One of the most confusing aspects of choosing a handgun is choosing a trigger action. The discussion of trigger action can get very confusing very quickly, especially since some of the same words can mean different things when talking about revolvers or semi-automatics.
If you don’t care about the definitions and just want to know what to get, here are the Randy Cain recommendations:
- Revolvers take longer to shoot well. Most beginners should start with semi-automatics, because they can become proficient quicker.
- The most important thing in a trigger is that it works the same every time. (This rules out DA/SA triggers unless they can be carried like SA, cocked and locked).
- 1911s can have the best triggers if they’re worked on by a competent gunsmith. Glocks and Glock-like guns (e.g., M&P and XDs) are next.
I will just cover the basic definitions and then some thoughts about the advantages and disadvantages. We’ll start with revolvers because they are more intuitive to understand.
Revolver Single Action (SA)
A revolver single action trigger is one where the only thing the trigger does is make the hammer fall. The gun must be manually cocked by pulling back on the trigger. This is the traditional cowboy action seen in Westerns.
Revolver Double Action (DA)
In a double action revolver, pulling the trigger cocks the hammer and makes the hammer fall. The two actions in one trigger pull make it “double action.” (For you purists out there, you could argue that pulling the trigger also turns the cylinder, but that’s really a side effect of the hammer cocking, so they don’t count it as three actions.) Double action revolvers can also be manually cocked and used as single action. Because the trigger pull does more than one thing, the trigger pull is typically longer and heavier than single action, but the guns are simpler to fire.
Revolver Double Action (DAO)
Some revolvers are “hammerless” so they cannot be manually cocked. These are often called double action only, because you can’t shoot it single action. Rand Cain advises against hammerless models. Instead, he prefers shrouded hammers (where a hammer is relatively hidden by a “shroud” of metal to prevent the hammer from snagging on clothing. Shrouded hammers offer a compromise (or is it the best of both) between DAO and DA revolvers.
If you can understand the revolver actions, the rest of this article should be fairly simple.
Single Action Semi-autos (SA)
A single action semi-automatic is one where the trigger only makes the hammer fall. The recoil of the gun re-cocks the hammer for the next shot. The hammer is cocked the first time by “racking the slide” and chambering the first round. Most SA pistols have a manual safety and can be carried “cocked and locked”. The major advantage is a consistent trigger pull. The major disadvantage is that it takes practice to release the safety before firing (and to re-engage the safety before holstering). The most famous American gun of all time, the Colt 1911, and its clones are SA. Some SA pistols are not safe to have a closed hammer on a live round which can lead to dangerous situations with people not properly trained in their use.
Double Action Semi-autos (DA) or (DA/SA)
Double action semi-automatics are similar in concept to revolver double action except for one major difference. On the first round, the trigger cocks the hammer and then makes it fall. The recoil then re-cocks the hammer so that the next shot is a single action shot. (Hence why they’re sometimes called DA/SA.)
The major advantage is that the hammer can safely be carried down on a live round. The first shot will then have a heavier, longer pull. The follow up shots then have the lighter trigger pull of the SA. The major disadvantage is that some people cannot get used to the transition between the DA and the SA trigger pulls. This can be ameliorated by manually cocking the pistol before the first shot.
The Crunchentickers as they are derisively known are notoriously difficult to shoot well from a holster. As Randy Cain says when the class starts to learn to shoot from a holster, “Now you’re going to learn to hate your gun.” And I did, and I no longer have it. DA/SA guns should be avoided (despite the penchant for law enforcement to use them) unless they can be carried cocked and locked like a SA gun.
The trixie part: DA/SA guns may or may not have manual safeties. The thinking here is that the hammer down, long trigger pull is a safety mechanism, so some guns omit the manual safety in favor of a decocker that is designed to safely lower the hammer onto a chambered round without an accidental discharge. In guns with a manual safety, some guns will not allow the safety to be engaged unless the hammer is cocked, while others will allow the safety to be engaged only with the hammer down, and others will allow both. Know what your gun will do before your purchase it.
Double Action Only Semi-auto (DAO)
Every trigger pull cocks the hammer and makes it fall. The recoil does not re-cock the gun. DAO triggers typically have long relatively heavy trigger pulls. This is very popular with politicians who know that their police officers are not adequately trained in the use of their weapons. The New York politicians (like Guiliani and Bloomberg) think their policemen are so inept that the trigger specified for New York policemen has its own name–you guessed it, the New York trigger (essentially a very heavy trigger).
The advantage of the DAO is that every trigger pull is the same. The disadvantage is that every trigger pull is relatively long and hard.
Striker fired Semi-autos
Striker fired semi autos have gained increasing popularity throughout the world thanks to Glock. A striker is an internal firing mechanism instead of a hammer. Think of it kind of like a slingshot hidden inside the gun. Here is a nifty animation that helps to explain it.
The major advantage of a striker fired gun is a consistent trigger pull (much like a single action). Glock calls theirs “Safe action” Other companies call theirs single action, and others double action only depending on whether the striker is fully cocked, half cocked, or uncocked between shots. Whatever; the important thing is that the trigger pull is always consistent. Some striker fired weapons have no manual safety, while others do. The trigger pull is usually a little heavier than a single action gun and often has some kind of safety lever on the trigger itself to help prevent the gun from firing unless the trigger is deliberately pulled.
The striker is generally fully cocked or half cocked, so when disassembling the weapon, the tension on the striker must be released. Some striker fired guns, like Glocks require that the trigger be pulled, which has caused at least a few negligent discharges (I thought it wasn’t loaded). Other companies have a decocker whose only purpose is to prevent the trigger from being pulled while disassembling the gun.
Other Trigger Actions
There are other trigger actions out there, but these are the major ones. Another that is growing in popularity among law enforcement is the Double Action Kellerman (DAK), named after it’s creator. This is a variant on the DAO, where the first trigger pull is long and heavy, and the follow up shots are short and heavy. This kind of trigger breaks Randy’s rule that a trigger should be consistent.
A Note on Trigger Weights and Pulls
Trigger weights are a highly subjective matter. The quality of the trigger, and its design have an influence on the overall feel. Generally speaking, smooth triggers feel lighter than gritty triggers. Triggers that travel a short distance and triggers that go straight back rather than travel in an arc feel lighter. So weight isn’t everything. Also guns can be modified after market, so this list should be taken with a grain of salt, but generally speaking, for semi-autos:
- Single action: 3.5 – 5 pounds
- Double action: 7 – 18 pounds
- Striker fired: 5 – 8 pounds
In addition to the trigger action, another important consideration is trigger reset–the distance the trigger has to move forward before it can fire a second shot. All things equal, a shorter reset will allow for more accurate, quicker shots.
Updated: The information below is outdated and only left for posterity. Click here to see current recommendations
So, what do I have? I have a DA/SA with a decocker only (no manual safety). Why? Well, a combination of things, but the confluence of price and availability collided with my being left handed. The guns I was interested in didn’t fit my hand in the full size, and the compact models didn’t have ambi-dextrous safeties (I’m left handed). So I went with the decocker version, although I’d prefer a gun that lets me carry cocked and locked in single action mode. You really do have to practice that first double action shot in order to be good at it or it will tend to twitch the barrel to the side.