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What Is a Single-Action Pistol?

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Understanding all the different types of firearms can be confusing for new shooters. You’ve likely encountered several different types and wondered what they all mean. From revolvers to semi-automatic pistols—each has its unique function and purpose.

One aspect of guns new shooters might not understand is what single-action means. It’s common to hear people mention single-action casually, and you might feel awkward not knowing what it is.

Learning what single-action means is essential for shooters and shouldn’t be overlooked. Let’s go over what single-action is, its history, and its benefits and uses.

What is Single-Action?

Single Action Pistols

Single-action or single-action-only (SAO) refers to a type of firearm where the trigger pull only does one thing: releases the hammer. Hence the name “single-action” or “single-action trigger.” Before firing, the hammer must be cocked by separate means.

Several single-action guns, like single-action revolvers, require the user to manually cock an external hammer. Other guns have been designed to have the cocking phase of the hammer activated by other means. For instance, a single-action semi-automatic pistol will require you to rack the slide to cock the hammer.

History of Single-Action Pistols

The term single-action didn’t exist until the creation of the double-action trigger. Most guns before the creation of double-action could’ve been classified as single-action.

The history of single-action could almost be considered as old as firearms.

The existence of handguns can be traced back to China, where gunpowder was first created. During the 10th century, fire lances were considered the first guns created (although they functioned more like a flamethrower).

Fire lances were typically gunpowder-filled bamboo tubes that were attached to a spear. Once ignited, they would launch a stream of fire at their intended target.

Fire lances laid the building blocks for the future development of firearms. Handcannons, matchlocks, wheellocks, flintlocks, and caplocks all built upon each other and further advanced the progression of handguns.

Colt Revolvers

Colt Walker revolver

One thing to note is handguns weren’t readily available for most people and were more commonly used by the upper classes. However, that changed with the creation of the Colt revolvers.

In 1836, Samuel Colt patented the first practical mass-produced revolver: the Colt Paterson. It was a handgun that featured a revolving cylinder with multiple chambers. The design of Colt”s revolvers allowed for the gun’s parts to be easily replaceable and assembled, which meant they could be made at a lower cost and mass-produced on an assembly line.

The Colt Paterson was not a hit, and Colt’s Arms Company struggled. The revolver required several improvements, and Colt had trouble getting the funding and sales he needed to keep his business going.

However, things turned around when Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers ordered 1,000 revolvers from Colt for his rangers to use in the Mexican-American War. Walker did ask Colt to make some improvements, which led to the creation of the Colt Walker.

The profit from the Colt Walker allowed Colt to build his own factory. From there, Colt revolvers became quite popular. They saw prominent use during several wars and westward expansion. They were also popular among civilians for everyday use. One of Colt’s later models, the Colt Single-Action Army Revolver, was even the standard-issue pistol of the U.S. Army.

Single-action revolvers dominated the market until the late 1800s and early 1900s, when double-action revolvers became popular.

Common Types of Single-Action Pistols

Single-action is most commonly seen in revolvers and semi-automatical pistols. Let’s examine how they function.

Single-Action Revolver

Single Action Only Revolver

A single-action revolver might be the most stereotypical image a shooter gets when they picture a single-action handgun.

While not as commonly used as before, many people still have a fondness for single-action revolvers. They view them as reliable and easy to maintain.

It can be tricky for some shooters to learn how to use a single-action revolver, especially if they’ve only trained with a semi-automatic pistol. Before firing a single-action revolver, you must manually cock the hammer. For your subsequent shots, you must manually cock the hammer again before pulling the trigger.

Single-action revolvers will typically need to have their round loaded individually in each chamber with the hammer half-cocked. You will then spin the cylinder to load the next chamber.

Single-Action Semi-Automatic Pistol

Semi-automatic single action only pistols

Semi-automatic pistols are the most popular handguns used today and are commonly used by law enforcement, the military, and civilians. Single-action semi-automatic pistols are what many shooters will be familiar with when it comes to training with a single-action gun.

Single-action semi-automatic pistols significantly increased in use during the early 20th century. They were praised for their ability to carry more rounds and better reloading times than revolvers.

Unlike a revolver, when using a single-action semi-automatic pistol, you don’t necessarily have to manually cock the hammer. Instead, racking the slide cocks the hammer. Your trigger pull will then cause the gun to fire.

After the first shot, you don’t have to cock the hammer again. Recoil and slide movement will automatically cock the hammer. You only need to pull the trigger for each subsequent shot.

Benefits and Uses of Single-Action Pistols

Single-action handguns have several different benefits and uses. Let’s take a look at a couple of common ones.

Learning to Shoot

Learning to shoot a pistol

Single-action handguns are helpful for shooters who are still learning to shoot. Learning how to pull a trigger without flinching, milking, or jerking can be tough, and practicing with a single-action trigger can help shooters manage and overcome these mistakes easier.

Practicing with single-action triggers can also help shooters get a feel for how firearms work and improve their trigger-pull technique. The short and light trigger pull can make it easier for new shooters to master the basics of shooting a handgun.

Cowboy Action Shooting

Cowboy action shooting competitor

Cowboy Action Shooting is a competition where participants dress up in cowboy or other appropriate attire, adopt a shooting alias, and compete in a series of old-west-themed courses. It also requires the use of a single-action revolver.

Contestants will use a combination of single-action revolvers, rifles, and shotguns and be tested on their accuracy and time. The guns used in this competition should reflect the time period, so people often use revolvers with exposed hammers and long barrels.

Competitive Shooting

Competition Shooting

For competitive shooting, most shooters will use single-action only guns or double-action/single-action (DA/SA) guns if their divisions require an initial double-action trigger squeeze.

Many competitors will use single-action only guns because the triggers have a light, crisp break, making it easier to shoot.

Disadvantages of Single-Action Pistols

Single-action guns have their limitations and disadvantages. Some of the disadvantages are debatable, though. Let’s take a look at three common ones.

Negligent Discharge

A negligent discharge can be a big problem for new shooters, and you might be more likely to make one with a single-action gun, especially a striker-fired gun without a trigger safety.

Since a single-action trigger has a shorter and lighter trigger pull than a double-action gun, you might accidentally fire a round when you didn’t intend to. For this reason, many single-action guns will have manual safety.

Can Be Slower to Shoot

Some shooters will say that using a single-action gun takes longer to shoot than a double-action gun. While it is debatable, there is some truth behind it.

Compared to a double-action handgun, a single-action handgun requires you to manually cock the hammer before pulling the trigger and firing a round for at least the first shot. This takes more time than if you were to fire a double-action handgun, where you don’t need to cock the hammer before your trigger pull.

The slower shoot time can be more noticeable using a single-action vs. double-action revolver. A single-action revolver requires you to manually cock the hammer with each shot, while a double-action revolver doesn’t.

Concealed Carry

Concealed carrier

Some people prefer double-action handguns over single-action handguns when carrying a concealed carry gun. There are several reasons why.

A double-action gun will require you to take a heavier and longer trigger pull, which can help ensure you don’t have a negligent discharge. It can also help ensure you’re only firing at a target you need to hit.

Some feel that the slower shooting time it might take to use a single-action handgun will be detrimental if you find yourself in a life-or-death situation. (This assumes a concealed carrier does not carry a round in the chamber.)

Several single-action handguns will have an exposed hammer, making carrying one for concealed carry potentially uncomfortable to carry concealed and drawing from a concealed holster.

Single-Action vs. Double-Action

There has often been a debate on whether single-action vs. double-action is better than the other. In short, it depends. Each has its own set of pros and cons, as well as preferred uses.

For instance, while some people think double-action guns are best for concealed carry, others still prefer single-action. They might be more comfortable with single-action since those are the guns they’ve done the most training with.


Double action / Single Action Pistols

Some handguns can be used as double-action/single-action, which does present a unique dynamic to the single-action vs double-action debate.

The first shot of a double-action/single-action gun will fire in double-action mode. Subsequent shots will then be in single-action mode and fire like a regular single-action gun. Because of this unique feature, many people like to use double-action/single-action guns.

The major downside is it can be hard for shooters to learn how to use a double-action/single-action gun. Many prefer to learn how to use a gun, specializing in only one action.

Final Thoughts

Single-action guns have a rich history and still are relevant today. It’s well worth the effort to become proficient in using single-action handguns.

Single-action has many benefits shooters can take advantage of. While it has its limitations and disadvantages, it can still be helpful in various situations.

As with any gun, it depends on the individual to make the most of it through practice. Learning about single-action is helpful, but if you want to become good at using a single-action gun, you must train and 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.

1 thought on “What Is a Single-Action Pistol?”

  1. Great Article for beginning gun enthusiasts. Watching the RUST trial prompted me to search for “why single action guns are so dangerous.” I own a NAA .22 that a friend loaded for me, as I was concerned about negligent discharge. I mean the gun is tiny anyway, fits in your pocket. I carried it while hiking and once used in a home defense situation without even having to fire it. RUN FORREST RUN LOL And while I love the nostalgia of single action revolvers, I opted for a S&W .22.revolver and and .38 revolver. I also own a Sig Sauer BB gun which is my only semi auto and a hoot!!! Safety first and complacency kills! Happy shootin! Protect your 2nd Amendment!


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