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What Is a Double Action Pistol?

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The term double-action may not mean much to your average new shooter. It’s a term that can often get tossed around on the range, and you might wonder if it’s something you should care about.

While you might think double-action isn’t relevant to your training, you should take notice. Double-action is an important feature used in many firearm designs. Understanding its inner workings can help you become a better shooter and improve your knowledge of firearms.

Let’s look at what double-action is, the history behind it, and some common benefits and uses.

What is Double-Action?

Double Action Pistol

Double-action or double-action-only (DAO) refers to a firearm requiring two actions to fire a round. Your trigger pull will still initiate the firing sequence, but two actions will occur instead of one.

The first action, cocking, involves pulling back the hammer or striker, compressing a spring, and preparing the gun for firing. During the second action, firing, the hammer is released and strikes the firing pin, which fires the round.

Unlike using a single-action firearm, a double-action firearm doesn’t require you to manually cock the hammer. The name “double-action” or double-action trigger refers to the two actions needed for a shot to be fired.

History of Double-Action Pistols

Until the 19th century, single-action firearms were the default and overwhelming majority of the firearm market. However, that all changed during the 1850s with the patent of the first successful double-action revolver by Robert Adams.

The creation of the double-action revolver was a response to the popular single-action revolvers dominating the market. In fact, before the creation of double-action, the classification of single-action didn’t exist.

The double-action revolver functioned differently from the single-action revolver, where the hammer didn’t have to be manually cocked with each round fired. Instead, pulling the trigger cocks the hammer, rotates the chamber, and releases the hammer.

Adams’ double-action revolvers were well-regarded but struggled to compete against Colt’s single-action revolvers. They were slower, lacked a recoil shield, and were more expensive to produce. Additionally, their quality was far more inconsistent since they were handmade.

In 1856, Frederick Beaumont improved upon the original Adams revolver by creating the Beaumont-Adams revolver. This revolver could be used in single-action and double-action modes and became quite popular in the United Kingdom.

In the U.S., double-action revolvers didn’t immediately catch on. People still favored single-action revolvers and saw them as more reliable. It wasn’t until the late 1800s/early 1900s, when Colt and Smith and Wesson started mass-producing double-action revolvers, that they became popular in the U.S.

Benefits and Uses of Double-Action Pistols

There are several benefits and uses for double-action handguns. Let’s go over a few common ones.

Can Help Avoid Negligent Discharges

How well you can avoid a negligent discharge depends significantly on how much training you put in, but double-action pistols have some benefits that can help.

The long, heavy trigger pull of a double-action trigger is cited by many as one of its best safety features. Since it takes more effort and time to fire a double-action trigger, it’s less likely you’ll have a negligent discharge.

Concealed Carry

Double-action handguns are often used for concealed carry. The more effort needed to pull the trigger can help you avoid snagging your gun on your clothing or holster. Not getting your gun snagged can be especially helpful if you must pull it out quickly.

The long trigger pull can also help shooters ensure they’re only firing at a target they intend to fire, which can be critical in several situations.

Suppose you find yourself in a situation where there is a hostile threat, but there are innocent bystanders. You need to ensure you’re only aiming to hit the hostile threat. Double-action pistols can help give you the time to react properly in such a stressful situation.

Home Defense

Home Defense

Many people like to use double-action guns for home defense. The reasoning is similar to why some people use them for concealed carry. The long and heavy trigger pull helps ensure you’re only firing at a target you intend to hit.

One thing to keep in mind for home defense is a double-action handgun may not be the only gun you want to use. Double-action handguns can be beneficial if you’re moving in tight quarters, but you may also want a rifle, shotgun, etc. It depends on your personal needs.

Reload and Shooting Time (Double-Action Revolver)

You’ll have an easier time reloading and shooting a double-action revolver than a single-action revolver.

A double-action revolver has a cylinder that swings open when a button or latch is pressed, allowing for an easier time to load rounds than a single-action revolver. You also don’t have to manually cock the hammer after each trigger pull, which can help you shoot a round faster.

There’s also the added advantage of using a double-action revolver in single-action mode if you choose to. For many, this makes learning how to use a double-action revolver worth the time and money compared to a single-action revolver.

Disadvantages of Double-Action Pistols

A double-action handgun has disadvantages, but they are debatable and your personal experience will vary. Here are some of the common ones.

Harder to Use for New Shooters

New shooter learning to shoot a revolver

Many new shooters will struggle with using double-action handguns. Double-action has a longer trigger pull, which can throw some new shooters off. It might feel a bit unnatural to them.

There’s also the mental component that can be hard to grasp. You have to train your mind to expect that the gun won’t go off immediately, which can be challenging for some people to get used to.

Training Can Be Tiring

Training with double-action might tire you out more compared to single-action. The extra effort needed to pull the heavier trigger can tire out your finger quicker than using a single-action trigger with a light trigger pull.

You might tire out even more if you’re doing a long training session. This can be an issue if you like to do long training sessions and hate having to cut them short due to fatigue.

It Takes More Time to Master

The amount of time to master any gun will always vary, but many shooters say it takes more time to master double-action vs. single-action.

The time it takes to get proficient with a double-action gun can also be a deterrent for some shooters. They might feel it’s not worth the time commitment compared to practicing with a single-action trigger.

Common Types of Double-Action Handguns

There are a variety of double-action handguns used today. Let’s look at the two most common types and how they function.

Double-Action Revolvers

Double action revolver

Double-action (DA) revolvers are essentially where double-action trigger originates from. It’s a gun with much history and is still often used today.

Most double-action revolvers differ from other double-action handguns by their ability to be used in either double-action or single-action mode.

When firing a double-action revolver in double-action mode, the firing sequence is activated simply by pulling the trigger. The hammer doesn’t need to be cocked.

If using a double-action revolver in single-action mode, a shooter must physically cock the hammer to fire a shot. After pulling the trigger and firing a shot, you must manually cock the hammer again.

There are some double-action-only (DAO) revolvers. These revolvers will usually not have a visible or exposed hammer to cock.

Double-Action Semi-Automatic Pistols

Semi-automatic pistols are popular handguns often used for self-defense and sport. They tend to dominate the handgun market and might be a shooter’s first experience with a double-action trigger.

When using double-action semi-automatic pistols, your trigger pull does two things: cocks the hammer and releases it to fire a round. After a shot is fired, the hammer will return to its decocked position.

Unlike a double-action revolver, a double-action semi-automatic pistol only fires in double-action mode.

Double-Action vs. Single-Action

There’s an ongoing debate on double-action vs. single-action, which boils down to whether one is better. In reality, neither is better than the other, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

For example, many people will say practicing with a single-action handgun is more beneficial when teaching someone how to shoot a handgun. However, some will argue that a double-action handgun can be just as beneficial. The longer trigger pull can help shooters learn to be more focused, patient, and deliberate when firing a round.

Double-Action/Single-Action Guns

Double action / Single Action Pistols

There are also double-action/single-action (DA/SA) guns that factor into this debate. Double-action revolvers already function as double-action/single-action because they can be used in either action.

However, most people will associate double-action/single-action guns with those that have the first shot in double-action mode, and in each subsequent shot, the gun will be in single-action mode.

Double-action/single-action guns can be good for shooters that like using both actions and prefer to have the ability to switch between the two. However, it can be difficult for shooters to use a double-action/single-action gun because they’ll have to learn both actions.

Final Thoughts

Introducing a double-action trigger changed the course of the history of firearms. It offered new ways to use firearms and changed the landscape of the handgun market.

The many safety benefits double-action handguns offer are part of the reason why they are popular today. Safety is always a major concern when using a firearm.

Some people will say that double-action guns can harm accuracy, but far more variables go into it. Accurate shooting depends more on someone’s skill level and the time they put into practice with their gun.

Whether it is safety, accuracy, shooting time, etc, training is the most significant factor in how good and competent you get with a gun. If you don’t put in the time and effort to get good with a double-action handgun, then you won’t be able to use all of its benefits.

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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.

1 thought on “What Is a Double Action Pistol?”

  1. For years I always thought just the opposite…actually SEEMS it should be just the opposite, whether for new shooters to understand or simply by common sense: For me and many, “actions” are human actions…not internal or mechanical actions. A “single action” is simply “pulling the trigger” to fire the gun…no other “action” on the part of the shooter is required. On the other hand, a “double-action” requires two (2) actions by the shooter…first cocking the gun/hammer (1) AND next pulling the trigger (2). This might be why it’s hard for some/many to comprehend…it’s so simple to figure that way…also that the double-action is harder/longer than the single action (two actions take longer than one). I understand it as it actually is…but also understand how may seem/be contrary to thinking.


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