Parts of a semiautomatic pistol.—© Merriam-Webster Inc.

Small firearm designed to be operated with one hand. The name may derive from the city of Pistoia, Italy, where handguns were made as early as the 15th century. It was originally a cavalry weapon. However, because the firepower of pistols must be kept low in order to reduce them to manageable weight, and because only skilled soldiers can shoot them accurately beyond 10 yards, they have never been satisfactory military weapons. In legal use, pistols are most frequently carried by police and other security personnel and serve mainly as a defensive weapon of last resort. Their compact size, low cost, and ease of operation make them a common weapon in violent crime, so that pistols are a common object of laws regulating the ownership of firearms. The two classes of pistol are revolvers and automatics. Automatics have a mechanism, actuated by the energy of recoil, that feeds cartridges from a magazine in the grip.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
For the full entry on pistol, visit Britannica.com.

Seen & Heard

What made you look up pistol? Please tell us what you were reading, watching or discussing that led you here.