Let’s be honest; hammer and striker-fired weapons both go bang. Hammer-fired pistols are the oldest of the two, sticking around for well over 200 years on the firearms market. Striker-fired pistols are often what people learn simply because this setup is popular in many modern entry-level handguns.
While striker-fired weapons have a significant standing in the firearm world, hammer-fired platforms are all but obsolete. The classic 1911-type platform is the most recognizable hammer-fired weapon and has a cult following. In contrast, striker-fired weapons generally have a higher capacity and fewer manual safeties than hammer-fired weapons.
Both have advantages, and some prefer one over the other. I prefer a hammer-fired weapon because I like having control of multiple external safeties and a visual indicator of chambering status. Striker-fired weapons have their high notes, too, but for a visual person like myself, the internal safeties of this kind of weapon just aren’t my preference in certain situations.
What Does Hammer-Fired Mean?
A hammer-fired weapon means that the weapon has a hammer (usually visible at the rear of the slide) that strikes a firing pin that, in turn, strikes the cartridge fire. This ignites the primer, which propels the bullet down the barrel. This setup means the weapon is designed to be in a “cocked and locked” position. Once a loaded magazine is inserted, the slide has to be racked and released to chamber a cartridge; racking forces the hammer into the rear position.
Hammer-fired weapons generally do not have internal safeties that prevent accidental discharge and instead have external safeties such as passive grip safety and manual thumb safety. The familiar 1911 platform often features a passive grip safety at the backstrap and lever-style thumb safety on the left of the weapon just below the slide.
A single-action hammer-fired weapon is a pistol that fires each time the trigger is depressed, as long as the hammer is fully locked back. This is a single-stage trigger, and in this particular type of weapon, there is no decocking mechanism in order to carry the “hammer down,” and there is no “half-cocked” position after the first fire. The hammer goes through a full rotation each time the trigger is depressed. A good example of single action is 1911s.
Double Action/Single-Action Hammer-Fired
A double-action/single-action hammer-fired weapon is a hammer-fired weapon that has a decocking lever to drop the hammer to a hammer-down position. The decocking lever prevents the firing pin from aligning with the firing pin striker on the hammer when releasing the hammer. A double-action triggers both cocks and releases the hammer when pulled. This is generally a heavier draw weight.
In a DA/SA pistol carried in the hammer-down position, the first shot is a double-action pull, and all subsequent shots are single-action. Now, each time the slide racks during a shot, the hammer is locked back, and the trigger only needs to be pulled to release the hammer instead of cocking it as with the first shot after inserting the magazine.
A double-action-only hammer-fired weapon both cocks and de-cocks the hammer in the same motion. This weapon is automatically carried in a hammer-down position and does not have a locking mechanism for the hammer as the DA/SA type system does.
A double-action-only hammer-fired pistol also doesn’t have a separate de-cocking mechanism, as this is an automatic function when racking the slide.
What does Striker-Fired Mean?
A striker-fired weapon has an internal firing mechanism rather than a hammer. The firing pin is spring-loaded and under tension until the trigger releases it directly to strike the primer of a cartridge.
When inserting a magazine and racking the slide to chamber a round, the firing pin is partially cocked. This spring-loaded system is a built-in safety when well-maintained, as the force from a partially cocked firing pin won’t be adequate to ignite the primer and result in an accidental discharge.
Hammer-Fired vs. Striker-Fired
One of the main differences between hammer-fired and striker-fired is that a hammer-fired weapon has three steps that have to occur successively to result in a discharge, and a striker-fired weapon has two.
A hammer-fired weapon has a hammer that has to be cocked and released to strike a firing pin that has to strike the primer. A striker-fired weapon has a spring-loaded firing pin that is directly connected to the trigger and is cocked and released to strike the primer.
A hammer-fired weapon has an externally exposed hammer. A striker-fired weapon has no hammer and no external mechanism related to firing other than a potential safety to inhibit accidental discharge.
Pros & Cons of Hammer-Fired
- Light single-action fire is snappy, responsive, and quick.
- External safeties can add extra peace of mind and physical protection against accidental discharges.
- DA/SA weapons can accommodate higher capacity magazines compared to single-action-only weapons and still give the option to fire quickly under a single-action trigger pull after the first shot is fired.
- Single-action-only weapons generally have a lower capacity.
- An exposed hammer can potentially be caught on clothing or accessories if carried concealed.
- Double-action pulls are generally heavier, and double-action-only weapons can be fatiguing to the hands and be slower under rapid-fire conditions.
Pros & Cons of Striker-Fired
- Easy to operate with fewer moving components when firing.
- Many are made of polymer components, are lighter in weight, and are more refined, which can be easier to conceal.
- No exposed hammer means no potential for it to catch on clothing.
- Lack of external safety can be a con for some people (like me) that like to have a visible and tangible safety component.
- A heavier trigger draw weight can be fatiguing to the hands over time.
- Higher incidence of accidental discharge.
Are Hammer or Striker-Fired Pistols Better?
Hammer-fired and striker-fired pistols each have their advantages. I prefer hammer-fired pistols because I like the visibility of external safety. I don’t prefer how a striker-fired weapon has the potential to accidentally discharge if a firing pin spring is too taught or malfunctions.
Is Striker or Hammer-Fired More Reliable?
Striker-fired weapons are less complex than hammer-fired. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more reliable. Less-than-reputable brands of either platform can sell unreliable, unsafe weapons. Many swear by hammer-fired because of its tried-and-true components, others say an exposed hammer is one more opening for debris to foul the gun’s internal workings.
Striker and hammer-fired weapons have a solid place in the firearms market. Hammer-fired is a classic and reliable design that now has variations the first gunsmiths could only dream of. It has a visible external hammer and at least one manual safety that helps many people develop an appreciation for visual and tactile indicators.
A striker-fired weapon is streamlined and simpler in its mechanism. There’s less to catch on clothing when carrying concealed. However, with the trigger directly attached to the firing pin, historically, there’s a higher incidence of accidental discharge and firing pin spring malfunctions. Trigger discipline is also paramount when using a striker-fired weapon; even if this is a popular entry-level gun, accidental discharges from user error are also higher due to immature trigger discipline.