How the 1911 Got Its Safeties – and Why Its Ancestors Had None

Some people put a lot of weight on the fact that the 1911 has a grip safety and a thumb safety…but I don’t think many folk understand how it ended up that way. John Browning’s first self-loading pistols had very different safeties…and often, no safety at all. So today, let’s look at the guns that led up to the 1911 – the 1900, 1902, 1903 (Hammer and Hammerless) and 1905, as well as the US military trials pistols from 1907, 1909, and 1910, and see what they can tell us about the standards and practices of the time.

(Thanks to Tam for the inspiration to film this!)

35 Comments

  1. As described in their book Shooting to Live With The One-Hand Gun;

    https://ia801303.us.archive.org/26/items/ShootingToLiveWilliamFairbairn/Shooting%20to%20Live%20-%20William%20Fairbairn.pdf

    W. E. Fairbairn and Eric Sykes, when in charge of the Shanghai Municipal Police, had no use for the thumb safety on the Colts whatsoever, and had them pinned down in the off position by the armorers. Even on the concealed hammer Colt M1903s used by officers with hands too small to cope with the 1911.

    They considered having to remember to release a safety in an IA a very good way for an officer to get killed.

    Col. Jeff Cooper defined three carry modes for the 1911;

    Condition One; loaded chamber and magazine, hammer cocked, thumb safety engaged. Commonly known even today as “Cocked and Locked”.

    Condition Two; Loaded chamber and magazine, hammer fully down on the loaded chamber. Commonly known years ago as “Mexican Carry”, aka the “Mike Hammer Carry”.

    Condition Three; Loaded magazine, empty chamber, hammer fully down. This is even today the standard carry mode for U.S. military sentries, etc. Cooper stated it was mainly to facilitate inspection by the OOD or NCOIC.

    Note that Cooper had little use for the grip safety and habitually pinned it out of engagement on his personal 1911s.

    It’s also interesting to note that in designing the FN High Power pistol, both John Browning and after his death Dieudonne Saive left the grip safety entirely off the design. Neither of them considered it either necessary or desirable.

    Colt-made 1911s today have an automatic firing-pin safety similar to that of pre-WW2 National Match Colts. Similar firing-pin safeties can be found on the old Spanish Star Super A and B automatics, which while looking like 1911s outside are much closer to the FN High Power internally. The Star pistols also lack a grip safety.

    Other designs have had grip safeties as well. The Type Nambu pistol (1904) had a frontstrap grip safety, that was left off the later Type 14 (1924) model. The Schwarzlose 1908 blowforward automatic also had a frontstrap grip safety that was pretty much the entire frontstrap.

    I suppose you could argue that the Heckler & Koch P7’s frontstrap cocking lever acted as a form of grip safety as well, as it had to be squeezed to allow the gun to be fired by pulling the trigger. Of course, if you pulled the trigger back first and then squeezed the frontstrap, you’d get a BANG you might not have been expecting.

    In conclusion, the grip safety would seem to be a reasonable measure for a pistol carried on horseback and attached to the rider by a lanyard. Otherwise, it seems to be merely an unneeded mechanical complication.

    As to the thumb safety, for “Condition One” cocked and locked carry, you must practice until releasing the safety becomes a reflex. As someone who carried a 1911 and then a High Power for a long time, I can assure you that it takes a great deal of practice to get to that point.

    cheers

    eon

    • The best safety catch is your own mind. Simply put, do not carry a gun with a loaded chamber unless you expect trouble, and do not even lightly touch the trigger unless you intend to shoot someone or something. A coworker of mine got his concealed-carry license and the instructor punished people who put finger on the trigger just before drawing from the holster. How were they punished? The instructor wrapped their index and middle fingers together with rubber bands and told them not to remove the bands until class was over… and he then disassembled their pistols right in front of them as an extra penalty.

    • When I first joined the Navy (90s), C3 was the order of the day, a peacetime compromise based on the fact that small arms aren’t most Sailors’ primary skillset. Once we got serious about antiterrorism / force protection post-9/11, training increased, and every pistol is Condition One. During my joint tours with the land services in Iraq and Afghanistan, the same held true, and in-theater there are clearing barrels outside all FOB dining facilities and some other buildings for that reason. It has been a very long time since I saw a member of any Service carrying a Condition Three pistol.

      Unfortunately, while the Beretta was designed to be carried revolver-style, with the heavy DA pull substituting for a manual safety, the military still considers it C1 (a trigger pull away from a discharge) and mandates use of the [crappy, slide-mounted, wrong-direction] safety – the best of both worlds for preventing a negligent discharge, and the worst from the standpoint of allowing a purposeful one. Although I’m retired now, I applaud the adoption of the M17 / M18 with their much better triggers AND intuitively placed, 1911-style thumb safeties.

      I don’t see any value-added for grip safeties as currently constructed. They are deactivated in the two instances where I deem an ND most likely and dangerous – reholstering, or holding a threat at gunpoint as the final attempt at deterrence – unless they are so oversprung and/or out of the way as to present a danger of inadvertent activation.

        • Cherndog,
          Interesting technique, but again, it wasn’t really “intended to be operated” [as a safety] at all for defensive carry.

          Opinions may vary on your previous “The best safety catch is your own mind” statement for medium (i.e. factory Glock) triggers, and I’m rather dubious when it comes to the short, light, crisp SA kind I prefer (very comfortable with my own ability to keep my finger off the trigger, but jeans, belts, sweaters, jackets, holsters, etc. aren’t quite as well “trained”); but that philosophy is perfectly suited for the lengthy 12lb DA pull on an M9, as it was for a century of DA revolvers.

          • Maybe the other issue is “horses for courses,” namely that one has to develop a product or a (combination of products) for a particular use, not the other way around (there are few exceptions). If you’re going to use a light single-action trigger, perhaps it’s best NOT to keep it in a position where something will snag on it upon drawing or holstering. It is also best to have a holster design that won’t permit a flap or strap to get into the trigger guard at ANY time of day. Anyone carrying a Glock or a double-action gun with a heavy trigger should practice good trigger discipline anyway, since no amount of creep will prevent panicked shots or stupidity (“I JUST SHOT MARVIN IN THE FACE!!”). I could be wrong.

          • I wholeheartedly concur on your second point.

            On the other hand, the particular use of crisp triggers is accurate aimed fire; practically all concealed carry involves some possibility of a snag on reholstering; and I regard CCW and accuracy as complimentary, not mutually exclusive.

            To each his own, but I regard self-cocking as one of the main features of an effective semiauto pistol, and have no use for lawyered-up triggers.

    • “(…)Other designs have had grip safeties as well. The Type Nambu pistol (1904) had a frontstrap grip safety, that was left off the later Type 14 (1924) model. The Schwarzlose 1908 blowforward automatic also had a frontstrap grip safety that was pretty much the entire frontstrap.(…)”
      Webley Scott automatic pistol should be interesting material to comparison regarding grip (automated) safety as it is of similar vintage to Colt 1911:
      https://modernfirearms.net/en/handguns/handguns-en/great-britain-semi-automatic-pistols/webley-scott-automatic-pistol-eng/
      it first appeared on .38 caliber Model 1909 and was also present at Mark I Navy (.455 caliber), .38 caliber Model 1910 had initially such safety, but it was dropped in favor of manual one, which is present on 1913 and later made guns. Model 1922 has not grip safety. So it seems that it was deemed necessary in case of military (Mark I Navy), but unneeded (and unwanted?) in case of commercial (model of 1910).

    • “(…)Similar firing-pin safeties can be found on the old Spanish Star Super A and B automatics, which while looking like 1911s outside are much closer to the FN High Power internally. The Star pistols also lack a grip safety.(…)”
      Interestingly Argentinian 1911-look-a-like namely Ballester-Rigaud also lack grip safety. On the other hand Mexican 1911-look-a-like namely Obregon:
      https://modernfirearms.net/en/handguns/handguns-en/mexico-semi-automatic-pistols/obregon-eng/
      does have, even though internally it is more distant from 1911 than Ballester-Rigaud.

  2. My dad was a machine gunner in Europe during WWII. He carried a 1911 in condition two, against regulations, but he figured if he wasn’t obvious about it (i.e. condition one) nobody would give him grief. He also figured he could thumb cock the pistol fast enough with one hand if needed. Being a machine gunner, getting both hands free to rack the slide may not have been an option, if things went sideways.

  3. Are you going to do a discussion on the evolution of the magazine release and if we should call a magazine release behind the trigger guard as being in the Brochardt/Luger position?

  4. What an interesting an enlightening history of the large Colt automatic pistols. Sure to start many more arguments!

    I’ve always thought the rear mounted manual safeties on Browning pistols were rather awkwardly positioned. On the pocket guns the manual safety is tiny too, making it doubly awkward to manipulate.

    I have the small Colt XSP .380 auto (which is very similar to the Sig 238 pistol). And I’ve determined that the exposed hammer is much easier and surer to manipulate than the manual safety. So even though the pistol seems intended for condition one carry, I will carry it in condition two: loaded chamber, hammer down, safety off. I might even have the safety pinned to the off position.

  5. If a 1911 is in C2 (hammer down on a loaded chamber), is there some kind of disconnect or barrier to prevent a blow to the hammer from firing the round?

    When I carried a Walther P-1 (postwar P-38) in my car, I liked it in C2, safety off. The heavy double action trigger pull would prevent an accidental discharge while still being fast to deploy. With a 1911, one still has to manually cock the hammer.

    • Some 1911s have a firing pin block, but many do not. If the pistol is described as having a Series 80 or Series 1991 firing pin, it has a trigger activated block. Pistols described as having a Series 70 or inertial firing pin do not have a firing pin block.

      Manually cocking the hammer wouldn’t have been a problem for people switching from a revolver to a 1911….

      • Auto loading pistols with outside hammer and a floating firing pin(Commonly known as inertial firing pin), can be safely carried with chamber loaded and hammer fully down. If hammer got an outside impact, it would be dissipated by the propped on surface of hammer to the slide steel and the lenght of firing pin would not permit its reaching to the primer. In case of hammer taking an accidental backward rotation, the half cock notch would catch it at half cocked mode without touching the firing pin. Actual mission of half cock notches should be catching aa slipped hammer when cocking. It should not be considered as a real safety. It would work in an emergency and might get be harmed. IMHO.

  6. Keep in mind that not too long before this, a lot of countries used single action revolvers, and even single shot pistols, and a half cock notch was considered to be perfectly sufficient as a safety…..

    • Before anybody tries it, Cooper stated that it was possible to apply the 1911 safety with the hammer at half-cock, resulting in what he called a “Condition One-And-A-Half” for which he could find no practical use.

      I would like to point out that the half-cock notch on the 1911 was intended solely as an intercept notch to prevent the hammer from striking the firing pin if your thumb slipped while cocking the weapon. It is shallow, and if you carry it at half-cock and something hits the hammer hard enough, odds are that the notch will fracture, the hammer will fall, and the weapon will fire.

      This BTW bypasses the grip safety entirely. Just as you can cock the piece without depressing the grip safety, so the hammer can drop from half-cock to all the way down without it being depressed if the notch fails.

      So while it is possible to carry the 1911 at half-cock,thumb safety on or off, DON’T. DO. IT.

      cheers

      eon

  7. “The safety is keeping your finger off the trigger!”
    ~designer of the French bolt action rifles so loved by Ian 😉

  8. Against to ” half cock should not be considered as a safety ” approach, there are pistols at opposite belief, like TT33 with an additional feature as blocking the disconnector and by means, arresting the slide at this mode.

  9. If I carried a d/a revolver I would totally use a snap cap, in the absence of a safety. Close up, just pull the trigger more.

  10. The disdain that seemingly most pistol cognoscenti (except 1911 fans) hold for grip safeties just baffles me. Who has lost a gunfight from not squeezing his/her gun tight enough? How often do grip safeties jam on “safe”?

    I would really like to see some comparison of accidental/neglectful discharge rates on Glocks (no manual safety) to Springfield XDs etc. (grip safety) to those Glock type pistols with manual safeties such as S&W M&Ps with the option or Ruger SR9s — or even 1911s with both types.

    Though I will certainly agree with Ian Hogg and those who posted above who say that the best safety device is located between the ears of a well-trained, careful user.

    • While the consequences in my case were far less dramatic, IMHO they’re actually more illustrative. The life-and-death stress (and other “field” conditions) of a gunfight makes it very difficult to distinguish mechanical from human shortcomings.

      My hands are neither small, weak, arthritic, nor shaky. They weren’t sweaty, stiff / numb from cold, or gloved. My pistol (used RIA 1911A2) was neither excessively worn nor malfunctioning; the grip safety even has a “memory bump” – and yet I failed to disengage it numerous times during dryfire practice in the stress-free comfort of my home. I’d attribute them to a stiff factory leaf spring (subsequently corrected) plus the way the contours of my hand interface with the “wide/narrow” grip profile of the double-stack frame.

      So, this drawback is at least a possibility, even under optimum conditions. Even if you assume I’m the only fool who could ever fail to disengage a grip safety, where do you see the value? Under what practical circumstances could a grip safety (as currently designed) actually help prevent a negligent discharge?

      I do see a potential niche, though: Instead of interfacing with the trigger or sear, a grip safety could deactivate the firing pin block in the slide. That would maintain the “Series 80” drop safety expected today, without adding creep or “grit” to the trigger squeeze. I’m unaware of any existing pistol incorporating this functionality, but I’d love to learn.

        • Interesting point. While I have no experience with (and therefore no strong opinion on) either feature, I’ve sometimes wondered why (AFAICT) no one has tried squeeze-cocking outside the HK P series and its gas-delayed blowback.

          I remain curious, though, about the basis for your strong defense of grip safeties. As a [semi – another whole topic] fan of the 1911 I tend to believe manufacturers include them due to a combination of nostalgia / expectation (like other superseded 1911 features), and liability concerns about replicating a ubiquitous product in every respect except deletion of a “safety” feature (no matter how pointless).

          • Daweo,
            I agree with the authors of the article you linked: “The Ortgies design for the grip safety actually negates the purpose of having a grip safety in the first place, which is to prevent the gun from firing unless a hand is grasping it.”

            To me, the uselessness of the conventional (1911) grip safety lies in the fact that it is deactivated during normal handling (when most negligent discharges occur), yet also does nothing to prevent drop firing. The Ortgies takes this a step further by remaining deactivated even after handling!

  11. Mike, during this C-19 era I went to a WA State Gunshop to check out the Walther CCP, because it has the gas-delayed blowback action. But what I bought was the S&W M&P EZ 9, which has the grip safety deactivating the firing pin safety. The EZ has a better trigger.
    And I bought the version with a thumb safety safety. And now this aged 1911 shooter feels right at home.

    • Very cool. Since my original post I found an aftermarket lever that enables a 1911 grip safety to trip the Series 80 FP block, but didn’t know the EZ incorporated that feature – thanks!

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