Balancing Safety & Readiness: Carrying “Cocked and Locked?”

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CONDITION 1: Cocked and Locked
CONDITION 1: Cocked and Locked

Most shooters like to carry a single-action-only or 1911-style pistol a certain way to best balance readiness with safety. Some shooters like to carry “Cocked and Locked” and some do not. Some believe that carrying Cocked and Locked is very scary, a definite safety hazard, and they don’t feel comfortable doing so.

The mode of readiness and safety preferred by almost all of the experts for 1911s and most single-action pistols is called “Cocked and Locked.” There are several considerations, concepts, and pros and cons to understand in making your own decision.

I recently added a Colt 1911 XSE Combat Commander to my stable of defensive carry 1911s and single-action pistols. Earlier I had to make a decision about how I would carry these guns and feel comfortable and safe doing so. Here are some of the things I considered to help you. After I made my personal decision, I strongly believe that I made the correct decision for myself and will share it with you later in the article.

Jeff Cooper, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel who served in both World War II and the Korean War, is recognized as the father of what is commonly known as “The Modern Technique” of handgun shooting and considered by many to be one of the world’s foremost experts on the use and history of small arms. He was well-known for his advocacy of large caliber handguns for personal defense, especially the 1911 Colt. Cooper recognized that there are several conditions of readiness in which single-action guns like the 1911 can be carried. According to many shooters, he promulgated the following Conditions of Readiness.

Jeff Cooper’s Conditions of Readiness

  • Condition 0 – Round in the chamber; hammer cocked; thumb safety is OFF; full magazine in the gun.
  • Condition 1 – (Also known as “Cocked and Locked”)- Round in the chamber; hammer cocked; thumb safety is ON; full magazine in the gun.
  • Condition 2 – Round in the chamber; hammer down; full magazine in the gun.
  • Condition 3 – Chamber is empty; hammer down; full magazine in the gun.
  • Condition 4 – Chamber is empty; hammer down; NO magazine in the gun.

Seeing someone carrying a single-action semi-automatic pistol in Condition 1 Cocked and Locked with the hammer back makes some people nervous. They think the gun can go off at any time, is not safe, probably has close to a “hair” trigger press, and it seems to be just too ready for action. It probably is more psychological and subjective, than realistic and factual, but let’s explore it. The above Conditions have parallels in safe-action, double/single action, and double-action-only pistols. A hammerless striker-fired pistol, double/single actions, and double-action-only pistols with their hammers at rest seem more peaceful and safe in comparison to a single action pistol for some since they can also be somewhat quickly ready to fire.

Have Confidence in Your Condition of Readiness

Without a doubt, you must have the confidence and comfortableness that the pistol you are carrying in your holster is both safe and ready when you need it to defend your life. You can’t have second thoughts or doubts about being able to quickly and instinctively go into action in an effective way with no fumbling or uncertainties and in a safe manner.

Obviously, it is possible to carry your 1911 or any single-action pistol in any of the first four Conditions above for self-defense purposes, given survival as your number one priority. You would not consider Condition 4, however, for immediate readiness, since the chamber is empty and no magazine is in your gun. Let’s consider the pros and cons of each of the other realistic Conditions.

Condition 3

This Condition with the chamber empty and hammer down requires you to manually cycle or rack the slide before firing. This is a time disadvantage up front and after shooting. To return the gun to its carry position after shooting, you have to drop the magazine, empty the chamber, drop the hammer, reload and reinsert the magazine, all without shooting an innocent person or yourself.

This Condition is a dangerous practice for those who lack confidence in their handgun manipulation skills and techniques, draw presentation skills, are untrained, unpracticed, and overly-nervous if the handgun even looks like it might be instantaneously useable.

Of course, it is your sole decision, but I suggest you get proper training, practice your handgun manipulation skills and draw regularly with time constraints, and do not carry your pistol with an empty chamber. Your carry handgun can be a great time away from coming into battery and being readily available instantly for your rescue when you are under stress.

Of course, this is a hazard to you and those around you, but maybe not to the bad guy attacking you. Hey, your life is at stake! Recognize that this Condition REQUIRES you to PRACTICE the necessary techniques and skills regularly for effectiveness, readiness, and safety.

Condition 2

This Condition with a round in the chamber, hammer down, and a full magazine in place can be dangerous and some say the source of more negligent-accidental discharges than any of the other conditions.

When you rack the slide to chamber a round, the hammer is cocked and the manual safety is off. This is the way a single-action only functions by design. The hammer must be cocked either manually or automatically by racking the slide BEFORE a single action can fire. There is no way to avoid this with the single action or 1911 design.

In order to lower the hammer when you don’t need to fire anymore or are returning your gun to its holster, the trigger must be pulled and the hammer lowered slowly by your other hand with the thumb on the firing pin, the end of which is only a few millimeters away from the primer of a live round and a discharge. Should your thumb slip, the hammer would drop and fire the gun. Not only would a round be launched under embarrassing, dangerous, and possibly tragic circumstances, but your thumb would be behind the slide as it cycles, resulting in possible serious injury to your hand.

Other Consideration with Condition 2

Another consideration with this Condition is that a true 1911A1 or Series 70-type pistol, for example, does NOT have a firing pin block, like my Series 80 Colt 1911 XSE Combat Commander does. So any impact on the hammer which is resting on the firing pin could conceivably cause the gun to go off, like when dropped. Recognize that in order to fire the gun, the hammer must be manually cocked with the thumb. In an emergency situation, this adds another possibility for something to go wrong and this movement takes time, slows the acquisition of the sight picture, and affects accuracy some. Carrying a 1911 or single action pistol in Condition 2 is comparable to carrying a double-action semi-auto with its counter-intuitive manual safety in the on position. Both place an awkward and unnecessary step between you and survival. PRACTICE!

Condition 1

This Condition is called “Cocked And Locked,” has the chamber loaded with a round, hammer cocked, thumb safety ON, and a full magazine in place. To fire your shot, you MUST flick the safety down (or to the off position) before firing and flick it back up when you’re finished.

It is VERY IMPORTANT to flick or switch the safety OFF when engaging the threat, so your handgun will be in a Ready-To-Fire state to confront the bad guy/gal. It is critical to recognize that you CAN BE KILLED by the bad guy/gal if you fail to switch your safety off BEFORE attempting to fire at the threat.

History is replete with several individuals in law enforcement, the military, and in civilian encounters who have died because of their failure to switch their safeties OFF in a tactical engagement. This MUST BE PRACTICED before carrying in Condition 1. Switching off the Thumb Safety is a challenging test of your familiarity with your single-action handgun and is a MANDATORY REQUIREMENT for firing your 1911 or single-action pistol.

With practice, this necessary manual dexterity can be learned and remembered by any shooter with opposing thumbs, although some do not want to take the chance of forgetting to do so. Practice will instill these skills in your muscle memory.

Since I rotate my carry guns among single-action, double-action only (DAO), and double-single action (DA-SA) pistols, I must very consciously and deliberately understand the type of trigger action I am carrying and respond appropriately by intensely focusing on my handgun I am carrying.

I usually do NOT recommend rotating among the various trigger actions for carry gun purposes; however, the necessary skills and focuses can be learned with much time and practice. I carry my single-actions and 1911s in Condition 1.

H&K P30 Lite LEM Variation 1- 9mm
H&K P30 Lite LEM Variation 1- 9mm

Condition 1 is Similar to Striker-Fired Pistols Like Glocks

A 1911 or single-action pistol in Condition 1 is comparable to a striker-fired, safe-action pistol, like a Glock, which is always in a semi-cocked condition when a round is in the chamber anyway. The initial pull of this trigger performs generally the same function as the thumb safety of a 1911 or single action. It’s also comparable to any variety of double-action semi-autos with the safety off, as the trigger press cocks the hammer and fires the gun in one single motion, though the long and cumbersome double-action trigger press is designed neither for control nor accuracy.

Usually, my single-action pistols’ trigger presses (un-tuned) are between 4 and 6 pounds, while GENERALLY, my DAOs’ presses are between 5.5 and 9-10 pounds and a DA-SA is between 5.5 and 10-12 on the first press, followed by 5.5-6 pounds subsequent press. Of course, this VARIES SIGNIFICANTLY, but my un-tuned single-action and 1911 presses are all less than any of my un-tuned DAO or DA-SA presses.

However, my out-of-the-box H&K P30 “Lite” LEM Trigger Variation 1 DAO has a press of about 4.5 pounds and you probably know of several other exceptions. While the operation of any handgun requires some training to ingrain the proper muscle memory, the 1911’s single-action mechanism is easier to learn than the double-action/single-action system because it is less complex and more instinctive TO ME.

CZ 75B SAO- 9mm
CZ 75B SAO- 9mm

My CZ 75B Single Action Only is a fine handgun and gives me the option of carrying it Cocked and Locked but without a grip safety. I don’t carry it, like the grip safety on my 1911s, and want the extra security of having a grip safety if I’m carrying Cocked and Locked.

Condition 0

When your pistol is in Condition 0, the firearm is in its most ready state. A loaded magazine is inserted into the firearm; there is a round in the chamber; the hammer is cocked, and the external thumb safety is disabled.

So the question is “Why would someone intentionally disengage a safety device prior to holstering their firearm?”

The shooter only needs to press the trigger to discharge it. Yes, we recognize the rule and required discipline that you must keep your finger off the trigger until you have eyes and sights on target. Consider that this is the Condition that law enforcement officers and soldiers carry their weapons in if they are in a danger area with known enemies in the immediate vicinity.

Does Condition 0 apply to a Glock, Springfield XD-XDM, Smith & Wesson M&P, or similar striker-fired, safe-action pistol?

It is a matter of definition since most have no external, manual safeties. A 1911 has an external manual safety, is hammer-fired, and you must disengage the manual safety before firing by design.

So yes, the Glocks, XDs, M&Ps, et al can be carried in Condition 0.

Should they?

Some feel Condition 0 is too unsafe and feel uncomfortable (unless the gun is pointed at a target), especially if the gun has a safety and is not engaged. The only thing holding the hammer back is the sear and all it takes is enough force applied to the hammer and it can fall. Is it really unsafe? Many think not.

The only way a cocked and unlocked 1911 is going to go off is if you pull the trigger. Between the grip safety, firing pin block (on series 80 types) and the half cock notch, the 1911 pistol just is not going off unless you press the trigger.

1911’s Were Designed to be Carried in Condition 1

To me, I see nothing wrong with carrying a 1911 cocked and locked in Condition 1, the way it was designed to be carried. Now if you feel uncomfortable with that, perhaps you should select another pistol for your purpose.

I believe that there is no “one size fits all” for carrying Condition. No matter what gun you are carrying, if you are in a bad neighborhood at night and several thugs are quickly approaching you, then you would probably want to be in Condition 1 or Condition 0 even.

So I believe Condition 1 is the best balance between safety and readiness of firing for a 1911 pistol for civilian self-defense. 

The “Half-Cock” Position as a Safety

The Half-Cock position on the M1911 has been used as a mode of carry and for some safety since World War II. Several “war stories” mention that soldiers regularly used the half-cocked safety position, especially at night during patrols because bringing the weapon to the full-cocked position from the half-cocked created much less noise and left-handed shooters couldn’t use the thumb safety effectively. So using the half-cocked position helped with noise reduction and thumb safety manipulation for lefties, while maintaining some safety that could quickly be released.

It is really intended as a “fail-safe” backup and is not recommended as a safety. When the hammer is pulled back just a few millimeters it “half cocks” and pressing the trigger will not fire the gun [on genuine mil-spec G.I. pistols only I believe]. The half-cock is intended as a fail-safe in the event that the sear hooks were to fail and it is not recommended as a mode of carry.

Colt 1911 XSE Combat Commander-4.25" Barrel, .45
Colt 1911 XSE Combat Commander-4.25″ Barrel, .45

On guns like my Colt 1911 XSE Combat Commander with Series 80 type hammers, the hammer will fall from half-cock when the trigger is pulled. This would also include guns from Springfield Armory, Sig, and modern production Colts, etc. My Colt XSE has a Series 80 hammer-firing pin system with a firing pin block safety.

Series 80 is a passive “safety” that physically blocks movement of the firing pin until the trigger is pulled. There are 3 safeties on my Colt Series 80: grip safety; external thumb safety; & Firing Pin Block Safety (FPB.)

The original M1911 lockwork design (which is now usually referred to as Series 70) relied only on a strong firing pin return Spring to prevent a discharge in the event of a muzzle-down drop.

The difference between Series 80 and 70 is that Series 80 incorporates a firing pin block. I believe it uses 3 extra levers in the lockwork that work together to block the firing pin unless the trigger is pulled.

Para-Ordnance, SIG, Auto Ordnance, Remington, and Taurus have adopted Colt’s Series 80 or a similar firing pin block system as well. Kimber’s Series II pistols and most models of S&W 1911s have an FPB safety also, but it is a different system than Colt’s and is disabled by depressing the grip safety.

Older Colts and most other clone guns lack an FPB safety and can possibly discharge if there is a round in the chamber and the gun is dropped on a hard surface, or if struck a blow hard enough to allow the firing pin to jump forward and impact the primer of the loaded round. I have heard that usually using an extra-strong firing pin return spring and/or a titanium firing pin will improve safety in these older designs.

To me, the greatest benefit of Cocked-and-Locked carry in a 1911 or single-action pistol (besides instant readiness) is the soft and short trigger press and excellent trigger control and accuracy it makes possible… because the only operation the trigger must perform is to simply drop the hammer.

Of course, I am biased to single-action handguns, but I do use and carry other action triggers. For my goals, skills, and training, the other types of semiautomatics without tuning and gunsmithing cannot provide the precise, light and short, and consistent trigger press of a 1911 or single action pistol.

Again, I must focus on thumbing down the external safety lever. So for me, generally speaking, Condition 1 offers the best balance of readiness and safety. Its biggest drawback is that it looks dangerous to people who don’t understand the operation and safety features of the pistol and don’t practice them.

Condition 1 to me with my skill set is obviously the fastest way to get my 1911 into action, the least prone to mistakes, the most direct path to precise trigger control, and by far the safest way to carry and operate my guns.

Again, it is VERY IMPORTANT to remember to switch the safety OFF when engaging the bad guy/gal, so your handgun will be in a Ready-To-Fire state to confront the bad guy/gal.

To get yourself comfortable with Cocked and Locked carry, put a snap cap in the chamber and then carry it around the home Cocked and Locked. If during your normal day to day movements, the hammer never accidentally falls and the safety stays engaged, you’ll start to get a comfort level and appreciation for the main safety feature of any gun– your brain with finger off the trigger. Only when you’re ready and comfortable, start putting live ammo in the chamber and carry Cocked and Locked.

The ability to get your shot off quickly and accurately is your main goal when carrying concealed in a self-defense confrontation. How long does it take you to rack the slide, chamber a round and be ready? You can learn and practice this under time constraints to be successful. You can also learn and develop your muscle memory through practice to switch the safety off quickly when you already have a round in the chamber. Decide for yourself what is the optimal carry Condition is a must and perfect it through regular training and practice.

Continued Success!

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.
© 2013 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected].