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What Is the Difference Between Single-Action and Double-Action Pistols?

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Single Action vs Double Action: What's the difference?

Most new shooters will be unfamiliar with the single-action vs. double-action gun discussion. Many don’t even realize it’s a thing, and it’s not super obvious either if you’ve only trained with one type of gun.

It might not seem relevant to your training, but knowing the difference between single-action and double-action guns is important. By knowing the advantages and disadvantages of single-action vs. double-action, you can better decide what gun best matches your needs.

Basics of Single-Action vs. Double-Action Pistols

Single-action vs. double-action guns boil down to the number of actions it takes to fire a bullet through your gun.

When you fire a gun, there are a series of actions where the inner mechanical parts of your gun are working to fire a bullet. Pulling the trigger is the catalyst for the firing sequence.

Some guns can be both double-action and single-action. These are called DA/SA guns.

Single-action, double-action, and DA/SA guns have unique functions and differences. Let’s take a look at them.


Glock 19 Gen 5

Single-action and single-action-only (SAO) guns, like Glocks and most Sigs, are a type of firearm that requires the shooter to manually cock the hammer before firing. This is done by pulling back on it and compressing the mainspring before releasing it, propelling a bullet through the barrel.

With a single-action firearm, your trigger pull only does one thing: it releases the hammer. The sole action required for firing is called a “single-action” or single-action trigger.

Single Action Mode


Double-action and double-action-only (DAO) guns require no manual cocking of the hammer – only pulling the trigger is necessary. When the trigger is pulled, it causes the hammer to move backward, which compresses the mainspring.

Instead of releasing the trigger immediately, it waits until an appropriate time to fire a round. This two-step process gives this type of gun its name, “double-action” or double-action trigger. Two movements within the gun are needed for a shot to be fired.

Double Action Mode

Double Action/Single Action

Double-action and single-action (DA/SA) guns can be used in double-action or single-action modes.

When firing a DA/SA gun, your first shot will be in double-action mode and have a long, heavy trigger pull. In the subsequent shots, the gun will be in the single-action mode and have a short and light trigger pull.

Single-Action vs. Double-Action Revolvers

A common misconception is that shooters associate single-action and double-action with revolvers, but it applies to other handguns. For instance, semi-automatic pistols can be single-action or double-action.

However, this misconception does make some sense and ties into the history of revolvers.

While single-action and double-action handguns aren’t limited to revolvers, they are an intriguing aspect of the single-action vs. double-action discourse and are worth looking at.

Single-Action Revolvers

Single Action Revolver

The Colt Single Action Army Revolver was among the first notable single-action revolvers. Like its namesake, it was a single-action revolver with a rotating cylinder that could be loaded with several rounds and fired relatively quickly.

The general population well received the Colt Single Action Army Revolver. Many people saw it as simple to operate and reliable. It was even the standard-issued pistol of the U.S. Army in the late 1800s.

Using a Single-Action Revolver

When using a single-action revolver you need to manually cock the hammer before firing. With each subsequent shot, you must manually cock the hammer again before your next trigger pull.

A single-action revolver must have its rounds loaded individually in each chamber with the hammer half-cocked. You must spin the cylinder to load the next chamber.

Double-Action Revolvers

Double Action Revolver

During the 1850s, the double-action trigger revolver was first patented by Robert Adams in England.

Unlike the other revolvers at the time, where the barrel and frame were separate and joined by screws or wedges, Adams’s patent had the frame and barrel machined from a single steel forging and a self-cocking lockwork, which we know today as double-action only.

Adams’s double-action revolvers were well-regarded but had a slow and expensive production time. They were mostly handmade, and the quality was inconsistent.

Double-action revolvers didn’t get popular in the U.S. until the late 1800s/early 1900s once Colt and Smith and Wesson started mass producing them. Their double-action revolvers were more consistent in quality and easier to make than Adams’s.

Eventually, double-action revolvers dominated the revolver market and overtook single-action revolvers in popularity.

Using A Double-Action Revolver

A double-action revolver differs from other double-action guns by its ability to be fired in either double-action or single-action mode.

While there are some double-action-only revolvers, most modern double-action revolvers can be fired in either mode.

When using a double-action revolver in double-action mode, the firing sequence is activated simply by pulling the trigger, and you don’t need to have the hammer cocked.

In single-action mode, a shooter must physically cock the hammer and, after pulling the trigger and firing a shot, manually cock it again.

Unlike a single-action revolver, a double-action revolver has a cylinder that swings open when a button or latch is pressed. This allows for an easier time to load rounds.

Why the Revolver Debate Matters

The single-action vs. double-action revolver debate can almost be considered the origin of the single-action vs. double-action debate. The double-action revolver was mainly created in response to the popular single-action revolver.

Without the creation of Adams’s double-action revolver, it’s hard to say what the gun market would look like today. We might even still be relying only on single-action guns.

Many people also have a better time seeing the differences between single-action and double-action when they see revolvers fire. The movement of the commonly exposed hammer in revolvers allows many new shooters to see and understand the differences visually.

Which is Better: Single-Action or Double-Action Pistols?

DA vs SA

When it comes down to it, neither is genuinely better than the other. Often, it’s a personal preference.

However, in some situations, one might prefer to use one over the other. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Learning to Shoot

The light trigger pull needed to fire a single-action firearm vs. a double-action firearm is helpful for new shooters. Learning trigger pulls and how to fire a gun can be a struggle for new shooters, and practicing with guns that have lighter and shorter trigger pulls can help them master the basics.

However, the harder and longer trigger pull needed to fire double-action firearms isn’t an outright bad thing. The longer trigger pulls can help a new shooter avoid making an unintentional or accidental shot.

Concealed Carry and Self-Defense

If you’re using a concealed carry gun, you might opt for a double-action or DA/SA gun. This can help ensure you’re only firing that first shot at a target you intend to hit.

However, other factors come into play when it comes to concealed carry. For instance, most double-action or DA/SA guns have an exposed hammer like those on revolvers. They can be uncomfortable for some people when carrying concealed.

Additionally, if you aren’t used to using double-action firearms, it doesn’t make much sense to immediately switch from using a single-action firearm because they are more difficult to shoot for average shooters who may not get to practice much.

Competitive Shooting

When it comes to competitive shooting, the vast majority of shooters will use single-action only guns, or DA/SA guns if their divisions require an initial double-action trigger squeeze.

Most competitors prefer single-action only guns because the triggers have a light, crisp break, making it easier to shoot in general.

Sometimes there are competitions designed specifically for one type, such as Cowboy Action Shooting, which requires using single-action revolvers.

Final Thoughts

Single-action and double-action have pros and cons, but it’s up to the individual to determine which works best for them. A DA/SA gun or a double-action revolver can also be great to combine the two types.

Whether you prefer to use single-action, double-action, DA/SA, revolvers, semi-automatic pistols, etc., you need to practice with it. You need to practice shooting with your gun to get better and more comfortable.

You’re not limited to one or the other, either. Oftentimes a shooter can excel in using multiple types of guns. Again, the key is to practice.

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Tactical Hyve Cadre

A group of our cadre members who cannot or do not want to be in the public's eye, often because they are on active duty, but who still want to provide you with vetted information and recommendations.

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