So I was having my semi-daily chin wag with Fearless Leader today, and talk turned to handgun safeties. RF mentioned he’d seen the Kimber Solo up close and personal, and mentioned that it’s safety was a lot easier to operate (in both directions) than that of the new Ruger. I opined that, IMHO, the Springfield XD has the ideal combination of a grip safety and trigger safety. Why that configuration? Well, that leads me to an admission: despite my ability to put shots on target down range, I have one Achilles Heel: I frequently forget to flip off the friggin’ safety.

If you’ve read any of my work here on TTAG, you know I’m a big fan(boy) of the 1911. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate other makes and models. I just like 1911s, and I dare say I understand them. To me, a 1911 is like a favorite uncle – a little older and maybe just over the high-side of his youth, a little quirky, and you have to ‘get’ his temperament to get along with him. But if you can handle the quirks, he’s a great guy to know, and there’s nobody better to have your back in an emergency. That is not to say that some of those quirks can’t come back to bite you on occasion, and I’m not talking about the need for a beaver-tail grip safety.

I’ve heard the safety on the 1911 compared (elsewhere here on TTAG) to a boat paddle or a propeller blade. Guilty as charged. The ambi safety on my Springfield loaded is big enough to cause it to fail a wind tunnel test. And the safety on the Kimber Pro Crimson Carry II I’ve been shooting is large enough to double as a flipper for a frogman in need. But size (contrary to what you may have heard) is not everything.

In many ways, a large safety that sticks out from here to tomorrow is a mixed blessing. Sure it’s easy to flip it. And that’s good. But it’s also easy to flip it. And that can be bad, if you didn’t mean to take the pistol off safety. Even worse, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the range readied my pistol, put my finger on the trigger and…nothing. No click. No bang. Because I’d forgotten to take it off safety.

Now what my conversation with RF got me to thinking about was one of my favorite aphorisms of my dear, departed Dad, namely Don’t bother trying to make anything foolproof, because fools are so ingenious. And they are. You see, I don’t think it would make a bit of difference if I was shooting a 1911, a Ruger, a Sig, or any other make or model. If you forget to take off the safety, it ain’t gonna fire. Do that in a shootout or self-defense situation, and you are gonna die. And imagine how stupid I’m gonna look ending up as the “Irresponsible Gun Owner of the Day,” or even worse – a statistic.

Nope, I don’t think that the design of the safety is Problem #1 here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that as long as the safety works, you can eliminate that as the problem. No, my problem is that I need to spend hours at the range, doing nothing but practicing taking the gun off safety as Standard Operating Procedure when shooting.

I realize that, for many of you, this is a “No…DUH!” moment. But I suspect I’m not alone in this. I’d bet you a box of Winchester White Box that more than one of you have brought your pistol to the ready, pulled the trigger and realized “Oh, crap…I forgot to take it off safety.” Let’s see a show of hands, shall we? Um huh. Just as I thought. And those that DON’T have this problem? I’m betting there’s a leitmotif that runs through your training routines, that being you practice taking the gun off safety as a part of your range time. Am I right?

Now let’s assume for the nonce that we have the practice part down. (I’m not saying to overlook it – far from it – but let’s look at the other side of the equation.) Revolvers, as a class, have no safety. SA or DA, most guys I know that carry revolvers leave the hammer down on an empty chamber in the cylinder. But if you’re gonna use a semi-auto for self-defense, carrying without one in the pipe will get you killed. I don’t want to have to depend on having enough time to rack the slide, when my life is on the line. So “cocked and locked” is the name of the game. A safety mechanism becomes a much bigger deal in that context.

So…how many safeties are too many? Many 1911 fans insist that the grip safety is an unnecessary addition, and defiles an otherwise elegant design. They point to Browning’s last pistol as evidence that the grip safety was an unneeded addition, added more to squelch the prattlings of a couple of influencers in the U.S. Army, than something driven by need. (I’m unconvinced.) I think that if it doesn’t malfunction or cause the gun not to run, where’s the harm? And I’ve yet to see a 1911 where the grip safety was the reason it wouldn’t run.

The thumb safety is, I suppose, a necessary evil on a 1911. But I can tell you, I have more than once looked longingly at the trigger safety on the Springfield XD, and wished they made that as a street mod for my 1911.

I’m of the school that the original XD design (which does not feature a thumb safety) is the best of all possible designs. You have to both grip the pistol and pull the trigger to get it to fire. An additional safety on an XD just isn’t needed. If you secure your pistol and keep it away from those that would misuse it (that would be kids and bad guys) then an additional safety will just get in the way. Like just when you need it, and forget to take that safety off.

I’m a big believer in Occam’s Razor. Or to put it another way, the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. In a situation where adrenalin rules, I don’t want anything that will keep me from saving my own sorry tookus. I realize and freely admit that there is no design that will ever be “Brad-proof.” That’s what training is for. But I’m coming around to the idea that the best design for a pistol may be the one that acknowledges that attempting to make something extra-safe can trigger that bitch of a task-mistress, The Law of Unintended Consequences. And that never ends well.

25 Responses to How Safe is Safe?

  1. “SA or DA, most guys I know that carry revolvers leave the hammer down on an empty chamber in the cylinder” Brad, this is the second time I heard (read) you mention this. I all my experience (albeit not as much as the Rabbi or others here on TTAG), I have yet to know a single person to carry a DA revolver on an empty chamber. Perhaps others can chime in?

    JMB (aka The Almighty) thought the grip safety was adequate for the gun which became the M1911. The thumb safety was an afterthought and was incorporated at the request of the US Army. Browning’s personal “1911,” made in 1910, has no thumb safety. Earlier Browning designs, made by Colt and FN, do have grip safeties. Some will look at the Hi-Power and make comparisons about “necessity”. The HP appeared in 1935… Unfortunately JMB died in 1926.

    I find the grip safety more than adequate for personal carry. One advantage of a manual safety on a 1911 is that it “locks” the slide closed. The XD/XDm’s grip safety does that for us – no need the thumb safety. This “lock” is especially convenient when reholstering, particularly in battle. It is hard to find the reasons why, but I suspect that this the same reason why the U.S. Army wanted it as well.

    • Patrick, I’ll defer to your knowledge on the revolver carry. I now own a revolver (it was my late father’s) but I’ve frankly never taken a liking to them. I’m a pretty good shot – with a semi-auto. Give me that S&W .38 Chief’s Special and I’d do pretty well to hit the side of a barn, unless I cock it first. And if I cock the damn thing, it’s got a trigger on it that you can breathe on and it will go off. Not my idea of a safe gun in the least. But my friends that carry a revolver all carry with an empty chamber. (Perhaps they have gotten the same bad intel I have.)

      I think the XD grip/trigger safety is the the ideal combination. I wish somebody made a 1911 with that kind of trigger. Of course, if they did, it wouldn’t be a 1911.

    • I am not speaking to the necessity or advisability of it in any way, only noting that it was a common police practice to keep an empty cylinder under the hammer. And I don’t know about official department policies; I only know a lot of cops did it back when they carried revolvers, for their own comfort if nothing else, I suppose. Maybe their thinking was mistaken; I couldn’t say.

      There is no reason the S&W 36 can’t have the standard revolver trigger pull, stout but smooth. If DA is too heavy or hitchy and SA is too light, time for a good tuneup. Parts wear and springs take a set over time.

      I am just one of those people who believes that anyone can learn to shoot accurately in DA with practice. But there is no substitute for practice. One nice thing about .38 Special is the wide variety of ammos available, like those that are optimized for short barrel revolvers. The trendy thing these days, of course, is a 158 grain bullet in the hottest load possible, and then wondering why it can’t hit anything. A 125 or 130 grain bullet with a less aggressive load can do wonders. And if you load your own (which many authorities don’t advise for defense purposes, of course) you can experiment a bit and come up with something you can write your name with at short range. The relative lethality of various rounds and loads is often debated with great vigor but not by me (too macabre for my taste). However, all will agree that hitting what you aim at is a beautiful thing.

    • I carried a Taurus 651 for many years… OK, I’ll wait until everyone is done making fun of Taurus. All done? Alrighty then, anyway, that gun has a transfer bar which will not allow the hammer to strike the firing pin unless the hammer is fully cocked. And it works too, I played with that gun over and over to see if I could make that system fail. I could not. So, since I only had five rounds to begin with, I never carried on an empty chamber. I own several other Taurus revolvers. I do not carry any of them but if I did I would not use the empty chamber technique on any of them either.

    • Gentlemen,

      I found this page on a web search. I like your site! I appreciate being able to post a respectful comment — even after so much time has passed…

      Patrick Carrube said:
      > I all my experience (albeit not as much as the Rabbi
      > or others here on TTAG), I have yet to know a single
      > person to carry a DA revolver on an empty chamber.
      > Perhaps others can chime in?

      I know it has been three (3) years, so you may have met a few more people since then 😉

      Whether it is advisable to carry the “hammer down on an empty cylinder” is a function of the type of gun and the type of carry.

      Out in the country where I live, I regularly carry a “three screw” Ruger in one caliber or another. In the woods (bear territory) it is a .44 mag; in open fields (snake territory), it is a .22 mag. I also occasionally carry a JP Sauer “Western Marshal” or a Ruger Vaquero (both .44mag). Only the Vaquero ever had “all holes plugged.” The other firearms have significantly more potential for accidental discharge if a round is under the hammer.

      In the city (coyote territory), I have a couple of H&R Revolvers I trade between. The older one has a firing pin affixed to the hammer. Lowering the firing pin into an empty cylinder prevents the cylinder from rotating. I can also lower the hammer so the firing pin rests between cylinders — which also prevents rotation; but, generally, I simply leave a cylinder empty.

      One of my daughters-in-law has a smaller version of the same H&R revolver. It only holds five rounds. She places the firing pin between cartridges to have the maximum capacity.

      For what it is worth, I have a friend who had an “accidental discharge” when riding through brush. He had a Ruger .357 with the transfer bar, so thought it safe to carry “full.” A branch caught the hammer on his gun, pulling it back slightly, but not far enough to cock the hammer (thong prevented that). When the hammer dropped, it came down on another twig — which acted as a wooden transfer bar… Fortunately, the bullet didn’t strike anything vital, but the horse almost did for him before it stopped pitching…

      Just my $0.02 — and that’s inflation 😉
      –LP–

  2. One of the things I noticed at my last (and first) IDPA match was that the guys with thumb safeties were at a distinct disadvantage on the draw. More than one pulled the trigger while safety was on. Made it pretty obvious why handguns have evolved to the usual trigger safety or SA/DA style.

  3. “thumb safeties were at a distinct disadvantage on the draw”… this, and Brad’s experience, is a training issue and not necessarily “too little” either. One of my instructors some time ago suggested only carrying one type of pistol. Packing heat with different types of pistols can hurt you. If you are used to carrying a SA/DA gun, but decide that this week you’re going to pack your 1911, you can certainly forget to disengage the safety. With me, my thumb rides on top of the 1911 safety, so “down” (safety off) feels natural to shoot. When “up” (safety on), I can tell immediately! Just this week I made it to the range to get in one last round of Steel before my little man arrives. I decided to take my SA Loaded 1911 – and without practicing my draw (with this pistol) or reloads with a single-stack magazine, I was able to win my class (“A”). Gunnutmeggar would be happy to know that it was with a stock SA Loaded model and Wilson 47D 8-rd magazines! You (we) need to make sure to practice and train with the gun we intend to carry more often than the guns we don’t.

  4. I won’t buy a self-defense pistol that has a safety. It’s an unnecessary complication that might cost me big time some day. Fine for the range, bad for the street. I prefer to carry a modern, striker-fired pistol because it needs a safety like Massachusetts needs more Kennedys.

  5. I don’t trust myself to disable a manual safety under stress. Perhaps if I only ever shot one type of gun with the same exact type of safety, I could convince myself otherwise. But since I sometimes carry different guns depending on my dress and the activity, I opt for the consistency of a no-safety, DAO/DAO-ish action.

    I do like the grip safety on my XD as it offers a teensy bit of peace of mind when reholstering…the act that scares me most about carrying. I’ve seen a lot of shirt material (on me and on others) get awfully close to the inside of the trigger guard when reholstering, especially on IWB holsters. If you have a gun with a grip safety and you let up on your grip a little before the gun is fully seated and push the gun the rest of the way into the holster with your thumb on the back of the slide, then if you did happen to have some shirt tail in the trigger guard it won’t go off. BUT, SUPER BIG BUT, if you don’t clear that shirt-tail-in-the-trigger and then grab the grip seating the grip safety, it will fire at that point! So one way or another you need to ensure you get the cloth out of the trigger guard before you draw, or even prepare to draw. In practice, it’s just a lot easier to make sure the material doesn’t get in there to begin with. So even though it might seem to make reholstering seem safer, the grip safety really doesn’t significantly reduce the likelihood of a cloth-in-the-trigger-guard ND; it might just buy you time to correct it after the fact.

  6. Revolvers, as a class, have no safety. SA or DA, most guys I know that carry revolvers leave the hammer down on an empty chamber in the cylinder.

    Who are you friends with, The Shootist? This isn’t the 19th century, and a J-frame only has five shots to begin with. I takes my chances on the hammer block doing its job.

    • Ditto. No reason for it unless your gun is a 3 screw Blackhawk without the transfer bar conversion. Or an actual Colt SAA.

      Does anyone else think that putting the safety on the trigger doesn’t make it much of a safety at all?…..at least in the sense of helping to prevent accidental/negligent discharges?

  7. Is it possible to remove the thumb safety on handguns?
    I think the M&P is the only one I know of that can…

  8. The grip safety on the XD is not ideal. In normal usage it’s fine but if you need to work the slide for any reason with one hand, and only one hand, the grip safety on the XD is a hinderance.

  9. Try shooting the 1911 with your thumb riding the safety instead of in the “thumbs down” position. On draw, you will turn off the safety when the pistol comes level with the target and before “punching out” towards the target.

    The 1911 safety is designed to be turned off by the natural position of primary hands thumb during shooting.

    If you’re shooting a 1911 thumbs down style, you also risk accidentially turning off the safety during heavy recoil. Sometimes the shooters thumb comes up and activates the safety. (Seen it happen.) Riding the safety helps to resolve that problem, too.

    Remember to put the safety back on before putting the muzzle of the gun towards th holster for reholstering.

    Best of luck! Shoot safe.

  10. Brad: Two points:

    1. My first two handguns were revolvers and I carried a revolver professionally for a couple of years working security back in the 1980’s. At that time all of the local cops carried DA revolvers as well.

    I never – ever – heard of the practice of keeping a chamber empty. AFAIK, that practice went out about the time the automobile was invented. Even S&W revolvers with the firing pin on the hammer nose have for years had an “inertial” firing pin design meaning that the only way the firing pin will protrude into the cylinder is if the trigger is pulled and held back (not sure when they incorporated that but my Dad’s S&W M15 that he took to Vietnam in 1967 already had this feature.) IOW, the gun cannot – cannot – fire if it is merely dropped, even if it lands on the hammer (which is unlikely anyway because the hammer is not on the heaviest part of the gun, that would be the barrel.) My first Colt revolver had the transfer bar safety and it was not a new gun, it was a Trooper Mk III probably made some time in the 1960s or 70s.

    2. There is a reason the Glock has become the favorite of law enforcement, as it has no need for a thumb safety. Seems to me just about every modern polymer-framed striker-fired pistol (including the XD) followed the Glock model. They would not have done so without reason.

    • “because the hammer is not on the heaviest part of the gun, that would be the barrel”… the I don’t think terminal ballistics applies to handguns falling from a holster – a pistol/rifle/etc can fall on any end with equal ease (from “normal distances” at least).

  11. The 1911 thumb safety is so automatic for me that when shooting at events that require one to eject the magazine and clear the chamber at the end, I have difficulty because the gun is already on safe. It’s automatic for me. Ready to shoot? I’ve already swept the safety off. Done shooting? Pure reflex to put the gun on safe as I lower it.

    Either way, it’s not a big deal.

    Now, the placement of safeties on a variety of rifles has found me, at time, squeezing a trigger that was never going to move. I think it’s just that the safeties are all in different positions and operate different ways.

    But the 1911? Pretty much perfect the way it is – except I do prefer a high-cap like the Para-Ordnance line.

  12. Some argue e.g. Michael Bane that pistols carried other than in an on-body holster should have a trigger safety. Presumably this is because it is harder to make the master grip; a bit of fumbling might occur.

    For single action pistols un-safety’d I’d hope it’s a heavy trigger.

  13. One defense of the thumb safety that I have read before is that it could help you if someone were to disarm you.

    Any dumb criminal could shoot you with your Glock, but a less experienced type might not know about the safety on a 1911, giving you precious time to run or to defend yourself.

    I am not sure that I would base my choice in gun solely on this, but it is worth thinking about.

    • If someone would worry about a criminal shooting them with their own Glock I’d say forget the square range shooting and start doing some real self defense shooting. Big big difference between them two types of shooting

  14. Hence my name, I carry the Taurus 609, or my M&P 9mm in Crossbreed Super Tuck Deluxe holsters. M&P doesn’t have a safety, and the Taurus has never had it’s on, and probably won’t. GOD gave me fingers, and as long as I have them, they don’t go on the trigger until I’m ready to shoot. If I’m ever in a critical defense situation ( and I hope I never am), I don’t want to have to remember to take the safety off, cause I’m betting the coward who’s trying to do me harm, doesn’t have his on!

  15. I’m in the camp with Jeff Cooper He use to say “A safe gun is a useless gun” If my life or the life of a loved one is in danger I just want to be able to pull the gun and have it go bang. I’ve handled guns way over 50 years and never a ND

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