Thumb Safeties on Pistols: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

The question is not meant to have a definitive answer. The answer will depend on your own use and experience. I wish only to offer some thoughts on the matter. The arguments on the thumbs down side usually lean towards users not wanting to have any obstacles to overcome when they need to fire in whatever high stress scenario they can imagine. The arguments on the thumbs up side tend to lean towards the user desiring some additional layer of protection from an unauthorized user being able to fire, and either thwarting their attempt completely or merely giving the owner time to react to the attempt. Being that this article is being presented on Modern Service Weapons, my thoughts are geared towards those who use pistols as just that, service weapons.

It is usually taught by most defensive tactics and patrol procedures instructors that going “hands on” with a suspect or subject while you have a pistol in your hand is a bad idea. I absolutely agree. It should be easy to see how that could lead to bad things happening, whether it be a gun grab, sympathetic fire or whatever else you can imagine, having a person in one hand and your pistol in the other should be avoided. But what about those times when it can’t be avoided? Perhaps you are covering down on someone who suddenly decides to run. Maybe you are executing a warrant service and encounter someone face to face as you enter a room. The point is, we don’t always have to luxury of having both hands free when we need to make contact with or control someone. Having a safety on your pistol may be to your advantage in those situations.

Granted, not all thumb safeties are created equal. I don’t have the space or time here to fully analyze which brands or styles are better than others or why, only to say that ergonomics are very important in determining the effectiveness of the various designs on the market. Frame mounted or slide mounted, push up or push down, whichever the type is that you have, the key to success is to sufficient practice with it. I have heard some soldiers and police officers say that they leave the safety off for “routine” use but if they were to get into a struggle, they would then engage the safety. I won’t offer an opinion on the feasibility of that plan, only to say that none of them whom I have questioned could say that they had ever actually practiced it in a force on force training scenario.

I also cannot figure out why so many people are absolutely, positively, 100% against having a safety on their pistol but when asked if they would want their rifle or shotgun to not have a safety, they look at me like I am crazy. For some reason, it is accepted that rifles and shotguns should be equipped with a safety but pistols should not. I totally agree that we should follow all of the rules of gun safety and not have our finger on the trigger until we are prepared to fire, keep the weapon pointed in a safe direction and all of that. No question about it. However, things can move pretty fast out there and we can sometimes wind up in a less than ideal situation. For those who have no choice in what they carry, this is simply an academic argument. For those who have a choice, do yourself a favor and give it some thought. It might not be as crazy as you once believed.


This entry was posted in 1911, Modern Service Pistols, Review by Doug Flavin. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Flavin

Doug Flavin has been a State Trooper in New England Since 1992, serving in patrol and Tactical Operations. He is currently assigned as a full time member of his department's SWAT team, with 16 years on the team. He has served as an operator and also sniper instructor. He recently retired after 24 years in the Army National Guard, serving as a Military Policeman and ending his career as the NCOIC of the state marksmanship training section. Doug is a recent addition to the instructor staff at OpSpec Training. He is also rumored to make one one hell of a clam chowder.

18 thoughts on “Thumb Safeties on Pistols: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

    • Story doesn’t seem to want to load, but chances are, if he’s pistol whipping someone, his discharge should be intentional, and happen about as fast as the paperwork can be done.

  1. I just removed the thumb safety from my carry gun, as I don’t routinely use the safety on my service weapon. Policy directs that the weapon be safed during clearing and storage in the armory, but is carried in the fire position. I used to carry 1911’s and like the safety, but my current carry gun is an HK 45, with a LEM trigger, so the removal of the safety brings it to a configuration similar to my personally owned Glocks. I may be alone in this, but the location of the thumb safety is just a hair off of being truly instinctive the way it is on a 1911. That said, other shooters may find that their circumstances and training are different and benefit from the thumb safety.

  2. Nobody questions that shotguns or rifles should have a safety due the fact that you really can’t holster the weapon. If I had to carry a pistol on a one point sling that I just let bounce off my body, I probably would reconsider a safety. But I know personally two individual that are alive due to not having safeties on their pistols, both were extremely wounded with one individual having to fire his weapon with his ring finger. If you are using a pistol you probably were not expecting to get into a gunfight , so why do you expect to have full control of your limbs.

    • Agreed, I also don’t find many rifles or shotguns with a double action trigger and the ability decock safely with a firing pin safety. If I could have that and the just discussed holster, you wouldn’t find safeties on my rifle or shotgun.

  3. I am not military nor law enforcement, so my scenario is probably different than theirs. I like a safety primarily for those seconds while I am re-holstering. I can see that going badly once in a blue moon, even though I’m not reholstering for speed or style points, and even though I am a careful fellow. If, heaven forbid, I should ever be reholstering after some mega-adrenaline shooting/etc event, I would much rather have built the muscle memory of flicking a safety on, than not. Shirttails happen, holster wierdness happens, trigger finger errors happen.

  4. Personally, I see the thumb safety on a short trigger single-action platform like the 1911 being a bit more “needed” than a thumb safety on a longer trigger design. After all, revolvers aren’t inherently unsafe because they don’t have manual safeties are they? But in any case, (or for whatever subjective reason one is utilized) unless it’s poorly designed, the manipulation of a ANY mechanical safety is pretty much a training issue and shouldn’t be an impediment to anything of significance …… IMO.

  5. I prefer having a manual safety on a pistol that is used for uniformed LE use; I have twice seen officers’ lives potentially saved when another person gained control of an officer’s pistol, but the engaged manual safety prevented the weapon from firing–I don’t like to think about the outcome if the pistols involved had been a Glock, Sig, XD, revolver, etc… As noted, a manual safety can also be an advantage when holstering and doing administrative tasks.

    • I should have been more clear on that. Unintentionally firing due to the sympathetic reflex of grasping with your firing hand as a result of grasping with your non-firing hand.

      • As opposed to sympathetically firing just because someone near you did.

  6. I am one of those people who like no thumb safety on my pistol, but do think that any long gun absolutely needs one. My reasoning is, a pistol is generally in a holster that covers the trigger completely, whereas a long gun is carried with an exposed trigger almost all the time. If you like a thumb safety on your pistol, or feel safer somehow with one, I won’t question your choice. Of course that’s all just my ignorant, uninformed opinion.

  7. If you have your pistol taken away you have bigger issues to discuss than having or not having a thumb or mag safety.
    Personally, the thumb safety is for MY safety. Breaking pistols into action types as follows:
    Revolvers have DA and a hammer. I can use my thumb on the hammer when holstering to prevent a ND. Same with and DAO or DA/SA that have external hammers.
    SA hammered should have a thumb safety due to short trigger pull. ie 1911’s.
    Any gun without an external hammer, ie striker fired, is safer to reholster with a safety on. Not that you can not do it safely but professionals have had ND’s while holstering. A local LEO was holstering his Glock for appendix carry off duty and bled out. Easy enough to get a toggle from a jacket in the trigger guard.
    Personally I will use a safety for reholstering only, with the exception of single action only.

  8. The placement of the safety is key. I’m fine with the safety on a 1911 or P-35. I tried to like the safety on the S&W M&P, but it was placed just wrong enough to be a hindrance. Ditto for the CZ-75 variants.

    The slide mounted “safeties” are, IMO, best just used as decockers. In fact, I think they should be spring-loaded to prevent them from staying in the “safe” position, a la 92G. If we consider how the hand works, it is evident that sweeping the thumb up during the draw is unnatural and inefficient.

    Some critics of the Glock bemoan the “condition zero” carry of the pistol. With the Glock, I think the user must view the pistol and the holster as a total “system”. A stiff holster, with no floppy edges or straps that can find their way into the triggerguard is a must.

  9. Havng or not having the device is not better or worse in general. But, it can be better or worse for an individual.

    If mistakes with trigger without such device is possible, mistakes with manipulation of the device is equally possible. So, it is a matter of different approach to safety.

    Rile and shotgun is a totally different issue. First, most riles such as AR-15 has trigger mechanism with nothing more than a bar preventing the movement of the trigger that also keeps the hammer in place. There is no firing pin block, or any other safety features normally present in modern pistols.

    Another part is how a rifle or shotgun is used. Pistols are holstered when not in ready position, nearly eliminating the possibility of accidental trigger pull. Rifles are slung with their triggers exposed.

    That is the fallacy of “if you are fine with manual safties with rifles then you should also need one on a pistol” argument.

    That is why I would not want an AR-15 type rifle without such device while I would not want a pistol with one.

  10. Also, while those situations where going hands on with suspects with a pistol in hand certainly is a legitimate concern, it does not make manual safeties better.

    For countering gun grabs, I want a strong grip on my pistol, and pistols that require thumb to be resting on a lever with high straight thumb position is not so helpful. With a Glock or M&P I can just have a death grip on it with thumb curled. Doing so with a 1911 would either result in the manual safety be disengaged or thumb being under the lever while it is still engaged making the officer unable to immediately fire.

    Another issue is that physical contact can imepede flipping the lever when the officer needs to fire and it can also result in swipping the lever so that it can be engaged or disengaged without the user’s intent.

    For pistols like Beretta, the prevalent way of training is to disengage it when the gun is drawn, so only way it can help is for the officer to to a large thumb movement to swipe the slide lever down when surprised by sudden physical contact which is not so practical.

    This is not to say that pistols with manual safeties are worse. However, when all things are considered in a comprehensive manner, I find no evidence that it is better. What is for certain is that pistols with one has far more unknown variables.

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