Trigger Options of the Semi-Automatic Service Pistol

By David Tong

The dawn of the reliable semi-automatic pistol began in 1896, with the announcement of the famous Mauser "Broomhandle," so named because of the walnut grip thusly shaped. Firing the 7.63mm (.30 cal) Mauser bottlenecked round at nearly 1400 fps, it heralded the beginning of smokeless powder use in handguns and was also the first autoloading pistol used in military application.

So popular an item it was that individual officers of the British Army carried it in harm's way. These included one Winston Churchill, who used it in a cavalry action during the Boer War. His famous account of having to shoot, and hit, enemy soldiers in battle may be the first written record of an autoloading pistol fired in anger.

The early pistols all used the so-called "single-action" (SA) design. Whether the pistol had an exposed hammer, like the revolvers they proposed to replace, or were striker fired, a la the famous Luger, the salient feature of the single-action semi-automatic pistol is that the weapon is automatically re-cocked after firing. A single action pistol cannot be fired when the hammer is down. The principle advantage of most single action pistols is that, when cocked, the firing mechanism can be released and fired with a very short press (usually less than 1/4") of the trigger.

Other advantages of this system include first shot accuracy, because there is minimal mechanical disturbance to maintaining precise aim with the short press; consistency of the handling/manual of arms with other firearms, such as rifles and shotguns which use a similar trigger; and repeat shots are accomplished in exactly the same fashion until the magazine is empty.

If one is properly trained with firearms, one learns to keep one's finger off the trigger until the decision to fire has been made and the sights are aligned on target. This does not matter if you are in a hunting situation, at the target range, or shooting in self-defense. Usually, when the shooter starts his pistol in a "ready-low" position after drawing from the holster, the pistol is brought from a point about midway between beltline and torso, the safety catch (if equipped) is released, and the trigger finger only touches the trigger when the sights reach alignment. This deployment methodology does not change with action type and is designed to minimize negligent discharges.

Examples of the single-action auto include the renowned Colt Model 1911 "Government Model," the Browning P-35 Hi-Power, the German P-08 Luger, and the Russian Tokarev TT33. Literally millions of these handguns have been manufactured, and until comparatively recently were the most prevalent designs used by military forces around the world.

Nowadays, the 1911 pistol is widely used in both civilian target and combat competition, as well as by elite military and police units. The primary reason is the trigger system, which makes hitting one's target a comparatively simple and repeatable matter. It is far easier to hold a three pound pistol steady when squeezing a four pound trigger, than it is to shoot the same weight sidearm with a 12 pound first round pull, and so it is my personal preference.

In the event of a failure to fire with a single action pistol, the slide must be manually cycled to clear the dud round and bring another cartridge from the magazine into the chamber. This procedure also re-cocks the hammer, leaving the pistol ready to fire. This is known as "tap, rack, bang" among some shooters and instructors. (The tap is when the shooter slaps the bottom of the magazine to insure that it is completely seated, the rack is when he manually operates the slide, and the bang--hopefully--occurs when he pulls the trigger the second time.)

There have been, and continue to be, many developments designed to remove the specter of a cocked pistol while still making the weapon capable of being instantly fired. The reason for this development was safety. "Safety" might be a misnomer for a training issue, yet police agencies, militaries, civilians, and liability attorneys all seemingly desire a pistol that is ready to fire, but without the compressed springs or that frightening cocked hammer. In a defense situation, some experts have opined that it is an advantage to have a heavier first shot trigger squeeze to reduce the likelihood of a negligent discharge. Another stated advantage is that the double action (DA) auto allows for a defective primer to be struck a second time by a second trigger pull.

The German Walther factory released the so-called double-action, or trigger-cocking auto in 1929, in the Model PP, or "Polizei Pistole." With this pistol, the first round is triggered exactly as one would shoot a double action revolver, merely aim and squeeze, without the necessity of releasing a safety. The trigger cams the hammer back before it is released to drop onto the firing pin. After the first shot, the pistol is self-cocking and reverts to normal single action operation. The safety lever, located on the left side of the slide, allows for the safe lowering of the cocked hammer onto a locked firing pin and prevents operation of the trigger when applied.

However, as stated earlier, that first round trigger pull is generally much longer and quite a bit heavier than the subsequent SA trigger pull of the same pistol. Hit probability for the first round suffers unless much more time is taken for training to overcome a system designed more to prevent negligent discharge than encourage accuracy.

After the U.S. Army adopted a high capacity, double action pistol in 1985 there was a rush by American police agencies to follow suit. Examples of first-generation double-action designs include the German Walther Models PP and P-38, W.W.II service pistols; the Beretta M92, which is the current U.S. military handgun; and the traditional double-action Smith & Wessons, e.g., the Models 39, 59, 645, and 4006.

Some pistols use a hybrid of the two trigger systems, allowing for either mode of first shot employment. The Czech CZ-75 is that country's official service pistol, and uses either a DA first shot, or the SA cocked and locked carry of the Colt 1911. The Heckler & Koch USP, Variant One, has a similar system. Both allow for loading and unloading while on safe for administrative handling and second strike capability.

I would classify the Glock "Safe Action," in terms of the shooter interface, as a single-action, even though its concealed striker is cocked by the short trigger stroke of 5.5 pounds and is, by definition, a trigger-cocking design. (The BATF classifies the Glock design as "double action only.") It does not offer second-strike capability, however, and so the manual of arms in case of a cartridge malfunction is exactly the same as a single-action pistol (tap, rack, bang). In reality, the Glock design is neither SA nor DA, but something new.

Lately, because of the dramatic success of the Glock Safe Action mechanism, the trend in pistol design is a rethink of the double-action's trigger stroke quality and weight. These newer weapons dispense with the single-action mechanism entirely. Some of these new "double action only" (DAO) pistols, such as the compact Kahr line of DAO autos or the Canadian Para-Ordnance LDAs, are remarkable in that their trigger pulls are actually lighter than that of a DA revolver and thus much easier to control compared to the older first-gen technology. There is no second-strike capability; upon loading, the mechanism will only allow for one trigger pull. In operation they are similar to the Glock Safe Action.

Walther is still in the game with a new DAO version of its P99, H & K is building the LEM variant of the popular DA/SA USP Compact called the P2000, and Sig-Sauer have just released the DAK versions of their P226, P228, and P239. With a trigger pull weight range between 6.5-8 pounds, if one is concerned about safety as a paramount issue, a shooter that can handle the additional length of trigger stroke in rapid engagement can do good work. While it might not be as good as a single-action, it might be good enough.

In sum, what we have here are attorneys and (military and police) administrators, rather than shooters, determining the design of service pistols. And they are changing the nature of the bullet launcher. I remain unconvinced of the efficacy of the solutions. Yet, if other qualified people prefer them the industry will continue to grow and prosper and we all benefit from the healthy competition that follows.

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Copyright 2005 by David Tong. All rights reserved.