Balance of power – Hammer and Hammerless guns

Balance of power – Hammer and Hammerless guns

Is one better than the other? It’s complicated

By Dennis Adler

Believe it or not, this question of hammers vs. hammerless has been a topic of debate among gunmakers since the Civil War! For me, it is a more complicated question. I am a self-confessed bag of complexities, and as I get older the bag has to hold more because I view handguns a little differently than the public at large. I look at them with an eye toward the art of gun-making and aesthetics of design. The gun is more than the sum of its parts for me, or its purpose. This ideal was true back in the 1700s and 1800s when guns were also regarded as symbols of appreciation and respect, as gestures of treaty or a means to open a political dialogue. The profuse embellishment of flintlocks, percussion pistols of all types, and cartridge-loading revolvers and rifles was an art form; the presentation pistol was a work of art. Today there are wings in museums dedicated just to the eloquence of firearms designs, engraving, and history. Those values still exist in the artistry of engraving older-style handguns based on 19th and early 20th century models.   

From left to right are technology changes spanning 71 years from the Colt Model 1911 to 1982 when the Glock 17 design was first introduced. Prior to semi-autos, there was no such thing as a manual safety for revolvers other than the Old West wisdom of carrying the gun with the hammer resting on an empty chamber. For all intents, other than dropping a gun with a chambered round, the hammer was the safety. When semi-autos came about some form of manual safety was a priority from the start and the 1911 became the standard bearer for that idea, which was a requirement of the Ordnance Department during the gun’s developmental testing. In addition, the gun had the grip safety. Still, the early manual of arms stated that the gun should be carried without a round chambered. More modern guns like the H&K USP with a DA/SA trigger system, external hammer, and both a manual safety and decocker, make it one of the safest semi-auto designs. Glock rewrote the book with the G17 by designing the safety into the trigger and using a striker rather than either an external or internal (hammerless) design. There is no manual method for making a Glock safe (outside of carrying it without a chambered round) other than the Safe Action Trigger and internal firing mechanisms to prevent accidental discharge if the gun is dropped with a chambered round. All the safety and operating features are duplicated in the CO2 models pictured; however, the Umarex Glock actually uses a small internal hammer to strike the CO2 release valve, rather than an actual Glock-type striker.

Unfortunately, modern handgun design is much less subjective, it is more purposeful and absent of art as it was, imbued with technological art, perhaps, but a century from now few will celebrate the beautiful forms of 21st century handguns and rifles with black matte finishes and injection molded frames. However, artisan gunmakers and engravers are making some interesting variations of modern guns like Glocks that become statement guns, about as close to what was done in past centuries as you can get. Art takes many forms.

Build a Custom Airgun

True, a handgun or lever action rifle in the 1870s may have been the Glock or AR of its time, but how we as a people tended to view such weapons at that point in time was with an eye accustomed to remarkable craftsmanship in almost everything. Changing what was expected tended to displease or disappoint more than it impressed. Which brings me back to one of the very first hammerless pistols, an all but forgotten (except among arms collectors) Civil War era revolver called the Pettingill. Never heard of it? Here’s why.

If you have never heard of one, you have likely never seen one; this is a Pettengill, a mid-19th century DAO hammerless revolver. The 6-shot, .44 caliber cap and ball pistol was one of the great fails of its time. But the concept, vastly improved by the late 19th century laid the groundwork for DAO revolvers like the S&W Safety Hammerless models. (Photo courtesy Rock Island Auction Co.)

The gun was patented in 1856 by C.S. Pettengill, and with improvements by two other designers patented a second time in 1858. What was unusual about it? The Pettengill was a large caliber, double action only, hammerless revolver; an idea well out of place for the mid-1800s when people were accustomed to single action revolvers with hammers. Further, the Pettingill was not manufactured by Mr. Pettingill but rather farmed out for manufacture to Rogers, Spencer & Co. armsmakers in Willowvale, New York (famous for the Rogers & Spencer revolver). The 6-shot, .44 caliber percussion Pettingill had a 7-1/2 inch octagonal barrel; it was a very large and heavy pistol and a little awkward to handle. Roughly 3,400 were produced, along with 900 Navy models chambered in the smaller .34 caliber, and fitted with 4-1/2 inch barrels. The world was not quite ready for a hammerless DAO and manufacture of the Pettingill was a short-lived. Rogers, Spencer & Co., ceased production by the early 1860s, but just in time for the Civil War when arms for the military were at a premium. Any arms. Almost.

By the late 19th century and well into the early 20th, the S&W Safety Hammerless design was offered as a topbreak revolver. Pocket-sized for ease of carry, the guns were made in .32 S&W and .38 S&W and in varying barrel lengths from snub nose to the rare 6-inch barrel length models. The guns used a grip safety that required a firm grip, earning the nickname “Lemon-Squeezer.”

As a cap and ball revolver, loose powder, percussion caps and .44 caliber lead balls were not in short supply, but the Pettingill did not fare well in the hands of soldiers. Like many other black powder revolvers, the Pettingill was easily fouled after firing a few dozen rounds. The inner workings would get gummed up with oil and powder residue, (not to mention dirt depending upon situations), and cylinder rotation would become difficult. With single-action revolvers a little extra effort in cocking might have been able to get off a few more rounds, but with the Pettengill’s design there was no external hammer, not enough strength in the trigger, and no easy way to clean the fouling. Once the action jammed up, the gun would have to be taken apart to clean. After little more than a year in the field most of the guns had been replaced with conventional single action cap and ball revolvers and the DAO hammerless design took a long nap.

In 1903 John Browning and Colt’s introduced the Pocket Hammerless semi-auto in .32 ACP. The cartridge was also designed by Browning. Five years later he developed the .380 ACP and a second Hammerless pistol, the Model 1908, was introduced. The ’03 and ’08 models were produced through WWII and issued as a General Officer sidearm in both calibers. In addition to the manual safety, the guns also incorporated a small grip safety.

In the late 1800s, Smith & Wesson dabbled with the idea and built excellent small and medium caliber hammerless revolvers (The Safety Hammerless). Right after the turn of the century John M. Browning and the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Mfg. Co. would succeed with an impressive hammerless .32 ACP semi-auto pistol, the Model 1903, and a .380 ACP in 1908. By the early 20th century the hammerless design was not unusual at all, in fact, quite popular. Still, the vast majority of handguns, whether revolvers or semi-autos, had exposed hammers, and thus the great debate that lingers to this very day began. Is it wise to have a handgun that, once cocked, cannot be de-cocked without firing it, or going though some effort to unload and make safe?

The .32 and .380 ACP models became popular with lawmen (and outlaws alike) in the early 20th century. Quite a few Texas Rangers carried the Colt Hammerless as a backup gun and engraved models were not uncommon among Texas Rangers. There is another point to this about air pistol technology, however. We know that the “striker-fired” Glock 17, as a CO2 model, uses a small internal hammer to strike the air release valve. So, too, does the Umarex Walther PPS and PPS M2, a very narrow gun (like Browning’s .32 and .380 ACP Hammerless models), so it would be possible to make a gun like the Model 1908 as a blowback action CO2 pistol and probably with a self-contained CO2 BB magazine. Would that be as popular as a Glock 17 Gen4? Readers, what do you think?

More complications

Improved technology, developed in the late 20th century, deepened the debate with striker-fired semi-auto pistols that have no hammer at all, (unlike earlier hammerless designs which utilized a small internal hammer). Few of these DA/SA and DAO striker-fired designs have any provision for de-cocking. The first with this option was the original Walther P99, which had a de-cocker, allowing the striker-fired pistol to be safely carried with a chambered round. All one had to do was fire double action or pull the slide to the rear about a quarter of an inch to reset the striker. One of the best cinematic examples of this was in the first Daniel Craig Bond film, Casino Royal, where Bond loaded and then de-cocked his P99.

As blowback action CO2 models, the two most significant designs (in my estimation) are the Umarex Glock 17 Gen4 and Heckler & Koch USP. Each offers the same handling and operation as its centerfire counterpart and rank among the best semi-auto training guns of current (2019-2020) models. I consider both “must have” models for serious airgun collectors given their authenticity of design and performance as BB models with self-contained CO2 BB magazines that are correctly sized to work in centerfire model magazine pouches. Again, this is an essential for serious training and authenticity.

History repeats itself in CO2

So, this great debate has been carried on in modern CO2 pistols like the new Glocks, which, like their centerfire counterparts, have no means of decocking vs. hammer-fired CO2 models like the HK USP, which has a manual decocker. I use these two because aside from sharing firing system designs with their centerfire counterparts they are both polymer framed guns. Since there are no hammerless CO2 revolvers (thus far) decocking is just a matter of, well, decocking, by carefully lowering the hammer. Same too, for any hammer-fired CO2 semi-autos without manual de-cockers, like 1911s.

With these two models, one can experience two modern concepts in handgun design using polymer frames. In my plus column, the HK USP ranks best because I prefer a gun with a hammer that can be de-cocked versus relying on the trigger safety alone, given the comparatively light 5.5 pound average trigger pull of a Glock. The experience is the same with the CO2 models.

Siding up to personal preferences is often deeply rooted in the guns you grew up around, your age, interest in firearms designs, and the safety and practicality of hammer guns vs. hammerless or striker fired designs. The U.S. military struggled with that since the Model 1911. Every semi-auto used as a standard issue sidearm up until the Sig Sauer M17 was a hammer-fired handgun. It took the military over 100 years to make the switch; well technically they could have done it after 71 years since the Glock was developed in 1982. They could have followed other governments and adopted the Glock 17 but they didn’t. In 1985 they went with a DA/SA hammer fired gun, the Beretta 92 design. Glocks are used today by the U.S. military, as well as the Sig Sauer, and other guns for special operations, but the Sig Sauer M17 and M18 are the primary sidearms.

This is the detail I am most drawn to on the USP, the large, easily to operate manual safety. With a cocked gun, push the safety all the way down (follow the curve) and when it reaches the bottom the gun de-cocks. To fire with a chambered round, fire the first shot double action or re-cock the hammer. It is all a matter of preference and some will argue that the Glock is faster to get into action because there is no safety to work before firing. If that theory were 100 percent, the U.S. military wouldn’t have had Sig Sauer add an ambidextrous safety to the M17, which is based on the P320, a gun with no manual safety like a Glock.

So, how hard is it for an airgun enthusiast to make a similar choice? Financially, neither the Umarex Glock 17 Gen4 or Umarex HK USP are so expensive that one can’t dabble a little in both, if for no other reason than to see if a striker-fired gun is something you might like. Me, I like a gun with an external hammer, I want to be able to cock and decock the gun, because that’s my comfort zone. It doesn’t mean I don’t have hammerless or striker-fired guns; it just means I prefer guns with hammers, or at least de-cockers. Yep, a bag of complexities.

A word about safety

Blowback action airguns provide the look, feel and operation of their cartridge-firing counterparts and this is one reason why they have become so popular. Airguns in general all look like guns, blowback action models more so, and it is important to remember that the vast majority of people can’t tell an airgun from a cartridge gun. Never brandish an airgun in public. Always, and I can never stress this enough, always treat an airgun as you would a cartridge gun. The same manual of operation and safety should always apply.

3 thoughts on “Balance of power – Hammer and Hammerless guns”

  1. Being a gun enthusiast I really admire the art of the item, inside out, so the classics from the last three centuries have a great appeal on me, but…
    Since they are all tools of deadly force I think that for actual use the most important thing is to fire every time you pull the trigger. Regardless conditions or users. So for the moment, since these dark composite/metal are not classics but contemporary, I prefer simple and foolproof performance.
    (Could this explain my addiction to the 1858 nma over the beauty of the Colts?)

  2. Speaking of the aesthetics of design and appearance, I look at the old flintlock pistols as more works of art than instruments to deliver a killing shot. Today’s pistol designs are rather drab and dull.

    I would very much like to see Umarex or another airgun manufacturer introduce some well done flintlock pistol replicas with real wood stocks, even if they are single shot pellet pistols. The CO2 would likely fit in the flintlock grip, and the flash pan cover could be used to operate an access cover for loading a pellet. Unfortunately I will probably never see any CO2 powered pellet shooting flintlock replicas because there’s not a large enough market for them.

  3. Years back I suggested to Colt that they use a beefed up polymer frame striker fired version of the 1903/08 as a CCW 9 mm platform. Blew me off, said Colt would never make a polymer pistol like that. Smart . In replica airguns the original1903 would make sense. Affordable replicas of historic pistols is a definite market niche. Many of the firearms are discontinued and expensive. Better to hold a replica airguns in your hand instead of just air

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