Single Action vs Double Action: What’s the Difference?
When looking at pistols you’ll likely run across the terms single-action and double-action. Though these distinctions may not matter much on the range, it’s important to understand exactly what they mean to develop a complete understanding of these guns because ultimately the goal with any firearm is to be fully informed about what you’re buying. Let’s peel back the curtain.
Single action pistols (often abbreviated SA) have triggers that serve a single function – to drop the hammer. Whenever you pull the trigger, the hammer drops which means you must manually cock the hammer for the firearm to shoot. This requires an exposed hammer, which you’ll find on John Brownings Colt 1911 or classic cowboy revolvers.
Differences between SA revolvers and semi-autos
It’s important to note that single action revolvers function differently than single-action semi-auto pistols.
With a single action revolver, the shooter first cocks the hammer, fires, and again cocks the hammer to fire the consecutive shots. The hammer has to be manually cocked with each shot, the mechanics of which will be familiar to anyone who has watched a Roy Rogers wild-west shootout or two.
Single Action Semis
When it comes to cocking single action semi-autos, you have a couple of options. You can manually cock the hammer or pull the slide back to cock it.
The most popular approach with SA semi-autos is to rack the slide after inserting a loaded magazine. The rearward motion of the slide cocks the hammer, and the forward return chambers a round, meaning the gun is ready to fire.
When a shot is fired the rearward movement of the slide once again cocks the hammer then chambers another round as it moves forward. This little two-step allows the trigger to be pulled repeatedly without manual recocking.
Decocking a SA semi-auto
Decocking an SA semi-auto, however, is much like decocking an SA revolver. Once the hammer is cocked with a loaded chamber, the hammer can be safety released by pulling the hammer back then slowly pulling the trigger, and lowering the hammer carefully.
This requires practice to ensure it’s done completely safely, and coupled with the more complicated operation of the SA firearm, is why they’re rarely recommended for new shooters.
These handguns tend to be accurate due to the fact the trigger only engages the hammer and offer a light, short trigger pull. This lack of effort to fire the weapon helps to keep them on target.
In comparison to single-action, double-action (DA) firearms have a trigger that fulfills two separate functions. First, the trigger pull cocks the, then — much like the single-action — the hammer is released and the firearm discharges. This action is similar for both double action revolvers & double action semi-autos.
Double action semi-autos differ from single action semis in that double-action semi-autos can be fired in a single action by cocking the hammer manually and pulling the trigger or by simply pulling the trigger when the hammer is lowered. There’s no need to manually cock the hammer at all.
DA guns typically have a heavier trigger pull than single-action firearms, requiring extra force to both cock and release the hammer, which can impact accuracy without careful practice.
Revolvers vs Semi-Autos
Samuel Colt shook up the world of firearms manufacturing with his 1836 revolver design. While not the first revolver ever brought to market, the Colt was the first mass-produced, highly reliable revolver available anywhere.
This American icon was carried by both sides in the Civil War and it’s impossible to imagine the U.S. westward expansion, The Lone Ranger, or any classic western hero without these famous wheelguns.
The same wheelguns, only better
While it’s certainly possible to trace today’s revolver from that revolutionary Colt design — they all have a revolving cylinder at their center, after all — today’s revolvers have advanced well beyond Samual Colt’s imagination while maintaining the same characteristics that make that original design so famous: simplicity and reliability.
Simple to use & learn on
Revolvers are straightforward firearms. Easy to use; load, unload, and maintain. All of which makes them incredibly dependable.
All of these traits give revolvers a shallow learning curve, making them a good choice for introducing shooters to the sport. Most new shooters will be comfortable shooting a revolver after a day at the range, quickly becoming comfortable with the mechanics of the firearm.
Semi-automatic pistols typically require more time to build the same level of familiarity due to their more complex design.
Single Action Revolvers
Revolvers, like semi-automatic pistols, come in three flavors of action — single action, double action, and double action–only. All of which align the cartridge to be fired with the barrel via a rotating cylinder.
The first revolvers were single action, making this the oldest revolver design.
SA revolver triggers perform a single function: releasing the hammer to fire the gun. Firing a revolver involves 2 steps (cocking then releasing the hammer) so the term “single action“ refers to the trigger’s solitary role in releasing the hammer. The hammer will need to be manually cocked each time you prepare to fire.
Double Action Revolvers
The trigger on DA revolvers serves two functions, just like with DA semi-autos. The first position of the trigger pull cocks the hammer, and completing the pull releases the hammer to fire the gun. There’s no need to cock the hammer on a DA revolver for each shot.
DA revolvers, therefore, offer the shooter two ways to fire the gun; cock the hammer manually and pull the trigger (referred to as “single action firing“) or simply pull the trigger. Single action firing offers a lighter trigger pull due to the first half of the trigger’s function (cocking the hammer) already being complete.
While revolvers are easy to learn on and shoot, they’re generally capped at 6 round capacity, meaning semi-autos typically offer significantly more firepower on tap.
Revolvers also take longer to reload, making them less suitable for protracted engagements. This is one of the reasons the NYPD has phased out revolvers in favor of semi-auto pistols.
That said, the simplicity and reliability of the revolver make them a fantastic self-defense option for many people, especially beginner concealed carry users.
Semi-automatic handguns are incredibly popular with military and law enforcement around the globe, as well as for concealed carry.
A revolver houses rounds in multiple chambers that rotate inside of a central cylinder, while semi-automatics use a single chamber aligned with the barrel of the gun. This is where the term “chambering a round” comes from.
A single magazine (or “stick”) houses all the rounds, which is inserted into the grip once loaded. Racking the slide then cocks and prepares the gun for firing.
Semi-autos offer significantly more capacity than revolvers, softer recoil due to the slide function, and a tremendous array of form factors. They are also more complicated than revolvers, with many more moving parts & an increased need for maintenance, which often requires some level of disassembly.
This more complex nature of semi-autos means they require more time to build the same level of familiarity as a revolver but offer distinct advantages for those willing to spend the time familiarizing themselves with these firearms.
Semi-automatics, like revolvers, are available in double or single action. However, the single-action models typically don’t need to be manually cocked, like they would with the revolver. Racking the slide cocks the hammer and the recoil from the subsequent shot completes the cycle once again.
The Best of Both
Just as it’s important to understand the terminology, it is equally as important to select a model that is dependable, efficient, and suites your needs.
Single Action Pistols
If you are looking for a rimfire single action revolver, the Heritage Rough Rider 22LR 6.5-inch Revolver is an amazing package. This inexpensive rimfire revolver has a classic look, reminiscent of one you would find in the Old West.
At the same time, it is made with modern techniques, ensuring maximum power and safety and scaled down to perfectly suit the .22LR round.
Revolvers certainly aren’t the only single action guns. This Beretta 92D 9mm Pistol is a great single action pistol, complete with a combat sight, under-barrel accessory rail, and proven design.
This is a proven pistol that has been used by military and law enforcement throughout the globe for more than 25 years.
Another impressive semi-automatic single action handgun is the Dan Wesson DWX C 9 mm Luger. Initially designed for competition, this handgun offers a simple barrel system that makes take down fast and easy. The sides are easily customized, and the pistol has great ergonomics.
Double Action Pistols
If you are looking for a classic double-action pistol, then the Smith & Wesson Performance Center 9mm Pistol is worth your time.
With a classic M&P look, the Performance Center series is built with another level of precision, accuracy, and reliability. At the same time, this M&P is built around the classic 2.0 ergos, keeping control and comfort central to the shooting experience.
The Smith & Wesson Model 642 Revolver is a single/double model that is incredibly small yet is able to hold five rounds. This is one of the most popular small-framed personal defense revolvers on the market because of its power, durability, and double-action abilities.
Another small double action gun is the Standard MFG Thunderstruck .22 WMR Revolver. This is a great personal protection gun because it can simultaneously fire two rounds with each pull, kind of like a double-action Derringer.
The gun is incredibly small, meaning you can easily fit it into your pocket or purse safely.
The difference between a single action and double action gun is a basic but important distinction. A single action trigger means the trigger serves a single function – to drop the hammer.
Double action firearms serve two functions — cocking the hammer then dropping it to fire the round. A double action firearm is more compatible with self-defense and personal use today but single action guns, like classic revolvers, can still offer the user a lot of fun.
- Google Books, Forensic Science: An Encyclopedia of History, Methods, and Techniques
- TinHatRanch, Single Action Vs. Double Action Firearms, What This Means. Also, DA/SA And DAO, May 9, 2013
- Amereican Rifleman, Mark Keefe, Single-Action, DA/SA, DAO & Striker-Fired, March 22, 2016
- Active Self Protection Era, Revolver vs Pistol (Which Should You Use?), December 10, 2019
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