Looking for your first handgun? New to concealed carry? We break down all the major types of pistols and revolvers to help find what’s best for you.
If you’re new to handguns, trying to make sense of all the different kinds can make your head spin.
So, let’s break down almost everything you might need to know, starting with an overview of all the major types of pistols and revolvers and finishing up with some awesome picks for the new shooter or concealed carrier.
Semi-Autos/Pistols Vs. Revolvers
Most handguns can be classified as either a semi-automatic pistol or a revolver.
Semi-auto pistols function by feeding bullets into the chamber of the barrel by taking them out of a magazine, a box with a spring in it that pushes the bullets up. The slide goes back over the magazine, the next bullet pops up into place, and the slide pushes it into the chamber as it goes back into battery. When a cartridge is fired, some of the energy works to send the slide rearward, ejecting the spent case while simultaneously picking up and loading a fresh round. In the past, weapons like these were often referred to as self-loading or autoloading, but today the most accepted term is semi-automatic.
A revolver has a cylinder attached to the gun, which spins as the hammer is cocked and/or the trigger is pulled. The cylinder holds the cartridges, and when it stops, aligns one of the bullets with the barrel. Revolvers majorly differ from semi-automatics in a couple of ways. Firstly, revolvers store their ammunition inside of a cylinder rather than a box magazine, with each cartridge independently held in its own chamber that is rotated in line with the barrel. Secondly, revolvers load their next round through mechanical actuation rather than through the energy of a fired cartridge. Depending on the exact type of revolver, the cylinder is rotated by either pulling the trigger or cocking the hammer.
Regardless of the type of pistol in question, however, something’s got to make it go bang.
Hammer-Fire Vs. Striker-Fire
What defines the “action” type on a handgun is what the internal parts do before igniting the bullet.
In all cases, the part that hits the bullet—the firing pin—is powered by spring tension, kind of like a mousetrap. That firing pin is launched into the primer of the bullet either by some manner of hammer (whether internal or external) or a striker.
Now, the key difference between all these systems is how much work the trigger does to compress that spring (if it compresses it at all).
Regardless of whether it’s a semi-auto or a revolver, single-action-only (SAO) hammer-fired guns need to be cocked before they can shoot. This is because, as the name implies, the triggers in these guns only perform a single action—releasing the hammer. When the hammer is cocked, the relevant spring is fully compressed and held in its place by a mechanical block called a sear.
When you pull the trigger, the sear releases the hammer into the firing pin and the primer detonates.
Some common single-action-only handguns you’re likely to still see include the 1911, the Browning Hi Power and the Colt SAA revolver.
Striker-fired guns don’t have a hammer, but instead use a firing pin with an extra part on the end called a striker. The slide cycles and captures the firing pin, which is under full or partial (depending on the model) spring tension. Pulling the trigger trips the firing pin, which goes forward and detonates the primer. Striker-fired handguns are the most common type of pistol made today, and you’ll find the system in everything from Glocks to Sigs to Rugers.
In any double-action handgun, including both revolvers and semi-autos, the spring that powers the firing pin (or the hammer that hits it) is not compressed when the hammer is down, so there’s no spring tension in the system. The force of pulling the trigger also compresses the spring, making the gun ready to fire. Because triggers in this type of gun perform two actions—cocking and releasing the hammer—they are called double-action.
Most double-action guns are both double- and single-action (DA/SA), meaning they can be fired double-action when the hammer is down or single-action when it’s cocked. These include most modern revolvers and many semi-autos, especially the legacy Wonder Nines such as the Beretta 92, HK USP, CZ 75 and Sig Sauer P226 pistols.
There are also some double-action-only (DAO) handguns that don’t allow for the hammer to remain cocked. You have to fire every shot in double-action mode with a full press of the trigger.
Each of these action styles results in a different feeling trigger, and which one you will like best mostly comes down to personal preference.
Revolvers all started out as single-action systems, but today most revolvers are either the double-action type, or double-action-only with a shrouded hammer that’s hidden inside the frame. DAO revolvers are typically compact, with the idea being to make them easier to draw from a pocket without snagging.
While single-action revolvers are still in production, they’re generally either collectibles or for sports shooting or hunting. Any modern revolver designed for defensive use will be either DA/SA or DAO.
Safety devices are either active—meaning you have to perform an action to disable the safety device—or passive, meaning the safety is deactivated as part of the normal course of firing the gun.
Many types of pistols have a manual safety, also known as a thumb safety, which are pushed on or off. Some people don’t care for them, but others prefer having positive control of the firing system.
Traditional DA/SA guns often have a control lever that acts as either a decocker—which safely lowers the hammer when the pistol is loaded—or a decocking safety which decocks the pistols and engages a safety device.
Active safeties add a layer of complexity, as you must put in sufficient practice time to be able to deactivate them reflexively as you draw. This doesn’t mean that guns with a manual safety are a bad choice, it’s just something to be aware of while browsing.
One more style worth mentioning is grip safeties, but they exist somewhere between active and passive. Grip safeties, like those found on the 1911, must be depressed before the gun can fire, but this is accomplished simply by grabbing the pistol with a normal firing grip.
Passive safeties (such as those found on Glock triggers) are linked to the trigger system, rendering the gun incapable of being fired without pulling the trigger. These include firing pin blocks—literally a metal cylinder that blocks the firing pin—and the trigger bar system of striker-fired pistols.
Modern revolvers have a transfer bar, a tilting bar that sits between the firing pin in the frame and the hammer to prevent a possible slam-fire.
When a striker-fired pistol is at rest, the trigger bar doesn’t connect to the sear. However, when you press the trigger, the trigger bar connects with the sear at the end of its travel, allowing the sear to release the firing pin and striker.
This makes striker-fired pistols inherently safer than some believe, but it’s also the case that the trigger can be pulled if it snags on something, such as clothing. As with everything else, there are pros and cons to each style of safety.
Another important consideration while browsing handguns is their size, as they can range from being truly tiny to genuine hand cannons. The following classifications are hardly scientific, but provide a general understanding of the different size categories out there.
Pocket pistols include everything from tiny derringers to pocket .25, .32 and .380 autos. Barrel length is typically 2 inches or less.
Subcompact pistols are likewise small guns that are designed for easy concealed carry, but are more shootable than pocket pistols too. Barrel length is typically around 3 inches, and they are usually chambered for at least .380 ACP if not something larger. If it’s a new 9mm subcompact pistol with a decently high capacity, it may be described as a “micro 9” as well.
Popular examples of subcompact pistols include single-stack semi-autos like the S&W Shield and Glock 43, double-stack subcompacts like the Springfield Hellcat and Sig P365, and snubnose revolvers.
Compacts are just big enough to run like a service pistol, but just small enough to be relatively comfortable to carry. Common dimensions are a barrel length of 3.5 to 4 inches. This includes 3-inch medium frame revolvers, double-stack compacts like the Glock 19 and some traditional double-action compacts like the Sig Sauer P229.
Full-size pistols and revolvers have a 4-inch or longer barrel, and varying dimensions that are larger than compacts. While not impossible to conceal, they present the most difficulties for everyday carry but are the easiest to shoot well.
Examples abound in every action type and caliber, but frame size is a good starting point for finding the right handgun for you.
Picking The Right Sized Pistol
Micro and subcompact pistols are the easiest to carry but require diligent practice to build and maintain proficiency. It’s been said more than once that a J-frame snubby revolver is a master’s weapon.
Compact pistols are a happy middle ground, but even the light and svelte Glock 19 can be a bit much to have on you all day and can present some challenges concerning concealability.
Full-size pistols are the easiest to shoot well and are the easiest for beginners to learn on, but are challenging for daily concealed carry. It takes a lot of experimentation to get your holster, belt and clothes all in sync to conceal a large pistol really well.
For those looking to get their first handgun, it would be wise to test some out at a rental range before purchasing. Most will have at least one of each major type of pistol to choose from, and you could test several to see which size, caliber, action type and style of safety suits you best.
Entry-Level Options For Each Type Of Pistol:
Full-Size Semi-Auto Single-Action
Rock Island Rock Standard FS 1911
The Rock Standard series by Rock Island Armory (a brand of Armscorp, an arms manufacturer based in the Philippines but with some US-based manufacturing) is a good choice of entry-level 1911, with some niceties such as beavertail grip safeties, modern sights and ambidextrous thumb safeties.
While fit and finish is what you’d expect from a budget model, what makes Rock Island a great entry-level 1911 is that they’re known for punching far above their weight in terms of reliability and performance. The price of entry is low (street prices are often less than $500) and you can always have a gunsmith upgrade the parts.
Rock Standard FS 1911 Specs:
Caliber: .45 ACP
Capacity: 8 Rounds
Barrel Length: 5 Inches
Weight (Empty): 2.5 Pounds
Compact Semi-Auto Striker-Fired
There’s a reason why the humble Glock 19 is the standard by which all striker-fired polymer-framed pistols are judged. It’s small and light enough to be technically categorized as a compact, making it good for concealed carry, but still large enough to be very shootable as well.
Lightweight, rugged, reliable, accurate and simple to learn and operate. If you could only pick one handgun to own, there’s almost no reason to pick anything else.
Glock 19 Specs:
Capacity: 15 Rounds
Barrel Length: 4.02 Inches
Weight (Empty): 23.63 Ounces
Compact Semi-Auto DA/SA
Beretta PX4 Storm Compact
The PX4 Storm Compact is a modern compact double-action/single-action pistol, with a polymer frame for a lighter carry weight. Capacity is 15+1, a rail is included if you want to mount a light and the overall dimensions are similar to the Glock 19.
The PX4 Storm Compact gives you a different option of firing system in a compact service pistol but with modern features like a light rail, polymer frame and better sights.
PX4 Storm Compact Specs:
Capacity: 15 Rounds
Barrel Length: 3.27 Inches
Weight (Empty): 27.2 Ounces
Subcompact Semi-Auto Striker-Fired
Sig Sauer P365
The Sig P365 is the subcompact/double-stack micro of today. It holds 10+1 of 9mm (12+1 with an extended magazine) and is the same size as other subcompact guns that hold only 7 rounds. It has good sights for a tiny gun and a very decent trigger.
The P365 set the handgun world on its ear for a time, and today is still one of the most popular pistols in production. If you wanted a slim, light, easy-to-carry gun that had respectable capacity…it’s still arguably the best of that kind.
Sig Sauer P365 Specs:
Capacity: 10 Rounds (Flush-fit mag)
Barrel Length: 3.1 Inches
Weight (Empty): 17.8 Ounces
Smith & Wesson 642
The Model 642 is a 5-shot .38 Special compact revolver with a DAO firing system. It has a top strap notch rear sight and front ramp sight, rubber grips and an aluminum frame to make it light.
The 642 lacks an external hammer, designed for a fast draw from a pocket or from under clothing.
While this revolver’s light weight will make it a dream to carry, definitely try shooting one before deciding to purchase. These guns aren’t fun to shoot, and yet they require a lot of practice to be used effectively. The 642 definitely isn’t for everyone, but its longstanding reputation as a go-to carry gun earns it a spot on the list.
S&W 642 Specs:
Caliber: .38 Special +P
Capacity: 5 Rounds
Barrel Length: 1.875 Inches
Weight (Empty): 14.4 Ounces
More On Handgun Selection:
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