As I attempted to explain in our last video, learning to master the double action/single action trigger is not nearly as difficult as the prevailing wisdom would suggest. However, figuring out the nuances of all the different traditional double action pistol designs can be a challenge. Some have decocking levers, others have safety levers, and many designs even have both. You don’t necessarily have to know how they all work in order to shoot one well, but if you’re in the market for a double action pistol, it’s helpful to have a general idea of the basics types so you can pick one that suits your preferences.

If you’re completely new to the topic of double action/single action pistols, I’d suggest you start with the first video in our series for a more general introduction. I should also mention that I didn’t cover double action only pistols in this week’s video. I consider DAO actions a completely different category with several sub-types of their own, so that’s a separate topic for another day.

Understanding Double Action Pistol Types

Full transcript below for the video-challenged:

Since I started talking about double action pistols a few weeks ago, you guys have been asking a lot of questions about specific models like which guns I would recommend and what gun I’ve decided to start carrying. There are actually few different models I’ve been working with recently and I’ll be doing reviews of those coming up and I’ll be sure to let you know when I decide which one ends up in my holster permanently.

But until then, honestly, my best advice is to just not get too preoccupied with what anyone else is carrying or with trying to find the best self-defense pistol or the perfect carry gun. There are a lot of great double actions out there — just pick something that’s reliable, that fits your hands so you can get a solid firing grip, and a gun that has the safety features and controls you think are going to work the best for you. Then get out there and get some training and shoot it.

But that point about the safety features and controls — that is where choosing a double action pistol can actually get pretty complicated, because there are so many different types. They all have controls and levers and buttons in different places. So, the easiest way to get a handle on what your options are is to think of double action pistols in terms of three major types: there’s the safety/decocker, the decock only, and the safety only.

So lets look at the safety/decocker guns first. To get these guns into a ready condition you would insert a loaded magazine and then rack the slide. Then you’ve got this safety lever up here, usually on the slide. You would engage that and that decocks the gun and also disables the trigger — that’s your safety mechanism. So if you want to fire the gun, you have to disengage the safety, and now you can fire that first double action shot. You can also load the gun with the safety already on and it just automatically decocks the gun when the slide goes forward.

This is how the very first double action pistols operated like the Walther PPK and the P38. The system was also used by the now-discontinued metal framed semi-autos from both Smith & Wesson and Ruger. Most of the service caliber Berettas also work this way like the model 92FS and the M9 used by our military.

Safety/decocker pistols can be carried with the safety off. There’s nothing wrong with that from a safety standpoint because you still have the long double action trigger as your safety. But a lot of people, myself included, don’t really recommend this because there’s always the chance the safety could become engaged accidentally while you’re carrying it.  Then if you suddenly need the gun and you go to fire it and it doesn’t fire, you might not even remember that it has a safety if you’re not already in the habit of sub-consciously disengaging the safety on the draw stroke.

If you don’t want to carry with the safety on, I would suggest you just get a gun with a decocker only, and that is the second type of double action pistol I want to talk about.  With these guns, once you load them, you hit the decocker and it pops right back up. There is no “safe” position — it doesn’t stay on when you hit the decock lever so the gun is always ready to be fired. The decock lever can be up here on the slide like the Beretta’s, or it can be on the frame like the Sig pistols. The HK pistols — some of those have a decocking button on the back of the slide.

Common examples of the decock only pistols are the Beretta 92G, almost every Sig pistol in their P220 series, HK pistols with the V3 trigger, and some CZ models like the P01 and the PCR.

The third type of double action pistol are those equipped with a manual safety only. When you load up these guns, you have two options for how to carry them. The first way is to just engage the manual safety. That doesn’t decock the gun — it’s still cocked. It’s in single action mode so I’m going to treat it just like any other single action pistol like a 1911. It’s cocked and locked. The trigger is disabled so I can draw the gun, disengage the safety, and then fire.

The other way to do it is to manually decock the gun. To do that, I’m going to pull the hammer back, press the trigger, and slowly and carefully lower the hammer. Now it’s in double action mode and I can carry it like any other double action pistol. A word of warning, though: manually decocking is an inherently dangerous thing to do. There’s always the chance that your finger can slip and you end up with a negligent discharge. I really just suggest you carry these with the safety on — just treat it like a single action. Manually decocking is kind of a pointless risk when there are so many other guns out there that have a decocking lever.

This gun is an old CZ 83 which I don’t think they’re importing anymore, but some of the more popular safety-only pistols include most versions of the CZ-75 series guns and clones of the CZ-75 as well as the Beretta 80 series pistols.

Most of the double action pistols that you’re likely to run into will fit into one of those three categories, but of course there are plenty of exceptions. For instance, some of CZ’s pistols have what they call the Omega system where the user can easily convert the pistol to be either decock only or safety only. FN has the double action FNX pistols that work like a safety only model at first glance, but if you press down on the frame mounted safety lever, it will decock the gun. And then there’s the Walther P99 that’s a double action pistol with a decocker, but it’s actually striker fired, and not hammer fired.

One more thing to keep in mind when you’re looking at double action pistols is that there aren’t a whole lot of really small options available. So you’re not going to find anything like a double action equivalent to the Smith & Wesson Shield, for instance — at least not yet. And even the compact models for double actions tend to be a little heavier than their striker fired counterparts. So if you want to standardize all of your self-defense guns so they’re all double actions, when you get to the really small subcompact and backup size guns, you might have to broaden the scope of your search and look at double action only pistols and snub nose revolvers.

I hope that helps clear up a few things for double action pistols. Be on the lookout for some more specific reviews and recommendations coming up soon.

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18 thoughts on “Triggers, Hammers, and Levers: Understanding Double Action Pistol Types

  1. Excellent review of the various DA/SA types. For Home Defense I have a CZ 75 SP-01 with the manual safety only. To put it into DA 1st round you must lower the hammer to 1/2 cock over a live round. For anyone having this superb gun or other non-decocker DA/SA CZ’s I would like to pass on a safety suggestion that works for me: Rather than trying to grip, hold and lower the hammer, I instead insert my left thumb between the hammer and slide before pulling the trigger (with the gun pointed in a safe direction). My thumb positively prevents the hammer from dropping. I pull, then release the trigger engaging the hammer safety stop; then gently roll my thumb counter-clockwise which lowers the hammer softly onto the hammer stop. Of course, I agree with Chris, if you have a choice just buy CZ’s decocker version. Or, if you already have a manual safety CZ you can just use in SA mode only; but you’ll miss out on the real DA/SA benefit of this exceptional firearm. Try the thumb suggestion. I also have a CZ 2075 RAMI BD with the decocker. Sweet compact DA/SA carry gun with 14+1 firepower that fits my medium hands like a single-stack.

    1. Good tip, Vinny. I have a RAMI and a CZ75B which are manual safety, only. I’ve discovered that if I hold the hammer back and pull the trigger, allowing the hammer to move the slightest bit, then release the trigger the hammer will fall to the half-cock position and won’t fire the weapon. (It’s a great idea to keep your thumb in the way just in case.)
      Another tip for CZ’s is related to field stripping. Most descriptions tell you to pull the slide to the rear until you can line up two little marks on the slide and the frame. My aging eyes make that a challenge. Instead, I keep the gun in the half-cock position. I pull the slide back until the rear of the slide barely touches the hammer. It’s perfectly aligned at that point to remove the slide stop pin and proceed with disassembly.

      1. And thanks Mikerbike for the CZ disassembly/re-assembly trick. Tried it today. So much easier to just hold the muzzle end of slide (with left hand) against the half-cock hammer and tap the pin. No need to keep eye-balling those little guidelines!

  2. Back in the 80s a few PDs that mandated safety-on carry of Berettas or S&Ws taught a method of deactivating it during the draw by crooking your strong-hand thumb so the first (tip) joint is parallel with the slide and pushing straight forward. This was supposed to push the safety up and deactivate it. I never carried with the safety on, so I never tried it and don’t know how well it works.

    1. I don’t like the slide mounted safety on the Beretta, but there are a lot of very capable shooters out there who can draw, disengage that safety, and get off an accurate DA shot before most Glock and 1911 owners can even clear the holster.

      1. It all goes back to proper training. I’ve seen people who could draw and fire a Single Action Army (safely) before I could do the same with any pistol.
        I really think if you want to get really good, you have to stick with one system. If you’re a 1911 guy, don’t carry a J-frame when the weather is hot; get a smaller 1911. And so on.

  3. I think the Sig P239 is the smallest 9mm DA/SA handgun I have found, but it isn’t much bigger than the S&W Shield. The hardest part with these guns is finding a good holster. It definitely isn’t as easy as a glock 19

    1. I like the P239, but it’s actually pretty large compared to the Shield or G43 and similar guns. It’s got a longer grip, a taller slide, and it’s almost half a pound heavier than the Shield when loaded. It’s actually much closer in size to the P229 or Glock 19 than it is to most of the polymer single stack 9mms. I’m not saying I wouldn’t carry one, but there’s definitely room in the market for a smaller and lighter DA/SA 9mm.

      As for holsters, nothing is as easy as the Glock 17/19, but you could start with JM Custom Kydex.

  4. The 9mm CZ 2075 RAMI BD at only 26 oz. with 10 and 14 round mags is a tad lighter than the Sig P239. All alloy and steel, no plastic. CZ reliability. Comes with Tritium Night sights, 2 mags, and easy to thumb decock lever only for DA/SA. The rubber grips make it feel like it’s molded to fit your hand, just slightly wider than a single stack. At just over $600 NIB it’s a sweet gun….if you can find one. Google all the holster choices available. Just say’in.

  5. I have been shooting and carrying a double/single 3rd generation S&W for 20 years. They are much safer (in my opinion) that striker fired pistols. Just look at the statistics. Since the adoption of striker fired pistols for public safety use, accidental discharges have gone through the roof. Part of this might be a reduction in firearm training for new recruits, but I don’t think that covers everything. As for me, if I were replacing it I would get a de-cocker only this time around. Either way; it’s hard to screw up the 12 lbs + first trigger pull by accidentally pulling it.

    For Vinny, I was trying to find a CZ RAMI but no one around here has one. That sounds like the perfect solution.

    Also – for true movie gun nuts – watch Street Kings. Keanu Reevs uses a S&W 4506; classic 3rd gen S&W with frame mounted de-cocker/safety. He actually manipulates it correctly!

  6. D/A semi-automatics with different safety mechanisms: seems to involve too much fidgeting, violates KISS principle to me. I agree that it just depends on your comfort level, though.

    1. I love the SCCY CPX2 DAO. It seems to solve all those problems
      It is reliable, made in the uA, Guaranteed for life of the gun.
      It does hhave a long trigger pull but it is consistant.

  7. Wow – for some reason, I just read this. Thanks for the heads up on different models and the gun link…DC

  8. You’re not going to find a DA/SA version of the Shield? The Shield is basically a polymer, striker fired replacement for their old DA/SA 908/3913 single stack 9’s. I just picked up a police trade-in 3913 because even though I’m a Sig Sauer fanboy I can’t understand why they want me to choose between an all steel “compact” that is almost as thick as my P227 and weighs the same empty, or an actual compact 9mm that’s really a tiny 1911. The 3937 fits my bill perfectly though. Its 25 oz, 6.76″ long by 5″ tall by .9 or .95″ thick. The trigger is almost as nice as the Sig, and the safety-decocker doesn’t bother me. I’m loving the size, shape, and MOA, now I’m trying to find time to break it in at the range. It was my pick for a compact/subcompact companion to a full sized Sig though.

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