With the development of the revolver in the 19th century, gunsmiths had finally achieved the goal of a practical capability for delivering multiple loads to one pistol barrel in quick succession. Revolvers feed ammunition via the rotation of a cartridge-filled cylinder, in which each cartridge is contained in its own ignition chamber, and is sequentially brought into alignment with the firearms barrel by an indexing mechanism linked to the firearms trigger (double-action) or its hammer (single-action). These nominally cylindrical chambers, usually numbering between five and ten depending on the size of the revolver and the size of the cartridge being fired, are bored through the cylinder so that their axes are parallel to the cylinder’s axis of rotation; thus, as the cylinder rotates, the chambers revolve about the cylinder’s axis.
Single-shot pistols are the simplest possible form of pistols and are known to have existed in AD 1365
The earliest handguns were single-shot, muzzle-loading guns with ignition provided by inserting a smoldering match cord into a touch hole. As such, they were essentially nothing more than miniature cannon, small enough to be handheld.
Improvements followed in subsequent centuries, as various types of locks (ignition devices) were invented. In the matchlock, the separate match cord was affixed to a spring-loaded pivot which could be tripped by a trigger. In the wheellock, a mechanism analogous to that used in today’s cigarette lighters replaced the smoldering match cord. In the 17th century, the flintlock, which strikes a flint against steel, appeared. The flintlock remained the standard method of small arms ignition around two hundred years. In the 19th century, percussion caps were developed, followed shortly by modern integrated-primer cartridges, and hammers therefore traded their flint for firing pins.
An example of a single-shot pistol is the flare gun. Although not intended to be a weapon, many variants have been made (See Flare gun). One example is the Kampfpistole, or Sturmpistole in its final form, which was designed to function as an anti-tank weapon.
A handgun is a firearm designed to be handheld, in either one or both hands. This characteristic differentiates handguns as a general class of firearms from long guns such as rifles and shotguns (which usually can be braced against the shoulder).
Major handgun subtypes are the revolver and pistol (including single-shot pistols, semi-automatic pistols, and machine pistols); other subtypes include derringers and pepperboxes.
The words “pistol” and “handgun” have overlapping variations, in meaning.
Although handgun use often includes bracing with a second hand, the essential distinguishing characteristic of a handgun is its facility for one-handed operation.