Manual Thumb Safety. Yes or No?

As a concealed carry instructor I work with many new shooters. Some are buying their first defensive handgun, some their first handgun, and some their first firearm ever.  It is inevitable that the topic of discussion shifts to manual thumb safeties on concealed handguns. I understand that often the desire for a manual safety device is usually an emotional decision based on the shooter’s own comfort. Indeed, my first concealed carry pistol had a manual thumb safety. While I no longer carry a manual thumb safety, I am not opposed to the concept.

For those who do not know, a manual thumb safety is a mechanical safety device attached to some handguns and these safeties are designed to prevent the pistol from firing unless the safety device is deactivated. This deactivation takes a purposeful sweep of the thumb to accomplish. We should also address the fact that safeties, like all mechanical devices, can and will fail. Murphy’s Law says will fail at the most inopportune time also.

Why do firearms have manual safeties?  Manual safeties have been included on firearms for a great number of years. Manual safeties are very often on rifles, shotguns, and of course sometimes on handguns as well. The intention is to prevent a discharge of the firearm accidentally or negligently.

But, are safeties a problem? If one were to properly train with the manual thumb safety, then there isn’t much of an issue at all. However, let’s be honest most gun owners don’t train or practice nearly enough. In a high-stress situation, that is a situation where it is live or die, your thought process turns off and your body’s automated responses activate. Automated responses can be instinctive or learned. Nothing about operating a firearm is instinctive, it all must be learned. If you haven’t trained to deactivate the safety with each and every presentation of the firearm, the likelihood that you deactivate the safety in a high-stress situation is incredibly slim. The problem here is when seconds could be the difference between life and death, you have now cost yourself precious seconds.  This can be overcome with proper training and practice.

When students come to my concealed carry and defensive pistol classes with manual safeties, I make them work those safeties.  I want the deactivation of the safety to be as subconscious as the holster draw. In fact, it is part of the holster draw (and reinsertion). I want the deactivation of that safety to be as ingrained into my student’s neural pathways as the trigger press. It all should be one cohesive automated motion with no thought. If you’ve trained to this level of competence, then a manual thumb safety is not a hindrance. Though, if you haven’t trained, the manual safety could be an incredible detriment.

In our handgun classes, we teach a 5-step draw or presentation from the holster. Through a few repetitions, these steps become smooth until eventually, they are one fluid motion. However, for those with a manual safety, we must introduce one additional step. These steps are to access the firearm, release the firearm from the holster, rotate the elbow and orientate the muzzle towards the target, join your hands, and extend and press (extend and press is one command). For those with manual thumb safeties, one must deactivate the safety when they have decided to shoot. This is typically after joining their hands for two-handed shooting or after rotating their elbow for one-handed shooting. I do know some shooters who find it very intuitive to defeat the safety upon the release from the holster, though nearly all training manuals that I have read will state not to defeat the safety until the muzzle is pointed at the target. I see both points!

A few paragraphs ago I stated safeties weren’t a problem if one properly trains. But safeties can become a crutch, and that’s a problem. What I mean is if someone weren’t to practice proper trigger discipline because they have a safety, this can and has led to a negligent discharge. “I thought the safety was on!” Also, again, safeties are mechanical devices that can fail. Your trigger finger is really your safety. Trigger discipline means keeping your finger off the trigger until you have decided to immediately shoot.

I’ll just carry with the safety off…

Another, equally as dangerous, thought process is to leave the safety deactivated. That’s just as bad as not training to deactivate the safety. In fact, with some firearms, it’s actually dangerous. In the best-case scenario, your safety is off when you have to draw your pistol and things go according to plan. Why bother purchasing a firearm with a safety if you aren’t going to use it? Another option is your safety inadvertently becomes activated either through rubbing, body motion, or whatever. This can happen.  Now your gun is on safe, and you haven’t trained to deactivate it. Congratulations! You just cost yourself precious seconds troubleshooting the lack of bang. 

If your firearm is a single-action pistol, those types of pistols are designed with manual thumb safeties because of their short, light, and crisp trigger press. When the trigger press is indeed that light and crisp, it wouldn’t take much for the pistol to “oops” in a holster or while inserting into a holster. for those of you who have a single-action pistol, please use your safety.

Ergonomics of the Safety Switch…

One other consideration about manual thumb safeties is the placement of the safety and the operational direction. If the placement of the safety isn’t natural and comfortable for your thumb to quickly and easily activate, you might consider another firearm or a firearm without a safety. Most, but not all, manual thumb safeties require downward pressure from the thumb to deactivate. This downward pressure is very natural when acquiring a proper grip and can be very easily activated and deactivated one-handed, even under stress. Whereas an upward press on the safety is very counter-intuitive and often requires the use of the support thumb to defeat, and for this reason, I do not find and upward press to be ideal.

My personal opinion about manual thumb safeties…

Unless the handgun is a single action only and being carried “cocked and locked”, I do not see the point to a manual thumb safety beyond satisfying an emotional requirement. Modern firearms all have internal drop safeties to prevent the firearm from discharging when dropped. With proper training and decent gear, the gun won’t go off unless you press the trigger. However, as I started this article by saying, I am not opposed to them. To each their own.

What works for me may not work for someone else, and vice versa. As an instructor, it is not my place to dictate how and what a student carries. Unless a student is doing something unsafe, I will politely educate them and present their options, and the pros and cons of those options. Ultimately it is up to the shooter to decide what is right for them, and it is my job to make them the best and safest shooter that they can be within the constraints they place upon themselves. However, I beg of you, if you carry a manual safety, please train with it!

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