Concealed Carry Myths: Double-action Handguns Suck for Self-defense
Tom McHale 05.28.15
Recently, there has been much rekindled and rehashed debate on whether striker-fired guns are the spawn of Satanic fire-breathing seahorses or the most effective self-defense technology ever to grace a holster.
Some folks remain convinced that striker-fired guns like Glocks have trigger-press motions that are too easy and too short. According to this view, negligent and unintended discharges are bound to happen, more so than with other designs. Under stress, your body does weird things, one of which is a sympathetic muscular response. For example, clenching one hand will cause the other to clench, although maybe to a lesser degree. If that “other” hand is holding a gun, then you just might fire it unintentionally. It’s happened before, but so have a lot of other things, like Clay Aiken running for Congress.
The opposing camp prefers long, double-action triggers like those on revolvers and pistols like Berettas, Sig Sauers, and the like. The first shot requires a very long and deliberate press of the trigger. On a Beretta 92FS, the base of the trigger moves over an inch before the shot breaks. The center portion of the trigger, where one’s finger will likely rest, moves over 5/8 of an inch. The double-action pull’s trigger weight can run over 10 pounds, compared to the five-pound range of many striker-fired pistols.
At first glance, it sounds like the single action vs double action crowd has the debate nailed, but there are downsides to consider. First, that long double-action trigger press is harder to master, so it takes some work to deliver an accurate shot, especially under stress. Then there’s the dreaded transition. With a double-action/single-action gun like the Beretta 92/M9, the first shot requires a long trigger press with over 10 pounds of pressure. Subsequent shots operate in single-action mode with a five-pound, and much shorter, trigger press. Getting off multiple accurate shots requires the shooter to master this transition from double-action to single-action between the first shot and second. A striker-fired (or single-action only) pistol has no such transition to conquer. Proponents of that design claim you can unleash two rapid-fire shots at a 300-yard-distant Willy Wonka Bottle Cap candy and hit it both times.
Like most debates, there is some truth on both sides. Personally, I have double-action/single-action, striker-fired, and single-action only guns and am comfortable carrying any of those styles. I’ve never been stressed out about the whole double-action/single-action transition thing. In fact, my first “real caliber” gun was a 9x19mm Beretta 92FS. I carried it as my only option for years and never worried much about it. I guess I didn’t know enough to know that it was the worst concealed carry choice ever and would cause not only my eventual demise, but the downfall of Bingo parlors and tanning salons everywhere. I simply shot it enough to feel comfortable with “the transition.” As a new concealed carrier, I liked the multiple layers of perceived safety. The safety/decocking lever provided one layer. The long, double-action trigger press offered another. I still like those layers and carry double-action pistols frequently.
Until a recent training class I never really knew exactly why I was so comfortable with a double-action/single-action design for concealed carry. Then I found out why I like it. I took an abbreviated class with Ernie Langdon. You might have heard of him, as he’s one of the premier pistol instructors anywhere.
During the class, Ernie taught us the real value of using a double-action gun as a fighting pistol. In short, the idea is to develop a fluid motion of drawing, acquiring a sight picture, and making a fire/no-fire decision, all while starting that long and heavy double-action trigger press. By the time your front sight rises into the perfect sight picture, you’ve already made the decision to shoot (or not) and have fired the shot (or not). It’s exceptionally smooth and fast once you practice and get the hang of it.
I decided to give Ernie’s method a thorough try—and I don’t mean that I took a few shots at the range to see how it felt. Well, yeah, I did that, but more importantly, I allocated a lot of dry and live fire training time to honing the technique to see how it would work out for me.
Step one was to burn in the timing and sequence of the technique. Using my Beretta 92FS at home, double- and triple-checked for safe, dry-fire practice conditions, I started some slow drills. When I say slow, I mean glacially slow, as in the speed at which my dog walks himself to the bathtub. The reason I did these drills so slowly was to “burn” the exact sequence I wanted into my brain. I wanted every practice motion to be perfect and identical. With enough repetitions, speed will eventually take care of itself.
This is the drill:
- Move firing hand to gun grip and move support hand to chest (to keep it out of the way and position it for assuming a support grip).
- Lift the gun from the holster and rotate towards the target, while bringing it to my support hand.
- Assume two-handed grip with the gun still pressed close to my body.
- Flip the safety/decocking lever down.*
- Press the gun forward while raising the front sight into my field of view.
- Apply pressure to the (double-action mode) trigger while raising the pistol and acquiring a sight picture.
- Evaluate during this process as to whether it is appropriate to continue trigger pressure to fire or release pressure and stop the firing sequence.
* Yes, I said press down on the safety/decocking lever. You may know that the safety/decocking lever on a Beretta 92, M9 or PX4 is frame-mounted and moves up, not down. That’s correct, but here’s a nifty little trick that’s really a design feature. As Ernie Langdon demonstrated to the class, one of the purposes for the spring and detent motion of the safety decock lever is that you can press it down just a bit and the spring will cause it to continue circling until it moves into the up (fire) position. Trust me on this one and give it a try—it works like a champ.
Now back to the details. The motions taking the gun from your sternum area up to your sight picture are the key ones, hence my very slow and deliberate practice. I prefer to raise the pistol while keeping the barrel horizontal to the ground. If you raise it in a pendulum motion, with the muzzle pointed toward the ground at the start and finishing horizontal, you won’t get a decent sight picture until the very end of the movement. You also don’t want to bring your gun up in such a way that the muzzle points up and you eventually need to bring it back down. The parallel-to-ground method works for me as the front sight naturally comes into view. If necessary, I can fire at virtually any point during the presentation stage.
Is this method right for you? Got me, you’ll have to try it. My practice routines are resulting in some pretty impressive draw and fire skills (for me anyway) so I’m going to keep at it. I followed Ernie’s method during the class, then came home and gave it an extended trial. When a trainer of that caliber teaches me a new method, I may or may not adopt it, but I’m certainly going to give it a fair shot.
The important thing is test concepts on your own, fair and square, then make a decision. Don’t fall for the internet myths about striker-fired guns being too dangerous or double-action pistols being too hard to shoot accurately. Absorb the most credible information you can, preferably in person from a quality instructor, then go to work testing the principles you learn on your own.
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.