What’s the Difference Between a Pistol and a Revolver?

pistols and revolvers

Don’t use “pistol” and “revolver” interchangeably when writing fiction. Pick one and stick to it. (Photo via Gun Digest)

TLDR: Pistols are handguns with one or more stationary chambers. Revolvers are handguns that use multiple rotating chambers. Don’t use them interchangeably.

Aaaaaand I can already hear my inbox filling up after posting the TLDR up top. But before you fire off a sternly worded letter through the contact form, give me a chance to explain.

Revolvers Are Not Pistols, Pistols Are Not Revolvers

A pile of novels I’ve read described the same handgun as a “pistol” in one sentence and a “revolver” in the next. I’d say this is one of the most common mistakes in written fiction, but I’d only be half right (or half wrong, if you’re already sending the hate mail).

That’s because there’s an historic usage that dictates a “pistol” is any firearm designed to be held in the hand and fired (as opposed to being shouldered, like a rifle or shotgun), and that “revolvers” are a type of pistol. Likewise, Thesaurus.com lists “revolver” and “pistol” as synonyms.

That’s not the way I see it. Writing those two terms as synonyms in a story won’t do you any favors, and might even confuse readers. Revolvers and pistols are both handguns, but they belong in different categories.

I think of these things in visual terms, so here’s what I mean.

How Some People See It (Boo)

Revolvers are Not Pistols

(Image by Benjamin Sobieck)

How I See It (Thumbs Up)

Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of pistol and revolver types. It’s just an example.

Differences Between Revolvers and Pistols

(Image by Benjamin Sobieck)

Why the Confusion? Historic vs. Common Usage

Dictionaries, thesauri and encyclopedias are correct that revolvers are a subset of pistols – if this was hundreds of years ago. In the same way that certain English words and usages are considered archaic, so too went that firearm definition over time. First came pistols, which were handguns. Then came revolvers, a type of pistol.

Colt-Single-Action-Army

The Colt Single Action Army debuted in 1873 and never went out of production. This iconic Old West gun, available most notoriously as a .45 caliber, is still a great pick for characters in fiction. (Shutterstock photo)

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that revolvers decreased in price and increased in popularity to the point where they started to shape their own category. If there was any doubt, the Colt Single-Action Army, aka the “Colt 45” or “Peacemaker,” which debuted in 1873, cemented revolvers as more than just a type of pistol. It was, for better or worse, the “Gun that Won the West.”

The Real Difference Between Pistols and Revolvers

The big difference between pistols and revolvers can be found in their respective chambers (the spot near the base of the barrel where ammunition is seated to be fired).

  • Pistols use one or more stationary chambers.
  • Revolvers use several chambers inside a cylinder that rotates.
1911 pistol chamber

The chamber on this .45 caliber Colt Model 1911 is circled. The chamber is actually located inside the firearm, so it’s not visible here. That chamber doesn’t move as the firearm is operated. Therefore, this handgun is a pistol. By the way, the Model 1911 is an excellent choice for characters in settings from 1911 through today. (Gun Digest photo)

Semi-auto pistol chamber

The stationary chamber is exposed on this semi-automatic pistol. (Shutterstock photo)

Revolver Cylinder Chambers

The five chambers in this handgun are loaded with ammunition. Those chambers sit in a cylinder, highlighted by the arrow, that rotates. This handgun is a revolver, not a pistol. (Shutterstock photo)

That difference means if you walk into a gun shop and ask to see a pistol, you probably won’t be directed to the revolvers, despite what the dictionary says. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (aka BATFE or ATF) would agree. Here’s how the ATF defines pistols:

The term “Pistol” means a weapon originally designed, made, and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand, and having:

* a chamber(s) as an integral part(s) of, or permanently aligned with, the bore(s);

* and a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand at an angle to and extending below the line of the bore(s).

And here’s how it defines a revolver:

The term “Revolver” means a projectile weapon of the pistol type, having a breechloading chambered cylinder so arranged that the cocking of the hammer or movement of the trigger rotates it and brings the next cartridge in line with the barrel for firing.

Takeaway: Don’t Use “Pistol” and “Revolver” Interchangeably in Fiction

Because the way laws are executed depends on these definitions, the ATF wouldn’t use “pistol” and “revolver” interchangeably. I’d argue the same should go for writing fiction. To me, it’s like using “car” and “truck” as synonyms. They’re not the same thing, even though there are similarities.

Decide what kind of handgun a character is using and stick to it. If you’re not sure, just write “handgun” and move on with your life.

“Revolver Pistol?”

I watched a TV crime documentary not long ago where an expert referred to a handgun as a “revolver pistol.” Not sure where that came from. It’s like saying “ass butt.” I wouldn’t recommend this term for writing fiction, although how you describe your character’s hindquarters is up to you.

Pop Quiz: Is This a Pistol or a Revolver?

This style of handgun is called a “pepperbox.” It uses four stationary barrels. This is a side view, so you’re only able to see two barrels stacked on top of each other. It’s the same on the other side. Is it a pistol or a revolver?

Pepperbox pistol

(Gun Digest photo)

It’s actually a pistol. Pistols can have multiple barrels so long as the chambers at the base of them don’t move.

The Bottom Line

Even if you disagree with me, and I’m sure there are people who do, it makes sense from a practical perspective to keep pistols and revolvers separate in fiction. If a character is using a “pistol” one minute and a “revolver” the next, then fires 15 shots, there’s going to be some confusion. Firearm history is full of exceptions, but I’d be surprised if a revolver ever held 15 rounds. A semi-automatic pistol, on the other hand, is well within reach of 15 shots.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.


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The Writers Guide to WeaponsThe Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers:

28 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between a Pistol and a Revolver?

  1. I fully agree, especially on distinguishing the pistol from the revolver, even while both are handguns! The quiz shows a revolver, much like the famous Derringer it is one without the drum or cylindrical chambers, as it seems to have only one-shot (or two, if both barrels fire one bullet).

    😉 It is a nice article, which makes it easy for newbies. Bye!

    Like

  2. The Pepperbox is a cool-looking pistol, Ben. I look forward to your posts–excellent information with a dash of humor. In fiction I’ve also used “firearm” rather than “gun,” but never “revolver” interchanged with “pistol.” Because I know you and my cop buddies would kill me. 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Good post. I knew there was a common usage difference, but had been unaware of the historical change, or how that change has been made “official.” This is good for me to know on multiple levels, as I’m considering writing a Western and now know I can use pistol and revolved interchageably there, so long as it’s not confusing.

    Liked by 2 people

        • I’d draw the line at 1873 as when revolvers became their own category of handguns. But you’re close enough that people probably called them pistols still. Just don’t call them pomegranate toupees, it’ll be fine.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’m thinking I may split the difference. Older guys–and I plan to have a few–may call them pistols, since that’s the term they learned as young men. Younger guys won’t. That can also be a nice way to help keep the characters separate in the readers’ minds.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Bill J.
            May I ask why you say 1873? There were percussion revolvers around since the 1840 ie, Colt Patterson and later the 1851, 1860, 1861 and 1862 Colt models. The percussion revolvers were made by Colt, Remington, Savage, Starr, etc. Many carried the percussion revolver even after the self contained cartridge was patented and made…

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  4. Wonderful article, Ben. I was a combat Marine during the Vietnam War. Our squad leaders, corpsmen, and most officers carried the M1911 semi-auto. There were a few jamming issues, but not nearly as many as our early issue M16s. We had the old ones with the open flash suppressor (three-pronged). They would snag in brush, but the worst part was jamming. Often it was like having a single shot weapon. Those things caused a lot of hurt among the grunt units. We got blamed for not keeping them cleaned, but that wasn’t the real problem. We were ALWAYS cleaning the damn things. I hear now they are reliable, but I wish I would’ve had the old reliable M14.
    Thanks again for an informative post, and I agree, Sue Coletta has a great site!
    –Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It seems that I am a little late to the party, but I see that one or two are still lingering, so I’ll add my two cents.

    I have to respectfully disagree with the author. I submit that it is entirely appropriate to use “Pistol” and “Revolver ” interchangeably. Although, I will agree that writing a character who fires 15 shots from a revolver, without reloading, is a bad idea.

    Sam Colt originally marketed his revolver as a type of pistol, Webster’s 1913 dictionary references a revolver in its definition of pistol, and references a pistol when defining the revolver. As noted, more modern reference books do the same, or similar.

    As one who appreciates firearms in general, I can tell you that many shooting enthusiasts still regard the revolver as a type of pistol. (Although, there are those that don’t, as well)

    More important, in my opinion, would be to give your character a specific weapon. For example, a Ruger Security Six, with a 4″ inch barrel, and a blued finish. And research the thing, before you write about it! If I were to have my character “rack the slide” on that Security Six, I’d come off as a dunce, as the Security Six, being a revolver, has no slide.

    Actually, depending on the length of the scene being written, and how big a presence the weapon may have within it, using the two words, Pistol and Revolver, interchangeably may add a bit of color, or texture, to the scene.

    Like

  6. Good info – writers take note if you want to be taken seriously. A very senior UK Police Officer recently described in a TV statement that a victim had been shot and killed with a semi-automatic revolver. Terrible…..likened to describing a getaway car as being a four wheel drive 3 wheeler!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for going over the differences between a revolver and a pistol. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know that the chamber is where the biggest difference is, and that pistols usually have one stationary chambers while revolvers use several. Honestly, it would be interesting to learn more about the development of these guns, especially over the years. I think it would be cool to see them being made, and all the different parts that are inside of them, besides the ones we generally see.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The distinction you make between
    pistols and revolvers is very clear
    and makes complete sense. If the chamber in a handgun ‘revolves’, it’s a revolver, if it doesn’t, it’s a pistol.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A senior police officer was a guest speaker on a famous UK crime programme. He described a gun murderer as being armed with a semi-auto revolver. The UK has little gun savvy, even the police…….Apparently this gunman got away in a four wheel drive three wheeler!

    Like

  10. An editorial suggestion: The picture of the Colt 1911 in battery would be better if it were of the right-hand side. Then you could point to the [outside of] the actual chamber. Related: The next picture, of the pistol “in recoil”, shows the cavity behind the chamber and above the magazine, not the chamber.

    There is such a thing as a semiautomatic revolver. Many experiments have been tried. (I seem to recall one that was even select-fire, but I can’t find evidence.) The Webley-Fosbery was a “personal choice” sidearm for British officers in the early 20th Century. In modern times, Mateba has made them in several calibers, but those are extremely expensive “prestige” weapons. That said, such are not at all likely to be found in the hands of a random common criminal.

    Like

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