Want to know how to safely shoot a handgun?
We’ll go over the different types of trigger actions and parts of a handgun. Plus how to safely load and unload your firearm.
But before we do, now’s a good time to review our safety rules.
- All guns are always loaded
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target
- Be sure of your target and what is beyond it
Table of Contents
Trigger Actions & Parts of a Pistol
There are many types of trigger actions, but here are what we consider the three main ones for modern handguns. Don’t worry if just reading about the actions is confusing, we’ll have video examples too.
The single action (SA) is probably most well known from old Western movies where the gunslinger has to move the hammer back before firing each shot. In SA guns, each pull of the trigger initiates only one action — dropping the hammer. It’s up to you to cock the hammer. If the hammer is down when the trigger is pulled, nothing will happen.
In modern handguns such as with the 1911 above, the hammer is cocked when you insert a magazine and rack the slide to chamber the round. After firing, the recoil moves the slide back where it re-cocks the hammer.
SA guns usually have external safety mechanisms such as the 1911’s thumb safety and grip safety. They are often carried with a round in the chamber, the hammer cocked, and all safeties on. “Cocked, locked, and ready to rock?”
Popular examples include the 1911 and Browning Hi-Power.
Double action refers to two actions — cocking the hammer and dropping the hammer. Therefore, these actions have heavier and longer trigger pulls to accomplish both. There are very few double action only (DAO) handguns, but a more popular example is the Sig Sauer DAK trigger.
Most modern handguns are double action single action (DA/SA) rather than double action only (DAO). This means that the first shot will be heavy but subsequent trigger pulls will be single action and lighter since the recoil moves the slide back and re-cocks the hammer.
You’ll see above that there’s a “de-cocker” which lowers the hammer. DA/SA guns are usually carried with a round in the chamber and the hammer de-cocked. This means the first shot will have the longer and heavier trigger pull.
Popular examples include the Beretta 92FS and most Sig Sauer’s.
The easiest way tell if a handgun is striker fired is the lack of a hammer since everything is contained inside. Also known as a “pre-set” trigger, the striker sits in a partially cocked position where pulling the trigger completes the cocking cycle and releases the striker. The trigger pull of striker fired pistols are the same each time.
Most striker fired pistols do not feature external safeties, but rather multiple internal safeties and a trigger safety which prevents misfires unless the safety and trigger are pulled at the same time. You can see the Glock “Safe Action” trigger mechanism above as the blade sticking up from the trigger.
Popular examples are all Glocks, Smith and Wesson M&P, and the Springfield XDS.
How to Load & Unload
Here’s a great video of how to load and unload a Glock pistol. The basics can apply to almost all other types of pistols. Note: you’ll see the slide is locked back in the beginning. After the last round has been shot, most pistols will lock back on the empty magazine.
I advocate a very strong grip on the handgun since it mitigates recoil and reduces movement of the non-trigger fingers.
You want the web between your trigger finger and thumb to be as high as possible on the grip since the slide is a chunk of metal that is moving back and forth, and you want to be as close as possible to it to contain the recoil.
You also want your forearm to be in line with the slide’s movement.
Now let’s look at the empty space on your grip.
You want to fill it completely up with the other hand so you maximize grip. I like to double-check by making sure there’s a 45 degree angle when my non-dominant hand is open.
Thumb placement of your dominant hand is up to you, so see just what comes natural.
This is a thumbs down position.
Versus a thumbs up approach.
Super important part…basically you want to pull back so slowly that the gun surprises you when it fires. That way, you don’t add in automatic flinches to contain the recoil.
As for trigger finger placement?
It can vary from the tip of your finger to the first crease. I would experiment to see what gives you the best leverage and least extra movement. I prefer it closer to the first joint given my finger dimensions.
You got all that…right?
Sometimes video is the best way to learn. Check out our Beginner Handgun Course that covers everything that’s important without the attitude. Or go into our most popular guide…How to Shoot More Accurately.