By Diane Walls,
I have noticed, in my experience teaching beginning handgun classes, that these are the classes where the most variety of pistols show up. It’s quite understandable that this is the case. Often, a new shooter that wishes to take some professional training has yet to decide on a gun they might want for personal use. That means a family member or friend may lend them a gun with which to take the class. This gun could be something that’s sat in someone’s safe for years, perhaps the lender’s first gun or something they inherited from a family member. Mostly, these guns are perfectly serviceable but, perhaps, not the simplest piece of machinery that could be placed into a newcomer’s hands. So, their coach helps them set it out on the line for use and starts to explain how it works.
“What you have here is a traditional double-action, sometimes called a double-single action. This lever here is your decocker/safety and you’ll need to use it like this…”
About then, the student’s eyes begin to take on a glazed look. They glance over at the gun in the station next to them that doesn’t even have a hammer and start to wonder whether something is wrong with that gun or maybe the gun they were given. Are they about to become the victim of a cruel joke? Is the person that lent them the gun really a friend? Why didn’t they pay closer attention when the video in class was going over action types and what to expect?
It’s OK, stay calm. Every activity that uses tools has a vocabulary of its own. When you’re first starting a new activity, just sorting out what things are called and how they are used is a big part of learning. The instructor with the sleek, modern-looking gear that seems to know gun jargon like they were born knowing was once in your shoes. Happily, most of them are very willing to explain what they are talking about if you just ask. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much information one had to digest to get to instructor level so don’t be shy about reminding your instructor if you feel overwhelmed. Just such an experience with a new shooter is why I’ve decided to write about action types and do my best to clarify some terminology.
It’s pretty easy to see the difference between these two major subgroups of handguns. Between the grip and the barrel of the revolver is a round cylinder with several evenly-spaced holes bored through it (somewhere between 5 and 8 most likely, with 5 or 6 being most common) into which the cartridges are placed. Each press of the trigger revolves the cylinder (hence the name) to lock one of the cartridge-containing holes, called chambers, in line with the barrel so that the cartridge can send its bullet cargo down the barrel and out to the target. The trigger is also releasing the hammer, a spring-assisted metal lever shaped like a hammer, to fall and strike the firing pin. The hammer drives the pin (like a nail) into the chamber far enough to strike the primer of the cartridge and ignite it. This causes the rapid burn of the gunpowder in the cartridge. The combustion gases contained under pressure in the metal cartridge, surrounded by the metal tube of the chamber, push the bullet projectile out at high velocity. This ultimate result is the firing of the gun and is what happens when any gun shoots a round. The differences between guns occurs in the variety of ways this ultimate action is achieved with the gun’s particular mechanism.
The cylinder of the revolver will have some way to access it for loading and unloading of the gun. Rounds of ammunition are loaded into the cylinder for firing and the spent casings (brass or other metal hulls empty of their powder and bullets) must be removed before new cartridges can be put in place to reload the gun. More on how this is accomplished a bit later on. Semi-automatic handguns are flat sided and consist of two main sections. The lower incorporates the grip, trigger assembly and the lower support for the barrel and slide. If the gun has a hammer, it most likely is part of this section as well. Within the grip is room for the ammunition feeding system, called a magazine, to fit. The upper portion, or slide, contains the barrel and springs that run the slide back and forth. The firing pin or striker, depending on the gun, should be contained in the rear section of the slide as well. As implied by its name, the slide reciprocates back and forth. There is one chamber in a semi-automatic pistol at the rearward or breech end of the barrel. A box-shaped magazine that fits in the grip of the gun is designed to position cartridges of ammunition at the perfect angle for the slide, as it comes forward under release of spring pressure, to grab the rim of a cartridge with a claw-shaped piece called an extractor, and push it forward into the chamber for firing. During firing of the semi-automatic (also called auto-loading) pistol, gases from ignition of the cartridge, in the contained breech area, do double duty to propel the bullet out the barrel and simultaneously push the slide rearward against its springs. As the slide moves back, the extractor claw grabs the spent casing, pulls it out of the chamber, and slams it against a metal prong called the ejector which sits at the back of the ejection port and, like the toe of a bouncer’s boot, kicks the old casing out the port while it is momentarily open and sends it flying out away from the gun. The slide goes all the way back to the end of the spring’s travel which propels it forward again where it strips another round from the magazine into the chamber for firing. The trigger must be pressed each time for one of these loading cycles to complete in the semi-automatic. A fully automatic pistol would continue to cycle and send bullets downrange until it ran out of ammunition or the shooter removed his or her finger from firing position on the trigger. While these fully automatic pistols do exist, they are not legal for civilians to own in very many places and, where legal, are heavily regulated. I mention them only because semi-automatic handguns are often confused for fully automatic by the uneducated.
Now that we know the two basic types of handguns, we can get on to explaining the types of actions within these types.
Both revolvers and semi-automatics come in single action. These guns have hammers that must be cocked to a full locked-back position in order to fire. The press of the trigger releases the sear, a bar with a block-like piece on the end that fits into a notch on the cocked hammer and holds it in place This block is pushed out of the notch in the hammer as the trigger presses on the bar below it. The hammer, assisted by spring tension, falls forward and strikes the firing pin. The trigger mechanism on a single-action gun cannot re-cock the hammer. Its only job is to release the sear and drop the hammer, hence the name “single action.” Resetting the sear to trigger interface must be done by the shooter pulling back the hammer in the case of the revolver or the slide pushing back the hammer in the case of the semi-automatic.
The hammer on either the revolver or semi-automatic can be manually manipulated as well. To cock the hammer, the thumb of either the shooting or support hand pulls back on the hammer spur until it clicks into position. It can also be lowered by holding it in the fingers to control its descent and pulling the trigger. A finger should be placed between the hammer and the firing pin while doing this to avoid accidental firing should the hammer slip. That safety finger can be removed just before the hammer can pinch it as it is lowered to resting position. Safe lowering of the hammer is most essential on the single action revolver as it has no safety to prevent the hammer from dropping if the trigger is pressed. This gun should always be stored and carried with the hammer lowered for safety. Single action semi-automatics have a safety lever that must always be in the up or safe position when the gun is not being prepared to fire. The gun should be carried for self-defense use with the safety on and the hammer locked back and ready to fire (called “cocked and locked” in the vernacular). Many owners of these guns will manually lower the hammer when the gun is going into storage in loaded condition for a while to avoid undue wear on the spring that holds it back.
The single-action revolver is loaded differently than its double-action counterparts. The cylinder does not swing out to the side to allow access to the chambers. A metal gate in the cylinder cover at the back of the gun swings open to allow one chamber at a time to be loaded or unloaded. A rod mounted under the barrel (called the ejector rod) is used to push out spent casings. The cylinder must be turned by the shooter to access each chamber. On older guns, the cylinder will not turn unless the hammer is pulled back to the first catch and hold point, called the half-cock notch. Some of the modern single-action revolvers only require that the loading gate be open for the cylinder to turn and have no half-cock notch. Older guns also have no transfer bar safety, a metal block that prevents the hammer from accessing the firing pin should the gun be dropped or otherwise impacted when the hammer is down. To safely carry a loaded single-action revolver without a transfer bar, load the first chamber, skip a chamber, then load the rest. The empty chamber will come to rest lined up with the barrel providing no ammunition to the firing pin should an impact occur.
Yikes! Why would anyone want one of these complicated guns?
The answer is that this old-fashioned design is still used in Cowboy Action Shooting events which celebrate traditional designs in firearms and allow participants to step back in time for shooting games in period costumes. It’s a fun and popular style of shooting competition. Though these guns are slow and cumbersome for self-defense applications, they still show up occasionally when a newcomer uses a legacy gun for a self-defense class. They are good guns, there’s just more to learn about to use them safely. If grandpa’s old revolver is the only gun you have for self-defense, it’s better than no gun at all and you should learn to use it.
The most popular single-action semi-automatic is the 1911, also known as the Colt .45 or the Yankee Fist. These guns gained popularity through the military, as Colt’s M1911 was adopted for military use in the year 1911. They are still popular today and have been reworked to be safer and easier to use. Many manufacturers offer a version of this gun and a lot of shooters love them.
Why is this old design, around for well over a hundred years, still so popular? That question has been debated at length over many an adult beverage by shooters for a long time. The short answer is that it still works and it fits even smaller hands very well. 1911s are the Harley Davidson of handguns, all-American, classic proven design and with enough goodies available that the shooter can customize one to be uniquely their own. And they have the “cool factor.”
Loading and unloading the single-action semi-automatic is simple and quick. Loading of any semi-automatic handgun is essentially the same. Insert a full magazine into the grip, pull the slide all the way back and let it go to chamber a round and flick the safety lever up with the shooting hand thumb. The gun is now ready to go into a holster for carry or to shoot. To unload, remove the magazine by pushing the magazine release button on the left side of the grip behind the trigger and either letting the magazine drop or pull it from the gun with your support hand and put it into a pocket or pouch, take the safety off by pushing it down, pull the slide back and lock it with the slide catch (a lever mounted on the left side of the slide that pushes up and locks into a notch on the bottom of the slide). Check that the chamber is empty by looking and poking a pinky into the chamber to feel for obstructions (because this may have to be done in the dark). Also check to see if the magazine well in the grip is empty and poke a finger up from the bottom of the grip to be certain. When you are sure it’s empty, you can dry fire it in a safe direction to lower the hammer for storage or put the safety on with the hammer back and put it away cocked, locked and empty.
An essential safety protocol with the single-action semi-automatic is that the safety is engaged any time the hammer is cocked back regardless of the loaded or unloaded condition of the gun. In most single-action semi-automatics, the safety cannot be engaged if the hammer is down because the notch it fits into next to the cocked trigger is no longer available when the hammer is lowered. As the single-action gun is inoperable until the hammer is cocked, the safety is unnecessary if the hammer is down.
The trigger on any single action gun is designed to have a short travel and requires only light 4 to 5 lbs. pressure, on the average, to disengage the sear and fire the gun. This short, crisp feel is prized by shooters but requires an experienced hand to be safe. For this reason, single action guns are considered to be less than ideal for beginners that are still learning trigger control and muzzle discipline.
Traditional Double Action or Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA)
For a number of reasons, with safety for inexperienced firearms handlers being one of the paramount ones, firearms manufacturers developed an action that would connect the trigger stroke to the cocking mechanism for the hammer. The trigger was now responsible for two actions, both the cocking and release of the hammer, hence the name double action. Now the shooter could fire the gun with the hammer down in double-action or with it cocked back in single-action position. With the hammer down, the trigger stroke is long and heavy as more work must be done to cock and fire the gun. If the shooter desired a light, single-action trigger stroke, the hammer could be cocked back before firing. In the double-action revolver, getting to single-action mode would be done by the shooter, as in a single action gun. With the semi-automatic, the action of the slide would automatically cock the hammer after each firing.
In the case of the revolver, the development of double action simplified use of the gun. It could be fired as soon as it cleared the holster and aligned with the target without having to manually cock the hammer. Cylinders were now designed to swing out away from the frame to facilitate loading and unloading all chambers at once. The ejector rod was moved to the center of the cylinder and attached to a star-shaped piece of metal (the ejector star) that nestles into the back of the cylinder under the rims of the cartridges. One quick plunge of the rod causes the star to push all the casings out of the cylinder at the same time. When the spring-loaded rod is released, it draws the star back into position. Speed strips or speed loader devices were developed that could allow multiple cartridges to be loaded simultaneously as well, getting the gun back into action much faster. It could be said that the development of double action made the revolver a much better defensive tool than it was in the past for a broader range of experience levels in shooters.
For the double-action semi-automatic, operations were not necessarily simplified. The safety was now changed by many double-action models into a combination decocking lever and safety. Most of these devices had to be pressed down to safely lower the hammer of the gun, then back up to deactivate the safety, a motion opposite to the safety in single action guns. Many of the levers were mounted on the slide, which could hurt a shooter’s hand if he or she used an overhand motion to run the slide manually and/or be inadvertently moved out of position. A major manufacturer of this type of gun, Sig Sauer, did away with the safety in favor of just a decocking lever with the mindset that the heavy trigger of the decocked gun would do as well for safety as that of a double-action revolver. This, too, allowed for the decocker to be mounted on the frame so as not to interfere with a shooter’s administrative handling of the firearm.
When military and police forces began to convert to these guns, retraining of personnel accustomed to single-action guns was necessary. Part of this learning curve was coming to understand that the long heavy trigger press of the first shot out of one of these guns that safety protocols required to be carried with the hammer down would be followed by lighter subsequent shots in single-action mode. Anytime the shooter brought the gun off target, he or she would need to decock it and remember to deactivate the safety before firing again if the gun had a safety integrated into the decocking lever.
Many companies made handguns of this type, but no standardization was put into place with regard to the position or use of the decocking/safety controls. Consequently, shooters can find these guns confusing at first. Though there are many of them on the market, they have begun to fall out of favor with the advent of the next type of firearm we will discuss.
The term double action only covers a range of guns that can only be fired from double-action mode.
For revolvers, this simply means that the hammer is no longer accessible for the option of cocking it back into single-action mode. It may be shrouded within the frame of the gun or bobbed with the cocking spur removed and smoothed. This is done with the thought in mind that the gun will be easier to carry concealed without a hammer sticking out to snag on clothing or poke into the shooter’s body uncomfortably. Otherwise, it operates like a double-action revolver with an exposed, complete hammer.
For semi-automatics, it can be a hammer-fired gun with an internal hammer that is encased in the frame. For many models, however, the hammer has been replaced by a device called a striker that resembles a beefy ballpoint pen ink cartridge wrapped in heavier springs with a plunger-like piece at the back end that engages with the sear. Reciprocation of the slide draws the striker partially back under spring tension to engage the sear. The trigger then completes the action of drawing the striker back and disengaging the sear. The striker then flies forward, rather like a bolt from a crossbow, and acts as the firing pin to impact the primer of the chambered cartridge.
Striker fired guns began to come into their own in the 1980s when Glock introduced their “safe action” guns and grabbed a large portion of the military and law enforcement market. Simple, durable and reliable machines available in a variety of calibers, they quickly became the handgun choice of many government agencies worldwide. Civilian shooters, always eager to use what society’s protectors are using, began to jump onto the striker-fired bandwagon. The guns are easy to shoot, with a single 5-7 lb. trigger pull (on the average) for each shot. The frames can be made of lightweight, tough synthetic materials that resist corrosion and make the gun lighter to carry around. There are fewer external controls to poke into hands and bodies and remember to use properly. Other firearms manufacturers, envying Glock’s success, began to come out with striker fired models of their own. Now, there are a great many models as companies compete to appeal to the mass market. These guns are being refined for fit and function to appeal to as many shooting needs as possible, from competition to self-defense. They come in all sizes and calibers and can be acquired for lower prices than many traditional styles of firearms that require more machining to make.
These three basic categories described cover most of the handguns one is likely to contact, though there are some slight variations within each type. So much choice can be a bit daunting when you are contemplating finding one for yourself.
As a firearms enthusiast, I’m often asked which gun is best to start with. There is really no answer to this question. Each shooter is an individual with differing needs, physical dimensions, abilities and preferences. Before finding a gun that will fit into your life in the way you envision, it may be necessary to sample several choices. Since most of us are not in the financial position to go out and buy one of each gun we might want to try, research becomes necessary. Look for training facilities that might offer an opportunity to try different sizes and types of guns. Some public ranges offer rental counters that will rent you a gun to try if you buy the ammunition for it. Talk to people that shoot and ask questions about what they look for in a firearm. Most enthusiasts are very willing to share what they know and how they made their choices.
Reading and conversing about guns is good but it won’t give you the whole picture. As with any tool you pick up in your hands and use, what works best for you may not be what your friend likes. You have to feel the use of it to know if it’s the right tool for you. Take your time, get some experiences to compare and keep in mind that there is no perfect gun. Find one that will work for you, for the task you have in mind, and that you will be willing to expend the effort to become proficient with. So many choices are available because there are so many niches to fill with these tools. This is a good thing!