Weapons Law Encyclopedia

Revolvers and self-loading pistols

Arquebuses were invented in the late fourteenth century (see Encyclopedia weapons entry on rifles and carbines). Starting as large and unwieldy weapons, they were progressively miniaturised, leading to the appearance of the first pistols in the mid-fifteenth century.K. Chase, Firearms: A global history to 1700, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p. 61.

At first the new invention was of little use. Firearms were very inaccurate affairs, and pistols even more so due to their short barrel. Light and small, they could have been handy for cavalry, but firearms could not be carried on horseback as long as matchlock firing mechanisms required carrying a lit match at all times. Then in the mid-fifteenth century, the wheel lock mechanism was invented: this ingenious mechanism used a spring to spin a wheel when released, creating sparks that could ignite the powder. The mechanism was very expensive and delicate, and not easy to reload, but it meant that pistols could now be carried and fired on horseback. The pistol had found its niche.

Pistols were first used in battle in the mid-sixteenth century, and gradually became a standard equipment of the cavalry, replacing the lance. Given the difficulty of reloading, cavalry tended to carry several pistols ready to be shot. The downside was that each weapon needed to be kept small and light, which decreased its effective range and made it no match against the musket. The horsemen also liked the pistol butt to be quite bulky, so that when the pistol had been fired, it could be held in the other direction and used to club the enemy.K. Chase, Firearms: A global history to 1700, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 69; W. Y. Carman, A history of firearms from earliest times to 1914, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955, p. 132.

Reloading became easier with the invention in the late seventeenth century of the flintlock mechanism. Cheaper and easier to manufacture than the wheel lock, it was quickly adopted for pistols. Of course, pistols were still horribly inaccurate at all but very close range, but they were carried as an element of prestige and as a last resort.K. Chase, Firearms: A global history to 1700, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 201; M. J. Dougherty, Small arms: from the civil war to the present day, Barnes and Nobles, New York, 2006, p. 11.

Efforts were also underway to create a pistol capable of firing multiple shots. Pistols with multiple barrels were produced, or some models placed two charges and two shots in the same barrel with two wheel- or flintlocks to fire them. Then came the revolving chamber, an idea experimented with in the seventeenth century already. The first true revolver was produced by Samuel Colt in 1835-6. Then Robert Adams, a London gunsmith, patented it in England and put it on display at the 1851 Great Exhibition, immediately raising strong interest. The design of the gun was revolutionary in many ways: it consisted of a number of interchangeable parts, which could be mass-produced without requiring further work before assembly. As industrial production methods spread, soon several different types of revolvers would be produced.V. Di Maio, Gunshot wounds: practical aspects of firearms, ballistics, and forensic techniques. CRC Press, Boca Raton, 1985, p. 2; W. H. McNeill, The pursuit of power: technology, armed force, and society since A.D. 1000, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1982, pp. 233–4; W. Y. Carman, A history of firearms from earliest times to 1914, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955, pp. 141–5.

These early revolvers were still muzzle loading. The shift to breech-loading weapons would occur in the 1860s, spearheaded by the US Smith and Wesson firm, who had been experimenting for some years with new metal cartridges. Different methods of loading cartridges were tried. Once a satisfactory method was found, experiments shifted to the ejection of the spent cartridges. It took until 1890 to perfect a system whereby the front part of the revolver could be tilted forward, slightly raising the shells which could then be easily removed.W. Y. Carman, A history of firearms from earliest times to 1914, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955, pp. 145–7.

The next evolution was to use the force of recoil or expanding gases to eject spent cartridges and chamber the next round from a magazine. The first commercial self-loading pistol was produced in 1893 by Borchardt. Similar principles were adopted for the 1898 Mauser and Browning.W. Y. Carman, A history of firearms from earliest times to 1914, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955, pp. 147–8.

Last updated on: 08 February 2014

The most common pistol calibres in service with defence and security forces are the 9 x 19mm Parabellum; .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol); and 7.62 x 25mm Tokarev (see also entry on small arms ammunition).Small Arms Survey, 'Pistols and Revolvers', Research Note No. 22, October 2012, http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-22.pdf.

Common military pistols and revolvers
Country Company Main pistol types Main revolver types
Russia Izhmash Makarov 9mm (also Tokarev)  
Belgium FN Herstal

9mm Browning series (also Hi-Power Pistols)

Austria Glock Model 17 (also Model 19, 21, 22, 23, 31, 32, 33)  
Italy and US Beretta Model 92 (also Model 81)  
US Sturm, Ruger & Co   Ruger Security Six, Speed Six, GP 100, Redhawk
US Smith & Wesson SW99 .357, Model 10
US Colt Defence LLC M1911 pattern .45 pistol  
US Springfield .45  
Germany Heckler & Koch USP  

Table sourcesSmall Arms Survey, 'Pistols and Revolvers', Research Note No. 22, October 2012, at: http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-22.pdf; Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2001: Profiling the problem, Cambridge University Press, p. 20.

Last updated on: 08 February 2014

This section details the intended effects of pistols and revolvers. Their humanitarian impact is addressed in the entry dealing with small arms ammunition (health impact of penetrating trauma), as well as in the general entry on small arms (aggregate humanitarian impact).

Pistols and revolvers are short-range weapons designed to hit targets at distances of up to 30 metres, with rapidly diminishing accuracy beyond these ranges. Their small calibres tend to have less penetrative power than high-velocity rifle ammunition, thereby reducing the potential for accidental death and injury.

Law enforcement and military personnel now favour semi-automatic (self-loading) pistols instead of revolvers.See, e.g., Small Arms Survey, 'Estimating law enforcement firearms', Research Note No. 24, December 2012, p. 3. In military use, they are generally back-up weapons.

See Intended effects of small arms in the weapons entry for a general discussion of civilian uses of firearms.

See the weapons entries on small arms ammunition for the health impact of penetrating trauma, and on small arms for the aggregate humanitarian impact.

Last updated on: 08 February 2014

Applicable international, regional & national law

2001 Firearms Protocol

The UN Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (2001 Firearms Protocol) was the first global, legally binding instrument on small arms control. It contains important provisions on manufacturing, marking and tracing, record-keeping, and international transfers of firearms. It supplements the 2001 UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC), also known as the Palermo Convention.

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2013 Arms Trade Treaty

The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the first global, legally binding instrument regulating international transfers of most conventional weapons, as well as some ammunition / munitions, and parts and components.

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