Can Pistols Be Automatic?

can pistols be automatic

With the way gun laws and gun control is going these days, everyone knows that the tide is against automatic weapons. However, when most people visualize automatic weapons, they envision assault rifles or machine guns. Rarely do they even think about pistols.

Can pistols be automatic? In short, yes. Like most other small arms, there are automatic pistols just like there are other variants. However, they are very rare in the United States and you’ll rarely see one, even in gun shops.

What Distinguishes an Automatic Pistol from a Semi?

Understanding the difference between automatic and semi-automatic pistols is vital. Thankfully, the definition is no different from any other weapon. An automatic weapon fires bullets continuously as long as the trigger is pulled. A semi-automatic weapon fires one bullet (or a burst of bullets) per trigger pull. The vast majority of pistols are semi-automatic.

Distinguishing SMGs from Automatic Pistols

Automatic pistols are often called machine pistols as well. Such weapons can be easily confused with SMGs (sub-machine guns) but they are not the same. Machine pistols often confused with SMGs include the Mac-10, Micro Uzi, the MP5K, and MP7A1, among many others. Of course, most of those weapons are illegal for citizens to own or require significant screening and authorizations.

That said, the distinguishing line between SMG and Machine Pistol is quite vague. Some of the aforementioned weapons are considered SMGs by some parties, but machine pistols by others. In some cases, they are considered both.

To be as technical as possible, SMGs are defined as “magazine-fed, fully automatic carbines that fire pistol ammunition.” Machine Pistols are defined as “fully automatic handgun-based weapons.” Needless to say, these distinctions can be difficult to make for some weapons, such as the Skorpion VZ.61 or Steyr TMP.

So, if you consider some of these weapons to be machine pistols, then you could easily include them in the realm of automatic pistols. However, there are also some more traditional looking automatic handguns out there, such as the Glock 18 or the Beretta 93R. 

Can Pistols Be Automatic? 1

Accessories That Make Weapons Automatic

There are some handguns that are not inherently automatic but have available accessories that make them automatic. Glocks, for example, tend to have selector switches available that can make them full-auto even though they aren’t when they are purchased.

Technically speaking, automatic pistols exist in this way as well. Even weapons that are not automatic when they come out of the factory can be made automatic in some cases, provided that accessories that make that modification are available.

Are Automatic Pistols Legal?

On a technicality, you can get your hands on automatic pistols in the United States, legally. However, there are many stipulations that must be taken into consideration. For one, only automatic weapons made before 1986 can be legally owned. 

On top of that, automatic weapons that can be legally owned are NFA items, meaning you have to pay extra taxes to own them. In order to buy them, you have to go through the ATF, which includes a very thorough and expensive background check that takes almost a year to complete.

And on top of all of that, pre-1986 registered automatic pistols are quite limited in supply, meaning they are very expensive to purchase. Taking all of that into consideration, you can legally acquire an automatic pistol in the United States, but it’s an arduous and lengthy process, and there is a question of whether or not it serves any purpose to own one.

Is There a Reason to Buy an Automatic Pistol?

If you want to buy an automatic pistol just to own one, for collection purposes or any other reason, then that’s a perfectly valid reason to buy such a weapon. However, is there a practical reason to buy an automatic pistol, for a reason such as self-defense?

Well, there’s no denying that an automatic pistol could easily dispatch a human target if you had to protect yourself. But it’s not necessarily any better at it than a regular semi-auto pistol. In fact, in many cases, it can be worse. There are a few reasons why.

are automatic pistols less accurate


If you’ve fired a weapon, you know about recoil. That’s the kickback of a weapon when you fire it. Naturally, more recoil makes it harder to aim, and firing many bullets in rapid succession increases recoil significantly.

With automatic rifles, the larger weapon, handrails, stocks, handgrips, and other accessories help control the recoil of full-auto fire. But automatic pistols, being much smaller and lacking most of those accessories, are far harder to control.

Of course, you can modify some handguns with stocks to increase stability and accuracy, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll have one of those on hand while out and about or even sitting around at home. It would definitely be impractical to have that modification in regular day-to-day business.

That being said, the accuracy of a full-auto pistol at any moderate range is very poor. The first shot may be on target, but all the follow-up shots are unlikely to connect at moderate ranges. In such cases, a semi-auto pistol would be better for consistent accuracy.

Precision, Potential Danger to Others

As stated previously, full-auto pistols have poor accuracy at range and poor precision if the recoil is not properly managed. This poses a significant threat to other people if you had to fire it in a self-defense scenario.

If you are in public and need the weapon to defend yourself or others, there’s a greater chance of hitting bystanders with a full-auto pistol with poor precision. If defending yourself at home, the full auto barrage could easily miss the target and go through walls, endangering family members in other rooms.

Nine times out of ten, taking down a target is less about how many bullets you put into it, and more about where you hit it. One fatal shot is worth more than five non-fatal ones. For that reason, semi-auto pistols are a more reliable and accurate weapon for defending yourself or others, be that in public or at home.

automatic pistols use more ammo

Burning Through Ammo

It goes without saying: automatic weapons go through ammo much faster than semi-auto ones. Whether or not you are defending yourself against a real threat or just doing some target practice at the range, you’re going to go through ammo pretty quickly. That has a number of downsides.

And of course, ammo isn’t particularly cheap or light. The more you have to carry, the more uncomfortable you will be, and the more you fire, the more you have to spend to replace all of your bullets. Automatic weapons can be an expensive weapon to own, maintain and fire compared to semi-auto variants.


Yes, pistols can be automatic: some weapons considered SMGs are also considered automatic pistols, while some accessories also transform semi-auto weapons into automatic ones. Of course, some pistols really are just automatic as standard.

It’s a long and arduous process to get your hands on one, and they have to be pre-1986 registered, but it is legal to own some of these auto pistols. That said, it’s not always a more practical choice for self-defense compared to a regular semi-auto pistol.