There are four primary firearm action types for handguns:

  • Single action
  • Double action
  • Double action only
  • Striker

Single Action

On a single action (SA) handgun, the trigger performs one function only: it releases the hammer. If you’ve ever watched an old John Wayne cowboy movie, you may remember seeing when they shoot their revolvers they use the palm of their support hand to cock the hammer back. While this looks very cool for cinema, it actually served a specific purpose. Without the hammer being manually cocked, the gun would not fire because the trigger only releases the hammer. In other words, you have to cock the hammer for the trigger to work. Since the trigger only does one single thing (release the hammer), handguns using this action type are called single action handguns.

Single action will typically have a short, crisp trigger pull.

Double Action

On a double action (DA) handgun, the trigger performs two functions – cock the hammer and release the hammer. You can see this in action (pun slightly intended) when you slowly press the trigger of a DA handgun; as you press to the rear slowly you see the hammer cocking back, and as you continue the motion the trigger will release the hammer. Since this type of action serves two purposes, we have the name double action.

Double action handguns will typically have a long, heavy trigger pull.

Double Action Only

Ruger LCR double action only handgunYou can probably figure out what double action only (DAO) means at this point, but for the sake of completeness I might as well describe it. If you look at the picture to the right (a Ruger LCR revolver) you will notice that there is no exposed hammer. With such a firearm, it is impossible to manually cock the hammer; the only way this pistol can be fired is to pull the trigger and have it perform a double action firing sequence.

Because the only way it can be fired is using a double action sequence, it is known as a double action only handgun.

I should note at this point that all three of these actions are not exclusive to revolvers. Semi-automatic pistols have these characteristics as well. For example:

  • 1911 model handguns are typically all single action
  • Many semi-automatics such as those made by Kahr and Sig Sauer‘s P250 are double action only.

Double/Single Action

There is a sub-section of action types known as double/single action (DA/SA). In these types of firearms, the first trigger pull is double action because the hammer is uncocked. Once the first cartridge has been fired, the slide – as it moves to the rear for case extraction and feeding a new cartridge – will cock the hammer for you. So, every subsequent shot until the magazine is empty will be single action.

This combination is popular among many shooters and is arguably most prominently seen in (but certainly not exclusive to) the Sig Sauer line of handguns.

Striker Fire

Striker fire handguns came into prominence and gained popularity when Glock started showing up in the U.S. in the 1980s. Instead of having a traditional hammer, striker fired handguns have a striker pin that strikes the primer of the cartridge. See this video for a quick demonstration of how striker fire handguns work:

Which Action is Best?

This is the question, after all. So many countless hours of arguing back and forth on this subject have been spent throughout the ages. Which action is best? My answer?

It depends.
It depends on what you are using the handgun for.
It depends on how you will carry it (if you live somewhere other than NJ).
It depends on how strong you are and whether or not you can pull a heavy, double action trigger.

It’s really all up to you; what you want and what you are comfortable shooting. Don’t let anyone tell you that one is better than another. Try a bunch and decide for yourself. And also remember, there is no reason you can’t have one or more of each!