Different Types of Handgun Triggers and Why They Matter

Trigger Banner Photo

Anyone who begins to learn how to handle a handgun will quickly find that there are a multitude of issues to be tackled. Learning how to shoot well takes lots of practice and involves mastering many things such as:

  1. Stance
  2. Body discipline
  3. Breathing
  4. Concentration. 

It takes repetition and good technique to create the muscle memory which allows you to make good shots repeatedly.

One of the more important issues is mastering the trigger.

There are several different types of trigger systems used in handguns and, though a comprehensive review of all of them is beyond the scope of this article, it is important that the handgun enthusiast have a basic appreciation of the main advantages and disadvantages each  system offers.

Trigger Systems For Semi-Auto Handguns

Trigger systems for semi-auto handguns can be broadly grouped into four basic categories:

  • Single Action (SA),
  • Double Action (DA),
  • Double/Single action (DA/SA), and
  • Striker-fired.

Double Action and Single Action are terms originally used to describe the different types of triggers in Revolvers and were later applied to the semi-auto pistol.

Single Action

Single action pistols usually have an exposed hammer which needs to be cocked before it can be fired. This is accomplished either manually pulling the hammer back into the cocked position, or chambering a round by racking the slide, which will also pull the hammer back.

Squeezing the trigger then releases the cocked hammer to fire the round, which causes the gun to cycle and chamber the next round, ready, once again, to fire. The trigger pull on SA guns is usually fairly short and crisp.

The M1911 Example

Colt M1911 Hand Gun

Colt M1911 with single action trigger. Flickr Commons Image via Rustmester. (View Larger Image)

The M1911, (the sidearm that officers carried into WWII), is the original example of the SA trigger in a semi-auto. It has an exposed hammer and an external safety. It is designed to be carried with a round in the chamber and the safety on, often referred to as “cocked and locked”.

Firing the weapon requires the operator to release the safety before pulling the trigger. Once the hammer is cocked it basically cannot be safely de-cocked except by firing the rounds until the magazine is empty.

A closer look at the M1911 trigger. Flickr Commons Image via Miso Beno. (View Larger Image)

The 1911 design is considered by many to be a classic, having stood the test of time.

After all, this was the choice of the military for the better part of the 20th century. But those who choose to carry this type of gun must train to it. You must learn to draw the weapon, release the safety and fire the gun, performing the sequence flawlessly, and then returning the safety to the on position. You must also become comfortable with the idea of carrying a loaded weapon with the hammer cocked.

Double Action

Double-Action (DA) triggers basically work, as the name suggests, in two phases.

These guns begin the firing sequence with the trigger in the neutral position. In the first phase as the trigger is pulled back the hammer is cocked and then, in the second phase, as the trigger continues to be pulled the hammer is released, firing the round. The DA trigger is usually a long pull, heavier than SA, and has a long reset position.

Every shot fired requires the same long pull. As a rule, they do not have an external safety, (though they often have an internal one), so that, unlike the 1911, the weapon can simply be un-holstered and fired.

They rely on the fact that the trigger pull is long and heavy to make a negligent discharge unlikely.

Double Action/Single Action

A Double-Action/Single-Action (DA/SA) is a kind of hybrid.

These guns have triggers that function as a DA trigger on the first round. As the slide cycles the ensuing round, the hammer is cocked, and the trigger now functions in SA mode. Every round after that continues to be SA. These guns have a de-cocker lever, usually either on the side of the slide or the side of the frame. This allows the hammer to be de-cocked, even when there is a round in the chamber.

In this manner the gun can be carried loaded, but with the hammer down and the added safety of a DA trigger, making negligent discharges less likely.

The main criticism of DA/SA triggers is that the operator has to get used to two different pulls; the initial heavier DA pull, and the subsequent lighter SA.

Striker-Fired

Striker-fired guns do away with the hammer. Instead they have an internal “striker” pin which fires the round. Many gun manufacturers use this system (or some variant), but possibly the most popular are Glock pistols, which have their so-called “safe action” triggers. These triggers are described as modified DA, but their function is more like a SA. The trigger has a light “take-up” stage followed by a clean break. They have no external safety.

Striker-fired guns have a rather distinct feel, and people either love them or hate them.

The main advantage of these guns is that the trigger is the same every time, and the system is fairly simple and reliable. A novice shooter can easily pick up the gun and learn to shoot it in a relatively short time.

However these guns can be prone to negligent discharges if the operator has not been properly trained. This usually happens when the gun is being removed from the holster and the operator carelessly places a finger on the trigger, discharging the gun as it is pulled out of the holster.

Lastly, having said all about triggers, know that they can be modified. Factory triggers can be replaced with an after-market product. Also, a qualified gunsmith can often modify a trigger to make it smoother and lighter. Any modifications should be performed only by a qualified gunsmith.

Choosing a System

What is the best system?

The answer, of course, is up to the individual. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages, and it is up to the individual to decide which trigger will work best for them. It takes trying out different types of handguns, experiencing their action, how they feel, as well as considering what your needs are and how you are going to use the weapon.

Many of those who are in Law Enforcement choose Striker-Fired handguns.

The Glock is probably the most widely used handgun by Police departments in the country, and for good reason. As mentioned, they are simple, yet extremely reliable. When you are in a position where your life may depend on you being able to get shots on target quickly, this is the kind of weapon you want. There is no fumbling with a safety, no differing trigger pulls to learn. Simply point and shoot.

However there are risks with these guns. As mentioned previously, they are prone to negligent discharge if you are not extremely careful. Also, whenever the gun cycles and chambers another round, the striker-pin is cocked and there is no way to “de-cock” it. The only way to clear the chamber is to fire the gun until it is empty, or to drop the magazine and rack the slide, ejecting the un-fired round.

1911’s have an external safety, and this certainly provides a layer of protection. But the safety can be disengaged while still in the holster, and mastering the safety, while not difficult in and of itself, is a must for those who use the SA handgun. 

I am not in Law Enforcement; if I were my choices would probably be different. But for my situation, I have settled on the DA/SA trigger; I feel that this is the safest type, whether I am at home or at the range. I like having the ability to de-cock the hammer. This allows me to carry the pistol with a round in the chamber, hammer down, a full DA trigger pull required to fire the weapon. Negligent discharge is very unlikely.

When you do decide on what system will work best for you, and you purchase a gun, work to become as familiar with the trigger as you can. Learn how it feels, how much pressure it requires, what the break point feels like, where the re-set position is.   You should be able to know by memory how the trigger feels. Becoming familiar with the trigger will make the rest of the process of learning to shoot well that much easier.

This is where dry-fire practice becomes invaluable.

Conclusion

I have found triggers to be somewhat individual, each having a personality of its own.

Often it takes time for me to decide whether a trigger on a gun is to my liking or not. I have had some that I disliked the first time I shot it but, as I shot the gun more and more, my opinion changed.

Some of those I disliked at first, ended up becoming a favorite. The take-home lesson here is, take your time in evaluating a gun. Don’t be too quick to write one off – and don’t hesitate to move on if you decide its not for you. But when you do decide on a handgun, take lots of time to learn the trigger inside and out.

You will find that it will help you become much more familiar, and comfortable, with the pistol, and lead to better shooting.

Flickr Commons Image via ARTS Fox1Fire

Anyone who begins to learn how to handle a handgun will quickly find that there
are a multitude of issues to be tackled. Learning how to shoot well takes lots of practice
and involves mastering many things such as stance, body discipline, breathing, and
concentration. It takes repetition and good technique to create the muscle memory which
allows you to make good shots repeatedly.
One of the more important issues is mastering the trigger. There are several
different types of trigger systems used in handguns and, though a comprehensive review
of all of them is beyond the scope of this article, it is important that the handgun
enthusiast have a basic appreciation of the main advantages and disadvantages each
system offers.
Trigger systems for semi-auto handguns can be broadly grouped into four basic
categories; Single Action (SA), Double Action (DA), Double/Single action (DA/SA), and
Striker-fired. Double Action and Single Action are terms originally used to describe the
different types of triggers in Revolvers and were later applied to the semi-auto pistol.
Single Action –
Single action pistols usually have an exposed hammer which needs to be cocked
before it can be fired. This is accomplished either manually pulling the hammer back into
the cocked position, or chambering a round by racking the slide, which will also pull the
hammer back. Squeezing the trigger then releases the cocked hammer to fire the round,
which causes the gun to cycle and chamber the next round, ready, once again, to fire. The
trigger pull on SA guns is usually fairly short and crisp.
The M1911, (the sidearm that officers carried into WWII), is the original example
of the SA trigger in a semi-auto. It has an exposed hammer and an external safety. It is
designed to be carried with a round in the chamber and the safety on, often referred to as
“cocked and locked”. Firing the weapon requires the operator to release the safety before
pulling the trigger. Once the hammer is cocked it basically cannot be safely de-cocked
except by firing the rounds until the magazine is empty.
The 1911 design is considered by many to be a classic, having stood the test of
time. After all, this was the choice of the military for the better part of the 20 th century.
But those who choose to carry this type of gun must train to it. You must learn to draw
the weapon, release the safety and fire the gun, performing the sequence flawlessly, and
then returning the safety to the on position. You must also become comfortable with the
idea of carrying a loaded weapon with the hammer cocked.
Double Action -
Double-Action (DA) triggers basically work, as the name suggests, in two phases.
These guns begin the firing sequence with the trigger in the neutral position. In the first

phase as the trigger is pulled back the hammer is cocked and then, in the second phase, as
the trigger continues to be pulled the hammer is released, firing the round. The DA
trigger is usually a long pull, heavier than SA, and has a long reset position. Every shot
fired requires the same long pull. As a rule, they do not have an external safety, (though
they often have an internal one), so that, unlike the 1911, the weapon can simply be un-
holstered and fired. They rely on the fact that the trigger pull is long and heavy to make a
negligent discharge unlikely.
Double Action/Single Action -
A Double-Action/Single- Action (DA/SA) is a kind of hybrid. These guns have
triggers that function as a DA trigger on the first round. As the slide cycles the ensuing
round, the hammer is cocked, and the trigger now functions in SA mode. Every round
after that continues to be SA. These guns have a de-cocker lever, usually either on the
side of the slide or the side of the frame. This allows the hammer to be de-cocked, even
when there is a round in the chamber. In this manner the gun can be carried loaded, but
with the hammer down and the added safety of a DA trigger, making negligent
discharges less likely.
The main criticism of DA/SA triggers is that the operator has to get used to two
different pulls; the initial heavier DA pull, and the subsequent lighter SA.
Striker-Fired -
Striker-fired guns do away with the hammer. Instead they have an internal
“striker” pin which fires the round. Many gun manufacturers use this system (or some
variant), but possibly the most popular are Glock pistols, which have their so-called “safe
action” triggers. These triggers are described as modified DA, but their function is more
like a SA. The trigger has a light “take-up” stage followed by a clean break. They have
no external safety.
Striker-fired guns have a rather distinct feel, and people either love them or hate
them. The main advantage of these guns is that the trigger is the same every time, and the
system is fairly simple and reliable. A novice shooter can easily pick up the gun and learn
to shoot it in a relatively short time.
However these guns can be prone to negligent discharges if the operator has not
been properly trained. This usually happens when the gun is being removed from the
holster and the operator carelessly places a finger on the trigger, discharging the gun as it
is pulled out of the holster.
Lastly, having said all about triggers, know that they can be modified. Factory
triggers can be replaced with an after-market product. Also, qualified a gunsmith can
often modify a trigger to make it smoother and lighter. Any modifications should be
performed only by a qualified gunsmith.

Choosing a system -
So what is the best system? The answer, of course, is up to the individual. Each
system has its advantages and disadvantages, and it is up to the individual to decide
which trigger will work best for them. It takes trying out different types of handguns,
experiencing their action, how they feel, as well as considering what your needs are and
how you are going to use the weapon.
Many of those who are in Law Enforcement choose Striker-Fired handguns. The
Glock is probably the most widely used handgun by Police departments in the country,
and for good reason. As mentioned, they are simple, yet extremely reliable. When you are
in a position where your life may depend on you being able to get shots on target quickly,
this is the kind of weapon you want. There is no fumbling with a safety, no differing
trigger pulls to learn. Simply point and shoot.
However there are risks with these guns. As mentioned previously, they are prone
to negligent discharge if you are not extremely careful. Also, whenever the gun cycles
and chambers another round, the striker-pin is cocked and there is no way to “de-cock” it.
The only way to clear the chamber is to fire the gun until it is empty, or to drop the
magazine and rack the slide, ejecting the un-fired round.
1911’s have an external safety, and this certainly provides a layer of protection.
But the safety can be disengaged while still in the holster, and mastering the safety, while
not difficult in and of itself, is a must for those who use the SA handgun.
I am not in Law Enforcement; if I were my choices would probably be different.
But for my situation, I have settled on the DA/SA trigger; I feel that this is the safest type,
whether I am at home or at the range. I like having the ability to de-cock the hammer.
This allows me to carry the pistol with a round in the chamber, hammer down, a full DA
trigger pull required to fire the weapon. Negligent discharge is very unlikely.
When you do decide on what system will work best for you, and you purchase a
gun, work to become as familiar with the trigger as you can. Learn how it feels, how
much pressure it requires, what the break point feels like, where the re-set position is.
You should be able to know by memory how the trigger feels. Becoming familiar with
the trigger will make the rest of the process of learning to shoot well that much easier.
This is where dry-fire practice becomes invaluable.
I have found triggers to be somewhat individual, each having a personality of its
own. Often it takes time for me to decide whether a trigger on a gun is to my liking or
not. I have had some that I disliked the first time I shot it but, as I shot the gun more and
more, my opinion changed. Some of those I disliked at first, ended up becoming a
favorite. The take-home lesson here is, take your time in evaluating a gun. Don’t be too
quick to write one off – and don’t hesitate to move on if you decide its not for you. But
when you do decide on a handgun, take lots of time to learn the trigger inside and out.

You will find that it will help you become much more familiar, and comfortable, with the
pistol, and lead to better shooting.