types of pistols

Types of Pistols Explained

There are many different types of pistols available on the market, making it difficult for some new shooters to navigate the process of buying their first handgun. Hearing pistols referred to as terms such as striker fired, hammer fired, and double action can be confusing for someone just starting out. That’s why today we’re breaking down the different types of handguns.

What are the different types of pistols?

the author shooting a striker fired pistol

The three main types of pistols are:

  1. Semi-automatic pistols
  2. Revolvers
  3. Single shot pistols

We’re going to break down these types of handguns and the categories of pistols that are grouped underneath them. Later on, we’ll cover some less common handgun types.

Semi-automatic Pistols

Semi-automatic handguns fire one round each time the shooter pulls the trigger. They are auto-loading, which means the next round automatically enters the chamber after each round is shot. The ammo is usually fed through a magazine that attaches in the grip of the pistol.

Semi-auto pistols can further be broken down into striker fired vs. hammer fired. Of hammer fired pistols, there are three types: single action, double action, and double action/single action.

Striker Fired

a glock 21c is a striker fired semi-auto pistol
The Glock 21C is a striker fired semi-auto pistol.

Striker fired pistols use a spring loaded striker to hit the primer of the ammo cartridge. When a shooter racks the slide to chamber a round on a striker fired gun, an internal spring is partially cocked. Once the shooter pulls the trigger, the spring is cocked the remainder of the way, causing the striker pin to hit the cartridge and fire a round. There are variations of this mechanism. For example, some guns fully cock the striker spring when the slide is racked.

Striker fired pistols are some of the most popular on the market today. Examples include the Smith & Wesson M&P line and Glocks.

Hammer Fired

Both semi-autos and revolvers can have hammers. In a hammer fired gun, a spring forces the hammer to rotate. As it rotates, it hits the firing pin, which then hits the primer of the cartridge, firing the gun.

Hammer fired semi-automatic pistols are grouped into three types, each with different trigger pulls:

  1. Single Action
  2. Double Action Only
  3. Double Action/Single Action

Single Action Pistols

a rock island armory 1911
1911 pistols like this Rock Island are single action semi-autos.

In order to fire a single action pistol, the shooter must first cock the hammer before the trigger can be pulled. On a semi-auto pistol, the hammer is cocked when the shooter cycles the slide, chambering a round. The trigger pull then releases the hammer. Once the shooter has fired their first round, the slide will cycle another round and re-cock the hammer.

Single action pistols typically have very short, crisp trigger pulls and are designed to be carried cocked and with the safety on. The most popular single action pistol is the 1911. 

Double Action Only Pistols

a sig sauer p250 double action only pistol
The Sig Sauer P250 is a double action only semi-auto pistol.

The trigger on a double action performs two functions: cocking the hammer and then releasing the hammer to fire the gun. Double actions typically have longer and heavier trigger pulls because the trigger is performing two tasks instead of one. A shooter cannot cock the hammer on a double action pistol — they can only fire it in double action mode.

Many shooters like double action semi-autos for self defense because the heavy trigger pull makes it less likely to accidentally pull the trigger before they have their sights on target. On the other hand, shooters with hand weakness may struggle with the trigger pull.

Double Action/Single Action Pistols

a wilson combat beretta 92 compact double action/single action pistol
Beretta 92s are a popular double action/single action semi-auto pistol.

As the name implies, double action/single action pistols have both double action and single action trigger pulls. The first trigger pull is in double-action. Every shot following the first is in single action. These pistols usually have a de-cocking mechanism that lets the shooter drop the hammer to switch from single action to double action.

Some shooters like this because they find the first, double action trigger pull safer. The follow up shots are then with the short, single action trigger.

A popular example of a double action/single action handgun is the Beretta 92 pistol.


Revolvers are handguns that use a rotating cylinder to move ammo to the barrel to be fired. They are hammer fired, which function similarly to hammer fired semi-autos. The three types of revolvers are:

  1. Single Action Only
  2. Double Action Only
  3. Double Action/Single Action

Single Action Only Revolvers

a colt single action revolver
People often see single action revolvers, like this Colt, as “cowboy guns.”

In order to fire a single action revolver, the shooter must first pull the hammer back for every single shot. It is typically a very short, light trigger pull. A round cannot be fired unless the shooter pulls the hammer back. 

You may recognize single action revolvers as those in old western movies.

Double Action Only Revolvers

a double action only ruger lcr revolver
The hammerless Ruger LCR is a double action only revolver.

Double action only revolvers are typically hammerless revolvers, or revolvers with an entirely internal hammer. The trigger pulls on double action revolvers are usually heavy and long. Double action revolvers are popular guns for concealed carry because they are typically smaller and easier to conceal.

Double Action/Single Action Revolvers

double action/single action ruger revolver
Many revolvers are double action/single action, like this Ruger Security-Six.

Shooters can fire double action/single action revolvers in either single action or double action. Pulling the trigger in double action will result in a long, heavy trigger pull. By simply cocking the hammer, the shooter will have the short, light single action pull.

Single Shot Pistols

Single shot pistols are the last type of handgun we will discuss. This is a broad group of pistols that only fire one shot at a time and are not auto-loading. The shooter must manually reload the gun to fire it again. Single shot pistols can include derringers, break action pistols, and certain hunting handguns. Some of them have hammers.

Derringers & Break Action Pistols

a derringer single shot break action pistol
A break action derringer.

A derringer is a small pistol that usually only holds one round, though some may hold two. Typically they are break action, meaning the shooter manually opens the action using a latch. The gun appears to “break in half,” but is really just hinging open so that the shooter can place rounds in the chamber. These pistols can be chambered to fire everything from .22 LR ammo to .410 shot shells.

Single Shot Pistols for Hunting

Various other types of single shot pistols exist as well. They are often hunting handguns chambered in larger rounds, like the Thompson Center Contender which has caliber options in everything from rimfire rounds up to 45/70 Govt.

Less Common Types of Pistols

a luger p08 toggle action pistol
The Luger P08 is a toggle-locked semi-auto pistol.

There are some other, less common types of pistols worth mentioning as well.

For example, the Luger P08, which is one of the first semi-automatic pistols. Unlike other semi-auto pistols that function with the action of the slide, the P08 is a toggle-locked semi-auto. Most toggle actions use a locked breech system, which is unlocked by a secondary operating system.

Multi-barreled pistols are another type of handgun. They are often similar to single shot derringers, with only one round able to be fired at a time. They typically are not auto-loading, and feature two or more barrels.

Bolt action pistols also exist. Christensen Arms, for example, manufactures a bolt action pistol, the Modern Precision Pistol (MPP). It accepts detachable magazines and is available in several different rifle calibers.

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