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How A Framing Nailer Works & How To Use One

Last Updated on May 13, 2020

A framing nailer – also known as a framing gun or a nail gun – is a quintessential power tool we all associate with construction sites.  But would you have guessed that they account for 37,000 visits to the emergency room every year?  Most of those are guys accidentally nailing themselves in the hand, but plenty of the other injuries include nails in thighs, kidneys, and even heads.  Perhaps more distressing, about 10% of the injuries are not self-inflicted, meaning people are being injured by their co-workers.  Ouch.

When used properly, though, and as their name suggests, framing nailers are most often seen in construction work, like when framing walls, and are best suited for heavy-duty tasks.  There are also specific nailers for roofing, finishing work, and flooring, among others, so one step in choosing a nail gun is knowing what you plan to do with it.

There are a lot of choices to make amongst framing nailers.  What are you looking for?

Three Types of Framing Nailers

There are three common kinds of nail gun – pneumatic, cordless with air canister, and cordless battery-powered.  The pneumatic and air canister versions work on the same general principle: compressed air is used to propel a nail out of the gun into the wood.  The battery-powered guns use electricity to shoot the nail.  What else is different?


The pneumatic nail gun is attached to and powered by a separate tank of compressed air via a hose.  The nail is shot out of the gun with a burst of the compressed air.  On the plus side, this version gives you more power and allows you to nail more quickly as a result.  On the downside, though, you have to lug the compressor around behind and you’re tethered to it, significantly cutting back on portability, convenience, and ability to work in tight spaces.  And once you empty the tank, your nailer is useless.  These are more common with professionals than hobbyists.

Cordless with air canister

This cordless nail gun gets its compressed air from a small, disposable canister and the battery is used to create a spark that sets off a tiny explosion that propels the nail out of the gun.  These give you the strength of the pneumatic without the hose and the tank, but they can be fussy to work with in the cold and require both a battery and an air canister, making them a little more high-maintenance.

Cordless battery-powered

These use just a battery to discharge the nail.  They’re slower and less powerful than the air-driven varieties, but you have no hose and no air to worry about.  For the average homeowner, these are a good place to start with a nail gun.

Two types of nail feeds

Nails will be held in your nail gun in one of two configurations – coil or strip – and the gun will hold a range of nail sizes.  The choice between the two formats is largely one of personal preference, but remember they are not interchangeable.  Once you’ve committed to a coil machine, you will always buy coiled nails to fill it.  You can tell the difference between the two types just by looking at them.


A coil style gun holds the nails in a – surprise! – coil shape, allowing you to carry more nails but resulting in a bulkier tool that won’t fit into small spaces as readily.  These tend to be a little heavier, too.


The strip or stick style carries the nails in a line or rectangle shape.  This gives the tool a more streamlined profile, so it can fit into more places but will require more frequent re-loads of nails.

Four types of discharging

Nail guns are equipped with a trigger and a safety tip and both must be engaged for the gun to fire.  By changing when you press each one, you can impact the speed and ease of discharge.  Generally speaking, the faster the gun allows you to work, the more dangerous it is, and the opposite is true as well.  Some guns can only discharge in one way, but others have adjustable settings to accommodate different projects or users.  Before operating a nail gun, be sure you understand which type you’re holding in your hands.

1 – Bump firing

Also known as contact trigger, bounce nailing or multi-shot contact trigger, bump firing is the stereotypical rapid operation of a nail gun by a professional.  You must both pull the trigger and depress the safety tip, but either can be done first and only one needs to be released to allow for a second nail to be shot.  Oftentimes users will keep the trigger pulled while picking up the gun so that all they have to do to get the next nail to shoot out is press the safety tip to the wood surface.  This method allows for the fastest nail installation, but it takes training and practice to really master it.  According to OSHA, bump firing causes more accidental discharges and injuries than any other method.  (Executive Summary of Nail Gun Safety, A Guide for Construction Contractors, )

2 – Single nail

Also known as single actuation, this method allows you to pull the trigger and depress the safety tip in any order, but you will only get one nail to fire at a time.  To shoot the next nail, you must release both and then re-engage both.  This winds up being more time-consuming but reduces the risk of accidental discharge.

3 – Full sequential

As the name sequential suggests, you must first depress the safety tip and then pull the trigger – it must happen in that order – to discharge a nail.  Next, you must release both and only then can you begin again for the next nail.   This is the slowest way to operate a nail gun but also the safest.

4 – Single sequential

In this version of the sequential gun, you must depress the safety tip first and then pull the trigger, in that order, and the gun will dispense one nail.  But in this method, you can keep the safety tip depressed and just release the trigger to make the next nail available.  This is not as safe as full sequential but certainly safer than bump firing.


Once you pick up a framing nailer, you may never again want to use a hammer.  The nail gun puts all the power right into your hand, allowing you to finish jobs in way less time and with way less effort.  Like most power tools, though, they can be dangerous when not used properly.  Find someone with experience to teach you the basics and then take it slowly, since even slow progress with a nail gun is going to be much faster than you and your hammer.  Once you understand how it works and how to use it, you’ll have a whole new arena of projects opened up to you.  Just don’t be one of those 37,000 guys who wind up in the ER!

And for a fun, unexpected look at nail gun safety, take a look at this comic book – yes, a comic book – written by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention):

About the Author Adam Harris

Hi there! My name is Adam and I write for HealthyHandyman. I have a great passion for writing about everything related to tools, home improvement, and DIY. In my spare time, I'm either fishing, playing the guitar, or spending quality time with my beloved wife. You'll also often find me in my workshop working on some new project!