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)
How I See It (Thumbs Up)
Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of pistol and revolver types. It’s just an example.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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: