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C++ Smart Pointers

From WikiOD

Syntax[edit | edit source]

  • std::shared_ptr<ClassType> variableName = std::make_shared<ClassType>(arg1, arg2, ...);
  • std::shared_ptr<ClassType> variableName (new ClassType(arg1, arg2, ...));
  • std::unique_ptr<ClassType> variableName = std::make_unique<ClassType>(arg1, arg2, ...); // C++14
  • std::unique_ptr<ClassType> variableName (new ClassType(arg1, arg2, ...));

Remarks[edit | edit source]

C++ is not a memory-managed language. Dynamically allocated memory (i.e. objects created with new) will be "leaked" if it is not explicitly deallocated (with delete). It is the programmer's responsibility to ensure that the dynamically allocated memory is freed before discarding the last pointer to that object.

Smart pointers can be used to automatically manage the scope of dynamically allocated memory (i.e. when the last pointer reference goes out of scope it is deleted).

Smart pointers are preferred over "raw" pointers in most cases. They make the ownership semantics of dynamically allocated memory explicit, by communicating in their names whether an object is intended to be shared or uniquely owned.

Use #include <memory> to be able to use smart pointers.

Unique ownership (std::unique_ptr)[edit | edit source]


A std::unique_ptr is a class template that manages the lifetime of a dynamically stored object. Unlike for std::shared_ptr, the dynamic object is owned by only one instance of a std::unique_ptr at any time,

// Creates a dynamic int with value of 20 owned by a unique pointer
std::unique_ptr<int> ptr = std::make_unique<int>(20);

(Note: std::unique_ptr is available since C++11 and std::make_unique since C++14.)

Only the variable ptr holds a pointer to a dynamically allocated int. When a unique pointer that owns an object goes out of scope, the owned object is deleted, i.e. its destructor is called if the object is of class type, and the memory for that object is released.

To use std::unique_ptr and std::make_unique with array-types, use their array specializations:

// Creates a unique_ptr to an int with value 59
std::unique_ptr<int> ptr = std::make_unique<int>(59);

// Creates a unique_ptr to an array of 15 ints
std::unique_ptr<int[]> ptr = std::make_unique<int[]>(15);

You can access the std::unique_ptr just like a raw pointer, because it overloads those operators.

You can transfer ownership of the contents of a smart pointer to another pointer by using std::move, which will cause the original smart pointer to point to nullptr.

// 1. std::unique_ptr
std::unique_ptr<int> ptr = std::make_unique<int>();

// Change value to 1
*ptr = 1;

// 2. std::unique_ptr (by moving 'ptr' to 'ptr2', 'ptr' doesn't own the object anymore)
std::unique_ptr<int> ptr2 = std::move(ptr);

int a = *ptr2; // 'a' is 1
int b = *ptr;  // undefined behavior! 'ptr' is 'nullptr'
               // (because of the move command above)

Passing unique_ptr to functions as parameter:

void foo(std::unique_ptr<int> ptr)
    // Your code goes here

std::unique_ptr<int> ptr = std::make_unique<int>(59);

Returning unique_ptr from functions. This is the preferred C++11 way of writing factory functions, as it clearly conveys the ownership semantics of the return: the caller owns the resulting unique_ptr and is responsible for it.

std::unique_ptr<int> foo()
    std::unique_ptr<int> ptr = std::make_unique<int>(59);
    return ptr;

std::unique_ptr<int> ptr = foo();

Compare this to:

int* foo_cpp03();

int* p = foo_cpp03(); // do I own p? do I have to delete it at some point?
                      // it's not readily apparent what the answer is.


The class template make_unique is provided since C++14. It's easy to add it manually to C++11 code:

template<typename T, typename... Args>
typename std::enable_if<!std::is_array<T>::value, std::unique_ptr<T>>::type
make_unique(Args&&... args)
{ return std::unique_ptr<T>(new T(std::forward<Args>(args)...)); }

// Use make_unique for arrays
template<typename T>
typename std::enable_if<std::is_array<T>::value, std::unique_ptr<T>>::type
make_unique(size_t n)
{ return std::unique_ptr<T>(new typename std::remove_extent<T>::type[n]()); }


Unlike the dumb smart pointer (std::auto_ptr), unique_ptr can also be instantiated with vector allocation (not std::vector). Earlier examples were for scalar allocations. For example to have a dynamically allocated integer array for 10 elements, you would specify int[] as the template type (and not just int):

std::unique_ptr<int[]> arr_ptr = std::make_unique<int[]>(10);

Which can be simplified with:

auto arr_ptr = std::make_unique<int[]>(10);

Now, you use arr_ptr as if it is an array:

arr_ptr[2] =  10; // Modify third element

You need not to worry about de-allocation. This template specialized version calls constructors and destructors appropriately. Using vectored version of unique_ptr or a vector itself - is a personal choice.

In versions prior to C++11, std::auto_ptr was available. Unlike unique_ptr it is allowed to copy auto_ptrs, upon which the source ptr will lose the ownership of the contained pointer and the target receives it.

Sharing ownership (std::shared_ptr)[edit | edit source]

The class template std::shared_ptr defines a shared pointer that is able to share ownership of an object with other shared pointers. This contrasts to std::unique_ptr which represents exclusive ownership.

The sharing behavior is implemented through a technique known as reference counting, where the number of shared pointers that point to the object is stored alongside it. When this count reaches zero, either through the destruction or reassignment of the last std::shared_ptr instance, the object is automatically destroyed.

// Creation: 'firstShared' is a shared pointer for a new instance of 'Foo'
std::shared_ptr<Foo> firstShared = std::make_shared<Foo>(/*args*/);

To create multiple smart pointers that share the same object, we need to create another shared_ptr that aliases the first shared pointer. Here are 2 ways of doing it:

std::shared_ptr<Foo> secondShared(firstShared);  // 1st way: Copy constructing
std::shared_ptr<Foo> secondShared;
secondShared = firstShared;                      // 2nd way: Assigning

Either of the above ways makes secondShared a shared pointer that shares ownership of our instance of Foo with firstShared.

The smart pointer works just like a raw pointer. This means, you can use * to dereference them. The regular -> operator works as well:

secondShared*>test(); // Calls Foo::test()

Finally, when the last aliased shared_ptr goes out of scope, the destructor of our Foo instance is called.

Warning: Constructing a shared_ptr might throw a bad_alloc exception when extra data for shared ownership semantics needs to be allocated. If the constructor is passed a regular pointer it assumes to own the object pointed to and calls the deleter if an exception is thrown. This means shared_ptr<T>(new T(args)) will not leak a T object if allocation of shared_ptr<T> fails. However, it is advisable to use make_shared<T>(args) or allocate_shared<T>(alloc, args), which enable the implementation to optimize the memory allocation.

Allocating Arrays([]) using shared_ptr


Unfortunately, there is no direct way to allocate Arrays using make_shared<>.

It is possible to create arrays for shared_ptr<> using new and std::default_delete.

For example, to allocate an array of 10 integers, we can write the code as

shared_ptr<int> sh(new int[10], std::default_delete<int[]>());

Specifying std::default_delete is mandatory here to make sure that the allocated memory is correctly cleaned up using delete[].

If we know the size at compile time, we can do it this way:

template<class Arr>
struct shared_array_maker {};
template<class T, std::size_t N>
struct shared_array_maker<T[N]> {
  std::shared_ptr<T> operator()const{
    auto r = std::make_shared<std::array<T,N>>();
    if (!r) return {};
    return {r.data(), r};
template<class Arr>
auto make_shared_array()
*> decltype( shared_array_maker<Arr>{}() )
{ return shared_array_maker<Arr>{}(); }

then make_shared_array<int[10]> returns a shared_ptr<int> pointing to 10 ints all default constructed.


With C++17, shared_ptr gained special support for array types. It is no longer necessary to specify the array-deleter explicitly, and the shared pointer can be dereferenced using the [] array index operator:

std::shared_ptr<int[]> sh(new int[10]);
sh[0] = 42;

Shared pointers can point to a sub-object of the object it owns:

struct Foo { int x; };
std::shared_ptr<Foo> p1 = std::make_shared<Foo>();
std::shared_ptr<int> p2(p1, &p1->x);

Both p2 and p1 own the object of type Foo, but p2 points to its int member x. This means that if p1 goes out of scope or is reassigned, the underlying Foo object will still be alive, ensuring that p2 does not dangle.

Important: A shared_ptr only knows about itself and all other shared_ptr that were created with the alias constructor. It does not know about any other pointers, including all other shared_ptrs created with a reference to the same Foo instance:

Foo *foo = new Foo;
std::shared_ptr<Foo> shared1(foo);
std::shared_ptr<Foo> shared2(foo); // don't do this

shared1.reset(); // this will delete foo, since shared1
                 // was the only shared_ptr that owned it

shared2*>test(); // UNDEFINED BEHAVIOR: shared2's foo has been
                 // deleted already!!

Ownership Transfer of shared_ptr

By default, shared_ptr increments the reference count and doesn't transfer the ownership. However, it can be made to transfer the ownership using std::move:

shared_ptr<int> up = make_shared<int>();
// Transferring the ownership
shared_ptr<int> up2 = move(up);
// At this point, the reference count of up = 0 and the
// ownership of the pointer is solely with up2 with reference count = 1

Sharing with temporary ownership (std::weak_ptr)[edit | edit source]

Instances of std::weak_ptr can point to objects owned by instances of std::shared_ptr while only becoming temporary owners themselves. This means that weak pointers do not alter the object's reference count and therefore do not prevent an object's deletion if all of the object's shared pointers are reassigned or destroyed.

In the following example instances of std::weak_ptr are used so that the destruction of a tree object is not inhibited:

#include <memory>
#include <vector>

struct TreeNode {
    std::weak_ptr<TreeNode> parent;
    std::vector< std::shared_ptr<TreeNode> > children;

int main() {
    // Create a TreeNode to serve as the root/parent.
    std::shared_ptr<TreeNode> root(new TreeNode);

    // Give the parent 100 child nodes.
    for (size_t i = 0; i < 100; ++i) {
        std::shared_ptr<TreeNode> child(new TreeNode);
        child->parent = root;

    // Reset the root shared pointer, destroying the root object, and
    // subsequently its child nodes.

As child nodes are added to the root node's children, their std::weak_ptr member parent is set to the root node. The member parent is declared as a weak pointer as opposed to a shared pointer such that the root node's reference count is not incremented. When the root node is reset at the end of main(), the root is destroyed. Since the only remaining std::shared_ptr references to the child nodes were contained in the root's collection children, all child nodes are subsequently destroyed as well.

Due to control block implementation details, shared_ptr allocated memory may not be released until shared_ptr reference counter and weak_ptr reference counter both reach zero.

#include <memory>
int main()
         std::weak_ptr<int> wk;
             // std::make_shared is optimized by allocating only once 
             // while std::shared_ptr<int>(new int(42)) allocates twice.
             // Drawback of std::make_shared is that control block is tied to our integer
             std::shared_ptr<int> sh = std::make_shared<int>(42);
             wk = sh;
             // sh memory should be released at this point...
         // ... but wk is still alive and needs access to control block
     // now memory is released (sh and wk)

Since std::weak_ptr does not keep its referenced object alive, direct data access through a std::weak_ptr is not possible. Instead it provides a lock() member function that attempts to retrieve a std::shared_ptr to the referenced object:

#include <cassert>
#include <memory>
int main()
         std::weak_ptr<int> wk;
         std::shared_ptr<int> sp;
             std::shared_ptr<int> sh = std::make_shared<int>(42);
             wk = sh;
             // calling lock will create a shared_ptr to the object referenced by wk
             sp = wk.lock();
             // sh will be destroyed after this point, but sp is still alive
         // sp still keeps the data alive.
         // At this point we could even call lock() again 
         // to retrieve another shared_ptr to the same data from wk
         assert(*sp == 42);
         // resetting sp will delete the data,
         // as it is currently the last shared_ptr with ownership
         // attempting to lock wk now will return an empty shared_ptr,
         // as the data has already been deleted
         sp = wk.lock();

Using custom deleters to create a wrapper to a C interface[edit | edit source]

Many C interfaces such as SDL2 have their own deletion functions. This means that you cannot use smart pointers directly:

std::unique_ptr<SDL_Surface> a; // won't work, UNSAFE!

Instead, you need to define your own deleter. The examples here use the SDL_Surface structure which should be freed using the SDL_FreeSurface() function, but they should be adaptable to many other C interfaces.

The deleter must be callable with a pointer argument, and therefore can be e.g. a simple function pointer:

std::unique_ptr<SDL_Surface, void(*)(SDL_Surface*)> a(pointer, SDL_FreeSurface);

Any other callable object will work, too, for example a class with an operator():

struct SurfaceDeleter {
    void operator()(SDL_Surface* surf) {

std::unique_ptr<SDL_Surface, SurfaceDeleter> a(pointer, SurfaceDeleter{}); // safe
std::unique_ptr<SDL_Surface, SurfaceDeleter> b(pointer); // equivalent to the above
                                                         // as the deleter is value-initialized

This not only provides you with safe, zero overhead (if you use unique_ptr) automatic memory management, you also get exception safety.

Note that the deleter is part of the type for unique_ptr, and the implementation can use the empty base optimization to avoid any change in size for empty custom deleters. So while std::unique_ptr<SDL_Surface, SurfaceDeleter> and std::unique_ptr<SDL_Surface, void(*)(SDL_Surface*)> solve the same problem in a similar way, the former type is still only the size of a pointer while the latter type has to hold two pointers: both the SDL_Surface* and the function pointer! When having free function custom deleters, it is preferable to wrap the function in an empty type.

In cases where reference counting is important, one could use a shared_ptr instead of an unique_ptr. The shared_ptr always stores a deleter, this erases the type of the deleter, which might be useful in APIs. The disadvantages of using shared_ptr over unique_ptr include a higher memory cost for storing the deleter and a performance cost for maintaining the reference count.

// deleter required at construction time and is part of the type
std::unique_ptr<SDL_Surface, void(*)(SDL_Surface*)> a(pointer, SDL_FreeSurface);

// deleter is only required at construction time, not part of the type
std::shared_ptr<SDL_Surface> b(pointer, SDL_FreeSurface);


With template auto, we can make it even easier to wrap our custom deleters:

template <auto DeleteFn>
struct FunctionDeleter {
    template <class T>
    void operator()(T* ptr) {

template <class T, auto DeleteFn>
using unique_ptr_deleter = std::unique_ptr<T, FunctionDeleter<DeleteFn>>;

With which the above example is simply:

unique_ptr_deleter<SDL_Surface, SDL_FreeSurface> c(pointer);

Here, the purpose of auto is to handle all free functions, whether they return void (e.g. SDL_FreeSurface) or not (e.g. fclose).

Unique ownership without move semantics (auto_ptr)[edit | edit source]


NOTE: std::auto_ptr has been deprecated in C++11 and will be removed in C++17. You should only use this if you are forced to use C++03 or earlier and are willing to be careful. It is recommended to move to unique_ptr in combination with std::move to replace std::auto_ptr behavior.

Before we had std::unique_ptr, before we had move semantics, we had std::auto_ptr. std::auto_ptr provides unique ownership but transfers ownership upon copy.

As with all smart pointers, std::auto_ptr automatically cleans up resources (see RAII):

    std::auto_ptr<int> p(new int(42));
    std::cout << *p;
} // p is deleted here, no memory leaked

but allows only one owner:

std::auto_ptr<X> px = ...;
std::auto_ptr<X> py = px; 
  // px is now empty

This allows to use std::auto_ptr to keep ownership explicit and unique at the danger of losing ownership unintended:

void f(std::auto_ptr<X> ) {
    // assumes ownership of X
    // deletes it at end of scope

std::auto_ptr<X> px = ...;
f(px); // f acquires ownership of underlying X
       // px is now empty
px*>foo(); // NPE!
// px.~auto_ptr() does NOT delete

The transfer of ownership happened in the "copy" constructor. auto_ptr's copy constructor and copy assignment operator take their operands by non-const reference so that they could be modified. An example implementation might be:

template <typename T>
class auto_ptr {
    T* ptr;
    auto_ptr(auto_ptr& rhs)
    : ptr(rhs.release())
    { }

    auto_ptr& operator=(auto_ptr& rhs) {
        return *this;

    T* release() {
        T* tmp = ptr;
        ptr = nullptr;
        return tmp;

    void reset(T* tmp = nullptr) {
        if (ptr != tmp) {
            delete ptr;
            ptr = tmp;

    /* other functions ... */

This breaks copy semantics, which require that copying an object leaves you with two equivalent versions of it. For any copyable type, T, I should be able to write:

T a = ...;
T b(a);
assert(b == a);

But for auto_ptr, this is not the case. As a result, it is not safe to put auto_ptrs in containers.

Casting std::shared_ptr pointers[edit | edit source]

It is not possible to directly use static_cast, const_cast, dynamic_cast and reinterpret_cast on std::shared_ptr to retrieve a pointer sharing ownership with the pointer being passed as argument. Instead, the functions std::static_pointer_cast, std::const_pointer_cast, std::dynamic_pointer_cast and std::reinterpret_pointer_cast should be used:

struct Base { virtual ~Base() noexcept {}; };
struct Derived: Base {};
auto derivedPtr(std::make_shared<Derived>());
auto basePtr(std::static_pointer_cast<Base>(derivedPtr));
auto constBasePtr(std::const_pointer_cast<Base const>(basePtr));
auto constDerivedPtr(std::dynamic_pointer_cast<Derived const>(constBasePtr));

Note that std::reinterpret_pointer_cast is not available in C++11 and C++14, as it was only proposed by N3920 and adopted into Library Fundamentals TS in February 2014. However, it can be implemented as follows:

template <typename To, typename From>
inline std::shared_ptr<To> reinterpret_pointer_cast(
    std::shared_ptr<From> const & ptr) noexcept
{ return std::shared_ptr<To>(ptr, reinterpret_cast<To *>(ptr.get())); }

Writing a smart pointer: value_ptr[edit | edit source]

A value_ptr is a smart pointer that behaves like a value. When copied, it copies its contents. When created, it creates its contents.

// Like std::default_delete:
template<class T>
struct default_copier {
  // a copier must handle a null T const* in and return null:
  T* operator()(T const* tin)const {
    if (!tin) return nullptr;
    return new T(*tin);
  void operator()(void* dest, T const* tin)const {
    if (!tin) return;
    return new(dest) T(*tin);
// tag class to handle empty case:
struct empty_ptr_t {};
constexpr empty_ptr_t empty_ptr{};
// the value pointer type itself:
template<class T, class Copier=default_copier<T>, class Deleter=std::default_delete<T>,
  class Base=std::unique_ptr<T, Deleter>
struct value_ptr:Base, private Copier {
  using copier_type=Copier;
  // also typedefs from unique_ptr

  using Base::Base;

  value_ptr( T const& t ):
    Base( std::make_unique<T>(t) ),
  value_ptr( T && t ):
    Base( std::make_unique<T>(std::move(t)) ),
  // almost-never-empty:
    Base( std::make_unique<T>() ),
  value_ptr( empty_ptr_t ) {}

  value_ptr( Base b, Copier c={} ):

  Copier const& get_copier() const {
    return *this;

  value_ptr clone() const {
    return {
  value_ptr& operator=(value_ptr&&)=default;

  value_ptr(value_ptr const& o):value_ptr(o.clone()) {}
  value_ptr& operator=(value_ptr const&o) {
    if (o && *this) {
      // if we are both non-null, assign contents:
      **this = *o;
    } else {
      // otherwise, assign a clone (which could itself be null):
      *this = o.clone();
    return *this;
  value_ptr& operator=( T const& t ) {
    if (*this) {
      **this = t;
    } else {
      *this = value_ptr(t);
    return *this;
  value_ptr& operator=( T && t ) {
    if (*this) {
      **this = std::move(t);
    } else {
      *this = value_ptr(std::move(t));
    return *this;
  T& get() { return **this; }
  T const& get() const { return **this; }
  T* get_pointer() {
    if (!*this) return nullptr;
    return std::addressof(get());
  T const* get_pointer() const {
    if (!*this) return nullptr;
    return std::addressof(get());
  // operator-> from unique_ptr
template<class T, class...Args>
value_ptr<T> make_value_ptr( Args&&... args ) {
  return {std::make_unique<T>(std::forward<Args>(args)...)};

This particular value_ptr is only empty if you construct it with empty_ptr_t or if you move from it. It exposes the fact it is a unique_ptr, so explicit operator bool() const works on it. .get() has been changed to return a reference (as it is almost never empty), and .get_pointer() returns a pointer instead.

This smart pointer can be useful for pImpl cases, where we want value-semantics but we also don't want to expose the contents of the pImpl outside of the implementation file.

With a non-default Copier, it can even handle virtual base classes that know how to produce instances of their derived and turn them into value-types.

Getting a shared_ptr referring to this[edit | edit source]

enable_shared_from_this enables you to get a valid shared_ptr instance to this.

By deriving your class from the class template enable_shared_from_this, you inherit a method shared_from_this that returns a shared_ptr instance to this.

Note that the object must be created as a shared_ptr in first place:

#include <memory>
class A: public enable_shared_from_this<A> {
A* ap1 =new A();
shared_ptr<A> ap2(ap1); // First prepare a shared pointer to the object and hold it!
// Then get a shared pointer to the object from the object itself
shared_ptr<A> ap3 = ap1->shared_from_this(); 
int c3 =ap3.use_count(); // =2: pointing to the same object

Note(2) you cannot call enable_shared_from_this inside the constructor.

#include <memory> // enable_shared_from_this

class Widget : public std::enable_shared_from_this< Widget >
    void DoSomething()
        std::shared_ptr< Widget > self = shared_from_this();
        someEvent -> Register( self );

int main()
    auto w = std::make_shared< Widget >();
    w -> DoSomething();

If you use shared_from_this() on an object not owned by a shared_ptr, such as a local automatic object or a global object, then the behavior is undefined. Since C++17 it throws std::bad_alloc instead.

Using shared_from_this() from a constructor is equivalent to using it on an object not owned by a shared_ptr, because the objects is possessed by the shared_ptr after the constructor returns.