Handgun Actions Explained

Lights, Camera, ACTION!

This article is apart of our Comprehensive Guide to Handguns. If you’re new to firearms in general, or just to handguns, be sure to checkout the other parts of this guide listed at the end!

Before we start talking about actions, let’s talk about how pistols function.

All pistols have a firing pin, the firing pin gets released, it glides forward, strikes the primer of the cartridge in the chamber, this causes a small explosion to ignite the gunpowder to send the bullet flying.

There’s two broad categories of actions of pistols which is determined by how the firing pin gets released in order to strike the primer. The first category is hammer fired; these have the largest variety, the second is striker fired, and with that you’re ready to get started.

Hammer Fired guns have a physical hammer that gets released, strikes the firing pin plunger, which sends the firing pin forward to strike the primer.

Striker Fired guns have a striker attached to the firing pin. Racking the slide partially cocks the striker. Squeezing the trigger finishes the cocking process and also releases the striker (thus the firing pin) forward to strike the primer; Striker Fired guns are considered by many as DAO due to all of the actions taking place when you pull the trigger.

Required Definitions:
Length of Reach: The distance required for your finger to reach the trigger.
Length of Pull: The distance the trigger travels before causing a discharge.

Single Action Only (SAO)

Single Action Only, or SAO means that you’re only doing one thing when you pull the trigger; releasing the already cocked hammer. When you release the hammer is flies forward, strikes the firing pin plunger, which causes the firing pin to slam into the primer of the cartridge resulting in what is referred to as a Pew to come flying out.

Single Action Only triggers are at or below the 5lbs mark in terms of pull weight. SAO triggers also have a very short length of reach, as well as a short pull distance. They almost always come equipped with manual safeties and will always be hammer fired.

Above you will see two examples of SAO handguns:

First: The Colt 1911 (hammer is not cocked, therefore the firearm can’t fire if the trigger is pulled).

Second: The FN Five-seveN. Many people believe this firearm is Striker Fired, but it actually utilizes an internal hammer.

Additional Information: Cocked-N-Locked, also known as “Condition 1” is carrying a firearm with a round chambered with the safety engaged.

Double Action Only (DAO)

Double Action Only, or DAO means you are performing two actions while pulling the trigger. You’re both cocking and releasing the hammer. After the hammer releases it strikes the firing pin plunger, which results in the firing pin striking the primer, and creating a Pew

Double Action Only triggers are typically over 5lbs in terms of pull weight. DAO triggers have a longer length of reach and a long reach of pull; these are not recommended for individuals with short fingers. DAO handguns almost never have a manual safety, cannot be cocked, and are almost always variants of DA/SA guns.

Above you will see two examples of DAO handguns:

First is the Beretta 92X D. The X denotes the frame type (Beretta’s X or Vertec Frame) and the D denotes “Double Action Only”.

Second is the Sig Sauer P226 DAK. The DAK is considered one of the best factory DAO triggers on the market due to it being at the 6.5lbs pull weight mark.

Additional Information: A bobbed, or spur-less hammer is usually an indication that the firearm is a DAO variant of a DA/SA gun, however that isn’t always the case.

Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA)

Double Action/Single Action, or DA/SA is a combination of SAO and DAO as an easy explanation. These firearms can be fired whether the hammer is cocked or not. DA/SA handguns also come in a variety of combinations, as well as some unique specialty triggers like the Heckler & Koch’s LEM trigger, and Lionheart Industries Double Action+ system. Generally speaking you find 1 of 3 variants of DA/SA in your hands.

The first one is with a decocker and a  manual safety, meaning you can carry the firearm in Single Action with the manual safety, or you can carry it in Double Action by actuating the decocker; some will allow you to carry with the manual safety engaged while decocked.

The second one is with a manual safety only. Triggers on DA/SA guns with only a manual safety tend to be a little better than those with decockers on them; you can manually decock these guns to carry in double action, or you can just carry in Single Action with the manual safety engaged.

The third one is with a decocker only. These DA/SA guns are intended to be carried with the hammer decocked in double action and aren’t intended to be carried in single action.

Above you will see an example of each variant mentioned:

Variant 1: Beretta 92FS; You cannot carry this firearm cocked-n-locked
Variant 2: CZ 75B
Variant 3: Sig Sauer P226

Additional Information: A decocker is a control on a DA/SA firearm that causes the hammer to go forward, safely, resulting in a Double Action trigger pull as the first trigger pull.
Before decockers, individuals had to squeeze their trigger while holding the hammer to manually decock their firearm.

Striker Fired

Striker Fired handguns, like mentioned at the beginning, don’t use a hammer to operate. They use an internal Striker that the firing pin is attached to. The primary difference between Striker Fired handguns is how much the striker system gets pre-cocked. Most Striker Fired handguns pre-cock 80%+ when you rack the slide, whereas Glocks only pre-cock approximately 50-60%.

Striker Fired handguns typically don’t have trigger weights above 5-6lbs and they have a length of reach and a length of pull right between DAO & SAO; making them good for all hand sizes.

A lot of websites do list Striker Fired handguns as DAO, or Double Action Only, when “Striker Fired” is an action in and of itself. It’s neither Single or Double Action since it doesn’t have a hammer. 

Above you will see three examples of Striker Fired handguns:

First is a Sig Sauer P320 (M17 variant) with a manual safety

Second is a Smith & Wesson M&P with a manual safety (A replica of their XM17 Trial Gun)

The third is a Gen 5 Glock G17

Additional Information: Most striker fired firearms have variants with manual safeties equipped for consumer confidence Glock is one of the only brands that does not offer this feature on any of their U.S. models.

Which You Should Buy

Which action type your should buy first depends entirely on what your mission, or task is for the handgun in question. What a collector wants will vary greatly from what a person wants for defensive purposes, so, let’s tailor a response for each category of buyer, well… the primary categories.


JustPews doesn’t really dabble into the collector’s world. What action you get is going to be dictated by the firearm you’re wanting to purchase first for your collection. 


If you never plan on carrying a firearm for defensive purposes but want to enjoy a new hobby, JustPews doesn’t really have a recommendation. DA/SA and DAO firearms do have a larger learning curve over SAO or Striker Fired handguns, but if you’re just shooting for sport this shouldn’t pose any issues.


Carrying a firearm for defensive purposes is an gigantic undertaking and it can be overwhelming (don’t worry, we’ll be making a guide for you soon). JustPews seeks to make your entry into making this a habit as easy and painless as possible. For that reason, we strongly recommend picking a Striker Fired handgun as your first handgun purchase.

From the ease of maintenance due to their simplicity in operation to ease of learning how to use them, Striker Fired handguns will help you, as a new defender, get into the habit of carrying a firearm daily faster. 

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Tired of scouring the internet for all the answers you’re looking for in regards to handguns? JustPews put together this comprehensive beginner’s guide just for you! Checkout the other parts to get headed in the right direction towards your first purchase!