External Safety? Yes or NO? And why?

Recently I found myself in a debate over a particular feature common to many firearms. The “manual safety”.

It seems that there is much debate about the advantage and disadvantage of said devices and strong opinions. I personally am of the opinion of “different strokes, for different folks”. That for some, a manual safety is an added benefit or even a necessity. And for others it is a needless obstruction. I believe that it is very individualistic.

For me, I prefer having a manual safety. That is in part because I have small children. I also believe a manual safety is beneficial for those who carry off their person.

The downside of a manual safety is two-fold:

  1. It is an added complication, and as such, always increases the risk of failure. However, I believe this risk can be minimized by good production and design. (S&W recently had some recalls involving firearms that discharged when the safety was engaged. An issue I consider far far more serious than the mere drop-safety issue of Ruger’s SR9.)
  2. It is an added complication in operation, requiring an additional task before you can be ready to shoot. Furthermore, additional training is needed. Rather then drawing and simply shooting.You must draw, deactivate the safety, then fire.In otherwords, a firearm with a manual safety will set you slightly behind the curve of a firearm without. Good training can help reduce this effect, but never fully eliminate it.

The above two items are good arguments against having a manual safety. So does that mean you should not consider a firearm with a manual safety?

Not necessarily…there can be reasons for choosing a firearm with a manual safety. Though they may be hotly debated.

A safety provides an additional level of difficulty in operation. This can be beneficial in reducing the likelihood of the firearm discharging when not in the proper hands. Two instances that come to mind, is when you have been disarmed by a criminal element. They won’t know your firearm, and will have to locate and deactivate the safety. This could be the time necessary for you to enact a secondary strategy of defense; such as the drawing of a back-up gun (often referred to as a BUG).

The second situation I believe a manual safety to be a positive asset to a firearm is when it comes to children. Now this statement is sure to cause controversy. I’ve heard it said, “if you’re relying on a manual safety to keep a firearm safe in the hands of a child – than you’re doing it wrong”. Such quips are common. To a degree, it is correct. A manual safety in NO way provides any security that a child will not discharge a firearm. However, I do believe that a manual safety does provide an additional barrier to such a tragic event’s occurrence. It is in no way a guarantee. The best guarantee is to keep a firearm out of the hands of anyone not trained to properly use it. But is that possible?

The best strategy regarding automobiles is NOT to get into a collision. I am sure most people consider themselves to properly use an automobile (although I am sure many people around them would disagree). There is a reason we call them “accidents”. I am sure if you polled any one 5 minutes before an accident, they would not expect it…

No one should put their trust in a safety, especially not in the hands of a child. But I will share my personal views as to why I consider it advantageous in such a situation.

There is a law of complexity, simply put, the more complexity in a system (be it mechanical or workflow), the more likely said system will fail to be processed. Add more items to a firearm (safety, magazine disconnect, etc, etc) and the more likely one of them will fail and inhibit operation of the firearm.

And this is where a safety can be advantageous in preventing accidental discharges. A firearm is by design, ergonomic. The entire firearm is designed to fit inside the hand comfortably. An individual who has never seen a firearm in their life, when asked to pick it up, will probably pick it up by the handle and insert their finger in the trigger guard. The design encourages such a position. This means a child who picks up a firearm with no experience, is like to find their hands on the grip and their finger on the trigger. Without a safety, the only thing preventing a discharge is the mere pulling back of the trigger in curiousity by the child. *shudders* That thought sends ripples down the spine of every father.

A manual safety provides a second step, therefore exponentially increasing the complexity. Furthermore, the manual safety is not ergonomically design. It is not intuitively design. And it is commonly next to other levers and systems (ie: slide lock, disassembly locks, etc).

Now do not think that a child can not nor will not discover the means of disengaging the safety and pulling trigger. One can almost guarantee that a child, given enough time, will do so. That task will be reduced by both the age of the child, and the child’s intelligence – until both reach a level of being able to fully understand the functionality and dangers of a firearm.

But in the hands of a toddler – that transitional state between an non-walking infant and a cognizent trained child, a manual safety might be the difference between embarrasment and tragedy. It can provide just enough additional complexity to prevent an immediate tragedy, or perhaps to allow the passing of curiousity. Once again, I want to re-iterate that we DO NOT trust or rely upon safeties to accomplish – we are merely grateful that they may.

I am sure some readers will say “If your firearm is in the hands of a child – you’re doing it WRONG!”. I’d agree…but I also point to our humanity. Humans have been doing it wrong for thousands of years.

To be so affirmed in the sense of our abilities to dismiss risk is dangerous. There are equipment failures, there are accidents, there are situations where you might think “you’re doing it right”.

One might for example think that their equipment is adequate. You might have even bought the seemingly best equipment money can buy after having read all the stellar reviews. That doesn’t mean your equipment cannot fail.

Perhaps your holster broke, unbeknownst to you. You’ve kept walking while you’re firearm remains 200 paces behind you. Sure, we can say how one should have noticed, felt the difference, whatever. Maybe you were rolling around outside with you children, unaware that you’re firearm fell out of the holster and lays on the grass. Until you 6 yr old hands you your Glock. Maybe your equipment was perfect. But while you were walking down the sidewalk a car goes over the curb and hits you and sends you flying. You’re knocked unconscious. The paramedics load you into the ambulance. They have no clue what the plastic buckle on your belt is. They do not know you were carrying a firearm, which now lies on the side of the road. Accessible to any children who happen to pass by.

Some of those examples are more probably than others. I give them to demonstrate that one can never know all the events that will occur. Equipment failure is a fact of life. One that is usually only discovered during the event. To take the position that simply “doing it right” fails to take reality into account.

So am I saying “Everyone should have a manual safety?” No not at all. Never! Never!

What I am saying is that you need to do a threat analysis. You need to conduct a risk assessment. If you are not around young children. The odds odds are that such an equipment failure (or even a mental failure) are less likely to result a potential situation. If you live alone. Then a dropped firearm will remain just where it is. No reasonable risk exists. But if you live or work around young children. You have an added risk factor to consider, and you must weigh the benefits of each against each other. Which pretty much boil down to this:

Greater reliability and a quicker draw against an assailant.


Reduced likelihood of discharge when in the wrong hands.

A thought that I considered during this decision was the odds of probability. How often have I encountered violent criminals necessitating my use of self-defense? how often have I encountered children accessing that which they should not even when I thought it totally inaccessible? which has the actual greater likelihood of occuring in my life?

Eric Shelton and others have pointed to the fact that more gun owners die of heart attacks than shoot outs. That’s not to say we shouldn’t carry firearms for defense. But that if we’re really interested in preserving out life, perhaps we should be more fit and lay off the Big Macs. I have to agree, I am more likely to die of health illness than crime. (BTW, being in shape increases one’s odds of survival in a shoot out as well.)

For a father with small children, I prefer my firearms to have manual safeties. That’s because I fear that at some point I might “do it wrong”. Be it buying the wrong equipment or some bizarre occurrence outside of my control. The reduced risk of negligent discharge, however slight it might be, is beneficial in my assessment.

While I am sure there will be many who will disagree, and others who will agree. I reiterate that the decision regarding this need should be made with great consideration based upon an individual’s circumstances. I do not believe there is one universally right answer. I believe a decision is right for the individual.

If someone says “You don’t need a safety!”, you need to personally evaluate whether that is true for you. It might be true. No one else can understand your personal equation. The mistake is not in buying a firearm with or without a manual safety. The mistake is buying one without considering your personal life sphere.

Lastly, if you’re buying a firearm as a gift for a new shooter. Realize that many new shooters may take comfort in the firearm having a manual safety. Many of us shooters forget the fear, trepidation, awe and wonder we had first interacting with firearms. It’s a respect that many of us lose over time. It’s why many negligent discharges occur with seasoned firearm owners who have simply become to comfortable with their firearms. Those new shooters often enjoy the comfort of that additional safety, because they know that “they don’t know it all, and they’re not sure if they’re doing it wrong”. A good 22 caliber pistol with a manual safety makes a GREAT first gun. After a new shooter is comfortable with firearms, is a better time to encourage their move to a safetyless carry gun like a Glock.

Published in: on January 9, 2011 at 12:09 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for a well-written, comprehensive, and unbiased view on the subject of manual safeties. As a new shooter, I feel a little uncomfortable without one even knowing that the best safety is your brain.

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