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.

SLRule

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 (12)

  • Transam101

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    They don’t call it ‘glock leg’ for nothing…

    First shot DA with or without manual safety for me. Canik, 1911, various SIGs. Anything provides more layers of protection from user error than carrying a loaded glock. I’m not hating on Glock, it will just never be a prime carry choice.

    Reply

  • Lou Guerra

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    I’ve owned a few different handguns including the Berreta 92s, a heavy full size gun that shoots like its on rails, even at moving targets. I carry the DAO Sig Sauer P250, as it is , a smallish 9mm, which when you master the trigger is very accurate as well. It is a quicker gun off the line and easy to carry.

    Reply

  • Doug

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    I started carrying with a Beretta PX4 Compact and liked having the decocker/safety until I tried a CZ. Now I carry a CZ 75 P-01 which has a decocker and I also have a CZ 97BD which is a .45 ACP with decocker. You carry them at half cock but first shot is still DA. I’ve had no problem advancing in IDPA with both brands but the CZ’s are just accurate all by themselves and can’t be beat. The CZ P-10C, a striker fired gun, has a very nice trigger and short reset but I didn’t like it better than my metal hammer guns.

    Reply

  • ARSniper

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    The comment:

    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.

    From what I have seen so far, a 5.5 pound trigger pull on a double-action first shot is more accurate that a 11 pound first shot. Maybe at the range but in HD and LE, odds of the first shot hitting the target is not good.

    Reply

  • two45triox

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    You have incorrectly identified the picture of the Desert Eagle 1911
    as a “Baby Desert Eagle”. The Baby Eagle is based on the CZ-75 design.
    FYI

    Reply

  • 70's Operator

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    Finally, someone acknowledges the Canik TP9SA. I can’t say enough about how perfect the trigger is, or how accurate it is, so I wont take up your time trying.
    One small bone of contention. You stated it must be carried “safety on”, when in fact, it has no actual safety. It has a double bladed trigger safety and a decocker.
    Mine is my EDC, always one in the pipe and cocked. I have, with blank rounds, thrown it to the ground, both in its serpa style holster and out. Quite literally tried to have a malfunction or accidental fire. Its rock solid. The decocker, which so many grumble about, is great for unloading for maintenance. When decocked with a round chambered, a slight 3/8″ bump on the slide to the rear, puts it right back to ready.
    Since I purchased the Canik, I’ve sold both my Glocks. I never liked the triggers on them and think they are way overrated, in all aspects in comparison.
    Thank you for a well written, concise description of pistol actions. I am sure most will learn something.

    Reply

  • Dan C

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    Ditto Tailgunner’s comment on the article. :)
    I prefer SAO for accuracy in the higher power 45 (if I were ever expecting combat), then first shot DA for carry (Beretta Px4 currently), then striker fire only in compact backup. Caveat: I haven’t fired a Glock yet. I lost my desire to use striker fired guns by owning S&W SD series (even after a total springs and trigger job, it just wasn’t for me.

    Reply

    • 70's Operator

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      Hey Dan C, if you get a chance, try the Canik TP9SA or if you prefer double action first shot the TP9SF. Excellent striker fired weapons. Outstanding trigger.

      Reply

  • Tony Z

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    I most often carry either a Beretta 92F or a Sig P220 SAS. Both are DA first shot, but neither can be carried safely with the hammer cocked. I carry the 92F with the safety off, and the P220 has no safety, so both are draw and pull. I also have a classic Colt 1911, but dislike the grip safety and having to flip the slide safety off during draw. Presently, I carry the Sig. Your article on the different designs is excellent.

    Reply

  • Bob Campbell

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    Tailgunner,

    Thanks for your comments. I appreciate you reading this feature.

    Best
    Bob Campbell

    Reply

    • Force Recon Marine

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      I carry the S&W model 411 this firearm is safe with the loaded chamber. The weapon is very accurate and easily controlled. I am amazed that so many prefer FOREIGN manufacturers over the venerable Domestic products. When My life is on the line I prefer not to rely on plastic.

      Reply

  • Tailgunner

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    One of the best discussions of pistol types. Clear, concise. Might have spent a few sentences on decockers. Many folks don’t understand them or why they exist. Excellent.

    Reply

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