Pistol, a small, light firearm, intended to be used with one hand. Every other small arm is handled by placing the butt against the shoulder when it is to be fired, using both hands; but the pistol is fired at arm's length, using but one hand, and is therefore particularly adapted for use by horsemen, and for defence of the person. The generally received account of the origin of the name is, that it was derived from the city of Pistoja, where pistols were first made; but this derivation is disputed, and Frisch and Diez consider the root the same as that of piston and pestle, at first meaning pounder or bludgeon. Pistillus is the Latin word for pestle. The word pistol was used by Strype in 1575, and by Shakespeare in 1599 and 1600, but there is nothing in its use by them to show that it meant a firearm. Dag is used by Strype as synonymous with pistol. In the latter part of the 15th century the Spanish cavalry was provided with a firearm which in some degree must have approached the pistol; it was a matchlock arm. After the invention of the wheel lock (see Musket) pistols were introduced into continental armies, so that they had become well known before the middle of the 16th century.
They were used by French cavalry and infantry in 1544, and by German cavalry and infantry about ten years later. Pistols were probably introduced into England from Holland about the beginning of the 17th century. The pistols at first used had short barrels, and the stock made a large angle with the barrel. The butt was large and spherical, and this may have given rise to the name.
Fig. 1. - 1. Double-barrel Pistol with two Wheel Locks, 1612. 2. Double-barrel Pistol with two Wheel Locks, time of Charles I. 3. Eevolver Carbine with Fliut Lock, time of Charles I. 4. Repeating Carbine, time of Cromwell.
Afterward the barrel was lengthened, and the butt or stock was placed nearly in the prolongation of the barrel. In some cases the stock was made like that of a musket, but smaller; in others stocks like those now existing were used. The taste or necessity of the purchaser regulated the style. As the musket improved in the course of years, so did the pistol, and in some cases the barrels were rifled. In European armies its use has in general been confined to the cavalry. In 1584 a carbine revolver was invented, but it burst in the trials. In 1607 a double-barrelled pistol with wheel lock was used by German cavalry. In 1618 Gustavus Adolphus introduced wheel-lock pistols into his armies. During the 18th century little change was made in pistols. The flint lock was applied to them, as it was to the musket. Many specimens were highly ornamented, and they were used by all mounted officers, and were sometimes worn on the person. In 1806 the Swedish cavalry was armed with pistols having an attachable carbine breech, by using which a more accurate aim could be obtained. The same arrangement is in use at the present day.
About 1830 a percussion-cap, rifled pistol, single-barrelled, was designed by Delvigne. At 200 yards and more it made a better target than the French musket of that day. - In 1836 the revolving pistol as it now exists was patented by Samuel Colt of Connecticut. It has a single barrel, in rear of which is a cylinder, bored with five, six, or more chambers, whose axes are parallel to the axis of the cylinder, and on a circle whose centre is in that axis. The axis of the cylinder is parallel to the axis of the bore of the barrel, and the bore of the chambers is the same as that of the barrel. Each chamber has a nipple or cone which communicates with it by a hole. In rear of the chambers is the lock, which is enclosed in the handle or stock. On the rear of the cylinder is cut a circular ratchet concentric with it, which is actuated by a pawl attached to the hammer. The number of teeth in the ratchet is the same as the number of chambers in the cylinder. The ratchet and pawl are so arranged that in the act of cocking the piece the pawl forces the cylinder to move through one fifth, one sixth, etc, of the circumference of a circle, the arc depending upon the number of chambers in the cylinder.
Supposing that the barrel and a chamber have their axes coincident, and the hammer is down, resting on a nipple, the act of cocking will bring the next chamber into line with the barrel. A bolt flies out after the pawl has done its work, and engages in a corresponding slot in the cylinder, locking it in place during the act of firing. This bolt is lifted out of its slot by the hammer before the revolution of the cylinder begins, leaving the cylinder free to move about its axis. In rear of the cylinder is a metal frame in which is contained the lock, and to which is attached one end of the axis upon which the cylinder is revolved, the other end being fastened below the barrel. In rear of this frame is the stock, which is of wood or ivory, and of such shape as may be desired. For a long time after its invention, the revolving pistol was loaded by inserting the cartridges into the chambers at their front ends, ramming them successively by a lever rammer attached to the barrel, and then capping them. This pistol was gradually introduced into all the armies of the world through the energy of the inventor, and is the first example of a successful repeating arm. After its invention the use of pistols as military arms became much more general, and the number manufactured was vastly increased.
About 1845 Lefaucheux invented a revolving pistol which was adapted to a metallic cartridge. After the expiration of Colt's patent in 1857, this invention was introduced generally, and at this time no revolving pistols are made that do not use the metallic cartridge. The principal manufactories of revolving pistols in the United States are Colt's, Smith and Wesson's, and Remington's. There is little difference of principle in the pistols made by these firms. In the Colt pistol the cartridge shells, after they have been fired, are ejected singly, and in the Smith and Wesson they are ejected simultaneously by the action of breaking down the barrel; that is, there is a hinge in the frame of the pistol, by opening which the ejection of all the shells is effected. In the Eemington pistol, model of 1875, the cartridge shell is ejected by opening the breech, in the manner shown in the engraving. The United States cavalry and the United States navy are armed with the Colt pistol. The British army uses the Adams pistol, which acts on the same principle as Colt's. The Russian army uses the Smith and Wesson pistol, and the other European armies use pistols made in France and Belgium. It is difficult to determine the number of revolving pistols that have been made in the United States and Europe; but for the ten years ending with 1865, the number sold by Colt's armory alone was more than 550,000. To none of these was the metallic cartridge applied.
The annual production at this time (1875) in the United States exceeds 250,000 of all sizes. In Belgium the annual production exceeds 300,000. The calibres of revolving pistols are at present '45, .44, .42, .38, .32, •30, and .22 in., and the weights vary from 2 1/2 lbs. to 6 oz. The calibre of the United States cavalry pistol is "45 in., and the weight 2 lbs. 6 oz. The cartridge is made with a copper shell, central fire, and internal priming, and contains 30 grains of powder; and the ball, which is cylindro-conical, weighs 250 grains. The United States navy also uses a single-barrel, 5-inch calibre pistol, with metallic cartridge ammunition.
Fig. 2. - Delvigne's Pistol.
Fig. 3. - Colt's New Model.
Fig. 4. - Smith and Wesson Pistol.
Fig. 5. - Remington Pistol, Model of 1875.