Gear, Parts and Accessories

Everything About Firearm Safeties (You Were Afraid to Ask)

Springfield Range Officer Compact 1911 pistol with safety engaged

What are firearm safeties, and why do I believe we need them? When used irresponsibly, a firearm can cause tremendous damage. Naturally, we always want to use a firearm safely and responsibly. Ergo, there must be mechanisms that prevent accidental discharges. For example, if a firearm were to be accidentally dropped, or the trigger snagged on something, it could unintentionally fire. The first way to prevent this is to provide an obstruction or an action that must be performed before the firearm can be discharged.

With modern pistols, shotguns, and semi-auto and automatic rifles, some users fill the magazine with cartridges and carry the firearm without a cartridge in the firing chamber. To discharge the firearm, the user needs to first hold the firearm with one hand and use the other hand to work the action. This will load the first cartridge into the chamber and cock the weapon.

Beretta over/under shotgun with a tang-mounted safety in the safe position.
A Beretta over/under shotgun with a tang-mounted safety in the safe position. Notice that it has the barrel selector included on the safety (indicated by the left arrow). To fire, the safety needs to be pushed forward in the direction of the bottom arrow.

The user can then press the trigger to discharge the firearm or engage the safety. Other users prefer to carry their firearms with a cartridge already in the chamber. The firearm already is cocked. This is called Condition 1 by Jeff Cooper, “A round chambered, full magazine in place, hammer cocked, safety on.”

Internal vs. External

Firearm safeties are generally divided into two major types, the external or manual safety and the internal or automatic type of safety. Manual safeties typically consist of mechanisms that require the user to switch them on or off. For example, they may be in the form of a lever or button that needs to be pushed or a grip that needs to be squeezed to deactivate the safety mechanism.

Internal or automatic safeties, on the other hand, are turned on or off as part of another action such as a hammer block safety that prevents the hammer from striking the firing pin. Only when the trigger is deliberately pressed will the hammer block be moved out of the hammer’s path. The act of pressing the trigger deactivates the internal safety. With this type of safety, the hammer can not strike the firing pin should the firearm be accidentally dropped.

There will always be some disagreement about carrying a firearm with the chamber empty. Some argue that it takes too long to load a cartridge when one is already behind the reaction curve in a defensive situation. My argument for carrying your firearm loaded is that you might only have one hand available — especially at contact distance. Because of that, let’s look at the manual or external safety in more detail first.

Manual Safeties

When in the “safe” position, a manual safety either prevents the trigger from moving or prevents the firing mechanism from moving or disconnects the trigger from the firing mechanism or a combination thereof. There are various types of these manual safeties, and we will look at some of these types below.

Shotgun trigger assemblies featuring a cross bolt safety
Examples of cross-bolt or button safeties. On the left, the more ergonomic position in front of the trigger, and on the right the safety is behind the trigger.

Sliding or Tang Safety

First is the tang-mounted sliding safety switch. When set to the rear (on safe), the trigger cannot be pulled, when pushed forward (off safe) the arm can be fired. This type of safety is most typically seen on shotguns but is also seen on some sporting rifles — most often single-shot models, but also some bolt actions.

Cross-Bolt or Button Safety

Another type of safety typically featured on rifles and shotguns is a cross-bolt or button safety. The safety is a button, which can be found behind or just in front of the trigger. When the safety is activated, it prevents the trigger from moving. When it’s depressed, you see a red band indicating the firearm can be fired. Remember, “Red is Dead!”

Safety/Selector Lever

The long selector/lever safety typical of the AK-style rifle. When the lever is rotated up to the safe position, it not only locks the trigger, but also physically prevents the bolt from moving fully backward. When rotated to either the single-shot or auto-fire mode, the bolt is free to completely cycle all the way.

Tri photo showing the safety in the safe, single shot, and full auto positions\
The selector switch/safety on an AK-type firearm. The first photo shows the selector in the up or “safe” position. The middle photo shows the selector in the semi-automatic, single-shot position. The final photo shows the selector in the full-auto position. If you are curious about the zip tie that is wrapped around the lever it is to allow the selector to be operated with one finger and eliminates the loud click. In Vietnam, a section of boot lace was often used.

Pivot or Thumb Safety

The next type of safety is the frame-mounted pivoting or thumb safety, where the safety lever moves about a pivot point. These are typically operated by using the thumb to manipulate the lever, hence the name. They work by preventing the hammer from striking the firing pin. Some also disengage the trigger from the rest of the action.

There may be a corresponding lever on the other side of the frame. Ambidextrous models can be manipulated with either hand. This type of safety, in my opinion, is one of the most ergonomic for a fighting handgun.

Thumb safety on the Mauser C96 pistol
The thumb safety (the lever protruding from the rear) of the C96 pistol.

Grip Safety

This is a popular mechanism that was first seen on the classic John Browning-designed pistols. As the name implies, a grip safety is a lever located in the grip of the firearm. The user’s hand naturally depresses the safety lever when the firearm is gripped and this disables the safety device, thus enabling the user to operate the firearm. When the user releases their grip on the firearm, the safety lever automatically pops out again and the safety is automatically re-engaged.

On the M1911 pistol, the grip safety lever is at the rear of the pistol’s frame on the grip. The nice thing about the grip safety is that it is automatically enabled or disabled as the user holds or releases the firearm. A firearm with this type of safety device will only fire when the user is holding the gun. If the user were to accidentally drop the firearm, the safety automatically engages and prevents the firearm from discharging.

1911 pistol with grip and thumb safety
A 1911 pistol with both thumb and grip safeties.

At this point, I must add that the pistols designed by John Browning are the most ergonomic ever designed. He got it right on so many levels. Just consider his thumb safety, it is placed on the frame where the thumb naturally rests when the pistol is gripped.

When you are not under stress and place it on safe, the more unnatural movement takes place. However, when under stress the more natural movement of pressing downward releases the safety. Conversely, I find European designs counterintuitive where the safety is usually on the slide, difficult to reach, and must be pushed up for the pistol to fire. Most unnatural especially under stress.

Integrated Trigger Safety

This type of safety device became popular in Glock pistols. In my opinion, this type of safety is tantamount to no safety at all. Unfortunately, since its introduction, other manufacturers also offer models with this feature. Not because they are better (because they are not), but because they are cheaper to manufacture. Anything to save a buck.

With this safety, there is a small, spring-loaded lever embedded into the trigger. That is the integrated trigger safety device. The lever is depressed by the user as he or she rests their finger on the trigger… Are you kidding me?

Safe trigger system on a Glock 17 9mm handgun
The spring-loaded lever in the center of the trigger on a Glock 17.

When the lever is depressed, it unlocks the main trigger and allows it to move. One cannot move the main trigger without depressing the small lever fully, deliberately, or accidentally and enable it to fire.

Decocking Lever

This type of safety feature is present in some semi-automatic, double-action pistols — usually European in design. Many people like to carry this type of pistol with a round chambered and the hammer decocked (Condition 2, using Jeff Coopers carry conditions). The pistol is “considered safe” because it takes a longer, heavier trigger pull to cock and release the hammer.

When a user wants to carry a pistol in this condition, they initially insert a loaded magazine and then pull back on the pistol’s slide to load the first round in the chamber. However, that action also cocks the hammer. So, the user must decock the hammer without firing the pistol.

Safety lever in the Fire position on a Walther PPK pistol
Safety/decocking lever on a Walther PPKs.

With a decocking lever, the mechanism blocks the hammer from slamming down on the firing mechanism by covering or retracting the firing pin. The hammer can then be safely released without triggering the firearm. Of course, all mechanisms can fail. It is still a good idea to point the firearm in a safe direction before operating the decocking lever.

Three-Position Safety

One of the most popular types of rifle safeties is the Winchester Model 70’s three-position safety. The three-position safety is a small lever mounted to the cocking piece of a rifle that rotates fore and aft on a vertical axis. Forward (Fire), halfway back (Safe, but allowing bolt movement), and fully to the rear (Safe, with bolt and firing pin locked). Many custom rifles have this type of safety installed because of its ease of operation, located where the thumb has easy access.

Safety lever mounted at the rear of the bolt on a Winchester Model 70 rifle
Here is a Model 70-style safety mounted on the Mauser action of a custom .416 Rigby.

The Safety Catch

There is one other type of safety that has been present on military rifles such as the M1 Garand and M14. It is still found on some currently-produced sporting models such as the Ruger Mini series of rifles. This type of safety mechanism is located forward of the trigger for convenient operation and is “ON” when in the fully rearward position, intruding into the trigger guard. It is disengaged when pushed forward and protruding outside of the trigger guard. When this type of safety is “ON,” it blocks both the hammer and sear.

Ruger Mini-14 with th safety engaged and an inset photo with the safety in the Fire position
This is a Ruger Mini-14 rifle with the safety catch in the “on” or “safe” position. The inset photo shows it in the “off” or “fire” position.

That should give you a good basic understanding of some types of firearm safeties and how they work. Before you buy, try various types of safeties on different firearms and see which type works best for you best.

Which type of safety do you prefer and why? Share your answers in the comment section.

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Comments (15)

  1. The fountain of knowledge this man has is incredible. However, can we all take a moment to appreciate that even though the Mosin Nagant technically has a safety (on the bolt I believe), it was designed in such a way that it was basically never meant to be actually used because it’s so difficult actuate? Damn Russians and their wacky weapons – though I’d wager other firearms from all over have similar feels & functions.

    Great article sir!

  2. @Wombat… when I say I have no love love for Glock, I didn’t mean their internal drop safety or their trigger blade safety. Those, IMO are totally fine… I just don’t like Glock because they’re overrated, overpriced, and they are just about the ugliest things that do not point naturally for me. That’s why I’m a Smith guy. One of mine in rotation is the Shield Plus with no external… and I’ll be honest that thing has a LIGHT pull and I could see how carrying it IWB appendix with one in the chamber could/would make a person a “nervous nellie” as one commenter mentioned. However, I use mine with a GunMate/Uncle Mike’s soft nylon IWB holster and it rides quite comfortable, it protects the trigger… I initially carried it wih a full 13 round mag on an empty chamber with the striker cocked for several months everyday in that holster during my physically active job just to see if it would somehow release the striker because of the light pull (IE: go bang in my britches and remove vital bits)… and it never did. I’d check it at the end of the day by dropping the mag and pulling the trigger and the striker was still cocked right where I left it when I put it in the holster that morning. I still adhere to the fact the greatest safety is the one between your ears, keep your grubby bang switch activator out of the guard unless you’re ready to fire and you should be good to go. My S&W SD40 has a hinged trigger with about a 5.5lb pull, and I have no worried carrying it IWB in believe it or not, the same holster for the Shield. No worries there either about it going off. Both of those, along with my .38spl revolver aren’t going to discharge unless you intend them to. I prefer no external safety, grip safety, or decocker for carry. One less thing to futz with if it ever needs to be deployed. Grandma has an S&W PC EZ .380… I like it EXCEPT that it has a grip safety and external safety, she hates it because of that AND the external safety so she refuses to carry it and regulates it to nightstand duty. Still on the hunt for something the likes, can operate, and feels comfortable with carrying. Have a good day, Wombat… one old soldier to another.

  3. The issue of carrying, carrying with or without a round chambered,and safeties has plagued me for a while. I grew up when manual safeties were common so I became accustomed to having a round chambered, safety engaged, and, more often than not, hammer down. To this day I am comfortable in my carry situations with that configuration. Even in my competition, quick draw IPSC, years my round in the chamber (in the shooter’s box), manual safety engaged gave me comfort. Later as I began concealed carry round in the chamber, safety engaged, hammer down was and remains my preferred condition. But with the XDs the issue of safeties and a round in the chamber became an issue. It’s become a personal for me to carry my XDs with the chamber empty. So I practice chambering during my draw process and increase my target closure distance to account for the additional second or two chambering a round takes. While the XDs is a better-concealed carry weapon versus than my P226 40 S&W. When carrying my P226 my safeties are engaged and a round is chambered. It’s a comfortable condition for me, not for everyone, but for me, and I’ve grown accustomed to disengaging my safeties and cocking on the draw. I believe each shooter has to assess what makes them most comfortable and practice that condition, acknowledge the pros and cons and adjust your engagement conditions accordingly. This I will say: all my defensive weapons are loaded, none chambered when in the house, but I have no children in the house and when friends, with children, do visit my arms room is securely locked, and all my weapons remain behind closed doors. Children are like privates in the military, if there is a way, they will find it and no good will come of it.

  4. Every firearm has one additional safety, The brain of any person touching the firearm. Never assume! Always check! Keep your focus always on SAFE HANDLING! “I did not know the gun was loaded,” is a weak defense.

    Shoot safe, shoot well, and practice frequently.

    May God bless us all!

  5. Not mentioned is the worst safety of all time- the magazine safety like the Browning P35 or Ruger SR Series. If the magazine is out, you can’t even fire a single shot to defend yourself while reloading.

  6. With all due respect to the Glock hater… The trigger safety also will not allow the firearm to fire if it is dropped. A 1911 must be kept “cocked & locked” in order to fire after disengaging the safety without cocking the hammer. The number of fools who have shot themselves in the legs or elsewhere with a 1911 cannot be counted, as I have seen many in my life. Keep your finger off the trigger until you intend to fire. Rule #1.

  7. SA/DA with De-cocker such as CZ P07 best way to carry. Also the S&W EZ and new Eliminator with thumb safety would next.

  8. Call me a Nervous Nellie but I won’t stick a pistol in my pants unless it has a heavy double action trigger pull or a positive mechanical safety.

  9. When they first came out, I bought a S&W EZ .380 for my wife. I chose the thumb safety option.

    IMO, this configuration was the best of all worlds for her. Essentially, she can carry it “condition 1”, needing only to release the 1911-like thumb safety at deployment. Past that step, she needs only to grip the pistol properly, in order to disable the grip safety. (Gotta grip right, no matter what.)

    I sometimes carry a full-size 1911 (.45acp): always in condition one. The fact that the EZ allows the same safety options w. the same degree of redundancy made my wife happy and confident. Plus, SA pull w. no exposed hammer on the EZ. Win-win-win.

  10. I have no love for Glock whatsoever but the blade safety in the trigger doesn’t bother me in the least. My Shield Plus has the same thing but better because it’s a wider blade, IE: more comfortable. It also has no external manual safety. Just personally, on a carry piece I don’t particularly care for them. If you keep your d*** finger out of the guard unless ready to fire, I don’t see a problem with them. My S&W SD40 and M&P .40 fullsize both have the hinged type trigger and those are fine as well, IMO. Decockers… can’t stand them. Used to be an RSO/Rangemaster/instructor for a state law agency… seen more than one sidearm discharge and not on purpose because of those things. Don’t know why and it very well could’ve been user induced errors of some kind on their part but I’ve never trusted a decocker. Not a fan of grip safeties. I guess it’s all in what you get used to and train with. Sort of like the difference in a Mossberg Maverick and Remington 870 in both the placement of the crossbolt safety and the bolt release. Still, pretty good article, Ed.

  11. Another fantastic article written by Mr. LaPorta . I consider Ed one of the top firearms experts in the country. Not only does mr. LaPorta write articles I feel are more informational than you can find in any shooting magazines I have read in years. I had the opportunity to take some lessons from Mr. LaPorta he is a true professional in every aspect of shooting

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