Thursday, July 13, 2023

Comparing Striker-Fired and Double-Action/Single-Action Handguns: Determining the Superior Choice

The 1980s marked the dawn of the "wondernine" epoch, with the Glock leading as the single striker-fired, polymer-framed handgun in the arena, standing out from the crowd of double-action/single-action (DA/SA) guns with metallic structures like CZ 75, SIG P226, Beretta 92, S&W Gen 2 and 3 automatics, etc. Over the last couple of years, I deduce that 80 percent of the brand-new firearms I've evaluated were either .223 or 9mm calibers. Among those chambered in 9mm, an estimated 80 percent were striker-fired handguns, with a minor percentage being DA/SA triggered. Interestingly, the U.S. Army has just selected the striker-fired, polymer-framed M17 (a slightly modified SIG P320), displacing the aluminum-framed DA/SA Beretta M9 (a slightly altered Beretta 92).

Hence, a question arises - has the double-action/single-action system become outdated? Have striker-fired pistols ascended as the unrivaled selection in today's world? Market data might hint at that, but the reality is more intricate and intriguing, considering you might not be privy to the entire narrative.

To clarify terminologies, "DA/SA" refers to a semi-automatic handgun with a double-action/single-action system. The initial shot is fired in double action (the hammer is cocked by the trigger pull), and follow-up shots are discharged in single-action mode. Striker-fired guns possess an internal striker, akin to a firing pin, but unlike firing pins that are struck by hammers, strikers are typically cocked and maintained under spring tension, releasing upon trigger pull.

Why is the DA/SA system less popular compared to the striker-fired gun? Though we could discuss production and engineering costs, manufacturers will continue to produce what the consumers demand. It's my belief that the increased popularity of striker-fired guns is purely because they offer consistent trigger pull each time, while DA/SA pistols have a noticeably heavier and longer initial trigger pull than subsequent pulls. This widely debated "DA/SA transition" issue was the subject of countless firearm magazine articles during the 80s and 90s, only second to the "9mm vs. .45" articles, but more popular than "Point Shooting vs. Aimed Fire" debates (for the record, 9mm and aimed fire prevailed).

If you're puzzled about the fuss regarding mediocre double-action trigger pulls, keeping in mind that revolvers had been prevalent for a long time by then, you need to recall two things: 1. During the 80s and 90s, the 1911 emerged as "the professional's carry gun", and its brief, light, and sharp trigger pull set the standard for all others, and 2. Most DA/SA handguns on the market had dismal trigger pulls, far worse than what we see today (an essential point to revisit).

When considering handguns designed in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s intended for police and military usage (Beretta 92, SIG P226, etc.), their double-action trigger pulls were lengthy, hefty, and often coarse. To provide perspective, the default factory hammer spring weight on the SIG P220 is 22 pounds, and for the 9mm P226, it's 24 pounds! Not to mention the recoil spring is braided wire. It seems excessive, but the designers aimed for durability under a decade of military-grade misuse and disregard.

I once owned a first-generation SIG P220 in .45 ACP (where the front sight was built as a single piece with the slide), and its DA trigger pull was dreadful. I carried it during my tenure as an armored vehicle driver/guard, and the company rules demanded to have the handgun in hand when outside the vehicle. From experience, the hammer on the SIG was only down when it was holstered. The Walther PP, launched in 1931, and its subsequent PPK and PPK/S models garnered popularity globally, making it one of the earliest successful DA/SA handguns. For years, the Walther PPK/S was likely the only reliable .380 in the U.S, and when I commenced my career as a police officer, I knew several officers who used the PPK/S as a backup. Its success wasn't attributed to its trigger pull but rather despite it.

I recently came across an old firearm magazine from 1998 featuring a review of a modified Walther PPK/S. The decision to modify a PPK/S stemmed primarily from two common grievances — a poor trigger pull and sharp edges on the frame and slide that could harm the shooter's hand. According to the 1998 article, "The PPK/S trigger has always been one of the poorest in any firearm, and the gun has a tendency to hurt the hand wielding it.”

Jeff Cooper, a well-known figure in the firearm world, penned several articles about the challenges faced by law enforcement and civilians training with DA/SA autos during Gunsite courses. He was notably not fond of the DA/SA system, even referring to pistols with this system as "crunchentickers". Cooper was a fan of the CZ 75, but it's important to note that the CZ 75 can be carried cocked and locked. According to Cooper, the ideal trigger pull weight on his 1911s was three pounds and crisp. Back in the day, if your DA/SA pistol had a double-action trigger pull that was slightly rough and just over ten pounds, you considered yourself fortunate. In comparison to a GI 1911, that's a disaster.

The double-action trigger pulls on guns from that period were so terrible (and the subsequent single-action shots so contrasting), that Cooper and his team explored every possible workaround, such as cocking the hammer upon drawing the firearm. Cooper even proposed the idea (it's unclear how seriously) of firing the first DA shot into the ground to bypass that initial awful trigger pull.

Most firearm enthusiasts under forty cannot recall a time before Glock. It's akin to my children trying to imagine a world without smartphones or the internet. Although Glock wasn't the first to introduce a striker-fired pistol (they have been around for a century or so), or the first to manufacture a polymer-framed handgun (that honor belongs to the striker-fired HK VP70Z from 1970), the Glock pistol (introduced in 1982) was so exceptional that within 20 years, it was found in 80% of the police holsters in the United States. For nearly two decades, the Glock 19 was the benchmark against which all other carry guns were measured, until recently, some have claimed that it has been superseded by the SIG P365 (another polymer-framed striker-fired model).

Other striker-fired pistols have been released (the Walther P99 in 1996 and the Steyr M around the same time), but none managed to rival the Glock in the US. In 2005, the Smith & Wesson M&P, a polymer-framed striker-fired pistol, was introduced, and this dependable American-made pistol began steadily eating into Glock's law enforcement and commercial market share. From there, the number of polymer-framed striker-fired pistols skyrocketed — I'll attempt to list as many full-sized models from memory: Beretta APX, CZ P-10, FN FNS and 509, Springfield XD/XDM, SIG P320, Steyr M, Ruger SR9 and American Pistol, Taurus G2c/G3, and, of course, the Hi-Point Yeet Cannon YC-9. This short list doesn't even include all the smaller, CCW-sized offerings like the Springfield XD-S, S&W Shield, and SIG P365, and I've probably overlooked a dozen.

The "advantage" (whether it's perceived or actual is debatable) of the striker-fired trigger system over the DA/SA system is the consistent trigger pull each time. Striker-fired guns had trigger pulls that were not as light or crisp as those found on single-action guns like the 1911, but they were far better than the double-action pulls on revolvers. In the seventies and eighties, some US law enforcement agencies began to replace their revolvers with semi-autos (DA/SA Smith & Wesson first-, second-, and third-generation pistols made significant progress, and many departments switched to the Beretta 92 following its adoption by the US military), but it was Glock's reliability and its "same trigger pull every time" operating system that convinced many hold-outs in law enforcement to finally upgrade from their antiquated revolvers.

Looking at just the sheer volume of new striker-fired pistols introduced in the last twenty years versus the number of new DA/SA autos, the difference is clear. You've seen my above list of new striker-fired guns; let's compare it to the relatively few new DA/SA models introduced: the FN FNX, Springfield Armory XD-E, and SIG P250. There's a good chance I've missed a couple, but the point is evident. Indeed, I'm confident that more new snubby revolvers and DAO autos have been introduced in the last two decades than DA/SA autos.

It might seem that I've written myself into a corner and that I should conclude this piece with "Striker good, DA/SA bad" and go back to stone-age simplicity. However, as Paul Harvey would say, there is "the rest of the story." The remainder of the story involves a diverse range of topics such as windbreaker drawstrings, the NYPD, and practical shooting competition. We'll divide this part of the article into two segments: Safety and Modern Technology.

How does the operation system influence the trigger pull? That's the key difference between the two systems - the weight and length of the trigger pull. Let's take the Glock and its adoption by U.S. law enforcement as an example - these firearms replaced many revolvers in police holsters. Since 1982, Glock has claimed a +/-5.5-lb trigger pull for their guns, which is, frankly, not entirely accurate. The average trigger pull for Glock models from Gen 1 to Gen 4 is roughly seven pounds or more, only with Gen 5 did users experience trigger pulls near the advertised weights. Still, compared to a revolver, a seven-pound trigger pull requiring only a quarter-inch of travel is a significant shift. Revolver double action trigger pulls typically require at least ten, if not twelve pounds of pressure and around three-quarters of an inch of travel.

Upon switching from revolvers to Glocks, a large number of law enforcement agencies experienced "accidental discharges" because many officers hadn't fully grasped the fundamental safety rule of "keeping your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target." These failures led to the introduction of New York and New York Plus triggers for Glock pistols, which feature trigger pulls of eight plus pounds and twelve plus pounds respectively.

This decision came about because the NYPD, like many departments, struggled to sufficiently train its officers in firearm safety/handling. Instead of investing in regular, costly training to reduce the number of "accidental discharges," they opted to simply increase the weight of the Glock's trigger pull. The New York Plus trigger system installed in Glocks yields a hefty twelve-pound trigger pull. Although this reduces the chances of unintentional discharges, it significantly impacts accuracy, especially for officers who only fire their weapons during mandatory qualifications.

Given these realities, would officers have been better served by stock DA/SA pistols with heavy, gritty double action pulls but lighter, six to seven pound single action pulls? Very likely. However, it's crucial to recognize the actual causes of accidental discharges. The events described above are more accurately termed negligent discharges. Most striker-fired pistols, like the Glock, don't have a manual safety. Their sole physical external safety is the lever or pivot on the trigger. The downside is if an object becomes wedged inside the trigger guard, it can cause the gun to discharge unintentionally.

This issue is rarely discussed, but many true accidental discharges with striker-fired pistols have occurred due to foreign objects entering the trigger guard, from leather straps on holsters to windbreaker drawstrings. Some instances even involve users simply forgetting to move their finger completely away as they re-holster. Or they carry small, concealed striker-fired guns in bags or purses, and an object ends up triggering the gun.

How does this relate to DA/SA pistols? The double action trigger pull on DA/SA pistols serves as an extra safety feature. We can only speculate about how many of the aforementioned accidental and negligent discharges would have been avoided if DA/SA pistols were used, but it's reasonable to assume that most could have been prevented. 

Moving on to technological advances, it's not 1982 anymore. Progress has been made in firearm manufacturing thanks to enhanced CNC machining and computer-aided design. Furthermore, modern gun companies are more attuned to consumer demands, one of which is the desire for lighter, smoother trigger pulls. As a result, these companies have devised ways to meet consumer demands without sacrificing safety or reliability.

Across the board, trigger pull weights have been reduced, from hunting rifles to concealed carry pistols. For instance, Walther PPK and PPK/S models, notorious for their rough trigger pulls, have seen considerable improvements in newer iterations. Previously, these guns had gritty double action trigger pulls frequently exceeding 15 pounds, sometimes even 20. However, recent models not only have smoother trigger pulls but lighter ones too, with factory specifications indicating 13 lbs./6 lbs. for double action/single action pull weights respectively.

To highlight the advancements in firearms, let's delve into competition shooting. Here, we're not going to debate the pros and cons of competition shooting, but simply discuss its nature. "Action" or "practical" pistol competitions are designed to test both the shooter and their equipment to their limits. USPSA's Production Division serves as a platform for both striker-fired and DA/SA systems. This division specifically caters to off-the-shelf factory production guns that are ready for competition. Interestingly, over the past decade, DA/SA CZ 75 pistols and their equivalents have emerged as the most successful guns in this division, both locally and nationally. This is despite the requirement for the first shot of every stage to be fired in double action. If DA/SA guns truly have such poor triggers, how is it that a CZ 75 can outperform a Glock or an S&W M&P? Notably, it's not just the CZ 75; two different shooters using the Beretta 92 have won the USPSA Production Division National Champion three times.

The distinguishing feature between these two operating systems is the force required to pull the trigger, both in terms of weight and length, correct? Taking Glock as an example, which gained popularity among American law enforcement for replacing many of their revolvers, the story is interesting. Glock claims to have advertised around 5.5-lb trigger pulls on their firearms since 1982, but frankly, that's not accurate. The typical trigger pull on a Glock Gen 1-2-3-4 is about or above seven pounds. It wasn't until their Gen 5 models that the trigger pull was close to the advertised weights. Still, a seven-pound trigger pull that moves about a quarter of an inch is a significant shift from the average revolver, whose double action trigger pulls extend at least three-quarters of an inch or more, requiring a minimum of ten pounds of pressure, likely closer to twelve.

An alarmingly high number of unintentional discharges occurred among police officers when their departments made the switch from revolvers to Glocks. This was mainly due to a failure to instill the fundamental gun safety rule: "Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target." This resulted in the creation of the New York (eight-plus pounds) and New York Plus (over 12 pounds) triggers for Glock pistols.

The NYPD, criticized for their inadequate firearms safety and handling training, found an easy and inexpensive solution. They asked Glock to increase the trigger pull on their firearms. When installed on Glocks, the New York Plus trigger system delivers a twelve-pound trigger pull each time. Although this minimizes unintentional trigger pulls, it can hinder accuracy even for a skilled marksman. An example of this was the incident in front of the Empire State Building about six years ago. Two NYPD officers fired a total of sixteen rounds, incapacitating the criminal but also injuring nine bystanders.

Would those officers have been more effective with stock DA/SA pistols, which have hefty and gritty DA trigger pulls but subsequent SA trigger pulls of six to seven pounds? Quite possibly. Nevertheless, let's discuss actual accidental discharges. The instances mentioned above are more correctly termed negligent discharges. However, most striker-fired pistols, like the Glock, lack a manual safety. Their only external physical safety is the trigger lever, or in the case of the S&W M&P, the safety lever is the pivoting hinged trigger. This prevents the gun from firing unless the trigger is pulled.

The issue here? If something gets lodged inside the trigger guard of your striker-fired pistol, the gun will discharge. This isn't widely discussed, but a considerable number of accidental discharges involving striker-fired pistols occur when foreign objects interfere with the trigger guard. These can range from leather straps on thumb-break holsters to drawstrings of windbreakers activating the trigger. Some accidental discharges involve individuals forgetting to fully remove their finger as they re-holster their weapon. Others occur when small concealed-carry striker-fired guns are placed in bags or purses, where something gets lodged inside the trigger guard.

How does this relate to DA/SA pistols? The double action trigger pull on DA/SA pistols serves as an extra safety measure. How many of the accidental and negligent discharges in the previous paragraph could have been avoided with a DA/SA pistol is unknown, but it's likely that most of them could have been prevented. Appendix carry is a popular choice nowadays, and while it's not my preferred method, it's favored by many. Some of these individuals will only carry a DA/SA pistol in an appendix holster to minimize the chances of a self-inflicted injury. Hence, the nickname "family jewels," symbolizing their high value and irreplaceability.

I apply a similar logic when discussing the trigger pull weights I feel comfortable with on carry guns. I would carry a 1911 with a two-pound trigger pull because I know that the gun won't discharge unless both the thumb safety and grip safety are deactivated. I wouldn't carry a Glock or an M&P, or any other striker-fired firearm without a manual safety and a two-pound trigger pull.

Times have changed since 1982. Technological advancements have affected all aspects of life, including firearm manufacturing. Alongside significantly enhanced precision in CNC machining, we now have computer-aided design. Additionally, firearm manufacturers are more responsive to consumer demands, and one thing modern consumers don't want are long, heavy, gritty trigger pulls. Thankfully, manufacturers have managed to meet these expectations without sacrificing safety or reliability.

Across the board, trigger pull weights have become lighter, be it in hunting rifles or concealed-carry pistols. A prime example is the Walther PPK and PPK/S. The original versions had rough double-action trigger pulls often exceeding 15 pounds, sometimes even reaching 20. The newer Walther models have not only smoother trigger pulls, but also lighter ones. The factory specifications suggest 13 lbs./6 lbs. for double-action/single-action pull weights, and the samples I've tested had even lighter pulls.

While you can still find some traditional heavy and gritty DA/SA trigger pulls out there, most manufacturers offer improved models. For example, Beretta now includes their lighter "D" hammer spring in both their 92 Elite LTT and new 92X models. This reduced-power spring reduces the double-action pull to 10–11 pounds and the single-action pull to around 5.5 pounds. Even the trigger pulls on most new revolver designs, such as the Ruger LCR, Kimber K6s, and Colt Cobra, are far superior to their older counterparts.

In the US, you're not restricted to accepting the firearm as it is when it leaves the factory. I've used the SIG P226 in USPSA competition, and simply swapping the factory's 24-lb hammer spring for a reduced-weight model can significantly lighten your trigger pull. This lighter hammer spring takes at least two pounds off the double-action trigger pull and a pound off the single-action trigger pull and can be replaced in just a few seconds. I carry concealed what I use in competition, and with a 16-pound hammer spring in my P226, I've never had a light primer strike.

When we talk about competition shooting, it's not about taking sides in the argument of whether "Competition shooting will get you killed on the street!" or "Competition shooting is the best place to get practical experience!" It's about the fact that shooting is a perishable skill, and the more you shoot, the better you become. So, any environment that encourages you to shoot more and offers the potential for growth should be appreciated.

If you've ever competed in a shooting match, you'll understand that it's an excellent opportunity to handle firearms under stress and try out techniques you wouldn't typically have access to in a range setting. Those skills are transferable to the real world. While you might never have to deal with the exact scenarios you encountered in a competition, the general skills you've gained are valuable and can be applied elsewhere. Ultimately, shooting in competitions can help improve your confidence, gun handling, and shooting skills.

In my case, I started shooting in USPSA competitions in the summer of 2017. In March 2018, I switched from a striker-fired platform to a DA/SA platform and haven't looked back since. Initially, I was skeptical of the DA/SA system, having grown accustomed to striker-fired pistols. But after using a DA/SA platform in competition, my fears were allayed, and I fell in love with the platform. I found that it was not only more enjoyable to shoot but also offered significant advantages.

One of these advantages was the heavier first-shot trigger pull of the DA/SA platform. It may sound counterintuitive, but in USPSA matches, it's a great advantage. USPSA stages are designed in such a way that competitors often find themselves in challenging situations. For example, you might have to start a stage with your strong hand or weak hand only, with your back to the targets, or in positions that don't provide a good shooting stance. In such cases, having a heavier first-shot trigger pull can be an advantage, as it provides an extra layer of safety. Once the first shot is fired, the subsequent shots are lighter and crisper, allowing for faster and more accurate shooting.

A DA/SA pistol has proven to be a superior platform in USPSA competitions. Just look at the number of shooters who have won the USPSA Production Division National Championship using Beretta 92s — the tally stands at three. This result is even more impressive when considering that DA/SA pistols have been going head to head with striker-fired platforms, which are generally more popular.

A common criticism of DA/SA pistols is that they are outdated and inferior to the newer striker-fired platforms. However, the results in USPSA competitions suggest otherwise. If DA/SA platforms were truly inferior, how could they consistently perform well in competitions where sub-optimal equipment could be a significant disadvantage?

Some might argue that the DA/SA pistols used in these competitions have undergone trigger modifications. However, the same can be said for the Glock, M&P, and SIG P320 pistols used by other competitors. So, the playing field remains level in this regard.

The trigger system of a pistol, whether it's DA/SA or striker-fired, doesn't inherently determine its superiority. After firing the first shot, every subsequent trigger pull on a DA/SA pistol is lighter and crisper than what you can achieve with a striker-fired gun. The trigger pulls on these DA/SA pistols can even rival the best 1911s in the market.

Other factors, such as the pistol's weight and the height of its bore off the hand, also play significant roles in a competition. A heavier gun with a lower bore offers less muzzle rise, which can be more critical than the pistol's trigger system in a competition.

If you've been following my journey, you'd know that I've been using and carrying a Beretta 92 Elite LTT for about a year and a half. With a proficient gunsmith trigger job or the Langdon Tactical "Trigger Job in A Bag", the double-action trigger pull can be reduced to around seven pounds, and the single-action trigger pull can be brought down to approximately three and a half pounds. All while maintaining complete reliability with factory ammunition.

Most DA/SA pistols come with metal frames. If you've been around firearms for a while, you'd know that while smaller and lighter guns are more convenient to carry, larger and heavier guns are easier to shoot. The SIG P226 and Beretta 92, which are aluminum-framed guns, offer a balance between all-steel guns and those with polymer frames. Additionally, there are compact versions of almost every metal-framed DA/SA pistol available for concealed carry, such as the SIG P229, Beretta 92 Compact, CZ 75 Compact, and so on.

You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned the reliability of one trigger system or firearm over the other. That's because all these pistols from major manufacturers, whether it's the SIG P226/9, Glock 17/19/whatever, Walther PPQ, Beretta 92, FN 509, or CZ 75, are incredibly reliable. They can run for extended periods without requiring a break-in period, which wasn't always the case.

While there's a difference between the first and subsequent shots in a DA/SA auto, improvements in manufacturing and design have greatly enhanced the DA/SA trigger pulls in many guns. This development has considerably narrowed the performance gap between the two platforms. Depending on the guns being compared, I would argue that there is no performance gap.

Don't pit your ZEV custom Glock 19 with an Apex Tactical trigger and Trijicon RMR against a stock Beretta 92/CZ 75/SIG P226. It's a comparison of apples to oranges. Let's instead compare a stock Gen 4 Glock 19, with its plastic sights and seven-plus pound trigger pull every time, to a stock Beretta 92, CZ 75, or SIG P229. Only then can we have a meaningful discussion.

Take, for example, the two most cutting-edge designs: the CZ AO1-LD (DA/SA) and the SIG P320 X-FIVE Legion (striker-fired). The CZ is akin to a custom 1911 with a double-action first trigger pull, and the SIG incorporates tungsten powder in its polymer frame to add weight. While these pistols are vastly different in design, function, and materials, can we objectively say one is superior to the other? I would argue not. Different doesn't necessarily equate to better.

Some, including myself, would argue that the DA/SA trigger system is a safer design operationally. Whether it's for appendix carry or for use by those who haven't quite mastered the skill of keeping their finger off the trigger when not shooting. Outside the realm of competition, the DA/SA auto is nearly extinct, and the striker-fired pistol rules supreme. However, whether this dominance is due to reason and logic or simply a result of fads and trends is something you'll need to decide for yourself.

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