Selecting a Modern Duty Pistol, Part 2

Today’s police duty pistols are available in a wide variety of calibers, pistol sizes, safeties, trigger mechanism and integrated features. To see the last issue, where we began the saga with caliber selection and pistol size, go to, click Resources, the Article Archives. Now, the discussion of different trigger mechanisms.

Many firing mechanisms are available in today’s duty pistols: single action, double action, double action only, and various striker fired systems are available. Some handguns even share two different firing methods. All have advantages and disadvantages that need to be looked at.


Single Action (SA)

The term “single action” refers to the fact that the trigger does one single thing—it releases the hammer. The Browning Hi-Power and its copies operate in a similar manner, but the pistol does not include the grip safety of the 1911.

The traditional single action (SA) pistol is properly carried with the hammer cocked and with its manual thumb safety on. The Colt 1911 (and other manufacturers too numerous to list), Browning Hi-Power, and CZ design pistols can all be holstered “cocked and locked.” 

Usually, a thumb break-style holster places a retaining strap between the cocked and exposed hammer and the firing pin. The manual safety is engaged and the 1911 has an additional grip safety that prevents the pistol from firing unless properly grasped. The trigger is covered by the holster and many current models have an internal firing pin to prevent unintended discharge if the pistol is dropped.

I have heard civilians whisper to uniformed officers, “Just so you know, your gun is cocked.” Those with a limited knowledge of firearms may believe it’s a bad thing for a pistol to be cocked in its holster. Of course, this method of carry is entirely proper and the officer’s reply is typically, “Yeah, I know it’s cocked. It’s supposed to be that way.”

When the 1911 is drawn, the thumb break strap is unsnapped and when the pistol is grasped, the grip safety is automatically depressed. As the gun leaves its holster, the trigger becomes exposed. When the 1911 is brought on target, the manual thumb safety is swept down and off and when the trigger is pressed, the internal firing pin safety allows the cartridge’s primer to be struck. All five of these safety devices are deactivated in a split second.

Some 1911 pistols do not have an internal firing pin safety. Colt introduced this feature on their “Series 80” pistols in the 1980s. Colt and other manufacturers offer 1911s both with and without the safety as it can add some weight and creep to the trigger pull.

The advantage of the single action pistol is its sole, consistent trigger pull, which is straight back and relatively light. Mastering one type of trigger pull is more straightforward than learning two and the benefit is accuracy from shot to shot. It must become second nature to sweep off the manual safety before firing and plenty of practice is necessary to guarantee that muscle memory.


Double Action (DA)

The Walther PP, introduced in 1929, was the first commercially successful double action (DA) pistol. This kind of trigger gained immense popularity in the 1980s during the big police transition from revolvers to pistols. A double action trigger accomplishes two things when pulled. First, it cocks the hammer during its initial, long trigger travel. 

Second, the trigger releases the hammer. After the first round is fired, the slide moves reward under recoil and cocks the hammer. These subsequent shots are then fired in single action mode.

SigSauer, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Heckler & Koch, Walther, Beretta and many other pistols have featured double action triggers. Usually the design is accompanied by a de-cocking lever or hammer drop release. To load prior to holstering, a magazine is inserted in the pistol’s frame and the slide is racked to the rear, causing a live round to be stripped from the magazine and fed into the barrel’s chamber. The pistol is then cocked and ready to fire. A de-cocking lever is actuated to safely lower the hammer to the double-action trigger mode. The pistol is holstered in this manner until needed. 

Depending on the individual handgun’s design, the de-cocking lever can also serve a second function as a manual safety. Double action pistols usually do not need to be carried with their safety on since most have an internal firing pin safety to prevent a discharge if the gun is dropped.

The advantages claimed for double action pistols are that the first shot is ready to go without a need for a manual safety and that the first long trigger pull will prevent firing the weapon by accident. However, transitioning from the first, long double-action trigger pull to the shorter, single action for subsequent shots takes plenty of practice. One must always remember to de-cock the pistol before re-holstering as well.


DA with Cocked & Locked

CZ pattern pistols (made by Ceska Zbrojovka in the Czech Republic and widely used by foreign law enforcement), the FN FNX, Taurus PT Series, and the Heckler & Koch USP are double-action semi-automatic pistols that can also be carried cocked and locked as single action pistols. The FNX, Taurus, and USP manual thumb safety pivots downward in a spring loaded manner to function as a de-cocking lever. The CZ style pistols typically do not have a de-cocking lever. Care must be taken to safely lower their hammers on a live round. This involves pulling the trigger as your other hand eases the hammer down slowly.


Double Action Only (DAO)

Transitioning from double action to single action, after the first trigger pull, requires practice to become proficient. Double action only (DAO) pistols are frequently modified versions of standard double action pistols. Their hammers are typically bobbed as they cannot be manually cocked anyway. 

The same double action only trigger pull is required for each round fired. Lighter springs or different trigger action geometry give the DAO a repeatable trigger pull that is easier than the first double action pull of a standard DA. SigSauer’s P250 pistol, for example, features a light DAO trigger that feels much like a custom double action revolver’s pull. 

Sig also has several models available with their DAK (Double Action Kellerman—named after its designer) trigger. The DAK trigger pull is factory set for 6.5 pounds of smooth pressure.

DAO triggers are supposed to offer less chance of a negligent discharge because their triggers have a longer and heavier pull than SA triggers. These kinds of pistols fire in a manner similar to double action revolvers and can be shot quite accurately with practice. 

A DAO pistol cannot be inadvertently re-holster in a cocked hammer position. 


Striker Fired

All of the previously mentioned trigger actions employ a trigger that releases a hammer under spring tension, causing the hammer to hit a firing pin, which in turn ignites a waiting cartridge’s primer. Glock pioneered the first striker fired pistols used widely in law enforcement, but pistols employing a striker system date all the way back to the toggle action P-08 Luger. Many firearms manufacturers have since come forth with their own versions of striker fired pistols.

Differences in slide profile and grip design separate the Glock, S&W M&P, Springfield Armory XD series, Ruger SR series, and other striker fired pistols. However, all these general trigger systems provide a pull that is consistent from the first shot to the last. 

A small safety lever may be incorporated into the actual face of the trigger on several of the striker fired weapons. This tiny lever prevents the trigger from moving, unless light finger pressure depresses the safety lever first. S&W utilizes a two-piece trigger that accomplishes the same thing.

The striker is partially cocked under spring tension and the trigger fully cocks the striker and then releases it. The advantage of the striker fired pistol design is that the trigger pull is consistent from first shot to last and the pull is relatively short and light. 

The striker fired pistol system is also very simple. Retracting the slide chambers a round, partially cocks the striker, and that’s it. The sidearm can be holstered for carry and later drawn and fired with a trigger that is the same every time. There are no de-cocking levers or trigger transitions to master with muscle memory.


Manual and Internal Safeties

Activation of the manual thumb safety on the 1911 style pistol is required to securely carry handgun in a holster. After drawing a 1911, the thumb safety must be swept off in order to fire the weapon. Internal hammer block safeties prevent guns from firing if accidentally dropped, but require no interaction with the officer to be effective.

Some side arms come with manual safeties that are redundant and not required to make the pistol safe in its holster. The theory goes that if the pistol is taken from an officer’s holster by an offender, then the manual safety will prevent the gun from being used against the officer. 

Modern holsters with release systems more advanced than a simple thumb break help prevent police disarming. Weapon retention training and practice also helps avert duty guns from falling into the wrong hands. Officers need to decide if they are going to carry their weapons with manual safeties on or off. Then they need to train often to be sure they never draw their pistol with intention to fire, only to neglect to thumb off the safety.


Holsters & Magazines

Before you put down your hard earned cash or your department commits to a contract for dozens of pistols, be sure to check on the availability of the required extra necessities. 

This means holsters and magazine pouches, extra magazines, and replacement parts.

Holster makers try hard to offer several levels of security for all kinds of duty guns, but they can’t please all of the cops all of the time. The Level 2 holster you want in faux basketweave might not be made for your particular pistol’s 5-inch barrel length equipped with a tactical light on its Picatinny rail. Don’t get stuck with a gun with no holster available to carry it in.

Be sure to check availability of extra magazines as well as their cost. You don’t want to find out after you bought the gun that spare mags are backordered for a year and cost $89 each. It’s also a good idea to be sure that spare parts like springs, firing pins, barrels, sights, screws, and even grip panels are readily available. We’ve all seen parts failures at the range.


Narrow Your Field and then Decide

New pistols are expensive (and so are their accessories) and their selection should be made carefully. The Internet is a very useful tool for research. In addition to manufacturer’s websites, search out message forums dedicated to particular brands and models so you can ask questions to those already using the pistol you’re considering.

Try to narrow the field to a certain type of action and then attempt to handle as many different kinds of pistols that fit your criteria. The opportunity to actually shoot the handguns you are contemplating will strongly aid your decision making process. 

Departments looking into new pistols should consult their most knowledgeable personnel for their opinions and ask dealers or manufacturers for test pistols. The most realistic way to compare pistols is to fire them side by side at the range. Pre-printed surveys allow shooters to record their impressions and rate each pistol against a criteria checklist. This type of system can turn a subjective process into a bit more objective one. 

Before making a major purchase, consider sending someone from the firearm selection committee to the factory’s armorer course for that pistol. This person will then, literally, know the proposed pistol inside and out. This is especially helpful if the choice is a toss-up between two similar pistols—attend both armorer courses. It is not an easy process, but research and knowledge will lead to a wise decision when selecting a modern duty pistol.


Steve Tracy is a 26-year police veteran with 24 years experience as a firearms instructor. He is also an instructor for tactical rifles, use of force, less-than-lethal force and scenario-based training. He can be reached at

Published in Tactical Response, Jan/Feb 2014

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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