Safeties – or not – on US Military Pistols

The question of what type of safety is appropriate on a combat pistol is a source of lots of debate. That’s partly because it’s ultimately a subjective rather than objective question, but also partly because the US Army left the record a bit hazy (so far as I’ve been able to tell) on why they chose the requirements that they chose.

Consider that the early Colt 1900 model automatic pistol was equipped with a manual safety only (somewhat inconveniently incorporated into its rear sight, as we saw yesterday). As it evolved, that became a thumb safety, and a grip safety was also added. Of course, the revolvers it would eventually replace had no safeties at all (by which I mean shooter-operated devices; I’m not counting mechanical interlocks and half-cock notches on hammers). When the Poles adapted the 1911 design, the dropped the thumb safety and kept the grip safety. When the Argentines adapted it, they dropped the grip safety and kept the thumb safety. And when the US Navy was negotiating a contract to buy Remington M53 pistols, they specified not safeties at all.

Well, unlike the Ordnance Board that chose the 1911, the Navy’s testing board left some very specific written rationalization for their desire for no safety mechanisms. That makes for pretty interesting reading, and a window into the shooting attitudes of 1918. Have a read:

The Board feels that the omission of safety devices is a very desirable point, for such devices in practical handling of the pistol become a distinct element of danger for the following reasons:

1. Every person no matter how unfamiliar with firearms instinctively knows that a hammer pistol is safe with the hammer down, and is ready to fire with the hammer cocked.

2. If the pistol is provided with an independent safety it is likely to be habitually carried on the safety with the firing spring, the only high duty spring in the pistol in tension, thus imposing undue strain on the spring and rendering it liable to take a permanent set and to cause misfire.

3. An independent safety is liable to become accidentally released by rubbing against the holster, or when the pistol is being released form the holster.

4. The average person is always in doubt as to which position of the safety lever makes the pistol safe. If the two positions of the safety are marked  ‘on’ and ‘off’ he is not sure whether the pistol is safe when the lever is moved over the letters ‘off’ or when it is moved over the letters ‘on’, and this necessitates careful examination of the pistol and prevents it quick and instinctive use.

5. With a pistol of the drift (inertia or short) firing pin type such as the Remington and Colt automatic pistols, the pistol is absolutely safe when the hammer is down. The hammer can be let down from the cocked position with one hand on these pistols, and there is absolutely no doubt in anybody’s mind as to whether a pistol is safe or not when he simply has to bear in mind the two positions of his hammer, the cocked and down positions.

6. When a safety is employed an officer or non-commissioned officer cannot tell at any distance whether a man’s pistol is safe or in condition to be fired. With the hammer and no safeties, the hammer constitutes a part of the outline of the pistol so that it may be seen at a glance from a considerable distance whether the pistol is cocked and ready to fire or not.

7. The Board feels that grip and independent safeties are  unnecessary complications in the mechanism and handling of  a practical service pistol. They were introduced originally on the hammerless German automatic pistols, and their is no more reason for their use on American automatic pistols than on American revolvers which have always been properly free from them.

They you have it; the Navy’s opinion on pistol safeties in 1918: if you need a safety, you clearly shouldn’t have a pistol in the first place. I do have some reservations about the practice of dropping the hammer one-handed on a loaded chamber, though…

39 Comments

  1. Ian … you really enjoy stirring the pot,poking the bee hive,pushing little buttons etc. etc. etc. LoL I’m sure there are more opinions on this subject than there are handguns. hahaha. What !! you don’t have two thumbs and six fingers on each hand????????

  2. No matter how you look at any weapon system, safety comes down to training and compliance. P-35 (Hi Power) served more countries than any other Western pistol- save the current G17- and were never carried with the safety “on”. The lever was so small and awkward, no one bothered.

    • You Al (in my opinion) are exactly right. I spent the 70’s in what was termed a SMU (special mission unit) our primary offensive weapon was a handgun. We were a a offensive unit only. We fired literally 10’s of thousands of round in training and qualification … not weapons qualification but “deployment qualified” qualification. Our issued weapon was the Colt .45 with only basic tuning to keep them dependable. Long story short .. on any range during firing a slide back got your ass chewed, from the time you drew your weapon till you went to bed it was on your hip, round in the tube, safety off. The only other place for the weapon was in your hand, and only in your hand when you were going to shoot something. In my time in the unit (several years) we never had one accidental shooting/firing. Mind set and training.

      • Hello Thomas;
        Thank you for your service.
        You are exactly right! Safety is in the mind of the operator. I learned the same things you did during my time with the ASA’s Special Operations Detachment.
        I would also point out that the worlds most popular pistol, the Glock 17 has no external safeties at all. The trigger bar is to prevent drop fires and does not require a separate motion to fire, just point and pull the trigger.
        I also think the 1911 is the best combat pistol I’ve ever seen or shot.

  3. The military in this country has never spent any real time or ammo in training the average soldier issued a pistol to use it effectively. It is a training issue. It is obvious to me that the Navy didn’t have a clue in the safe handling or proper training in the use of pistols in 1918. Try to cock the hammer of any auto pistol in a pressure fill situation and see how “easy” that is for you. Expect your basic G.I. to be able to safely move with a “cocked and not on safe” pistol in a combat situation where he is scared and nervous and see how many AD’s occur. Training is require and there is little of that in regards to what with the “average” soldier issued a pistol receives. Today’s issued pistols are somewhat different in that they are double action autos and can be safely carried without the use of a manual safety.

    • You are absolutely wrong on all counts. In over twenty years of Government service, I never even heard of an AD in!
      The Armies primary concern for most of it’s soldiers is not to spend what limited time they have training them to shoot a weapon that they will in all likelihood never use. A cannon cocker is many times more effective shooting his big gun than any pistol. A truck driver’s safe delivery of the load is more important than learning how to shoot a pistol. >90% od all soldiers PRIMARY mission is not shooting things! It IS doing all the things required to make sure the other 9% have the things they need to do that.

  4. I normally carried the 1911A1 in “Condition One”, cocked and locked. Later, after changing to the S&W 645, I normally carried it in “Condition Two”, as Condition One is of course not possible with the Walther-type “hammer drop” safety, and with the DA trigger it was unnecessary, anyway.

    I never “dropped” the hammer with the safety alone; I always eased it down with my opposite thumb, a habit I acquired with P.38s and PP/PPK-series pistols. To me, the safety was just an extra bit of insurance against an AD if my thumb slipped in lowering the hammer as I would a revolver hammer.

    A true “double-action only” (i.e., purely trigger-cocking) pistol probably doesn’t need a manual safety at all. To wit, the H&K VP-70, or any of the Manufrance DA blowbacks. The civilian VP-70Z’s shotgun-type crossbolt safety (bottom rear of the trigger guard) merely locked the DA trigger slide in the forward position; not only was the pistol perfectly safe without it, it was often mistaken for the magazine release by the uninitiated.

    On any sort of “Glock-type” action (more properly a “Steyr 1908”-type), a grip safety is entirely reasonable, Remington’s “new” R-51 being a case in point.

    My one point of contention with the “DAOs” is the number of them which are not true DAs. Such as the S&Ws; if a hammer fall does not set off a hard primer, a second trigger pull as on an M39 or Walther P.38 will not raise and drop the hammer again, “revolver-style”; the slide must be partly retracted to “reset” the sear. Meaning you may as well go through the entire TRB (Tap-Rack-BANG) drill on general principles. (It should really be called “Tap-Rack-Hope It Goes Bang”, as it’s caused by a dud round.)

    The best of both worlds? The SIGs. Walther-type DA trigger with a springloaded hammer-drop that has no pretensions to being anything else. An arrangement that SIG borrowed from the Sauer 38H.

    My one problem with the Sauer was its lack of a visible hammer. I agree with the Navy document; on any pistol with a single-action “option”, I like a hammer I can see (or touch in the dark) to determine its status. For this reason, I dislike most .22 target and sport automatics and the majority of single-action pocket autos, notably those based on Browning designs. (I know, blasphemy.) The old Whitney Wolverine .22 was my all-time favorite .22 auto, for this reason plus its looks and handling; pity the new version’s reliability isn’t up to snuff, or I’d buy one.

    I think the Russians got it right when, in copying the overall planform and ergonomics of the FN 1903 (9 x 20mm SR) to create the Tokarev TT-30/33, they put a very large and obvious external hammer on it. And you may note, no manual safety at all. As I understand it, it was intended to be carried either at the half-cock or with the hammer all the way down (Condition Two), and either way to be thumb-cocked on the draw like a single-action revolver.

    Keep in mind that while the service pistol of the Tsar’s army, the M1895 Nagant, was issued to officers as a DA, noncoms got an SA version, which remained in production for the life of the type. (I use to own an SA dated 1945.) And that before that, the standard service revolver was the S&W Russian Model, also an SA. Apparently the Russian Army in all eras felt perfectly safe with SA handguns without manual safeties.

    I used to own a Chinese-made TT-33 in 9 x 19mm, with the “Tokagypt 58”-type safety. I rarely bothered with the safety; it was a bit “loose” and could easily be “wiped off” in the holster. I carried the pistol in Condition Two, no problem.

    A Czech VZ-52 I had for a while scared the life out of me with its safety. All the way down for fire, middle for safe, all the way up- hammer drop. Startling if you’re not ready for it. I carried it in Condition Two, as well.

    If you have to have a manual thumb safety, the 1911-type or (on a DA) the Taurus/H&K type is probably the best and least fumblesome. Cocked-and locked all the way up, down for fire, way down for hammer-drop on the DAs.

    Slide mounted safeties, like the Walthers, S&Ws, or the huge Desert Eagles, are really only useful to people with very long thumbs. Especially the reprehensible Eagle safeties; early ones were too small and way too “smooth”, easily missed in either direction, and the later ones were like an adze-head and could easily draw blood when operated. The Eagles really need a decent grip safety and preferably a 1911-type thumb lever. I had an early .357, so I know it could be done on that design.

    Odd but convenient? The original AutoMag safety. 1911-type, up for safe, down for fire, and with the bolt locked back, all the way down tripped the bolt release to let the bolt go home on a fresh magazine. A somewhat odd feature on a “hunting and target” handgun, which makes me wonder if Max Gera and Harry Sanford were thinking more in terms of the AMP being a heavy-caliber combat piece, especially with the optional ambidextrous safety levers. (To say nothing of the big pistol’s sheer intimidation factor.)

    OK, that’s my take. Incoming comments, either kudos or brickbats, are invited.

    Hunkering down in my dugout…

    😉

    cheers

    eon

    • You missed my favorite duty weapon, Smith 645 (4506) that had a hammer drop safety and was a full double action, if it didn’t go “bang” just pull through again first and then do the TRB dance.
      Shooting an unmodified autoloader left handed makes condition 2 the only way to go. I now have a striker-fired CCW and am looking for my ideas condition 2 carry gun.
      Ian, LOVED the series on the Bergmans, TOO COOL!
      Trying to get photos of a Dryse (sp? the needle gun folks) approximately 16ga side by side cartridge shotgun a friend has, LONG square cocking pieces…
      Ed

      • As I stated, I carried the 645 myself for a few years. It was the pistol that sold me on the “standard” DA auto as a duty weapon, too.

        As for the “problem” of the shift in finger position on the trigger from first knuckle for DA to tip for SA, I never understood what the problem was. I always pull the trigger with the tip of my finger, regardless. That was how I learned to shoot a revolver, and I shoot everything the same way.

        My one quibble with the 645 is the magazine safety, although I do admit it’s useful in a weapon retention failure. If you think you’re about to lose control of the weapon, hit the magazine release. When it drops, the pistol won’t fire.

        While the assailant is trying to figure that out, you’d best be taking alternative measures, quick.

        cheers

        eon

    • “The best of both worlds? The SIGs. Walther-type DA trigger with a springloaded hammer-drop that has no pretensions to being anything else. An arrangement that SIG borrowed from the Sauer 38H.”

      I really don’t understand why the Sauer 38H hasn’t seen its decocking lever more widely copied.

  5. I am perfectly comfortable when using my Tokarevs the way they were originally designed – safety notch in the hammer. Been doing it for 30 years with no issues.

  6. Note that all of Ordnance Board points can be applied to almost every revolver. For me the intention of Ordnance Board is clear: “we want automatic pistol similar in manipulation to revolver as possible”. This is pragmatic requirement – you can simply deliver automatic pistols to troops and don’t bother about that they will hurt themselves with pistol with safety.

  7. the french, uses no saftyes, They say: dont point on anything, you dont want to shoot.
    The erliest safty, I have seen is on a danish flintlock riflr model 1809, more resent is the revolvers Model 1861,1880,1882,1885, 1891 and 1897, all have saftyes

    • The safety is typical for German handguns – both revolvers and automatic pistols. For example the Reichsrevolver has safety lever on the left side.
      For me the viability of this safety is arguable. The Reichsrevolver is single-action, moreover when the safety is engaged you can’t cock the hammer.

      • As an article in the first edition of Gun Collector’s Digest pointed out, the M1879 and M1883 revolvers need that safety because neither one has a rebounding hammer. To carry either one with all six chambers loaded rather than with “five beans in the wheel” as the Colt M1873 was normally carried, the drill was to load all six, half-cock the hammer (the notch is a very deep and strong one) and apply the safety. Then put it in the full-flap holster and secure the (heavy formed leather)flap to prevent the hammer from being “rubbed” back to full cock.

        As the article states, a bit crude, but systematic and very much in the tradition of German military culture and SOP.

        It’s interesting to note that commercial revolvers of this type, even DA models, retained the safety catch precisely because of the lack of a rebounding hammer.

        cheers

        eon

  8. Heh.

    1) is plainly false as written, if only from laziness. Nobody “instinctively” knows what hammer-cocking means; that’s learned.
    2) might have been true in 1918, but modern springs, properly made, just won’t “set” like that.

    The others are broadly sensible, though the implicit argument against hammerless guns is amusing in the way history has made it irrelevant. For that matter, a pistol like a Glock which is “safe unless you’re pulling the trigger” seems to answer all the issues.

  9. Did the US military ever prescribe that pistols be carried in “condition 3” (chamber empty, loaded mag)? In that case the lack of a safety makes perfect sense, even for untrained recruits/clumsy officers.

      • That is what I was told in army in Serbia, 2006/7 – no matter if it is M57 (Tokarev) or CZ-99 (SiG P-226 lookalike), it is carried empty chamber, hammer down.

      • Israeli Defense Force SOP was always Condition Three (loaded magazine, hammer down on an empty chamber) due to the multiplicity of types in inventory in the early days (1948-60).

        The drill was to rack the slide on the draw, thereby bypassing all safeties, etc., and just relying on not having a round in the chamber until you were going to shoot.

        cheers

        eon

  10. I’ve said much the same thing for many years, being a left-handed 1911 shooter.

    I’d really like to see some scans of the original documents; if there’s a link, I missed it.

  11. Recall seeing a picture from WWII of an OSS officer, or something like that, who had an issue holster with a red band on it, the reason being he was carrying cocked and locked whereas GI procedure was condition 3.

    I think that no discussion of War Dept ideas on safeties from a hundred years ago is complete without considering that the horse cavalry had a lot to do with it. First, traditionally, the cavalry used pistols a lot. It is one thing to rack a slide on horse back, but dropping a hammer by hand is another. A manual safety could make the pistol safer (after firing) until it could be be returned to condition 3 or the hammer dropped. The navy did not need to write their specs around horses.

  12. Okay, I can see that the Navy would not have a need for a safety catch on a pistol since you don’t usually see sailors getting into firefights on land within the time period in question. Back in 1918, the Navy expected to fight with ship-mounted guns (overkill if you actually target people) and torpedoes. Under few circumstances would any sailor have to prepare for personal engagements, such as boarding a hostile vessel (if you capture it), repelling enemy boarders, or putting down a mutiny. In those scenarios, a safety catch would be a hindrance to survival.

    Which small arms were used by the US Navy, Springfield rifles and revolvers?

      • D’oh! Totally forgot to check. Anyway, in that case, one would certainly discard safety catches in a place where everything is trying to kill you! Safety catches in my belief are to keep loaded guns from going off during casual peace-time events, such as shooting during a competition. In the not-so stressful atmosphere of such an event, having a loaded gun around requires a safety catch so that no idiot shoots off his toes (or anybody else’s toes) if he fumbles. Likewise, police usually would need a safety catch to prevent accidental discharge and perhaps to discourage inexperienced muggers from killing a cop and then stealing his gun. There is one time a prisoner managed to swipe a Colt Pocket Hammerless from a sheriff but could not fire it because he could not understand safety catches or how to operate a semiautomatic.

  13. 1st ….The Basics of Surviving Combat Shooting
    FIND: the Enemy before he finds you .. You cannot target what you cannot find
    TARGET: your enemy before he targets you. You cannot kill what you cannot target.
    KILL: the target before he kills you.
    Diligentia Vis Celeritas
    ACCURACY: You must be able to hit your opponent in order to injure him.
    FORCE: You must strike your opponent with sufficient force to kill or totally incapacitate him.
    SPEED: You must strike him quickly, in order that your opponent does not injure you before you injure him.

    I hope this will clarify a few things:
    Hand guns are issued to Truck drivers, Artillerymen, Medics, Clerks, Cooks, etc NOT because there is /was a surplus of had guns .. it was/is so that every soldier will be capable of defending himself and others. Only Special Mission Units (SOCOM/USSOC/JSOC)may at times use the hand gun as a primary offensive weapon.
    Infantrymen carry a individual weapon .. his “primary” job is to engage the enemy. IF his primary weapon is a machine gun, he will be issued a pistol for self defense, not as his “primary weapon.
    A artilleryman’s (cannon cocker)primary weapon is the artillery piece, but he is issued a pistol or even a rifle … for self defense!
    Arlington Cemetery is full of non combat MOS personnel from every war; thousands died in places like Bastogne, Corregidor, The Charwon Vally, and on roads in Vietnam “driving” trucks into ambushes and not knowing how to use the few weapons they had .. and THAT IS A FACT. Who is to blame? I have stated before that without the proper mind set you can die very quickly. And what is worse is that when the people charged with the responsibility of installing and insuring their troops HAVE the right mind set, which are the officers and NCO’s fail to do so.. that is who is to blame. Being a Artilleryman or Bulldozer driver does not excuse him/her from knowing the individual weapon he/she has been issued, nor does it excuse the officer or NCO from teaching them.

    My opinion for what it is worth .. having loaded into trucks and helicopter sling loads a lot of body bags.

    • I have stated before that without the proper mind set you can die very quickly.

      The point being that in modern warfare, as in law enforcement, there is no such thing as a “safe rear area”.

      Thank you for your service.

      eon

      • Eon .. You have said in 25 words what we should all give serious thought to. As long as there are men that will perpetrate evil upon other men; there is, and there will never be, a rear area.

      • Eon .. About that “rear area” we discussed. Happened in Huntington (Lusby) Calvert County, Maryland. 2 April 2013.

        https://www.youtube.com/embed/w8Sbf_piIQQ?feature=player_detailpage

        I believe most law enforcement officers are at risk every day. They are by law defensive shooters, and as a last resort. And having a brother-in law that is a retired Calif Sherif, the subject of “hand gun safeties” is a real bugger for them as is the real sparse or even lack of emphasis on weapons training. Have you ever noticed that in these “training” “teaching” civilian courses 99.9% of the targets are fixed, not random distance pop up. What happened at this guy’s front door is very common time wise … seconds. Same for a military breach, or clearing a ally etc; it happens fast and from any-direction at any range. Mind set and training.

  14. Picture being on horseback at gallop, cocked handgun flailing about your person on a lanyard. At this point does a grip safety seem like a silly afterthought or a good idea? Horses can make dangerous moments even more dangerous-er. Just sayin’……..

    • That is a good point, given that at the time the 1911 was designed the Army was still thinking of horse cavalry as a viable concept.

    • It’s easy to think of cocking a hammer on horseback! One hand holds the reigns and the other the pistol. In fact there is a ~500 year history of doing just that and a severe shortage of stories of cavalry soldiers having ADs. Even when they were issued single action revolvers with “Hair Triggers”!( 1873 Colt SAA compared to modern weapons!)

      • Stewart … You got it! Today, as an example, here in Arizona one of the fastest growing shooting sports is “mounted” cowboy shooting. I bought a Ruger Vaquero .45 Colt, stainless with 4.34″ BBL, (SAA duplicates) one of a custom pair. The lady used them for couple years, 3 lb triggers. Picture that on a galloping pony. In the last 5 years, hundreds of competitions with multiple events, not a single AD. I think one time I mentioned “Mind Set and training.” Considering the number of SAA’s that were in issue and being carried every day the AD’s were few and far between. Most know of was George Custer when he shot is favorite horse in the head chasing a buffalo. Wound up several miles away from the unit alone setting on the saddle like the nin-come-poop he was. Military spend a lot more time actually handling their weapons than do civilians, with a few exceptions. IMHO

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