Pistol, a firearm designed to be aimed and fired while held in one hand. It is primarily a weapon of self-defense. It is used by law-enforcement officers, by guards and watchmen, and as an auxiliary or emergency-weapon, by members of the armed services.
The pistol is effective only at short ranges, mainly because of the difficulty of holding it on target, but also because the short barrel decreases the effect of rifling and the accuracy of sighting. The pistol is most useful at 25 yards (23 m) and under, although target shooting is done at 50 yards (46 m).
A pistol is fired by applying pressure to the trigger. The trigger releases a spring-driven hammer from a cocked position. The hammer, or a firing pin hit by the hammer, strikes the primer in the cartridge. The primer explodes and ignites the powder, which produces gases that propel the bullet through the barrel of the gun.
There are three main types of pistols: single-shot, revolver, and automatic. Single-shot pistols must be reloaded after each shot. These pistols are often used for target shooting and training.
A revolver has a cylinder with several chambers, usually six, for cartridges. The cylinder revolves on an axis so that the cartridges can be discharged successively through the same barrel. In a single-action revolver, the hammer is cocked by hand, usually with the thumb. Cocking the hammer revolves the cylinder, bringing a new cartridge into position to be fired. In a double-action revolver, a pull on the trigger revolves the cylinder, cocks the hammer, and releases it to fire. This action requires a strong pull on the trigger and may disturb the aim; for accurate shooting, therefore, many shooters prefer to cock the hammer by hand. Most modern revolvers are of the double-action type.
Automatic pistols are so designated for their automatic loading mechanism, but they are technically semiautomatic in terms of their firing mechanism. They do not fire continuously, but fire one shot each time the trigger is pulled. Automatic pistols, therefore, are sometimes called semiautomatics to distinguish them from weapons that fire at full automatic.
Automatic pistols have only one chamber. In a typical automatic pistol, the cartridges are held in a magazine, or clip, that fits into the handgrip. A moving part called a slide fits around the barrel and can move back and forth along it. When the slide is moved forward, it carries a cartridge from the magazine to the chamber. When the slide is moved backward, it ejects the empty cartridge case from the chamber and cocks the hammer. The first cartridge is loaded into the chamber by pulling the slide backward manually and releasing it. A spring pulls the slide forward. Thereafter, the recoil produced in firing the gun drives the slide backward automatically after each shot.
Target shooting with pistols is a sport requiring a high degree of skill. Frequent target practice is a necessity for police officers and others who are armed with these weapons because they can be used effectively only after careful training. Most target pistols are of small caliber, such as .22 (5.6 mm).
According to a questionable tradition, the word pistol is derived from Pistoia, Italy, where it was supposedly invented in 1540 by Camenelleo Vitelli. The invention of the wheel lock made the pistol possible, because it was the first ignition system that could be applied to a hand weapon. (
The United States army used French-made pistols during the American Revolution. In 1799, however, it contracted with Simeon North of Berlin, Connecticut, for 500 flintlock pistols of .69 caliber (17.5 mm). His firm made many more pistols for the army through the Mexican War. In 1805 the first government-made pistols were produced in .54 caliber (13.7 mm) at Harpers Ferry Arsenal. In 1842 Springfield Armory made the army's first percussion-lock pistols.
Henry Deringer gave his name to a small, flat, pocket pistol (usually spelled derringer). A model with two barrels, “over and under,” was long popular. Many other attempts were made to develop a repeating pistol. Those with a number of revolving barrels were popularly called “pepperboxes.” The first successful revolver was invented by Samuel Colt in 1836. In 1847 he designed an improved model with six chambers (the “six-shooter"), great numbers of which were used in the Civil War. The Smith & Wesson (named for Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson) was the first revolver to use the metallic cartridge. Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers were the leading handguns of the latter half of the 19th century.
In 1898, Hugo Borchardt, a naturalized United States citizen, and Georg Luger of Austria developed an automatic pistol that was adopted by the German army in 1908 and was known as the Luger, or Parabelum. In 1911, the U.S. Army adopted the Colt Automatic Pistol, caliber .45 (11.4 mm), invented by John M. Browning in 1897. The Colt .45 was replaced as the standard United States military pistol in 1985 by a 9-mm Beretta automatic pistol.