HAMMERS, STRIKERS, SA, DA—WHAT DO THE DIFFERENT PISTOL TYPES HAVE TO OFFER?
Hammers, strikers, SA, DA—what do the different pistol types have to offer?
Choosing a handgun can be a daunting proposition, especially for those new to firearms. It’s not just a matter of choosing a brand. They have to consider different action types and how they operate, too.
I’ve carried a lot of automatic pistols and shot many more. Along the way, I’ve drawn some conclusions about viability of different auto types for different missions. Here’s a rundown on the most prominent pistol actions out there.
Single-action (SA) autos—Colt 1911, Browning High-Power or SIG P210— have been in use for more than a century. Typically, the SA auto will have an exposed hammer and thumb safety. On the 1911, there is also a grip safety.
SA autos may be carried in various modes—chamber empty/loaded magazine (condition 3); round chambered/safety-off/hammer down (condition 2); or round chambered/ hammer cocked/safety applied (condition 1). Other modes are sometimes recognized: empty chamber/loaded magazine out of the gun (condition 5) or loaded chamber/hammer cocked/ safety off (condition 0). Normally, I carry an SA auto in condition 1.
Carrying an SA auto ready to go with hammer cocked and safety on is safe, though the user must always be aware he is carrying a loaded weapon. It takes practice to safely draw an SA pistol and flick off the thumb safety in one fluid motion. But, all engagement skills take practice.
A few find it difficult to get a comfortable grip that depresses the 1911 grip safety, but I have never found this to be the case. Single-action autos can have lighter, crisper trigger pulls than other types of autos, enhancing practical accuracy.
Most of my negative experiences with SA autos relate to holsters and clothing: A cocked-and-locked auto’s hammer will often snag on a jacket lining during the draw and will also wear holes in the lining. A leather guard sewn in a jacket helps to alleviate these problems.
When wearing some holsters, the safety will get flicked off by rubbing against the body. A holster designed with a flap that covers the hammer will eliminate this problem. I use the model made by Rusty Sherrick (www.c-rusty.com/pages/Holsters.html) for the LAPD SIS.
Law enforcement agencies that use SA autos have found that civilians sometimes see the cocked pistol and “feel intimidated.” A holster that covers the cocked hammer addresses this issue.
When a pistol that allowed for a double-action first shot and single-action subsequent shots (DA/SA) was developed, it replaced the SA auto for many users. Early examples came from Walther, while the SIG P226 family, S&W 39 and descendants, and Berretta 92,
among others, made heavy inroads into the law enforcement and military markets.
The DA/SA auto pistol may be carried with a loaded chamber and the hammer down. Most DA/SA autos incorporate a de-cocker to safely drop the hammer on the loaded chamber. In some cases, the de-cocker also functions as a safety to be manipulated before the trigger may be pulled. Many law enforcement agencies like this feature in case an assailant tries to snatch an officer’s weapon.
The greatest advantage of the DA/ SA auto is that the gun is safe—and appears safe to observers—while allowing quick engagement with a double action pull on the trigger.
On the negative side, a heavy DA pull, followed by a lighter SA pull, adversely affects accuracy for many users. When I train with one of the DA/SA pistols I carry—normally a S&W 4563 or a SIG P226 or 227—I always fire at least 20 rounds in single DA engagements from the leather followed by 30 rounds DA/ SA double tap also from the leather. Practicing DA then SA alleviates hesitation during the transition. Trigger pull is normally not great on DA/SA autos, though I have found that SIGs and S&Ws are good.
As with the SA autos, I have had the same problems with DA/SA auto exposed hammers snagging. I have also had the de-cocker/safety on S&W autos work into the safe position from rubbing against by body. That could be fatal in a combat situation. A good holster with leather between the body and the de-cocker/safety will usually solve this problem.
Note that some DA/SA autos have a bobbed hammer that does not protrude past the slide, while others have an internal hammer. These will not be likely to snag. Although it seems obvious, it should be stressed that those using a DA/SA auto with de-cocker must remember to safely drop the hammer using the de-cocker after loading a round and make sure the de-cocker lever/safety is returned to the fire position.
Another type of action worth mentioning is a hybrid between SA and DA/SA auto. The CZ75 functions as a standard DA/SA pistol with two exceptions. First, it lacks a de-cocker so it is necessary to de-cock it by pulling the trigger and manually lowering the hammer. This can be a safety issue unless care is taken. The other difference with the CZ75 action is that a thumb safety is incorporated allowing the pistol to be carried in condition 1.
When I worked overseas, I often carried a CZ75 and normally used it in
“IT TAKES PRACTICE TO SAFELY DRAW AN SA PISTOL AND FLICK OFF THE THUMB SAFETY IN ONE FLUID MOTION.”
DA/SA mode. However, if I had fired a round I could flick on the safety while scanning the area, ready for a fast SA follow-up.
Another variation rarely encountered is the FN High-Power SFS (Safe Fast Shooting). With this system, after a round is chambered, the hammer is pressed forward to the down position, which also activates the safety. Flicking off the safety cocks the hammer allowing a single-action first shot. I’ve tried the SFS, but have continued to use the standard SA High-Power.
Primarily at the request of law enforcement agencies formerly using double action revolvers, double-action-only (DAO) auto pistols were developed and have seen substantial use. Actually, DAO pistols had existed previously (i.e. the pre-World War II Vz38), but for this discussion, DAO versions of SIG, Beretta, S&W and other autos will be considered.
The advantage of the DAO pistol is there is no need to operate a de-cocker after a round is chambered, as the hammer automatically follows the slide forward and remains in DA mode. And, after a round has been fired, it is not necessary to operate a de-cocker to return the pistol to safe condition. There is also no difference in trigger pull between the first and subsequent shots.
On the negative side, the trigger pull is normally relatively heavy, making it difficult for many shooters to shoot the pistol accurately. Practice can alleviate this problem. In St. Louis, where I live, the SLPD has used a DAO Beretta 92D model for years, and I have friends who consistently shoot perfect qualification scores with the pistol.
The DAO pistol is simple and safe, but I normally do not use pistols of this type. My wife does, however, as her favorite carry pistol is a DAO Kel-Tec P-32. She is used to the trigger pull and shoots well with it at 10 to 15 yards. She likes that she doesn’t have to worry about a safety and can just point and engage.
Other pistols function much as DAO models, but are substantially easier to shoot. The HK LEM (Law Enforcement Modification) uses a hammer spring that is compressed when the slide is pulled back, but the hammer resets in the forward position. The DA pull to fire a round cocks the hammer but not against the weight of the hammer spring, thus the trigger pull is a light DA.
Among LEM advantages are shorter re-set when firing multiple rounds quickly, as the trigger does not have to return to the full forward position. The trigger pull itself is quite good once the shooter gets used to it. It is initially like a long-DA pull but lighter, and then it functions like an SA pull just before breaking. HK pistols are accurate and with practice the LEM helps enhance that accuracy.
As the hammer fits flush to the frame, snagging is eliminated. My primary pocket gun is an HK P30SK with LEM, with which I regularly train to 25 yards and periodically to 50 yards.
“THE ADVANTAGE OF THE DAO PISTOL IS THERE IS NO NEED TO OPERATE A DE-COCKER AFTER A ROUND IS CHAMBERED...”
Another advantage often sited is that the LEM allows the trigger to be pulled a second time, albeit with a heavier pull, should there be a failure to fire. That is true, though I still normally would go into a malfunction drill and clear the round, thus chambering a new one.
The SIG DAK (Double Action Kellerman) trigger is actually a DAO, but with a trigger system designed to give a lighter pull (usually given as
6.5 pounds). Comments already made about DAO autos apply, but with the stipulation that the DAK is usually easier for most users to shoot accurately.
Many of the most popular concealed carry pistols are striker fired. Simply, with a striker-fired pistol, when the trigger is pulled, inline safety mechanisms disengage, allowing the striker to move rearward. This movement increases firing pin spring tension until the trigger bar releases the firing pin lug. As tension is released on the firing pin spring, the striker impacts the cartridge primer and the round is fired.
Striker-fired pistols allow for a relatively light trigger pull, though with the Glock, changing the spring and connector can increase or decrease trigger pull. Glock trigger pulls will generally vary between 3.5 pounds and 11 pounds, with 5.5 pounds the norm. I have fired Glocks with a variety of pulls and found that with practice good accuracy can be achieved with each. In fact, I have seen some who shoot better with the 11-pound pull than the 3.5-pound pull.
The Glock is one of the most widely used pistols in the world. The action is user friendly, as all that is required is to present the pistol and fire. Despite the fact that the Glock has a safety lever within the trigger, a holster that covers the trigger guard is extremely important. Purse-carried Glocks without a holster are notorious for discharges when pens, lipsticks, etc., get into the trigger guard.
Glocks are excellent for concealed carry, as there are few protrusions to catch during the draw, especially an exposed hammer. The Glock 43 works extremely well for pocket carry, though a good pocket holster is a necessity as is training to keep the finger out of the trigger guard until on target.
While the Glock partially tensions the firing pin spring upon chambering a round, the Springfield Armory XD series pistols fully tension the spring. I have found the trigger pull entirely usable. A grip safety makes the XD-S a safer pistol for pocket carry. The lack of a hammer, the safety features, and the slim design make the Springfield XD-S 3.3 one of the better 9mm pocket pistols.
Unlike the DAO, SA/DA, LEM or DAK, if there is a failure to fire with the Glock or other striker-fired pistols, the trigger cannot be pulled for a second hit as the pistol will not have cocked. As stated previously, though, training should be to immediately clear the round and chamber a new one.
Other popular striker-fired pistols include the Kahr PM9 and other P-series pistols and Walther’s PPS M2, among others. Both the PM9 and PPS M2 make excellent pocket pistols. The PM9 is known for its usable trigger pull and accuracy, making it effective for engagement to 25 yards or further.
CHOOSE AND STICK WITH IT
So many individuals without extensive prior shooting experience have obtained concealed carry licenses. For them, an important consideration in action choice is simplicity of operation under stress. For example, it takes practice to operate a thumb safety automatically.
I would also recommend that once an action choice is made, it is best to stick with that type of action on the guns normally used for self-defense. If a belt gun and pocket gun are used, the same action on both eliminates one possible point of hesitation under stress.
Above: The DA/SA SIG M11A1 conceals well, yet is quick to bring into action and is accurate. Note that once the de-cocking lever is activated after chambering a round, it returns to the ready position.
Right: The Springfield Armory SA pistol made for the FBI HRT in the DeSantis holster designed for use with this pistol; the cocked hammer and the safety are protected by the holster.
Above: The Beretta CX4 Compact is a conventional DA/SA pistol that has an exposed hammer, which does not make it well suited for pocket carry.
Left: This SIG P227 is a DS/SA .45 auto that is about the same size as the P226 and carries well on the belt. Note, though, the exposed hammer.
Below: This Royal Canadian Mounted Police issue 5946 is a DAO model with a bobbed hammer that makes it safe until the trigger is pulled and doesn’t require a conscious effort to drop the hammer after firing a round.
Left: Springfield Armory XD-S 3.3 uses a system that fully tensions the firing pin spring. It is a good pocket pistol with the additional grip safety, but it is still important to use a proper pocket holster.