Handgun Types

By Chuck Hawks

Today most handguns fall into one of four categories: revolving pistols (revolvers), semi-automatic pistols (automatics), single shot pistols, and derringers. There may be some others out there (double-barrel flintlock pistols come to mind), but these four are the most commonly encountered types.

Derringers were invented, or at least popularized, by a man named "Deringer" (note the single "r"). The original Deringer was a small, handy, single barrel, .41 caliber percussion pistol that could be easily concealed. A classic hide-out gun. John Wilkes Booth used one of these to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. When other manufacturers wanted to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of these small pistols, they called their generic pistols "derringers," and that is where the extra "r" came from.

Derringers are not repeaters; if more that one shot is desired, more than one barrel is required. I have seen derringers with up to four barrels. Derringers are designed for concealability. They are small and flat and have short barrels.

Probably the most famous type of derringer is the Remington over/under design that was widely copied, and is still common today. This was, and is, a single action pistol with short superposed barrels (which are hinged at the top, rather than at the bottom), a bird's head grip, and no trigger guard, and it is what most people think of when they hear the word "derringer."

American Derringer Corp. is probably the foremost manufacturer of improved Remington style derringers. Their derringers are made of stainless steel and incorporate a manual hammer block safety. They can be chambered for almost any pistol cartridge, from .22 LR to .45-7- Govt! Their standard Model 1 has 3 inch barrels and weighs 15.5 ounces in .38 Spec.

Because of their small size and bird's head grips, the recoil of a Remington style derringer is difficult to control, and such guns are best chambered for relatively mild cartridges. I would not consider carrying one chambered for anything more powerful than standard velocity .38 Special cartridges. Indeed, the .38 Spec. is probably the caliber of choice for modern derringers. Another pretty good cartridge for a derringer would be the rimfire .22 Magnum (.22 WMR), and for years High Standard built a double-action-only over/under derringer for that cartridge. Since the original High Standard company folded, this derringer has been produced by others.

Derringers are intended for very close range personal protection. They were the classic weapon of old west riverboat gamblers, perhaps because the width of a card table is about the right range for a derringer. They are often supplied without sights, or with only a front sight. This, combined with their short barrels and inadequate grips, relegates them to point shooting ranges only.

Single Shot pistols
A derringer can be a single shot pistol, and most flintlock pistols were of single shot persuasion, as were all dueling pistols. Today, however, when single shots are mentioned, it is usually a large hunting or target (Silhouette) pistol that is envisioned. And that is the type I will discuss here.

The most popular single shot pistol today is the Thompson/Center Encore. T/C pisols were conceived purely as hunting pistols. They also became very popular for Silhouette target shooting, when that sport came along, and a it was a shooter armed with a T/c Contender who shot the first perfect score in that difficult game. The T/C pistols are large, strong, break-action pistols chambered for a very wide variety of cartridges, including some rifle cartridges. Calibers run from .22 rimfire to .45/70 Govt. Barrels in various calibers can be interchanged, making these the most versatile of hunting pistols. Barrel lengths are usually 10 inches or 14 inches, but some models come with a 16 1/4 inch bull barrel. The latter is available in the aforementioned .45/70 caliber, suitable for the heaviest North American game at close range, using modern handloads. There are also special ventilated rib style barrels available for shooting .410 shotshells. Most T/C barrels come with excellent target type iron sights, but optical sights are usually the choice of the experienced hunter, and T/C barrels are drilled and tapped to accept scope mounts.

The other type of single shot hunting pistol commonly seen today is the bolt action. The Remington XP-100 was the first pistol of this type from a major manufacturer. The XP-100 was introduced in the early 1960's, based on the same short bolt action as the Remington Model 600 rifle, which came out a year after the XP-100. For many years, XP-100's were only chambered in .221 Fireball caliber. Naturally, many hunters privately re-barreled their XP-100's to calibers suitable for big game hunting, and eventually Remington saw the light and chambered their super accurate single shot pistol for a variety of high intensity short action rifle cartridges. Most XP-100's were supplied with 14 1/2 inch barrels, although other lengths are sometimes seen. Stocks were originally made from DuPont "Zytel" nylon, same as the famous Nylon 66 .22 rifle, but later walnut and laminated wood, as well as synthetic stocks, became available.

The success of the XP-100, and later the Contender, spawned numerous single shot hunting pistols from small manufacturers. Most of these were based on some sort of bolt action, but rolling block, rotating breech (like a cannon), falling block, and probably other types of actions, have been used. Almost all of them were or are chambered for a variety of cartridges, usually including short action rifle cartridges like the .308 Win. Almost none of these big single shot pistols will fit into any normal kind of holster (although T/C does have a shoulder holster for the Contender with the 10 inch barrel); in the field they are usually carried on a sling, like a rifle.

There has been considerable debate over the years about whether these huge single shot pistols are significantly handier than a light, carbine length rifle. That is a reasonable question, of course, but technically they qualify as pistols, and that is the main point.

Semi-Automatic Pistols
The semi-automatic (or self loading) pistol was born around the beginning of the 20th century, and has increased in popularity ever since. They first found favor with the military, then with civilians and police. Today, it is the most popular type of handgun. They are especially popular for self defense purposes, and also for bull's eye target shooting and the action shooting sports. They are seldom chosen as hunting weapons, except in the case of .22 rimfires, because the cartridges they are typically chambered for do not have the energy and flat trajectory required. Also, the most popular self loaders do not usually deliver the gilt-edged accuracy of a good single shot pistol or a premium revolver.

Perhaps it is worth pointing out that while we shooters tend to call self-loading pistol "automatics" or "auto pistols," this refers to the fact that they automatically reload themselves after every shot (until their magazine is exhausted). They are technically "semi-automatic" weapons. That is, a separate pull of the trigger is required for every shot. One pull on the trigger equals one shot. They do not fire "full automatic" like a machine gun, where one pull on the trigger lets the gun fire continuously until the magazine is exhausted.

Auto pistols chamber cartridges ranging from the .22 Short to the .50 AE. As defense weapons they have two major advantages over most revolvers: (1) greater cartridge capacity (2) faster reloading. The former is true because the typical centerfire auto pistol magazine holds from 7 to 17 rounds, compared to 6 for the average revolver. The latter is true because the action of the pistol automatically ejects the spent brass as it cycles; when the shooter needs to reload he merely removes the empty magazine and inserts a new one. This is faster than swinging out a revolver's cylinder, ejecting the brass, and feeding 6 new rounds into the cylinder from a speed loader.

Note, however, that (2) above is true only so long as the shooter has preloaded magazines available. If the shooter has to reload his empty weapon from a typical box of factory fresh ammunition, the revolver can be returned to action quite a bit faster than the auto pistol. Also, if reloading is interrupted by enemy action, the revolver's cylinder can be closed and the gun fired more rapidly than an auto pistol can be returned to action with a partially loaded magazine.

As .22 rimfire target pistols, the semi-automatics are unsurpassed. These are full size, blow back operated (meaning that the breech is not mechanically locked, the breechblock is held closed only by the inertia of the slide and the force of the recoil spring) pistols with heavy weight barrels. They normally come with excellent sights and adjustable triggers. They are brilliantly accurate, slightly more so than target revolvers (whose rotating cylinder introduces a tiny bit of variation from chamber to chamber), and are equaled or surpassed in accuracy only by the best specialty single shot pistols. Fine examples have been made in America by Browning, Colt, High Standard, Ruger, and Smith & Wesson, as well as overseas by firms like Benelli, Beretta, Bernadelli, and Hammerli.

Many of the .22 target autos also make fine small game hunting pistols, as do some of the field models with similar actions. These field models, like the famous Colt Woodsman, typically have tapered contour barrels rather that the heavy bull barrels fitted to the target models, and nonadjustable triggers set in the 4 pound range for field use, rather than the fully adjustable lightweight trigger of the target model. Some come with fixed sights, but others feature adjustable sights. They are fine field guns for hunting or plinking, especially when equipped with optical sights.

Another type of small bore, blowback, auto pistol is the "pocket pistol." These are the smallest of auto pistols. They are sized to literally fit in a pocket. Typically they are chambered for the .22 rimfire or .25 ACP cartridges. Slightly larger versions come in .32 ACP and .380 ACP, which are a better choice for protection. Although most of them are really too large to fit in a normal pocket, they remain very compact and easily carried pistols. With modern jacketed hollow point bullets, the .380 about equals the effectiveness of the .38 Special revolver cartridge fired in a 2 inch snubby revolver. Which is to say, the modern .380 auto is no "mouse gun."

By far the most popular type of semi-autos today are the service and compact service pistols. These are the first choice of the military, police, and armed citizens. Today's modern autoloaders from firms like Colt, Beretta, Browning, Glock, H&K, SIG/Sauer, and Walther are accurate, powerful, and reliable. They can be had in single action, single action/double action, and double action only form, plus the Glock "Safe Action" and copies thereof.

Most of these pistols are short recoil operated, meaning that upon firing, the barrel and slide are mechanically locked together. These move rearward together until the bullet leaves the barrel and the gas pressure drops to a safe level. After recoiling backward together a short distance (about 3/8-inch), the breech end of the barrel is pulled down and stopped (by a link or a cam surface), and it unlocks from the slide, which continues backwards alone because of its momentum. As the slide moves rearward, it extracts and ejects the fired brass, and recocks the hammer or striker--the whole time the slide is moving back it is compressing the recoil spring. Finally, the recoil spring is fully compressed and the backward motion of the slide stops. The recoil spring then drives the slide forward. On its way back to battery the slide strips the top round from the magazine and shoves it into the chamber, then it is forced back into engagement with the breech end of the barrel, and the action is again locked and ready to fire. The main drawback of this system is the movement of the barrel, which creates bedding problems, and decreases accuracy. This is why semi-auto pistols are seldom used for hunting or other long range shooting. However, the system is plenty accurate enough for defensive pistol purposes and ranges.

The most useful calibers for service pistols are the 9x19 (9mm Parabellum), .40 S&W, and .45 ACP, plus (maybe) the 10mm Automatic. There are other choices, like the .38 Super and .357 SIG, but frankly, if all auto pistol service rounds other than the first four I named were to disappear tomorrow, it would make very little difference in the overall scheme of things. I will even go so far as to say that the old 9x19 and .45 ACP pretty well cover the field, and have since before WW I. The recent .40 S&W and 10mm Auto were more the result of marketing hype and the desire for something new, rather than any ballistic necessity.

The 10mm is kind of a "magnum" load for auto pistols, and in its full power loading is too powerful for most defensive scenarios. Its popularity has been limited because of its recoil, and because it is hard on guns. The FBI helped keep the 10mm alive by adopting it for its issue pistols. They quickly found that the full power 10mm load was too powerful for most agents to control in combat situations, and spurred the development of the "10mm Lite" combat load, which is ballistically identical to the .40 S&W. I think the 10mm, with the choice of light and full power loads, has the potential to be an "all around" cartridge for auto pistols (service and sport), much as the .357 Mag. is for revolvers. Perhaps someday it will catch on for field use. If it does, it should grow in popularity--if not, it will become moribund, as its combat load offers no advantage over the .40 S&W.

My list of useful cartridges for today's auto pistols would read something like this: .22 Short, .22 LR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, 9x19, .40 S&W, 10mm Auto, and .45 ACP. There are others, but they are not as popular as the established rounds listed here, and it is hard to see the justification for their existence.

Revolving Pistols
Now we come to the revolvers. I shall make no attempt to hide the fact that I think a good revolver is the best general purpose hunting and field sidearm, and probably the best all around design to boot.

Revolvers possess certain advantages over most auto pistols. The most important of these are probably safety, accuracy, strength, and the ability to chamber a much wider variety of cartridges, including a number of powerful and flat shooting magnum calibers. These advantages mean that revolvers are particularly suitable for hunting and use in the field.

Revolvers come in two basic types: single action (SA) and double action (DA). Generally, the frame and grip shapes of the two types are different. The single action is the western style revolver, and the double action is the typical police style weapon.

Functionally, the single action's hammer must be thumb cocked before it can be fired. Cocking the hammer also causes the cylinder to rotate, bringing a fresh cartridge into firing position under the hammer. After it is cocked it requires only a short, light (ideally about 3 pound) press on the trigger to fire the weapon.

A double action revolver may also be thumb cocked before firing, just like a single action, so that a light press on the trigger will fire the gun. But it can also be fired by a long (approximately 1/2 inch), strong (usually 10 to 12 pound) pull on the trigger alone. In this case, the long trigger pull causes the cylinder to rotate as it simultaneously draws back the hammer. When the cylinder locks into firing position, the hammer should be all the way back, and the last part of the trigger's rearward movement then releases the hammer, firing the pistol. This is called "trigger cocking," and it is the second method of firing the pistol (double action--two ways to operate the gun, get it?). This DA method is good for quick, fairly close range, shooting. The SA mode is better for precise accuracy and long range shooting.

DA revolvers are also fast and easy to reload, since the cylinder typically swings out of the frame for simultaneous ejection of all six empty brass cases with one push on the ejector rod. The empty cylinder can then be reloaded very quickly if the shooter uses a "speed loader," a small device which drops new cartridges into all six chambers simultaneously. Alternatively, new cartridges can be fed into the empty cylinder by hand. The latter is still quicker and easier than feeding cartridges into the magazine of an auto pistol.

Single action revolvers traditionally lack the swing out cylinder feature. Spent cases are ejected individually when a loading gate on the right side of the frame, directly behind the cylinder, is swung open, and the cylinder manually rotated to align each chamber with the manually operated ejector rod. They are reloaded one chamber at a time, again by rotating each chamber into position in front of the open loading gate, and then inserting a new cartridge. It takes longer to write about this than to do it, but it is slower than reloading a DA revolver, even without a speed loader.

Modern double action revolvers are perfectly safe to carry with all six chambers loaded, as they all use some sort of transfer bar or hammer block to positively prevent the hammer from contacting a cartridge and causing an accidental discharge. But a traditional single action revolver (as designed by Sam Colt and copied by practically everyone) should always be carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber. There is no hammer block or transfer bar; the "quarter cock" safety notch provides only partial safety--primarily against inadvertently pulling the trigger. It is not absolutely safe if the gun is dropped on its hammer spur, or the hammer is struck a solid blow, because either the sear or the notch in the hammer could break, and allow the hammer to contact the cartridge under the hammer, firing the weapon.

There is a traditional style SA revolver that is safe to carry with all six chambers loaded, and that is the "New Action" (or "two pin") Ruger SA revolver. Ruger redesigned the Old Model (or "three screw") SA to incorporate a modern transfer bar ignition system. The transfer bar does not allow the hammer to contact the cartridge until the hammer has been fully cocked, and the trigger pulled fully to the rear.

Double action revolvers make better combat guns due to their greater sustained rate of aimed fire in the DA mode, and quicker reloading. These factors are unimportant in the field, and some of the best hunting revolvers are of the single action persuasion.

Among the advantages of the single action revolver for hunting are strength, compactness and a western style "plow handle" grip. This grip shape is very comfortable for most shooters, and allows the gun to roll a little bit in the hand when heavy loads are fired. This substantially reduces felt recoil when shooting heavy magnum loads. The SA revolver's frame is stronger for a given size and weight. For example, the medium frame Ruger Blackhawk is proofed to 60,000 psi.

One SA particularly worth mentioning is the Freedom Arms Casull revolver, now available in a variety of calibers including .22 LR, .22 WMR, .357 Mag. (also .38 Spec.), .41 Mag., .44 Mag. (also .44 Spec.), .45 ACP, .45 Long Colt, .45 Win Mag., and .454 Casull. These immensely strong, superbly accurate, ultra precisely machined, stainless steel revolvers are widely regarded as the best in the world. Scope mounts are available.

Another excellent choice for field use are the aforementioned Ruger SA revolvers, especially the Super Single Six, Blackhawk, Super Blackhawk, and Bisley models. These are also very strong, accurate, and come equipped with fully adjustable sights. Ruger single actions have been chambered for a wide variety of cartridges, including the .22 LR, .22 WMR, .30 Carbine, .32 H&R Mag. (also .32 S&W and .32 Long), 9x19, .357 Mag. (also .38 Spec.), .41 Mag., .44-40, .44 Mag. (also .44 Spec.), .45 ACP, and .45 Long Colt. These Ruger SA's are made in three different frame sizes, and with three different grip styles, and in blue and stainless steel finishes. Perhaps the ultimate Ruger SA for the handgun hunter was the Super Blackhawk Hunter, which featured a full length, solid barrel rib machined to accept Ruger scope mounting rings, which were included. Conventional scope mounts are available for all other Ruger models. Ruger's large frame SA revolvers also form the usual basis for conversion to some truly wild wildcat cartridges in .45 caliber and larger. These super heavy revolver loads are way beyond what most auto pistols and DA revolvers can stand.

The Colt name, of course, is synonymous with single action revolvers, and Colt still makes their famous Single Action Army (in limited numbers), as well as the newer, less expensive Cowboy model. The latter features a modern transfer bar ignition system, and may be carried fully loaded. Unfortunately, both of these revolvers lack adjustable sights. The best of the Colt single actions, the New Frontier models, have been discontinued. These New Frontiers came with a stronger flat top frame, fully adjustable rear and ramp front sights, and a beautiful color case hardened frame with Colt's Royal Blue finish on barrel and cylinder. New Frontier models were available in .22 LR, .22 WMR, .357 Mag., .44 Spec., and .45 Long Colt. Today they are usually regarded as collectors items, but if you can find one for sale it will serve nicely in the field.

There are a plethora of double action revolvers well suited to personal defense, concealed carry, and police or military service, and you will find many of them mentioned in some of the other articles and charts on this web site that address those topics. Just about any well made DA revolver with a 6 inch or shorter barrel, and chambered for a suitable cartridge, will serve very well as a defensive pistol. Colt, Ruger, and Smith & Wesson are the most prominent manufacturers of such revolvers.

The most popular revolver cartridges for combat shooting are the .38 Special and .357 Magnum (the latter is at the top of the list for "one shot stops"). The .44 Special and .45 Long Colt also have their fans, as do reduced power loads for the .41 and .44 Magnums. The full power loads for these last two are too powerful for most defensive purposes.

There are also several DA revolvers that are well suited for use in the field. Perhaps the most outstanding of these is the Colt Python .357 Mag. It is built on a .41 caliber size frame (Colt calls it their "I" frame) for extra durability, and the action receives extra hand fitting and honing in the Colt Custom Shop to insure superior fit, smoothness, and a decent trigger pull (increasingly rare on most guns these days). Barrel lengths are 2.5 inches, 4 inches, 6 inches, and 8 inches. All Pythons come with target type adjustable sights. The features of the Python have been extensively copied by other makers, particularly the frame size and the full length barrel underlug. For example, an "L" frame S&W will fit perfectly in a holster designed for a Python. However, no one has succeeded in combining all of the features of the Python in another gun. Scope mounts are available for mounting optical sights to Pythons.

Other good DA Magnum hunting revolvers include the Colt King Cobra (.357) and Anaconda (.44), the top-of-the-line S&W "N" frame revolvers: M 610 (10mm Auto), M 27 (.357), M 657 (.41), and M 29/629 series (.44), and the Ruger Redhawk and Super Redhawk revolvers (both .44 only). The Rugers are available with integral scope mount and rings from the factory, while mounts and rings are available for the others.

A specialized group of revolvers is the snubbys, pocket revolvers and mini revolvers. These are analogous to the previously discussed pocket automatics, and fulfill the same role. The Colt Detective Special is the classic DA snub nose (2 inch barrel) .38 Special, along with the Smith & Wesson Chief's Special. Both have been made in sundry variations, the most useful of which are the alloy framed versions. These are lighter than their all steel counterparts, and therefore more comfortable to carry concealed. Very compact revolvers have been chambered for other (generally less effective) cartridges, including .22 Short, .22 Long, .22 Long Rifle, .22 WMR, .32 S&W, .32 S&W Long, .32 Short Colt, .32 Long Colt, .32 H&R Mag., .38 S&W, .38 Short Colt, and .455 Webley. In more recent years there has been a trend to chamber compact revolvers for more powerful cartridges, including .44 Spec. and .357 Mag. Fearsome .357 snubbys are now available from Colt, Ruger, and S&W. Personally, I want no part of these.

The ultra small SA mini-revolvers, as made by Freedom Arms and North American Arms, are the smallest repeating pistols available, even smaller than a derringer. These are chambered for the .22 Short, .22 Long Rifle, and .22 WMR, and weigh only 4-9 ounces! In .22 Mag. these represent an attempt to strike a serious blow with the smallest possible weapon. My favorite mini-revolver, the NAA Black Widow, is surprisingly accurate and not too difficult to shoot. In my informal tests it has consistently delivered bullets to the target more reliably and more accurately (but not faster) than a pocket auto.

Also compact, but not intended as hideout guns, are the "kit guns." Also sometimes called "trail guns," these are compact frame .22 revolvers with longer barrels than a snubby, and often adjustable sights. These kit guns are intended to be carried in a backpack or slipped into a tackle box, equally ready for an impromptu plinking session or an emergency.

The classic kit gun is the Smith & Wesson 22/32 Kit Gun. The "22/32" designation referred to the fact that the gun was a .22 LR built on the .32 size "J" frame. Today, the Smith Kit Gun can be had in various configurations, all with adjustable sights: the .22 LR Model 63 is similar to the original, but in stainless steel; the Model 651 is basically the same gun in .22 WMR; and the .22 LR Model 317 AirLite has an alloy frame. The old, standard, blue steel Kit Guns have been discontinued.

Ruger's single action New Model Super Bearcat .22 LR/.22 WMR convertible is that company's version of a kit gun. This cute little SA is available in blue or stainless steel, but only with fixed sights.

North American Arms has their Mini-Master, which is based on their "large" (.22 Mag.) frame mini-revolver. The Mini-Master has a heavy 4 inch barrel, full-size grips, and adjustable sights. Its 5-shot cylinder can be chambered for either .22 LR or .22 WMR, or it can be purchased as a convertible with both cylinders. At 7.75 inches in length and 10.7 ounces it is out of the mini-revolver class, but it is still a petite gun, and seems to be aimed squarely at the kit gun market.

The other group of revolvers, both single action and double action, that deserve mention is the full size (as opposed to hide out guns and mini-revolvers) .22 rimfire target and small game hunting revolvers. These are excellent for general recreational shooting. All of those mentioned below are equipped with fully adjustable sights, and are available with 6 inch or longer barrels.

In single action form we have the Colt New Frontier and the Ruger Super Single Six Convertible. Both come (or came, in the case of the Colt, since it is discontinued) with two cylinders, one chambered for the .22 LR, and the other chambered for the .22 WMR. These .22 /.22 Mag. convertible revolvers make just about the most versatile trail/camp/field/plinking/hunting guns imaginable. A person who wants to try handgun hunting would be very well served by a convertible revolver.

In double action form, Colt's entry was the outstanding Colt Diamondback (now discontinued), looking for all the world like a Python--but built on the smaller .38 size "D" frame--chambered for .22 LR. Colt also used to chamber their full size Mk IV and MK V service revolvers in .22 LR. These were the predecessors of the .357 Mag. King Cobra, and like the King Cobra they were built on a .41 size frame. Unfortunately, the King Cobra has no identical .22 understudy.

Smith & Wesson have built their premium DA .22 LR revolver, the K-22 Masterpiece, for many years. The current versions, the Model 17 (blue finish) or 617 (stainless steel), now have a full length barrel lug and look something like a Colt Diamondback without the ventilated rib. Smith K-22 models are built on the .38 size "K" frame. Back in the 1950's and early 1960's, many authorities considered the S&W K-22 Masterpiece to be the finest .22 revolver make anywhere. The new ones are still satisfactory, but if you can get an clean old one used, grab it. There was also a .22 Magnum version of the K-22 Masterpiece, called the Model 648 in stainless steel, but it has been discontinued.

As we have seen, revolvers can be chambered in a very widevariety of cartridges, including those usually chambered in auto pistols. And there are a considerable number of obsolescent revolver cartridges which are seldom seen any more. The perfectly adequate .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40 would be good examples. But I think that the needs of most shooters today could be satisfied by one or more of the following revolver cartridges: .22 LR, .22 WMR, .30 Carbine, .32 H&R Mag., .38 Special, .357 Mag., .41 Rem. Mag., .44 Spec., .44 Rem. Mag., .45 Long Colt and .454 Casull.

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Copyright 1998, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.