How to Master Your Double-Action Pistol

The germ of an idea for this article sprang from my training classes.

The classes feature a diverse group of guns and people. Despite the popularity of the single action automatic among experienced shooters and the double action only among institutional shooters, the double action first shot (sometimes called double action/ single action or DA/SA) pistol remains popular. A high percentage of my students use DA/SA pistols including the Beretta, Bersa, Sig, Taurus, and others. The simplicity of the action is appreciated, while the long double action trigger on the first shot is also perceived as safer by many shooters. Others like the option of cocking the hammer for a deliberate single action shot at longer range.

Some shooters believe a drawback of the DA/SA pistol is the need to master two types of trigger actions, double action and single action. Others find the design an advantage, with the stiff first shot allowing the piece be carried with the manual safety in the off position, while the lighter second and subsequent shots are easily used for long range shooting with the single action option.

Some shooters believe a drawback of the DA/SA pistol is the need to master two types of trigger actions, double action and single action. Others find the design an advantage, with the stiff first shot allowing the piece be carried with the manual safety in the off position, while the lighter second and subsequent shots are easily used for long range shooting with the single action option.

At this point we should define double action. A double action trigger performs two actions: it both cocks and drops the hammer. When the trigger is in the double-action mode, trigger pressure is transferred via a drawbar to the hammer. This cocks the hammer, and then the hammer drops and fires the handgun. The slide recoils and cocks the hammer again, so that subsequent shots are fired single action. In other words, the trigger performs the action of both cocking and dropping the hammer for the first shot, but the slide cocks the hammer for following shots. On all but the first shot, the trigger performs only one action: dropping the hammer.

Since this type of firearm begins the firing sequence as a double action and the following shots are single action, with a round in the chamber there is no need to rack the slide or cock the hammer for the first shot. Nor is there any need to carry the piece with the external safety on, and it seems that most double action shooters elect to carry the piece with the external safety off. With many designs there is no choice, as not all models have a manual safety.

Instead of a manual external safety, the pistol may feature a decocking lever that lowers the hammer to the safe position so that you do not have to take the precarious step of pressing the trigger while manually lowering the hammer. There are exceptions to the decocker rule (such as the original CZ pistol), but most double action first shot pistols incorporate a decocker into the design. The Beretta decocker is on the slide, the Bersa Thunder is at the rear of the frame, and the Sig decocker is found between the grip panels and the trigger guard.

 

Mastering a long trigger that may run from twelve to sixteen pounds seems a daunting proposition…

 

Become familiar with the location and operation of your decocker, and be aware that even pistols of the same brand and general type may feature a different configuration. Beretta and Heckler & Koch pistols, for example, come to the market in more than one variation; some use a combination safety and decocker lever, while others offer only the decocker.

Here is the correct sequence, or manual of arms, for using a double action trigger:

  1. Load
  2. Decock or apply the safety
  3. Holster
  4. Draw
  5. Move safety to the off position.
  6. Fire

The safety application and removing the safety is deleted if you use a decocker-only pistol or one that you do not carry on safe. Simply be certain that you always perform the necessary actions in this order.

Ronald Freeman demonstrates excellent trigger control.

Ronald Freeman demonstrates excellent trigger control.

Once you understand the variations and have mastered the manual of arms, it is time to master the trigger press. Mastering a long trigger that may run from twelve to sixteen pounds seems a daunting proposition, but very good shooting may be done with the double action trigger. It must be understood that in double action, the finger begins above the trigger and sweeps down and back to operate the trigger, but the single action press that follows is straight to the rear. This transition challenges many shooters.

Although some struggle with the double action trigger, it is no more difficult than the single action or the double action only—simply different. You may have to beat your arms harder in the wind, but do not let the target or the gun dictate your actions. You are in charge. Some struggle and miss. Better to struggle until you learn the trigger and hit the target!

The perceived disadvantage of the double action is that it is difficult to make an accurate first shot. To build skill in firing the pistol double action, you need to work long and hard on dry firing the pistol with the double action trigger. When doing it the right way, you will develop smoothness in action that translates to accuracy in the field. Keep the trigger in motion. Do not attempt to stage the trigger. Do not rock the hammer almost to the breaking point, take aim, and then drop the hammer. It is mighty difficult to do so!

The shot has broken and Ronald Freeman is on target.

The shot has broken and Ronald Freeman is on target.

A better technique: maintain a good firing grip and smoothly press the trigger, just as you would do with a double action revolver. When using the incorrect technique, the shooter focuses on a perfect shot, realizes that they do not have a perfect shot because they have spent too much time on trying to get a perfect shot, and then they rush the shot and miss. One long smooth trigger press is all that’s needed.

The progression is straightforward. Practice in dry fire and then move to the target range and relatively close range work. Dry fire is easier: you simply repeat the trigger press. With live fire, you will have to decock between shots to practice the double action shot. Begin at three to five yards, and then proceed to ten yards and finally fifteen yards. I regard fifteen yards at the outside range for most shooters to execute a center of mass shot accurately with the typical DA/SA pistol.

I have managed to run through the better part of a case of Wolf 9mm ammunition in mastering the Beretta. As a result I am a better shot with every handgun in the safe, and am proficient with the Beretta. Once you have proven to yourself that with the application of a smooth trigger press you are able to make accurate hits with the double action trigger, you will have confidence in the pistol.

Manual of arms for double action drills

As you draw, be certain that your finger is off the trigger until you are taking aim and ready to press the trigger. Drive the pistol forward toward the target in a two hand hold. As the muzzle gets on the target, apply pressure to the trigger. Press the trigger straight to the rear without trying to stage the trigger. The muzzle is on the target and the sights are lined up as the trigger finger presses the trigger to the rear. As you finish the trigger stroke, you maintain follow-through and the hammer falls as the sights remain on target. It is all done in a blink of the eye.

Emily Campbell blasting away with the full size Taurus 9mm pistol. She has mastered the type through long practice.

Emily Campbell blasting away with the full size Taurus 9mm pistol. She has mastered the type through long practice.

The level of speed and accuracy that you are willing to work for requires your diligence in practice. Speed and accuracy are up to you and excellent work may be done by a skilled shooter who has learned the double action trigger.

There are a number of drills that are counterproductive to good shooting. (Never underestimate the determination of a fool to cause problems.) Beginning to press the trigger before you are on target is a complication that we must not subscribe to. Instead, get on target, be certain you are going to fire, and press the trigger. When DA/ SA pistols were first introduced, some trainers recommended simply firing the first shot as quickly as possible—whether it hit or not—and then settling into single action fire. Well, that isn’t something we wish to do. We are responsible for each shot.

When you are shooting for a combination of speed and accuracy, practice until you are competent with the double action trigger.

 

[ R K Campbell is an author with over 40 years shooting experience and more than 30 years police and security experience. He is the author of seven books and hundreds of magazine articles. He devotes his time to learning more about personal defense and the human situation. ]