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Striker-fired pistols have largely replaced hammer-fired weapons in military service, as police sidearms, and for private self-defense. As with any type of weapon, there is no perfect choice. Every system is unique and you should know what your options are to choose the right weapon for you.
Many new-production pistols designed for private self-defense, law enforcement, and military issue are striker-fired. This system has become the standard. But what’s so special about it?
If you understand the basics of how striker-fired pistols work, you can make an informed decision about whether you should buy one. Only you can decide which type of pistol is best for your needs.
How Striker-Fired Pistols Work
When you chamber a round, you fire it by igniting the propellant charge in the cartridge. Centerfire and rimfire cartridges use different priming mixtures and casing types. But the underlying principle is the same. The primer or priming compound detonates to ignite the powder in the case.
The traditional system for firing a cartridge is to use a firing pin driven by a hammer. The firing pin is a thin metal rod with a rounded point. In a pistol, the firing pin rests in a channel in the slide and protrudes through a hole in the breechface. When the cocked hammer is released, it rotates forward, driving the firing pin into the cartridge primer.
A striker-fired handgun eliminates the hammer and substitutes a spring-loaded firing pin called a striker. This part serves the same purposes as a firing pin, but a firing pin is not cocked or propelled forward by spring tension. If a firing pin has a spring, it’s restraining it against its own momentum — i.e., to stop it from moving forward until it’s supposed to.
While the Glock series of handguns is perhaps the most popular example of a modern striker-fired pistol, this type of ignition system is older in handguns. The Heckler & Koch VP70 predates the adoption of the Glock by more than a decade. Today, striker-fired handguns are the default option for law-enforcement agencies and militaries around the world.
Other than striker-fired pistols, the striker is most commonly seen in bolt-action hunting and military rifles.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Advantages of Striker-Fired Pistols
Compared with hammer-fired pistols, striker-fired pistols have several advantages.
Fewer external parts
A striker-fired pistol doesn’t have a hammer, so the design can be more externally streamlined. While the trend has been toward hammers with more rounded shapes, many hammers still take the form of a spur that can snag on clothing or equipment.
Fewer ingress points
Because the striker is internal, there is one less ingress point for dirt and debris. If mud, for example, enters the hammer channel of a pistol slide, it can prevent the hammer from delivering a full blow to the firing pin. This can cause light strikes or tie the weapon up altogether.
By eliminating the hammer and associated parts, and positioning the mainspring inside the striker channel, there are fewer parts in a striker-fired pistol.
Consistent trigger pull
This advantage is only available with double-action/single-action pistols. In a DA/SA pistol, the first shot requires a heavy, long double-action trigger squeeze, similar to that of a revolver. However, every subsequent shot is single-action as the slide recocks the hammer.
Some find this trigger pull transition to adversely affect accuracy from the first to the second shots. In a striker-fired pistol, the trigger pull is consistent and often lighter than double-action weapons.
Striker-fired pistols rarely have decocking levers or manual safeties that you have to manipulate instead of relying on passive and internal safety systems. This reduces the number of actions you need to perform before you can fire your weapon. It also requires less training.
What are the Downsides?
Striker-fired pistols are not perfect. Some disadvantages of the system relative to hammer-fired guns include:
Many striker-fired pistols suffer from a subpar trigger pull. One of the most notorious examples is the Glock series. The trigger pull is relatively light — comparable to that of an M1911 — but it’s not crisp.
Most striker-fired pistols do not have external safeties. While it results in a simpler weapon, some gun owners object to this. If you’d prefer a manual safety you can disengage with your thumb as you draw the weapon, there are manufacturers who can accommodate this. SIG and Smith & Wesson are two well-known examples.
The Glock’s Safe Action Trigger is the best example of a passive safety system in a striker-fired pistol.
Some shooters prefer the control that an external hammer affords. You can cock or decock the weapon at any time.
Ease of Operation
A hammer-fired pistol lets you more easily retract the slide by cocking the hammer first. When cycled in this fashion, you only have to overcome the tension of the recoil spring.
This is more applicable to double-action/single-action (DA/SA) and double-action-only (DAO) handguns than single-action-only (SAO). Most striker-fired pistols don’t provide you with an option to squeeze the trigger a second time to recock and release the striker.
If you experience a light primer strike, a hammer-fired weapon allows you to try again without ejecting the cartridge.
This may be less important than some may think, as the standard drill for a misfire is “tap, rack, bang.” Tap the magazine to ensure that it’s seated, rack the slide to eject the unfired — and possibly defective — cartridge, and fire.
In a striker-fired pistol, the striker and the mainspring must fit inside the slide channel. As a result, there is limited space for modifying either if the need arises. In hammer-fired weapons, the hammer is often a replaceable or drop-in part. If you need to reduce the weight and lock time or increase the weight for a more positive blow, you usually can.
Some striker-fired pistols, such as the Heckler & Koch VP9, have a cocked striker indicator. This appears as a red dot through the slide’s rear plate. However, many striker-fired pistols do not provide any visual or tactile confirmation that the weapon is cocked. This is in contrast to a hammer-fired gun — if the hammer’s cocked, you can see and feel it.
Striker-fired weapons offer a simple alternative to hammer-fired pistols. These modern weapons have been adopted by militaries and law-enforcement agencies around the world.
If you think that the striker-fired system is for you, try as many as you can. A firing range that rents handguns typically has a selection of striker-fired pistols you can experiment with.
If, for example, you find the Glock’s trigger unsatisfactory, that isn’t representative of all designs. The Heckler & Koch P7 has a crisp, light, and consistent trigger press. However, if you determine that hammer-fired weapons are more appealing to you, choose one of those instead.
Pistols with hammers and strikers have their pros and cons, and neither option is necessarily right for your needs. Take the time to try both — experience is the best judge.