To Safety or Not to Safety

Two weeks ago I traveled Israel, one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. I could write many newsletters on the history, archeology, and wonder of the land. For this newsletter, I’ll limit myself to the outcome of a discussion I had with our Israeli tour guide.

As there is so much tension in Israel, there is also a lot of security. Pretty much every person in Israel is a military veteran, as service is obligatory, and the streets are full of soldiers and police officers. In fact, our plane departed Israel just minutes before the recent spat of rocket attacks, convincing us that the need for security is a reality.

Our tour guide also works as an army officer, responsible for the training development of the soldiers in his unit. He leads live fire training and basic marksmanship with rifles and handguns. Being a firearms instructor myself, I really wanted to know what he was teaching, but our discussion got derailed once he saw a few videos from the DMTDefenders Instagram page (make this a link or somehow easy to get to). The tour guide simply could not get over the firearm we were using (a Glock). “But it doesn’t have a safety! I would never ever carry a firearm without a safety. Israel doesn’t do that, we use safeties.”

I took this picture of a Jerusalem police officer with a Glock handgun not long after that initial conversation, so the last part of his statement isn’t fully true. But the feeling of his statement is one I’ve encountered before from prospective clients or casual shooters: that an external safety device is a necessary component to a handgun. And anyone operating a firearm without one is being reckless.

Jerusalem Police Officer

Since we at DMT generally run Glocks, without external safeties, we wholeheartedly disagree. Here’s why.

Unless the round is cooked off from being in a fire, firearms do not just “go off.” They must be activated, which requires the depression of the trigger. Period. When negligent discharges occur, it’s because the person handling the firearm pushes the trigger when they shouldn’t.

Consider DMT’s Second Rule of Safety: Trigger Finger Awareness. The rule goes like this:

Finger ON the trigger when the sights are ALIGNED. Finger OFF the trigger when sights are NOT ALIGNED.

There are only two ways to align sights: Eye-rear sight-front sight, and specific body positions called Retention Shooting.

This rule is built on basic neurological programming and logic. It’s the same programming used in computer language: If X then Y. If NOT X, then NOT Y. If sights, trigger. If NOT sights, NO trigger. This, like any other repetitively and purposely practiced skill, will become unconsciously applicable. Your brain and body will do it without you needing to think about it. Ingraining this rule deeply will eliminate 99% of all negligent discharge opportunities.

Another consideration is how much you’re programming your mind to handle - the “programming load.” Under high levels of stress it’s nearly impossible think of new things to do. This is why pilots always have a plan on their thigh board, so they don’t have to think. When a US Army Ranger operator goes into a lethal force encounter, his fallback will be to an Infantryman and the basic Battle Drills. The most commonly programmed response is what will emerge.

So ask yourself: How much do you want to program your brain to do while under lethal force stress? Adding in a Safety increases the amount of things to remember. Is it impossible? Certainly not. Does it increase the challenge? Yes.

To prove my point, here is a picture of a 1911 style pistol. Note the rubber band around the Grip Safety.

1911 Grip Safety Defeated.jpeg

That rubber band is there to disable the Beavertail Grip Safety. I’ve only met one firearm instructor that still primarily uses and teaches from the 1911, and he also disables the Grip Safety. When I asked him why, the gruff retired police officer instructor said: “They’re stupid and not needed and can slow you down if you need to go fast.”

It sounds like a silly reason to disable a safety. But note that none of the modern combat/defensive firearms make a firearm with this kind of safety. Why? It takes more neurological load to always hit that grip safety correctly when producing the firearm under high levels of stress.

So why are the safeties there at all? The primary reason is that when these firearms were first used, they were meant to be carried with a round in the chamber, hammer back, and thumb activated safety on. Firearms like the 1911 have a very light trigger pull, and the concern was that the thumb safety could be jarred loose, and then the firearm might accidentally go off because it was often carried in a very ineffective leather holster like this:


So naturally, another mechanism to ensure the safe operation of the firearm was installed.

I personally would never disable a safety on a firearm like you saw pictured above. Imagine trying to explain to a jury that doesn’t own why disabling the Grip Safety was a good technical or tactical idea.

Even the law enforcement and the US military are beginning to understand the challenges of the neurological load necessary to operate handguns with extra safeties.

The most common handgun in the military for many years is the M9 a firearm made by Berretta, with a Double Action Single Action trigger type, and an external safety device.

One of my military clients carries this firearm for duty and he’s extremely effective with it. But one evening he decided to pick up a Glock from another DMT student and his reaction was entirely predictable. “Oh man, that’s so much easier and so much faster.” His first shot on target time dropped precipitously (consider a new word - this implies danger, which is NOT your intent) and his splits dropped by 30%. That is a significant jump in speed. On top of that, he wasn’t a bit less safe, as his trigger finger had been conditioned correctly and he would never have inadvertently pulled the trigger when the sites weren’t aligned.

The elite fighters don’t use external safeties. The SEAL teams haven’t used M9’s in years, instead running Sig P226s. The US Army Special Forces have been running Glock 19s. The new handgun of the military is Sig P320, and the citizen versions come without an external safety.

And we don’t want to downplay the situation I like to call “Crap-Click-Bang.” Remember the neurological programming load? Sometimes, as stress mounts, you start to drop elements of operation, resulting in Crap-Click-Bang. How this works is that under stress, the shooter produces the firearm and pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. They yell something like: “Crap!” Then you hear Click as the safety is disengaged. Finally Bang as their first shot actually goes off. Not particularly efficient.

This is obviously a situation we defenders would desperately like to avoid. Reducing the number of steps to activation and deeply ingraining the correct steps avoids this problem altogether.

 So in summary:

1.     Firearms do not go off on their own, they must be activated.

2.     Developing correct neural pathways for operation is imperative for safe and effective operation of any handgun.

3.     Extra operations for action on firearms make running the firearm harder.

4.     Modern holsters and gear provide more security for holding and deploying that firearm, even under lethal threat, making an external safety less important.

5.     Those using these tools the most often are all moving to simpler, easier to operate platforms - without external safeties - because they are safer and more effective.

Until next time, train hard and stay safe.