mid-14c., "cause or grounds for a lawsuit," from Anglo-French accioun, Old French accion, action (12c.) "action; lawsuit, case," from Latin actionem (nominative actio) "a putting in motion; a performing, a doing; public acts, official conduct; lawsuit, legal action" (source also of Spanish accion, Italian azione), noun of action from past-participle stem of agere "to do" (from PIE root *ag- "to drive, draw out or forth, move").
Meaning "active exertion, activity" is from late 14c. Sense of "something done, an act, deed" is late 14c. Meaning "military fighting" is from 1590s. Meaning "way in which (a firearm, etc.) acts" is from 1845. As a film director's command, it is attested from 1923. Meaning "noteworthy or important activity" is from 1933, as in the figurative phrase a piece of the action (1966). Meaning "excitement" is recorded from 1968. In action "in a condition of effective operation" is from 1650s. Phrase actions speak louder than words is attested from 1731. Action-packed is attested from 1953, originally of movies.