When To Safe

25-Feb-14 – 09:29 by ToddG

One question I get asked frequently in class is, “When do you use the safety?

Now obviously you switch the safety off before firing. I think we’ve all got that covered intuitively. The question revolves more around when should you put the pistol back on safe. There are generally two schools of thought, and I am very deeply encamped in one.

  • School of Never: once the safety comes off, it stays off until you’re ready to holster the gun again.
  • School of Always: whenever the pistol isn’t being fired, the safety should go back on.

If you’ve been reading this website for any length of time, you can probably guess that I’m a huge practitioner of the latter approach. The same rules apply to a double-action gun that is normally carried in a hammer down, “decocked” double action condition. If the gun isn’t pointing toward a target, it gets deocked (or put on safe).

What exactly does that mean, “pointing toward a target?” Essentially it covers two conditions and only those two conditions:

  1. I’m actively firing rounds at a target.
  2. I’m actively driving the gun toward a target that I intend to shoot.

That’s it. Under any other circumstance, if the gun has been taken off safe (or a double action gun has been fired and left in the cocked condition) I’ll safe/decock as part of my return-to-ready ritual. When I dismount the gun, when I’m not aiming it at a target, it gets put on safe (or decocked).

If I’m going to move with the gun in my hand, it gets safed/decocked. If I’m going to scan past the immediate downed threat, I safe/decock. And obviously if I’m going to holster, it gets safed/decocked.

Why wouldn’t you do it this way? If you’re scared that you’ll forget to take the safety off when you need it, what you need is more and better training. If you’re intimidated by the double action trigger pull on your pistol, what you need is more and better training. Running around with a light, short trigger increases the odds that you’ll have an accident if you trip or simply perform a subconscious “trigger check” under stress… something I’ve seen experienced special operations and law enforcement veterans do countless times. You see it all the time in competition, too. This is a Master-class IDPA shooter running between shooting positions at a major match:


That dedicated competition gun probably has a 2-3 pound trigger pull in single action. How little effort will it take to cause an accident? (If you answered “2-3 pounds” you win)

Obviously, not all guns have an option to be put on safe or be put in double action mode. Most striker fired guns such as Glocks and (most) Smith & Wesson M&Ps are that way and people choose them in part because they don’t want a safety and don’t want to deal with a double action shot. That’s a personal choice and I can’t say it’s a bad one. If you look at the endurance test guns I’ve used in the past, the first four (S&W M&P9, HK P30 LEM, HK45 LEM, and Glock 17) made this whole discussion immaterial because they had no manual safeties and they couldn’t be decocked. Of course, none of them had trigger pulls below five pounds. And regardless of what some folks might want to tell you, a five and a half pound trigger pull is substantially different in terms of inadvertent contact accidents than 3.5#.

So if you do decide to choose a cocked & lock or traditional double action pistol, the safety or decocker on your pistol is there for a reason. If you find it a hindrance to your ability to shoot well, the answer isn’t to ignore it or run from it. Learn to operate the gun properly and benefit from the advantages it gives you.

Train hard & stay safe! ToddG

  1. 39 Responses to “When To Safe”

  2. Hmm very interesting. I never considered that stance. I have a CZ-75BD which is the decocker model I use in USPSA sometimes. Now USPSA isn’t really a training environment for self defense situations (and for that matter neither is IDPA) but it brings up an interesting and valid point that perhaps I should be using my deocker when transitioning between shooting positions anyway.

    By JesseM on Feb 25, 2014

  3. If I’m shooting a match stage, I decock before the gun goes back into the holster. I don’t decock when moving, or between arrays, or any of that.

    If I found myself in some kind of indoor battle situation, I would probably run closer to your method.

    Different techniques for different circumstances.

    By Chris Rhines on Feb 25, 2014

  4. So you’re one of those guys where you can hear the safety clicking on and off as you go through a shoot house? :v

    As far as I’m concerned, if your gun is actually unholstered, it’s fucking go time and your stress level is through the fucking roof. The safety has no business being on then. If you’re in a situation where you feel the need to have the manual safety on the gun should be holstered.

    Using an example of a competition shooter with a competition gun and a light trigger that no one in their right mind would have on a duty and/or defensive pistol is missing the point.

    I guess, to each their own.

    By jellydonut on Feb 25, 2014

  5. More to that point, if you’re running a competition gun that has a trigger you consider less safe than your carry gun’s trigger, and this leads you to keep the safety on whenever you’re not shooting, I would personally say your competition shooting is giving you training scars that will get you killed in a real-life street situation.

    By jellydonut on Feb 25, 2014

  6. I give credit to those of you that can “change gears” based on different scenarios. I am not wired like that. I fall into Todd’s category: when moving around and off target, the gun is either decocked or safetied. I account for the possibility of making mistakes, even when I am cognizant of what is going on and thinking slowly. Sometimes the body has a weird way of doing something when you are not intending to and I personally want that added safety margin.

    Subsequently, I think if you have “perfected” the DA to SA shot, then you are not at any disadvantage by decocking a pistol while not on target.

    By John K on Feb 25, 2014

  7. Todd- Does that mean you engage the safety/decocker for magazine changes as well? My hunch is yes because it doesn’t meet the criteria above, wanted to confirm.

    Thank you

    By Scott on Feb 25, 2014

  8. Not Todd, but no, you don’t decock or safe for all reloads. If its a speed reload, then the lack of bullets has stopped you from shooting and you likely want to keep shooting so you load as fast as possible and go from there. A tac load will start safe/decocked, by the very nature of the concept.

    By SLG on Feb 25, 2014

  9. Scott —

    If I’m doing a slidelock reload, I cannot decock with the slide locked back and most SAO guns will not allow the safety to be engaged. But on those that do, I still wouldn’t engage and disengage the safety because I want to be shooting RIGHT NOW, I just cannot because the gun is empty. Adding two steps (safe on, safe off) to the slidelock reload process would add time to how soon I could engage the immediate threat.

    If I’m doing some kind of voluntary reload (mag retention or in-battery speed reload) then I’ve already decocked my gun before I’ve made the decision to reload.

    (hat tip to SLG for the faster response time!)

    By ToddG on Feb 25, 2014

  10. Todd,
    Glad you’re writing more often. Great, valuable advice that is great to be reminded of despite the fact that I’ve taken a class with you and live on the forum.
    Looking forward to more.

    By BaiHu on Feb 25, 2014

  11. I fall firmly into the always off group. I was taught that as you draw the firearm you ride the safety with your thumb the entire time you are shooting it. The only time you need to put the safety back on is when you holster, you have your thumb underneath that safety until your firearm is secure.

    I really think that swapping the safety on and off while unholstered will just lead to you trying to fire when the gun is on safe, but then again if you train enough to snick that safety off on every single push out you’d be fine. As always, you can train to fight any deficiency, but my opinion is that if your gun is out you are going to need it ready to go ASAP. I wouldn’t want to have the safety engaged if I had to shoot from retention.

    By Gerald Skip on Feb 25, 2014

  12. Those of you who are in the “always off” camp – do you leave the safety off on an AR while moving, etc? I’m not aware of any trainers who advocate this and certainly all of them that I have trained with are adamant that safeties are on whenever the rifle is not actively being fired. Why would a pistol be any different?

    I’ve only ever carried pistols without safeties, but when I did own a 1911, the training I had on ARs carried over and caused me zero issues.

    By Kevin on Feb 25, 2014

  13. Great comparison regarding the long gun, Kevin. Wish I’d thought of that in the original post!

    By ToddG on Feb 25, 2014

  14. The issue with the safety off while “doing stuff besides shooting” goes much deeper than random doctrine. The only real benefit to carrying a gun with a manual safety is to add a layer of protection to you if someone tries to take your gun away. Taking the weapon off safe and leaving it that way for the duration of the event nullifies much of the advantage of having that type of gun. The safety will still help protect you while the gun is in the holster, but as you clear corners or whatever you are doing with a gun in your hand, you never know what’s waiting for you on the other side, and I’d rather have my gun working for me than against me.

    By SLG on Feb 25, 2014

  15. I was about to say something about the long gun thing as well and saw Kevin’s post, my thoughts are the same.

    I carried a TDA pistol at work for about 20 years, always decocked it before moving, etc.

    And I’ll just leave this right here;http://www.combatshootingandtactics.com/published/the_weapon_safety.PDF

    By Chuck Haggard on Feb 25, 2014

  16. I’m inclined to agree with the ‘always on’ group and I think this article by Paul Howe presents a strong case for it; http://www.combatshootingandtactics.com/published/the_weapon_safety.PDF

    To add a few thoughts of my own;

    If you don’t trust yourself to disengage the safety when presenting the gun from ready, how can you trust yourself to do it when drawing from a holster?

    And if the gun doesn’t need to be on safe when it’s in your hand why does in need to be on safe when it’s sitting in a holster?

    By Smaug on Feb 25, 2014

  17. I’ve seen what happened when the gunner on an M60A1 tank that was following another tank on a live fire course neglected to put his main gun on safe while moving from one firing station to another. He, of course, was ok, but the guys in the tank in front of him didn’t make it.

    Safeties mainly protect other people, and they don’t do that when they are off.

    By SteveJ on Feb 25, 2014

  18. I’m in the never camp, but I’m a competitive shooter. I’m certainly not going to try and decock my gun while running through an IPSC course, nor would I put the safety on. The shooter in the pic above would have been DQ’d at an IPSC match.

    By Rob E on Feb 26, 2014

  19. Seems like Todd’s method also adds a consistency; as you go on target the safety goes off, regardless of first time out of the holster or being brought back on target. Extra bit of reinforcement for training.

    By mer on Feb 26, 2014

  20. If your pistol has an ergonomic decocker or safety that allows easy, fast, safe manipulation, then by all means use it when a target is not in sight. Specially if your trigger is light (<5.5 lbs)and has a short takeup.

    I once trained with a US green beret unit in Paraguay (where I live) and they were decocking and putting on safe their M9s every time a target was not visible, and sweeping up the safety and firing DA the first shot afterwards. This was very cumbersome with the beretta safety, but a conversation with a senior instructor confirmed that this is standard practice.

    Regarding glocks, I also believe that a 5.5+ lbs trigger with long takeup (that provides a lot of user feedback when the trigger is being pulled) is vastly different safety wise than a light trigger wiht a very short takeup. The "nicer" modified triggers in these DAO designs can be too nice for defensive use.

    By RNasser on Feb 26, 2014

  21. I always use the safety on guns that have them. Sweeping the safety off as you are coming up on target does not add any measurable time to your presentation. It does add a huge safety factor when moving, especially if you have to move around people. Stuff happens, and a fall with a pistol or catching a rifle on a piece of gear can cause an unintentional discharge. The safety helps prevent that.

    By Dan on Feb 26, 2014

  22. I will throw in a moto moment from that well known tactical motivational speaker Pat Mac;


    By Chuck Haggard on Feb 26, 2014

  23. I’d like to see how the safety on a slide mounted gun (Beretta, S&W 3rd gen etc.) is operated with that kind of frequency.
    I haven’t figured out a way to “on safe” the 92f from anything resembling a firing grip.

    By Motor-T on Feb 26, 2014

  24. The main problem with that photo is not the trigger finger. Which, as far as I can tell is not in contact with the trigger.

    If it were straight along the side of the frame would you then be ok with his actions?

    I wouldn’t, because he clearly does not have the muzzle pointed in anything like a safe direction. Not unless that range has three story high berms.

    An AD is an AD, it can still happen even if you decock between each string/target engagement. What make an AD go from bad to disastrous is the direction of the muzzle when the discharge occurs.

    IMO if you can can keep your hand(s) on the pistol and safely move, all while keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction (eg, at soft ground or a suitable berm/backstop) then trigger control is all that is minimally necessary.

    Sure you can do more, but it is not essential.

    Muzzle control is essential.

    If you must holster the weapon, lose physical contact with the weapon, or move the muzzle in any less safe direction then -at a minimum- you should decock/make safe.

    By ThomasD on Feb 26, 2014

  25. Comment to ThomasD

    On a range there usually is a safe direction as you stated – “the muzzle pointed in a safe direction (eg, at soft ground or a suitable berm/backstop)”

    In the real world – there is no berm/backstop and dependent where you are – no soft ground.

    You have to think about running out of you office or house or car – sometimes up is the safest direction.

    As far as safeties – I don’t run any pistols that have them – but I do run an 870 and an AR and the safety is always on unless actively engaging. We train that way and have not had any issues in getting the safeties off in a critical situation.

    By st on Feb 26, 2014

  26. Chuck: FWIW Pat Mac only decocks prior to re-holstering. The safety on ARs and 1911s is a little bit different.

    Personally I don’t run a 1911, but when doing so I find that I would need to take my support grip off of the gun to reengage. Same thing with decocking a SIG. I fall in the camp of “if your finger is off the trigger it’s fine”.

    By Trajan on Feb 26, 2014

  27. I do take my support hand off the gun to decock. I have no problem with that at all. Getting my grip back on the gun happens quickly enough and “intuitively” enough if I’m pressing out to shoot again.

    By ToddG on Feb 26, 2014

  28. regarding the first picture of the IDPA competitor, if IDPA has the same kind of rules regarding muzzle direction, then he is well within them. Unless a local ordinance says otherwise, muzzles can’t break 90 (or 180 whichever way you want to look at it), at anytime (unless the range is a 270 or 360 degree range, which I’ve encountered at some matches). Typically it’s some of the Euro ranges that speak toward not point over the berm (usually on the reloads, no mention of it during movement)

    By Rob E on Feb 26, 2014

  29. Fine motor skills go out the window under high stress, simple rules work best if you are not “on target” your trigger finger is straight and indexed on the slide of the gun. This is the primary safety and the way you should train. When you are pointed in on target you are on trigger ready to shoot, the only time the weapon is placed on safe or decock is when your world is safe! No targets, no immediate threats, a lull if you will in the gun fight, performing a tactical reload or going back to the holster.

    By Mark on Feb 27, 2014

  30. Isn’t keeping one’s finger straight and out of the trigger guard a fine motor skill? If you’re saying that such skills “go out the window” under stress isn’t that more reason to add another layer of safety?

    Furthermore, if your fine motor skills are that degraded how will you press the trigger or the mag release or otherwise operate the controls of the gun?

    By ToddG on Feb 27, 2014

  31. I have trained in the military on proper weapon use. If its hot, it’s not on safe. You move its on safe, unless its an offensive forward which requires going in hot.
    I personally carry a Taurus 1911, and if its not being shot its decocked. I have never had an issue firing it while doing rapid fire training, I know my weapon, and it keeps me safe as I keep others and myself safe from it or my human mistakes that unfortunately can & will happen.
    My wife uses a TCP and it has no safety except a key lock. However it is kept in a “as safe as possible,” point of direction for public an personal safety. She and I know the firearm, and train on proper use of where how and when it should be ready to go hot.
    Just my 2 cents, if it has a safety use it when the gun isn’t going to be used to aim and be fired. Safe is better than sorry. Train, train, and find an expert to correct your wrongs or critique your actions, and train some more.

    By Jason on Feb 27, 2014

  32. Do you think a SA trigger is materially more likely to go bang as compared to a typical competition Glock trigger, if someone has their finger in the trigger guard and trips?

    By GJM on Feb 27, 2014

  33. GJM — I think it comes down to physical measurements more than anything. A trigger that requires 3# to fire and needs to move 0.15 inches to fire is different than one that needs 9# to fire and needs 0.50 inches to fire.

    For years in their firearms instructor certification program, FBI published the result of a study that it was actually more about the length of the pull than the weight that played a role. But as soon as they switched to Glock that section got removed. True story.

    I also believe that when they said “length” they were referring to resistance, not just free travel. Even though the difference may seem small, getting feedback immediately from the trigger as it travels through half an inch of movement is a lot different than if that initial movement doesn’t really tap you on the shoulder and say, hey, dude, that’s the trigger you’re moving…

    By ToddG on Feb 27, 2014

  34. Here is a related thought.

    Real world, and you have just shot, and with an un known challenge ahead — decocking makes perfect sense because you may holster, search for minutes or hours, shoot again, or any of a range of unknown actions.

    Now in USPSA, and you used a “gaming” example as part of your premise, if I told you that the clock is running, the down range area is clear, and that in six steps you will engage four targets, do you feel the same way about decocking the pistol? If the answer is still to decock, how do you feel about other competitors shooting, for example, an M&P with a FSS style trigger and no thumb safety, or a Glock with the various “competition” triggers which are shorter and lighter?

    By GJM on Feb 27, 2014

  35. I think that the original discussion was more related to “real world”, not “gaming”.

    I don’t know ONE good competitor in IPSC that decocks or use the thumb safety when moving. As you said, the nature of the game is that time counts, no matter how little the fractions. Which leads to the question: does competition breeds good handgun handling habits or not? Should you decide wether you want to approach action shooting games as training for the real world, or go full speed for the gaming zone?

    By RNasser on Feb 27, 2014

  36. Additional rationale from Howe:

    “Why? Routinely we are being taught to shoot faster than we can think. The use of the mechanical safety adds one more step before taking a human life…. In high stress situations, the safety can become a life-saver. Routinely I have [role player] hostages surprise officers and sometimes they get shot. In most cases, officers have bypassed the mechanical safety and used the straight trigger finger as a safety and it has failed them. I call this ‘trigger creep.’ As the adrenaline goes up, the trigger finger moves closer to and sometimes on the trigger, attempting to make up for a perceived lack of speed.”


    By Chance on Feb 27, 2014

  37. My take , at the risk of repeating Todd: Know Thine Gun.

    If it has a 10lb DA pull, better shoot it that way. A lot. Don’t be the guy who cocks the hammer before a string of fire. When I dry fire my FNX, I do it in DA mode almost exclusively.

    Once a string of fire is done-or any circumstance where the gun comes back from shooting-I decock the weapon. No ifs, ands, or buts.

    “Trigger discipline is all you need for safe gun handling” . Bull.

    Don’t take my word for it-that’s been scientifically dispelled by the Germans. Some years back that country’s government studied their police officers. The goal: to figure out why their officers had ND’s despite repeated warnings, training’s, and disciplinary consequences.

    Turned out almost half the respondents claimed they never touched the triggers of their specially modified guns, even though the measurement sensors on the weapons said they did. We are human beings, very capable of making a mistake-and when that mistake involved a deadly projectile moving at 1000+ FPS, we have the obligation to take every safety precaution we can.

    By ST on Feb 27, 2014

  38. GJM — Now in USPSA, and you used a “gaming” example as part of your premise, if I told you that the clock is running, the down range area is clear, and that in six steps you will engage four targets, do you feel the same way about decocking the pistol?

    Yes! I always decock. First, I’m not concerned about making a DA shot versus an SA shot when I get to the end of those six steps. Second, even if I think it puts me at some kind of disadvantage, it’s not as big a disadvantage as accidentally shooting myself in the face would be. Third, if my purpose behind going to matches is to burn in good reps under some stress, I want those good reps to be of what I will do when it’s important rather than practicing something that’s the exact opposite of what I want to do when I might not have time to think about it.

    If the answer is still to decock, how do you feel about other competitors shooting, for example, an M&P with a FSS style trigger and no thumb safety, or a Glock with the various “competition” triggers which are shorter and lighter?

    It’s not my place to police other shooters. Plenty of people run equipment in competition — or as carry guns — that I personally wouldn’t consider appropriate. As long as they’re not endangering me, and they’re following all the rules of the game, they’re obviously free to do whatever they wish. The guy with the Open gun with a sub-2# trigger who runs around with his safety off simply has different priorities than I do.

    By ToddG on Feb 27, 2014

  39. FWIW, among the actual high end professional gunmen in this country (and there are only a few units that can really claim to produce, on demand, competent gunfighters), all of them decock/safe as described. Some of them have even been quoted in other responses. USPSA stopped mattering as a training ground in the fall of 2001. Earlier, among the knowledgable.

    By SLG on Feb 27, 2014

  40. The sear blocking/locking manual safety also provides a significant increase in drop safety in that the hammer doesn’t have to ride over the safety (admittedly unlikely), but rather has to shear a pin or break the sear before moving forward (not a trivial task in the days of modern tool steel ignition parts).

    Not a ninja, but I like a nice, stiff manual safety with a nice audible click to it. Something SACS did very nicely with the Professional model.

    By Bill Riehl on Mar 4, 2014

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