Home Product Reviews Is the Mechanical Safety Trustworthy? By: Jim Davis

Is the Mechanical Safety Trustworthy? By: Jim Davis

Is the Mechanical Safety Trustworthy?   By: Jim Davis

I believe that safety starts with how we are trained, for the most part. When I was introduced to firearms around the age of five, my dad really drilled safety into me before all else. A few of the first things (among others) that I remember are:

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  1. Always use the safety if the firearm has one.
  2. Never trust the safety and assume that every firearm is loaded.
  3. Finger OFF the trigger until you are ready to fire.

My dad always admonished me to never trust the mechanical safety—it’s nice that it’s there, but don’t just put all your trust in it. Close to 50 years later, I have never had an accident with a firearm because I’ve kept these tenets at the forefront of my mind. Training gets stored in the brain.

We all remember the scene in “Blackhawk Down” where the captain challenges Sgt. Hooten as to why his weapon is “hot.” He says, “Here’s my safety, sir.” He holds up his trigger finger in the captain’s face. That scene has been a bit controversial because a lot of people took that as a cue that safeties on rifles needn’t be utilized. After all, there was a “Delta” operator telling us it was a bunch of hogwash.

Or is it?

Sgt. Hooten in Blackhawk Down
“That’s my safety.” (Photo: Sony’s Black Hawk Down)

Are They Present?


Some firearms do not have a mechanical safety. Revolvers that are double-action don’t really need safeties because their trigger pull is so heavy that it’s sometimes difficult to fire them even when you intend to!

Typically, striker-fired and DAO (Double Action Only) pistols will not have safeties. The trend and thinking behind that are that a safety will slow the operator down and he might forget to switch it off when the Moment Of Truth comes and he or she has to put the pistol into immediate operation to save a life.

Glock 19X, Strider GB.
Striker Fired pistols, such as this Glock 19X, do not have manual safeties other than the trigger blade. Although the military submissions did require manual safeties. The knife is a Strider GB.

Also, because they are typically carried in a holster, the trigger is covered, negating the chance that something will get into the trigger guard to fire the pistol when it is being carried.

Pistols that are single action/double action (SA/DA) frequently have a decocker so the hammer can be safely lowered. Single-action pistols (SA) and some striker-fired pistols will exhibit a frame-mounted safety.

S&W CSX safety
Single Action pistols such as the 1911 and S&W CSX (pictured here) have frame-mounted safeties. This particular type of manual safety is very ergonomic.

Back in the 1980s, Glock pioneered that much-loved or hated (take your pick) trigger safety that was so controversial. Nowadays, it seems that most pistol makers have copied it. It does seem to add a measure of safety, in that it makes it a little harder for the pistol to be accidentally fired if something does happen to get into that trigger guard. If the offending object hits either side of the trigger without depressing that center blade, the trigger will not operate. I’ve often wondered how practical it is, but I guess it’s better than nothing.

Rifles/Long Guns

Long guns normally have a mechanical safety because they are either carried in a sling or in the hand, and as such, their trigger guard is not covered. Something could get in there and make the weapon fire.

Some shotguns have a safety mounted in the tang area (Mossberg comes to mind), which is operated by the thumb—a good position, as it can quickly be applied or taken off. It can easily be operated by either thumb, as well.

Others, such as the M-1 Carbine or Remington 870, and Ruger 10/22, to name a few, have a cross-bolt safety that is pushed from right to left to remove it.

Most lever-action rifles and carbines have no safety lever, per se, instead relying on the half-cock position. When the rifle needs to be fired, the hammer is cocked and the trigger is then pulled.

The infamous AK-47 platform has one of the worst safeties of all time, located on the right side of the receiver at the midpoint. It is clunky and awkward to operate. Regardless of which hand you decide to operate it with, that hand basically has to leave the weapon in order to operate it. And it is noisy to manipulate.

Is It Safe?

One safety that evokes much wailing and gnashing of teeth is from firearms of yesteryear—namely, the M-1 Garand and its brother, the M-14/M-1A series (and later, the Ruger Mini-14). Their safety being on the front edge of the trigger guard. To activate the safety, it is pushed toward the butt of the stock, making it inside the trigger guard. To remove the safety, the trigger finger enters the trigger guard and pushes the safety toward the front of the guard, away from the trigger.

M1 Garand.
Much drama has been made over the M-1 Garand’s mechanical safety, which is mounted on the trigger guard. It has worked since the 1930s.

I’ve heard people howl in agony over this setup for decades, saying it could very well trigger the implosion of the universe. However, I’ve never heard of a single accidental discharge due to this. And considering that the Garand soldiered through WWII, Korea, and goodness knows how many other conflicts, I consider it to be much ado about nothing. Are there more efficient and safer safeties? I’m sure there are. Is the Garand-type safety a travesty? I’m sure it’s not!

For those who don’t feel safe with this type of mechanical safety, I respect that. I, however, will continue to enjoy my M-1A and feel safe while doing so.

The AR/M16/M4

I’m going to make special mention of the AR-15/M-16 series of weapons’ safety here because it is just that damn good. In my opinion, it is the easiest, fastest, and most conveniently placed and operated safety/selector lever on the planet. My opinion is shared by many. It really lends itself to being placed so that anyone can rest their thumb on it, having it ready to flick off in an instant. Left-handers have a tougher time of it unless the switch is ambidextrous. I honestly cannot think of a better safety switch on the planet.

AR-15 safety selector.
In my opinion, the AR-15/M-16 selector switch is the best on the planet. Its location and operation are perfect!


We have extremes in everything. There are shooters who will instantly place the safety on within a fraction of a second of making a shot. They don’t pause to ensure that the threat has been eliminated, but rather fall into a robotic, mechanical routine that involves little thinking. When facing paper targets who don’t shoot back, it’s not a huge, immediate problem.

But it is a problem, because these people are training their minds, and there’s a good chance that if they’re ever involved in an armed conflict, they will do the same thing, which is prematurely applying the mechanical safety before they know if the threat is gone.

Do It Right!

Done correctly, the operator continues to engage the threat until it is no longer a threat, does a scan to ensure that there are no other threats sneaking up on his flanks or behind him, and THEN, when things are safe, puts his weapon on safe.

At this point, all is still not well! You are in a combat situation! Just because one threat is down and your weapon is on safe does not mean that Mr. Rogers is going to come up and ask you to be his neighbor. There could be other threats (believe it or not, bad guys tend to coagulate together in teams or gangs). Maintain situational awareness and be ready, willing, and able to engage more miscreants should they decide to make you stop habitually consuming oxygen.

When I’m engaging a series of targets, I do not put the safety on between each target, unless I’m moving a distance between engagements. If I’m shooting on the move and there is a series to engage immediately, I engage them without activating that safety. However, if there are obstacles to negotiate or places to move through, then I will engage it.

The Finger

Except when engaging targets, the trigger finger should be outside the trigger guard and straight. Many people rest it along the slide of the pistol or the frame, or on the lower receiver, if they are using a long arm.

The Bottom Line

The firearm will not discharge unless the trigger is pulled. Not necessarily that YOU don’t pull the trigger—because if something gets into that trigger guard with the safety off, it could pull the trigger for you.

Your brain is the main safety that controls your trigger finger. The mechanical safety is really the last line of defense for that firearm discharging. If you lose focus and your brain becomes disengaged, that is when accidents will happen.