A pistol is a class of firearm that falls under the category of "handgun" (i.e.) weapons that are small enough to be fired with one hand. While revolvers also fall under the category of "handgun", the main difference between pistols and revolvers is that pistols have a chamber that is part of the barrel, whereas revolvers have multiple chambers that rotate about an axis. Pistols are actually an older class of weapon than revolvers, in fact, the first pistols were made in the 1500s, whereas revolver designs didn't appear until the 1800s. In fact, the early revolver class weapons, such as the pepperbox were originally called "pepperbox pistols" and it was only in the mid 1800s that the term "revolver" came into use, to distinguish it from "pistol".
The earliest pistols were developed in the 1500s, for use at close ranges and by mounted horsemen. The term is believed to be from the Czech word "pistole" which refers to a small flute or pipe, or from Pistoia, a town close to Florence, Italy, where some of the early pistols were made. Allegedly, the first inventor was a citizen of this town, one Caminellio Vitelli, who made several pistolese (Italian for "from Pistoia"). In those early days, the term pistolese was interchangeably used for both firearms and small daggers.
The first pistols were single-shot weapons. In effect, the user simply held a burning match cord to the touch hole of firearm to set it off. In other words, they were merely portable cannons.
Later pistols used a variety of firing mechanisms: matchlock, wheel-lock, snaphaunce, flintlock, percussion caps and finally, the modern cartridge. The example in the image above is an early German made pistol from about 1515 or so. It has a file lock, where a rough piece of serrated steel is dragged over a flint, which drops sparks into the firing pan, which then lights and discharges the weapon.
In the following posts, we will study pistols throughout history.