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SIG Pro semi-automatic pistol

When distinguished as a subset of handguns, a pistol is a handgun with a chamber that is integral with the barrel, such as a pepperbox revolver—as opposed to a standard (single-barrel) revolver, wherein the chamber is separate from the barrel as a revolving cylinder.[1]


The pistol originates in the 16th century, when early handguns were produced in Europe. The English word was introduced in ca. 1570 from the Middle French pistolet (ca. 1550).

The etymology of the French word pistolet is unclear. It may be from a Czech word for early hand cannons, píšťala "flute", or alternatively from Italian pistolese, after Pistoia, a city renowned for Renaissance-era gunsmithing, where hand-held guns (designed to be fired from horseback) were first produced in the 1540s.[2]

The first suggestion derives the word from Czech píšťala, a type of hand-cannon used in the Hussite Wars during the 1420s. The Czech word was adopted in German as pitschale, pitschole, petsole, and variants.[3]

The second suggestion is less likely; the use of the word as a designation of a gun is not documented before 1605 in Italy, long after it was used in French and German. The Czech word is well documented since the Hussite wars in 1420s.[4]


The most common types of pistol are the single shot, revolving chamber and semi-automatic.

Single shot

Single shot handguns were mainly seen during the era of flintlock and musket weaponry where the pistol was loaded with a lead ball and fired by a percussion cap. However, as technology improved, so did the single shot pistol. New operating mechanisms were created, and due to this, they are still made today. It is the oldest type of pistol, and is often used to hunt wild game.

Multi-barreled (non-rotating)

Multi-barreled pistols were common during the same time as single shot pistols. As designers looked for ways to increase fire rates, multiple barrels were added to all guns including pistols. Some examples of multi-barreled pistols are Derringers and Duck's foot pistols.

Pepperbox revolver

The forerunner to Samuel Colt's "Revolving Gun" - the name he originally gave his invention on his 1836 patent - the pepperbox revolver, developed in the late-18th century, became a somewhat-common style of pistol by the mid-19th century, but was superseded by the lighter-weight and more-compact Colt-type (single-barrel) revolvers, in which the firing chambers rotated separately from the barrel. A modern "pepperbox" - essentially a barrel-less "mini-revolver" - can also be custom-built using standard manufactured revolver parts, but without the presence of at least a marginal-length barrel to impart spin on the bullet, as well as the barrel's rifling imparting an all-important forensic identifier, such a weapon would be of questionable legality under the United States National Firearms Act.

Harmonica pistol

Around 1850, pistols such as the Jarre harmonica gun were produced that had a sliding magazine. The sliding magazine contained pinfire cartridges or speedloaders. The magazine needed to be moved manually in many designs, hence distinguishing them from semi-automatic pistols.[5]


A model M1911A1 pistol.

The semi-automatic pistol was the next step in the development of the pistol. By avoiding multiple barrels—which need to be individually reloaded—semi-automatic pistols delivered faster rates of fire and required only a few seconds to reload (depending on the skill of the shooter). In blowback-type semi-automatics, the recoil force is used to push the slide back and eject the shell (if any) so that the magazine spring can push another round up; then as the slide returns, it chambers the round. An example of a modern blowback action semi-automatic pistol is the HK VP70.

Machine pistol

A machine pistol is an (fully) automatic pistol, mechanically similar to a semi-automatic pistol but where the trigger mechanism is designed so that it will continue to fire unless the trigger is released or the magazine is empty. Since machine pistols typically have such a high rate of fire, a larger capacity magazine or drum magazine is desirable.

Target shooting

Target shooting is common in the United States. The most common type of target shooting is bullseye shooting. The shooter uses a still target and aims for a certain point on the target. Most competitive handgun target shooting is done with a .22 or .45 caliber semi-automatic or single-shot pistol. Targets are commonly placed at a distance of 25 and 50 yd from the shooter. Another type of target shooting is silhouette shooting. Metal targets shaped as silhouettes of animals or other shapes are set up at a distance of 200 m. When the projectile hits the silhouette, the target will spin around its frame, allowing the shooter to know that they scored a hit.[6]


  1. Larry Koller (1962). The Arco gun book. Arco Pub. Co.,. Retrieved 11 January 2011. 
  2. The War Office (UK): Textbook of Small Arms (1929), page 86. H.M. Stationery Office (UK), 1929.
  3. Karel Titz (1922). Ohlasy husitského válečnictví v Evropě. Československý vědecký ústav vojenský. 
  5. Jarre harmonica pistol
  6. "Target Shooting." Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture and the Law. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003. Credo Reference. Web. 17 September 2012.

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