By Mike Keleher
My friend, revered Kansas Law Dog Billy Miller, wondered if I could put a few words down in print about perceived negativity among the pistol shooting crowd towards the Double Action/Single Action trigger systems in light of current trend for Glock-like Striker Fired systems in every new firearm coming on to the market. Yet there are millions of the DA/SA pistols in holsters and still in use by police, military, private owners and IDPA and USPSA competitions.
I remain a huge fan of the DA/SA system my agency began issuing around 1990. Consider, until that point, we were restricted to .38 Special five or six shot revolvers with long heavy double action pull or you could cock the hammer into single action. Law enforcement did not teach their people to thumb that hammer back to get to the light single action pull for one reason-safety. You could slip during a hammer cock, and it was thought running around with that hammer back was “unsafe” if it was jostled, and at the end of the day you had to un-cock the hammer generally down on top of a live round. There was of course no external safety on a revolver frame. The revolver was carried in a “safe” manner- hammer down and a single pull of the double action would revolve the cylinder, cycle the hammer back and release it forward. Seems like a lot of movement to fire a single round. Jerry Miculek has several world records speed shooting revolvers but for the rest of us it was still fairly slow to fire quickly and reloads were slow, slow, slow compared to a one second reload on a semi-auto pistol.
(I remember in the late 1980’s getting some revolver “6-Second Speed Loaders”…whee. Remember kids when the question comes up “How long do I have to reload?” the answer is always “The rest of your life.” Gee thanks Uncle Mike. You are welcome kids.)
The 1980’s and 1990’s saw bad guys carrying high capacity guns which left police officers at quite a disadvantage and despite revolvers being ever so dependable, we were delighted to move on to semi-auto pistols.
Semi-auto pistols go way back to the 1890’s- even further back than either Billy or I do! Early successes with the Maxim Toggle Lock system seen in the Luger and C-96 “Broomhandle Mauser” quickly ran up against John M. Browning’s M1911 single action locked breech design which was followed up with his single action double stack magazine Hi-Power introduced in 1922. The single action pistols were combat guns-rugged and dependable with an external safety. The trigger pull was short and light compared to revolvers of the last century. Walther produced the first combination Double Action/Single Action semi-automatic pistol in 1939, the 9mm P-38, which was introduced to replace the more expensive and harder to maintain Luger pistols.
The Walther P-38 was issued with a Double Action followed by Single Action system where pulling the double action trigger and causing the gun to fire- cycled the slide and hammer and left the hammer back for any follow up shots with a light single action pull. This system was very safe, dependable and remains in many modern pistols.
CZ introduced their iconic DA/SA CZ-75 in 1975 with a DA/SA action. Years later decocker and single action versions emerged. If you don’t know the CZ-75 pistol and its progeny you should look at them seriously next time you are in the market for a high-quality pistol which is very highly regarded in the rest of the world and in world competition shooting. Beretta’s iconic Model 92 in DA/SA showed up in 1975 and was later America’s military pistol for just over three decades from 1985 to 2017 while configured in a DA/SA trigger system. Say what you wish about the large Beretta, but military testing selected it over every other submitted pistol and it replaced the venerable Colt 1911.
Gaston Glock brought forth his “Striker Fired Safe Action” G17 in 1982 and set the pistol and revolver world on its collective head. Introduced into the U.S. in 1986, the high capacity, polymer framed pistols with an advertised 5.5 pound consistent trigger pull were a marvel. The trigger pull was as light as most single action pistols and revolvers (although many factory produced Glocks have actual measured trigger weights come in closer to 8 lbs.) The demonstrated Glock durability along with the light weight and high magazine capacity were a huge hit with U.S. law enforcement and with military contracts as well as with the public. The Glock company had an aggressive sales force in the law enforcement community and at one point had somewhere over 80% of the police forces in America carrying Glocks. The public followed along and smaller versions continue to be some of the best-selling pistols on the market. Production numbers are hard to find, but up to 35 million of these pistols may have been sold worldwide. The internal safeties and an external trigger shoe depression safety were a whole new set of innovative features.
Sig Sauer produced their Browning influenced .45 ACP DA/SA P220 to the market which evolved into the 9mm single stack P225 and then the 15 shot 9mm Sig P226 in 1983, and then the P228 and .40 P229 and some other odd variants-all in the DA/SA version which was expensive, but considered to the be the gold standard. Sig later brought out a Double Action Only type system called the DAK-which took a very good pistol back to a revolver type long, heavier trigger pull apparently in search of something “safer.” I was not a fan of the DAK, having grown up with revolvers before moving to the DA/SA systems and Single Action pistols.
Revolver shooters trained pretty easily to the DAK or DAO triggers since they knew the trigger had to be fully manipulated and fully released with each shot like a revolver. There was no speed shooting-a weird fact about the DAK, is it can be staged for a follow up shot (the trigger let off slightly following a first shot), but if you don’t let the trigger fully reset between shots the resulting trigger pull is actually heavier than a “normal” pull. Seemed like an engineering solution in search of a problem.
Sig Sauer has moved on to Glock-like polymer framed Striker Fired system pistols as has Smith and Wesson, Springfield Armory and most modern manufacturers. The Sig P320 pistol was adopted by the U.S. Military in 2017 to replace the Beretta 92’s, and the Sig P365 10 and 12 round micro compact Striker Fired pistol has been the one of the bestselling small pistols in the U.S. for the last three years, outselling the wildly popular 6 shot tiny Glock G43.
Whew-thanks for all that history Mike. Now, going back to the beginning of this article, the transition with my federal agency from Ruger issued .38 Special revolvers to Sig Sauer P228 in 13 shot 9mm pistols were a great success and we street agents were thrilled. I was an instructor and taught old and new students this DA/SA system with very few agents electing to retain their wheel guns. Old timers who grew up on revolvers made tons of predictions about negligent discharges and failing scores would follow. It never happened. Carrying the Sig with the hammer down over a loaded chamber in DA mode was eminently safe, and the heavier first trigger pull followed by the lighter SA pull contributed to actually driving qualification scores up from the agency’s revolver scores.
There were no negligent discharges in the transition training, and subsequent to that time the only inadvertent explosions on the DA/SA Sigs are directly attributed to the operator willingly squeezing the trigger. Striker Fired Glocks have had some very public discharges caused by faulty holsters or small items wedging into the trigger guard, depressing the trigger safety and initiating an unplanned for shot. The initial run of Striker Fired Sig P320’s could discharge if dropped at a certain angle onto their nose on a hard surface (redesign and factory recall remedied this situation.) Not so with the DA/SA type pistols. They are a very safe system from their inception.
I have always believed the Sig Sauer P220, P226, P228 and P229 are the best law enforcement pistols on the market. This has been observed in sales to the FBI, NCIS, Secret Service, Department of Defense, Homeland Security, Federal Air Marshals, Texas Rangers and Navy SEALS. A large part of this belief is interrelated with their accuracy, durability and record for safety as well as a small last-ditch option available via that external hammer. In the event a round fails to fire (for what ever reason) the DA/SA pistol trigger can be pulled again and it will cycle the hammer and make a second strike on the faulty round. It is a very small thing, but if you have a bad round you will have a second chance to save your life. Consider there is no second-strike option in a Safe-Action or Striker Fired pistol. Once the energy is released in a trigger pull the striker cannot be reactivated unless the slide is retracted fully and “re-cocks” the system.
I can certainly admit I, and most shooters, enjoy the perceived ease of a consistent light trigger pull of the single action pistols and the striker fired pistols. There is no “transition” shot from DA long trigger pull to SA light weight trigger pull, but the two-tiered system is hardly a detriment for the average shooter. It just needs to practiced just like any other trigger system needs to be practiced.
Trigger pull can and will ruin the most perfect shot from any firearm. Think of it this way, once a gun is loaded and pointed at the target with the sights aligned, the only thing that can ruin a perfect shot is the way the trigger is pulled. Even if the sights are not perfectly aligned, or if you have a brief “flash sight picture” a good modern bullet should still fly pretty good if it is launched by a smooth press of the trigger. You can mess all that up by yanking, jerking or slapping the trigger.
I had to hard knuckles/brain train some of my Special Agent students they could not just throw away their first Sig 228 double action 12 lb triggered shot just to get to the good stuff-the light weight 5 lb single action follow up shot. The first shot is the good stuff. You have to get it embedded into your brain and muscle memory the first shot is your best and perhaps only shot. You may never have another. You have to make it accurate and on target. Most gunfights are won by the first shooter to make a center hit no matter how many rounds are fired. You can’t miss fast enough to win.
The first cold barrel double action shot, when smoothly pressed from front to back is as accurate as any other shot ever fired. Now, the longer/heavier pull can provide you with the opportunity to do bad things along the way like yanking or jerking the trigger or clasping all of your fingers-but that is on you the shooter, and your finger needs to be trained right along with your brain. Good shooting has a pretty good amount of thinking built in, but you have room up there for the pattern and double action sequence in your cranky old brain-I promise. Delete a few of the baby goat, kitten and Corona virus meme’s you have in short term memory since the lock down started and Viola’- you have several Gigabytes of grey matter freed up.
My brother, a very experienced shooter, just bought a Sig Sauer 226 pistol with DA/SA action and made the stray remark about maybe I could teach him how to shoot it. Well, he already knows how to shoot double action revolvers so that first DA pull should not be a problem-unless you leave it in your head that it is some sort of obstacle or difficult problem. Don’t leave that training scar in there. Look forward to making a smooth first trigger pull.
There are a couple of techniques that help speed up the DA/SA triggers. The first technique is to get the trigger/hammer moving while coming on to the target instead of waiting until the gun is at full extension and then initiating the trigger pull. This of course needs to be practiced at half speed and MUST be done while the muzzle is pointing downrange in a safe manner. I usually draw the pistol and meet my off hand to establish the two-hand grip in the high center of my chest and then push outward towards the target (from my heart to the heart of the target.) You can start rolling the trigger while extending straight out to the target. When the gun arrives at partial or full extension you continue the trigger press while aligning the sights and break the shot.
As you get to know the DA trigger you will get more confidence in this technique and learn you can break the shot or choose to stop the trigger along the way. Rolling the trigger is as fast a trigger technique as any other pistol since the end point is the same-when your gun arrives on target you make it go bang.
Now the second speed technique kicks in once the DA trigger pull has been completed. Pow, the firearm discharges, then the slide cycles and leaves the hammer back ready for a Single Action pull. Once the trigger has been pressed, most of us let off the trigger and let it swing back out and reset itself at full extension. With the DA/SA trigger system, you don’t have to let the trigger all the way out-in fact, you can reset the trigger by letting it out by only about a quarter of an inch and then gently squeezing the trigger back into the sear tension but holding off before breaking a second shot. This is known as taking up the slack during a trigger reset. Done correctly, you now have a very minor amount of movement left to trigger a follow up shot, and keeping movement to a minimum helps all of us from making trigger pull mistakes. (Resetting and taking up the slack for a follow up shot also works with single action semi auto pistols and striker fired Glock like pistols.)
One of the great modern safety features added to semi-auto pistols has been the de-cocker lever on exposed hammer guns like Sigs, Berettas, S+W and Rugers. Once the hammer is back on a DA/SA pistol NEVER manually lower the hammer if a decocking lever is present. The decocker is pressed down and ensures a safety bar exists between the hammer and firing pin and lowers the hammer in a safe manner over live chambered rounds. Don’t think you are going to lower the cocked hammer on a loaded chamber gun by simply riding it down with your thumb and pulling the trigger to release the hammer slowly. This is ultra-hazardous behavior. I am fairly emphatic about this, since I was nearly shot last summer at a major competition when a range “safety officer” for no apparent reason decided to make a loaded pistol safe by pulling the trigger and riding the hammer down with his finger on a loaded weapon while pointing it in an unsafe direction where I had been standing moments before. He shot an innocent golf cart that day.
If you have an exposed hammer pistol and absolutely have to lower the hammer, best case is to take the ammo out first and clear the chamber. If you just have to lower the hammer while loaded, stick a fingertip in the hammer channel, and lower the hammer onto your pinched finger without metal to metal contact.
As a federal agent I carried a DA/SA Sig Sauer pistol every day for over 25 years. Big ones, little ones and in three different calibers, but still the DA/SA trigger system. I found it to be ultimately dependable and remains my go to war/combat/defense muscle memory favorite. I also shot my duty Sig 226 in numerous types of competitions to include the USPSA Production Nationals and World Police and Fire Games. I found no faults with it- ever. To this day, if I pull one out of my 226’s or the other variants from a safe, my hands naturally mold to the grip and my finger is more than ready for that first double action pull. It’s a no brainer to me.