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Defensive Pistol Types

If you are interested in a semi-automatic pistol for self-defense and have looked into them at all, you've no doubt realized the choices are many.  Without some kind of handle on the types available making a rational decision is difficult.  Let's put some labels on them so we can make some sense out of the options and talk about some of the good and bad points of each type.  The current pistol offerings generally considered for defensive use can be broken down into the following four types, with one having two sub-types.  Not all pistols will fit these categories but most will, and understanding these four types will help you understand how they shoot, which is the important thing.

  • 1) Traditional Double-action (TDA)  The first shot is fired with a long trigger pull that cocks and drops the hammer, but all subsequent shots require only a short light trigger pull as the hammer stays cocked after the first shot.  Examples include most Berettas, S&W 3rd Generation pistols, the HK USP, and Ruger P-series autos.


  • 2) Double-action Only (DAO)  These are fired with a long pull of the trigger for every shot that both cocks and drops the hammer.  These can be further categorized as:
  • 1st Generation DAO  Examples include most of the previously listed TDAs as they were also offered with the SA trigger option removed and only the long, 10-13lb. DA trigger pull for every shot. 
  • 2nd Gen DAO  Examples: many of the previous TDAs were later upgraded to have a lighter trigger pull, plus other, all-new pistols subsequently appeared that have 6-7lb. DA triggers--such as the Kahrs and the SIG P250.  These are clearly superior to the first generation DAOs--I'll explain why later--and thus I consider them apart from the first gen pistols.

  • 3) Single-action (SA)   These must be carried with the hammer cocked and safety applied, and are fired with a short, light trigger pull that is consistent for each shot.  Examples: 1911, Hi-Power, etc.  Note that some pistols like the CZ75 and EAA Witness line have DA triggers but safeties allowing this "cocked & locked" carry, and so don't fit cleanly into either category.  No matter--just know how they work.


  • 4) SFP (striker-fired pistols)  Some are technically DA, some SA, but as they have internal strikers instead of hammers there is no appearance of being cocked or uncocked, and in operation they all have a consistent, short-stroke trigger pull for each shot like an SA pistol.  Some have safeties, some do not.  Examples: Glock, Springfield XD, Smith & Wesson M&P.  These also tend to set themselves apart from other models in having plastic frames, though other pistols today are also made of plastic and this is not an identifier of the breed.



Please do remember that while categorizing these pistols in a technical sense is something we can do, it doesn't serve the best interests of potential purchasers and end-users.  The best approach is to look at these pistols in terms of how they shoot and how they work for us.  Pistols that may be difficult to categorize should always be considered based on how they feel in operation and how they work in repeat fire, including what it takes to keep them firing.

First Generation DAO

Of all these main categories I believe the 1st Gen DAO is dead, certainly obsolescent of not obsolete.  With the availability of 2nd Gen DAOs there is only one good reason to buy a 1st gen DAO, and that is because you run across one used that is in good condition that has a trigger pull you can live with.  Why?  Because these early DAOs are hard to shoot well, especially beyond close-range.  People called them "high capacity revolvers."  Nonsense.  The 2nd gen versions are much better in that regard, but the shape of those 1st gen DAOs--nothing like a revolver--and the fact that they were almost all full-size or "compact" pistols (still pretty big by 2009 standards), meant that yanking a 12 pound trigger for every shot made them darn difficult to shoot accurately at any distance.  Do you wonder why we have single-action triggers?  Or light triggers in general?  Because they are easier to shoot well!  DAOs are simple, but sometimes simple isn't the best choice.

I worked in gun shops during the hey-day of 1st Gen DAOs in the early 90s and tried them all as rental guns on our ranges.  In my opinion the best of the bunch was the Smith & Wesson 3rd Generation auto (four digit model numbers).  I actually owned one of these and shot it in combat matches because I was curious about them and wanted to see how it performed under trial.  All the "experts" of the day were drooling over DAOs as the answer to every unasked question.  The S&W DAO trigger stroke was actually shorter than the normal DA stroke in a TDA because the hammer was slightly offset further back for safety reasons, moving the trigger back as well.  Whether it was smoother is a subjective matter but it seemed to be to me.  That doesn't mean I like them--I believe the DAO is the worst choice among the various trigger options, but look at it this way--it's like asking what is the worst pizza topping, eh?  I'm not asking which is worse, pizza or garbage.  If you have looked at your options and tried the different types and have decided that DAO is for you, and if you have a limited budget (who doesn't?), and you find a good solid 1st gen DAO, then I'm telling you that a Third Generation S&W with a 1st gen DAO trigger is a good pistol to consider.  I'll tell you what I don't like, but don't confuse my likes and dislikes with me telling you what you should like or not like--only you can can make that call.

By the way, don't get too wrapped up in my nomenclature here. If you walk into a gun shop and start talking about first versus second generation DAO triggers, only the older salesmen with a real understanding of how the market has progressed will "get it." The younger folks who are most likely manning the gun counters will look at you with a stupid look on their face, or they will look at you like you are stupid--most likely the latter because they have not read about this in their subscription to "Gun Expert Magazine" and so it can't be anything important or even correct.  I am putting a distinction on first and second generation DAO triggers because you need to understand that they affect your ability to shoot the gun.  Pulling a 12lb. trigger for each shot versus pulling a 7lb. trigger for each shot is significant.  If you haven't tried it please take my word for it for now, and try it at your earliest opportunity.  Control, practical accuracy, and shooting speed are all affected, and the less experienced and practiced the shooter the more affected he or she will be!

Because those over-ten-pound triggers for every shot were just a bear to wrestle with for every shot you take, any of the other choices are a better bet. Let's look at them.

Second Generation DAO

In many ways these are the most popular with the largest growing segment of the defensive pistol buying group, those folks who have never owned a defensive pistol, perhaps never any handgun at all.  A wide variety of makers offer pistols in this category, and they are categorized by lighter pulls than their older brothers, normally in the six to seven pound range. They are normally hammer-fired, as opposed to the striker-fired pistols I'll discuss below.  The biggest difference between these and the SFPs is that these guns generally have a longer trigger stroke.  Both guns are generally slick-sided, which means they have no external levers to manipulate, no safeties to apply. They need none as they are modern firearms with mechanical designs that prevent them from firing if dropped, like most modern pistols, and as long as you don't pull the trigger they won't fire.  Additionally, the long trigger stroke helps prevent a negligent discharge, or so the thinking goes.

While 2nd gen DAOS are still not revolvers, and square pistols will never roll in the hand like a double-action revolver, the lighter trigger pulls make these pistols a lot easier to shoot than the 12lb. trigger pulls the first gen DAOs possessed. The biggest drawback to the DAOs is still the fact that with the long trigger stroke you have a long trigger resetFor those not up on the terminology, trigger reset is simply how much return distance the trigger must move forward before it can once again be pressed to the rear for another shot. 

 Speed of firing is tied completely to trigger reset. 

Speed is achieved by only allowing the trigger to move forward the minimum amount then again pressing it to the rear.  It may not seem like much if you are new to shooting but it is so important.  The champions of trigger reset are the 1911 and some of the striker-fired pistols like the Glock.  No DA or DAO pistol is very good in this regard.  Does it really truly matter that much?  It matters very much to folks who are really into shooting and who really want to do be able to do their absolute best shooting.  It just depends on how serious you are about defensive shooting and your own abilities in this arena.  But make no mistake, in an area where so much will be out of your control if and when you ever have to shoot your gun for real, all those things that you can control via the type of gun you chose to have on your person will mean very much indeed.  Beginners think about things like the size and weight of the gun. "Will it impact my mode of dress, will it be uncomfortable?"  I think we should consider instead "will it be something I can carry and use to extricate myself from a terrible situation?" Any little thing that makes a gun shoot faster and easier makes us more likely to win the day.  I've trying to word this carefully because I don't want to BS you--there is way too much BS in the firearms world and I hate it.  I don't want to overplay things to the extent that I come off like Joe Gun Expert--which I'm not--making a big deal about things that just don't that much matter.  But I want to underline things that do matter.  You wouldn't be reading this article if you didn't understand that the type of trigger action you chose in a defensive pistol weren't important, and for good reasons.  One of the main differences in trigger types is trigger reset, and DAs of any sort suffer in that regard.  Enough said.

Traditional Double-action

The TDA's luster is starting to fade for one reason--the clear and obvious reality that a consistent trigger pull from first shot to last is always going to be the easiest pistol to shoot.  That said, the TDA rode high as the action of choice from the 70s through the turn of the century.  Cops and armed private citizens alike didn't trust "unreliable" SA autos--the "unreliability" thing being pretty true in those days but not today--and their light triggers were considered a liability.  No other consistent-trigger pistol actions existed.  1911 guys cursed the TDAs and I mean cursed them.  The gunzines of the day ripped the S&Ws and SIGs and Berettas for their long trigger pulls and especially for their "impossible" to handle transition from the long heavy trigger pull for the first shot to the lighter trigger pull for subsequent shots.  It was crap of course.  

Oh, the TDA was not for everyone.  But when are people going to learn that NO PISTOL ACTION OR STYLE IS FOR EVERYONE?  But every pistol action is suitable for someone.  The key is finding the right type for you.  In truth the TDA was workable if approached properly, but like most things, shooters used to doing things one way tried to handle TDA triggers like SA triggers, which failed miserably.  I talk about how to shoot a DA trigger without a lot of hassle in another article here in the forum if you are interested--while the TDA may not be for everyone it may be just right for you.   It does have too long a trigger reset, but it is a single-action after that first shot.

The TDA offers the security of a long and reasonably heavy trigger stroke that is unlikely to result in a negligent discharge without a great deal of "stupid input" from you, yet can still be fired with a simple pull of the trigger. It is a versatile design that is offered by different makers with various controls: nothing but a decocker, a decocker and safety combination, and with the decocker and safety located in either the frame or slide as you might prefer.  While no longer quite as popular as they once were the TDA pistol is still sold by several makers including SIG SAUER, Ruger and Beretta.  Our soldiers carry them on duty and there is still a good call for them.  If you are comfortable with their perception of safety--remember, safety is always between the ears, as trite as that may sound--then a good traditional double-action auto from any of the major makers is a still a fine pistol to consider.

Single-action autos

The 1911 is not the only SA pistol on the market but it is by far the most popular and while never unpopular, it has made an even greater leap in popularity in recent years.  Ironically this is in part due to the popularity of the striker-fired pistols (SFP).  People realized how much better for shooting the consistent trigger style was over-all, but many could not abide the lack of an external, mechanical safety on the Glock, the pistol that made the SFP so popular, and so reverted the 1911-style pistols.  Colt was the dominant name in 1911s for most of the last century but today Colt is a mere footnote in the game.  Springfield Armory kept the genre alive when Colt failed the consumer and Kimber single-handedly gave the 1911 the shot of adrenalin it so badly needed to become a "modern" pistol.  Now every major maker of handguns makes a 1911 style pistol and most are very true to the original blueprints.  While 1911 clones are nothing new, in years past pistols like the Llama or Star were not "real" 1911s and no parts were interchangeable with "real" 1911s.  Today many if not most of the pistols out there use parts from the same couple of suppliers.  (Very few companies make their own pistols. The only maker that I know that makes every single part in-house is Taurus of Brazil.)  With a 1911 you do in fact get what you pay for to a great extent.  Springfield offers some lower to mid-priced pistols, as does Kimber and Para, and Taurus offers a low-priced but well-equipped pistol.  You should not have problems with any of these, though I have no personal shooting experience with the Taurus or Para.  If you buy a SIG SAUER, Smith & Wesson, high-end Kimber or Springfield, or any of several other $1000 plus 1911s you can expect excellent service.  At any rate this article is not about makes and models but about action types so let's cut to the chase.  Suffice it to say that if you stay with a major maker you are not going to be disappointed. 

Do I recommend a 1911 pistol?  Sure, I love 'em--but as always it depends on your needs.  As this is about defensive use, I think you should only choose a 1911 if you are willing to put in the time to get very well-practiced and comfortable with a light trigger pull.  These are not for everyone.  There is nothing better for precision shooting but the SA trigger is unforgiving for threat management, and if you understand defensive pistol use you understand that threat management is part of it.  You are more likely to point your gun at a bad guy than you are to shoot him.  Yes, yes, they tell us never point your gun at someone until you are ready to shoot.  Excuse me, I live in the real world, don't you?  There are going to be times, if you ever are involved in a violent confrontation, where you may have a threat situation that in fact de-escalates.  You may or may not have the safety lock engaged.  If you don't, a mere tremor separates you from a wrongful shooting.  Yes, keep the safety on until you are ready to shoot.  Of course.  What if you have fired already?  Will you remember to reapply the safety?  Are you going to be the typical 1911 shooter who shoots with his strong thumb riding the safety lock?  It is way  too easy to off the safety during threat management if you shoot that way, yet most 1911 shooters I know do in fact shoot that way.  (I do not and never have, and I carried a 1911 as a patrol deputy sheriff, where threat management is common compared to the private citizen's experience.)  There is a simple answer to the "problem" as I see it to the ultra-light trigger pull on the 1911 but not one in 100 owners will ever resort to it...

Most 1911s sold come with a trigger pull in the 3.5 to 5lb. range, with the more expensive guns having the better but lighter triggers.  A 3.5lb. trigger is ridiculously light for a defensive pistol and in my opinion anything under five pounds is too light.  Well-known gun writer Massad Ayoob is on record as having commissioned custom 1911s with better than six pound triggers.  Most 1911 aficionados will scoff at that, but my personal and primary 1911 has a 5.5lb. measured pull and a very crisp and distinctive safety lock and I wouldn't have the pull any lighter.  But take your new $1000 1911 to a pistolsmith and ask to have the trigger pull increased and they'll just laugh. Odds are you are laughing if you are a longtime 1911 fan because light triggers is why you own them, of course.  I just hope you practice with them a lot if you carry them for defense. 

Before we leave SAs we should mention the other prime SA pistol and that is the classic P35, or Hi-Power. There is much to be said for the Hi-Power if you like it, but it doesn't have the quick trigger reset of the 1911 and that is one factor that makes the 1911 one of the best pistols for fast shooting.  There are other SAs out there; some, like the SIG P22x-series guns that are normally DAs offered as SA-only guns. These are oddities in my opinion.  High quality and high dollar, but they have long trigger reset and should stick to competition. The Taurus PT24-7 and OSS series guns are SA pistols but I'll consider them under SFP pistols.

Striker-fired Pistols 

Along with the SA autos the consistent trigger pull or Striker-fired pistols (SFPs) are getting a lot of play these days.  They are easy to shoot.  Now then, easy to shoot is a two-edged sword, make no mistake.  While an easy-to-shoot trigger doesn't necessarily mean light, it normally is, and this means you have to engage all gears when handling these pistols.  Pistols in this category range from the Taurus 24-7 which come with a thumb safety like a 1911 to the Glock which has no external safety lever except for the trigger safety.  The Springfield XD and S&W M&P can be had with or without a safety lever--which by the way should tell you how insignificant these levers are for the mechanical safety of the pistol; they exist simply to placate those who feel the emotional need for a lever between them an act of careless stupidity.  The XD line of pistols also come with a passive grip safety which helps prevent firing unless the pistol is gripped just so.  Note they also prevent firing unless the pistol is gripped just so--grip safeties are not compatible with all hand sizes and shapes.  A pistol should not fire when you don't want it to fire but by gum is should fire when you do want it to.  Part of the reason the SFP type of pistol is so popular today is of course that they are one of the main types offered with plastic, or polymer, frames, meaning they are lightweight compared to steel or even aluminum framed pistols. This shouldn't affect your trigger-style decision-making process much however as polymer has become so popular that other types can be had in plastic if you want it, including those with DAO, SA or TDA triggers.  My main advice for those considering SFP pistols is simply understand that these guns are not forgiving of fools.  I don't want to suggest that there is such a thing as guns for careless people, but the fact remains that the fewer blocks between us and tragedy the more incumbent it is upon us to be diligent.

One thing you must know about most SFPs is that they they do not come with triggers as light and smooth and easy to shoot as 1911 pistols, and that they are not quite as risky as a typical 1911--in my opinion--when used for threat management.  Since there is no external safety lever on some you simply must keep your finger off the trigger.  But when you do have your finger on the trigger you are not touching a 3.5 to 5lb. 1911 trigger that "breaks like glass," you have something with a bit more feel to it that lets you know it is setting up to fire, and the weight is closer to 6lbs. or so with most makes and models, Glocks included.  Glock does offer a couple models with lighter triggers...for competition.  That should tell you something.

DAs and especially DAOs are the easiest guns to live with, SAs and SFPs the hardest.  But as I've said all through this article, the guns that are the easiest to shoot when we desire to shoot them are the easiest shoot accidentally.  A gun that is easy to shoot brings out the best or  the worst in everyone.  That is not a product of the gun but a reaction of the individual to the mechanical tool.  We need to learn enough about the different gun types that we can match up our personality type to the mechanical type that best suits us.  Happy and safe shooting.  (9 May 09)





copyright 2009 Mark E. Freburg, all rights reserved

Uploaded: 5/9/2009