Different styles of firearms are intended for different uses. The first step in buying a handgun is to determine its purpose: personal defense, target shooting or hunting. And from there, you can determine which is best for you. One aspect of the gun to look at is the action type. On the market today, you’ll see single-action (SA), double-action (DA) and double-action-only (DAO).

What Is Double-Action?

Double-action means the trigger does two things. Pressing the trigger on a DA handgun both cocks and drops the hammer. Simply pressing the trigger repeats the action. Many double-action revolvers are double-action-only as there is no exposed hammer. A few have an exposed hammer that is spurless.

The Taurus gun (top) is a double-action revolver. The Smith & Wesson (bottom) is an example of a single-action.

The double-action revolver with exposed hammer (top) also offers a single-action option. The double-action only revolver (bottom) features a hidden hammer. This is ideal for deep concealment.

Firearms with double-action triggers have a heavier pull weight. Double-action fire should always be used for personal defense. Single-action options may allow for extended-range hits, but having to cock the hammer adds an extra step to your defense.

What Is Single-Action?

A single-action press begins by cocking the hammer. The hammer locks in place when pressed to the rear. A short press of the trigger only does one thing: drops the hammer.

Single-action revolvers are popular for recreation. Some call them cowboy guns. Single-action revolvers are, at best, a charming anachronism. Because the user needs to cock the hammer before a light trigger press drops the hammer, SA firearms can be prone to fumbling in emergency situations. They are also much slower into action and for backup shots.

Self-Loading Pistols

Single-action pistols, such as 1911s and the Browning Hi-Power, as well as most target pistols, use a hammer to fire the action. Though some are striker-fired. On a SA handgun, racking the slide cocks the action. A single press of the trigger fires the pistol. The slide recoils and cocks the action for subsequent shots.

SA pistols are usually carried with the manual safety on. Some single-action types, such as the Springfield XD, rely on safety features such as a grip safety and lever in the trigger. A single-action 1911 carried safety on while cocked and locked is very fast to an accurate first shot. Hammer-fired single-action pistols sometimes have a slide that conceals the hammer. The Smith & Wesson M&P EZ Rack is among these. While an exposed hammer pistol may be carried hammer down, that could lead to a slower reaction in an emergency and is not recommended.

Double-Action First Shots

The Beretta 92

The Beretta 92 features a double-action first-shot trigger. Other features include a combination manual safety/decocking lever and firing pin block.

A double-action first-shot pistol has a more complicated manual of arms. The slide cocks the hammer as the pistol is loaded. The user can lower the hammer manually or by using a decocking lever. The decock lever lowers the hammer without the shooter touching the trigger, and the hammer stops short of the firing pin. A long press on the trigger cocks and drops the hammer to fire the pistol. After the gun fires, the slide cocks the hammer. Subsequent shots are fired single-action.

So users of the DA first-shot must learn two trigger actions. The double-action trigger press is used at short range. The SA press offers more accurate fire after that first shot. The hammer may be cocked manually for the first shot for long-range fire if needed. The advantage of the DA first-shot pistol is in handling. That longer press for the first shot can be a safety feature for shooters who are excited, scared or fatigued.

The Best Action for You

A double-action-only (DAO) handgun features an action that both cocks and drops the hammer for each shot. The new Walther .22 Magnum is an example of a DAO. Walther has worked wonders with this action. Just the same, DAO actions are the most difficult of self-loading pistols to master with a high level of accuracy.

However, the Glock safe action is classed as a double-action-only but has a much lighter trigger that isn’t difficult to master. Racking the slide partially preps the striker. It isn’t completely cocked. Pressing the trigger moves the striker to the rear until it breaks against spring pressure and runs forward. The pistol fires, the slide is racked, and the pistol is ready to fire again in the same manner. The Smith & Wesson Military & Police pistols use this type of action as well. A safety lever in the trigger face is the only safety other than the usual firing pin blocks.

There are certain nuances of design worth careful study. Be certain you are comfortable with the action type you choose. In the end, keep your finger off the trigger and practice good safety whatever the action type you deploy.