What's The Difference Between Different Types Of Trigger Actions?

For new shooters, trigger actions and mechanisms can be confusing descriptions attached to semi-automatics and revolvers (and other genres of firearms, but we'll stick with handguns for now).

In a basic comparison, think of a trigger action as turning the keys in a car's ignition — it's an intentional mechanical interaction that enacts a series of events.

There are different types of trigger actions, each causing the hammer or striker to contact the primer. Understanding the differences between types of trigger actions can help decide a handgun purchase.

This is a brief introduction to the most popular trigger actions, and how each will affect the shooter.

The Common Types Of Trigger Actions And How They Work

trigger actions

To understand a trigger action, first know that a trigger serves a basic purpose: causing a hammer or striker to impact the primer.

How it does so is where different actions and types of mechanisms are categorized.

A handgun is a sequence of interconnected, internal events that result in the primer igniting the propellant that ejects a bullet from its cartridge, down the grooved bore and along its trajectory until impact.

The trigger will release the hammer/striker, cock and release the hammer/striker, cycle a revolver's cylinder, deactivate passive safeties and cause other functions to occur.

The types of trigger mechanisms will dictate how much force (for those who are new, this is trigger weight) must be applied to a trigger before it actuates the first shot and subsequent shots, and whether the shooter or the trigger will cock the hammer/striker.

Note that semi-automatic pistols and revolvers have different form factors and therefore different mechanical actions.

  • Single action: Mechanically, it's a simple method. The trigger releases the hammer. A revolver will require the hammer to be cocked with each shot. A semi-automatic will require the first shot to be manually cocked, but afterward the slide will cycle backward with enough momentum to eject the spent cartridge and cock the hammer/striker for the next shot.
  • Double action: The trigger completes two actions — it sets the hammer and then releases the sear to make contact with the primer.
    The trigger weight is heavier and the pull is longer, which is seen as a safety function to reduce negligent discharge. Some find that a double action trigger improves accuracy because of its consistent trigger pull in each shot.
    The hammer rests in the down position, due to internal design, and is controlled by engaging the trigger. A double action only revolver may have the hammer covered or machined off, which will reduce snagging and benefit concealed carry. Double action only firearms may only fire in double action, whereas some double actions have the hammer exposed and it may be manually cocked for a single action shot.

  • Double action/single action: The first trigger pull is a long and heavy double action shot, because it sets the hammer and trips the sear, but the subsequent shots are single action with a lighter weight and shorter pull because the action of the slide cocks the hammer. Because the hammer is automatically cocked for subsequent shots, there is often an included safety or a decocker lever on the handgun.

  • Striker fired: These have no exposed hammer on the slide's rear. Striker-fired handgun models (like the ever-popular Glock, but there are others like the Smith & Wesson M&P) have a long but relatively light trigger pull that increases in weight as it travels the take up stage.
    The trigger is initially half cocked, generally speaking, and after pulling the trigger a spring is fully compressed, therefore fully cocking the handgun, and releasing a striker firing pin at the break, which then launches forward to impact the primer. Afterward, the slide returns to battery and half cocks the spring once more. There are variations, however.
    There is a consistent weight in every trigger pull.

Read a more in-depth examination of hammer vs. striker fired pistols Bigfoot Gun Belts previously published: Is Striker-Fired or Hammer Fired Better for Concealed Carry?

Note that these aren't the only types. Test out different types on the range, do more research and gain familiarity before the unfortunate day when you have to rely on your right to bear arms for self-defense.

Everyone has opinions about the different types of actions and their perceived benefits. Choose the type of action that suits your needs best.

There is no perfect firearm (despite contrary opinions on that). There are only handguns that function. That being said, a perfect firearm is one that serves all the needs of the individual carrier and functions in a way that benefits their intended use.

Why Does Knowing The Trigger Action Matter?

That question will frustrate veteran gun owners, but for folks who are new to handguns in general, trigger actions might be an afterthought when strolling into a gun shop for the first time.

There are benefits to each type of trigger mechanism, as well as drawbacks. Understanding each and researching others will help cater a firearm to the individual's preferences.

Hands come in different sizes and strengths. A heavy double action trigger may be less preferable than a comparably lighter striker fired or single action pistol.

Multiple polymer striker-fired pistols come equipped only with a trigger safety.

A single action/double action semi-auto will have a heavier trigger pull for the first shot, which may be seen as a disadvantage to accuracy when the subsequent shots have a lighter pull.

But, single action/double action handguns are useful for everyday carry due to the longer initial trigger pull, which when stored may ward against negligent discharge.

Double action only revolvers with covered hammers may reduce snag if one is carrying concealed. Striker fired semi-automatics do not have external hammers, however.

Single action handguns may annoy some shooters due to cocking the hammer. Many think that's just a part of the process.

At the end of the day, does any of this matter?

Yes. All of it does, and it will all be dictated by subjective, situational factors.

But, there is at least one universal constant in handgun ownership: training with the firearm you have.

This is a brief introduction to this topic. Let others know more specifics in the comments, or check out these blogs we've published on trigger actions.

Jake Smith 

About The Author

Jake Smith (@notjakesmith) is a copywriter and photographer based in the Pacific Northwest who enjoys shooting pictures and ammunition outdoors.

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