Hammer-Fired vs. Striker-Fired Pistols: Everything You Need to Know

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By Dennis Howard •  10 min read

If you are considering purchasing a new pistol, the topic of hammer-fired pistols vs. striker-fired pistols will always come up. Before you make a final decision on which style of pistol you prefer, you need to educate yourself about the way each pistol design works, and the disadvantages of each.

Hammer-Fired vs. Striker-Fired Pistols

Striker-fired pistols are not a new phenomenon in the pistol shooting world. This type of pistol action has been around for decades but really came into prominence with Glock introducing their first pistol, the Glock 17. Striker-fired guns took an immediate jump in popularity at that time.

Hammer-fired pistols are familiar to almost everyone. You would be hard-pressed to find a shooter who doesn’t recognize the famous Model 1911 pistol. Millions of these workhorse .45 caliber semi-automatic pistols were produced during World War II. These Model 1911s may be the most famous hammer-fired pistols in the world.

M1911 Colt .45 ACP pistol with external hammer

Hammer-Fired Pistols Operations

If you are old enough, you’ll remember the detective shows and cowboy movies that showcased a variety of hammer-fired revolvers, and many of us were introduced to pistol shooting with a twenty-two caliber revolver.

Semi-automatic hammer-fired pistols are not new. The infamous Mauser C96, otherwise known as the “broom handle Mauser” for its distinctive round wooden handle, was one of the more successful early attempts at a self-loading pistol with a hammer.

The Basic Mechanism of a Hammer-Fired Pistol

The modern hammer-fired semi-automatic pistol mechanism is relatively unchanged from John Browning’s original 1911 pistol design. Without going into a lot of engineering details. the design has several distinct features.

pistol with hammer manually cocked and ready to fire

To initiate the sequence, the slide on the hammer-fired pistol must be manually operated to place an unfired cartridge in the chamber. The hammer may be automatically returned to the safe position or may remain cocked, ready for a shot.

Innovations in Safety On Hammer-Fired Pistols

Many of the early versions of hammer-fired pistols automatic pistols had some serious weaknesses. In particular, if the hammer were undocked, it tended to rest against the firing pin. An accident strike on the hammer could cause a negligent discharge. This was most often seen if the pistol was dropped.

Grip Safety on a pistol with an visible hammer

To prevent these negligent discharges, several approaches are used. Some pistol designs incorporate grip safeties. This safety on the back of the grip surface must be depressed for the hammer to engage the firing pin. Other designs incorporate a trigger or hammer disconnect that prevents the hammer from moving unless all the safeties are disengaged. These design changes have proven effective in almost entirely eliminating negligent discharges in recent years.

The Glock trigger operates the safey to actively engage the firing mechanism when the trigger is pulled

Glock firearms feature a fully automatic safety system. A lever on the trigger must be depressed to engage the trigger with the rest of the firing system. There is no need to disengage a manual safety, which eliminates many moving parts from other hammer-fired safety systems.

Types of Modern Hammer-Fired Pistols

Modern hammer-fired pistols come in two flavors. These two types of hammer-fired semi-automatic pistols are known as single-action pistols and double-action pistols. There is a significant difference in the way these two types of hammer-fired guns operate from a shooter’s standpoint.

The Single Action Pistol Variation

The easiest way to differentiate between single-action and double-action pistols is to understand what the trigger pull actually does on each type of pistol. On a single-action pistol, the trigger performs one function and one function only, releasing the hammer to fire the pistol.

A single-action pistol requires that the hammer be moved to the firing position before each shot can be taken. This is accomplished on most single-action revolvers by manually pulling the hammer back to the cocked position. On modern semi-automatic single-action pistols, racking the slide the first time cocks the hammer as well. Each subsequent shot resets the hammer.

The Double Action Pistol Variation

As you might expect from the name, the trigger on a double-action weapon has two functions. The trigger does release the hammer to fire the pistol. The second function is to cock the hammer when ready to fire a round from the pistol. Several hammer-fired weapons operate as double-action pistols.

Typically, racking the slide to place an unfired cartridge in the chamber also allows the hammer to come back to the safe position where it is prevented from striking the firing pin by a disconnect or a hammer block.

To fire the first shot, the first trigger pull cocks the hammer to the firing position. At the end of the trigger pull, the disconnect or hammer block is disengaged, and the hammer falls to strike the firing pin. The recoil of the pistol works the action to expel the spent cartridge, cock the hammer, and load a new cartridge ready for firing.

Striker-Fired Pistol Operations

Striker-fired pistols are distinguished by the lack of a hammer at the rear of the slide. The entire firing mechanism is housed inside the slide. Many people prefer a striker-fired gun for this very reason. With no hammer, the possible snag problems of a hammer are removed from the equation.

It would appear that the lack of a hammer and the required mechanisms to cock the hammer during a double-action shot would be an advantage. What is missing is the ability to make a striker-fired pistol safe by decocking the hammer. Striker fires handguns gained popularity after Glock introduced their first striker-fired handguns.

An example of most striker fired pistols

The Basic Mechanism of Striker-Fired Guns

Striker mechanisms don’t rely on the inertia and mass of a hammer to drive the firing pin into the cartridge primer like hammer-fired handguns. Instead, the firing pin is driven forward when the trigger is pulled, and the spring tension causes the firing mechanism to strike the primer and send the bullet on its way. The spring-loaded firing pin on striker-fired guns is the fundamental difference between a striker-fired handgun and a hammer-fired gun.

Historically, there were some problems with the early striker-fired weapons. On some occasions that safety mechanism would fail if a pistol were dropped or the trigger was snagged during re-holstering. This caused several negligent discharges. The gun manufacturing industry responded with new and better safety innovations for these pistols

A striker-fired gun operates much like a single-action semi-automatic firearm. The same basic mechanics are required.

A striker mechanism in a pistol usually features as short reset on subsequent shots

The striker mechanism on most modern semi-automatic striker-fired pistols includes built-in safety mechanisms that prevent accidental discharges.

Safeties and the Striker-Fired Pistol

Many early striker-fired pistols included manual safety buttons or levers that prevented the gun from operating if the safety was engaged. Gun manufacturers began offering internal automatic safety features as technology and development progressed. There are a wide array of different safety concepts now employed on the standard striker-fired pistol. Among these are:

Modern striker mechanism pistols are some of the safest handguns available. Striker-fired handguns have a great safety record and, when handled properly, rarely have problems with negligent discharges.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Hammer-Fired Pistol

Both types of pistols have their advocates and their detractors. It is often difficult to get an unbiased view of striker vs. hammer-fired weapons, and most gun owners have their personal feelings about this question. Personally, I have both kinds of semi-automatic pistols in my collection. I am not so concerned about the type of firearm I carry as I am about the functionality, dependability, and the way it feels in my hand when I shoot.

With that said, I do understand the advantages and disadvantages of both types of pistols. I will offer what I think is an objective consideration of the pros and cons and hope that opinion helps you with your decision.

Striker-Fired Pistol Advantages

I routinely carry a Glock 43. This subcompact 9mm pistol is striker-fired and has proven exceptionally dependable and accurate. For a concealed carry pistol, I couldn’t ask for anything better.

The Disadvantages of a Striker Mechanism

The Advantages of a Hammer-Fired Pistol

I have a Sig Sauer P250, which I still occasionally carry if I want a larger-capacity pistol than the Glock 43. It is a double-action pistol with an abbreviated hammer. I like the way this gun performs and shoots.

The Disadvantages of a Hammer

Which Would I Chose if I Could Only Have One Pistol?

In the end, if it came down to choosing one type of semi-auto pistol over another, I would choose the striker mechanism. The simpler operation and the sleeker and thinner frames that typify this type of pistol make them my choice. I enjoy shooting both styles of the pistol but, in the end, my go-to self-defense and personal carry pistols all have striker mechanisms.

Dennis Howard

A life long hunter, fisherman, and outdoorsman, after surviving a devastating tornado in his home town, he saw the effects on people's lives as they struggled to cope. He built his first bugout bag a few weeks later and has been a dedicated prepper/survivalist since that time. After a career as a fireman, Dennis opened a retail store (FFL approved) catering to the military, law enforcement, and like-minded individuals. The store built their own AR platforms. Furthermore, Dennis was also an NRA instructor in both long gun and handgun as well as a certified range safety officer. Read his full interview here.