Pistol Vs. Rifle – The 8 Differences That Matter

While two very different weapons, there may be times when you are unsure which one of these would work better for you.

As with anything, it will always greatly depend on how what, and where you want to use the weapon.

For this article, a rifle will be the classic configuration and not extend to assault rifles with semi-auto or full-auto capacity.

There are quite a few differences between these two weapons, some of them minor and some critical. All will influence the decision you make choosing which is better for you.

With your purpose for the gun clear in your mind, let’s explore the reality of what separates a rifle from a pistol.

pistol vs rifle difference

Development and origins 

The first big difference between rifles and pistols is that rifles have been around a lot longer than their smaller counterparts.

From the earliest versions of primitive black powder weapons that were nothing more than a barrel and trigger, the rifle has evolved through the ages.

From the matchlock, flintlock, and wheel lock to the lever-action rifles of Martini-Henry and Winchester and then the single-shot bolt actions weapons, the evolution of the rifle has significantly depended on the congruent development of the ammunition.

The pistol also owes its existence to the evolution of ammunition and specifically the creation of cased cartridges, the improvement from black powder to nitrocellulose, and the development of better quality bullets to deliver greater consistency and accuracy.

Another significant consideration was the development of rifling (hence the name) which created the spin on the bullets allowing them to be more accurate over a long distance.

These two single elements essentially ended the presence of the edged weapon in war as now soldiers could kill enemy soldiers over distances greater than the length of a spear or sword.

It also introduced a new style of warfare where ranks of soldiers fired volleys at their opponents and, in later years, brought in the expert marksmen that came to be known as snipers.

Pistol Vs. Rifle – Range 

One of the most apparent differences between rifles and pistols is the effective range.

Due to the design and function of the two guns, it is evident that rifle bullets travel further than pistol bullets.

The two critical aspects of this are that rifle bullets travel much faster, and the longer barrel adds more stability to the bullet flight and allows it to travel much further.

A typical 9mm bullet fired from a medium-size handgun would travel around 2200 yards before falling to the ground – assuming it doesn’t strike anything on the way.

A typical rifle bullet would easily travel DOUBLE that distance before losing the battle to gravity.

As the science of ballistics developed over time and with the advent of high-speed photography, ballistic gel, and computer-based design technology, gun and bullet designers looked for ways to improve efficiency in both.

They could now measure the effects of bullets on simulated live targets and see firsthand how bullets reacted when impacting and traveling through skin, bone, muscle, and ligaments.

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for standard rifle bullets to travel more than 5000 yards when fired at optimum angles, far outstripping their pistol counterparts!

Ultra long-range shooting has also come into its own, with some marksmen able to hit targets of up to 2 miles away or more!

If it’s long-range shooting you want, then the rifle is the way to go.

Pistol Vs. Rifle – The 8 Differences That Matter 1

Accuracy – Why The Long Gun Wins

The rifle is heavier and has multiple points of contact with the shooter’s body. From the shoulder t being held in both hands, resting on a tripod or a sandbag, the rifle has inherently more stability in the shooting position than a pistol.

Also, the recoil from the rifle is more controllable and allows the shooter to get back on target for the next shot very quickly.

This translates into the rifle being more accurate and requiring less training and time to achieve reasonable accuracy.

A pistol’s recoil tends to move the muzzle off target for a short period, and the shooter then has to reacquire the target after every shot.

The pistol muzzle is also relatively short, say around 4-6 inches, and this has a significant impact on the accuracy of the weapon over medium to longer distances.

While a pistol can shoot accurately over distances up to 165 feet or even more, achieving good grouping consistently takes a fair amount of practice and technique.

Although the pistol can be fired with one or both hands, accuracy unless at very close range will take some time to develop, and proper training will be needed to achieve consistent accuracy.

All things being equal, if it’s long-range accuracy you want, the rifle is the weapon for you.

Training and Mastery – Pistol VS Rifle

The rifle is relatively easy to master as it has better stability and weight and thus lends itself to more accurate shooting, even for first-time shooters.

The more controllable recoil also removes the intimidation factor of a pistol blast. There is also minimal muzzle flash and less noise with a rifle as the bolt and chamber remain closed after each shot.

Mastering the pistol takes a bit more time and effort with the shooter needed to become very familiar with the features on the gun, as the safety and magazine release.

While small-caliber rifle and pistol shooting are great fun, especially for kids, larger caliber pistols require a bit more strength and dexterity from the shooter to manage the weight of the gun and the recoil.

The bottom line- the rifle is easier to shoot!

Pistol Vs. Rifle – The 8 Differences That Matter 2

Stopping Power 

By default, a rifle bullet has more stopping power than a pistol bullet simply due to its weight and velocity.

The combination of these two factors gives greater impact power to a rifle bullet.

Over the years, firearm manufacturers have looked to develop bigger and more powerful pistol cartridges to deliver greater stopping power for self-defense and hunting.

Hollowpoint bullets create massive wound channels in the target and effectively inflicting debilitating injuries to an attacker or on game.

Some bullets were considered so lethal that they were eventually taken off the common market and made available only to law enforcement.

An example of this was the Winchester Black Talon described by one surgeon as “exploding inside a body like a thousand razor blades!”

Replaced by the SXT bullets, many still believe that the SXT’s are basically the same, but examinations of these bullets side by side shows distinct structural differences.

Pistols like the 50 Calibre Desert Eagle and 500 Action Express brought new dimensions in power and recoil to handheld weapons.

Even so, 50 Calibre rifles like the Barrett have been around a while, and even though they are the same caliber, the rifles deliver bullets more accurately and with greater power at long range.

Pistol Vs. Rifle – Self Defense 

So far, the rifle has proved superior in both range and stopping power, but the odds change regarding personal self-defense.

A rifle has to be fired from the shoulder and held with both hands to provide stability and accuracy, while a pistol can easily be fired using one hand.

This makes the pistol an ideal choice for personal protection.

Easily concealed and carried, the pistol wins this battle hands down. 

Far easier to maneuver in a combat situation and with enough stopping power at short range to stop an attacker, even if it’s a small-caliber pistol.

Rifles are far more cumbersome to carry and impossible to carry effectively concealed! Someone is definitely going to notice an M1 Carbine sticking out from underneath your jacket, while even a large pistol would go relatively unnoticed.

Also, consider that an attacker could wrestle a rifle away from you or be able to deflect the barrel while trying to do the same against a defender with a pistol is a little more tricky.

The pistol can be fired close to the body while shooting, while the rifle’s length would make a ‘shoot from the hip’ highly impractical.

In the field of self-defense, the pistol wins this one, hands down!

Pistol Vs. Rifle – The 8 Differences That Matter 3

Rate Of Fire

Another significant advantage is that pistols are magazine-fed and so you can carry multiple magazines to reload and remain in the fight if need be.

Consider the Beretta M92 or the Glock 17 with 15-17 rounds in each magazine, respectively plus a chambered round gives the average person a considerable amount of mobile firepower ‘in their pocket’ whereas a typical rifle (excluding assault weapons) may only have a 5-10 shot magazine.

A high-capacity pistol has a far superior rate of fire than a standard rifle, and this could mean the difference between surviving a combat encounter or not.

Being able to lay down a volley of fire at your opponent is intimidating as hell; this is why assault rifles are so effective. 

Having said all of this, a rifle certainly could be handy in self-defense situations, especially in rural or farm/ranch settings where there is a lot of open ground and potential attackers have little or no cover on approach.

Under these circumstances, a skilled sharpshooter could defend their property from a distance and then utilize the pistol for close-quarter combat if required.

The pistol wins the self-defense round hand down since the average city dweller wouldn’t have much space.

If it’s a personal carry weapon you’re looking for with a high capacity for firepower, then the pistol is the way to go.

Pistol VS Rifle – Cost 

Here we’re going to looking the prices of pistols and rifles as well as the cost of ammunition so you can see what sort of investment you’d need to make.

We will also be focussing on new guns, as the 2nd hand costs would be lower and relative to the condition of the weapon on offer.

A new pistol should average around $400 but can go as high as $1000 or more depending on your purchase.

A Glock, for example, would be about $500, while a custom 1911 by Wilson could set you back more than $1500!

A new centerfire rifle would cost around $600 to $800, which can escalate into the thousands of dollars if you want to get exotic!

As with most things, investing in a decent quality weapon will yield better performance as well as better resale value should you ever decide to sell.

In this comparison, both weapons come out even.

Ammo prices – Pistol VS Rifle 

As far as ammo is concerned, there are some considerations from the pistol point of view.

The cost of ammunition will depend on the type you buy, with hollow point and similar ammo being more expensive than standard factory ball.

For example, Federal’s Premium HST or Remington’s Golden Saber will be far more pricy than standard 9mm / 40 / 45 ACP FMJ ammo.

The 9mm HST is about $36 / box of 20 compared to $25 for a box of 20 FMJ rounds.

This is the equivalent of $1-80 for the HST and $1-25 for the FMJ rounds.

Looking at the rifle side for a 30-06, a box of 20 150 grain PSP rounds would cost about $26.99, while a box of Federal Premium Barnes TSX Rounds will run $43.69 for 20 cartridges.

For rifle ammo, this is $ 1-34 per round for the PSP and $2-18 for the TSX!

Pistol Vs. Rifle – The 8 Differences That Matter 4

Reloading Ammo Can Save You Big Money!

As a side dish, let’s take a quick look at what the savings could be if you elect to reload ammo rather than buying it new.

Before the Covid 19 Pandemic, prices were a staggering 300% lower than they are now, and it’s not uncommon to see 9mm rounds selling for around $1 each or more.

Calculating the costs of each component – primer, powder, brass, and bullet for a 9mm round, the prices come down to a mere $0,26 per round – a saving of 80% on the 9mm FMJ!

Of course, you would be buying all the components in bulk to save money, but the evidence is clear – if you want to shoot your pistol a lot – you need to reload!

Similar pricing would apply with the rifle rounds.

Whether you are hunting, target shooting, doing pistol combat, or just having fun reloading your rounds is going to save you a fortune over your shooting lifetime!

With reloading, the savings are very similar, so we’ll call this one a tie between rifle and pistol!

Cowboy Hack – Have The Same Caliber Weapons!

Another way to save money is to have your rifle and pistol be of the same caliber.

Going back to the Old West, you found that most cowboys carried the Colt SAA with a Winchester or similar rifle in the same caliber.

This was to save money by not having to buy two different caliber bullets for each gun, and practical as well as the cowboy was able to shoot long distance for hunting and short-range for combat.

At that time, the .44 caliber bullets were some of the most powerful available, and having both weapons chambered for the same bullets made a lot of sense.


Having looked at all the various elements of both pistols and rifles, the real question still revolves around the application.

For self-defense, the pistol is king.

Concealability, firepower, stopping power and short-range accuracy, and various effective ammunition available, the rifle falls short in this category.

But, if it’s hunting or longe range accuracy you want, then the rifle is definitely for you!

Either way, the good news is that there is a vast range of guns, ammo, and knowledge out there, so rest assured that whatever you choose, you’ll get the right gun for the job!

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