Are Safeties Really Safer? Pt 2

Guns that influenced safety designs; as technology evolved so did our concerns.


In Part One of this discussion about handgun safeties, I hope I made my point about firearm safety being primarily a matter of intelligent and careful gun handling, rather than a result of any particular mechanical device. I got on this subject because I talk to many people who seem to feel that some type of manual safety is needed on a handgun and the mere presence of such a feature somehow makes a gun safe. Again I say: safety is achieved through user competence.

Whether a specific type of safety is a help or a hindrance depends on how well the user understands the device and how well trained he or she is in its use. In selecting duty handguns, law enforcement agencies usually are trying to walk a careful path between effectiveness, simplicity of use and covering themselves in the liability department. There are various mechanical features that can enhance safety, when used properly. Before I go there, however, I think it is appropriate to cover a brief bit of police firearms history.

The traditional double action revolver was the gun of choice for most law enforcement agencies for many decades. It was an ideal tool because it was simple to operate and the long and heavy double action trigger pull, though not the best for accuracy, did prevent most accidental discharges. Trouble began immediately, of course, when the revolvers were manually cocked into single action mode. Most accidental shootings occurred when someone had their finger on that trigger, which now had a very short and very light pull, and they were bumped, startled or just plain shaky from whatever the incident was that caused them to draw the gun in the first place. Many agencies addressed this problem by altering their revolvers to fire double action only (DAO). Eventually someone figured out that keeping your finger off the trigger until you actually intend to fire the gun would be a good thing, and we are still trying to make that idea a universal practice to this day.

Things started to change when police agencies began to seriously consider the adoption of semi-automatic pistols for regular service use. Various auto loaders had certainly seen limited law enforcement service ever since they were introduced, but the simplicity of the revolver kept it as the primary duty handgun until the police began to feel outgunned by the criminals. The increased capacity and faster reloading capability of the semi-auto pistols simply could not be ignored. At the time, the two pistols that received the most attention were Colt's 1911 Government Model (and its variations) and the Smith & Wesson Model 39. There were others, of course, but for those of us who were there, these two were the only serious contenders. I mention them here mainly to make the point that each had built-in safety features that are still with us and are still much debated in their usefulness to this day. The reason they had those features, of course, was to prevent accidental firing of the gun and each firearm design approached that problem from different engineering directions.

The single-action only Colt pistol, designed by John Browning, was introduced as a military sidearm in 1911 and it certainly served with distinction in that role. It didn't gain a lot of traction with the police community because it was designed to be carried cocked-and-locked (also called Condition One), meaning with a round in the chamber, hammer fully cocked and the manual thumb safety on. To further enhance the safety of this precarious looking condition, the Colt also had a grip safety. While Condition One was a good way to carry the pistol in combat, it somehow just didn't look right in polite society and nervous police administrators realized that once the gun was drawn and the safeties deactivated, they were back to that very light trigger pull that caused so much trouble with the revolvers. In order to use a gun like this safely, training would be much more complicated and expensive. Only the truly intrepid would walk this path for many a year and I considered myself truly fortunate to be with an agency that, back in the early 1970s, adopted the Colt as our standard sidearm. What seemed to stick in people's minds about the design was that manual safeties and semi-auto pistols just went together, no further questions asked.

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