What is a Hammer Drill and Which One is Best?

A greenhorn DIY’er is strolling about his or her local hardware store, checking out some cool new products, toying with the idea of adding another tool or two to the growing arsenal that’s accumulating in the garage back home.

Quick Look: Our Top Rated Hammer Drills​

The cordless drill section catches their eye, and they wander over and start perusing some of the fine, sleek-looking little machines. There’s a bright, eye-catching tag on one of the boxes that reads - POWERFUL HAMMERING ACTION!

They look closer and see that the drill’s a hammer drill.

Perplexed and bewildered, (but not quite ready to ask a sales associate), they wonder curiously in their head - “What the hell’s a hammer drill?”

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. There’s literally thousands of different tools out there to learn about, and seemingly every day manufacturers are adding new, slick little features to even the simplest, most basic tools - keeping even seasoned veterans like ourselves on our toes.

In this article, we’ll go over everything you ever wanted to know about the hammer drill: what it does, how it’s different than a standard drill, and what are some of its primary uses.

General overview: What is a hammer drill?

A standard drill, of course, just spins around really fast - the spinning action, combined with the powerful downward force of your arms, is what drives the screw or drill bit into the material.

A hammer drill, on the other hand, has an additional bit of ‘hammering’ action that drastically increases the bit’s ability to penetrate and drive through tough material.

The hammering action is exactly what it sounds like: just as you use a hammer to pound a nail into a board, a hammer drill applies very rapid, successive blows to the drill bit while you’re drilling. These quick, successive, powerful blows - combined of course with the high-rpm spinning action of the drill - significantly increase the overall force that’s applied to the bit.

Just imagine a tiny little smurf with fast arms and a super heavy hammer delivering multiple blows per second onto your drill bit - BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM - as you drive it into the material.

This is a hammer drill.

Here’s a nice little video that goes into about as much detail on hammer drills as you could ever possibly need.

What is a hammer drill used for?

Essentially, the sole purpose of a hammer drill is for drilling into masonry (concrete backer board, rock, brick, drywall, etc.) Standard drills can of course be used, but the difference that a good hammer drill makes when trying to drive through masonry really is night and day - just make sure that you’re using a good masonry bit.

Other hammer drill considerations

One thing to consider about hammer drills is that they do have a tendency to put a good amount of strain on your hand and wrist.

It makes sense; all that pounding motion along the axis of the bit is essentially transferring directly into your hand. (Unlike the rotary action on an impact driver, which we talk about in detail in our hammer drill vs. impact driver article). The strain is nothing terribly serious, but it’s something to consider - spend a few hours drilling into masonry, and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

Another thing you’ll want to note is that all cordless hammer drills (correct us if we’re wrong) can function as ‘standard’ drills as well; the ‘hammer action’ has to be turned on, usually just by switching a knob or rotating the dial setting on the drill. The ‘hammer mode’ button should be clearly specified on the drill with a little picture of a hammer. (Perhaps the drill you already have is actually a hammer drill, and you’ve just never realized it).

As far as bits, every cordless hammer drill that we’ve seen has had the standard, 3-jaw chuck that accepts either round or hex-shanked bits. (Unlike impact drivers which use a collet and only accept hex bits).

One final thing to kind of clarify, is that the actual hammering motion of the drill is very tiny - the bit actually only moves a small fraction of inch. However, that small pounding motion is more than enough to make a world of difference drilling into the tough stuff.

Top picks: A few of the best hammer drills on the market today

Here are a few of our favorite hammer drills that we have experience with - our top picks based on a combination of value, performance, durability, and overall quality.

DeWalt DCD985B 20-volt MAX ½” Cordless Hammer Drill

Last update on 2019-06-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The world-renowned 20-volt cordless MAX series from DeWalt. In our opinion, the best line of cordless tools to have ever hit the market. The DCD985B hammer drill is an efficient, powerful, beast of a tool that laughs in the face of masonry.

Milwaukee 2704-20 M18 FUEL ½” Cordless Hammer Drill

Last update on 2019-06-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The direct rival to DeWalt’s DCD985B. Although we’re obviously huge fans of the DeWalt MAX series, we have no problem (unlike a lot of other loyal DeWalt fans) admitting that Milwaukee’s 18-volt, M18 lineup of cordless tools are absolute class and are of great quality. (Check out our article on DeWalt vs. Milwaukee here).

RYOBI 18-volt ONE+ ½” Cordless Hammer Drill

Last update on 2019-06-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

With a price tag substantially lower than that of the Milwaukee and DeWalt, this is without a doubt our #1 value pick. Not as powerful or long-lasting as the former and latter, but a decent entry-level hammer drill that’ll have no problem knocking into some standard drywall or cement backer board - just don’t expect it to last all day long or do anything crazy, like drill a clean 1” hole through a cement block.

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