In our epic best cordless drill reviews article, we compared more than 50 models. Needless to say, we found a lot of really capable cordless drills. Want to guess how many perfect ones there are? Zero. Zilch. Nada. None of them are the lightest, most compact, fastest, most powerful, most feature-rich, and best value all in one package. Every product team has to make intentional decisions to prioritize certain aspects along the way. Some have exceptional torque. Others drill very quickly at top speed. With that in mind, let’s look at the truth about cordless drill torque and speed.
Drill Torque and Speed Have an Inverse Relationship
The first truth about cordless drill torque and speed has to do with how those two metrics interact. Torque and speed in drills have an inverse relationship. As you increase speed, you actually decrease torque. Consequently, when drilling at high speed, you have less torque available. When you drill at low speed, you can access the most torque the drill has to offer.
That’s different from an impact driver that delivers more power as you increase speed. And that’s only one of the key differences between a drill vs impact driver.
When you change speeds, you’re mechanically changing gears. The gearing is what determines how fast and powerful each mode is. If you have a brushless drill, there are some electronics that come into play as well.
That’s where each product manager has to make a call. When you’re debating different models, cordless drill torque and speed are the two primary numbers most of us consider and big numbers look great on packaging.
Smaller numbers can actually be better, though. Take the Milwaukee Gen 3 M18 Fuel drill. There’s enough energy to push higher RPMs (The Metabo BS 18 LTX-3 BL Q hammer drill does 3800 RPM!). Milwaukee’s team caps the RPMs knowing full well other drills might be faster on light-load applications.
They channel the extra energy into additional torque at high speed. By doing that, you can drive larger bits at high speed. That ultimately lets you do more jobs at high speed. In fact, you can drive a 2-9/16″ self-feed bit through untreated 2x in high speed with the Milwaukee. You might not care if you’re framing, but a plumber working on rough-ins doesn’t have to drop into low speed or grab a Cordless Super Hawg to get those holes drilled.
How Do I Choose?
There’s no magic formula to choose between cordless drill torque and speed, but there are some general conclusions we can make.
The torque rating is a standardized test that measures how much torque the drill produces in a very brief moment while it’s locked down. We take these into account in our best cordless drill article. However, our top recommendations don’t always mimic the listed torque values.
While that might seem to complicate things, it’s still a good place to start. Let’s say you’re considering three drills with the following specs:
- Torque: 1100 in-lbs
- High-Speed: 2000 RPM
- Low Speed: 550 RPM
- Torque: 1150 in-lbs
- High-Speed: 2100 RPM
- Low Speed: 450 RPM
- Torque: 1050 in-lbs
- High-Speed: 1900 RPM
- Low Speed: 600 RPM
All three drills are in the same ballpark for torque—we’re not considering a compact drill vs a heavy-duty one. When you look at the high-speed ratings, Drill #2 (2100 RPM) is going to drill the fastest, right?
Under a light load, yes. But Drill #3 (1900 RPM) is going to let you use larger bits without dropping into low speed. Drill #1 (2000 RPM) finds a balance between the two.
It’s a similar story at low speed. Even though Drill #2 (450 RPM) is the slowest, it’s likely going to give you more sustained torque and drive larger bits more effectively. Drill #3 (600 RPM) looks pretty attractive, but it’s going to struggle more with bits that #2 is still steadily plugging away with.
It’s all an intentional gearing decision.
Great Theory, Got Any Real Data?
Editor’s Note: This got geeky in a hurry. Feel free to pick through this data or just skip down to the conclusion.
Here are three drills we compared head-to-head and how they actually did compared to their specifications. I chose them because their measured soft torque numbers are in the same ballpark as each other.
- Listed Torque: 841 in-lbs
- Measured Soft Torque: 618.8 in-lbs
- No-Load High Speed: 2014 RPM
- High-Speed Drilling Result: 1906 RPM
- Percent of No-Load: 95%
- No-Load Low Speed: 457 RPM
- Low-Speed Drilling Result: 433 RPM
- Percent of No-Load: 95%
- Listed Torque: 1090 in-lbs
- Measured Soft Torque: 585.6 in-lbs
- No-Load High Speed: 2147 RPM
- High-Speed Drilling Result: 1646 RPM
- Percent of No-Load: 77%
- No-Load Low Speed: 550 RPM
- Low-Speed Drilling Result: 474 RPM
- Percent of No-Load: 86%
- Listed Torque: 1300 in-lbs
- Measured Soft Torque: 615.6 in-lbs
- No-Load High Speed: 2000 RPM
- High-Speed Drilling Result: 1621 RPM
- Percent of No-Load: 81%
- No-Load Low Speed: 547 RPM
- Low-Speed Drilling Result: 437 RPM
- Percent of No-Load: 80%
The results don’t line up as nicely as the theoretical section above but there is a clear takeaway. DeWalt has the slowest no-load speeds in both high and low gears along with the highest measured torque (it’s specced torque is actually significantly lower than the other two).
Notice how much higher DeWalt’s efficiency (percent of no-load speed) is. The other two drills are starting to slow down under these loads, but DeWalt still has more left to give. By giving up a little top-end speed in both modes, it’s able to handle these larger bits more easily.
Ridgid helps make this point. Even though it’s 100 RPM faster in low, it’s only 4 RPM faster with that 2-9/16″ bit.
Make the Call
Looking at the data on a broader level, it doesn’t all work out that nicely and there’s a lot we can’t explain (like why a drill with 841 in-lbs of torque posts more soft torque than one with 1090 in-lbs). It’s tough to take different manufacturers with different motors, batteries, and electronics and then say with absolute authority which one you should buy.
The way to choose between cordless drill torque and speed is to take an honest look at the work you do. If you’re a plumber or electrician, you’re drilling larger holes more frequently. Giving up some top-end speed for a drill that lets you work at high speed for more bit sizes makes sense.
If you’re working mainly with twist bits and smaller spade bits/hole saws, having a higher top end speed makes sense.
But here’s the thing—all three of our example drills can do the same work. They all have enough torque muscle to keep driving the same bits. It’s just a matter of how hard the drill has to work in each gear.
At the end of the day, pick a battery platform that has all of the tools you need at a price that fits your budget with the quality you expect. If you start there, they’ll have a cordless drill that fits your needs.
Out of curiosity, did you happen to measure how much internal gear reduction is happening between the motor and the output chuck on any of these drills? For example, I am wondering how much faster the motor inside is typically spinning for a low-speed / high-torque application (e.g. 10x, 20x, …).
Brushless motor drills are the power source for a power feeder kit I’m selling. Especially since I want my power feeder to be capable of band saw resawing use, I incorporate speed reduction into the gears that distribute the drill’s power to the three feed rollers. The Little Proteus gears reduce the speed of the power source by a factor 3.8 X. I’ve tested most of the market’s brushless motor drills for their suitability as the Little Proteus power feeder’s power source. All but one I’ve tested pass, (the Skil 12 volt) but some are clearly better than others, and no… Read more »
This should be a headliner article on this site for a very long time. Data applied to a solid conclusion.
Do any available drills have an actual SPEED control rather than a TORQUE control? By speed control I mean the trigger sets the speed and the drill adjusts the torque to keep the speed constant. With most drills if you hold the trigger and the load changes the RPM changes. For example, say you are driving a screw that needs a lot of torque and the bit cams out, the drill suddenly goes to max RPM and destroys the bit or the screw. I have used a few drills where when the bit slips the drill just keeps turning at… Read more »
I would add “pick the battery ecosystem that (you hope) will be supported the longest”. Your grandpa’s ancient plug-in drill will be going long after you’re gone. I think the engineering of cordless tools has reached such a high level that we CAN expect these tools to last a lifetime, but the second your battery dies repairing or replacing it might be difficult. We all like getting new toys, but it’s nice when that’s not a forced choice.