The difference between a pistol and a revolver. An inexperienced reader, when introduced to another literary “masterpiece,” might calmly accept stories where the main character “pulled his revolver before firing.” Why then does this phrase amuse people who have at least some understanding of firearms? To begin with, it’s essential to understand the difference between a pistol and a revolver—then the essence of the writer’s blunder will become obvious.

A Brief Historical Excursion

The initial devices for “firearms” were enormous, unwieldy, and extremely dangerous to use. For example, the medieval arquebus weighed over three kilograms, firing miniature lead balls at enemies. Handling such a weapon was not within every shooter’s capabilities, but these tiny projectiles penetrated knightly armor with ease. One might say that due to arquebuses, metal plates went out of use—they simply ceased to provide their owners with the previous level of protection.

Decades swiftly passed during which people diligently sought new ways to obliterate their counterparts. This led to the emergence of pistols, muskets, and eventually, firearms. The exact chronology is not preserved, but this term began to be widely mentioned from the beginning of the 16th century. In terms of compactness, the new weapon significantly outperformed its “precursors,” but its rate of fire remained low.

In attempts to rectify this annoying shortcoming, designers developed a double-barreled pistol, which was eventually replaced after a couple of centuries by a weapon with a special rotating cylinder—an equivalent of the modern revolver. This is when the paths of the two “brothers” definitively diverged.

Fundamental Differences – One, Two, Three

The main difference lies in the principle of cartridge delivery and subsequent shell extraction technique.

What happens when a pistol is fired? When the gunpowder charge ignites, the energy produced performs three actions: it propels the bullet into flight, automatically ejects the spent casing, and resets the breech to the “ready to fire” position, feeding another cartridge from the magazine.

The weapon’s owner doesn’t require any additional manual actions—just aim correctly and touch the trigger to hit the target again. The breech is manually cocked only once after loading a new magazine (of course, this doesn’t apply to instances of misfire).

With a revolver, things are slightly different (again, if we’re talking about the classic version, not its automated modification). One – the finger on the trigger, a press, a shot. Two – the cylinder rotates with the next manual cocking of the hammer. And so on until the ammunition runs out. Meanwhile, the casings remain in their chambers, and they must be extracted after shooting ends to reload. This is three.

Even to someone without much practice, it becomes clear that during prolonged firing, the pistol owner is clearly at an advantage (assuming they’ve stocked up with pre-loaded spare magazines). To empty a magazine and replace it with a full one takes a couple of seconds, a doable action, literally on the move, almost “automatically.”

A shooter with a revolver, after exhausting the initial ammunition, is temporarily transformed into a defenseless target until they reload the cylinder. Doing so blindly is possible but requires specific practical skills.

If evaluating the firearms from a combat perspective, not their non-lethal variants, then differences in reliability can be noted. This distinction between a pistol and a revolver is often mentioned by professional shooters.

Interestingly, in this regard, the latter has a clear advantage over the former. This advantage concerns the potential for misfire – one cannot guarantee that this fatal occurrence will never happen. In such a situation, the revolver owner loses no time – they simply pull the trigger again.

The pistol shooter needs to pause to cycle the action, manually eject the “misfired” cartridge, and chamber a new one. Understandably, a professional might take only a second, but even this slight delay could be a welcome gift to the opponent. Meanwhile, an inexperienced individual is likely to panic – here, the outcome of the encounter is decisively predetermined.

The effectiveness in close combat for the two “brothers” is approximately similar, but in terms of rate of fire, the pistol wins. In the case of a revolver, this characteristic inevitably suffers due to the necessity of performing additional actions (re-cocking after a shot). However, there are types of this firearm where two actions are combined into one – the trigger pull simultaneously cocks the hammer. But using such a model requires a strong hand and good physical conditioning – it takes almost three times more effort to fire.

Don’t play Russian roulette with a pistol!

In general, “cocking” a revolver is pointless and meaningless – designers simply did not provide for such details, although this steadfastly doesn’t stop writers. Equally amusing are attempts by some authors to have their characters play Russian roulette with a pistol. In reality, after cycling the action following magazine insertion (even if there is only one cartridge in the magazine!), the gun automatically chambers a round. There’s no lottery: the first person to aim the gun at their temple and pull the trigger is a guaranteed fatality.

So, once again, a brief summary of the important points:

  • For a pistol, it has a magazine with cartridges and the action that can be cycled. For a revolver, it has a cylinder that fans of the Russian roulette spin cinematically.
  • For a pistol, the delivery of the next cartridge happens automatically; for a classic revolver, it’s manual, via cocking the hammer (though there are exceptions).
  • The casings from a pistol eject at the moment of firing, while those from a revolver’s cylinder need to be extracted after shooting ends.
  • When evaluating rapid-fire and efficiency in prolonged firing, the pistol wins. In terms of reliability (in the case of misfire), the revolver prevails.