rating: 0+x

"About the time that Daddy left to fight the big war
I saw my first pistol in the general store
In the general store, when I was thirteen
Thought it was the finest thing I ever had seen
So l asked if I could have one someday when I grew up
Mama dropped a dozen eggs, she really blew up
She really blew up and I didn't understand
Mama said the pistol is the devil's right hand"

Steve Earle. The Devil's Right Hand

Basic Information

A pistol is a firearm designed to be held and fired with one hand1 - from the ancestral single shot smooth bore muzzle loading designs to the modern polymer framed selective fire self loader the principle of a (comparatively) small, light weapon to be fired with one hand has remained the same. Ancestral pistols appear to have been developed for the use of cavalrymen, giving them a firearm that they could use one handed and still have a hand free to operate their horse.

Pistols normally fire a single, solid round per discharge although some - e.g. howdah pistols - fire a charge of multiple shot instead. Pistol ammunition tends to be large calibre and lower velocity than rifle ammunition, but it's not unknown for pistols to be built to fire rifle rounds … sometimes more out of perverse ingenuity than any real inspiration to create a sensible weapon.
Common contemporary pistol rounds include .45ACP, 9mm Parabellum, 7.62x25mmWARPAC and .38 Special, but there are thousands more.

Pistols tend to be built more for ease of carrying and use than they are for range, accuracy or firepower - their low mass and short barrels tend to mean that they require a higher standard of marksmanship to use effectively than longarms do; a fact very rarely appreciated by script writers and military arsenals alike.

The first pistols were single shot matchlock muzzle loaders, modelled directly on the muskets of their day - usually sturdily built since their short range and long reload time meant that the user rarely had time for more than one shot and could then be forced to spin the weapon around and use it as a club. Serious devotees of the pistol were known to go into action covered in them - Edward Teach2 was normally found carrying at least six such.
Eventually people got tired of carrying burning slow-match around with them and invented different systems of firing - wheellock, flintlock and, eventually, caplock all improved the ease and reliability of firing but did virtually nothing to improve the rate of fire.

The first solution to the rate of fire problem was the 'Pepperbox' pistol - multiple loaded barrels on a single grip and trigger. This wasn't really practicable until the invention of the percussion cap since previous systems required the use of loose gunpowder in their priming locks, which took up a lot of space and hand a tendency to fall out. The pepperbox concept wasn't much of an improvement - the extra barrels were heavy and all too many designs fired all of the barrels at once (even if they were meant to fire only one at a time) at great risk to the user's arm. The pepperbox idea is now being re-born to some degree in the MetalStorm Concept, but this has yet to become a widespread way of doing things.

The next solution was to restrict the part of the barrel you duplicated to being the breech end - the bit that actually held the powder and shot - it was found best to cast or drill these multiple breeches into a single cylinder of metal and marrying this to a mechanism to bring them into line with the rest of the barrel created the revolver.

The revolver presided over the transition from cap-and-ball loading to the metal cartridge and with the new paradigm in ammunition came a new concept in ammunition supply. These new pistols, inspired by magazine fed long arms were the self loaders - firing a round caused the pistol to re-cock itself, draw a new round from its magazine and chamber it. These weapons first appeared around 1900 and were a dramatic leap forwards, reducing re-loading time to a few seconds. In time this action would be refined to the point were a pistol could be fired fully automatically, but in practice these weapons tend to be largely uncontrollable unless they are made large and heavy enough to be practically a submachinegun anyway.

Pistol ammunition is also used in submachineguns and in some of the weapons termed carbines.

In modern usage handgun and sidearm are synonyms for pistol, although they have previously had other meanings. Likewise hand-cannon - itself a specific type of firearm - is also used as a slang term for large calibre and/or high powered pistols.

Pistol Types:

General categories of pistol:

Specific rare pistols:


Game and Story Use

  • Many RPGs and video games assume that pistols are as easy, if not easier to use than longarms and assign them to 'noncombatant' classes, ironically much in the same way that many militaries do. As noted above, this involves incorrect assumptions. Pistols are not automatically easier to use than rifles.
  • Pistols are a popular concealed weapon. They're small and relatively light, but still very lethal. It's pretty easy to work a hidden pistol into a scenario. For this reason, many criminals and spies carry them.
    • They're also less encumbering than a larger weapon, and not quite so intimidating. That's one reason why, in many jurisdictions, police carry a pistol, but keep a shotgun in the trunk.
  • Pistols work relatively well in close quarters, at least compared to longer and heavier guns. That's part of why they are used as sidearms by many militaries. A lot of RPGs, of course, don't make this distinction, and instead draw a very stark line between melee and ranged combat. Curiously enough, some games apply penalties for shooting a gun in melee, while other games go the opposite direction and make point blank shots much more likely to hit. Typically this distinction is intended based on the level of abstraction in the combat system. Some games defines a combat round or turn as just a second or two, and/or track exact positioning of all combatants. These systems tend to feature rules for point-blank or for wrestling over a gun. Other games say a combat round is a much longer - as much as a minute in some systems - and don't rely on miniatures at all or feature very abstract positioning. These tend to ignore such situational modifiers, or leave them up to GM intuition. The distinctions are all about play style, and I've seen plenty of cases where a GM ran detailed combat in an intended-to-be-abstract system or vice-versa. So there's a fair amount of wiggle room here for a GM seeking to customize their game via house rules. If you intend to rely heavily on guns (especially pistols), and the system is a crunchy one, it might be worth your time looking up how your chosen system (or GM) handles these things, so that your weapon of choice will perform as expected.
    • Examples: Savage Worlds makes point blank shots super easy, and has rules for getting the drop on someone. Some d20 system variants give an attack bonus up close with pistols, but the core rules penalize ranged combat against adjacent opponents. Gumshoe system has rules for the classic TV and movie situation where two people wrestle over a single gun - and then a shot rings out. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Ed assumes you can always back away from the enemy and get a clean shot, but gives no bonuses for it. Etc. Different systems promote different play styles.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License