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.
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.
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)
The stationary chamber is exposed on this semi-automatic 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.