There are timeless debates in the firearms world: 9mm vs 45, Stoner vs Kalashnikov, 10.5″ vs 12.5″ AR-15’s, Kydex vs leather, or Glock vs…everything. Some of these have settled, but others….well I don’t think we’ll ever get to a final answer.
One example of the latter is the choice between hammer-fired and striker-fired handguns. This is familiar territory for many of you, so if you’re already well versed on the topic then feel free to skip. I want to come at this from a different angle, though, especially to help out beginners.
It’s no secret that I’m an unabashed fan of double action/single action guns, especially for carry. Despite that, I’d like to think I have a unbiased take on things.
Most articles on this topic bog down with technical minutiae like the number of parts involved in each system, or how the differences in how the internal mechanisms work. While those are interesting, these are the arguments of enthusiasts nitpicking about their preferences. Where the rubber meets the road is in how each system performs differently in your hand.
A War on Two Fronts
This post has rattled around in my head for some time. I knew it was coming during a recent interview with USPSA Grand Master Josh Shaw, where I observed that there seems to be a resurgence of interest in Double Action/Single Action pistols. He mentioned that they never really went away from the competition circuit, though.
For a long time, there seemed to be this overwhelming message that everyone should just buy a Glock and be done with it. Well, I’ve made my thoughts about that known already, and I’m not the only one thinking that way.
If you were like me, and not really a big fan of Glock, every other gun manufacturer rushed the doors to release their own polymer-framed striker pistol. In fact, I think some of these companies have finally taken the lead as far as strikers go.
So why do I call this a war on two fronts? I think the debate between hammers and strikers ultimately comes down to two major factors: safety and performance. Where someone falls on the spectrum of preferring one mechanism or the other reflects their personal biases on these two factors.
The Safety Question
Way back in the early days of the podcast, I talked to Justin of The Revolver Guy. He made a comment during that interview that stuck with me ever since. He posited that revolvers occupied a strange place in the gun owner hierarchy. They seemed to be the territory of either they very inexperienced or the extremely experienced, and it looked a bit like a bell curve.
On the far left end of the curve, the beginners, a revolver worked well for them because it removed several of the concerns that the “average” gun owner learns to deal with. For example, revolvers do not typically have external safety mechanisms, the double action trigger is more tolerant of careless handling, they can be left loaded and neglected for years, and it’s very easy to identify whether they are loaded or not.
Hammer-fired pistols, particularly the double action/single action variety, share many of these same characteristics. For beginners who have not developed extremely careful handling skills, there are several safety advantages.
- The heavier double action trigger provides more “warning” that you’re actually pulling a trigger
- Holstering with your thumb on a dropped hammer will provide a very clear indication that something is moving that shouldn’t be
- Most DA/SA pistols do not have an external safety to fumble with and forget about if you’ve left it unattended for a while
Experienced shooters may scoff at these and claim they are all training issues. I agree with that, these are training issues to work out. But I also realize that most people are not going to put in time, dedication, and dollars to attend training courses, regular practices sessions, or compete enough that these things become instinctual.
That gets me to the performance question.
The Performance Problem
While DA/SA guns do present a safety advantage to the unpracticed, they also pose a skill challenge. Very experienced shooters that take the the time to master their weapons usually shoot DA/SA very well. The crisp feeling of a well-done single action trigger is nigh impossible to beat in any striker design. Given the number of top competitors shooting hammer-fired guns, match results would agree. The catch is learning how to effectively overcome the heavier double action pull.
A heavier double action pull that’s three or four times the weight of the pistol itself exaggerates poor trigger technique. The fundamentals of marksmanship don’t change between rifles and pistols, but handguns are far less forgiving of mistakes. For beginners, this poses a challenge, especially with double action trigger weights that regularly go over 10 pounds.
In my collection, for example, the CZ P10 F in the featured photo of this post has a relatively clean trigger break at right around 4 lbs 3 oz. More importantly, it does it every time I pull the trigger. So for training purposes, it’s easier to get good with this trigger.
In contrast, the my much-loved Beretta 92A1 has an incredibly smooth single action trigger pull of 4 lbs 2 oz, but a double action pull of of about 7 lbs. While still smooth, and relatively light for a double action, it’s still two different trigger pulls to learn. For completeness, I also measured my other DA/SA guns and found the single actions to be lighter, but the double action to be heavier- making the gap even wider.
The point being that this gap between the two triggers takes time and practice to get comfortable with.
While I think hammer-fired pistols help well-practiced shooters perform at the top of their game, I don’t think there’s a significant performance difference for the average person.
So on the performance end of things:
- Striker pistols offer a performance boost for the average shooter due to it’s consistent trigger pull
- Hammer-fired guns might offer better speed and accuracy for very experienced shooters
- The double action pull of a DA/SA gun exaggerates marksmanship fundamentals errors, so new shooters without strong fundamentals are more likely to struggle
The Safety Mechanism
I mentioned that double action pistols offer a measure of safety because of the heavier trigger pull. Because of that, most double action pistols don’t have external safety levers to mess with. Of course, there are exceptions to that, but the general trend remains. If a beginner was purchasing their first handgun and was looking at double action, I would prefer they picked one without a safety.
On the flip side, this doesn’t mean that all striker pistols have safety levers, either. My P10 F does not, nor do Glocks. It’s usually an option, though- usually because some large contracts ask for them. Most enthusiasts opt for the non-safety models. The point being that a mechanical safety isn’t needed if you’re following the rules of firearms safety.
That’s all well and good if you’re someone who practices to the point of instinctual safe handling. Most beginners aren’t there, though, and might opt for a safety out of an abundance of caution.
The point I’m getting at is that introducing an external safety mechanism can negatively affect performance. If the shooter doesn’t have a habit of sweeping the safety off, forgets about it, or accidentally activates it during manipulation (looking at you Beretta), then there’s a very real chance of “no bang” when you really needed a “bang.”
The Bottom Line
Beginners aren’t likely to put as much time in to get proficient with the double action pull, much less predictably working two different pull weights. So for that reason, without always cocking the hammer, beginners usually perform better with a striker pistol.
Including an external safety helps provide a measure of psychological comfort, but runs the risk of causing significant performance issues if not regularly practicing.
But What About Single Action?
Of course, there’s a third option here as well: single action. I’m fond of my 1911 in a bit of a nostalgic way- but I think single action only (SAO) handguns are a poor option for beginners. These require the use of a manual safety, must be carried “cocked and locked.” They also usually don’t have a “safe” way for a beginner to lower the hammer without raising the hackles on their necks.
So with that said, I do appreciate the growing popularity of single stack SAO pistols designed for concealed carry, but I don’t think they’re good options for beginners.
But Matt, Which is Better?
That brings us back to the original question: which is a better design? To that my answer is: neither.
Double action/single action designs may have fallen out of favor amongst the enthusiast portion of the bell curve for a while, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. In fact, I see a lot of DA/SA guns repeatedly popping up as suggestions amongst enthusiasts who’ve grown bored of polymer “perfection.”
Personally, I shoot either format just about as well as the other- but I’ve been doing this for a long time.
Where someone to come to me today and ask me what I think they should get as their first gun, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest a DA/SA. In fact, I might even prefer it for them given some of the safety benefits of that heavier first trigger pull. My only caveat to that is I would prefer a DA/SA gun with a decocker only, not one that has a decocker/safety combo like the classic Beretta 92 series (of which I converted mine to decocker only).
I still like striker pistols, and would also not hesitate to suggest quality offerings there, either.
The most important thing is training and practice. Get the fundamentals down, reinforce them, and the rest takes care of itself.