Origin Story: The Word “Pistol”

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posted on December 24, 2019
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The word pistol may have come from the name of a small town, Pistoia, in southern Italy, where handguns were manufactured in the 15th and 16th centuries. This probably inspired the French words pistole or pistolet, which seem to be the likely inspiration for the word in English. However, some scholars attribute its origin to the Russian word for a 15th-century matchlock gun: pischol. And, there are some researchers that believe the word may derive from the Czechoslovakian word píšťala, which means pipe or tube. (The Píšťala was a 15th-century hand cannon that became well knows due to its use during the Hussite Revolution.) 

According to Merriam-Webster Online, “Pistol comes from the Middle French word pistole, from German, from Middle High German pischulle, from Czech píšťala, literally, pipe, fife; akin to Czech pištět to squeak.” 

Regardless of the true origin of the term, a common definition today for the word pistol is “a gun that has a short barrel and can be held, aimed and fired with one hand.”

Many different types of pistols exist, including revolvers, semi-automatics, muzzleloaders, hinge-actions, bolt-actions and air pistols. Two types of pistols dominate the shooting scene today: revolvers and semi-automatics.

One final note—although the word pistol is frequently associated with semi-automatic handguns, it is proper to use pistol to refer to all types of handguns.


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