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Impact Driver vs Drill: What's the Difference?

May 08, 2024

It used to be so easy—drills took care of holes and that was that. Now that we have impact drivers, however, it gives us more options than we often know what to do with. many people have asked us recently about an impact driver vs drill and what’s the difference? In reality, how and when you use an impact driver vs drill matters. Then, there’s the question of using an impact driver vs hammer drill. That leads to even more questions. Before you get too far into it, realize these tools feature different mechanisms to get work done. They also favor different applications. Using each tool properly yields the greatest amount of efficiency—which is why you often see Pros carrying more than one tool.

We can give you the basic answers as well as some in-depth perspective on what you need to know as a more advanced tool user. This can be helpful if you want to know whether you should buy that two-tool combo kit or just stick with a basic drill. Taking a look at how manufacturers make these tools and how they differ should help you can decide for yourself which you need.

At the very least we can help you sound like you know what you’re talking about when the next tool deals arrive at Acme Tools, Home Depot, or Lowe’s!

Simply enough, a drill spins the chuck at the front of the drill. Most chucks are now keyless, meaning you don’t need that funny-looking key that’s bent to 90 degrees to change out the bits. To use a keyless drill chuck, simply grab it and twist one way to loosen and the other to tighten. Ratcheting chucks in particular are strong enough to hold onto just about any shape that fits into it, including smooth drill bits.

Many drills have multiple speed settings and torque settings. The exact uses for those can be saved for a later discussion since we really just want to understand the major differences for now.

Impact drivers work in a similar way to a drill in that they spin the bit that you have attached. When using a drill to drive a large fastener, you may encounter a point where the drill can’t continue. It’s using all of its power and torque, but it just can’t budge the large fastener or bolt. That’s where the impact driver comes in.

They provide a whole lot more torque.

Imagine working on a bolt that is too hard to loosen with a wrench. You lean on it and pull on it—but you still can’t budge it. To knock it loose, you finally decide to take a hammer and hit the handle of the wrench. That delivers extra, but short-lived, torque.

That’s kind of what an impact driver does. But it can do it several thousand times per minute.

When it gets to the point that it is stuck, a mechanism inside automatically starts “hitting” the chuck to continue driving the screw or tightening/loosening the bolt.

The impact driver is much stronger than a drill in terms of the way it can deliver that extra torque to break loose stuck bolts and screws or drive them deeper into the material.

Since an impact driver mechanism repeats a cycle of the anvil driving the rotation of the chuck, it loses efficiency. Drills apply a constant force to the chuck, driving the fastener without stopping or pulsing. As a result, impact drivers, while giving you more torque, tend to drive fasteners a little more slowly.

We’ve seen this over and over again in our drill vs impact head-to-head comparisons. A capable drill will sink a ledger screw faster than an impact driver every time…almost. The exception comes when the torque required exceeds the power of the drill to maintain its optimal speed. When that happens, the drill slows down while the impact driver keeps driving the fastener into the material.

Impact drivers use a 1/4″ quick-lock hex chuck. These let you slip a hex bit in—and some automatically lock the bit in place. Other lesser designs require you to pull out the flange to insert the bit. To remove it, you again pull the chuck out, and it releases the bit.

One advantage to this system is that it makes for a more compact design to help you get into tighter spaces. The downside is that it requires a hex bit. Your round drill bits won’t fit these impact driver hex chucks.

Until recently, if you wanted to drill a hole, you had to use a drill. Companies like Milwaukee, Ridgid, and DeWalt now offer drill bits that fit impact drivers. There is a push in the industry to allow you to use an impact driver for everything that a drill can do. Be careful though! Impact drivers have a lot more torque than drills and some applications recommend the use of impact-rated bits, not just the standard ones that came in that big kit for $19.99 at Christmas time.

Many impact drivers on the market are single speed. However, as accessories are being made to include more drilling functions, some companies are offering impact drivers with multiple speed and torque settings.

Hammer drills start with a traditional drilling action and have the same kind of chuck as the drill. In fact, most allow you to switch between drill and hammer drill modes. Like a drill, the hammer drill can also have multiple speeds. Instead of having that hitting action working in the same direction that the chuck spins like the impact driver, the hammer drill works by spinning the bit and “hitting” the bit forward the same way a hammer would deliver its force. Imagine using a drill and rapidly tapping the back of it with a hammer while you use it.

Hammer drills tend to do the best when working in concrete, masonry, stone, and other similar materials. There really isn’t a benefit to using the hammering action to drive into wood or drywall. In fact, the hammering action can often damage those softer materials. All hammer drills work with the hammering mechanism turned off when drilling into materials that don’t need it.

This is a tough question to answer since there are so many different needs out there. If you are only going to buy one product, I’d go with the impact driver. New bits allow you to do everything with it that you can do with a traditional drill. You’re only missing out on the hammering action that optimizes drilling in concrete or masonry materials.

If you can afford to buy a two-tool kit and know (or think) you might need to drill into concrete or stone, go with an impact driver/hammer drill kit. Even without the special bits, the hammer drill should have a drill-only mode that allows it to operate exactly like a drill, and then you’ll also have the impact driver for when you need more torque with nuts/bolts and lag bolts. If you’re not going to be around those masonry applications, stick with a drill/impact driver kit.

I’ve had the chance to use these tools on several recent projects. For example, we helped to build a wheelchair ramp with a local church. For drilling pilot holes and driving screws, a drill was all we needed. So for projects like building a deck or putting up a wood fence, the drill is a fine choice.

We had to anchor the ramp to concrete on the end, so we employed a hammer drill to make the holes before using it to drive the Tapcons in place. When you need to drill a smaller hole in concrete a hammer drill makes the best tool. Large holes are usually done by a tool called a rotary hammer.

Surprisingly, impact drivers actually do very well making smaller holes in concrete when using multi-purpose bits. I’d limit their use to holes with diameters less than 3/8-inch.

I recently put together a grill and used my impact driver to ensure each connection was very tight. Mechanics will often use impact drivers to tighten and loosen bolts on an engine. A lot of gas engine machinery like mowers and trimmers will require the use of an impact driver (or impact wrench) to tighten and loosen bolts appropriately. Anytime you’re using bolts on metal or driving a screw into metal, you’re going to want an impact tool.

For the most part, the impact driver is my go-to tool. I personally keep a hammer drill/impact driver kit on hand that meets all of my needs for drilling and driving.

Do you still have questions? Ask us! We love getting to help other people understand the tools we love and how best to use them!

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But it can do it several thousand times per minute. (in drill only mode) (in drill only mode) (in drill only mode)