How Safe are Safeties on a Gun?

I’ve fired and handled a wide range of firearms. One of the things I always check out is the type of safety mechanism.

It is exceedingly rare for a rifle to go off when dropped. It usually happens when a gun has been unsafely altered or is extremely worn. Every modern gun has a safety feature. A true mechanical safety will prevent the firing system from fully functioning and is incredibly reliable. 

Some safeties prevent the trigger from being pulled.  Some lock the hammer back, and some disconnect the entire firing pin. Some of them do all three. Which one is better and what do you need?

Do safeties make a gun safe?

   A safety gets gives you the option to avoid basically all of the chance of a negligent discharge, as long as you use it every time.  most shooters have never heard a story where a safety failed. But we’ve all heard stories where the person holding the gun failed.

   Safeties are an attempt to fool proof a gun. the number one rule of gun safety is “finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot”.  If every shooter did that every time, there’d be virtually no instance of accidental discharge of a firearm.  Still, people fail to follow that rule and have a very scary situation.

   Let’s say your one of the guys (or gals) who regard their safety with a religious sanctity. First thing you do when you pick up a gun is check to see if it’s loaded, then put the safety on, and your finger never goes anywhere near the trigger. First off, you deserve a prize, or a really cool patch or something.

   So, lets take the human error out of the equation entirely. How safe are softies if people never mess up? Well, just about perfectly safe.  If you don’t pull the trigger, the only way it can fire is if something else pulls the trigger, the cocked hammer slips, or it’s dropped and the firing pin slams into a loaded shell.

   Each of those are incredibly unlikely, but we don’t like to gamble with death when we can easily avoid it.  I’ll go through each of these and talk about just how it could happen.  In the end, the only thing making your gun safe is you. Stick to the rules.

How can a Gun Fire with the Safety on?

   As mentioned previously, a gun can fire with the safety on, or engaged.  here are the ways it can happen.

Firing mechanism slip: a slip of the hammer, sear, or bolt, causing it to go forward and strike a round

Drop shock/ impact: inertia or shock causing the firing pin to forcefully fly forward into a live round

   I think everyone can easily understand the accidental trigger pull.  It most often occurs when a piece of loose clothing catches on the point of the trigger. This is this most common one, and it borders on negligence of the shooter.  I tend to blame the shooter for not paying attention. I know, things can happen quickly.

   The firing mechanism slip; a loaded and cocked gun just goes off on its own without a trigger pull.  It can happen, but I’ve never heard of it. actually, I have heard of it.  My buddy bought an old custom-made muzzleloader that would slip and fire before he was ready.

  We took it apart and cleaned it up really good to find out what was wrong with it. Apparently, someone had filed down the trigger dog, or catch, on the saddle (old time parts right there) and they had set the trigger back as far a they could.  That meant the trigger pull was less than one pound.

   That’s a super light trigger. Come to find out, that was a tactic used by old time black powder competitive shooters. They would use traditional, 200-year-old triggers and locks, but modify them for a hair trigger.  In order to cock it, you had to hold the hammer back, pull the trigger, then release the hammer until the trigger caught it.

   It was a fine system until someone decided to funkyize it (yes that’s a word), and in doing so, made the whole thing unsafe. Virtually every instance on a slip is either because someone filed down a part too far, or because it has worn down through extreme use.

   Then there’s the whole issue of the gun going off from impact.  So, in a gun, there is a firing pin. They all have it. It’s a small metal rod that is forced against the primer of a cartridge and sets it off. It’s forced by either a stout spring, or by a spring powered hammer that hits it.

   The fear is that is an impact could push the firing pin forward with enough energy to set of a cartridge. Now, that’s a bit of a stretch to happen. First of all, the firing pin is very small and light. It would have to be a heck of a drop to have enough force to fire a round.

   one engineer told me he ran some numbers on his old rifle. he said it he took the firing pin out of his rifle and dropped it on the primer of a cartridge, it would take a 16-foot drop to set off the prier in perfect conditions. He also said that’s not how it works.

   If you drop a rifle, the firing pin and primer are both falling at the same speed and it would take an inconceivably high drop to have enough force to set it off. He figured it wasn’t statistically possible and that most of the so-called drop fires are really a slip. You see, a sip is more likely when jostled or impacted.

What type of Safeties are there on Guns?

   Most guns have a trigger safety bar.  That’s a bar that when engaged, blocks the trigger from being fully depressed.  It’s the most common because it’s the easiest type to manufacture.  It is pretty darn reliable too. half of my guns have a trigger safety bar. Generally, if the safety is a button to the side of the trigger guard, it’s a trigger safety bar.

Some guns have a safety lever on top of the rear of the chamber. This can be either a safety stop, or a retracting system. The safety stop, or block safety, pushes a plate of metal between the hammer and firing pin so if the hammer is released, it won’t contact the pin. Usually, it locks the hammer all the way back.

    Retracting systems pull the firing pin back so it can’t reach the primer. The heritage rough rider revolver is a prime example if this, as is the Mosin Nagant. I had a youth model ROSSI 243 that had a retracting firing pin as a safe storage option. It took a security hex key to retract and return the pin.

  Finally, there are trigger safeties. A trigger safety is a device built into the trigger so as to greatly minimize the risk of an accidental trigger pull. Several guns have trigger safeties.  Glock, Ruger American rifles, and the Savage Accutrigger come to mind. 

   They all have a small bar in the middle of the trigger that bust be depressed straight back before the trigger can be pulled. Until the trigger safety is properly depressed, trigger is locked into place.

What is the safest gun?

   The safety features on any modern gun can be considered trustworthy and reliable.  They make the gun safer. But a gun will never be safe t all if the person handling it is not being safe with it.  honestly, the safest gun is probably the Glock, and it doesn’t even have a safety switch.

   It does have a firing pin block, a pin that locks the striker back, a plate that keeps the striker from fully cocking, and a trigger safety.  If the trigger isn’t pulled straight back, it cannot go off. A Glock cannot go off if dropped, thrown, stomped on, or banged.  It requires an actual trigger pull.

   If you want a totally foolproof gun, there isn’t one.  the only totally safe, foolproof, accident proof option is to keep the chamber empty until you are ready to shoot. Most hunters don’t do that, because they’ll not get a shot off at their game by the time, they load the chamber and hit the safety.

   Most defensive guns are carried with a bullet in the chamber. A great number of violent encounters happen in seconds, and without warning. The time it takes to chamber a round and flip the safety may very well be the difference between coming home alright and coming home in a hospital bed.

   Some do choose to keep the chamber of their gun empty for safety’s sake. That’s alright, it’s their choice. We’re all grown-ups here.

Jordan Buck

Jordan Buck is an outdoor writer, a man of faith, and a family man. He grew up hunting, fishing, and trapping. Jordan has taught marksmanship, woodsmanship, and self-defense classes. He has earned black belts in four martial arts and is a certified Krav Maga instructor. He also runs his own Gun Blog and YouTube Channel. Jordan enjoys giving his time and resources to help others and has spent 15 years volunteering in a boy's mentoring program He is and will always be an American Patriot. MOLON LABE

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