Rack and pinion combinations are often used as part of a simple linear actuator, where the rotation of a shaft powered by hand or by a motor is converted to linear motion.

A rack is a toothed bar or rod that can be thought of as a sector gear with an infinitely large radius of curvature. Torque can be converted to linear force by meshing a rack with a pinion: the pinion turns; the rack moves in a straight line. Such a mechanism is used in automobiles to convert the rotation of the steering wheel into the left-to-right motion of the tie rod.

Racks also feature in the theory of gear geometry, where, for instance, the tooth shape of an interchangeable set of gears may be specified for the rack (infinite radius), and the tooth shapes for gears of particular actual radii are then derived from that. The rack and pinion gear type is employed in a rack railway.

The rack carries the full load of the actuator directly and so the driving pinion is usually small, so that the gear ratio reduces the torque required. This force, thus torque, may still be substantial and so it is common for there to be a reduction gear immediately before this by either a gear or worm gear reduction. Rack gears have a higher ratio, thus require a greater driving torque, than screw actuators.