Single Action vs Double Action Pistol: What’s the Difference?

Are you a bit unclear on what the difference is between single-action vs double-action firearms? If you are, you’re certainly not alone. The fact is, there are very distinct characteristics that separate these two types of pistols from one another. 

The action of a firearm is the method by which it interacts with and fires ammunition. The way a firearm locks, loads, fires, and releases cartridges all depends on the kind of action it implements.

If you’re in the market for a new pistol but aren’t sure which one will be best for your user needs, keep scrolling for our definitive guide to double action vs. single action pistols, plus some key tips to help you decide which firearm is right for you. 

Single-action vs double-action pistols

In order to understand how these pistols differ from each other, it is key to know precisely how a handgun functions. When you pull back the slide of a handgun, this activates the magazine spring which propels the bullet into the chamber of the firearm. It also cocks the hammer back in preparation to fire the gun.

When the moment comes, and you pull the firearm’s trigger, the hammer jolts forward, moving the firing pin inside the handgun into the bullet cartridge primer. As soon as the fire pin and primer meet, this triggers the propellant which moves the bullet down the length of the chamber at mind-blowing speeds.

Let’s take a closer look at how single-action and double-action pistols work in practice.

Understanding how single-action pistols work

The precise process of firing a pistol that we just described is exactly how single-action firearms work. Whenever you pull back the slide on your handgun, this cocks and locks the hammer on the firearm.

Once you pull the trigger and the hammer releases, the bullet fires. A considerable majority of revolvers on the market are classified as part of this category of pistols, meaning that you must cock the hammer whenever you shoot the firearm. With semi-automatic models, you will only need to cock the hammer once.

Understanding how double-action pistols work

Certain semi-automatic pistols featuring an exposed hammer allow the shooter to decock the hammer manually. What this means, is that you can move the hammer forward very gently and slowly with your finger, without the bullet ever being fired. 

While some revolvers don’t feature an exposed hammer, they are still double action when you shoot them. If you pull a double-action pistol trigger, two events will occur.

In the first place, pulling the trigger will cock the firearm’s hammer. Next, your trigger pull will also cause the hammer to drop. Double action pistols have much lengthier trigger pulls than the single models do.

A comparison analysis

Let’s take a look at the primary advantages and disadvantages of double-action vs. single-action pistols to help you determine which is right for you.

Advantages of single-action pistols

  • Very short trigger pull
  • Feels more natural to operate
  • A good option for beginner shooters 
  • Provides a smoother shot with less kickback 
  • Allows for greater shooting accuracy

Disadvantages of single-action pistols

  • You must cock the hammer each time you want to take a shot 
  • There’s a longer gap in time between each shot

Advantages of double action pistols

Disadvantages of double-action pistols

  • Some shooters may not like the longer trigger pull
  • Can be uncomfortable to shoot at first because of the trigger pull interval
  •  More kickback 

How to select the right pistol for you

 In semi-automatic models of the single-action and double-action variety, the differences between each type of pistol are incredibly minute. After you pull back the slide, the hammer will cock. At this point, the only real difference is whether you feel like having to decock the firearm’s hammer. After that, you can just pull the trigger to fire your weapon.

In that sense, it comes down to a matter of personal preference. You can use either action pistol in semi-automatic models for recreational shooting, hunting, and even for personal or home defense. 

The major differences become apparent if you select a revolver over a semi-automatic weapon. Single-action revolvers tend to be more ideal for hunting in that case, while double-action is more suited to self-defense.

For recreational shooting, either pistol will do, but the single variety tends to enhance your focus and help you maintain increased awareness of your surroundings. Because you have to cock the firearm’s hammer every single time you want to fire, you will be far less likely to lose concentration or make a dangerous mistake.

FAQs About Single Action vs Double Action Pistols

What is the main difference between a single-action and double-action pistol?

The main difference between a single-action and double-action pistol is how the trigger functions. In a single-action pistol, pulling the trigger only releases the hammer, which then strikes the firing pin and ignites the cartridge. In a double-action pistol, pulling the trigger both cocks and releases the hammer.

How does the trigger function differently in a single-action pistol compared to a double-action pistol?

In a single-action pistol, the trigger only releases the hammer, which is already cocked manually. In contrast, in a double-action pistol, the trigger performs two functions: cocking the hammer and releasing it to strike the firing pin.

Which type of pistol typically requires less force to pull the trigger?

Single-action pistols typically require less force to pull the trigger because the hammer is already cocked manually, requiring less effort to release it.

Which type of pistol is generally more accurate?

Single-action pistols are generally more accurate than double-action pistols because the trigger pull is lighter and more consistent, making it easier for the shooter to maintain accuracy.

Are there any significant differences in maintenance requirements between single-action and double-action pistols?

The maintenance requirements for single-action and double-action pistols are generally similar. However, because double-action pistols have more moving parts, they may require more frequent cleaning and lubrication to ensure reliable operation.

Final thoughts

The most significant differences between these two different types of pistols are simply how the trigger operates once you activate it. If you go ahead and pull a single action weapon’s trigger, the hammer will merely drop. In the case of a double-action firearm, pulling the trigger not only drops the hammer but cocks it as well.

 Both types of firearms are very effective and dependable. Based on your personal preference, you can use either for everything from general shooting to hunting. Consider your shooting habits and how often you intend to use the firearm. Also, take into account your level of experience and how comfortable you are with firearms in general.

With a double-action firearm, there is far less of a likelihood of accidental discharge. The trigger pull operates smoothly and requires far less concentration. Single action weapons are often more user-friendly for beginners, and they do provide less kickback to the shooter.

Whichever firearm you select, ongoing training, a thorough knowledge of the way your firearm works, and having proper gun range bags for traveling, are all essential to ensure safe and responsible usage.


About the Author

Trey is a lifelong hunter and avid camper. He lives outside Denver, CO with his wife Kaci and their lab mix Ziggy. They spend as much time as possible outdoors - hunting, fishing, and camping.

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