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Single Action vs Double Action Pistols | How They Work and Which is Better

single action vs double action handguns
March 28, 2023 Edited March 30, 2023 284 view(s)
Single Action vs Double Action Pistols | How They Work and Which is Better

Today we’re talking about handguns. Specifically, what’s the difference between action types? In this case, we’re diving into the single-action versus double-action discussion. This debate is as old as time, or at least as old as auto loading pistols.

So, what is a single action automatic pistol? And how do they work? And why is the pull so dang long on a double action? We’re going to answer this and a whole lot more. Also, you might be wondering what place in the world a single-action or double-action pistol has in a world full of modern striker-action pistols? Well, considering the striker action is at least as old as double-action, they are hardly any more ‘modern.’ Let’s take a look at single-actions, double-actions, and how they stack up.

What Is Single Action?

internal of single action handgun

Image courtesy of RangeUSA

First and foremost, what is a single-action? In a nutshell, the single-action means that the trigger must be reset every single shot to the cocked position. In a revolver, or most single-shot break open shotguns and rifles, an external hammer is manually cocked for each shot. Traditional lever-action rifles are also an example of a single-action trigger.

The trigger itself in a single-action can only release the hammer; it cannot ever cock it and release it.

So, how does it work in an autoloading pistol? That’s a great question.

A single-action trigger in a pistol is no different than a single action trigger on a revolver. The only real difference is that you only have to manually cock the hammer for the first shot; with each following shot, the hammer is cocked as the slide is racked. So when the slide fully back into battery, the hammer is cocked and locked, which is functionally identical in operation as a double-action/single-action in the single-action follow-up.

What Is Double Action?

internal of double action handgunImage courtesy of RangeUSA

Now we come to double-action. In an interesting evolution, we have seen single-action automatics reign supreme for decades, only to be set aside by double-action pistols. Now, you’d be hard pressed to find a double-action pistol, although Tanfoglio makes some fine examples.

A double-action means the trigger pulls double-duty: it can cock the hammer from zero, and it also releases the hammer to strike the firing pin. Double-action triggers are characterized by quite heavy and long pulls, generally at least ten pounds but these can certainly exceed twelve pounds. Double-action revolvers are especially notorious, with some going as high as 12 lbs-15 lbs of pull. Staying on target with the first shot of a double-action revolver is a chore for sure.

When a double-action pistol is fired, only the first shot is in double-action, unless it is a double-action only pistol. All of the successive shots will be in single-action.

The nice thing about a double-action/single-action pistol (DA/SA)is the shooter can manually cock the hammer into single-action for the first shot when precision is needed.

What Does Double Action Only Mean?

Up until about the 1980s, revolvers were king in police work. Smith & Wesson K-frames were basically the industry standard, with J-frames working in detective divisions everywhere. Then the DoD awarded their contract to Beretta for the M9/92FS, and the 92FS also ended up in the Lethal Weapon franchise, and it was all over.

The age of the “Wonder Nine” had begun, with Glock also entering the scene with their iconic G17. But besides Glock, most companies offered DA/SA pistols mimicking the armed forces procurement.

But with so many LEOs having used revolvers for eons, engineers went to the drawing boards to create a transitions action catering to these guys. What they came up with with the double-action only (DAO).

The trigger is a full, double-action break every shot, so it’s fairly heavy. The hammer decocks after every shot, instead of transitioning to a single-action trigger, so you have basically a pistol that has a heavy pull every shot, kind of like a revolver. There are still a few pistols on the market that use a DAO action, but they are mostly reserved for pocket pistols as a sort of safety apparatus.

The Ruger LCP (the original one, not the new one with the Glock trigger) is one of the best examples of a modern use of a DAO trigger. The little mouse gun has no external safety or a trigger safety, but the long and heavy trigger break helps prevent accidental discharge.

How Does A Single Action Autoloader Work?

We’ve kind of touched on this already, but here we go: a single-action autoloading pistol functions the same way a revolver does: the hammer must be physically cocked with every shot.

So, for the first shot to be fired, the hammer must be cocked. This kind of seems like a problem for those situations where you need it at the ready immediately, doesn’t it? Well, the solution is carrying it with the hammer cocked. That’s right.

It’s ok; these pistols (really, it’s just a couple: the 1911, and the Hi-Power and its clones) were made with this in mind and have been safely carried cocked for over a century. Of course, once that hammer drops, it’s no different than shooting a Beretta 92 or Sig P226.

What Are The Best Single Action Pistols?

tanfoglio handgun with black background

It’s hard to argue with 1911. It certainly has staying power, that’s for sure. The 1911 has stood the tests of time and remains a popular competition pistol, although it certainly is still a viable CCW with micro-versions. Magazines are everywhere and dirt cheap, along with holsters. Since you can also get a 1911 in 9mm, .38 Super, or 10mm, it’s a proven and versatile platform.

The Browning Hi-Power is on par, and maybe better. Hard to find for a long time, a number of imports are now becoming available and the quality seems pretty high. Magazines are cheap and plentiful, and holsters are a breeze, so a Hi-Power or one of its fine clones is a fine option.

Parting Thoughts

2 single action handguns

So which is best: single-action or double-action? It’s hard to quantify which is ‘better;’ that is really up to the shooters. There may still be a few diehards who think the DAO is a superior piece of machinery (it would surprise me, but stranger things have happened).

The biggest beef with DA/SA is the long trigger pull followed by dissimilar, single-action pulls for all following shots. It's the shooter's preference, so go with whatever you like. If you like that first pull to be long, go for it. There are still a few great DA/SA pistols on the market.

[If you'd like to learn more about pistol calibers check out our 9mm vs 10mm article and shop at Bear Creek Arsenal for all your handgun and handgun barrel needs!]

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Gerry Good
June 9, 2023
"Only a fool learns by experience." I like that admonishment and I try to use it as often as possible. I prefer to learn from what others have done as long as it works. In that light, I'm not going to try and "justify" one gun over another or one bullet caliber over another. In my experience (retired US Army & former cop), it's the man/woman behind the gun that matters most. You can't buy experience. I usually carry a M1911, 45, ACP in Condition one, just as Jeff recommends...everyday. I have done so for more than 50 years. If it's not the 45, it's a Browning High Power...loaded, cocked and locked. Both have similar actions. I'm not going to argue single action versus double action, round in the chamber or not, cocked and locked or not...not even open or concealed. My pistols have history...battlefield history...man killin' history...and you just can't argue that away. People should do what they believe is best for them. That's the American way. For me; loaded, cocked and locked, allows me to get the first hit in about 0.87 seconds and three hits in under 1.5 seconds at 21 feet or less. That works for me. Yeah...I understand there is someone better...but, we'll see.
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