The Difference Between Double and Single-Action Revolvers

Authors Revolvers Robert Sadowski
What's the difference between double action and single action revolvers? 

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

How revolver triggers are described and operated can be confusing. What is a double-action trigger? What’s different about doubles and singles? And what does DAO mean? I’m no Yoda regarding revolvers, but I can clear things up.

What’s A Single Action Trigger?

Let’s start with single-action or SA triggers since these were the first triggers built into revolver designs. Think of cowboy six-shooters when you think of single-action triggers.

single action revolver being cocked 
This revolver requires the hammer to be cocked before firing the gun. This is a Taylor’s & Co. Cattleman Old Model with Military Markings.

An SA trigger requires the hammer to be cocked before you press the trigger to fire the revolver. As the hammer is cocked back, the cylinder turns to align a chamber in the cylinder with the bore of the barrel. At full cock the hammer is locked back and the trigger is pressed to send the hammer forward and fire the round. Single-action guns are slower to fire rapidly. Another feature of these revolvers is the cylinder is fixed to the frame. Cartridges are loaded with a loading gate and one chamber is loaded at a time. An ejector rod attached to the side of the barrel is used to kick out shells from the chambers.

Single Action revolver at full cock
A single-action revolver at full cock. It is ready to be fired. 

Examples of Single Action Revolvers

The Colt Single Action Army or SAA is the patriarch of SA revolvers. Clones and wannabe six-shooters from Uberti, Cimarron, Pietta, Taylor’s & Co., and others recreate these old-west revolvers and they are a hoot to shoot. Ruger’s Blackhawk is an example of a more modern SA revolver and it is chambered in many different calibers. Heritage Manufacturing’s Rough Rider series are inexpensive rimfire SA revolvers. Get one of these and a lot of 22 Long Rifle ammo and you will have some fun thumbing back the hammer and letting the lead fly. 

What’s A Double Action Trigger? 

A double action or DA trigger allows the user to fire the revolver by just pressing the trigger.

S&W PC Model 60 double action revolver
A double-action revolver can be fired by just pressing the trigger, like this Smith & Wesson PC Model 60

A double-action trigger has a long, deliberate trigger stroke. As you press the trigger, the cylinder rotates to align a chamber with the bore, and at the end of the trigger stroke, the gun will fire. Release the trigger to start the process again. DA triggers are faster to shoot rapidly. Google Jerry Miculek to see just how fast he can shoot a double-action revolver.

S&W double action revolver fired in single action
Here is the same S&W PC Model 60 double-action revolver firing in single action.

The confusing thing about double-action revolvers is that most can be fired single-action, too. These revolvers are sometimes described as DA/SA or Double Action/Single Action revolvers. With these revolvers, you have a choice to fire the gun by just pressing the trigger or cocking the hammer back and pressing the trigger. The DA triggers’ pulls will be long and heavy compared to the short and lighter SA pulls.

What’s A Double Action Trigger Good For?

On an EDC revolver, having a DA trigger means you need to deliberately press the trigger to fire the gun. It takes some effort to fire a double-action revolver and that adds a level of safety to a revolver since it needs more effort to fire the gun. Another feature unique to a double-action revolver is a latch is pressed to swing the cylinder out of the revolver frame to reload. In a sense, you are partially disassembling the gun every time you reload. Ejector rods are built into the cylinder which is pressed to dump out empty shells all at the same time. 

Examples of Double Action Revolvers

Smith & Wesson built its reputation manufacturing double-action revolvers, producing small J-frame models perfect for EDC all the way up to X-frame models chambered in powerful magnum calibers that could down a T-Rex. The Ruger SP101 is a good example of a workhorse EDC revolver, while the Redhawk is a good choice to carry for protection against bears. Forget the pepper spray, six rounds of heavy 44 Magnum loads is what I prefer to pack in the woods. The Taurus Raging Hunter and Tracker series offers serious magnum calibers. The Colt Python is an iconic revolver with classic looks. Charter Arms builds DA revolvers that are great for concealed carry and are affordable as well as dependable.

What Is A DAO Trigger?

A DAO or Double Action Only revolver trigger is just that, you can only fire this revolver in double-action. Many times these revolvers are called hammerless revolvers because the hammer of the revolver is enclosed in the frame.

S&W DAO revolver
A DAO revolver can only be fired in double-action; the hammer is enclosed inside the frame.  

The hammerless naming is really a misnomer since the hammer is inside the frame. Someone coined the term way back when and it just stuck. Other DAO revolvers have the hammer spur cut off so the hammer cannot be cocked back and fired in single-action.

Examples of DAO Revolvers

The Smith & Wesson Model 642 and Model 442 are examples of DAO, hammerless revolvers. The Charter Arms Model 13811 has the bobbed hammer spur.

S&W Model 42 double action revolver
This S&W Model 42 is a good example of a DAO revolver.

These DAO revolvers are typically small, compact revolvers and are a great choice for concealed carry.

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