Lights, Cameras, ACTION!

As you make your way towards your first firearm purchase, you’re doing a lot of reading, and a lot of opinions are being thrown at you. It can get tiring, believe me, I know! One of the most intimidating things to pick out is the type of action you want for your first handgun.

In this portion of the First Time Buyer’s Guide to Handguns I will be giving you details on each common action, as well as what my opinions are. If I missed something be sure to message me on Facebook!

Single Action Only (SAO):

Single action handguns are hammer fired, meaning when you pull the trigger, a hammer (internal or external) will drop when the trigger is pulled. When the hammer drops it releases the firing pin, the firing pin strikes, and detonates the primer. For autoloading pistols this causes the slide to cycle. For revolvers it just discharges the cartridge in the cylinder.

Single action pistols are equipped with a manual safety, on the Ruger SR1911 in the image it’s at the back of the gun. The firearm cannot discharge via trigger pull with the safety engage. Typically, SAO pistols cannot be cleared with the safety on.

Single action revolvers must be manually cocked for every single shot. If the hammer isn’t cocked back, pulling the trigger will do nothing. Pulling the hammer back also causes the cylinder to rotate to the next round. SAO revolvers typically can only be emptied and reloaded by 1 casing/cartridge at a time.

Single Action is known to have a light trigger pull which is excellent for those with weaker hands. Single action also has a short length of pull which is great for those with small hands.

Double Action Only (DAO):

Double Action Only or DAO is similar to SAO, these are handguns that are only capable of being fired in double action. Most double action handguns are hammer fired (internal or external), but there are some striker fired guns that mimic the trigger pull.

Double action has a trigger pull that is typically double that or more than single action. Because of this those with weak hands might not be able to pull the trigger. Double action triggers have a longer length of pull, so those with smaller hands may have issues reaching it.

With double action revolvers you just pull the trigger and the gun will discharge. As you pull the trigger for a second shot, the cylinder will rotate to the next chamber. Unlike SAO revolvers, most DAO revolvers have a cylinder that pops out. This allows you to eject all casings at once. It also allows you to reload all of the chambers at once.
Typically DAO revolvers have an unexposed hammer like the Kimber K6S shown, or it’s deburred. Not all deburred revolvers are DAO though.

For semi-autos, there is no decocker and typically there isn’t a safety. When you chamber a round the hammer automatically decocks. After every shot the hammer returns to what would be the decocked position.

Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA):

Double Action/Single Action guns have the most variety of all the actions available. A majority of them are hammer fired, but there are the few odd striker fired offerings.

What is DA/SA? For revolvers, it means you don’t have to cock the hammer for every shot like with SAO revolvers. Every pull will be double action unless you manually cock the hammer first.

For pistols it typically means that the initial trigger pull will be double action and each following trigger pull (once the slide has cycled) will be in single action. That said there are a variety of DA/SA pistol types on the market.

The CZ 75B pictured has a manual safety, but no decocker. This handgun is meant to be carried cocked and locked (hammer cocked, safety engaged). The double action on this pistol is almost pointless. The primary reason for it is double strike. If debris gets between the hammer and firing pin plunger, you can pull the trigger a second time to hopefully clear the debris. If you get a light primer strike, you can try pulling the trigger again to cause detonation.

Note: Double strike should only really be used on the range when plinking in an attempt to not waste ammunition. When it comes to training, just train to rack the slide to get a new round in the chamber. Why? Well, there are several reasons. The main one? The slide might not have locked back on the last round and you just let the firing pin go forward on air.

The Beretta 92FS pictured has a manual safety and a decocker. The manual safety can only be engaged when the gun is decocked. For many the safety on this specific weapon is redundant; I tend to agree with this.

You also have DA/SA pistols like the Sig Sauer P22x series and the Heckler & Koch USP that are or can be decocker only. Other DA/SA guns like the Lionheart LH9 series and some Heckler & Koch USPs come with unique DA/SA type triggers. The LH9 has what’s called Double Action + and the USP has what’s called the LEM trigger. These are better saved for other articles or videos to explain.


Striker Fired:

Unlike SAO, DAO, and your typical DA/SA handgun, striker fired guns are not fired by a hammer (internal or external). They are fired via a striker. The firing pin is apart of a whole assembly called the striker. Typically the striker is held under spring tension while not being fired. When the trigger isn’t being pulled the striker is “half-cocked”. When you pull the trigger, the striker cocks all the way, and then releases. Upon release the firing pin springs forward, strikes the primer, and causes the primer to detonate.
Not all striker fired handguns function the same way, but your typical striker functions as described above. Some function completely different. 

You have a few type of triggers when it comes to striker fired pistols.

You have triggers with “trigger blades” in the center of the trigger that are the gun’s safety. The gun will not fire unless the blade is compressed. You have triggers that are hinged that won’t fire unless both parts of the hinge meet up. You have some that are like a traditional DA/SA hammer fired gun (although very few of them). There are even options with manual safeties.

Some striker fired guns are like double action only handguns. You have the double action length but with a lighter pull. With these triggers the trigger resets all the way before being able to be pulled again.

Some striker fired guns are like DA/SA hammer fired guns. You have a longer take-up similar to double action (with less weight to the pull), but the reset is similar to single action; which has the same weight as the initial pull.

And in the case of the Walther P99 above, you get a system that mirrors a traditional hammer fired DA/SA pistol. So much so that it can be decocked.

TacCat’s Opinion:

The important thing about this portion of the guide is just giving you the information so that you might be able to form your own opinion. With that said, here’s my opinions.

For the most part, manual safeties are a thing of a past and I wouldn’t recommend a novice use one for self-defense. SAO revolvers, including the NAA Mini-Mag are completely and utterly irrelevant when it comes to self-defense.

DAO guns are good if you’re super tight on money since they tend to be cheaper.
DAO revolvers are going to be easier to conceal, especially in the pocket since the hammer spur is no longer present.

DA/SA with a decocker is what I typically prefer in a pistol. I like being able to have more control over the firearm. When I go to holster the gun I’m able to put my thumb on the hammer to ensure nothing is interfering with the trigger.

I like striker fired guns for their simplicity, lower bore axis (typically), and weight. I believe striker fired guns are a lot easier for a new shooter to become proficient with from every stand point. They’re easier to learn how to shoot, they’re easier to maintain, and mechanically they’re a lot simpler to learn.

At the end of the day, my favorites are… well, all of them. I believe each one serves a purpose or at least fills some type of niche. For SAO revolvers, that’s cowboy shooting competitions and pest control.

Thank you for reading this part of the First Time Buyer’s Guide to Handguns! Be sure to check out the other parts linked below!

Part 0: Stuff You Should Know Before Buying

Part 1: Handgun Actions Explained (Currently On)

Part 2: Handgun Frames Explained

Part 3: Handgun Calibers Explained

Part 4: Handgun Holsters Explained 

Part 5: Stuff You Should Know After Buying