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Impact Driver vs Drill

Everything You Need to Know

There are countless types of power tool available to anyone from DIYers to professional contractors.

So, no matter what your needs are or your overall experience, you’re literally spoilt for choice.

Two of the most common types are the humble drill driver and the impact wrench – two tools which may look quite similar at face value, but that are intended for very different types of task.

Throw in variations on the two such as hammer drills, manual impact drivers, and impact wrenches, and things can quickly become confusing.

Fear not though, because regardless if you’re struggling to tell the difference between an impact driver vs drill driver, or you’re wondering which is the best choice for your tool arsenal or your next project, this is the guide for you.

Let’s get started…


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Impact Drivers

an image showing a milwaukee impact driver in use

What Is an Impact Driver?

An impact driver is a tool which uses a combination of rotational ‘impacts’ as well as a linear, rotational force to insert (or if the output is reversed, to remove) large fixings and fastenings.

They’re widely used by the likes of mechanics working on automotive projects, professional tradespeople handling construction work, and operatives dealing with product assemblies that require frequent tightening and loosening of nuts and bolts.

While they make look similar to conventional drill drivers, impact drivers provide considerably more twisting power, or torque (sometimes as much as two to three times more, in fact) even though they’re usually smaller and lighter.

They aren’t just stronger and more compact though; they’re usually quicker too, all thanks to the ability of most impact drivers to drive or remove fixings and fastenings at a much faster rate than standard drill drivers.

Speaking of speed, you can change an impact driver’s output speed by adjusting how hard you press its variable speed trigger, in a similar way to how you would with a drill driver.

Unlike a drill driver, however, impact drivers don’t come with a multi-speed transmission or a dedicated clutch, meaning it can be very easy to over-tighten fixings and fastenings with an impact driver if you aren’t careful with your trigger finger.

While it is technically possible to use an impact driver for drilling, it’s probably best to avoid this in favor of a drill driver if accuracy is required. The combination of the high torque and speed output on offer leads to vibration which means that precision drilling in a particular location to a set diameter, roundness, and orientation will be difficult.

Impact drivers typically come in a variety of different drive sizes (usually a 1/4″ hex drive), with a massive range of hex bits available that are tailor-made for working with different sizes and styles of fastening.

Most impact drivers on the market are cordless, often using 12-volt, 18-volt, and in some cases, 20-volt lithium-ion batteries, with the higher the battery voltage, the more powerful the impact driver usually is and the longer the available battery life.

There is also a wide range of corded electric impact drivers available too, should you prefer.


What Is an Impact Driver Used For?

As mentioned, impact drivers rotate in the same way that drill drivers do, so clearly they’re intended for tightening and loosening various fixings and fastenings depending on the specific bit type used.

It’s their ability to deliver a sideways hammer action while rotating that makes them capable of providing a much higher torque output though, and this ultimately lets them handle tasks that ordinary drill drivers would struggle with, for example:

  • Inserting or removing longer screws, for example, lag screws.
  • Tightening or loosening heavy-duty nuts and bolts.
  • Driving fixings and fastenings into more robust materials, for example, metal or concrete.

And as discussed briefly above, here’s what you shouldn’t use an impact driver for:

  • Drilling generally, but especially for precision drilling requirements.

How Does an Impact Driver Work?

The inner workings of an impact driver are surprisingly simple as shown in the image below, with there being four main components:

  • A motor
  • A spring
  • An internal hammer
  • An anvil

an image showing an exploded view diagram of an impact driver

As the impact driver’s motor experiences resistance from tightening or loosening a fixing, the spring-loaded internal hammer is pulled away from the anvil as the hammer continues to rotate.

At a certain point, the spring is released which pushes the internal hammer forward, and because of its profile and the simultaneous rotation produced by the motor, the hammer’s lugs impact with the anvil’s arms with sufficient energy to provide the impact driver with its renowned torquey output (and its significantly higher noise output versus a standard drill!).

The entire process then repeats for however long the user continues to press the trigger.

Here’s a video which shows the inner workings of an impact tool in detail, and slow motion:

Impact drivers are typically rated in impacts per minute (IPM), with, for example, the DEWALT DCF885 that we looked at previously producing a maximum of 3,200 IPM – that’s over 50 impacts per second!


Electric Impact Driver vs Manual Impact Driver

As mentioned, many of the more popular impact driver models on the market are cordless electric tools that use lithium-ion batteries, with these differing significantly from the manual impact driver model shown below:

an image showing the wen 4214 12 inch variable speed drill press extendable table

As alluded to by its name, a manual impact driver doesn’t feature a power source and is instead designed to be hit with a hammer to provide both rotational force and forward impact.

The forward impact aspect of the manual impact driver is worth reiterating as this is something that an electric impact driver doesn’t provide, and it makes the manual impact driver particularly useful when dealing with particularly problematic fixings, for example, those that are over-tightened or rusted in place.

Most manual impact driver models also come with a reverse function, meaning you can also use them to tighten screws to the point that would be unachievable with a regular screwdriver alone.


Impact Driver vs Impact Wrench

At the risk of confusing things further, there’s another type of tool to be aware of in this space, and that’s the impact wrench.

It’s worth viewing the impact wrench as the bigger, heavier, and stronger brother to the typical electric impact driver.

It’s like an impact driver on steroids, intended for only the most heavy-duty of tasks.

You see, whereas an electric impact driver like the DEWALT DCF885 delivers an impressive maximum torque of 117 ft-lbs, this is dwarfed by the DEWALT DCF894 impact wrench, for example, which is capable of a staggering 330 ft-lbs.

Because of this, the impact wrench is likely too powerful for the needs of homeowners, DIYers, and in most cases, even professional contractors.

The substantial torque on offer means that it’s best-suited to tightening and loosening sockets by the likes of mechanics doing automotive work (for example, those needing to fit or remove heavy lug nuts from a vehicle), and contractors working with only the largest nuts and bolts.

an image showing a dewalt impact wrench in use

To handle the increased torque, impact wrenches often feature a 1/2″ square drive for attaching various sized sockets depending on the application, as opposed to the smaller 1/4″ hex drive typically found on impact drivers.

The two models also typically differ in terms of their power source, because while electric impact driver models are prevalent, many impact drivers use pneumatic power which can mean that you need to invest in a lot more equipment to get started, including an air compressor and airline.

It is still possible to purchase an electric impact wrench; however, the most powerful models are usually pneumatic-powered.


Popular Impact Driver Kits

If we’ve managed to pique your interest as to the possibilities and advantages of owning and using an impact driver for your projects, here is a selection of the most popular kits on the market:

Bestseller No. 1
Makita XDT131 18V LXT Lithium-Ion Brushless Cordless Impact Driver Kit (3.0Ah)
  • BL Brushless motor delivers 1, 500 inches pounds Of max torque
  • Variable speed (0 3, 400 RPM & 0 3, 600 IPM) for a wide range of fastening applications
  • The BL Brushless motor eliminates carbon brushes, enabling the BL motor to run cooler and more efficiently for longer life
  • Efficient BL Brushless motor is electronically controlled to optimize battery energy use for up to 50 percentage longer run time per charge
  • The electronically controlled BL Brushless motor efficiently uses energy to match torque and RPM to the changing demands of the application
Bestseller No. 2
DEWALT 20V MAX XR Impact Driver Kit, Brushless, 3-Speed, 1/4-Inch, Tool Only (DCF887B)
  • Dewalt built Brushless Motor, Compact, Lightweight Design for tight spaces
  • Variable speed trigger, no load speed 0 to 1000, 2800, 3250
  • 3 speed settings for versatility with Precision Drive for added Control
  • (3) LED lights with 20 second delay after trigger release
  • No battery or charger Included
Bestseller No. 3
DEWALT 20V MAX XR Brushless Impact Driver and Hammer Drill Combo Kit, Premium 4.0Ah (DCK299M2)
  • Hammer Drill: DCD996 Hammer Drill Features Includes 3-Speed Levels, High Performance (0–2,000 Rpm), an All-Metal Transmission
  • Impact Driver: DCF887 20V MAX* 1/4" impact driver provides 1,825 in-lbs of max torque at fast 0-3,250 RPM speed and 0-3,600 impacts per minute
  • SIZE: Both units are compact and lightweight to help get into tight spots
  • INCLUDES: Includes (2) DCB204 20V MAX* XR High Capacity Li-Ion Batteries (4.0 Ah)
  • Maximum Initial Battery Voltage (Measured Without a Workload) Is 20 Volts. Nominal Voltage Is 18

Drill Drivers

an image showing a makita drill driver in use

What Is a Drill Driver?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the drill driver topped Gizmodo’s list of the top-ten power tools that everyone should own.

Ask any DIYer or professional tradesperson which tool they rely on the most, and we bet that more times than not they’ll respond with their trusty drill driver.

You see, while their primary functions are to drill holes and drive screws, the list of tasks that these versatile tools can perform is virtually endless thanks to their expandable chucks (either keyed or keyless) which can hold hundreds of different hex or round bits for maximum flexibility.

Yes, they usually have much less torque than a typical impact driver which often limits them to lighter-duty tasks; however, in some ways, this can be viewed as a positive.

The lower torque and the slower rotational speed of the humble drill driver create much less vibration during use compared to with an impact driver, making them a far better choice for precision drilling requirements where a quality output is required.

They also differ in the fact that they typically feature multi-speed transmissions, which is different from the variable speed trigger often found on both types of tool which lets the user change the motor’s RPM, and subsequently the bit speed, based on how hard they press the trigger.

The DEWALT DCD777C2 that we looked at previously, for example, has two separate gears available – a faster one producing less torque for drilling holes, and a slower, more torquey option for when you need to insert or remove fixings and fastenings such as smaller screws or nuts and bolts.

Another significant difference and advantage of the drill driver vs impact driver is that the former comes with a clutch, whereas the latter does not.

Going back to the DEWALT DCD777C2 drill drive for a second, it has fifteen clutch settings available that are selectable by twisting a handy torque adjustment collar as shown below:

an image showing the gear shifter and torque adjustment collar on a drill driver

Each of the various clutch settings matches a specific torque setting, ensuring that the drill driver stops driving once it reaches the corresponding torque level to stop the head of the fixing stripping usually due to cam out, being torn off completely, and to prevent you from inserting the fixing too far – all of which are common issues that can easily occur with an impact driver.

Many drill drivers also come with a hammer function to improve performance while drilling into masonry, although, the way this operates is quite a bit different to how an impact driver operates as discussed here.


What Is a Drill Driver Used For?

Lower-powered drill drivers are well-suited to lighter duty tasks such as assembling furniture and household DIY, while more powerful models (for example, those with a larger capacity battery, a more powerful brushless motor, and higher no-load speed) will be better suited to handling the drilling and driving needs of professional users.

Examples of general tasks that a drill driver is capable of performing include:

  • Drilling holes – typically into wood, drywall, and non-ferrous metals such as aluminum (also to a shallower depth in masonry and ferrous metals if powerful enough).
  • Inserting and removing smaller fasteners, for example, screws.
  • Rotating polishing bits.
  • Rotating sanding bits.

And because of the lower torque on offer versus an impact wrench, here are some of the tasks that you should probably avoid tackling with a drill driver in most cases:

  • Inserting or removing longer screws, for example, lag screws.
  • Tightening or loosening heavy-duty nuts and bolts.
  • Driving fixings and fastenings into more robust materials, for example, metal or concrete.

What Is a Brushless Drill?

There are two main types of electric motor on drill drivers, either brushed or brushless.

In simplistic terms, a brushed motor features carbon brushes which electrical charge from the battery travels through as the brushes drag against the motor’s spinning commutator, whereas in a brushless both the carbon brushes and commutator are removed in favor magnets.

By removing the need for two components to drag against each other, brushless motors generate much less friction overall, causing the motor to run much cooler during use, with a higher level of efficiency and better overall performance versus a brushed drill driver.

Brushless motors also typically require less long-term maintenance versus brushed motors, as the carbon brushes in the latter are prone to wearing out and needing replacing as a result.

There is a price to be paid for all this extra durability, better performance, longer battery life, and reduced maintenance, however, as drill drivers featuring brushless motors tend to be considerably more expensive than those with standard brushed options.

Is the extra price of a brushless motor justified in our opinion? Yes, if you’re going to be regularly using your drill driver regularly, but if you’re only going to be tackling the odd bit of DIY every few weeks or so – probably not.


What Is a Hammer Drill?

A hammer drill, often referred to as an impact drill, percussion drill or rotary hammer drill, shouldn’t be confused with the impact driver tool that we discussed above.

The primary function of a dedicated hammer drill (or the hammer function) is to drill through more robust materials such as masonry (for example, concrete) or metal that the standard drill setting on a drill driver would struggle with.

There are two main options available as shown below:

  1. A dedicated hammer drill which features a hammer function only.
  1. A drill driver which has an optional hammer drill setting.

You should never use a dedicated hammer drill or the hammer setting on a conventional drill driver to drive screws or to tighten nuts and bolts, regardless of their size.

It’s common to see both corded hammer drills, and increasingly, cordless models as lithium-ion battery technology continues to improve.


What Is a Hammer Drill Used For?

As mentioned above, a dedicated hammer drill (or a drill driver’s hammer setting) is the best option for when you need to drill into more robust materials.

Examples include:

  • Drilling stone.
  • Drilling concrete.
  • Drilling brickwork.
  • Drilling mortar.

How Does a Hammer Drill Work?

The main reason why a hammer drill works so well when drilling into more robust materials like masonry is because of its hammer action which punches the drill bit in and out as it rotates to provide greater direct force into whatever you’re drilling.

Neither the hammering action or the extent to which the drill bit gets pushed in and out is particularly significant, but this process happens several thousand times per minute which makes it incredibly effective overall as it continually chisels away at whatever material you are drilling.

The mechanism which causes the hammering action is different depending on which type of hammer drill you are using.

On a conventional drill with the hammer setting activated, two ribbed discs rotate past each other, clicking in and out as they go to create the hammer action. The user needs to maintain pressure on the drill bit and chuck for this to function, as without it the clutch disengages the discs to prevent unnecessary wear to the drill’s components.

Rotary hammer drills, on the other hand, often feature a cylinder of air which gets compressed by a piston to drive the bit forwards as the user drills.


Hammer Drill vs Impact Driver

The main difference between a hammer drill vs impact driver is that the former is intended for drilling into tougher materials, whereas the latter is designed to tighten and remove fixings and fastenings.

Conversely, an impact driver shouldn’t really be used for drilling, and a hammer drill shouldn’t be used for driving screws or working with fastenings.

The next difference comes from how they exert additional force to help them the tasks they’re intended for.

A hammer drill, for example, mixes lateral force (the driving motion in and out of the drill bit) while it rotates to help it effectively pound through whatever you’re drilling.

An impact driver, on the other hand, adds rotational impacts to the standard rotating motion to provide the extra torque needed to tighten bigger fixings and fastenings.

Unlike conventional drill drivers, dedicated rotary hammer drills are similar to impact wrenches in that they don’t usually feature a variable clutch, although, many do feature a variable speed trigger to let you adjust the output speed to best-suit whichever task you’re completing.


Popular Drill Driver / Hammer Drill Kits

Let’s face it, no one wants to purchase something that’s untried and untested.

Don’t worry though, because when it comes to buying a drill driver or rotary hammer drill, you can make your purchase with confidence.

For example, here are some of the best drill driver kits currently available on Amazon…
SaleBestseller No. 1
DEWALT 20V MAX XR Brushless Drill/Driver, Compact - Bare Tool (DCD791B)
  • Dewalt Brushless Motor which delivers up to 57 percent more run time
  • Compact, Lightweight Design for tight spaces
  • High speed transmission with 2 speed settings
  • 3 Mode LED lights with a spotlight mode
  • Battery and charger sold separately
Bestseller No. 2
Makita XFD131 18V LXT Lithium-Ion Brushless Cordless 1/2 In. Driver-Drill Kit (3.0Ah)
  • Mechanical 2 speed transmission (0 500 & 0 1, 900 RPM) for a wide range of drilling and fastening applications
  • BL Brushless motor delivers 440 inches pounds of max torque
  • Efficient BL Brushless motor is electronically controlled to optimize battery energy use for up to 50 percentage longer run time per charge
  • The BL Brushless motor eliminates carbon brushes, enabling the BL motor to run cooler and more efficiently for longer life
  • The electronically controlled BL Brushless motor efficiently uses energy to match torque and RPM to the changing demands of the application
…and here are some of the most popular hammer drill kits:
Bestseller No. 1
DEWALT 20V MAX XR Cordless Drill Combo Kit, Brushless, 5.0-Ah, 2-Tool (DCK299P2)
  • HAMMER DRILL: DCD996 Hammer Drill features includes 3-speed levels, high performance (0-2,000 rpm), an all-metal transmission
  • IMPACT DRIVER: DCF887 20V MAX* 1/4" impact driver provides 1,825 in-lbs of max torque at fast 0-3,250 RPM speed and 0-3,600 impacts per minute
  • HAMMER DRILL: Both units are compact and lightweight to help get into tight spots,DCD996 20V MAX*1/2" hammerdrill has a compact size (8.4" front-to-back length) and lightweight (4.7 lb) design to fit tight areas
  • INCLUDES: Includes (2) DCB205 20V MAX* XR High Capacity Li-Ion Batteries (5.0 Ah)
  • Maximum initial battery voltage (measured without a workload) is 20 volts. Nominal voltage is 18
SaleBestseller No. 2
DEWALT DCK299D1T1 FLEXVOLT 60V MAX / 20V MAX Lithium-Ion XR Brushless Hammerdrill and Impact Combo Kit
  • Flexible - power of corded. Freedom of cordless. The world's first battery that automatically changes voltage when you change tools
  • DCD996 20V MAX* 1/2" Hammer drill - 3-speed, high performance, all-metal transmission
  • DCF887 20V MAX* 1/4" impact Driver - 1,825 in-lbs. of max torque, fast 0-3250 RPM, 0-3600 impacts per minute
  • Dcb203 20V MAX XR 2.0Ah Lithium Ion battery - no memory & virtually no self-discharge for maximum productivity & less Downtime
  • Dcb606 20V/60V MAX* FLEXVOLT 6.0 Ah/2.0 Ah Lithium Ion battery - automatically changes voltages when you change tools

Impact Driver vs Drill: Summary

TL;DR? (too-long, didn’t read)

Skipped immediately to the end?

No problem.

Here’s a table showing some of the key information that we’ve provided above for both types of tool.

We’re aware that there will be some special exceptions to the information below, so this is probably best viewed as a general categorization only!

Scroll table if needed

Impact Driver
Drill Driver
Intended For:
  • Inserting or removing longer screws, for example, lag screws.

  • Tightening or loosening medium-duty nuts and bolts.
  • Drilling holes in lighter materials (use a dedicated hammer drill, or hammer function of ordinary drill driver for tougher materials such as masonry).

  • Driving smaller fixings, e.g., screws.
Not Intended For:
  • Precision drilling.

  • Tightening or loosening heavy-duty fixings, for example, vehicle lug nuts.
  • Tightening or loosening heavy-duty nuts and bolts.
Output Provided:
Rotational 'impacts' as well as a linear, rotational force to drive fixings and fastenings.
Linear, rotational force (plus lateral force if hammer setting used).
Chuck Type:
1/4" hex quick-release chuck.
Keyed or keyless chuck.
Typical Torque Available:
350-2,000 in-lbs.
<1,200 in-lbs.
Powered By:
Corded electric.
Battery-powered (most common).
Corded electric.
Battery-powered (most common).
Variable Speed:
Yes.
Yes.
Clutch:
No - leads to more risk of over-tightening.
Yes - leads to much lower risk of over-tightening.
Multi-Speed Transmission:
No - user cannot access higher torque or low torque gear options to suit different tasks.
Yes - user can select between high torque / low torque gears depending on task.

The Bottom Line

There’s a reason why companies like DEWALT, Makita, and Milwaukee offer combo packs that include both an impact driver and a drill driver.

And there’s a reason why these packs are so popular.

You see, despite their similarities, an impact driver and a drill driver are two very different types of tool, and so it isn’t usually a case of going for one or the other.

Take a decking project, for example, where you’d struggle to drill accurate pilot holes with an impact driver, and where you’d find it equally challenging to drive larger bolts and fixings with a conventional drill driver.

We know that this may sound like an extreme example, but the truth is, we regularly find ourselves tackling projects that require us to swap between the two tools in a bid to take advantage of the strengths of each and to achieve the best possible finish.

We’d genuinely be lost without both.

But, is owning an impact driver and a drill driver a viable option for you?

Only you can determine this based on a few factors – for example, your aspirations in terms of the types of project you want to tackle, the quality of finish you aspire to, and perhaps, most importantly, your budget.

Regardless of your choice though, at least you now know have a better understanding of each type of tool, and what you can reasonably expect to achieve with one, the other, or both.

Good luck!


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