Since the invention of the first commercially usable autoloading handgun, the P08 Luger designed by Georg Luger, handgun safeties have been a common part of handgun design. The purpose of a safety mechanism on pistols is to prevent the handgun from firing when you don’t want it to.
Early revolvers lacked any safety mechanism. The hammer in these revolvers were rested down on an empty chamber so the pistol would not fire when jostled, dropped or struck. With the creation of the firing pin mechanism in autoloading pistols, a device was needed to prevent the firing pin from striking the primer of a chambered round if the pistol was dropped or struck.
Types of Handgun Safeties
There are three main types of handgun safeties.
- The first are internal safeties, usually implemented in the form of some type of firing-pin block. These are usually integrated into the action of the pistol. Some late model revolvers used hammer blocks that would prevent the hammer from striking a round unless the trigger was pulled. Other types of firing pin blocks include pins and levers that secure the firing pin until the trigger is pulled.
- Grip safeties prevent the handgun from firing unless it is gripped in a proper firing position. Grip safeties come in a variety of forms. Some grip safeties come in the form of a lever on the backstrap of a pistol which is depressed when the handgun is gripped properly. Glock pistols (and a number of Glock variants such as the Springfield XD) have a unique safety system that uses a small lever on the trigger itself. This is a form of grip safety, since the gun does not fire unless the trigger is properly engaged and pulled. We can also include magazine disconnect safeties in this group, which prevent the pistol from being fired unless a magazine is properly inserted, as an autoloading handgun without a magazine inserted could not be considered to be in a proper firing configuration.
- Active safeties are switches or levers that, unless flipped to the firing position, prevent the gun from firing. All 1911 style pistols, as well as many other styles of modern handguns, use this type of safety. Most active safeties fall into two categories: frame mounted and slide mounted. Slide mounted safeties, such as the one commonly found on the Beretta 92 and M9 pistol can function as a decocker as well. A decocker is a device that safely lowers the hammer on a pistol without pulling the trigger. Frame mounted safeties such as that found on 1911 style pistols have the advantage over slide mounted safeties of being easier to use. Most frame mounted safeties have better ergonomics that allow shooters to instinctively disengage the safety as they grip the firearm. Additionally, it’s possible for slide mounted safeties to be inadvertently switched on or off while racking the slide.
So, are pistols with safeties really safer?
Despite their name, safeties do not make a firearm more, or less, safe. Safe operation of a pistol depends on who is doing the shooting, not any mechanical device. Passive firing pin blocks and grip safeties generally contribute to the overall safety of a firearm as they make the it unable to fire unless the trigger is pulled while the gun is gripped properly. For target pistols with match grade hair triggers, active safeties are also very important as they force you to take positive action before engaging a target.
In the case of a defensive or combat handgun however, there is a lot of debate over the use and implementation of active safeties. In a combat situation, handguns must function reliably and consistently. Many argue that a combat handgun should always fire whenever the trigger is pulled, without the need to disengage an active safety. The usefulness of magazine disconnect safeties has also been hotly debated. Proponents of such a device argue it prevents injury or death to individuals who wrongly assume that an autoloading pistol with the magazine removed is unloaded. This is countered by those who argue this needlessly endangers someone in a combat situation should a magazine be accidentally dropped or dislodged.
The backstrap style grip safety has also had its usefulness challenged over the years. For decades, Col. Jeff Cooper recommended grip safeties be pinned down so an awkward grip on the pistol would not prevent it from being fired. Even today, many handgun users place slip-on grips on their pistols to keep the backstrap depressed, which means it is useless as a safety device.
The most important safety is of course the one in between your ears. Proper handgun knowledge and practice is critical to safe use. One of Jeff Cooper’s four rules of firearm safety is, Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
This is an incredibly important rule. In a properly functioning handgun, unless you pull the trigger, the gun does not fire. The most common cause of the negligent discharge of a firearm is pulling the trigger while the gun is loaded. The practice of proper pistol handling is vitally important in training you to keep their finger indexed when not actively engaging a target.
Practice Is the Only True Safety
I want to emphasize the importance of practice here. The way you practice determines the way you perform. If you do not practice, you will not perform well, whether that means failing to use active safeties properly, or having your finger on the trigger when you should not. The frequency with which you practice helps to determine whether an active safety is an advantage or a drawback.
What safety devices you choose to have on a pistol is a very personal choice.
- Many refuse to have a handgun that does not have an external active safety.
- Others insist on having only passive internal safeties, such as those found on Glock pistols.
- Still others refuse to own a gun with a magazine disconnect.
If a gun has a particular safety mechanism you despise, or lacks one you feel is vitally important, it is sometimes easier to just move on to a different model firearm. All safety devices can be used properly, despite your feelings for or against them, if you practice using them properly.