As if the terms pistol, wheelgun, revolver, and semi-auto handgun weren’t enough, there’s still single stack, double stack, single action, and double action. Confused yet? Simply put, they’re all types of handguns, and there are many types to be had. 

Once upon a time, a gun was a gun…sort of. But times, terms, and technology change. While some of these terms may be similar, even interchangeable occasionally, many are commonly confused. If there are so many ways to say similar things, it should be no wonder why it gets confusing. To break it all down, we’ve gone ahead and defined some of the most important different types of handguns for you.


A handgun is a firearm designed to be held and fired with one hand – often preferably with two – but mostly without the aid of other parts of the body. Makes sense, right? While it is a commonly used term, handguns are most commonly found as either revolvers or pistols


revolver handgun
Revolvers like this Colt Python are classic, popular types of handguns. (Photo: Colt)

This is a type of handgun with a normally cylindrical chamber system that holds the ammunition. Pulling the trigger not only fires the revolver, but it also often rotates the cylinder to place a new round in position to be fired next. 


Slang for a revolver, it’s commonly called a wheelgun because of the cylinder that revolves much like a wheel, moving ammunition to the barrel to be fired. 

Single-Action-Only Revolver (SAO)

The term “single action” indicates that you have to manually cock the hammer on the revolver in order to fire it. Think of the revolvers of the Wild West, you know, the ones you’d see cowboys use in the movies. These are the single-action revolvers. 

Double-Action-Only Revolver (DAO)

With a double-action revolver, the revolver automatically cocks the hammer when you pull the trigger. Because two things happen when you take one action (pulling the trigger), it’s known as a double-action revolver. You generally also have the option of manually cocking the hammer on a DA revolver. Manually cocking it will usually result in a lighter trigger pull. 

Double-Action/Single-Action Revolver (DA/SA)

These are a bit more modern, hybrid revolvers that can be operated as either a single-action or a double-action gun depending on their configuration. They’re truly the best of both worlds. 

How Are These Not Just All Pistols?

A pistol is an unfortunately complicated concept, but it generally involves a handgun designed with the chamber (or multiple bores and chambers, for the fun old-school folks out there) integrated with the bore/barrel of the gun. That is to say that a pistol’s barrel and the chamber for the ammunition have a shared relationship. A revolver, however, offers rotating chambers that all generally use the same bore and barrel system. So, the differentiation is really more about how the next round is loaded and less the nature of how you hold the mechanism. 

Pistols still share the same definition as a handgun by being designed to be held and fired with one hand. Pistol, gun, handgun, etc., they’re all commonly used interchangeably but typically the term “pistol” is designated for semi-auto handguns.

Semi-Automatic Pistols


Glock 19X
Many newer handguns, like this Glock 19X, are both double-stack and striker-fired pistols. (Photo: Paul Peterson/


A semi-automatic pistol will fire one round each time the trigger is pulled until it runs out of ammunition. Ammunition is fed from the magazine inserted into most semi-automatic pistols’ grips.  

These guns can have either single-stack or double-stack magazines that hold several rounds at a time depending on the size of the pistol and the type of magazine it takes. Double-stack magazines generally hold more ammunition due to their design, but they do cause the grip of the pistol to be thicker than that of a single-stack firearm.

Striker-Fired Pistols

A striker-fired pistol operates slightly differently than one that relies on a hammer to fire the round. In a striker-fired pistol, a spring-loaded striker hits the cartridge primer, firing the gun, instead of a hammer hitting the firing pin. 

Hammer-Fired Pistols

When the trigger is pressed on a hammer-fired pistol, a spring-fired hammer swings into the firing pin, driving the pin into the primer of the cartridge and firing the gun. Hammers are commonly seen on the outside of the gun, like on a 1911, but there are designs with internal hammers.

Single-Shot Handguns


Magnum Research Single Shot Pistol
Some guns break the mold, like this single-shot hunting gun. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

Single-shot handguns can only hold one round at a time. Single-shot pistols are often hunting handguns, but there are also some select self-defense handguns that also fire only a single shot.

Break-Action Handguns

A break-action handgun is much like a break-action shotgun in the fact that you manually load and unload the ammunition after manually opening the action, which causes the gun to “break in half,” except for the lynchpin holding it all together. You often see break-action handguns as twin-barreled derringers designed specifically for self-defense. There are also some older break-action revolvers if you’re looking for more collectible guns.

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revolver barrel loading graphic