Although there are countless handgun models and variants, most of them fall into three types of handguns: Pistols, revolvers, and derringers. Some may use these terms interchangeably, but each handgun type has its own characteristics.
Understanding the different types of handguns: Revolvers vs. pistols vs. derringers can help you find the best weapon for your needs, whether for concealed carry, self-defense, or competition shooting.
What is a Revolver?
A revolver is a handgun capable of holding multiple rounds of ammunition in a purpose-built revolving cylinder. A revolver’s capacity is determined by the number of chambers in the cylinder, one for each cartridge.
Although the exact number of chambers may vary depending on the revolver’s make, model, and caliber, the most common number is 6, leading to the popular colloquialism: Six-shooter.
Types of revolvers
Although revolvers are available in various chamberings, barrel lengths, sizes, and even cylinder capacities, they are typically subcategorized depending on their action (the way their operating mechanism works).
There are three revolver subcategories: Single action vs double action vs double/single action (DA/SA).
A single action revolver requires the shooter to manually pull the hammer back (cocking) before pulling the trigger (firing).
A double action revolver uses a mechanical linkage allowing the shooter to cock the hammer and fire simply by pulling the trigger. The trigger pull is longer and heavier because it first has to pull the hammer down then release it to fire.
A DA/SA revolver allows the shooter to use either mode at their convenience. If the shooter doesn’t manually pull the hammer back first (like with a single action), pulling the trigger will both cock and fire (like with a double action).
Some revolvers are double action only (DAO) and do not feature an external hammer, making it impossible to manually cock the hammer.
What is a mini revolver?
Although it sounds like the name for a category of small, concealable revolvers, in reality, the term “Mini Revolver” comes from the name of a family of products by North American Arms. (NAA).
NAA Mini Revolvers are ultra-compact, short-barreled, single action revolvers typically chambered in small rimfire cartridges, such as .22 Long Rifle or .22 Magnum. Though other manufacturers (most notably Charter Arms) have since produced similar handguns, the term Mini Revolver remains an NAA trademark.
What is a Pistol?
A pistol is a handgun with a single chamber per barrel and where the chamber and barrel form a single piece. Although many shooters often use the term “pistol” as an interchangeable synonym for handgun (meaning it is used to describe handguns that are not pistols, such as revolvers and derringers), this is a technically incorrect usage.
Types of pistols
Since the pistol’s inception in the 16th century, different action types have been invented and developed. Obsolete pistol actions include the lever-action pistol (e.g., Volcanic pistol) and the Harmonica gun.
The vast majority of pistols today are semi-automatic. Rarer but still produced actions include the single-shot and the machine pistol.
A semi-automatic pistol is a repeating (holds multiple rounds) pistol capable of automatically extracting a spent casing and chambering the next round after each shot. It may also be known as a semi-auto, self-loading, or autoloading pistol. In the past, the term “automatic pistol” referred to this type of pistol but now describes machine pistols.
A single-shot pistol has no mechanism for holding additional rounds, extracting casings, or chambering cartridges. It is the simplest type of firearm, consisting of a barrel, hammer, trigger, firing pin, and simple mechanisms connecting these elements. These pistols are often used for competition shooting.
A machine pistol is similar to a semi-automatic pistol but capable of fully-automatic fire (can shoot multiple rounds per trigger pull). They may also be known as automatic pistols. Due to legislation surrounding machine guns, machine pistols are rare and typically only available to military and law enforcement personnel.
Size classes of pistols
Besides the action, pistols today are often categorized by size groups. A pistol’s size group is most relevant for concealed carrying, as it helps give shooters a general idea of how small and easy to conceal a particular gun can be.
Although definitions may vary, the most commonly accepted size groups, from largest to smallest, are full-size, Compact, Subcompact, Pocket. However, many pistols may straddle the line between these definitions.
A full-size pistol typically features a barrel length of at least 4” and a sufficiently large grip to comfortably fit the shooter’s hand, even without a magazine inserted. Although they are not impossible to conceal, most full-size pistols are intended to be carried openly for combat, law enforcement, or general self-defense.
A compact pistol (or midsize pistol) typically features a barrel length ranging between 3.5” and 4.5” and a shorter grip than that of a full-size, while still providing the shooter’s hand with a full-handed grip. They offer a compromise between the comfort and capacity of a full-size and the concealability of smaller pistols.
A subcompact pistol typically features an even shorter barrel than a compact (3.5” or less). The subcompact’s dimensions typically sacrifice grip height and thickness in favor of concealability, making them challenging to grip fully, even with a magazine inserted. This size class is generally the smallest that still features standard pistol chamberings (e.g., 9x19mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP).
A pocket pistol (sometimes also known as a mouse gun) usually features a barrel length rarely exceeding 3” and chamberings smaller than .380 ACP. Due to their diminutive dimensions, most shooters cannot get a full-handed grip even with an inserted magazine. However, they are, by far, the easiest to conceal, and with dedicated target practice, they can become an excellent addition to your everyday carry.
What is a Derringer?
A derringer is a specific type of handgun descended from the Philadelphia Deringer, invented by American gunsmith Henry Deringer in 1825 and used by John Wilkes Booth in 1865 to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Following a misspelling in the press coverage of the events, the name “Deringer” lost its capitalization and became the generic term “derringer.”
Although derringers are typically short and compact handguns (like pocket pistols and Mini Revolvers), they lack a revolving cylinder or an autoloading mechanism in favor of one or multiple barrels.
Modern derringer guns are typically single or double-barreled firearms, similar in operating principle to a single-shot pistol. Some models feature more than 2 barrels. A notable example is the COP 357, a quadruple-barreled derringer capable of accepting up to 4 rounds of either .357 Magnum or .38 Special.
Derringers are available in a wide range of chamberings, from .22 Short to .45-70 Government, including Magnum-caliber cartridges, shotgun shells (.410), and even rifle-caliber cartridges (e.g., the Heizer Defense PAK1 is chambered in 7.62x39mm, same as the AK-47).
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