Handgun History

What differentiates handguns from other firearms is the fact that they are designed to be held in the hand when used - hence the name, handgun. There are several different types of handguns, including single-shot pistols, revolvers, semi-automatic pistols, pepperboxes and machine pistols.

Is There a Difference Between a Handgun and a Pistol?

When we think of handguns, we most frequently associate the word pistol, although some handgun experts determine that pistols are actually a subset of handguns. In American usage, a pistol is considered to refer to a handgun whose chamber is integral with the barrel, making it distinct from the revolver which has a revolving cylinder with multiple chambers. Commonwealth usage, on the other hand, does not make a distinction between pistols and handguns and therefore includes revolvers, semi-automatics, or muzzle-loading/cap & ball handguns.

Early History of Pistols

History has indicated that the first pistols were made as early as the 15th century, however, little is known about the creator of these firearms. By the time the 18th century rolled around, the term pistol referred to handheld firearms. The 19th century saw the rise of practical revolver designs and it was then that the differentiation between pistol and revolver came into being.

Single-Shot Handguns

There are many different types of handguns which, in turn, can be subdivided into categories. As we look back in history, we will be able to see how the handgun evolved and developed over the centuries. The earliest handguns were single-shot, muzzle-loading guns with ignition provided by inserting a smoldering match cord into a touch hole. What they amounted to was mini-cannons which could be held in your hand. More than a little dangerous, to be sure.

Firing Mechanisms

As time progressed, so did design and features. Improvements made in following centuries brought the invention of a variety of locks (ignition devices.) They went from the matchlock to the flintlock - which held its position as the state-of-the-art firing mechanism for firearms all the way to the modern integrated-primer cartridges and hammers. Single shot pistols are still around today and continue to be used for handgun hunting of both small and big game.

The Revolver Arrives on the Scene

The 19th century saw the development of the revolver, as gunsmiths refined their work to allow for multiple load delivery from one handgun barrel in quick succession. Revolvers are called by this name because of the ammunition is fed by the rotation of a cartridge-filled cylinder in which each cartridge is held in its own ignition chamber. The cartridge is brought into line with the barrel by the weapon's trigger or its hammer. The automatic revolver combines the conventional idea of the revolving chamber with the recoil-harnessing, self-cycling ability of the semi-automatic pistol.

Semi-Automatic Pistols and Machine Pistols

Handgun's history moved forward with the development of the semi-automatic pistol which utilizes the energy of one shot to reload the chamber for the next. The recoil energy is either mechanically or, in the case of large calibers, gas operated. After firing a round, the handgun will cycle, eject the spent casing and chamber a new round from the magazine, allowing for immediate refiring.

A machine pistol is defined as a firearm which is designed to be fired with one hand and that is capable of either fully automatic or selective firing. Machine pistols are quite rare, but are being manufactured by Glock (Glock 18) and Mauser (Mauser C960.) Light weight and small in size, the extremely rapid rates of fire make them very difficult to control.