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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.