Handgun Safeties: Types and Characteristics

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Handgun Safeties: Types and Characteristics
Handgun Safeties: Types and Characteristics
Handgun Safeties: Types and Characteristics
Handgun Safeties: Types and Characteristics

There are many types of safeties on today’s modern handguns. Of course, a safety mechanism’s primary purpose is to help prevent the accidental or negligent discharge of a firearm and to help ensure safer gun handling. A lot question whether or not today’s modern handguns will fire when dropped without a trigger press and I address that later. Most of us are familiar with the external thumb safety mounted on the rear of the gun’s frame or on the slide, depending on the handgun’s design. Some guns do not have a thumb safety at all, while others have multiple safeties. How far do you go for safety? How many safeties and what types do you need? Or do you not even need a manual safety? Some say they do not even want to mess with a safety on their gun and will not buy a gun with a manual thumb safety. Some love grip safeties and others hate them. There are quite a few strong opinions about the various safeties. I frequently get questions from students and new shooters about what is the best safety they should have on the gun they are getting ready to buy. Is there a best safety design? Some say the answer is just to buy a gun with a very long and hard trigger press which is really the only good safety mechanism you need. After all, certain law enforcement agencies and some military units do that and several offices and organizations require a certain type of double action or other hard press action, e.g. NY1 and NY2 triggers. Others strongly disagree with that idea, saying most shooters are not law enforcement or military personnel involved in their unique missions, type of carry, safety scenarios, etc. and you cannot be as accurate with a hard-press action, without much practice. Again, several disagree with this. It is easy for me to recommend the best safety for a handgun and I’ll give you my idea on that later. Several ask how drop safeties, decockers, firing pin blocks, hammer blocks, transfer bars, magazine disconnects, trigger safeties, half-cock and safety notches, etc. work and how do their mechanisms differ. Some students want to know what is the Glock “Safe Action” internal-only system and its safeties. So, I want to present and discuss the eleven common types of handgun safeties and their characteristics and some safety concerns.

Semi-Automatic Pistols and Revolvers Safeties

Like I said above, some handguns do not have safeties and some related, interesting history lessons can be learned. The Colt Single Action Army revolvers back in the blackpowder Civil War era never had a safety switch and had an inherent safety problem. Some learned that all 6 chambers could not be safely loaded at the same time because a blow to the hammer would fire the round under the hammer. Thus, the old West six-shooters were really five shooters, since cowboys learned the hard way and kept their hammer down on an empty chamber.

Most contemporary pistols, except replicas of antique models, have some kind of safety mechanism, which is usually a drop safety that mandates a trigger press to fire the gun. Single-action designs, like the 1911 pistol, have a manual safety and grip safety, but the safety mechanism does depend upon the year, type, and model of the gun.

Single-action revolvers and most double-action revolvers do not have external safeties. So the long and hard trigger press of a double-action revolver will result in the gun firing, as well as for single-actions. I have found that all my double-action revolvers have a longer and harder trigger press than any of my semi-automatic pistols, even the double-action pistols, out of the box without modification. Some of you will argue the merit of this for your particular revolvers, but I know how my accuracies compare between double actions and between single and double actions. Most single-action revolvers usually have no internal safeties, like a transfer bar, hammer block, or drop safety and have a half-cock Safety Notch (defined below) on the hammer and are not drop safe. Most modern double-action revolvers have an internal safety, either a transfer bar or hammer block, to prevent firing without a trigger press. But, you can buy customized double-action revolvers or modify them with external safeties. 

Glock “Safe Action” Pistols

Glock pistols are equipped with a fully-automatic safety system which consists of three passive levels of independently operating, internal-only mechanical safeties, which sequentially disengage when the trigger is pulled and automatically reengages when the trigger is released. As the trigger is pulled, the three inline safety mechanisms are disengaged, and the striker is moved rearward within the pistol. This increases the tension on the firing pin spring. When the trigger bar releases the firing pin lug, the striker moves forward as the firing pin spring relaxes. This motion causes the striker to impact the base of the round in the chamber, which fires the round. It is called a Safe Action System by Glock. Other companies have similar systems, like Walther and some other striker-fired guns. There are are no external safety switches on these handguns. First, an integrated trigger lever safety prevents the trigger body from moving unless this trigger lever is positively pressed. This trigger safety blocks the trigger from any rearward movement until the lever is depressed. For further safety in law enforcement, Glock introduced the New York trigger module, which features a flat spring in a plastic housing that replaces the trigger bar’s standard coil spring. This New York trigger modification is available in two versions: NY1, with 5.6 lb. to 9 lb., and NY2, with 7.2 lb to 11.2 lb.

Second, the gun’s striker-firing mechanism is locked in place by a extension bar linked to the trigger; the striker cannot move unless the trigger is depressed. This is a drop safety, is the last safety to be disengaged when the trigger is pressed, and is completely automatic. It prevents the premature separation of the trigger bar and spring-loaded striker bar unless the trigger is pulled completely to the rear.  As the slide moves rearward and the action cycles, the trigger bar extension moves upwards thanks to spring tension, so that when the slide moves forward, it catches the striker tab and again partially charges the striker and re-engages the drop safety.

Third, as with most pistols, a firing pin block actuated by the same extension bar prevents the pin coming into contact with the primer unless the trigger is pressed to clear the block. Although not generally considered a safety feature, the resting state of the gun has the striker in a “half-cocked” state. So, pressing the trigger will fully cock the weapon before releasing the striker. There is no concern for decocking, since all three safeties are always engaged when the trigger is in the forward position.

TYPES OF HANDGUN SAFETIES 

1. Manual Safety

Manual Safety
Manual Safety

We all know that the most common form of safety mechanism is a switch/lever that when placed in the “safe” position, prevents a pull of the trigger from firing the firearm. There are many designs of these active safeties, but the two most common mechanisms are a block or latch that prevents the trigger and/or firing mechanism from moving, and a device that disconnects the trigger from the firing mechanism. These are the oldest forms of “active” safety mechanism and are widely used, with the strong thumb used to engage or disengage the external manual safety lever or switch. By the way, for some guns pushing the lever UP puts the safety on, while for others pushing it DOWN puts it on. Know your gun!

2. Grip Safety

Grip Safety
Grip Safety

A grip safety is a lever or other device located on the back of the handgun’s grip which must be depressed by the shooter’s hand, when naturally grasping the gun in a firing position, so the gun can fire. It is usually similar to a manual safety in its function, but is momentary. This safety on the grip is deactivated only while the shooter maintains his hold on the grip and is reactivated immediately once the shooter releases it. So, it is important to grip the grip safety very firm to ensure it functions as designed. My 1911 design guns are good examples of guns with a grip safety. A related grip-type safety is the decocking grip found on some H&K pistols like the P7 Series. This gun is cocked and ready to fire only when the front of the grip is squeezed by the operator. When the grip is released, the firearm is decocked, and the single-action trigger will not cock the firearm, therefore it will not fire unless the grip is squeezed and the trigger pressed. Also, the trigger can first be pulled and then it will fire when the grip is subsequently squeezed. If both the grip is squeezed and the trigger pulled simultaneously, the pistol will fire. 

3. Drop Safeties

Drop Safeties
Drop Safeties

Some jurisdictions, like the State of California, require some form of “drop safety” on all new firearms. These are usually passive safeties designed to reduce the chance of a gun accidentally discharging when dropped or roughly handled. Such safeties generally provide an obstacle to operation of the firing mechanism that is only removed when the trigger is pressed, so that the firearm cannot otherwise discharge. Required Drop Tests were included in the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 for imported guns. 

4. Firing Pin Block

Firing Pin Block
Firing Pin Block

A firing pin block is a mechanical block used in semi-automatic firearms and some revolvers that, when at rest, obstructs forward travel of the firing pin. It is linked to the trigger mechanism and clears the obstruction to the pin just before the hammer or striker is released. This prevents the firing pin from striking a chambered cartridge unless the trigger is pressed, even if the hammer is released due to a faulty sear or the pin is dropped or struck by another object.

5. Hammer Block

Hammer Block
Hammer Block

A Hammer Block is similar to a firing pin block. It is a latch, block or other obstruction built into the action and usually positioned to prevent the hammer from contacting the cartridge primer or firing pin when at rest. In the above picture you can see the Hammer Block indicated for the revolver. It is down when the hammer is cocked and up when not cocked, to prevent contact with the firing pin/cartridge. Similar to the firing pin block, the obstruction to the hammer’s travel is removed when you press the trigger. This allows the hammer to contact the primer or firing pin only when the trigger is pressed. 

6. Transfer Bar

Transfer Bar
Transfer Bar

A transfer bar is also used in revolvers and certain exposed hammer rifles, but works the opposite way from a hammer block. The transfer bar has the spur that would otherwise be on the hammer or encloses a firing pin similar to autoloading designs. As you can see from the diagram, the hammer itself cannot contact a loaded cartridge or the firing pin, but must instead strike the Transfer Bar when it is in the Up position with hammer cocked. The transfer bar is normally positioned out of line with the hammer’s travel, but is moved into place by the normal action of the trigger, providing similar “drop safety” to a firing pin block. 

7. Safety Notch

A Safety Notch is one of the oldest forms of drop safety, used on older single-action revolvers manufactured before the invention of the hammer block, some lever action rifles, 1911 guns, and hammer-fired semi-automatics that were designed before the invention of the firing pin block. The Safety Notch is a relief cut made in the tumbler at the base of the hammer, that allows the sear to catch and hold the hammer a short distance from the pin or cartridge primer, in a “half-cocked” position. The Safety Notch works first by allowing the handler to retract the hammer a short distance from the firing pin, so dropping the gun on its hammer will not result in an energy transfer to the pin, which could then discharge a chambered cartridge. A second purpose is to allow the sear to “catch” a hammer that is falling when the trigger has not been pressed, as when a drop jarred the sear loose or when the hammer was not fully cocked before being released. Recognize that a Safety Notch used to “half-cock” a gun is an active feature that must be engaged and does not positively prevent accidental discharges in all cases. Some do not consider it a safety mechanism. A certain amount of manual dexterity and familiarity with a gun is also required to “half-cock” it. If the shooter is unfamiliar with how to engage the “half-cock” position, accidental discharges can result. 

8. Trigger Safeties

Trigger Safeties
Trigger Safeties

The Trigger Safety is de-activated as a natural result of the shooter firing the gun, but is engaged in most other circumstances. The trigger is composed of two interdependent parts and the shooter moves both parts of the trigger to fire the gun. Unintentional pressure, a drop, or a strike against the trigger is unlikely to activate it, so this will not fire the gun. This design was popularized by Glock pistols and was originally used in the 1897 Iver Johnson hammerless revolver, which uses a trigger with a spring-loaded lever. This lever sticks out from the trigger face and must be fully depressed in order to disengage a lock that allows the main trigger body to move. Unintentional pressure against the top of the trigger without pressing the lever does not disengage the lock and the trigger will not move. This design has many moving parts and is advantageous in that accidental pressure on the lock release requires more force to pull the main trigger. 

9. Magazine Disconnect

A magazine disconnect is an internal mechanism that engages a mechanical safety such as a block or trigger disconnect when the firearm’s magazine is removed. My Browning Hi-Power and Ruger LC9s semi-automatic pistols are examples.  As with any safety feature, there is debate regarding the necessity of a magazine disconnect. Historically, most magazine-capable gun designs have had no magazine disconnect. Magazine disconnects are a hotly debated subject. The state of California passed legislation in 2006 requiring magazine disconnects on all new handgun designs sold in the state starting January 1, 2007. The arguments in favor of a magazine disconnect are that if the gun cannot fire without a magazine, then an accidental discharge can be prevented if someone removes the magazine but forgets that a round has been chambered. Also, if a gun grab or loss of possession of the gun might happen, the operator can render the gun useless by removing the magazine. Some law enforcement officers who survived being disarmed report their survival to the fact that during the struggle for their gun, they managed to drop the magazine before the bad guy wrestled the gun away from them, preventing them from being murdered with their own gun.

A safety argument against a magazine disconnect is that if a round is left in a chamber due to extractor failure or other reason the gun will be “live” unexpectedly when an empty magazine is reinserted. With a magazine disconnect depressing the trigger to clear the gun or pointing it in a safe down-range direction to clear it, will not clear the round in the chamber because the trigger is disabled. When an empty magazine is inserted the firing system becomes reactivated, even though the trigger has been previously depressed. Others say without a magazine the gun is useless except as a club. Without the disconnect feature, if a magazine was lost or otherwise not available, then at least the gun could be chambered with a single round to be used as a single shot firearm.

10. Decocker

Most traditional double-action semi-automatic (DA/SA) pistols are designed to be carried with the hammer down (uncocked) on a chambered round, with or without a manual safety engaged. The pistol is considered safe in this state as the “double-action” pull that both cocks and fires the firearm is both longer and heavier than the “single-action” pull that simply releases the cocked hammer, and thus an inadvertent trigger pull is less likely. However, the act of cycling the action on such a firearm (as a natural consequence of discharging the firearm, or to chamber the first round) will leave the hammer cocked in single-action mode. To return the pistol to its safe state, it is necessary to uncock (decock) the hammer, usually by holding the hammer spur, carefully pulling the trigger, and then slowly lowering the hammer on the firing pin. This process is dangerous if done carelessly or in adverse conditions, and violates the major rule of gun safety – “keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target and you are ready to fire.” 

A decocker or manual decocking lever allows the hammer to be dropped on a live cartridge without risk of discharging it, usually by blocking the hammer or retracting or covering the firing pin before releasing the sear. This eliminates the need to pull the trigger or to control the fall of the hammer, but since all mechanisms can fail, it is still necessary to keep the muzzle of the gun pointed in a safe direction while decocking. Reminder: All mechanical devices (safeties) can fail! There are decocking levers only and there are decocking safeties, which combine the functions of both a decocker and a manual safety. You must recognize the DANGER and the difference by knowing: Is the pistol ready to fire after decocking? OR Is the safety engaged after decocking? This varies greatly by model and there are decock/safety combinations which have both a manual safety switch and a decocking lever, e.g. some Heckler & Koch, the Ruger P95, and Walther pistols. The Beretta 92FS has a slide-mounted Decocker-Safety, so engaging the safety also decocks the gun. My Sig P226 DA/SA has a decocking lever on the frame, but my Sig P226 SAO does not.

11. Loaded Chamber Indicator (LCI)

Loaded Chamber Indicator (LCI)
Loaded Chamber Indicator (LCI)

Loaded chamber indicators offer a visual warning to the shooter. In this picture, the words “Loaded When Up” are present and you can easily see the LCI raised up above the ejection port and slide. The LCI is a safety device present on many pistols to alert an operator that there is a round in the chamber. It is a small button or rod usually located just behind the ejection port on the slide of the handgun that pops up to indicate the presence of a round in the chamber. The LCI has been around for many years and some have strong preferences for and against them. Some do not like it, claiming it does not rise enough to catch your attention. Others say it is just the right height to be easily seen or felt to alert the shooter that there is a round in the chamber to avoid accidental/negligent discharges.

CONCLUSIONS

Remember, ALL mechanical devices can and do FAIL. Safeties are mechanical devices, so do not bet your life on them nor trust them completely. The Best safety for any gun is your brain. So THINK and FOCUS on what you are doing putting SAFETY FIRST at all times. Get the proper training for safely handling your gun, know your gun, its safeties and functions, and how to operate it safely and effectively. Keep your finger OFF the trigger until you are ready to shoot with your eyes and sights on the target. The large majority of modern handguns will NOT fire unless you press the trigger, so be disciplined and practice often!

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 in your state or jurisdiction for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, stand your ground law, and concealed carry. This is not legal advice and not legal opinions. 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. 

© 2015 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].