“We’ve been conditioned to think, when we hear the word ‘safety,’ it’s automatically good and more is better.”
That statement was made by a student of concealed carry who’s very accomplished in other aspects of life, and beginning her development as a pistol shooter. She had just struggled for the second time with presenting the gun and attempting to fire, only to realize the safety was still engaged.
Her assessment of our cultural association with “safety” is accurate. In the case of safety devices on firearms, it’s potentially untrue as well. More safety devices aren’t better. More safety behaviors are.
Response time versus readiness
Once the action starts in a criminal attack, most are over in five seconds are less. Most people take more than two seconds to draw from concealment and fire—a lot longer if carrying in a purse or pack. Time is of the essence in the fight for one’s life.
Every action required between drawing and firing delays the response.
One that is not optional is keeping the finger straight until the sights are oriented to the target. Logic tells us that operating a mechanical safety may eat up precious time.
Add that to the difficulty of thinking about moving little levers or buttons, and then actually doing so, in the face of an advancing threat.
Add that to the fact that most gun carriers have jobs and lives that take priority over practice time.
Keep the gun simple; make safety habitual
The last thing I want to see in a defensive encounter is a person who thought they were prepared, but lost the fight because the trigger wouldn’t work. For this reason, and for the considerations named above, I generally feel the KISS principle applies when choosing a carry gun—but that recommendation is made with some yellow caution flags. Here they are, in no particular order:
1) Guns carried for self-protection must be secured in a holster that COVERS THE TRIGGER GUARD. That covering cannot be penetrable by any object.
2) Guns carried for self-protection must be secured in a manner that ensures RETENTION of the gun in the context of the carrier’s daily activities. In other words, the gun can’t fall out.
3) Gun carriers must abide by the FOUR RULES OF FIREARM SAFETY, which have been covered in depth in previous installments of this series.
Deliberate-action safeties require regular practice
By “deliberate-action safety,” I mean a button or lever that must be purposely moved in order for the normally-functioning gun to shoot.
Now, I’ve nothing against my friends who love their guns outfitted with safety devices, nor do I harbor dislike for their firearms. What I dislike is that most people can’t or won’t take the time to develop—here comes an overused term—muscle memory required to deactivate a safety device in a moment of stress.
It’s a theory I’ve tested on myself, shooting a 1911 in a match after a week of intense training with the same gun. Never mind that I’d just done thousands of draw-and-fire reps. At one point during the match, I found myself repeatedly pressing the trigger and getting no “bang.” I’ve also seen this happen countless times to developing shooters.
Competitions are one way to simulate the stressors of shooting in self-defense. Even after a week in which I’d developed better speed, accuracy, and a feeling of oneness with the 1911, I experienced a brain-to-thumb miscommunication. At a match, it only costs embarrassment and time. On the street, the cost could be much higher.
Passive safety features
Many of today’s popular semi-auto handguns feature a passive safety device on the trigger, which prevents firing unless the trigger is pressed like it’s supposed to be. It’s a nice feature that doesn’t, in my opinion, interfere with anything. It’s also a moot point if the gun’s carried in a proper holster. The trigger-blocking levers may help prevent unintended discharge if a person fails to clear obstructing garments before the act of re-holstering.
Another common passive safety feature is the grip safety. All 1911s and the Springfield XD series have them, among others. These safeties prevent the hammer or striker from moving forward to ignite the primer unless the device, located at the top of the backstrap, is pressed flush with the grip. They’re designed to work without thought or effort on the shooter’s part, as part of a proper grip with the firing hand.
A grip safety is a fine device, if the shooter’s hand is sufficiently meaty to fully engage it and keep it so during multiple-shot sequences. Knowing if this is true can only come through practice (see the recurring theme here?), and that means running a few hundred rounds through the gun in various sequences.
The majority of adult male shooters will never encounter an issue with a grip safety. People with smaller or thinner hands may experience occasional misfeeds not attributable to other common causes like a weak grip, a worn-out recoil spring, or ammunition the gun doesn’t cycle well. It took me some time to figure out what the problem was, first with a full-size Springfield XD and later with a 1911. Once I began running these guns with an ugly but effective rubber band or ponytail holder over the grip safety, the issue disappeared.
What happens when we assume
The point here is, if you insist on carrying that firearm with a safety that requires you to do something, don’t accept the gun as safe because it has that feature. Consider it a reminder that you must include in your range time repeated iterations of disengaging and re-engaging the safety, so much that it becomes second nature.
Most importantly, no safety device negates every gun handler’s responsibility to exercise the Four Rules.
A mechanical safety is just that–a mechanical device. Anyone who’s been alive long enough to apply for a concealed carry permit knows mechanical devices can and do fail at inconvenient moments. While humans too are fallible, at least we have control over our own actions.
Training and gun selection
If you’re committed to carrying a gun with one or more deliberate-action safety devices, commit also to practicing with increasing levels of speed and stress, appropriate to your level of development as a shooter. Stay humble and don’t let the desire for speed overrun your ability to apply the Four Rules of Firearm Safety.
The shortest, easiest path to effective deployment of your handgun is to choose one with no safety devices that require deliberate action. These guns come with a commitment to carry in a secure holster. Though that should be true of any firearm, it especially applies to these.
Never assume safety devices will prevent a discharge when you don’t want it. Never assume they won’t interfere with some aspect of operation when you do want to fire. Test the gun with the ammunition you plan to carry. If it has safety features that require you to do some deliberate action, practice enough that you don’t need to look at it to operate it–and then practice enough that operating the safety becomes something you don’t have to consciously do (Hint: that’s a lot of practice). Be confident that your gun, regardless of safety features, dependably fires with you as the operator, using the ammunition you carry daily. It’s not enough to take someone else’s word—your rig must work for you.
May your range time be productive, may your life be safe, but if it’s not, may you prevail.
Make sure you’re up to date on the 4 firearms safety rules, and always practice them. Let us know in the comments: Does your EDC gun have a safety? Do you feel as though you’re proficient with it? If you just want to see pictures, make sure you like our Pinterest and Instagram pages, because that’s where our pictures go.