“Sooner or later, everything old is new again,” author Stephen King wrote in his 2005 crime thriller, ‘The Colorado Kid.’ This sentiment certainly applies to the striker fired pistol, which thrived for years alongside its early 20th century hammer fired competitors before seeming to fall by the wayside for the next four decades. In 1982, the success of the Glock 17 led to a resurgence in striker fired pistol designs that continues today.
The striker fired vs hammer fired topic is a common discussion in the firearms community, with each primer-igniting mechanism having its share of passionate supporters. In this article, we’ll look at the history of striker fired and hammer fired pistols, define what striker fired means and how striker fired pistols work, and compare some of the rare and common models that were developed over the past 130 years. Most firearm examples featured here are available in Rock Island Auction Company’s May 2023 Premier Firearms Auction, and you can click on the images to learn more about each gun.
A documented U.S. Army-issued SIG Sauer M17 pistol with its box. Along with the widespread adoption of the Glock pistol around the world, the M17’s official status as a U.S. Military sidearm is often cited by striker fired fans in the striker fired vs hammer fired debate.
What is a Hammer Fired Pistol?
In the world of modern handguns, the firing pin is driven by either a striker or a hammer. A hammer fired pistol usually has a spring-powered weight that rotates forward when the trigger is released and pushes the firing pin into the cartridge primer, like a hammer driving a nail. In most hammer fired pistol models, the hammer and mainspring are located on the frame while the firing pin is situated within the slide.
An engraved, historic German Walther PP with a nickel finish. The Walther PP was one of the earliest and most influential DA/SA hammer fired pistol models.
What is a Striker Fired Pistol?
In contrast, the striker fired pistol incorporates its firing pin into a spring-loaded striker component located in the slide. The hammer has been eliminated and the mainspring acts directly on the striker assembly when the trigger is released, unleashing its stored energy and sending the striker springing forward with enough force to detonate the cartridge primer.
In older striker fired pistols, the striker is retained and released by a sear, where newer striker fired pistols tend to follow the pattern set by Glock, where the striker rests a bit below “full cock” and the sear pulls the striker the remainder of the way back before discharge as an added layer of safety against dropping or rough handling.
A four-shot Nazi belt buckle pistol, one of the most unusual striker fired guns.
Early Striker Fired Pistols
Today, the term “striker fired” is typically used to differentiate striker fired pistols from hammer fired pistols, but the concept of the striker fired primer-igniting mechanism dates back nearly two centuries. Early bolt action guns like the Dreyse employed a long needle instead of a firing pin, becoming the direct predecessor to the bolt action rifle, which are examples of manually operated striker fired designs.
Semi-automatic striker fired pistols are certainly not a recent development. Hugo Borchardt’s C93 was the first striker fired auto-loading pistol produced in meaningful numbers. The Borchardt Pistol was an important forerunner to the work of Georg Luger, who would refine the core mechanical principles of the Borchardt to develop his own eponymous and world-famous handgun in 1898.
During this period, the striker fired vs hammer fired question seemed less important than a handgun’s chambering, capacity, and durability as early semi-automatic pistol makers vied for lucrative military contracts. Companies like Mauser, Sauer, Nambu, and Savage introduced striker fired pistols in the early years of the 20th century. John Browning designed and patented the Browning FN Browning Model 1899 and later Model 1900, a Belgium-produced handgun that became one of the most successful striker fired pistols of its era.
The FN Baby Browning is another early example of an striker fired pistol, as are some of Carl Walther’s initial designs like the Walther Model 1. The Nambu family of pistols, from the Grandpa and Baby Nambu to the Nambu Type 14, employ a striker fired mechanism, though the infamous Nambu Type 94 relies on a concealed hammer. Other early striker fired pistol examples include the Glisenti 1910, the Bernardelli Vest Pocket, the Ortgies pistol, the Beretta Model 1919, and the Le Francais pistol. Perhaps the most famous early striker fired pistol in America, however, was the Savage Model 1907.
While a number of “hammerless” guns like the Colt Model 1903 were actually hammer fired pistols with internal hammers, the Savage Model 1907 is a striker fired pistol with a manual cocking lever used to retract and cock the striker assembly. This external mounted cocking lever allowed the striker to be cocked by hand to make racking easier when chambering a round and allowed the striker to be re-cocked without racking the slide in the event of a misfire.
Perhaps the biggest difference between these early striker fired pistols and more modern striker fired handgun examples is that the early 20th century designs are essentially single action weapons, with the striker being retained and released by a sear. For the C93 and its Luger successors, for instance, the actuation mechanism is single action. This means the sole function of the trigger is to release the striker to fire the weapon and the striker is fully pre-cocked by the pistol cycling.
The striker fired pistols that emerged in the 1980s likely took more influence from examples like the Roth-Steyr 1907, which employed a striker with an action more akin to the Glock and its descendants than other early striker fired pistols, being one of the first instances of a partially re-cocking striker action.
Rise of the Hammer Fired Pistol
Hammer fired mechanisms have been used since the advent of percussion systems, where the hammer struck the percussion cap directly. Early rimfire revolvers and rifles employed a similar design. With the introduction of the centerfire cartridge, the firing pin was either mounted in the frame, as exampled in the Richards-Mason conversion centerfire-chambered revolvers, or mounted to the hammer like Colt’s iconic Single Action Army design. The concept of a spring-driven hammer driving a firing pin was a natural fit for early recoil-operated pistol designs like the C96 and M1911.
One of the most successful and widely recognized early semiautomatic hammer fired pistols is the Mauser C96, like this outstanding WW1 Mauser “Red 9” Broomhandle pistol with matching shoulder stock and accessories.
The totemic Model 1911 is perhaps the most famous hammer fired pistol of all time. The genre’s military lineage started in 1898 with “Browning’s Colt Automatic Pistol,” a gun that would become known as the first production Colt Model 1900. The Colt Model 1902, 1905, and 1907 pistols followed, culminating in the “Automatic Pistol, Calibre .45, Model of 1911,” which set a new design standard for American military sidearms that would go unchallenged for seven decades.
Though undoubtedly successful, the Broomhandle, the M1911, and other early hammer fired pistols shared the market with aforementioned striker fired competitors like the Luger and Savage for several decades. The case for the hammer fired pistol was bolstered in the 1920s and 1930s with the introduction of platforms like the Walther PP, the Walther P.38, and the Browning Hi Power.
While the Broomhandle, 1911, and Hi Power pistols are single-action designs, the Walther PP and Walther P.38 were among the first successful semi-automatic pistols to use a double action/single action trigger. Like the 1911 and the Browning Hi Power, the Walther PP was widely copied and served as inspiration for numerous hammer fired pistol models over the subsequent decades.
Striker Fired Pistols Strike Back
Revolvers and hammer fired pistols filled the niche for military, police, and personal protection handguns through the 1970s and 1980s, with a series of semiautomatic 9mm pistols dubbed “Wonder Nines” gaining ground over more traditional platforms like the .45 ACP. Popular models included the S&W 59, the Beretta 92, and the CZ-75, all shared a number of features like DA/SA actions and double stack mags that could carry 12 or more rounds. The hammer fired pistol seemed poised to continue its domination until an Austrian curtain-rod manufacturer entered the market in 1982.
A Beretta Model 92FS Billennium pistol with its original box. One of the coolest looking hammer fired 9mm pistols of any era.
When Gaston Glock introduced the Glock 17 pistol, he initiated a striker fired vs hammer fired debate that continues today in the firearms community. In the early 1980s, most police and service members had only ever trained with revolvers and hammer fired pistols. The Glock 17 inspired a wave of polymer-framed, striker fired pistols that challenged the conventional perception of handgun design.
The platform that kicked off the modern striker fired vs hammer fired debate, the Glock 17 and its successors like the Glock 19 are used by police forces across the world and are considered among the best striker fired pistols on the market. This factory engraved and gold inlaid Glock 19 sold for $5,175 in RIAC’s May 2019 Premier Auction.
For some, the striker fired Glock seemed forward-thinking and fashionable. To skeptics, the hammerless design reinforced the notion that the lightweight “plastic” gun was cutting corners to save on costs. For the average cash-strapped police department, the Glock offered high capacity, reliability, and ease of operation at an affordable price point.
Though the Glock is unquestionably the most influential modern striker fired pistol platform, the Heckler & Koch VP70 offered a polymer-framed, striker fired design 12 years earlier. A handful of other striker fired pistols were released in the 1970s, including the Jennings Model J-22, notorious for its unintentional discharges, and the unique Semmerling LM4 pictured above, a manually-operated striker fired pistol that requires the slide to be flicked forward and back after each double action squeeze of the trigger.
Manufactured in 1997, this rare Heckler & Koch P7 K3 pistol includes a .22 LR and 7.65mm conversion kit. Unlike a traditional striker fired pistol which is primed by pulling the trigger, P7 strikers are primed by pressing their squeeze-cocking mechanism on the front strap.
Today, the market is brimming with polymer-framed, striker fired pistols. Just a few popular options include the Springfield Armory XD/XDm, the H&K VP9, the S&W M&P, the Walther PPQ, the CZ P-10 series, and the SIG Sauer P320, which was adopted by the U.S. Military in 2017 as the M17.
Striker Fired vs Hammer Fired
For modern pistols, any striker fired vs hammer fired comparison will involve a number of generalities that do not apply to every model. Still, certain advantages can be observed more frequently across each platform.
For example, striker fired pistols tend to use fewer parts and are typically cheaper to produce as a result. Glock proudly boasts that their pistols are manufactured with 34 component parts, while the most standard 1911 variants include at least 52. Disassembly and maintenance can also be easier as a result, and the lack of an external hammer is one less entry point for dust, grit, or mud to foul the internals.
Another notable advantage many striker-fired pistols offer is their ease of operation. Their trigger stroke and trigger reset tend to be shorter and permit fast follow-up shots, and their lack of protruding hammer allows for quick deployment.
For fans of the DA/SA hammer fired pistol, a larger double action trigger can offer a measure of protection against accidental discharge, particularly when drawing and reholstering. An external hammer also allows a pistol to be manually cocked and decocked without needing to manipulate the slide and provides its user with both a quick visual and tactile way to determine the pistol’s cocked/uncocked status. Finally, some shooters prefer the difference between the longer and heavier double action trigger and the short crisp follow-ups on a DA/SA hammer fired pistol.
A SIG P210-6 hammer fired pistol with conversion kit and boxes. Includes a matching number .22 long rifle conversion unit with slide numbered to the gun and original boxes for both the gun and conversion unit.
Striker Fired and Hammer Fired Pistols from Every Era
Ultimately, the striker fired vs hammer fired discussion has more to do with individual preference, as there are modern pistols available in either category to suit most roles, niches, and desired suite of features. While some veterans lean toward the steel-framed classics and younger firearms fans might be inclined to favor the polymer Glocks they grew up firing, the most important factors for most gun lovers are how well a pistol fits their hands, shooting style, and the pistol’s intended use.
Both the striker fired and hammer fired pistol are proven designs that are well represented in some of history’s most desirable models. From the Luger to the Glock, from the M1911 to the STI 2011, the classics, rarities, and gun collecting must haves from both mechanical lineages are found at Rock Island Auction Company.
The history of gun design is a fascinating topic, and you can subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos that dive deeper into the evolution of the handgun in all its forms. From pieces on the Volcanic pistol, the Colt Paterson and its successors, the Whitney Wolverine, the Bren Ten, the H&K USP, and the Gyrojet pistol, a 20th-century experiment in self-contained cartridges, we explore every niche of arms development.
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