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Course of Fire: Is a Striker- or Hammer-Fired Pistol a Better Fit for You?

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As instructors and influencers, we have a significant impact on what our students and followers perceive to be the “best” firearms for them. Most probably carry a similar gun to that of an instructor because it’s what students have seen the instructor training with or even what that instructor directly recommended.

But if we are to be sincere in our teaching, knowing that each student will have his or her own set of varying circumstances, would it not be incumbent on us to explain the different options and the pros and cons of each — or, at a minimum, briefly define and cover the operational aspects of hammer-fired versus striker-fired pistols?

Hammer vs. Striker 101

Many people, for instance, don’t know the difference between double-action-only, single-action-only and double-action/single-action trigger mechanisms, let alone a few variables and how any of them apply to striker-fired and hammer-fired pistols. The handling and safety considerations of these variables will add to a student’s knowledge base in being confident and capable in his or her selection of an everyday carry pistol and will keep him or her safer as he or she continues to interact with firearms of all kinds.

A simple way of differentiating a hammer-fired pistol from a striker-fired pistol is by determining how the primer of the chambered cartridge is struck to fire the gun. A hammer-fired gun has a firing pin that must be struck by a visible hammer when the trigger is pulled to fire the gun.

A striker-fired gun uses a spring-loaded firing pin, commonly referred to as a “striker,” to indent the primer of the chambered cartridge to fire the gun.

A major benefit of the hammer-fired design is that it can be visually or physically determined whether the hammer is cocked or not. As one might expect, there are exceptions currently in production where the hammer is concealed, insignificant enough to be ignored unless one is present in a class.

A striker-fired gun uses a spring-loaded firing pin, commonly referred to as a “striker,” to indent the primer of the chambered cartridge to fire the gun. The entire mechanism is housed within the slide of the pistol, making it easy to differentiate from those equipped with a hammer. Though these differences are obvious, the differences between how a trigger operates on hammer- and striker-fired pistols are equally stark.

Time-tested and widely accepted definitions of how the triggers on hammer-fired guns operate have been applied to striker-fired guns, and this can often be misleading. Because the striker is not exposed, the shooter has to take the manufacturer’s terminology at face value with regard to how the trigger operates — as in, the manufacturer is basically comparing the striker-fired pistol to hammer-fired guns. This may or may not be completely true when weighed against previously accepted industry definitions of trigger operation.

Words Have Meaning

If a trigger is single-action, that means that the firing mechanism, be it a hammer or striker, is fully cocked and ready to fire the gun when the trigger is pulled. The firing mechanism must be cocked prior to the trigger being pulled in order for the gun to discharge.

Double-action means that two things happen when the trigger is pulled: The firing mechanism (hammer or striker) is cocked and then released. Double-action-only means that the trigger must cock and release the firing mechanism every time a shot is fired.

Double-action/single-action means the first shot out of the gun is fired by cocking and releasing the firing mechanism — hammer or striker — with the first trigger pull. Each subsequent shot is fired single-action since the cycling of the slide from the first shot cocks the firing mechanism and continues to do so with each subsequent shot. Pistols having this type of trigger mechanism are usually equipped with a de-cocking lever, which safely releases the firing mechanism from the cocked to the uncocked position.

The reasons this information is important for the instructor as well as the student to know are many. Besides the need to be generally familiar with multiple types of trigger mechanisms, handling and safety with each type of trigger system is enhanced. This is important for a shooter, and it is essential for an instructor.

LEFT: Double-Action Only – This Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .380 can only be fired double-action. Its concealed hammer makes it exceptionally easy to carry. RIGHT: DA/SA – A double-action/single-action pistol, like this SIG P226 Legion, operates with a double-action trigger press for the first shot, but subsequent shots are sent with a single-action trigger press.

Pros and Cons

An attractive advantage of striker-fired pistols is how easy the guns are to shoot. Most of the popular models fire with the firing mechanisms pre-cocked, requiring lighter pressure on and little movement of the triggers to discharge the pistols. This, combined with short trigger reset for follow-up shots, makes for extremely efficient handguns. Fitting a gun to a shooter can be easier because the trigger stroke is short and the reach for trigger-finger placement remains consistent for each shot.

The downside of striker-fired triggers is that many of these guns lack the external manual safeties like those on hammer-fired pistols. This makes trigger-finger discipline paramount, especially when drawing and reholstering.

A continuing argument among some trainers is that the light, short triggers on these guns can be too easy to accidentally manipulate and cause discharge at inappropriate times, especially while under stress. Weigh the facts and draw your own conclusions. Stress or no, if the shooter never places the trigger finger anywhere but straight alongside the frame until he or she is ready to shoot, such problems can be readily avoided.

Playing Favorites

The hammer-fired fans have as many reasons for their preference as there are options. The single-action fans have the short trigger stroke that can be adjusted to an even lighter pull weight than the striker-fired pistols, if desired, and a short trigger reset. However, these designs have the extra requirement of manipulating the manual safety or safeties during the draw and as otherwise appropriate, such as prior to reholstering.

Double-action/single-action proponents prefer the longer, smooth trigger stroke for the first shot, followed by the short reset, short stroke and lighter pull weight of each shot thereafter. They contend that there is no manual safety to manipulate for the first shot and all the advantage of the single-action trigger pull for subsequent shots. De-cocking the pistol prior to reholstering is an additional step that must be remembered for safety, complicating matters somewhat.

Even if a reload is involved, there is little new to learn from previously acquired skills.

The critics find fault with the transition between the double-action trigger stroke and the following single-action manipulations as well as forgetting to de-cock before holstering under stress. If you haven’t yet heard such declarations, give it time. You will.

Double-action-only triggers offer the simplest and, many contend, the safest of the choices for everyday carry pistols. Every pull of the trigger is the same from the first shot to the last, and there are no manual safeties or de-cocking levers to be concerned with. Former or current revolver shooters often favor double-action-only semi-automatic pistols because they handle and operate similarly to the old DA/SA revolvers.

Even if a reload is involved, there is little new to learn from previously acquired skills. Whether a striker- or hammer-fired pistol is preferred, double-action-only models in several brands and sizes are available.

As instructors, we must be familiar with what might work best with regard to how, where and why a student intends to carry his or her EDC pistol. As always, you will need that information to offer recommendations on whether a striker-fired or hammer-fired pistol will be a better fit.

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