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RichNH 01-30-2013 10:06 PM

Terminology question: Are Handgun and Pistol synonymous?
As someone new to the handgun side of shooting I wanted to ask to get some clarification on how terms are typically used. I'm only asking because I've seen posts here or there which seem to contradict my basic understanding of the term pistol.

Term: Handgun

This is the generic term for a firearm which is designed to be fired with one hand. (Yes I know the typical stances use both hands for stability.) This would include semi-autos, revolvers, single-shots, etc..

Term: Pistol

According to dictionary definitions (and my uneducated understanding), this is synonymous with handgun. However, I've seen more than one posting that seems to indicate the term pistol does not apply to revolvers.

So how do you all use these terms? Do you consider it incorrect to call a revolver a pistol? And if so, what about things like Derringers, are they pistols?

danf_fl 01-30-2013 10:33 PM

The BATF form 4473 has a block (29) that the LGS completes to identify the firearm as "pistol, revolver, rifle...."

We tend to go along with the meanings as on the ATF Form 4473.
Your terms, as used here, are correct.
And those handguns that do not have a cylinder are typically called "pistols".

Sniper03 01-30-2013 10:47 PM


You will probably get a number of different individual definitions and designations. But I use the following terms in the following way to specify.

A Handgun can be any of the guns that is normally shot being held and shot with solely the hands. So Pistol, Revolver, Derringer and others would fall into this General Category of Handgun for me.

Then there are Pistols (Which some have always used as I use the general term Handgun.

To Me:
A "Pistol" designation equates to a Semi-Auto Handgun
A "Revolver" designation equates to a Revolver (Cylinder) Handgun
A Single Shot designation to me equates to a Single Shot Handgun
A Derringer is a Derringer still a Handgun

That way when someone advises me about any of the above there is no doubt which one they are speaking about. If I have any doubts I will ask them. Are you speaking of a Semi Auto Pistol or a Cylinder Type Revolver so on and so on.
If they were to use the general handgun designation it could be any of the above. Some phrase it's as a general pistol term which if so who knows what type handgun they are talking about without asking for details.
This is only my way of speaking about the Handgun classifications.


30-30remchester 01-30-2013 10:53 PM

I read the definition of a pistol as a single chambered handgun such as a self loading handgun as well as a single shot. A revolver has multiple chambers. I read this description in a dictionary IIRC.

c3shooter 01-30-2013 10:54 PM

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Agree. And while from a pure LANGUAGE standpoint, revolvers can indeed be handguns, and CAN be pistols, there are separate LEGAL points for revolvers (how you measure barrel length is different).

There have been revolvers that were rifles and shotguns- so they were NOT handguns. There have been handguns with a revolving action that were not called revolvers (pepperbox, turret pistols, etc)

He who is generally considered the father of the revolver- Sam Colt- in fact called his product the "Revolving Pistol".

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JonM 01-30-2013 11:04 PM

etymology of the word pistol


pistol (n.) "small hand-held firearm," 1570s, from Middle French pistole "short firearm" (1566), of uncertain origin, sometimes said to be from German Pistole, from Czech pis'tala "firearm," lit. "tube, pipe," from pisteti "to whistle," of imitative origin, related to Russian pischal "shepherd's pipe."

But earlier English form pistolet (1550) is said to be from Middle French pistolet "a small firearm," also "a small dagger," which may be the literal sense; though some connect this word with Italian pistolese, in reference to Pistoia, town in Tuscany noted for gunsmithing. Pistol-whip (v.) is first recorded 1942

30-30remchester 01-30-2013 11:17 PM

Just checked four dictionaries. They seem to be in agreement on one thing. A pistol is defined as a handgun with a single chamber "integeral" with the barrel. Their words, not mine. It has been brought up before about Sam Colt marketing a revolving "pistol". It must be remembered when he patented these, single barreled handguns were the only handguns available, with a few rare exceptions. Im GUESSING he had not other option to call his new invention. I catch myself using the term pistol for any firearm needing just one hand to operate.

hiwall 01-31-2013 12:08 AM

C3, did you have to show a picture of the Colt Root side-hammer? Is it because you know I do not have one in my collection?

JonM 01-31-2013 12:31 AM

one thing i forgot to add. arguing over pistol vs handgun is like arguing over whether a coke is a soda or a pop...

locutus 01-31-2013 12:50 AM

All handguns are pistols and all pistols are handguns.

Semi auto pistols are pistols and revolvers are, and always have been pistols.

If Samuel Colt referred to his invention as a "revolving pistol" that should answer the question for ALL TIME.

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