No doubt unbeknownst to most readers of this blog, my first four handguns were double-action/single-action (hereafter DA/SA) pistols. These were classic Sig Sauer handguns: the P229, P226, P220, and P6 (a.k.a., P225), purchased in that order. I mention this because I want the reader to understand that I did not buy a Glock as my first firearm, declare it awesome, and never look back. I have sent thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of rounds downrange through DA/SA pistols. I am very familiar with their proper operation as well as their advantages and disadvantages. I still maintain one DA/SA pistol in my collection, and hope to soon add another in order to maintain a reasonable level of proficiency with that style of platform.
What is DA/SA?
The basic design of DA/SA pistols is as follows (and keep in mind this is a bare bones description): with the pistol loaded and a round in the chamber, the hammer will be positioned in a “down”, or decocked, position with the trigger quite far forward (see photo of the three pistols above). To shoot the pistol, the user will press the trigger to the rear, just like any other pistol. However, with the trigger so far forward, that first trigger press tends to be a LONG press. When pressed to the rear, the hammer will move backwards and then come forward (two things: hence, “double-action”), setting in motion a chain of events that fires the pistol. When the slide retracts and ejects the empty casing and then moves forward again to chamber the next round, it also cocks the hammer to the rear. This means that the trigger is now positioned quite far back compared to just before the first shot. The result is that the subsequent shots are fired with a very short press of the trigger, where the trigger only has to release the hammer, not cock it first (hence, this is a “single-action” trigger press). Because the first press is double-action and the rest single-action, we tend to call these pistols double-action/single-action, or DA/SA, pistols.
Another way to look at it is to compare DA/SA pistols with revolvers. The initial DA trigger press is very similar to the press of a modern day double-action revolver. The SA trigger press would be like a modern double-action revolver that has had its hammer cocked by hand.
Well-known handguns that utilize the DA/SA action would be the classic Sig 22x series of pistols (220, 225, 226, 228, 229, etc.), the Beretta 92 series, the Smith and Wesson 39 and 59 (and many of the subsequent 3 and 4 digit generations, such as the 459 and 5906), Walther P-38, PP, and PPK, and numerous models by Heckler and Koch, CZ, etc.
One feature of many of these models is the hammer drop. For example, on the classic Sig 22X line as outlined above, the user can load a magazine into the pistol, rack the slide to chamber a round, and then press the decocking lever, which lowers the hammer from the cocked (SA) position down to the decocked (DA) position. The Beretta 92 series and older DA/SA Smith and Wessons work in a similar manner when the user manipulates the safety lever. This step is critical, as the only safety feature of many of these pistols is the long initial trigger press. If the hammer is not decocked, then in essence the user is walking around with a holstered, hair-trigger pistol. (Please note that I fully realize that some models, such as some of those by CZ and HK, allow the user to utilize a safety lever to carry the handgun “cocked and locked”, but for the purposes of what follows, I am not focused on that here).
I already had this article in the works when I read Paul Howe’s March 2018 CSAT newsletter (opens to PDF). In the newsletter, he described what I would characterize as a thick-headed student who, despite repeated warnings, continued to holster his DA/SA Sig P226 without utilizing the decocking lever. On one such occasion, either the student’s finger or some piece of his gear or clothing caught the trigger which, with the hammer cocked, was set up for a very light pull. The result was a negligent discharge into the gravel beside the student’s foot, some no-doubt shocked expressions, and the dismissal of the student from class.
This made me think back to this class I took in 2016 with Kyle Defoor. The student next to me was utilizing a DA/SA Heckler and Koch pistol (I cannot recall now if it was a P2000, USP, or P30). In addition to him shooting my target at 25 yards on one occasion, he was also unsafe with his HK. Very early on Day One of the class, at the conclusion of the first drill, the student committed the same safety faux pas as the student in the CSAT class outlined above. He attempted to holster his HK with the hammer back and no safety engaged. To his credit, Kyle spotted this immediately and swooped down on the student just as the muzzle of his pistol was entering his holster. He explained why what he was doing was inherently unsafe, and the student seemed to “get it”. As best I could tell, the student did not do that again.
I should also note that, two years into shooting IDPA competitions, I have seen some of the competitors using their DA/SA handguns incorrectly. For example, I have seen numerous times how, presented with a scenario such as a group of three targets and then a “hallway” to move down with more targets at the end, a shooter equipped with a DA/SA pistol will draw, shoot the first three targets, and then run down the “hallway” to engage the remaining targets. In so doing, the ONLY shot they will fire DA will be their very first shot. However, most of the instructors I have trained with would say they should have decocked after engaging those first three targets and before moving down the “hallway”. If they were to trip or otherwise be startled, there is too big a risk of a negligent discharge with that short SA trigger.
The other major issue with DA/SA pistols is the fact that the user must practice the two different trigger presses. That DA first shot, in a self-defense scenario, will probably be the most important shot the user takes. As Paul Howe said in that article linked above, many shooters of DA/SA pistols throw away that first shot. The two different trigger presses also means that the user must be able to transition from the one press (DA) to the other (SA) seamlessly. Many shooters cannot do so.
Back when I was a Sig-aholic, I used to frequent some of the Sig-specific online firearms forums. On those forums, I used to read many comments about the horrors of the stock Glock trigger while claiming that the 22X models had such great triggers. Once I had fired my first Glock, I was confused, as the Glock seemed to offer a much lighter and shorter-traveling trigger. When I questioned people on the forums, I came to realize that, almost exclusively, those who loved their Sig triggers were going to the range, inserting a magazine, racking the slide, and then shooting. In other words, they were never using that long DA trigger press, only the shorter SA portions of the press. If they carried those pistols for defensive purposes (correctly, with the hammer decocked), they would be in for a rude awakening when it was time to fire that first shot!
It is my opinion that the double-action/single-action (DA/SA) handgun, while not necessarily an “expert’s gun”, is not the ideal choice for newer shooters. Too many casual owners of such pistols seem to not quite “get” the concept of the two different trigger presses, when it is appropriate or even necessary to decock, HOW to decock, etc. Indeed, I recall reading in numerous gun magazines during the late 1990s that the popularity among police of the Glock and the double-action only versions of some of the DA/SA pistols came about because, post-shooting, many police officers were forgetting to decock their DA/SA pistols and then holstering them with what were essentially hair triggers.
Because of all of the above, if I was going to recommend a handgun to a newer shooter, I would stick with striker-fired options like the Glock, Smith and Wesson M&P, the Heckler and Koch VP9, Walther PPQ, etc. Alternatively, a DA-only pistol (such as the Heckler and Koch P30 with their LEM trigger) would also be a viable option. The consistency of the trigger pull from shot to shot combined with the more intuitive safety features (basically, don’t touch the trigger when you shouldn’t and all will be fine) make such platforms much more user-friendly, especially to the newer or casual shooter.
Please note that I am not knocking DA/SA as a platform overall. I still like the DA/SA system and know of many top-notch instructors who favor the system as well as some of the DA-only systems, such as the Heckler and Koch LEM system (Ernest Langdon and Darryl Bolke come immediately to mind as proponents of DA/SA and LEM platforms). Indeed, there are a few advantages that come with the system. I just believe that DA/SA requires a greater commitment to understanding the system itself and a time commitment to master the two different trigger presses and the transition between them. As with so many things, training is the key.
What are your thoughts on DA/SA pistols? We’d love to read your comments below or on our Facebook page, as we encourage civil discourse. As always, thanks for reading.