Pistols 101: Pistol Actions and Triggers Versus Performance

By Bob Campbell published on in Concealed Carry, Firearms

The story of handguns and how they work is very interesting but may also be frustrating to the beginner. Some definitions are stretched by the makers. As an example, quite a few handguns cloud the definition of double-action or double-action-only operation. Even within types such as double-action first shot there are other categories such as selective double action.

Semi-automatic pistol in leather holster

It is important to choose a proper holster for the single-action pistol. This handgun rides in a Galco Combat Master.

Many are willing to give their opinion on handgun selection, but the first step is understanding how each type operates. There are advantages and disadvantages to each to be weighed. Let’s look at the oldest types first, while realizing that practically every modern type originated with a lockwork designed prior to World War I.

Single Action

The typical single-action handgun has an exposed hammer. Other types are striker fired. The small blowback-type pocket pistols are usually striker fired.

The single-action pistol is defined by the action of the trigger. The trigger does only one thing: drop the hammer. The trigger doesn’t cock the hammer or move the sear to the rear before dropping a striker. Some, but not all, have a manual safety. As an example, the Tokarev pistol was designed to be carried on half-cock, which isn’t safe for the Colt 1911. The Tokarev design relies upon the half-cock notch for safety, as the firing pin would otherwise rest on the primer or a chambered cartridge.

Baby Desert Eagle 1911 pistol left profile

The Baby Desert Eagle is a classic single-action 1911 pistol. Note slide lock safety and beavertail grip safety.

The Springfield XD is also a single-action design. So are some of the latest Canik pistols. A single-action trigger usually presses straight to the rear; also some, such as the Coonan pistol, may appear hinged. Pistols with leveraged single-action triggers usually have them because the designer was attempting to account for a large handgun or a large grip.

The carry modes for the single-action pistol include:

  • Cocked and locked – Hammer to the rear and safety on.
  • Hammer down on a loaded chamber – Generally regarded as the least desirable carry mode.
  • Chamber empty – Acceptable for home ready. There is some merit in safety for home defense. Simple readiness demands a carry pistol be accessible and ready to fire with one-hand use.

If you use a single-action handgun, be certain to practice both making the pistol ready and safely unloading it.

Positive Points and Trade-offs

Some 1911 handguns are well made of good material. Some are poorly made. No handgun is faster to an accurate first shot than a properly carried cocked-and-locked 1911 or Browning Hi Power. One difficulty is that the cocked hammer may abrade clothing. Therefore, holster selection is important. The holster must not allow the safety to move and must hold the handgun rigid during movement.

Wilson Combat Beretta 92

The Wilson Combat Beretta is a highly developed double-action first shot pistol.

Double-Action First Shot

Pistols with a double-action first shot are very popular. Among the better examples are the Beretta 92 and SIG P226. The double-action first-shot pistol is fired by pressing the trigger, which both cocks and drops the hammer. The trigger performs two actions, hence the term “double action.” After the first shot is fired, the slide recoils and cocks the hammer for subsequent single-action shots with a short press of the trigger.

With the double-action pistol, the first shot is usually accomplished by the finger swinging down in an arc and pressing the trigger to the rear. A decocker lever is pressed to lower the hammer without touching the trigger. Some double-action first-shot pistols, such as the original CZ 75, do not use a decocker lever, and the hammer must be lowered manually. The selective-double-action CZ 75, Taurus, and Rex Zero pistols also allow carry with the hammer to the rear and the safety on, although tactical doctrine calls for this safety to be used during tactical movement with a cocked hammer rather than as a carry mode.

Advantages include the pistol always being ready without taking the safety off or other actions. The double-action first-shot trigger is often heavy, at over 12 pounds compression. The double-action first-shot pistol is popular with those who prefer the practical over the tactical. However, the practical is important in a personal defense handgun.

SIG P250 pistol, left profile

The SIG P250 is a DAO design.

Double-Action Only

When law enforcement began to move to the self-loader, the expense of training officers with the double-action first-shot pistol was sometimes seen as prohibitive. Officers forgot to decock the pistol, and results were not good with the heavy double-action first-shot. Bean counters hate training dollars, and a cheaper solution was the DAO pistol.

The double-action-only handgun uses the trigger action to both cock and drop the hammer for every shot. The slide doesn’t cock the hammer for a double-action shot. There is no manual safety. The DAO pistol is more difficult to use well than a single-action or safe-action pistol, but it is acceptable for defense use at moderate range. The advantage lies in the simple manual of arms—load, holster, draw, fire. Shooters trained with a double-action revolver often do well with the double-action-only self-loader.

Double-action-only handguns have a short stroke—at least some do—and they are an ideal choice for home defense for many shooters. There is only one action to learn. There are few true DAO actions in production. The SIG P250 is among the smoothest and most useful.

Safe Action/Glock-style Striker Fired

The Glock has the simple manual of arms of the DAO pistol, but by using the slide action to prep the striker for a shorter firing stroke, the trigger is much lighter. With a 5.5-pound standard trigger, the Glock is controllable and easier to use well than most double-action first-shot pistols, although not as accurate in the absolute sense as the SIG P226 or Beretta 92. Trigger reset, however, is rapid.

Glock 17 9mm pistol right profile

The Glock 17 9mm is easily the most proven striker-fired polymer-frame handgun.

The Glock slide is racked, and the striker is partially prepped or pressed to the rear. The trigger is pressed, and the trigger supplies sufficient pressure to finish moving the striker to the rear, breaking it against spring pressure and firing the pistol. The Glock trigger is controllable and allows good practical accuracy.

There are competing designs such as the SIG P320 that are basically single-action designs with modifications. In common with the second model Dreyse pistol, the SIG P320 is cocked when the slide is racked, and the trigger is then pressed as it moves the sear to the rear slightly before firing.

The Smith & Wesson Military & Police offers a true safe-action-type operation comparable to the Glock. All polymer-frame, striker-fired pistols are not safe-action types; some are single action. As an example, the Canik TP9SA is a great shooter with a great trigger—it is a single-action trigger, and the pistol must always be carried safety on.

Bob Campbell shooting a pistol from the hip

Good work may be done with the double-action first shot pistol if you practice often.

I prefer single-action handguns such as the Colt 1911 for carry, as I like the safety of both a manual slide-lock safety and grip safety. Many handguns have slide, or frame-mounted, safety levers, but they do not lock the slide. As an example, some say the CZ 75 may be carried cocked-and-locked, but it may only be carried cocked and safety on, as the safety does not lock the slide.

The double-action first-shot pistol such as the excellent SIG P227 is another handgun I consider first line. There have been many handgun types developed for human convenience, and the double-action first-shot and double-action-only pistols rank among these. If you are willing to train, then none of the actions are out of the question for top-ranking performance in personal defense.

Take the time to master the pistol and learn the safety, trigger, decocker lever, and magazine release. I never compromise reliability, and there are reliable handguns in each category. The trigger action matters, and so do heft, balance, and the size of the handle and bore offset (bore axis). Comfort in carrying the individual handgun is more a function of the holster than anything else. Take time to master the handgun, and make the choice that suits your needs.

Which pistol action do you prefer – Single, Double, DAO? What is your favorite handgun or next handgun you plan to purchase? Share your answers in the comment section.


Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

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Comments (13)

  • Mack


    A good survey article on the various types of pistols.

    I just want to point out that the term “Safe Action” is really just a Glock marketing trademark. It really says nothing about the inherent safety of that pistol action. I recall the trademark was introduced after Glock pistols entered the American gun market. The idea was to counteract the impression of many people that the pistols were prone to accidental discharge. This was a new type of pistol for Americans and it took people time to get used to it.

    Still, many people who own a Glock don’t fully understand what they have. The basic idea is that the Glock pistol is at half cock at all times after the slide is racked until the trigger is pressed. The idea of a half cocked pistol with no external safety was and still is unacceptable for a lot of shooters. Calling it “Safe Action” makes it sound less daunting and more acceptable.


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