What do the Numbers on a Drill Mean? (With Pictures!)

Do you own a cordless drill? If so it most likely has numbers on it. Those numbers have a very specific meaning and can be helpful when using your drill.

I will give you an in depth explanation on exactly what those numbers mean and how to choose the best one for your job. Also, I will discuss some of the other important features you should know about on your drill.

What do the Numbers on a drill mean?

The numbers on a drill represent the torque or power of the drill. Each drill will vary when it comes to the numbers. They are located on the clutch control. You can rotate this clockwise and counter clockwise to adjust. The drill symbol represents the max torque of the drill.

Key parts of a drill

Before we go into more detail about the numbers, lets take a look at some important parts of your drill.

Dewalt drill with important parts labeled.
  1. Trigger switch
  2. Forward/reverse control button
  3. Clutch control (torque adjustment collar)
  4. Gear shifter
  5. Keyless chuck
  6. Battery pack

Clutch control

This is where the numbers are located. It lies just behind the chuck. This is a sleeve that you can rotate (clockwise and counterclockwise) to adjust. It operates completely independent of the clutch.

Dewalt drill with numbers on clutch control with square around them.

Depending on your brand of drill this can also be called a torque adjustment collar or slip clutch. They all mean the same thing. Each brand will be a little different though in regards to how many numbers there will be. For example my Dewalt 20v max goes up to 16. Ryobi drills often go into the 20’s as the max clutch control setting. The number value is completely independent to each drill. You cannot compare across drill brands.

Max torque level labeled on Dewalt and ryobi drills.

There is also an arrow or indicator on your drill (just above the clutch control collar). The color of the arrow will vary depending on the brand. This arrow represents the locked position for the clutch that you want. Whatever number is lined up with the arrow is the torque setting you have on the drill.

Arrow on Dewalt drill labeled

In short the clutch control is what sets the torque of the drill. Torque is different then speed when it comes to a drill.

  • Torque means how much force a drill can put into a spinning drill bit to keep it fighting through resistance (how strong the drill is).
  • Speed refers to how fast the drill bit is spinning and this is controlled by the chuck

If a drill with low torque encounters a lot of resistance (in the material you are drilling) the drill bit will very rapidly loose speed.

So the numbers on your drill directly refer to the torque setting of your drill.

  • Higher numbers: more torque but less control
    • Most effective for drill bits
  • Lower numbers: less torque but more control
    • Most effective for driving fasteners
Different drill bits and the torque needed for them

The clutch control helps to prevent you from overdriving screws. We will touch on this a little more below.

Drill Symbol

Most brands will all have a drill symbol. This will be found between the highest and lowest number. This symbol stands for the MAX amount of torque that the drill can apply.

Drill bit labeled on Dewalt drill

This is good to use if you are drilling through a material that will have a lot of resistance. An example of this would be a piece of wood that has a lot of knots. Or if you are drilling holes in a material with a drill bit. When the clutch control is set to the drill symbol you will get the max torque that the drill has. This allows cordless drills to act as corded drills.

Drill bit in wood using highest torque level

Hammer Symbol

This is not found on all brands and or all drills and is more rare to see. You will see this symbol on some combo drills.

Hammer symbol on Dewalt drill.

This symbol will set the drill to function as a hammer drill. This is best used for drilling into brick/concrete. It engages the hammer mechanism in the drill that delivers consecutive blows behind the spinning drill bit. You need this force to help break the the very hard masonry material.

Standard drills that have this setting will only be so effective. If you are frequently drilling into masonry material it may be worth getting an actual hammer drill. They will be more consistent and have a much larger motor to make it easier.

Gear shifter

This is the switch located on the top of the drill. Most drills have the option for 1 or 2 but some drills have a number 3.

Gear shifter with 2 settings

This notch/shifter controls the speed of rotation. It determines how fast the chuck will spin leading to drill bit rotation speed.

1 = This indicates lower speed and should be used with higher torques; Best for driving drill bits

2 = This indicates higher speed and should be used with low/medium torque; Best for driving screws

If there is a 3 on your drill this will be the highest speed and should be used with low torques (2 would indicate the middle speed).

Dewalt drill that has 3 settings on gear shifter.

Forward/reverse control button

This button is often located very close to the trigger switch. It controls what direction the drill will rotate. This all depends on what you are trying to do.

  • Drive a screw: drill should rotate to the right (clockwise) to tighten
    • Button should be pressed on right side (sticking out on the left)
  • Take screw out: drill should rotate to the left (counterclockwise) to loosen
    • Button should be pressed on the left side (sticking out on the right)
Forward and reverse button labeled on Dewalt drill.

This is important to note and goes for all the settings mentioned above. You shoulder NEVER change any settings while the drill is in use. When making any adjustments make sure the trigger switch is released.

Choosing the right clutch number

This is the most important piece. Picking the right clutch number totally depends on what you are using the drill for.

Are you trying to pin a fastener deep in a board? If so you want higher torque!

Pinned screw in wood
Screw below the surface of wood

Do you want the head of the fastener level with the material? If so you want a lower torque!

Level screw drilled in wood
Level screw with the wood

Are you using a drill bit to pre-drill holes? If so you will likely want the most torque and use the drill symbol.

Used a drill bit to pre cut holes in wood
Using drill bit to pre cut holes

The truth of the matter is the biggest thing you need to know is does the job require higher torque or lower torque? There is not a whole lot of difference between the middle numbers and personally I rarely use them. I most frequently use 1-5 for lower torque and 10-15 for higher torque on my Dewalt.

When choosing the torque the biggest thing you want to keep in mind is eliminating the possibility of Cam out. Cam out is when the bit slips out of the head of fastener being driven. This happens when the torque is too powerful. The fastener stops spinning but the bit continues to spin out of the fastener. This is what leads to stripped screws.

Stripped screw
Stripped screw

This is never good and should always be avoided. If it happens enough it can be very difficult to get the stripped screw out.

Personally you can never go wrong with a less is more strategy. So when using a drill for fasteners, start with lower torques. The worse thing that happens is the power will not be enough and the fastener and bit will stop spinning. The risk of stripping screws is very low this way. If that is the case, stop the drill and increase the torque.

Dewalt drill with arrow counterclockwise to demo increasing torque
Increase torque by rotating counterclockwise

The only time I will start with higher torque level is if I know the resistance of the material will be higher. Drilling through a knot or pre-drilling holes for the fastners.

Corded vs Cordless Drills

It is important to note when it comes to corded vs cordless drills there are some key differences.

Corded drills: these drills do not have a clutch adjustment. They provide a constant unchanged torque. The torque of these drills is most often higher. These are best used for driving and making holes with drill bits.

Cordless drills: obviously these are battery operated. These are the drills we have been discussing throughout this article. They have an adjustable clutch and are more versatile.

Corded vs cordless drill

Different drill brands

There are a lot of different brands out there that make drills. While I am not familiar with every single brand, I do have a good handle on the big ones. This includes Dewalt, Milwaukee, Ridgid, and ryobi.

Each one is a little different when it comes to presentation of the clutch control, the amount of numbers and the marker/arrow they use. When it comes to the symbols (hammer, drill, etc) those tend to be the same. Just varies which companies include which symbols (and what type of drill you are using).


  • Key parts of a drill
    • Clutch control
    • Drill symbol
    • Hammer symbol
    • Gear shifter
    • Forward/reverse control button
  • Choosing the right clutch number
  • Corded vs cordless drills
  • Different drill brands

I hope this answered all of your questions in regards to your drill. If so please let me know in the comments!

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