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
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.