(Originally written in 2006, this editorial was essentially rewritten and updated in 2019)
Are they all the same?
An Editorial by Mark Freburg
This was posted on our forum message board:
"I think any handgun action is OK for any shooter as long as they are thoroughly practiced in it." That is quite true as far as it goes. But let's analyze this. If we mean that one can get by with any action then I'd say sure. But there are differences, and those differences can directly affect performance. I have no doubt in my mind that some actions enhance shooting speed and shooting accuracy, and that other actions detract from shooting speed and shooting accuracy.
Now since everyone is different, we should all experiment and find the actions that work best for us, but in general, the hammer-fired DAO (double-action only, meaning the trigger both cocks the hammer and releases it to fire) auto is one of the worst actions out there, suitable mainly for under-trained individuals and gunwriters, who love the darn things. The problem however is compounded because the combination of an under-trained shooter and a harder to shoot pistol results in poor performance. I will grant an exception for tiny DAO pocket pistols which are often DAO simply because of limited room to engineer a TDA (traditional double-action, which means the trigger cocks the hammer and releases it for the first shot only, but for all subsequent shot the hammer, cocked by the recoiling slide, stays to the rear, so the trigger now only releases the hammer, resulting in a lighter pull), for greater perceived safety for a pistol carried in a pocket1.
Which brings us to another reason certain actions exist--and the DAO is the poster child of increased perceived safety. We were speaking of hammer-fired pistols in the first paragraph, but the following applies to DAO striker-fired pistols (and revolvers as well.) They are also loved by police administrators who often don't know how to shoot, nor do they understand the dynamics of law enforcement or self-defense shootings. If the pistol results in fewer negligent discharges (normally directly the result of cutting back police training hours), the police administrator is happy, regardless if the troops are now carrying a pistol that they must struggle with to shoot well. Please don't quit me here, I'm not going to say that safety is between the ears and that financially strapped police departments need to magically triple their training hours to solve police firearms training issues. Yes, proper training and lots of practice goes a long way, but reality is what it is. I'm speaking more to the private citizen here who has a much greater choice in a personal defense weapon AND in the amount of training he or she takes and the amount of practice he or she MAKES time for--oh yes, training and practice are not the same thing, yet you have control over both. Back to pistol actions.
Logically and along similar lines, certain pistols actions are quick and effective and can be shot well, but are a liability nightmare, again because of lesser-trained users. The single action (SA) pistol is the king for shooting here. Although generally our oldest design, the SA auto, especially in its finest design, the 1911-style pistol--because of the trigger design--is the easiest pistol with which to shoot fast and accurately. It is adaptable to many hand sizes large and small, and is so modular--although not necessarily in a drop-in parts manner--that it can be personalized to the very highest degree--sights, levers, safeties, grips. However, the whole concept of holding a bad guy at gunpoint is fraught with problems if using an SA pistol, because frankly modern manufacturers are clueless in this regard and routinely equip their 1911 pistols with triggers that are much lighter than they need to be both for good accurate shooting and for use as defensive handguns--especially by marginally trained and/or marginally practiced individuals. It's as if most 1911s today are offered for target shooters only when it comes to trigger pull weight, they are much too light, running around 3-4+ pounds. If the safety is offed while holding someone at gunpoint and the gun has a four-pound trigger, bad things can happen far too easily. I personally love and use the 1911 pistol, but if you feel the same, do not carry one with an ultra-light trigger, do not have it gunsmithed to be lighter, and above all, practice keeping your finger off the trigger SAFETY ON, until you are ready to shoot.
Regardless of my personal preference for the 1911, I believe the best pistols for self-defense are one of two types. The TDA is one of the best because because a heavy trigger pull is required for the first shot but lighter single action pulls are available for actual gunfighting. It is choosing to make the first shot that initiates a gunfight. Prior to that you are simply being attacked, or you are about to do something stupid without provocation. That heavy, first shot with the TDA will let you know if you have half a brain that you are making an irrevocable decision. However, once you've begun shooting with a TDA, there is a training issue--decock once the shooting is over, otherwise you are holding a cocked pistol without its safety activated. The same holds true with the SA auto of course, but since the safety is part and parcel of properly handling an SA at all times, most accomplished SA users are more likely to automatically on-safe their 1911s or Hi Powers, while the typical TDA user may not have habituated himself to on-safe that TDA. He may even--stupidly in my opinion--carry it with the safety not engaged if it has one--and it should have one. With the safety engaged on a TDA you may thwart a gun snatcher should you get into a struggle over your pistol during an attack. Criminals may not know how to make your gun go bang if the safety is engaged. If you do end up losing the gun in a fight, you might be able to get away from the scene or acquire another weapon and fight back. Additionally, if you are habituated in using the safety during carry, you are more likely to decock and re-safe after an engagement, making your gun safe.
The striker-fired pistols are the next best bet after the TDA, but I think these should have medium-heavy triggers. 5-6 pounds and less are too light, especially for police--because police budgets are never fat enough to provide as much training as some officers need--as well as for private individuals who simply don't practice with their self-defense guns enough to make handling them in an emergency second nature. The Glock with the NY1 trigger is a good choice, anything lighter is dicey--or can be. Glock and similar pistols have no safety. Yes, some say the dingus on the face of the trigger is a "safety" but of course it isn't, not really. It can be so considered only in the most marginal sense, because all you have to do to disengage it is to put your finger on the trigger and pull, which is also how negligent discharges are accomplished. One might say that the dingus keeps the trigger from firing if the finger is not square on the trigger, to which one can only reply "huh?" And the dingus will not even prevent the pistol from firing should one's t-shirt unintentionally hook in the trigger guard while reholstering one's pistol. Seen it happen. Too many people in my personal opinion add aftermarket trigger parts to their Glock and other self-defense guns to lighten the triggers, wanting to make them into 1911 triggers. Hey, 1911s have thumb safeties, and I still think their triggers need to be 5lbs. plus. If you've never held a pistol on a human being and experienced the adrenalin surging through your body you should take the word of people who have and not mess with your self-defense firearms. My strongest recommendation if you like the modern polymer-frame, striker-fired pistols is find one that fits your hand and then get a version with a thumb safety. Then practice with it like it's a 1911 despite its inferior trigger.
1 Regardless of justifying DAO actions for pocket pistols, how do you justify carrying a pistol small enough to fit in your pocket? It likely is too small to shoot well and is also likely too small a caliber to be effective.