Pistol Vs Handgun – What Is The Difference?

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Pistols and handguns are the same, right? Well, no. While there is a bit of an overlap between the terms, they are completely separate definitions. There are differences between pistols and handguns.

Don’t worry. You will find out everything that you need to know about those differences on this page.

Pistol Vs Handgun

Difference Between A Handgun And A Pistol

What Is a Handgun?

Let’s start with the definition of a handgun. Luckily, this is a word that pretty much describes itself.

A handgun is any gun that can be held in your hand. More specifically, it is any gun that has been designed to be aimed and fired while being gripped with a single hand.

It is basically a category of gun and can cover the following (not an exhaustive list):

  • Pistols
  • Revolvers
  • Derringers
  • Machine pistols

In fact, if you go far enough back in history, the likes of hand cannons and flintlocks would all come under the handgun definition. It really is just any gun that can be fired while being gripped with a single hand. So, a short stock at an angle.

A shotgun or rifle would never be classed as a handgun, even if you decided to be somewhat unsafe with them and try and fire them one-handed. This is because they have not actually been designed for that.

What Is a Pistol?

This is where people may start to get a bit confused. This is because we aren’t really pitting pistol vs handgun here. As we mentioned previously, a pistol is a handgun. However, it is a very specific type of handgun.

The technical definition for a pistol is any handgun that has a single chamber built into the barrel of the gun. This means that a revolver wouldn’t be a pistol, despite what some people seem to claim. This is because a revolver has revolving chambers.

The ATF actually has a specific definition for the term ¨’pistol’. In order for a handgun to be classed as a pistol, it must meet the following criteria:

  • The chamber must either be part of the barrel or aligned permanently with the barrel.
  • The short stock must be designed to be gripped with one hand (basically your definition of handgun)

To make things a little bit confusing for you (sorry about that!), the ATF definition actually classes any handgun with a fixed chamber as being a pistol.

This means that a handgun with multiple fixed chambers would technically be classed as a pistol by the ATF. Although, you don’t really need to worry about that too much. You can just stick to the dictionary definition of ‘single chamber’.

Difference Between A Handgun And Pistol

Why Do People Use ‘Pistol’ To Refer To ‘Handguns’?

Well, you have a couple of things to blame for that:

  • History
  • The British

The term ‘pistol’ isn’t a new term. Oh no. It goes way back. In fact, it goes so far back that those single barrel handguns hadn’t actually been invented yet. A few centuries ago, the term pistol was actually used as a term to cover all handguns.

After all, the guns that it used to describe now didn’t exist. It seems that time didn’t really help people 100% convert to the new definition of pistol, so a lot of people are just using the term to refer to all handguns.

So, why should we blame the British? Well, why not? We are sure they have done something wrong. However, on the whole pistol vs handgun front, they have been especially bad. You see, there is no distinct definition in British English between the two.

In fact, if you go by the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are used interchangeably. All laws that mention ‘pistols’ should also be read to mean ‘handguns’ and vise versa. Even in the military, there is no distinct definition between the two.

Of course, because British English is the most common form of spoken English (you can thank the Commonwealth for that), there are actually very few countries that make a distinction between pistols and handguns. It is only really here in the US that we do it.

This means that you will have countless people sharing all of these different definitions, and the global nature of the internet means things can get a little bit confusing.

Truth be told, only the most serious of gun enthusiasts are probably going to care if you use the terms interchangeably. The only time you really need to know the difference between a handgun and a pistol is if you are purchasing a gun.


All pistols are handguns, but not all handguns are pistols. Perhaps the best way to tell you have a pistol in your hand is to work out where the chamber is. If it is a single fixed chamber (or multiple, if you listen to the ATF), then you have a pistol.

If the chamber isn’t fixed, but the gun has still been designed to be gripped with a single hand, then you have another type of handgun.

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