As the name implies, a handgun refers to a gun that you can fire with one hand. While they certainly can be lethal, handguns are far less powerful than their larger siblings, rifles and shotguns. The advantage is portability and convenience: you can carry a handgun around much more easily than a ten-pound rifle or shotgun.
“Handgun” is actually a catch-all term for an entire category of firearms. Here, we’ll focus on the two most common ones, pistols and revolvers. You might also hear of other types of handguns like derringers or single-shot handguns, but those are specialty guns, and topics are for another day.
TYPES OF HANDGUNS
Pistol: A pistol is defined as a handgun in which the chamber is integral with the barrel. In plain English, this means that a pistol has one tube that holds the unfired cartridge in place until it’s fired. This tube has two primary areas, the back, known as the chamber, and the front, which is the barrel. The chamber is machined to the exact shape of the specific type of cartridge the pistol is intended to fire, so that cartridge fits perfectly in place. When the handgun fires, the bullet separates from the cartridge case, exits the chamber, and travels down the barrel. The empty case automatically ejects from the chamber, and a new cartridge automatically takes its place.
Those new cartridges are stored in the magazine, which is a spring-loaded container that fits inside the grip. Reloading a pistol is easy: You simply eject the empty magazine and slide a new one into place. Another benefit to magazine-fed pistol designs is cartridge capacity. It’s not unusual for a pistol to hold as many as 15 or more cartridges.
A pistol is semi-automatic, meaning that it fires one shot each time the shooter presses the trigger. The “automatic” part simply refers to the fact that some of the energy of the firing cartridge is used to unload the spent (and now empty) cartridge case, reload a fresh cartridge, and cock the hammer for the next shot. If you thought in terms of “automatic-loading” instead of “semi-automatic,” you would be pretty accurate in describing the operation. (As a matter of fact, some semi-automatic long guns are referred to as “autoloaders,” which means the exact same thing.)
Pick a pistol if: You want you are comfortable with learning a slightly complex operation. Pistols have controls for functions such as releasing the magazine, opening the slide, and disassembly. The slide is the part that covers the barrel. It’s designed to move back and forth during the firing sequence. The backward movement pulls the spent cartridge case out of the chamber and ejects it. After it travels all the way back, a recoil spring pushes it forward. During this movement, the slide scrapes a new cartridge from the magazine and pushes it into the chamber. The slide is the differentiating component that makes a pistol semi-automatic. Also, consider a pistol if you want high capacity and ease of reloading. While not always true, pistols are usually “thinner” as they do not have a cylinder to store cartridges like a revolver does. Let’s talk about that next.
Revolver: A revolver, on the other, well, hand, is a handgun on which the chamber and barrel are separate parts. The cylinder is a big round hunk of steel that contains individual chambers for each cartridge. During the firing sequence, the cylinder rotates for each shot, allowing each chamber to line up with the barrel in preparation to fire. Both revolvers and pistols can hold multiple cartridges. The difference is that a pistol loads each new cartridge into the same chamber, while a revolver already has a cartridge in each of multiple chambers.