Chris Heuss for TTAG

The Truth About Guns contributor John Sprague gave us his take on the manual safety in the piece entitled, In Praise of the Manual Safety.  In it, Mr. Sprague says that a manual safety strikes the perfect balance for him in terms of safety versus a reduction of readiness. Good for him.

Real world experience has driven me to the opposite side of that equation for everything except 1911-style pistols when it comes to manual safeties.

As a long-time instructor, for most users, I advocate not using the manual safety that your (fill in the blank) gun has on the side. Yes, I know that for some people who borders on complete heresy, akin to claiming that Bigfoot doesn’t exist.

John Wayne Taylor for TTAG

Why have I become a staunch parishioner in the Church of Leave the Darn Safety Off?  Because I’ve seen countless people fail to disengage it, or engage it by mistake during training. In the real world, keeping things simple (of KISS fame) improves survivability. And increasing survivability for the good guys remains a good thing.

Remember, a bad guy can cover 21 feet in well under 1.5 seconds. I’ve seen men in their 70s do it. And I’ve seen young people do it in under one second. If a bad guy can cover 21 feet in 1.5 seconds, how long does it take him (or her) to cover 9 feet?

The official answer is not very (bleeping) long. A whole lot faster, in fact, than most people can internalize that something’s wrong when they pull the trigger and nothing happens.

While I hope Mr. Sprague will never have to discover that sometimes “muscle memory” goes right out the window with stress, I’ve seen it plenty of times.

Sure, on a square range low-stress environment where targets don’t shoot back, it’s easy to remember the fundamentals – including usage of the safety. On the other hand, when the body alarm condition kicks in, things change. When the adrenaline flows and your mind goes into survival mode, remembering that safety may not happen.

In fact, in the body alarm condition, even some gross motor skills become cumbersome…things far bigger than forgetting to disengage that little safety lever.

In force-on-force training, we expose students to a mildly elevated stress levels. The stress comes from fear of getting stung by airsoft pellets. While it’s not nearly the pain penalty of a Simunitions round, it still hurts – especially on bare skin.

Couple the fear of getting stung with some decent acting from role-players and just that bit of stress makes people do strange things.

In our “Firestarter I” scenario, a religious nutcase verbalizes his/her intention of burning the demons out of a teenage girl who’s screaming for her life. The aggressor pours “gas” (water) from a can and then accesses a lighter to set the sinner on fire.

GSL Defense Training photo by Boch.

This good guy not only had his Illinois Concealed Carry License, but he also had additional training in his background above and beyond the 16-hour Illinois CCW training requirement. In other words, this wasn’t his first rodeo using a handgun. I’m pretty sure no one taught him that particular grip.

What’s more, his faux pax wasn’t even a momentary one, either. He took three or more steps holding that gun in a very odd position.

GSL Defense Training photo by Boch.

When I asked him about that unique grip, he didn’t recall anything odd about his support hand’s placement.   Then I showed him a series of photos.

He told me if I didn’t have the pictures, he would have denied ever putting his support hand on the back of his gun. Clearly, his “muscle memory” relating to the fundamentals of gripping a handgun failed him when his brain and body went into the body alarm condition.

Here’s a Front Sight graduate’s reaction to an armed mugger.

GSL Defense Training photo by Boch.

Our good guy failed to pick up on the pre-violence cues in one of three role-players in the scenario. Because his cues were ignored, the bad guy produced a gun and proceeded with a mugging.  Using a pretty respectable shooting stance at that.

Instead of submitting to the robber’s demand for “the money,” the good guy drew down (yes, on a drawn gun). Big mistake, especially when done out in the open. Obviously, it didn’t end well for him.

GSL Defense Training photo by Boch.

And look at that grip. All that excellent Front Sight skill-building and muscle memory work went right out the window in a cascade of failure when this guy thought he was going to die. While I’ve never attended Front Sight, I’m pretty sure that’s not their high-speed, low-drag grip.

We all know how everyday gun owners can use guns defensively with success. In fact it happens with great regularity.

Trained or not, the greater the complications involved with deploying your gun, the more likely Mr. Murphy (of Murphy’s Law fame) will show up for you. It’s why instructors recommend not carrying a different gun for each day of the week. It’s also why I recommend avoiding handgun models with manual safeties. And if yours has one, carrying it in the holster with the manual safety disengaged.

Do some self-critique. Anything that makes a rapid deployment more complicated or difficult than necessary should fall into the “liability” column for you. (Safety engaged? Check. Empty chamber? Check squared, in fact. Gun left in the car or at home? Checkmate and forfeit.)

What else can go wrong with safeties? During malfunction clearing drills, manual safeties can get re-engaged without you even realizing it. Then you squeeze the trigger, nothing happens, then you have to figure out why.

In that time, your opponent could be closing on you, stabbing you, beating you or shooting you. Ditto for weapon retention.

If you and a baddie are in a life-and-death wrestling match for control of your gun, the manual safety can easily change position. Of course, magazines frequently end up on the ground during attempted disarms as well. And if your gun has a magazine safety and won’t fire without a mag inserted, well, suddenly you have a paper weight.

By and large though, anything that slows down deployment from a holster falls into the liability category. Yes, things like not carrying a round in the chamber or forgetting to disengage the safety can cost a good guy or gal their life. Like these two armed robbery victims.

Speaking of “thinking” about disengaging the safety: if you have to think about disengaging the safety, you need more training and practice. We instructors don’t call the optimal state of shooting competence “unconscious competence” for no reason.

One of my fellow instructors summed up the goal of practice and training: We don’t train until we get it right every time. We train until we can’t get it wrong.

If you’re going to carry your semi-auto pistol with the safety engaged, you better train until you can’t get it wrong coming out of that holster. Otherwise you risk a street criminal leaving you bleeding out, face-down in the dirt somewhere if you believe you’ve mastered the manual safety when you haven’t.