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…