Oct 182011

Impressive shooting with a stock standard CZ75

In stores, less often at ranges (but never in training classes), we regularly encounter a type of gun owner/buyer who is seeking a magical gun that will instantly transform him from an ordinary person into a gold medal world-class shooter.

He is looking for the gun that will do this, rather than seeking the training to do it himself.

We sometimes encounter gun owners who have progressed one step beyond the first type of gun owner.  After having spent possibly tens of thousands of dollars on buying a huge assortment of different guns, they have slowly come to realize that there is no such thing as a magic gun.  But – oooops.  Instead they now hope there may be an accessory which, if added to a gun, will transform it into the magical gun that shoots straight, every time, all by itself.

They are still looking for some external factor that will instantly transform them into the deadliest of marksmen.

And then we also find people agonizing over bullet choices.  ‘Which is better’, they will ask, ‘The Brand X or the Brand Y bullets?’  These people are seeking the ‘single shot stop’ capable bullets.  They want a bullet that is guaranteed to stop an assailant in his tracks, no matter what the circumstance, or where the shot hits the bad guy.

These types of people are not necessarily ignorant.  Indeed, some of them have read more gun magazines and articles than we have, and know more about the ballistics of different bullets, and the features/capabilities of different guns than we would ever wish to know.

But even the most expert of these people are sadly deluded and mistaken.  They are aided and abetted in their delusion by overly hyped magazine articles – how many times have you seen articles referring to ‘the new super gun’ or ‘the new super bullet’?  How many times have you read ‘reviews’ (they are termed reviews but they are more like recycled press releases than hard-hitting down to earth realistic reviews) that talk about how amazingly good a gun is, or how helpful and transformational an accessory is, or how accurate and deadly a particular cartridge may be?

Now for sure we’d all love to have a gun that is guaranteed to shoot straight, no matter who the shooter may be.  And even if we accept that such guns don’t exist, we’re keen to get a gun that will help us to shoot as well as we can.  The same with accessories.  There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we understand the relative contributions to shooting well that come from the gun and from the person shooting it.

In reality, neither the fanciest of trigger jobs nor the ultimate in sights will guarantee our shots for us.  They might help us improve our scoring, but they’ll only help, they won’t and can’t do it all for us.

And the bullets we put in our gun?  Particularly if we’re talking pistol calibers, all cartridge variations are inadequate and insufficient to guarantee instant one shot stops.  Does it really matter if a hollow point bullet opens up or not?  The difference in wound cavity between a half-inch and a one inch wound cavity isn’t something that guarantees you a one stop shot when you’re firing into a target’s center of mass that measures maybe 150 square inches in size, of which only a very few square inches comprise ‘hot zones’ where a hit will give you a guaranteed one shot stop.  Does it matter if your bullet’s velocity is 900 fps or 1100 fps?  And so on.

The Most Important Part of Shooting Well

Here’s the key issue – the most important part of the overall gun/accessory/bullet combination is the person doing the shooting.  Before you start spending a huge amount of money on some super-shooting gun and exotic accessories and bullets, you first need to spend some time, effort, energy and money on yourself.

A skilled shooter will always get better results, even when shooting with a bad gun, than will an unskilled shooter with state-of-the-art ultimate equipment.  That is the most important ingredient towards ensuring your success in any encounter you end up finding yourself in.  Your own skill, not your gun’s magical powers.

Lessons From the Real World

Look at the gun a policeman or soldier carries.  Something like half the police forces in the US use Glocks – typically in 9mm or .40 caliber, and typically full size or mid size pistols.  They have no accessories or custom gunsmithing done to their service weapons – they shoot them as they come, pretty much straight from the box.  All other police departments also use standard pistols such as you can buy in your local gun store, too.

US soldiers for the longest time happily carried the M1911A1 semi-auto pistol, these days they usually carry the M9 (in other words, a Beretta 92FS).  Both are standard pistols that you can buy from any gun shop, too.

Police departments tend to issue some type of hollow point ammunition, which admittedly is ‘better’ than standard ball ammo, whereas due to military treaties, the armed forces tend to use less effective ball ammo.

So neither the police nor military use any type of tricked out super-weapons, and neither do they use any sort of unusual ammunition.  But they do spend lots of time and money on training their people in the use of their standard weapons.

Let’s look a bit further, at military sniper units.  Since 1966, the legendary US Marine Corps snipers – perhaps the deadliest of snipers in the world – have used a close to standard regular Remington 700 bolt-action rifle.  Hardly a high-tech exotic piece of equipment at all.

Three Real World Truths

For the person seeking the perfect gun :  In truth, even the worst pistol offers better performance/accuracy that most shooters are capable of.  There’s no need to get a better gun until you’re a good enough a shooter to be able to benefit from its slightly better performance than the gun you already have.

For the person seeking the ideal accessory :  Every accessory you add to your gun also adds to its complexity, and increases the chance of, in an extreme situation, something failing.  Additionally, all those fancy accessories make you look like a ‘gun nut’ and increase your vulnerability to civil and/or criminal prosecutions if you end up needing to use your gun.  A stock standard gun, unaltered, and with ordinary fixed iron sights is all you need for most situations.

For the person seeking the best bullet :  Two rounds of ordinary simple generic ball ammunition, accurately placed on target, will always have more effect on an attacker than one (or two or even three) rounds of super ammo, but poorly placed on target (maybe even missing altogether) and not striking vital organs.  Learn where to place your shots, rather than hope your ammunition will compensate for inaccurate shooting, because it won’t.

The Best Way to Shoot Well

By all means get a good gun, and by all means choose good reliable ammunition to go with it.  Maybe even consider adding an accessory or two. There’s no purpose to handicapping yourself any which way.  This article is not intended to discourage you from getting the finest gun(s), accessories and ammo you can afford.

But, once you’ve got a reasonably decent gun and some ammo to go with it, your mission is only beginning.  You now must switch your focus from your tools to your training.

There is no way of avoiding the need to train.  Sure, there are better/smarter ways to train, and there are inferior/harder ways to train, but in some form or another, you need to train, train, train.  Shooting accurately, particularly in a high stress situation, is not an instinctive skill.  It is something you need to train repeatedly at.

It is also a perishable skill.  It isn’t like riding a bike.  It is something that your skill erodes at if you don’t continue to train.  Once you’ve developed your proficiency, you don’t need to train as often or as much, but you do need to train steadily to build up a base of skills.

So – if you really want magical powers, you’ll need to devote yourself to sufficient and appropriate training.  This may indeed give you close to what seem like magical powers, such as no equipment will ever provide.

Oct 172011

Dogs, whether trained to attack or not, can deter some – but not all – burglars.

Those of us who love dogs sometimes partially justify our pleasure at owning a dog (or multiple dogs) by saying they not only provide us with pleasure and companionship, they are also an excellent burglar alarm and home defense system.

And some of us not only say that, but sincerely believe it, too.

The Value of a Dog When You’re Also at Home

It is true that if we’re at home, we may respond to see why our dog is barking – assuming it isn’t one of those dogs with a ‘hair trigger’ that barks at every passing car and pedestrian.  It is also true that most of the time – nearly all the time but perhaps not absolutely all the time – the dog will bark if someone comes to the door.  And we like to think, although we’ve probably never tested it out for sure – that if someone actually did break into our home while we were present, the dog would bark and alert us to that fact, and possibly even attack the intruder as well.

So there is some truth that a dog can be a type of living burglar alarm, and might possibly attack an intruder as well.  On the other hand, I’m not sure I’d rely on either of those things – I’ve owned plenty of German Shepherds over the years, and sometimes, for the strangest of reasons, they’ve not made a sound when visitors have arrived, and I’m far from sure I could rely on them doing anything more than simply barking at an intruder.

Indeed, few people realize this, but most German Shepherds are actually cowards – sure, the police dogs and civilian guard dogs are carefully selected to be the more aggressive animals to start with, and are given extensive training; but a regular domestic pet type German Shepherd is as likely to run and cower under the kitchen table as he/she is to attack an intruder if the intruder knows how to correctly confront the dog.

There’s one last factor to consider as well.  If you do get into a confrontation with an intruder, your dog is a ‘wild card’.  It might start jumping up on the intruder, it might start jumping up on you; who knows what it might do.  And if you’re in a situation where have no alternative but to resort to deadly force to protect yourself and your loved ones, having a dog frantically running around is only going to make matters worse for you, rather than better.

Don’t get us wrong.  We’re not saying that having a dog is a bad thing at all.  Quite the opposite.  We’re dog lovers and always feel safer with a dog in the house, too.

But we are saying that having a dog in your house is only one part of an overall program of ‘hardening’ your house and making it intruder-proof.

Dogs in Home Invasions

There is an extremely nasty type of violent crime; often semi-senseless and random in nature.  That is when criminals aggressively attack a home and its residents.  Unlike most ‘normal’ burglars, they don’t care if you’re home – in some cases they might even prefer it.

Rapists in particular would much prefer to be able to carry out their behavior in the comfort, privacy and security of your home, rather than on a street, behind a bush, risking discovery and in a much less convenient place.  In your house they can take their time, and so on and so on through a series of increasingly nightmarish possible scenarios.

The good news is that home invasions are extremely rare.  But they do sometimes happen.  You probably don’t know anyone who has been struck by lightning, and you probably don’t know anyone who has won a state lottery jackpot either.  But you do know that both types of events occur regularly, and so you may occasionally buy lottery tickets and if you’re in a thunderstorm, you take precautions to avoid a bolt of lightning arcing its way down to you.

So while you don’t need to obsess about becoming a victim to a home invasion, you also shouldn’t decide that it could never happen to you and therefore will never happen to you.  A few small and prudent precautions are called for.

Home invaders won’t be deterred by dogs.  At best, they’ll simply trick them into getting trapped in another room, or outside, or something.  At worst, they’ll viciously kill or wound them.

The Value of a Dog When You’re Not at Home

Most people believe that having a dog either inside their home, or running freely around in their fenced-in yard around their house, will protect them from having their house broken into.

This is half right.  If a casual burglar is simply walking up and down your street, and looking for the easiest house to break into, then the presence of any type of dog will move a house from ‘temptingly vulnerable’ to ‘too much of a hassle and not worth the bother’, and he’ll instead choose your dogless neighbor’s house.

No burglar wants either the noise and attention a barking dog will create, nor the risk of having the dog bite him.

So if you just have an average ordinary residence with nothing to distinguish it from other residences, a dog will make a big difference.

But what if there is something special about your residence and/or what you have in it?  If your property is down a long driveway and totally private, so that burglars can operate without fear of being seen, that makes it more tempting.  If you have valuables in the house, then maybe a resourceful burglar has been tipped off about that (or maybe he has ‘cased’ your property) and he is now more focused on your property in particular.

What About a Dog’s Value as a Preventive Measure Then?

If you’re a dog lover, what follows may seem impossible, unthinkable, and extremely unlikely.  But most burglars are not dog lovers, and neither are they reasonable ordinary decent people who are constrained by the usual behavioral norms of the society we live in.

So, guess what.  If a burglar really wants to get into your property, and you have a dog protecting it, he’ll simply poison your dog.  Some dogs can be trained to refuse even the most tempting of dog treats and tasty raw steaks, but most dogs will voraciously grab any such food items and happily eat them up as quickly as they can, without stopping to question their good fortune in scoring some bonus food from a friendly stranger.

And if there happened to be rat poison or sedatives or narcotics or anything else as part of the food, they won’t even notice until it is too late.  If you’re a dog owner, you might even do this ‘trick’ as a way of getting your dog to accept tablets sometimes, so you know that it works.

Here’s a news story about a couple with four Boxer dogs, all of whom were (thankfully only) sedated to the point where burglars could enter their yard, walk past the sleeping dogs, then cut down and make off with a bunch of marijuana plants.

The point we’re making is simply this.  You probably know whether there is anything particularly tempting about your property or not.  If there isn’t, then a dog will help keep away an ordinary burglar who is simply ‘picking the low-lying fruit’ in your neighborhood.  But if either your property’s location or its contents, or your own status/situation in the community is such as to make it conceivably a target for a focused professional burglar, then a dog won’t be much help to you at all.

Dogs are a bit like locks.  You know the saying – ‘locks are for honest people’.  So too are dogs.  Both dogs and locks deter very casual criminals, and keep honest people honest.  But for the hardened criminal, neither locks nor dogs will prevent them from attempting an attack on your property and potentially on yourself.

Oct 162011

Shot pattern approaching the end of the gun’s B zone, image from www.stu-offroad.com/firearms/patterntest/buck1-1.htm

There are a lot of misperceptions about shotguns – perhaps more so than exist about rifles or pistols.  We addressed this topic before – see our article ‘Correcting Some Misinformation About Shotguns‘ for some helpful information about what they can and can’t do.

We got into the middle of a conversation about shotguns yesterday.   A client was considering buying a shotgun, and another person was advising them about shotguns.  Unfortunately, the advice wasn’t very accurate.  The first comment perpetuated the myth that shotgun rounds spread sufficiently at short ranges as to guarantee you an effective hit on your target, even at close range such as inside your house.

As our earlier article explains, at a 20’ range, a 00 buck load will spread to perhaps 4″ in diameter.  That is of course better than firing a single pistol round, but it is a long way short of guaranteeing that your shot will effectively strike the target.  While the shotgun advocate didn’t say exactly how much spread he thought a shotgun round would experience at short-range, it was clear he was expecting it more like a foot or two rather than an inch or two.

This leads on to an interesting topic that we did not consider in our earlier article about shotgun misperceptions and also follows on from the next piece of advice this gentleman volunteered – what is the maximum effective range of a shotgun?

His answer was ‘Oh, about over to that bush there’ – a distance of maybe 30 ft.  He was again wrong.

Let’s first of all understand what determines the maximum effective range of a shotgun, then decide what that range actually is.  Note that in this discussion we’re primarily considering self-defense situations, rather than the maximum range you’d get if duck shooting or using the shotgun in some other type of situation (shotguns designed for bird shooting will have much longer effective ranges than shotguns designed for home defense).

There are four factors influencing the maximum effective range you’ll get.

Definition of ‘Effective Range’

The first thing to consider is what is meant by ‘effective’ range.  Do we mean the maximum range at which the shotgun remains reasonably accurate, or reasonably lethal, or something else?

Let’s define effective range as being the maximum range where a shotgun is both sufficiently accurate as to give you a high probability of scoring a hit, and with the hit you score being sufficiently lethal as to take your adversary out of the fight.  This dual factor definition reduces the range substantially below the theoretical maximum range.

Shotgun Barrel Length and Choke

A shorter barrel on your shotgun will cause the shot to spread more rapidly, and the more rapidly the shot disperses, the less the gun’s effective A and B zone ranges will be.

A shorter barrel will also result in slightly less of the energy from the explosive charge in the shell being used to push the shot out of the barrel.  A longer barrel obviously is the opposite – a tighter pattern (better A and B zone ranges) and slightly more energy from the shell is passed on to the shot (better C zone range, too).

The minimum length of a shotgun barrel, by law, is 18″; at the other extreme, you can get sporting shotguns with barrel lengths up to 34″.  That’s a huge range of different lengths, but for home defense purposes, you’ll be wanting something short and easy to carry/point with – 18″ – 20″, ideally.

Just so you know, there are two exceptions to the 18″ minimum barrel length requirement.  The first exception is if you get a special federal license for a shorter barreled shotgun.  The second is if you have a shotgun with a shorter barrel but a permanently affixed ‘flash suppressor’ type device on the end, so as to bring the length of barrel and flash suppressor up to the 18″ minimum.

A barrel’s choke refers to if it has an internal taper.  Some shotgun barrels have an internal taper, such that the barrel gets narrower in the last few inches as it gets closer to its muzzle (the end which the shot comes shooting out of).  If the barrel has some internal tapering, then it is said to have a choke.  If it has no choke at all – if the diameter of the barrel is the same all the way along, it is said to have a cylinder bore.  All pistols and rifles have no choke, but unlike rifles and pistols (which have rifling in their barrels) a cylinder bored shotgun has a smooth bore barrel.

The purpose of the taper or choke is to cause the shot pellets to spread more slowly.  This can be useful when shooting at birds from a distance, but it is less useful in a home defense situation, where distances are very short, and you’re probably hoping for a good deal of spread to compensate for any lack of perfect aiming.

A barrel with choke can not be used to fire slugs.

There are many degrees of choke, and they are usually described by name.  Those names that include the word ‘Full’ in them have the most choke, with the least amount of choke being possessed by a Skeet type choke, followed by Improved Cylinder, then various types of ‘Modified’ before progressing on to Full choke types.

To give you a feeling for the impact choke has on spread, you can get twice the range for the same degree of spread from a barrel with a Light Full choke than you could from a barrel with a Skeet choke.  Bearing in mind there are even tighter choke options (and also the unchoked option too), clearly the choke has a big impact on spread and therefore also on effective range.

Which brings us to the next point.

Spread – How Much Shot is On Target

Some spread is a good thing when firing a shotgun, because it gives you a broader ‘cloud’ of pellets when they reach the target.  If they all hit the target, you’ve scored multiple hits in multiple parts of the target; potentially causing multiple wounds to multiple organs and speeding the rate at which the adversary is incapacitated and taken out of the fight.

And if your aiming is slightly off-center, hopefully the spread of the shot will be enough so that some of the pellets will still hit the target, on the basis that ‘some is better than none’.

The biggest real world advantage of a shotgun is with a compact cloud of pellets all hitting the target.  The biggest hoped for but imaginary advantage of a shotgun is the incorrect expectation that the expanding cloud will reduce the need for careful aim.

If you’re firing 00 buck from a 2 3/4 inch shotshell, you are probably shooting nine balls, each comparable to a .380 bullet, at the target.  You could accept a few missing the target as long as most hit, and still have an excellent chance of winning your encounter after firing a single shot with less than nine (but more than one or two) of the balls hitting the target.

Now for the swings and roundabouts of spread.  Clearly, some spread is good.

But, equally clearly, too much spread is bad.  For bird shooters, too much spread can mean that the distance between each pellet becomes so great that a bird can fly through the gaps unharmed.  In a home defense situation, it can mean that instead of landing nine balls on your target, or eight, or seven, you might end up with only one or two reaching the target, and the others all flying harmlessly off somewhere else (or – even worse – going harmfully off, through other rooms in your house/apartment and risking anyone else there, and continuing on into your neighbor’s house/apartment, risking anyone there too).

These issues are recognized in the transition from your shotgun’s B zone to its C zone, discussed below.

The Type of Round being Shot

If you’re firing bird shot through your shotgun, then the first thing you should do is replace it with buckshot!  You’re not seeking to defend yourself against vicious attacking birds.  You’re seeking to defend yourself against vicious attacking people.  If you are firing birdshot, it becomes ineffective pretty much at the end of your shotgun’s A zone (see below).

If you’re firing buck shot, it is a good solution all the way out to the end of your shotgun’s B zone.

And if you are firing solid rifled slugs, you’re in good shape – and your adversary is risking transitioning to becoming in very bad shape – all the way out to the end of your shotgun’s C zone.

And now for the part you’ve been waiting for – an explanation of these three zones.

The Three Shotgun Distance/Range Zones

A shotgun’s pattern/effect/spread is typically described in terms of three different sets of ranges or zones.

Note that these zones are only loosely defined, and also vary greatly depending both on the shotgun you are using and the ammunition you are running through it.  But understanding this three zone concept is a key part of understanding your shotgun and how best to use it, because the three different zones require different tactics and – ideally – different types of shot shell load (or slug) too.

Shotgun A Zone

The A zone starts from the muzzle and typically stretches out 5 – 7 yards.  This zone is defined as being where the individual pellets or balls travel closely together, with very little spread.

Because there is so little spread, when you are shooting your shotgun at a target in its A zone, you need to aim and shoot it as carefully as you would a rifle or a pistol.

We never recommend you use birdshot in a shotgun – birdshot is, as its name clearly expresses – designed for shooting birds, not for home defense.  But within the A zone, your shotgun is likely to delivery a tightly compressed pattern of birdshot that is only slightly less solid in effect than being hit with a single shotgun slug, and so if you have nothing else, you could use birdshot within your gun’s A zone.

Shotgun B Zone

Your shotgun’s B zone starts from the end of the A zone and typically extends out to about 20 – 25 yards (assuming a cylinder bore on your barrel).  It is hard to say exactly where the A and B zones transition, but it is easier to determine where the B zone ends.

The B zone ends at the point where the spread of balls is greater than the size of the target you are aiming at.  In a self-defense situation, you’ll be aiming for the center of the thoracic cavity (the chest, if you prefer a simpler term).

Remember we said you need to aim your shotgun very carefully while shooting in the closer A zone?  Unfortunately, you ‘re going to want to aim your shotgun very carefully in the B zone, too.  Although the spread of shot is increasing, so is the distance, so just a ‘smidgen’ off in your aiming will have greater effect in where all the shot lands downrange.

Even at the end of your B zone – say 20 yards/60 feet – you’ve only got a spread pattern that is maybe 12″ in diameter.  In other words, your pellets will spread in a pattern extending out about 6″ to the left, right, above and below your aiming point.  That means that best case scenario, you can only be 6″ off in your aim if you want to get sufficient of your shot pellets on target.  And at 20 yards away, 6″ isn’t much leeway for your aiming.

Shotgun C Zone

So what happens at the end of your shotgun’s B zone?  Yes, of course, that is where the C zone starts.  The C zone is the area where you are best advised to stop shooting buckshot and switch to solid slugs.

The C zone starts at the end of the B zone, which you’ll recall from the preceding paragraph is where the individual balls of buckshot are starting to spread out so that not all of them are landing on the target.  Just as with the transition from the A to B zone, this is a fairly vague sort of distance.  It also can’t be stressed too much that the distance can vary enormously depending on your shotgun, its barrel and the loads you are firing – the same gun might have a 15 yard B to C zone transition with one type of ammo and a 25 yard transition with a different type.

The C zone extends from this point of transition out to about 100 yards.  Somewhere beyond 50 yards, and probably not much further than 100 yards, your ability to get a reasonably accurate hit from a slug is going to diminish to the point where it is no longer worth taking the shot.

We should also add that, in a self-defense situation, there are very few scenarios where you would be validly shooting at people 100 yards away anyway!

For those people who have been waiting for the point where the shotgun’s mythical ‘no need to aim’ super-powers take over, we have more bad news.  So far we’ve analyzed that you need to do careful aimed shooting in the shotgun’s A zone and also in its B zone.  Guess what?  Now that we’re in the shotgun’s C zone, and we’ve switched from multi-pellet shotshells to single round slugs, the shotgun no longer offers any spread or related benefits at all.  Quite the opposite.  You now find yourself firing single slugs from a shotgun with perhaps only the most basic and rudimentary of sights.  You’ll still have to aim very carefully.

The Fallacy of Shotgun Patterns/Spreads

Many people think that it is a very good thing that a shotgun spreads its pellets or balls out over a broad area.  They see the benefit, but don’t consider the two trade-offs associated with the benefit.

The benefit is, of course, that a spread of shot means that your odds of scoring at least a partial hit on your target improve.  If a pistol or rifle bullet misses its target by even a single inch, it has no effect whatsoever on the target (other than perhaps a psychological one, and even that is far from certain – in the adrenalin maxed out situation of an exchange of gunfire, your adversary quite likely won’t even notice shots going close by him).

The reasoning goes that ‘half a loaf is better than none’ – it is better to get some amount of a shotgun load onto your target than it is to miss it entirely.  There’s some truth in this.

But what about the remainder of the buckshot you fired?  Where is that going?  Is there something behind the target or near to the target that could be damaged/destroyed?  Remember that 00 buck will readily penetrate six pieces of sheet rock – that’s enough to go through probably every other room in your house/apartment and still be dangerous when it flies on out into the open ground outside.

And while getting half your load onto your target is good and better than not hitting it at all, it is also not as good as getting all your load onto the target.

Consider also that as the spread of the shot expands, so too does the distance to the target.  So while the shot is more spread out at say 20 yards compared to at 10 yards, the target is also twice as far away and therefore twice as small (or ‘hard to hit’).  The growing size of the spread does little more than only partially compensate for the shrinking size of the target.

There’s another factor too.  Most shotguns have very basic sights on them, making it harder to accurately aim them in the first place.

As you’ve seen in the preceding analysis of tactics for engagements in a shotgun’s A, B and C zones, you need accurate aimed fire at all distances and in all situations.

The bottom line is that a shotgun is not a magical cure-all solution.  Most of all, it won’t compensate for lack of training and poor accuracy on your part.  You still need to practice with it and get competent at using it.

Summary – So What is the Effective Range of a Shotgun

Now that you’ve read the entire article, let’s compress it into a single sentence.  The practical/effective range of your home defense type shotgun, with 00 buckshot, is about 20 yards.  If you’re confronting adversaries further away, switch to a rifle, or – failing that – use solid rifled slugs in your shotgun.

Oct 112011

Which of these four different grey levers is the safety lever on this FN57 pistol? And is it currently set to safe or to fire? (Answer at end of article)

One of the concepts popularized by the revolutionary Glock 17 pistol when it was first released in 1982 was that the pistol had no separate dedicated safety lever.  Perhaps because of this, Glock made – and still does make – a big thing of its three different safety devices built into its pistols, which basically mean that if the trigger isn’t pulled, the gun won’t shoot.

Not quite so proudly stated is that if the trigger is pulled – whether by your trigger or possibly by virtue of being caught on something that pushes against the trigger, then the gun will shoot without further ado.

While this was a new concept for a mass-market full-sized semi-auto pistol, it was far from a unique or novel concept overall.  Most revolvers do not have a safety lever on them, and plenty of sub-compact type semi-auto pistols are offered without safety levers too.

But isn’t a safety lever, well – as its name implies?  A safety feature, and something that should be expected and used?

Some people have embraced the concept of a gun without a separate safety lever.  Others have shunned it.  Which is the more correct attitude?

Here are some arguments sometimes put forward both pro and con.  I’ll list the arguments first, then discuss them second.

Advantages of No Gun Safety

  • A gun without a safety is easier to learn.  You don’t have to all the time be fussing about if the safety is on or off.
  • A gun without a safety is quicker to get into action.  It is one less step to perform under duress – if all you have to go is grab your gun, point it, and start pulling the trigger, that is a lot easier than grabbing, pointing, checking and changing the safety’s state as needed, then pulling.
  • A gun without a safety is simpler and has one less thing to go wrong.  What if the safety gets stuck or in some other way breaks and prevents the gun from firing at a critical time?
  • A gun without a safety is a gun you are forced to treat with greater care and respect, because you know that the only thing preventing the gun from discharging is your careful handling.
  • A gun does not need  a safety – it is designed to shoot rather than to not shoot, and the biggest/bestest safety is the behavior of the person handling the gun.

Advantages of a Gun with a Safety

  • A gun with a safety has one more layer of protection.  Sure, in perfect theory, safeties would never be required, but in the imperfect real world, mistakes and accidents can and do occur, and an additional separate safety lever might prevent an accidental discharge from occurring.
  • If your gun is taken from you, and if it has its safety on, you might have a valuable extra few seconds of time to save yourself before your gun is used against you.
  • A safety makes it possible to carry, eg, a 1911 type pistol ‘cocked and locked’.
  • A gun is a lethal weapon.  You can’t take back a bullet once you’ve fired it.  Adding a safety is not just common sense and prudent, it is as essential as are having seat belts and air bags in a car.

So Are Safeties Good?

Some of these reasons, both for and against safeties, are more compelling than others.  We’ve stated them here without comment, so you can think about them yourself, and decide what to do that best suits your own situation.

But if you’d like some comments and thoughts, please do continue reading.

Talking first about the advantages of a gun without an additional separate safety lever, we do agree and accept that such a gun may be very slightly quicker to get into action, and maybe 0.001% more reliable than a well designed gun complete with a safety lever function.

As for guns being more dangerous or more safe, with or without a safety (and notice the curious but valid suggestion that a gun with no safety could be safer because people know they always must treat it as dangerous, whereas if a gun has a safety, sooner or later a person will rely on the safety and do something stupid with the gun, and the safety will fail to prevent a tragedy from following) the difference in safety is minimal and much less a factor than the degree of safety as a result of even some very basic gun handling training.

The training point is possibly the most valid.  As a trainer, one of the common problems I note with new students is they’ll many times get muddled and flick the safety on when it should be off, or vice versa, resulting in failed attempts to fire the pistol (due to the safety being incorrectly active) and possibly unsafe weapons (due to the safety not being set at a time when the gun’s owner thought it to be safed).

And – I’m embarrassed to say this – if I’m handed a weapon I’m unfamiliar with, I don’t necessarily instantly recognize the safety and understand if it is in a safe or ready position.  Some weapons have very counter-intuitive safeties and markings, and some weapons have safeties in very different positions to those on other weapons.

This isn’t such a big problem if you own and train consistently with only ever one style of weapon so you become familiar and skilled at setting its safety on and off.  But if you’re hoping to get proficiency in several different weapons, some with safeties at the rear, some with safeties in the middle, and some with safeties at the front of the weapon, you know that for sure, when you suddenly find yourself in a high stress situation and needing to quickly work your gun, there’s every good chance you’re going to fumble the ‘set safety off’ part of your getting ready to shoot steps.

But now let’s flip that around and consider it from an opposite perspective.

Perhaps the most convincing argument we’ve encountered for choosing a weapon with a safety is that it may slow down the time it takes for someone who has taken your gun from you to get it running.  This of course assumes that your weapon was taken from you with the safety set on – if the safety is already set off, then you’ll have no benefit at all, because most bad guys, after getting your gun from you, will point it at you and potentially pull the trigger without pausing to check anything.  Only after the trigger pull has failed to result in a shot being fired will they then pause to look at the gun and try to puzzle out what the problem is (think of the different scenarios – no round in chamber, out of ammo entirely, a jam of some sort, or the safety on).

Some studies have come up with what they claim to be the average number of seconds it takes an unskilled person to fire a pistol with the safety on.  I hesitate to cite those studies or their findings, because my sense is that the ‘average’ does not reflect a common likely to be experienced number of seconds that you can count on or anticipate.  If you’ve a standard 1911 type pistol, for example, and if the bad guy has a passing familiarity with 1911 pistols, having the safety on might buy you a second or less.  But if you’ve got one of the fancy new guns out there that seem to have more knobs and dials and switches on them than is reasonable, it could take the person a surprising amount of time and experimentation to end up getting the gun running.  Meanwhile, talking about running, that is probably what you’re doing, as fast as you can!

But for this to buy you any time, you’ve got to be very certain to always keep the safety on until you’re ready to fire.  This is good tactics, of course, but our sense is that many people, if confronting an intruder or potential intruder, will urgently take the safety off at the start of their weapon handling drills, rather than as the third to last step (followed by ‘finger on trigger’ and ‘squeeeeze’).  This is also true of after-action drills – the minute you’ve decided not to shoot, or to stop shooting, you need to go in reverse – ‘finger away from trigger’ and then ‘safety on’.

Phew – if you read through the last some paragraphs, perhaps they can be summarized as ‘a safety can be a useful enhancement to any gun, but if you choose to get a gun with a safety, you’ll need a great deal more training in order to be able to use it well’.

So?  The Bottom Line?

Safety or not?  What should you do?

There’s no absolutely universally right answer to this question.  Feel free to make your own choice either which way.  On balance, we slightly prefer guns without safeties.  But you know yourself, your competencies, and the scenarios in which you may be carrying and using your gun.

If there’s a danger of having the gun taken from you, then having an obscured safety lever is a great thing.  But if you want a dead simple ‘point and shoot’ gun that you’re not going to have to train to a higher level of competency with in order to be able to use it in an extreme situation, getting a gun without the addition of an external free-standing safety will make your life easier, and might also shave anything from 0.1 seconds and up off the time it takes to get the gun running in an emergency.

0.1 seconds?  It doesn’t sound like much, does it!  But an attacker running at you at full speed will cover a yard or more in that single one tenth of a second, and that could mean all the difference between a stand-off self-defense act on your part, and an ugly and unpredictable wrestling match where the first thing that goes away is your control of your gun.

A tenth of a second can literally mean the difference between life and death.  So maybe that ‘safety’ catch isn’t quite as safe as you thought.

Why Don’t Revolvers Have Safeties?

Most revolvers have no safeties on them.  Smith & Wesson, for a while, made their revolvers with a key lock, but this is not the same thing as a safety.  A safety is something that is designed to be conveniently activated and de-activated with the flip of a finger; a key lock is, well, clearly something very different.

The main reason that revolvers are usually found without a safety is due to how the trigger works.  A semi-auto pistol that is cocked can be fired by a very small trigger movement – perhaps as little as a tenth of an inch or so, and with very little pressure – perhaps only 2 or 3 pounds of pull on the trigger.  As such, a semi-auto is thought by some people to be more susceptible to being accidentally fired by having things bump the trigger – for example, a quite common scenario is some clothing catching on the gun when it is being reinserted into a belt holster, and tightening around the trigger, potentially causing the gun to fire.

A revolver on the other hand is normally carried in its ‘double action’ mode – ie, with the hammer resting forward rather than cocked back.  The trigger has to be pulled a long way backwards – maybe as much even as an inch of movement, and a great deal more pressure has to be applied to the trigger – usually appreciably more than ten pounds of trigger pull.

This means that both because of the long distance the trigger has to be pulled, and the strong pressure needed to be applied, it is much less likely for a revolver to be accidentally fired.

Hence – no additional safety.

Postscript :  Disabling – or Adding – a Safety

If you have a strong preference for having – or not having – a safety, you can of course disable an existing safety (a bit of Locktite or instant glue can ensure it stays in its unsafe/ready to fire setting), and you can also have gunsmiths add safeties to guns that lack them, out of the box.

We really don’t like the thought of disabling a safety.  It just feels like a bad thing that might come back to embarrass you – you can imagine a prosecutor thundering to the jury – ‘And the defendant was so reckless and so keen to shoot, that he even disabled the safety mechanism on the gun.  If only he had paused that extra second to take off the safety, he might have had time to reconsider his actions, and observed that the victim he shot had already surrendered to him, and posed no threat at all……’.  He might go on ‘Who is this defendant, that he knows more about gun design than the manufacturer?  Disabling the safety is as reckless as an AIDS infected person having unprotected casual sex….’.

You get the idea.

On the other hand, it is hard to criticize a person for adding an extra safety to a gun, making it more safe and harder to fire.  But when are you going to stop?  Adding one safety?  Two?  Five?  Ten?  If you’re so uncomfortable with a gun that doesn’t have a safety – particularly a gun like the Glock which is omnipresent and used by police departments and other law enforcement departments, as is, and as such is above criticism for being unduly dangerous – maybe you’re better advised to get a different model gun to start with.

Furthermore, while factory designed and installed safeties tend to be reliable, after-market add-on safeties are an unknown quantity that add another degree of complexity to your gun and another chance for something to go wrong.

We urge you never to modify a gun unless it is absolutely essential, because any modification you do can be twisted and turned and used against you in a court of law.

We have some guns we like, but with safeties we don’t like – safeties that are difficult to reach and difficult to move (for example, on a Browning Hi-Power, a gun which often has a very stiff safety lever).  We said before that switching a safety off (or on) might take as little as 0.1 seconds.  But some safeties will take you more like 0.5 seconds or even longer, and if even 0.1 seconds can change the outcome of an encounter, you can guess at how game-changing a 1.0 second extra time factor can be.

We simply leave the safety off, permanently, in such cases, and have downgraded such guns so they are no longer our normal carry/work guns.

Answer to the Question in the Picture Caption

We asked which of the four grey controls on the FN Herstal 57 pistol was the safety.  You probably managed to work out the answer yourself, but in the dark, under stress, if you were a bad guy and the gun didn’t shoot, what would you do first?  A challenge, for sure.

The four controls are :

  1. Forward most is the takedown lever for field stripping
  2. The middle lever is – (did you guess correctly?) – the safety.  Currently it is in the up or safe position.  If rotated anti-clockwise/down, it would move to the ready position, and expose a small red dot to indicate its status.
  3. The rear lever is the slide lock.
  4. The level at the rear of the trigger guard is the magazine release.

Both the safety and the magazine release are duplicated on the other side of the gun too, giving the bad guy a total of six controls to worry about.

And the FN 57 has one other feature as well – a feature we’ll write about separately.  A magazine safety.  If the magazine is missing, or even if it is just not fully seated, an interlock lever prevents the gun from firing.  So if the bad guy is succeeding in grabbing your FN 57, hit the magazine release, and even if there’s already a round in the chamber and the gun cocked, ready to fire, it will be fully inert until a magazine is correctly inserted and fully seated.