I'm currently reading GURPS4 to prepare myself for DMing. When I read about firearms I thought pistols to be vastly inferior to rifles to the point that if one carried enough armor to possibly survive a single hit from a rifle he/she would be left almost unharmed by a hit from a pistol. Now I'm thinking, what reasons would my players (and NPCs) have to ever use a pistol?

Reasons I found for using a pistol instead of a rifle:

  • Easier to hide (holdout) - If you're not allowed to carry a firearm, a pistol is obviously much easier to conceal than an assault rifle
  • Price - A bit less expensive
  • "Just in case" - when a gunfight is not expected, but also not entirely impossible
  • Style - for whatever reason, the character might think shooting pistols is way more wicked
  • Backup weapon - if your main gun is jammed, out of ammo (and would take to long to reload or you really have no more ammo) or for some other reason unusable a pistol still hurts your enemies a lot more than harsh language
  • Weight - a pistol is not that heavy and still is a lot more dangerous than a knife
  • Mobility - most pistols have a bulk of 1 or 2, making the Move and Attack maneuver more appealing as you will suffer a smaller penalty to your attack compared with a longarm (which I can imagine is more useful in environments with plenty of cover, like indoors)

Only the last bullet point describes a situation in which one would possibly consider a pistol a better weapon for actual combat. For example, whilst knowing you can't conceal a rifle under casual clothing like you can a pistol you probably still wished you could if you'd be forced to use it.

So, do you know of any other reasons why one would prefer a pistol? At least for the moment I'll only use the Basic Set regarding available books. It is still uncertain what kind of setting we'll play, might be some kind of wild west as well as a futuristic world.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'll note that GURPS is heavily simulationist, and IRL there are few reasons to prefer a pistol over a rifle and they are all soft concerns like concealability et al. Damage and accuracy wise, rifles are far, far superior. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Dec 14, 2011 at 4:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ For real actual combat, rifles are superior. Soldiers get equipped with rifles rather than pistols for a very good reason. It's only when you expect significantly more non-combat than combat that smaller, less cumbersome pistol really shines. Just how much comfort, convenience and weird looks are you willing to sacrifice to be better equipped for combat? \$\endgroup\$
    – mcv
    Mar 27, 2014 at 8:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'll point out that soldiers are ALWAYS equipped with a sidearm and its not because they might run out of ammo. In confined spaces such as narrow hallways (particularly the corners) long weapons can be dangerously difficult to maneuver. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 3, 2014 at 19:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WesleyObenshain I have to challenge the 'always' very strongly, because for lots and lots of soldiers it's not the case. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 11, 2019 at 15:40

8 Answers 8


The reasons you list are all valid. There are additional real world/setting reasons people carry a pistol as opposed to a long gun.

  • Legality: In some situations, such as under certain concealed carry laws in the US, is legal to carry a pistol, while it would be illegal to carry a rifle or shotgun.
  • Appearances: Even when carrying openly it sends a completely different message to walk around with a pistol in a holster vs a long-arm on a sling. In many places an openly carried pistol might raise eyebrows or attract no attention at all, while a rifle (especially a military style rifle) would result in a conversation with police, and possible arrest for going armed to the terror of the public. Characters might not want that attention.
  • A free hand: Another reason is that a pistol can usually be wielded in one hand, which is of benefit to people who only have one usable hand or need to have another hand occupied, such as with a radio.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have yet to see a game system that actually represents this well, but pistols are also good close quarters weapons, as they are more maneuverable and easier to aim in tight spaces. \$\endgroup\$
    – James
    Dec 15, 2011 at 23:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @James With a pistol vs. a hunting rifle I or one with a long, fixed stock, I would agree with you. But a carbine with a slightly shorter barrel and a collapsible stock is superior for even close quarters battles in most situations. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 6, 2014 at 20:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @James, Twilight: 2013 (NOT about vampires, sparkly or otherwise) handled this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Smithers
    Sep 30, 2014 at 3:26

You and @C.Ross make some very good points about why to use a pistol over a rifle. One additional reason is the capability to use Dual-Weapon Attack—B230 in Characters mentions that Dual-Weapon Attack (Guns (Pistol)) is learnable even in a realistic campaign (i.e. not cinematic).

From personal experience (as a PC in 3-4 TL7 or TL8 GURPS 4E games), I usually carry my longarm of choice (shotgun, rifle, etc.) along with a backup pistol (on one particular character, two backup pistols) when I'm expecting combat with little care for subtlety. In those types of instances, things like Tactical Vests with Trauma Plates and Ballistic Helmets are in use—not exactly "walking down the street" gear.

Alternatively, outside of heavy combat, a pistol in a belt holster (for a law enforcement character) or a shoulder holster (for Holdout) is more common, for the reasons @C.Ross highlighted.

If your question is "why would anyone use a pistol when loaded out for heavy combat," the only real answer I have for you is the Dual-Weapon Attack option. Honestly unless the PC is very proficient (20+ skill) even that isn't going to be nearly as effective as something like a shotgun or a rifle—pistols have lower damage, lower range, no rate of fire bonus or option for Spraying Fire or Suppression Fire.

One note—I don't know what equipment or advantages you're giving your PCs access to, but the comment "he/she would be left almost unharmed by a hit from a pistol" seems very, very unlikely to me. An Auto Pistol, .40 does 2d pi+—an average hit (7 damage, multiplied up to 10 for large piercing) in the average (10HP) person's arm could cripple it depending on the outcome of the health roll, or could even leave an unarmored foe unconscious with a torso hit. And that's if a single round fired hits—the .40 is only recoil 2!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Regarding almost unharmed: You're right, I was thinking of armor - if one carries enough armor to survive 4-6d6 damage on a regular basis he/she probably could ignore 2d. I'm adding that bit right now. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 11, 2011 at 22:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Enough armor to survive 4-6d is 14-21 - at TL8 that's only achievable with trauma plates, which weigh you down significantly. Even then, that's for the torso only. What it comes down to is that a gunshot to the leg is, well, a gunshot to the leg - it's gonna suck. Unless you guys end up going TL9 or TL10 (for which I'd recommend Ultra Tech, definitely), figure on most gunshot wounds being a major threat. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 11, 2011 at 22:24

Using only Basic, the only combat reasons I can come across are:

  1. The ability to use two pistols at the same time,
  2. The ability to draw another pistol instead of reloading, and
  3. The penalty in the form of bulk in CQB (B391)
  4. With Gunslinger, you get the ACC bonus of 1H weapons without the need to aim (B58)
  5. Depending on situation and campaign, pistol ammo can be easier to come by/cheaper than rifle ammunition.

As many combats start within a range for these factors to come into play, they can make a big enough difference.

You can increase the reasons to use a pistol over a rifle adding the following books:

  1. GURPS: Gun Fu
  2. GURPS: High Tech
  3. GURPS Martial Arts: Fairbairn Close Combat Systems
  4. GURPS: Tactical Shooting

Those only help with the systematic reasons; most of the sociological reasons have already been covered very well.


Normal people do not wear armour, and a pistol is enough to take someone down. People walking around in armour, if they are not in a war zone or police, etc., tend to create a lot of attention quickly. The same point is true in any background: in real life, most knights did not wear plate all the time—plate was for battle. Wearing it around town would soon cause trouble with the local lord's knights.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wearing full plate armor around town would soon cause trouble with heatstroke and dehydration, probably much faster than trouble with the town guard (who aren't going to go out of their way to bother a fully-armored knight in any case). Armor is HEAVY and it doesn't breathe well. \$\endgroup\$
    – Paul Z
    Dec 13, 2011 at 23:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually I have known people that have worn plate armour all day at a LARP, it is very hot to wear but you can. Basically people would not because it uncomfortable, hot and 99.9% of the time a liability. Need to go to the toilet, sit and have lunch? \$\endgroup\$ Dec 14, 2011 at 10:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DavidAllanFinch At SCA events, it is not uncommon to see fighters in armour for all/most of the day (other than the helmet). But I'd say the typical SCA fighter is less than "full plate" - probably closer to half plate or breastplate in RPG terms. \$\endgroup\$
    – Adeptus
    Aug 4, 2014 at 6:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Adeptus - true but the specific inistance I was thinking of the person was wearing real Milanese Full Plate for the whole day, we also run up and down hill etc but he was extremely fit. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 10, 2014 at 13:40

In addition to what others have said:

  • Rifles tend to want two uninjured hands and arms to use.

  • Depending on the tech level and situation, there may be more pistols available which have more shots or higher RoF than a rifle in the same situation (legal or military issue, etc). e.g. Two flintlock pistols gives you two shots versus one for musket. Revolvers had 5-6 shots and automatics even more, when militaries were using single-shot bolt-action rifles circa 1850-1950. The rifles were still better military weapons for many cases since in war, combat was often at 100m or even much more, though the pistol was better at closer range.

  • As a secondary weapon, carrying 1-3 extra pistols is reasonable without penalties, while carrying 1-3 extra rifles would not just add weight but probably DX penalties for awkwardness.

  • You can use a pistol in close combat, but not a rifle.

(GURPS before 4e also used to give a SS (Snap Shot) rating for each weapon, representing that it was easier to fire lighter smaller weapons without aiming, but the mechanic was dropped in 4e, and not really replaced with anything. That used to be another reason, unless you had a lot of skill (which IMO was the problem with that mechanic).)


In addition to the other excellent points:

  • Bulk. For example, vehicle crew don't usually carry rifles, they carry pistols (or perhaps carbines, as a compromise between range/damage and encumbrance). The cabin of an aircraft or the driving compartment of a tank just doesn't have room for a rifle.

  • Overdamage. For example, spaceship crew might carry only pistols to reduce the chance of shooting a hole in the hull. For example, a hostage rescue team might carry only pistols to reduce the chance of bullets blasting through kidnappers into hostages.


Most of the above reasons are good. I’ve played several times as a PC in GURPS games that feature guns and there are a few other things I wish to touch on.

One major use for a pistol that I often find important is the sniper’s backup. I’ve played a few snipers and my biggest problem is if someone manages to find me. Sniper rifles, especially large ones like a .50 BMG, are pretty much useless in an open firefight, especially in close quarters. For most of my snipers I have them carry a relatively heavy pistol or revolver (.5 AE or .454 Casull) as a sidearm.

Another advantage of the pistol is as a assassin’s weapon. They’re easy to conceal, quieter (relatively speaking) and a shot to the head at 3 meters is not only very likely to hit, but also very lethal, even with a lighter caliber gun, because damage to the brain is quadrupled.

This next thing only matters in a modern game that also features magic, but since a pistol is a one-handed weapon you can make the needed gestures for a spell while still having your weapon ready.

A final noteworthy feature of pistols, ammo is cheaper. A good pistol round is about $0.4 per round whereas a good rifle round is more like $0.6 or more. This matters if you’re in a game where firing 100+ rounds per session is likely.

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    – V2Blast
    Sep 11, 2019 at 23:39

A pistol is enough for normal ranges and opponents. If you are going to where a pistol is no longer sufficient, you either will have a rifle or are desperate and will get a rifle.

Major point: walking down the street with a rifle, in the vast majority of places, will get you arrested. Even if not, you'll be watched. Do it with the sort of rifle players give their characters and you'll have some /really/ good uniformed friends in no time at all--or someone will just shoot you as a precaution.

A rifle makes you a target. A pistol, even if worn openly, usually doesn't.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your answer is currently a restatement of the accepted answer. For questions as old as this one, new answers should provide new information or significantly expand on information already given. You may want to edit this answer to more fully flesh out your ideas. \$\endgroup\$ May 8, 2017 at 6:24

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