Over the years firearms have developed different methods of fire. With the advent of metallic cartridges and more modern manufacturing techniques we saw the rise of different methods of engaging the firing pin.
Because of this there were two major methods that were standardized on and are continued in use today. These two methods are hammer fired and striker fired guns.
As what happens when there are different variations of anything people argue over which is better. The problem is that both systems have their advantages and disadvantages, so we're going to look at them individually to point out some of the strengths and weaknesses of each and their accompanying systems.
To start of we're going to talk about the actions these firing methods are connected to, because without the actions the firing mechanism would not work.
There are three major actions that we encounter in handguns. These are double action, single action, and double action/single action. These three actions are the core of all modern handguns ranging from late 1800s revolvers all the way to the newest semi-automatics.
The single action method is first found on fixed firing pin revolvers. This means that in order to achieve detonation the firing pin would have to be accelerated enough to detonate the primer. This tended to be a hammer fired method, eventually divorcing the firing pin from the hammer and having them be two separate pieces that work together in many of John Browning's designs. The most famous and copied of these designed being the 1911 and Browning Hi-Power, both featuring external hammers.
This method cocks and releases the firing pin with a single pull of the trigger. This method of firing was very popular on European, particularly British Empire era, revolvers. This method was adopted the world over in various forms and allowed for faster shooting in target rich environments.
Double action revolvers allowed for the shooter to not change their grip on the gun in order to fire the next shot. This also helped with early cap and ball revolvers, allowing for continued use of the gun if it misfires or if the cap didn't detonate.
Double action continued its use well through the 20th century with two major variants. The more simple variation was the double action only system. This was found on many striker fired guns, most notably the famed Glock brand of semi-automatic pistols.
However before Glock entered the pistol world, double action was paired with the single action method of firing, resulting in the designation double action/single action (DA/SA). This hybrid design combined the quick firing of double action and the light trigger pull of single action to try and provide speed and accuracy with the same trigger set.
This was very useful on revolvers and came to be popular on a variety of handguns many of which are found in pop culture, such as the Beretta M9 and SIG SAUER's P226.
Double Action/Single Action
Now almost every handgun manufactured during the 1900s used one of these systems with double action and double action/single action being some of the more popular systems outside of the 1911. With that in mind let's get into the different firing methods themselves.
Hammer fired guns feature an external hammer that either has a firing pin attached to it or a hammer that hits a firing pin in order to detonate the cartridge primer.
In singe action revolvers the hammer has to be manually cocked back in order to ready the spring assembly and rotate the cylinder so the gun can be fired again. Because of this the trigger only releases the hammer which makes the triggers in these types of guns extremely light.
This light trigger required less effort for the shooter to put into firing which translated into better accuracy. This carried on into semi-automatic pistols in single action such as the 1911 and its related designs.
In semi-automatics the slide would recock the hammer and chamber the next round, taking the excess energy from firing the bullet to perform these tasks. This maintained the trigger's job of just dropping the hammer allowing for still comparatively light triggers.
Where we see an increase of trigger weight is when double action/single action comes into play. The idea behind this combination of actions was to maintain that lighter trigger pull with single action while enabling the faster fire with double action.
This goes in to a number of different methods in regards to safety as well. Single action guns either had a built in safety of having to manually cock the hammer while others required a manual safety to be featured. The 1911 was designed to be “Cocked and locked” as its default carry method.
However some double action/single action revolvers did not feature an external safety. These styles instead relied on the heavier trigger pull of the double action to prevent the gun from going off when paired with a proper holster. This allowed for the gun to be brought into play and fired very easily once it was out of the holster.
In order to achieve this we tend to see 7 pound to 10 pound trigger weights in these types of revolvers. This is more than enough to help prevent accidental discharges. However when we encounter semi-automatics with 5 pound triggers it becomes more of a problem. This is because the single action portion of a double action/single action is generally half the weight of the double action. Generally this equates to a 2.5 pound trigger.
Adding in this light weight with the fact that the hammer would have to be pulled back first in order to achieve this weight and we have a safety issue. The shooter would have to break their firing grip in order to cock the hammer back which is why we generally see training to have an initial shot on double action instead of cocking that hammer back before the initial shot.
This varies the trigger weight which can result in some confusion for new shooters. It adds complexity that can be overcome with practice but isn't the best introduction to shooting.
This brings us to the other firing method, striker fire. The beauty of the striker fired pistol is its relative simplicity. Within a striker fired gun the firing pin is propelled by a spring. Once the spring is cocked or partially cocked a single trigger pull will finish the cocking process and release the striker. The striker causes the firing pin to impact the primer resulting in detonation.
All of this happens within the frame of the pistol, be that a hammerless revolver or any of the pistols that mimic Glock brand pistols. This protects the striker from outside debris especially if the pistol is well sealed against the elements.
Differences between hammer fired and striker fired
Now let's get to the differences between the two systems. The most obvious difference is that one method is partially external and the other is entirely internal when it comes to functioning. Each of these has a different benefits and will mostly hinge on the type of pistol you want or the role you need it for.
Striker fired pistols are the easiest to learn on. They are easy to maintain and they offer a consistent trigger pull. Most variations do not have a restrike capability, although this is model dependent. That being said they have no means of being damaged by something that is outside of the frame of the pistol.
Strikers might break from stress, over use, or sometimes faulty manufacturing but nothing outside of the pistol will cause it to break. This is true until we factor in accidental discharges from dropping the gun but this risk is ever present even for modern manufactured guns that have been drop tested thousands of times.
Hammer fired pistols have external hammers. This allows for an individual to see if the gun is cocked or not. For 1911s this will generally indicate that the firearm might be loaded and ready to fire already. For other guns this will indicate that the gun is in single action mode.
A double action/single action semi-automatic has an extra risk when it comes to being in single action. Putting the gun in single action makes it easier to put the pistol out of battery, especially on Beretta M9/92FS style pistols. When the hammer is back the slide is moved slightly further back making pressure against the front of the slide more likely to put the slide out of battery.
Hammer Fired vs Striker Fired Performance
Next we come to performance. A striker fired pistol will have a consistent trigger pull through its life cycle if it is unmodified and even if it is, the trigger weight will remain the same after the change. This creates consistency for the shooter. When they are training with that pistol the weight will always be the same for that pistol. No variation. This will allow them to learn when the trigger “breaks” and be able to get it to break when they want it to.
The same thing will occur on single action only pistols like 1911s. The difference between the striker and the single action in the 1911 is the speed at which the gun fires. This is not the cycle rate but the fraction of a second that separates pulling the trigger and the gun going “Bang”.
On the 1911 this happens faster than most people react. This means that the gun will fire before the shooter can flinch, twitch, or other wise move after pulling the trigger. This makes certain hammer fired guns more forgiving than others, especially when compared to striker fired guns.
For double action/single action firearms you can get the best of both worlds but at the cost of complexity. The longer trigger pull can throw off the shooter especially if they only practice in the single action mode.
This creates a variable in in the pistol. Some times the trigger will have a heavier weight, other times it won't. This can be mitigated by training but requires many more repetitions than a simpler system.
Another drawback to external hammers is that they create a snag area. Now this is dependent on the type of hammer you have on it but it is still a potential snag point if you are not aware of what is against the hammer.
For the most part hammer fired versus striker fired is a matter of preference. Both are reliable systems and have been for decades.
The simplicity and consistency of striker fired guns make them ideal for quickly training people in how to properly use handguns by minimizing the manual of arms. Many striker fired guns are safe enough that they don't have an external safety which cuts down on the amount of training that is needed to consistently remove that safety. Even some hammered fired guns have gone this way becoming double action only or featuring a decocker rather than a safety.
Where the difference really lies in in the actions of the pistols. As previously stated 1911s are much more forgiving because of their single action design especially on high end 1911s. They just so happen to feature an external hammer. On the other side of things competition shooter features both 1911s and highly modified striker pistols depending on the competition. What it really comes down to is the individual's needs, wants, and more importantly training.
People will still prefer one to the other and some may prefer both. What matters is their familiarity with the system they have selected which comes down to practice, training, and competing. Not all guns are created equal but many are within spitting distance of each other.
Unless you are willing to pay thousands of dollars for an extremely high end or custom pistol most off-the-shelf guns will perform in the same or similar margin of error.
Striker fired guns are the standard because of their ease of use, consistency, and reliability. Hammer fired guns are generally setup to allow for better accuracy more easily. Weigh the performance of the particular pistol you want to use with the parameters of the situation you will use it in and select accordingly.