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"Pistol" redirects here. For other uses, see Pistol (disambiguation).
Ordnance pistol of the French Navy, 19th century, using a Percussion cap mechanism
File:Deringer unknown adamsguns.jpg
Derringers were small and easily hidden.
A Walther P99 pistol disassembled.

A handgun is a firearm designed to be used in a handheld fashion. This handheld character differentiates handguns as a general class of firearms from their larger cousins, such as:

Some handgun subtypes include single-shot pistols, revolvers, semi-automatic pistols, and fully automatic, or machine pistols.

The overlapping variations in meaning of the words "pistol" and "handgun" are discussed below.

Multiple senses of the word "pistol"

The word "pistol" in laypersons' usage is often synonymous with the word "handgun". However, handgun experts make a technical distinction that views pistols as a subset of handguns. Technically, a pistol is a handgun whose chamber is integral with the barrel, while the other main type of handgun, the revolver, has a revolving chamber (that is—to speak with technical precision—a revolving cylinder containing multiple chambers).

In the 15th century the word "pistol" was used for small knives and daggers which could be concealed in a person's clothing. By the 18th century, the term came to be used exclusively to refer to handheld firearms. Practical revolver designs appeared in the 19th century, and it was in this century that the technical differentiation in usage of the words "pistol" and "revolver" developed.

Etymology of the word "pistol"

The word "pistol" is derived from the French pistole (or pistolet), which has these possible origins:-

  • From the Czech pistole and this one from the Czech píšťala (flute or pipe, referring to the shape of a Hussite firearm).
  • From the city of Pistoia, Italy, where perhaps a manufacturer was one Camillio Vettelli in the 1540s.
  • That early pistols were carried by cavalry in holsters hung from the pommel (or pistallo in medieval French) of a horse's saddle.

Types of handguns

Luger or P08 Parabellum, used by the German military

Varieties of handgun: "automatic" self-loading pistols, revolvers (including black powder revolvers), multi-barreled pistols, single-shot hunting or target pistols and finally flintlock pistols. In a pistol, the chamber, in which the cartridge is held for firing, is the rearmost portion of the barrel. Thus the term "pistol" technically excludes revolvers, although this distinction is often ignored in colloquial usage, where revolvers are commonly referred to as "pistols."


The flintlock firing mechanism dates back to the 16th century, although it was another hundred years before it was generally used in infantry muskets, by which time it had been perfected. It survived well into the 19th century and was often known as the French lock because Marin le Bourgeoys, a French gunmaker working in Paris for Henry IV's Louvre, had invented it - in about 1610. He had modified a much more complicated mechanism into a simpler one-piece mechanism. It was also called a firelock. The basic action is that the trigger is pulled and a spring causes the striker, the frizzen, to strike the flint which showers sparks on to the gunpowder in the priming pan.


Multi-Barreled pistols such as some variants of Derringer and Pepper-box pistols are still in circulation today. The Pepper-box pistol is a multishot handheld firearm, which was popular in North America around the time of the American Civil War. The pepperbox was invented in the 1830s and was meant mainly for civilian use. It spread rapidly in the United Kingdom and some parts of continental Europe. It started disappearing gradually in the 1850s with the manufacture of true revolvers by Colt, Webley and others. It was similar to the revolver since like it, it held bullets in a rotating cylinder, in separate chambers. Unlike the revolver however, each bullet had its own barrel.


Revolvers feed ammunition via the rotation of a cartridge-filled cylinder, in which each cartridge is contained in its own ignition chamber, and is sequentially brought into alignment with the weapon's barrel by a mechanism linked to the weapon's trigger (double-action) or its hammer (single-action). These nominally cylindrical chambers, usually numbering between five and ten depending on the size of the revolver and the size the cartridge being fired, are bored through the cylinder so that their axes are parallel to the cylinder's axis of rotation; thus, as the cylinder rotates, the chambers revolve about the cylinder's axis. Due to simplicity of construction and operation, revolvers are considered by some to be more reliable than semi-automatic pistols. However, revolvers can fail to function under extreme use conditions due to the build-up of metal and powder residue around the revolving cylinder.

Walther P99, a semiautomatic pistol from late 1990s

Semi-automatic pistols

Compact semiautomatic Smith & Wesson .45 ACP Chief's Special — Model CS45

Semi-automatic pistols fire one round after each pull of the trigger, without the need to manually cock the hammer. After a round is fired, the pistol will cycle, ejecting the spent casing and chambering a new round from the magazine, allowing the user to fire another shot immediately. One of the main advantages of semi-automatic pistols is that many of them can hold more rounds than a revolver. Their flat profile also tends to make them easier to conceal than revolvers. A potential disadvantage is that the traditional recoil-based operating mechanisms limit the power of available rounds. Many users, however, feel that the added ammunition capacity and faster reload times compensate for this deficiency.

Some terms that have been, or still are, used as synonyms for semi-automatic pistol are:

  • automatic pistol
  • autopistol
  • self-loading pistol
  • selfloader

Machine pistols

Micro-Uzi machine pistol

A machine pistol is generally defined as a firearm designed to be fired with one hand, and capable of fully automatic or selective fire. While there are a number of machine pistols such as the Glock 18 and later models of the Mauser C96, these are rare; the light weight, small size, and extremely rapid rates of fire of a machine pistol make them difficult to control, making the larger heavier submachine gun a better choice in cases where the small size of a machine pistol is not needed. Most machine pistols can attach a shoulder stock (the Heckler & Koch VP70 would only fire single rounds at a time unless the stock was attached); others, such as the Beretta 93R, add a forward handgrip. Either of these additions technically create a legal non-pistol under the US National Firearms Act, as pistols are by definition designed to be fired with one hand. The addition of a stock or forward handgrip is considered a design change that creates either a short-barreled rifle or any other weapon, and therefore such additions are generally only found on legal machine guns.

Operating Mechanisms

Single-action (SA) handguns have a trigger mechanism whose sole function is to drop a pre-cocked hammer to discharge a cartridge. For revolvers, the popular Colt Peacemaker of Old West fame is typically thought of. Its hammer must be manually cocked for each shot. For auto-loading pistols the Colt 1911 or Browning Hi-Power are typical examples. They must be cocked for the first shot, but subsequent shots are cocked automatically. These types of guns typically have a very light and crisp trigger pull, making for more accurate target shooting.

File:9 mm pistol.JPG
Jericho 941 F (DA), 9 mm with magazine removed

Traditional double-action (DA) handguns have a mechanism that can be either pre-cocked, like the above single-action gun, or can be fired with the gun uncocked. In this case, the gun has an additional mechanism added to the trigger that will cock the gun (and rotate the cylinder in the case of revolvers) as the trigger is pulled. Once the trigger is pulled far enough, the hammer is released and the gun fired. For autoloading pistols the self-loading mechanism will also re-cock the hammer after the first shot is fired so that subsequent shots are fired single-action. For revolvers, each shot is fired with the hammer initially uncocked unless the shooter manually cocked the gun. Popular auto pistols in this category include the Walther P38 and Beretta Model 92. These guns typically have a longer, heavier trigger pull for the first shot then light, crisp pulls for subsequent shots. Popular revolvers include the Ruger Redhawk and Smith & Wesson Model 629. These have long, heavy trigger pulls for all shots unless the revolver is manually cocked.

Double-action only (DAO) handguns do not have the ability to be cocked and is usually evidenced by a lack of either the hammer spur or the entire hammer. A typical autopistol in this category is the Ruger KP93DAO and Taurus Millennium, and a typical revolver is the Smith & Wesson Model 640 "Chief's Special". All pistols in this category have a long, heavy trigger pull for all shots.

Pre-set triggers are only on autoloading pistols. In this case the pistol mechanism is always partially cocked while being carried and during firing. The partially-cocked firing pin or striker is not cocked enough to cause an accidental release to discharge a cartridge, adding to the safeness of the design, but is cocked enough to remove much of the trigger pull and weight of a purely double-action pistol. These types of pistols do not have external hammers and do not generally have a decock function. Common pistols in the category are the Springfield Armory XD and the various forms of the extremely popular Glock. The trigger pull of these guns is between double-action and single-action pistols. Pre-set triggers may or may not have a second-strike feature on a dud cartridge.

Some automatic pistol models such as the HK Heckler & Koch USP (Universal Self-loading Pistol) come in a variety of mechanism types and can be easily changed by a gunsmith for both left- and right-handed shooters and for different operating mechanism and safety features.

Advantages of pistols

In comparison to longer guns such as shoulder weapons (rifles and shotguns), pistols are smaller, lighter, easier to conceal, and faster to bring to bear. Another important tactical consideration, in the context of civilian self-defense, is that an attacker in close quarters with the defender can more easily wrestle a shoulder weapon's muzzle to a position where it is not covering him, and can more easily wrestle the gun away from the defender, whereas a handgun offers little to grab, and is more likely to still be covering some portion of the attacker during the struggle. Finally, a pistol is actually more socially acceptable, whether carried by sworn law enforcement officers or authorized civilians (e.g. private investigators, bodyguards and concealed-weapon-permit holders) than a long gun such as a shotgun or carbine.

Disadvantages of pistols

Generally being a self-defense weapon for use under 50 metres, most handgun rounds have neither the energy nor the accuracy of a round fired from a rifle or shotgun.

Pistols and gun politics

Smaller pistols are easily concealed on a person—a trait that is particularly useful to people wishing to carry a handgun for self-protection or for criminals wishing to bear arms. Larger handguns, including many hunting pistols, are often much longer and thus less concealable. For these reasons, handguns are a particular focus of debates on gun politics, and in many jurisdictions their ownership is much more heavily regulated than long arms.

In the United States, 48 states allow some form of concealed carry by citizens meeting training or other requirements. 39 of these states, called "shall-issue" states, require issue of a permit if there is no compelling reason not to issue a permit (such as a prior felony conviction, a restraining order, or history of mental illness). Generally, in a shall issue state, if a person cannot obtain a concealed weapons permit once training requirements are met, that person also cannot lawfully own a firearm. The remaining 9 states, called "may-issue" states, may deny a permit for any reason, usually at the discretion of local law enforcement.

In the United States, a person must be 21 years of age to purchase a handgun or ammunition intended for a handgun from a Federally licensed dealer, which is higher than the age requirement of 18 for rifles and shotguns.

In the United Kingdom, civilian ownership of almost any pistol has been outlawed since the Dunblane massacre of 1996; the only exclusion were single shot rimfire and muzzleloading pistols; all cartridge firearms were later banned in 1997. Air pistols are still legal, however, those with power levels over 6 foot pounds (half the limit for air rifles) are classified as firearms.

See the main gun politics article or the article on concealed carry in particular for more details on this debate.

Other related info

In the 1780s, Alessandro Volta built a toy electric pistol ([1]) in which an electric spark caused the explosion of a mixture of air and hydrogen, firing a cork from the end of the gun.

See also

External links