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Handgun Trigger and Action Types

Handgun Trigger and Action Types

When selecting a new handgun, much emphasis is placed on ergonomics, proportionality, and budget, but how often do we consider action type in making this important choice? For a new shooter standing at the gun counter, the technical terminology and gun-lingo associated with action options sound like a distinctly foreign language filled with a jumble of acronyms and technical jargon. Often the action type is glossed over and discussed in over-simplified terms to generalize the safety benefits the salesperson or other family member may feel best suits the shooter. 

However, even with the best intentions, the firearm’s action type, caliber, and scale can be grossly mismatched with the individual. For example, a 79-year-old woman with rheumatoid arthritis comes to a Girls Night Out event with her brand new snub nose, air weight, double action only, J-frame revolver. At the gun counter, she heard all about how this gun would be simple to shoot, the safety of double action triggers, how lightweight the gun is, and how a small grip will fit her hands. Sounds appealing? Thousands of women share a similar story only to discover this firearm requires grip and finger strength to manipulate the trigger, excellent vision to perfect very tiny fixed sights, and packs a punch in felt recoil. The snub nose revolver is an excellent firearm, though better paired with a different shooter. 

WHAT IS AN ACTION?

An action is categorized by the functional mechanisms that enable the gun to fire when the trigger is pulled. For handguns, multiple action types fall into hammer-fired or striker-fired, some of which can operate in single or double-action and can also be available in revolver or semiautomatic models—confused yet? You would not be alone. 

Approaching the gun counter with a little knowledge of the popular action types, how they work, and what their significant features are is vital to understanding what the machine requires of the shooter to function the gun safely. There are trigger action types better suited for competition, hunting, self-defense, or bullseye plinking. Regardless of experience level, every shooter should be familiar with their options and appreciate the merits of each. The next time you are at the range, try out a new action type and experience how the attributes work for you. You may be surprised by what you find you enjoy!


POPULAR TRIGGER AND ACTION TYPES

  • Single Action Only (SAO)
  • Double Action Only (DAO)
  • Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA)
  • Striker Fire

SINGLE ACTION ONLY (SAO)

“STOP! It’s HAMMER TIME!” The beauty of a single action trigger lies in its simplicity. This trigger has only one job or action: to release the external hammer when pulled, thus firing the gun. For the hammer to release, it must first be manually pulled back, cocked, into position by the shooter through the cycling of the slide. In a revolver, the shooter utilizes their thumb to reach up and pull the hammer rearward until it clicks in an open position for each shot. In a semiautomatic, the hammer is cocked by the action of chambering the initial round or subsequent rounds when the side cycles pushing it back each time. If the hammer is not cocked, even if the firearm is loaded and the trigger is pressed, the gun will not fire. These triggers are famous for having very light triggers and very little travel. Less movement and pressure required to complete the trigger press means less opportunity to move the gun off target while taking the shot. 

Attributes:

  • Available in semiautomatic and revolver models
  • Short trigger pull equals less opportunity to move the gun, usually less than 1/4″.
  • Light trigger pull means less pressure or force necessary to fire the gun, usually near 4 lbs. 
  • Same trigger pull experience every time
  • Semiautomatic Single Action Only handguns have an external safety.
  • It does not require a lot of hand strength to manipulate the trigger. 
  • Because the trigger is considered so “light” the shooter must be alert and mindfully adhere to the safety rules at all times.

Examples:

1911 Models
Browning High Power
Ruger Mark III
Colt Single-Action Army Peacemaker
Ruger Blackhawk


DOUBLE ACTION ONLY (DAO)

In this action type, the trigger performs two tasks, both cocking and releasing the hammer. Double-Action-Only incorporates an internal (shrouded) hammer that the shooter can not access. DAO firearms have a notoriously “heavier” trigger pull because there is more spring tension to overcome to enable the gun to fire. The trigger pressed rearward automatically draws the hammer back to cock it and then releases the hammer at the end of the trigger’s travel.

Attributes:

  • Available in semiautomatic and revolver models
  • Long trigger pull
  • Heavy trigger pull
  • Same trigger pull experience every time
  • The long and heavy nature of the DAO trigger is often equated to being a safety feature. Because of the deliberate effort and energy required to function the gun, the implication is that the shooter makes a more intentional shot. 
  • However, trigger length and weight do not relate to the individual’s level of training or proficiency, nor do these features make the shooter or firearm safer. Strict adherence to the safety rules and correct utilization of the firearms safety features at all times yields a safe shooter.

Examples:

Kahr PM9
S&W J-Frame
Walther P99C
Ruger LCR
Taurus CIA Model 650


DOUBLE ACTION/SINGLE ACTION (DA/SA)

You guessed it, a DA/SA trigger action functions as a double-action or single-action firearm. Think of it as a hybrid. The initial load and make-ready procedure on a DA/SA firearm requires a final step of utilizing the decocker lever to safely lower the hammer to its resting position without firing the pistol. The first shot will have the classic long, heavy trigger pull of a DA gun. However, the cycling of the slide itself will automatically cock the hammer for the next shot setting the trigger action into SA, resulting in a short, light trigger press. It is critical to note that after the last shot in a string is fired, should the firearm still be loaded, the decocker must once more be engaged to reset the gun into DA mode. DA/SA guns also allow the shooter to opt for a SA first shot simply by manually cocking the external hammer before pressing the trigger. Options can be awesome! 

Attributes:

  • Available in semiautomatic and revolver models
  • Heavy initial trigger pull in double-action
  • Short, light follow-up shots in single-action
  • Distinctly different trigger experiences between DA and SA functions
  • The shooter must adjust from a heavy first shot to a very light follow-up shot.
  • Decocker must be an integral step in the pre and post-shooting sequence for safety.

Examples:

Beretta 92
CZ 75 series
Sig Sauer P226
Walther P99


STRIKER FIRE (SF)

Unlike the first three action types, this action does not have a hammer at all. Instead, it has an entirely internal and different firing system. The process of cocking the internal firing pin striker begins when the first round is chambered or the slide is cycled. When the trigger is pulled, the spring-loaded striker is released, hitting the cartridge primer and thus firing the gun. Sound familiar? Striker-fired handguns are also categorized as single-action because the trigger both cocks and releases the firing mechanism. Because this is an internal system without an external hammer or decocking lever, striker-fired guns can incorporate external safeties, trigger safety mechanisms, and other internal safety features. 

Attributes:

  • Available in semiautomatic only
  • Same trigger pull experience every time
  • Internal and trigger safety mechanisms
  • Many models have optional external mechanical safeties. 

Examples:
GLOCK models
Walther PDP and PPQ Series
Smith and Wesson M&P models
Ruger LCP’s
Springfield XD models

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