Month: February 2019

To Thumb or Not To Thumb-That is the Question

To Thumb or Not To Thumb-That is the Question

Is The Thumb Safety an Anachronism?

Thumb safeties–one may deservedly ask if the thumb safety on contemporary pistols is an anachronism. We first do well to define what we mean by anachronism. One definition from Webster says, “A person or a thing that is chronologically out of place, especially one that belongs to a former age and is incongruous if found in the present.” This definition is the crux of this post. To put the question another way, “Does the thumb safety belong to a former generation of pistols, and is it incongruous when found on semi-auto pistols as they are currently designed?”

The Thumb Safety Paradigm

We would probably be safe in saying that virtually every pistol shooter is aware of the 1911-style handgun–and its thumb safety.  Interestingly, a precursor to the 1911, the Colt Automatic Pistol of 1900 had no thumb safety.1 The thumb safety offered a mechanism to prevent an inadvertent trigger pull, which would release a cocked hammer, and make the pistol go “bang.” The mere presence of a thumb safety in the “on” position requires that we adapt our manual of arms to disengage it so the trigger can be pulled, causing the hammer to strike the firing pin.

Enter the striker fired semi-automatic. There are some, however, who want the added comfort of a user-operated safety, even on a striker-fired handgun. Quite frankly, the cumulative affect on overall handgun safety by adding a thumb safety is negligible, and potentially can be a detriment.

Look Ma! No Thumb Safety

With the advent of striker fired semi-autos, the thumb safety disappeared. There was no hammer to release (or block). Since the firing pin strikes the primer, anyway, why not simply manipulate the firing pin. By adding a cocking protrusion on the firing pin, and modifying the fire control mechanism to place it under spring tension as a function of the gun’s inherent action, no hammer is needed. Mechanical trigger blocks, whether lever-style or the pivot style, ensure positive trigger engagement is present before the striker is released. Firing pin blocks ensure the firing pin (now called a “striker”) cannot move forward until positive trigger press is present. Various limitations on striker cocking and/or release also require positive trigger press. The combination of these elements obviate the need for a hammer. (Besides, a cocked hammer on a 1911 has to be dangerous because of the way it looks, right?) All of these positive control features also obviate the need for a thumb safety.

The Danger of the Thumb Safety

Many concealed carry licensees periodically rotate their “every day carry” gun (the wisdom of rotation is a discussion for another day). For some, a 1911, in some form or fashion, is among those in rotation. A problem arises when switching from a striker-fired semi-auto, with no thumb safety, to a 1911 with a thumb safety. Suddenly, another  step is required in the manual of arms, and one that may easily be skipped during a real confrontation, when our brain is least likely to be thinking–at least about our manual of arms, and releasing the thumb safety. The trigger is pulled, and nothing happens! It could be a bad day in black rock.

Two remedies come to mind: For many trainers, the first is never to carry an immediate reaction firearm that has a thumb safety. If you are going to carry a concealed handgun, make certain it is one that does not require, or have, a thumb safety.

Another remedy, if you are among the 1911-style aficionados, (and one that is probably in the minority among trainers) may be to ensure every semi-auto you own has a thumb safety, whether it’s a 1911 or striker-fired. If every handgun you may carry has a thumb safety, then at least your manual of arms is necessarily consistent. There are many competent trainers who argue that properly and consistently training can minimize, and likely eliminate, the probability of failing to disengage the thumb safety if you are ever in a scenario where an immediate action becomes necessary.

If you despise striker-fired handguns that have thumb safeties as options, do not put a 1911 in your rotation.

Of course, this discussion over thumb safeties presupposes there is no mechanical failure. Arguably, thumb safeties on 1911-style handguns may have a higher probability of failure than thumb safeties on striker-fired handguns simply due to the design mechanics involved, let alone the simple probability that the more moving parts something has, the higher the probability some part will fail.

Bottom Line

Carrying a concealed carry handgun is carrying an immediate reaction tool. When you need it, you need it now! Rotating between handguns with and without thumb safeties just puts yourself at risk. In the end, the decision to carry a semi-auto with a thumb safety is yours. But if you do, carry one consistently, and train with it.

Is the thumb safety anachronistic? From a mechanical design standpoint, very likely. From a carry standpoint, unless every handgun in your everyday carry rotation has a manual safety, it probably is as well.

If you are new to the idea of carrying a handgun for concealed carry, and are thinking about getting one, skip the handgun with the thumb safety.

 

1 Jerry Kuhnhausen, The Colt 45 Automatic: A Shop Manual: Volume 1 In The Kuhnhausen M1911 Pistol Series, ed. Noel Kuhnhausen (McCall, ID: Heritage Gun Books, 1990), 7.