Assuring M1911-Series Autopistol Safety, by Steve V.

For more than two decades, I have carried a variety of weapons ranging from revolvers to suppressed HKs, regularly shooting more than 30,000 rounds a year. (Our rich Uncle Sam has a lot of ammo). As a result, my colleagues and I spent a lot of time handling a variety of firearms. I witnessed more than one negligent discharge by these experienced professionals and have given a lot of thought about how to reduce this possibility. Too many shooters and bystanders are inadvertently injured or killed by poor safety practices.

Long experience has shown very few people know how to safely pull the slide back on a semiautomatic pistol and on those pistols without a decocking lever, almost no one knows how to safely lower a cocked hammer. Do you carry a 1911 series ‘cocked and locked’?  Have your ever verified the integrity of your pistol’s mechanical safeties? Do you even know how many safeties are on your pistol?

Before shooting any firearm in training, you should perform functional safety checks. Because the Browning designed short recoil Colt M1911A1 .45 ACP pistol (and its many variants) is commonly owned and has multiple safeties, I’ll use it as an example. The difficulty in safely lowering an external hammer is often used as an excuse to avoid weapons with such. With a little practice, external hammers can be lowered safely and with ease.

Many of the following safety checks and techniques are applicable to any firearm. A right handed shooter is presumed but these techniques are easily reversed for the left handed.

1. Remove the magazine and eject the round from the chamber (1911s should be carried with a round in the chamber, hammer cocked, and slide safety engaged). Because the slide safety also locks the slide, this condition is often called cocked and locked. Lock the slide open. Make certain the ejected round didn’t slip back into the chamber. Look into the chamber and verify that it is indeed empty. Put the ejected round and magazine into your left hand pocket out of the way. Now how did you eject the round? The human body is biomechanically very efficient in an opposing action with the arms. As a result, most people rack the slide by holding the pistol in the right hand, grasping the rear of the slide with the other hand in a manner such that the thumbs are pointing in opposite directions on the same side of the weapon. This is an extremely bad habit for several reasons. When holding it thusly, the muzzle points to the left and perhaps behind the shooter. The slide and barrel are concealed beneath the left hand and arm making it hard to see exactly where the muzzle is pointing. On the firing line, it often points toward the shooter on your left. Now where did that muzzle just point? Did you point it at a team member, a bystander, your spouse or child? Remember and practice the rule ‘Never point a firearm at anything you do not wish to shoot.’ Well, you probably just did. The muzzle tracks an even bigger wobbly arc with weak shooters (who are even more prone to use this method). Another reason this is a bad habit is that the muzzle points along or into the left lower forearm. An negligent discharge into the arm at this angle would be worse than awful. If you are one of the many who clear your pistol like this, don’t expect to shoot with me.

2. With the magazine removed and safely in your pocket along with the ejected round, release the slide and let it go forward into battery on an empty chamber (you did let it snap closed, didn’t you?). If you cleared the pistol earlier using the method just described, try it this way. Hold the pistol in your right hand and point it forward and down at a 45 degree angle. You can easily see where the muzzle is pointing, right? With the left hand, reach over the slide (your thumbs should now both be pointing in the same direction – forward, but on opposite sides of the weapon), and with thumb and forefinger grasp the slide near the muzzle. Pull the slide back and lock it open. Some slides have friction ridges near the muzzle, now you know why. Notice at no time did you handle the pistol in an uncontrolled manner nor did the muzzle track a wide arc. Oh yes, this is much harder because it is biomechanically weaker and the action unpracticed. If you see the wisdom in what was just described, you will probably have one of those bad habits to overcome.

3. With the slide locked open, once again look into the breech and verify the chamber is empty. Peer down into the empty magazine well and check for lint or other debris. Have a close look at the condition of the breech face, extractor, and ejector. Now turn the muzzle toward your head and look down the barrel in order to check for obstructions, dirt, and lint. Is there excessively oil anywhere? Any debris? If so, these conditions must be remedied before firing (fix this right away before continuing). If the pistol is carried/transported in an open muzzle end holster or loosely in a purse or bag, this check is even more essential. Paper clips, gum, dirt, and all sort of other debris find their way into barrels. Catastrophic failure and most likely injury will result from shooting any firearm with an obstructed barrel.

4. Pointing the pistol in a safe direction, ease the slide back until the slide lock clicks off, then release the slide and let it slam closed on the empty chamber. If you routinely ease the slide closed, this is another bad habit that may carry through when charging the pistol with a live round. Easing the slide forward will guarantee a jam when charging many firearms from the magazine. Manually loading a round into the chamber and dropping the slide closed on it is another bad practice. I am convinced this puts undue stress on the extractor.

5. With the slide now closed on an empty chamber, point the firearm in a safe direction and squeeze the trigger. The hammer will fall and its face should be against the rear of the slide. A blow to the hammer in this condition with a loaded chamber could result in a discharge. With your trigger finger off of the trigger and along side the frame, Place the side of your free hand thumb on the top of the hammer and top rear edge of the slide. Roll and wedge your thumb between the hammer and rear of the slide to ease the hammer back slightly to the first click (but not to the fully cocked position). Apply a little forward force on the back of the hammer trying to move it toward the muzzle. It should not move. This is the half cock safety. With the hammer at half cock, a blow such as dropping the weapon on the hammer theoretically should not result in a discharge. I have never trusted the half cock position.

6. Point the empty pistol in a safe direction and rack the slide cocking the hammer. Did you remember to hold the slide at the muzzle between your thumb and forefinger? Engage the slide safety. Most 1911s also have a grip safety.  Hold the pistol in a shooting manner with the grip safety engaged and squeeze the trigger. The hammer should not fall. Now you know the slide safety works independent of the grip safety.

7. Point the empty pistol in a safe direction and disengage the slide safety. It is a little awkward but without engaging the grip safety, squeeze the trigger. The hammer should not fall. Now you know the grip safety works independent of the slide safety.

8. Point the empty pistol in a safe direction and with the hammer cocked, use the muzzle grip technique to ease the slide back out of battery about 1/4 inch. Hold it in this position. With the slide safety and grip safety disengaged, pull the trigger. Again the hammer should not fall. Now you know the slide disconnect safety works. The purpose of this safety is to prevent a partially chambered round from being fired.

9. Thusfar, the hammer has been lowered by pulling the trigger. I shall now describe how to safely lower the hammer on a firearm not equipped with a decocker lever. Many people both cock and lower the hammer with their thumb pad (thumbnail facing rearward). Remember earlier I had you cock the pistol using the slide, not your thumb? There was a reason for this. Thumb pad cocking and decocking works most of the time but should your thumb slip off the hammer with a loaded chamber, a discharge will occur. Point the empty cocked pistol in a safe direction. Hold the pistol in a shooting manner with slide and grip safeties disengaged. Place your free hand thumb perpendicular to the grip with the bottom of its joint facing toward the rear of the slide. Slip it in this manner between the rear of the slide and hammer. Force the hammer back slightly with the back of the thumb. Pull the trigger. The hammer is blocked from falling. Roll your thumb up counterclockwise just slightly to ease the hammer forward a little bit clearing the sear catch position. Release the trigger and continue to roll and pull your thumb up, easing the hammer down. By releasing the trigger before completely lowering the hammer, the half cock safety is engaged providing another measure of safety against a hammer slip. This takes some practice and you might pinch your thumb when first practicing. With practice, the hammer can always be safely lowered to the half cock position without pinching. Make a practice of cocking the hammer using the slide. If you must lower the hammer, then use the thumb block technique.

There are many ways negligent discharges occur. In my experience, they most often occur following dry firing after cleaning or other maintenance. I have no problem with dry firing and most modern pistols can withstand quite a bit without failure. After cleaning, performing maintenance and/or dry firing and reloading, holster the weapon and don’t mess with it again until ready to shoot. I repeat, after dry firing and reloading, put the weapon in the holster and don’t mess with it until ready to shoot again! By doing this simple thing, the possibility of negligent discharge is almost eliminated.

May your shooting always be for pleasure and never in fear or anger.