Double Action Pistols Series

Some of you guys have noticed and commented on the fact that I’ve been using a Beretta PX4 Compact in a few recent videos. That might seem like an odd choice for someone previously dedicated to the Smith & Wesson M&P platform. I’ll be doing a detailed review of that pistol in the near future, including my reasons for the switch. But first I wanted to dig into the broader topic of double action semi-autos in general. The vast majority of new handgun designs today are polymer framed and striker fired. Pistols with hammers are a dying breed. In the video below, I give a quick history of how double action pistols came to be and why their popularity faded.

Video: The Rise and Fall of the Double Action Semi-Auto

Full transcript below:

If you were first introduced to handgun shooting sometime in about the last 10 or 15 years, there’s a very good chance that the majority of your experience has been with striker fired pistols or maybe 1911s. Interest in double action semi-automatics has been declining for a long time now to the point that a lot of newer shooters don’t even really know how to operate one. So today I’m going to take a look at how these guns work, where they came from, and why they’re not so popular anymore.

For the sake of clarity, when I talk about double action pistols, I’m referring to what’s often called Double Action/Single Action pistols or Traditional Double Actions. These guns have a long, heavy, double action trigger pull for the first shot because the trigger has to cock the hammer and release the sear. But after that first shot, the slide moves to the rear and cocks the hammer for you, so every subsequent shot requires just a short, light trigger pull. When you bring the gun off target, you decock the hammer. The decocking lever blocks the firing pin and lowers the hammer safely without firing another round.

So, compared to a modern striker fired pistol where the trigger pull is the same every time and you don’t have all these extra controls, a traditional double action pistol might seem needlessly complicated. And compared to a single action pistol, they are definitely more difficult to shoot well. But when they were first developed, double action pistols offered an important alternative to what was available at the time.

The first successful double action semi-autos were the Walther PP series, which debuted in 1929, and then about a decade later, the 9mm Walther P38. Prior to that, pretty much all semi-autos were single action, like the Colt 1911. Today, most people carry a 1911 cocked and locked – that’s with a round in the chamber, the hammer cocked, and the safety on. But back in the 1930s, that was not standard practice. It was usually considered too dangerous. So most of the time, semi-autos were carried with an empty chamber.

This is obviously less than ideal, because you’d have to rack the slide before you could fire the gun that you were carrying. The double action auto was an answer to this problem. The first trigger pull is a long and heavy one, you could carry a round in the chamber and it was just like carrying a double action revolver. The gun was always ready to be fired, and compared to a single action, there was less of a perceived risk of an accidental discharge.

The double action autos got to be pretty popular in the 20th century and various designs were used by Beretta, Smith and Wesson, Sig, CZ, and a lot of other gun companies.

And you probably know the rest of the story. In the 1980s, the American US military ditched the 1911 and adopted the double action Beretta M9. And then when police departments around the country started switching from revolver to semi-autos in the 80s and 90s, at least at first, most departments adopted double action semi-autos.

And then a few years later, Glock came along and shook things up. And eventually, cops and armed civilians started switching over to striker-fired pistols, and that got us where we are today where a lot of people consider double action autos to be pretty much obsolete. And that’s understandable.

When you consider one of these guns next to something like a Glock or a Smith & Wesson M&P, the striker-fired guns have a lot of apparent advantages. You don’t have a decocker and usually there’s no manual safety to think about so it’s a lot easier to train somebody how to use one.

Traditional double action autos just have a steeper learning curve. First of all, there are two trigger pulls to learn. Trigger control is the most critical component of marksmanship, and one of the most difficult to master. So when you’ve got a trigger that’s not the same from shot to shot, it makes that even more difficult.

Then then there’s the decocking issue. This is one that a lot of people don’t even think about when they’re shooting at the range, but if you’re running a double action pistol properly, you should be decocking the gun every time the muzzle comes off target. It has to become a reflex, so that if you ever have to use the gun in self-defense, once the threat is gone, you’re not standing there with shaky hands and your finger hovering over a four pound single action trigger. Decocking has to be second nature, and that requires a lot of extra training and practice that most people just don’t want to deal with.

So with all of those disadvantages, it’s really not surprising that traditional double action pistols aren’t all that popular anymore. What some people do find surprising is that anyone is actually still shooting them at all. But if you’ve been paying attention, there’s actually been a kind of a small resurgence in the popularity of double action semi-autos.

They aren’t necessarily being embraced by the masses, but they have a strong enough following that some of the big gun companies like CZ, Sig, Beretta, and Wilson Combat have been offering premium semi-custom versions of their more popular double action designs. There’s definitely still a case to be made for these guns.

So next week I’m going to be looking at the advantages of the double action semi-auto and why there are still some people carrying them, and why I have recently become one of them.

Leave a Comment Below

24 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of the Double Action Semi-Auto

  1. I can’t stand polymer striker fired pistols anymore and have switched over to DA/SA exclusively for my EDC. My pistols now have to have a hammer…

    1. Or, if your budget is a little lower, the Canik TP9v2. Excellent, low-cost DA/SA pistol that is almost a clone of the P99.

    1. HI TRW–some do! The Taurus 709 will strike again if you pull the trigger again. Although–the few times it misfired–the added strike didn’t fire the round. Probably something wrong in where the primer material was located in the primer cup / anvil structure. Removing and reinserting the round usually did allow firing it on another trigger pull.

  2. I carry a Shield now, and while its adequate, its definitely not ideal for me. Im more of a rifle guy and Im just now looking at getting more pistols than just a carry gun. In my experiences shooting pistols, I have always preferred shooting hammer fired guns.

    I have decided that my next gun purchase will be a Sig P938 and after that a Sig SP2022 and inevitably a few more Sigs. My Shield will probably just find its way to the back of the safe and never be shot again unless a friend comes along and decides they want it.

    All that being said, of all the striker guns Ive shot, the P320 is the nicest and if I had to own a striker gun it would be the P320. If they offered a 10mm kit for it I would probably even take it over an EAA or 2011 (the only hammer fired double stack 10s that Im aware of) If youre like me and dont like striker guns, look at the P320 before you write them all off.

  3. The M9 is still the standard issue side arm for all branches of the US military. Anyone who has qualified with an M9 has experience with DA/SA pistol. And the claimed “steep learning curve” isn’t all that steep. In my opinion, the Px4 family of pistols and especially the Px4 subcompact make it easier to EDC the way you’re trained. Although I like do my Sig 938.Anyone who can’t remember to thumb a safety decocker on and off is someone, in my opinion, who’s likely to negligently discharge a striker fired pistol. Besides, Striker fired semi-auto’s have their own disadvantages.

    Thank you, but I’ll stick with my M9 for my duty carry or either my Px4 subcompact or Sig 938 for backup and EDC off duty.

  4. Excellent timing, I’m considering getting a DA/SA right now and the models the action is available on are intriguing. They seem to occupy the far ends of the spectrum: Affordable, metal frame choices like the Bersa Thunder and CZ75, and companies like Sig and HK sitting at the premium end and only dabbling in striker models. It is the sort of the middle ground between my experience with strikers and revolvers that I’ve never really embraced.

    1. Personally I prefer the DA/SA especially in the CZ75. All strikers need trigger work and once you’re comfortable with the DA none of the strikers can match a decent SA trigger, IMO. If you decide to then get the CZ trigger worked on then it really sings and the DA is not much different than the strikers and the leaps and bounds ahead of the strikers. Again like the author, this is my opinion.

  5. On the way out? nope don’t think so. I like the striker fired pistols but I’m never giving up my Sigs, H&K’s etc. in DA/SA. They are totally vetted and more reliable and safer. But I’ve only been using them for 40 years.

  6. This whole debate over DA/SA vs DA only vs SA only vs strikers is just plain silly. Everyone should be happy we have a great range of choices that allows everyone to carry and shoot what they like best.

    IMHO these articles are generated by internet gun gurus to attract readers and sell whatever items their advertisers are pushing today.

  7. I love DA/SA. My Beretta M9 goes everywhere with me, including my USPSA and Steel Challenge matches, shoot what you carry!

  8. Chris’s video series on the DA/SA pistol has reminded me why I have a CZ 75 SP-01 for Home Defense. Although I have several nice striker guns including a Glock 17 and H&K VP9; I feel safer using the CZ with the first shot DA when my adrenaline is pumping and I am in a real life shoot/no-shoot decision making situation, or having to hold a perp at gunpoint. Chris’s next video with tips and drills for improving DA trigger skills has helped me obtain equal results shooting either DA or SA. Thanks for this series!

  9. I own a Glock and Smith and Wesson M&P, but never really feel safe with them. The triggers are just too light and short. That is why I still use a double action revolver for most purposes. The long 10-12 pound pull on most revolvers are just more confidence inspiring. To those who say that you can’t hit efficiently with a heavier trigger pull, I suggest history proves otherwise. If I purchase another handgun in the future it will be a DA/SA semi auto like the Beretta 92 or PX4. However everyone is free to choose what they like.

  10. I guess I get a little confused. In the story in discussing DA/SA actions, “…if you ever have to use the gun in self-defense, once the threat is gone, you’re not standing there with shaky hands and your finger hovering over a four pound single action trigger.” Isn’t this the exact scenario with a SA pistol, either hammer or striker? It is to me. I started out on 1911’s, so I learned early on the range to put the safety on. I still use hammer fires, but, very very seldom ( hold on while I think about it) to the point of never use the decocking lever. I’m carrying my USP’s like when I carry my Kimbers, cocked and locked (cocked with selection lever in “safe” position.) I don’t believe the beretta PX4 has this option.

    1. The majority of DA/SA pistol designs do not give the user the option of carrying the gun cocked and locked. The CZ-75, the FNX, and some HKs are among the exceptions. For those guns, yes, engaging the safety is an acceptable alternative to decocking. For all other DA/SA pistols, the user must be in the habit of decocking every time the gun comes off target.

  11. I have a very serious question to the author of this article. In what way is a SA-DA pistol with a cocked 4 lb hammer any different than a chambered glock with a 4lb trigger? You specifically mention that the hammer should be decocked in between firing spells at the range, I completely disagree. Do you remove the round from the chamber of a Stryker fired gun every time you break from shooting? No. Because that would be ridiculous. You could do it, but it would be tedious. Sa/da guns, even of the polymer variety are by no means “dead”. I’m 22 years old, and have never been a fan of Stryker fired weapons; be it glock, kahr, the Volkspistol series by HK, or any Stryker that isn’t a Springfield (grip safety!!!!). I understand that some people prefer the simplicity of a safetyless hammerless gun, but I honestly think of those people as simple. People ALWAYS mention the fact that the first shot of a SA/Da gun will be harder than the rest but guess what! There’s an amazingly simple way around this! Just, oh my gosh this is really groundbreaking stuff, COCK THE HAMMER MANUALLY BEFORE THE FIRST SHOT! Then, stay with me here, the rest of the shots will be just like the first! Making it equal to any Stryker except, Surprise! When you’re done shooting you have the ability to (in most cases) safely decock the hammer on a live round. This actually makes them superior to these godless plastic toys. All these gun guys are so quick to jump on the same bandwagon.

    1. I’m not sure if you made it to the end of the video or transcript, but I’m actually a big fan of DA/SA pistols, so I think your objections might be a bit pre-mature. Most of your questions are answered in the later installments of our DA/SA series, but I’ll try to briefly address them for you here.

      There really is not much difference between a cocked DA/SA pistol with a 4 lbs trigger and a Glock with a 4 lbs trigger. The Glock trigger may have a slightly longer length of travel, but not by much. You’re catching on to something here that has become a big issue for me: a 4 lbs striker gun is *not* any safer than a cocked SA gun with no manual safety. The shooting community at large would not dream of carrying a safety-less 1911 or using an AR-15 with no safety, but somehow striker guns get a free pass on this.

      For the record, though, stock Glocks do not have 4 lbs triggers. Most of them are between 5 and 8 lbs. That’s a little better, but I still prefer more layers of safety. Some of the newer striker-fired pistols (the Walther PPQ comes to mind) come stock with a much lighter trigger, and I don’t think this is a good trend.

      As for decocking in between strings of fire… yes, it is necessary. Every time. Same thing with a single action gun with a manual safety. Engage the safety any time the gun comes off target. This is standard practice in the firearms training community. The fact that there is no equivalent action available for striker fired guns with light triggers doesn’t mean we should stop decocking/engaging safeties on guns that have them.

      In a real use of force situation, there is no time to manually cock the hammer. I suppose one could learn to do it fairly quickly, but it would be much easier to learn to manipulate the DA trigger. It’s not particularly difficult, and I’ve covered the appropriate techniques in other videos.

      1. I think just cocking the DA/SA pistol is a viable option for a home defense pistol, and that, in fact, is what I do. I never use the DA trigger and never will. But for a carry gun and expecially a concealed carry gun I don’t think that’s a good idea.

  12. I cut my teeth on revolvers. Striker-fired pistols feel foreign to me. I recently decided to retire my old Detective special as my lawful EDC and after doing my homework, opted for a Beretta Px4 Storm subcompact chambered in .40 S&W. It’s about the same size/weight as the Detective Spl. and with 4 more rounds. It’s trigger, while obviously different from a revolver is certainly more familiar than one notices with striker-fired pistols, which are so mushy as turn me off. Further, I’m not comfy with the idea of holstering a pistol that is cocked and UNlocked, such as your XDs and Glocks. YMMV.

  13. Well, we’ll just have to wait 15 years or so and see how many of each type is still being made but I predict there will be a much smaller percentage of DA/SA pistols being purchased then than now. DAO has always been a small market and will probably remain constant.

    I’m not a fan of the grip safety as it is possible when in a hurry to grip the pistol in such a way that the safety isn’t depressed.

    For carry and concealed carry I think the striker-fired pistol WITH a thumb safety is ideal. The SA with a thumb safety only is my second choice.

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