces as well, especially if your nail gun is battery powered. They are also very light in weight.

Electric nail guns, however, can only be used on light projects and firing into softer wood. Using an electric nail gun on harder wood could force you to follow through with a hammer.

Nail Guns by Project Type

Another way of understanding how nail guns work is through their project type. Each type of nail gun can be classified according to the task they are designed to do. At this juncture, we have six different types of nail guns:

  1. Roofing nail gun
  2. Pin Nail Gun
  3. Framing Nail Gun
  4. Brad Nail Gun
  5. Narrow Crown Stapler
  6. Finish Nail Gun
1. Roofing Nail Gun

These type of nail gun is ideal for fastening shingles and underlayment on your roof. They can carry nails of lengths between 0.75 inches to 1.75 inches.

2. Pin Nail Gun

The pin nail gun is especially useful for securing small moldings or fixing furniture pieces. In general, the pin nail gun is best used for small projects. The pin nail gun can drive its thin nails into small moldings without splitting the wood. They can be loaded with nails of up to 1.5 inches in length.

3. Framing Nail Gun

This is a stronger kind of nail gun that you can efficiently work with while setting up a fence around your house of framing up a wall in that house you are building. Such high powered nails can fire nails of up to 3.5 inches in length.

4. Brad Nail Gun

The Brad Nailer is the best nail gun when it comes to fastening small trim or securing fine craft pieces together. Just like the pin nail gun, brad nailers fire very narrow Brads into wood without splitting the wood along the wood grain. Brad nail guns can be loaded with Brads of lengths between 0.625 inches to 2 inches.

5. Narrow Crown Stapler

This kind of nail gun is best suited for projects involving upholstery, random craft projects or fastening the floor underlayment before laying out new flooring. Narrow Crown staplers can carry staples of between 0.625 inches to 1.5 inches in length.

6. Finish Nail Gun

As the name suggests, the finish nail gun is best for tackling the finishing touches on projects such as fastening crowns, paneling as well as securing trimmings. You can load your finish nail gun with nails of up to 2.5 inches in length.


How does a nail gun work? It is pretty simple. Just understand the firing mechanism behind your nail gun, and the rest is history. If thinking about firing mechanisms is too much for you, classifying your nail gun by the work it does is another way of understanding how nail guns work.

Understanding the pros and cons of each type of nail gun makes you better equipped to choose the nail gun that best works for you. Do not forget about the nail loading mechanism either, understand the power behind each nail you fire.

Now, all there is left to say is, happy nailing!

How does a nail gun work?
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  1. This helped me so much with an engineering pneumatics project. Thank you!

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