How Safety Plays a Part in Choosing a Handgun for Personal Defense - Watch Your Back: How to Avoid the Most Dangerous Moments in Daily Life (2016)

Watch Your Back: How to Avoid the Most Dangerous Moments in Daily Life (2016)

Chapter 6 How Safety Plays a Part in Choosing a Handgun for Personal Defense

In comparison to martial arts, edged weapons, Tasers, and chemical sprays, the firearm offers the greatest opportunity to survive an attack. One reason why the firearm is the superior defensive weapon is due to its ability to project force. The projection of force allows victims that are lesser in terms of size, strength, or numbers to prevent a superior fighting force from making actual physical contact. Just as a single anti-personnel rocket can destroy a platoon of enemy soldiers from afar, even frail elderly people with adequate handgun skills can defeat one or more large men that mean them harm. While carrying a handgun for personal defense is sound preparation, it nevertheless burdens the operator with a considerable level of responsibility. For this reason, the ability to handle your firearm safely should play a part in how you choose a handgun for personal defense.

The space devoted to choosing a firearm in my second book, the Shooter’s Bible Guide to Home Defense, offers insights into all types of shotguns, rifles, and handguns but ultimately recommends high capacity weapons with the weight and ergonomics to make them controllable and comfortable to shoot. However, the firearm chosen for personal defense may be very different from the guns kept around the house. For example, firearms portable enough to be carried on a regular basis, most often concealed, are necessarily smaller, so a compromise in size and capacity is to be expected.

The first method or approach to choosing a firearm for personal defense that I would suggest is based on ergonomics, a word bandied about in gun publications all the time. What it means to you is how well the gun fits your individual hands. If the gun feels clumsy in your hands, it’s going to be difficult to control and ultimately destroy your confidence. If you are lucky you will never have to fire a gun in anger but what about the hundreds of times per year you will handle the gun taking it from your nightstand and putting it into a holster or purse? Obviously, being clumsy is not safe.

The second part of this approach to choosing a firearm further explores ergonomics and explains how the physical relationship between your hand and the trigger directly affects accuracy. The third part of the study introduces new drills to help you become a more accurate shooter in less-than-favorable conditions. It is important to remember if you cannot hit the target you will not be able to stop a threat and you could be endangering others in the process.

Accepting the Personal Defense Handgun into Your Lifestyle

Choosing firearms for personal defense means that each gun you employ must function within a very specific context. That context is your lifestyle as defined by the actions and limitations of your daily routine, especially when you’re in public. We’ve already spoken in previous chapters about how preemptive behavioral response are preparatory behaviors that provide layers of protection. Certainly carrying a firearm for personal defense does have the potential to present a formidable barrier, especially if the operator is well-trained and maintains their ability with at least a minimum amount of practice. But for any form of preparation to remain effective it must be used habitually. However, before any action or practice can become a habit, the actor must find it agreeable and accept it physically.

What does it mean for an action or a practice to be agreeable and accepted physically? The agreement to perform the action may require a compromise such as “my purse is a little heavier but not enough to dissuade me from carrying my gun.” Ultimately, the necessity of performing a physical action must be accepted without complaint. In the case of choosing a firearm for personal defense, having a gun with you should not be frustrating, painful, or prevent you from doing whatever chores are necessary in your daily life.

The Evolution of Today’s Carry Gun, A Brief Perspective

There is an old saying that goes something like, “Is that gun comfortable or is it comforting?” The inquisitor is actually saying, “That’s a mighty big gun you got there. It must be a pain to carry but I bet it makes you feel safe.” The reason that’s an “old” saying is the choice in handguns used to be limited to either a big steel-framed revolver or a full size Browning 1911 Government model like your dad or granddad might have brought home from World War II.


The 1911 Anniversary edition from Cylinder and Slide is a perfect example of the full-size Browning 1911 Government .45. Weighing in at about 40 ounces unloaded, it was never meant for concealment. It’s taken quite a bit of technology to produce smaller guns that are lighter in weight and function reliably. Photo courtesy of Cylinder and Slide.

When loaded, either of these types of guns could weigh as much as three pounds. The development of smaller and lighter handguns didn’t really pick up speed until the 1990s after Gaston Glock introduced the polymer-framed handgun to the American public. However, the Glock GL17, so named for its seventeen-round capacity magazine, was still the size of a police service pistol designed to be carried in a duty holster worn without concern for concealment or convenient portability.

In the war between “plastic”-framed handguns and metallic-framed handguns, American makers fought back with the development of space age alloys such as titanium and scandium as well as improvements in aluminum composition. Metal-framed guns were getting lighter and easier to carry but the use of “space age” materials made them more expensive to produce than their steel counterparts, let alone the Glock 17 that could easily be mass-produced. With more states issuing concealed carry permits, all the makers, including Glock, discovered that guns could be made lighter and easier to carry simply by making them smaller.

While many of the first compact and subcompact semiautomatic pistols were prone to malfunction, smaller revolvers remained reliable. Given that cycling a double-action revolver is strictly a manual process powered directly by the operator, downsizing revolvers to about the size of a six-inch long by four-inch tall index card has had no effect on reliability. The only side effect was reduced capacity, as five-round cylinders became the standard for centerfire calibers. But for semiautomatic pistols, wherein the motion of the reciprocating slide was responsible for both loading the chamber and evacuating the emptied case, reducing the length and the weight of the slide presented a challenge to reliability. The shorter, faster-moving slide offered less time and opportunity to strip a round from the magazine and move it cleanly into the chamber. The change in timing played havoc with nearly every aspect of the design. For example, the magazine spring had to move the rounds upward more efficiently. And the recoil spring that tempers slide velocity as well as the amount of force with which the action returned to battery became all the more critical. While these engineering challenges were being dealt with, the question of capacity became an issue. Consumers wondered (and argued) over whether they should carry larger calibers such as .45 ACP that limited space in the magazine or choose a gun chambered for smaller diameter rounds such as 9mm in order to boost capacity.

The current field of concealable handguns now offers a wide variety of designs as well as calibers. Reliability issues in today’s smaller semiautomatic pistols are all but nonexistent. Lightweight materials and the mating of polymer and steel subframes make the guns lighter and stronger than ever. When I began my career as a firearms-test professional, frame breakage and cycling failures due to poor fit was a regular occurrence. Malfunctions occur so rarely during evaluations currently being performed that higher overall ratings per weapon are almost entirely based on performance rather than function versus failure. Much of the credit should go to advancements not only in metallurgy, polymers, and injection molding techniques, but the use of computer numerically controlled (CNC) machinery. Today you can get almost any size handgun in a variety of calibers and there is greater variation in how the different types of guns are to be operated than ever before. The current trend is to make the guns thinner and more concealable as the evolution of the handgun continues at a remarkable pace.

Choosing a Handgun Based on Safe Handling Practices

If the above makes choosing a handgun for personal defense more difficult, then I would suggest narrowing the field based on how comfortable you would be performing the actions necessary to ensure safe handling of the weapon in a variety of circumstances. Not just at a shooting range but in more challenging circumstances, such as seated behind the steering wheel of a car or even when adjusting your clothing to use a restroom. Imagine being so comfortable with a handgun that picking it up and stowing it in your favorite carry system (holster, purse, etc.) would be as natural as putting on a watch or a ring. Based on the following review of how each design affects safe handling protocol, ask yourself which type of gun would best fit the mode of carry you use most often and your individual level of strength and hand-eye coordination.


Today you can get almost any size handgun in a variety of calibers and there is greater variation in how the different types of guns operate than ever before. The XD series from Springfield Armory is a good example. Available in multiple calibers the (left to right) XDM 5.5, XDM 3.8, and the XD Mod 2 all operate with the same firing mechanism with little if any difference in handling characteristics. The XDM 5.5 was designed as a target pistol, the Mod 2 for deeper concealment, and the XDM 3.8 is versatile enough to fit any role in between. By choosing guns that operate the same way, the owner can respond with the same muscle memory no matter the situation.

Safe Handling Practices for Revolvers

Revolvers have the great advantage of not requiring the power of the ammunition to cycle the gun. This means you can leave it loaded without the fear of a magazine spring being weakened beneath the weight of the rounds piled on top of it.

The downside of revolver carry is that of limited capacity, although some models, though bulky, hold as many as eight rounds of 9mm, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, or .38 Super. Other revolvers currently in production are chambered for .45 Long Colt, .45 ACP, .44 Special, and .44 Magnum.

In terms of safe handling, the double-action revolver is probably the safest of all handguns. What we always seek to avoid is the hammer dropping unintentionally on the firing pin and transferring energy to the primer, setting off a round. In order for the hammer of a double-action revolver to cause ignition it must first travel rearward like a fighter winding up to throw a punch. Not only does pressing the trigger of a double-action revolver retract the hammer until it breaks free to strike the firing pin, it also rotates the cylinder to provide access to a fresh round, hence the name double-action.


Before the successful downsizing of semiautomatic pistols, the only option for carrying a handgun offering more than five or six rounds was a large bulky revolver weighing about 40 ounces. Today you can get seven and even eight round revolvers, but the sheer size of such guns makes them unwieldy. It’s much easier to blend a smaller pistol capable of holding eight or more rounds into your lifestyle.

One of the biggest dangers in operating any firearm is to have a piece of cloth, such as a shirttail, snag on to the trigger as the gun is holstered. A stock, double-action trigger (as delivered from the factory) usually offers about 10 to 12 pounds of resistance so an unintentional discharge in this manner is not likely unless the trigger has been greatly modified to lower resistance. In the event that the trigger is moved accidentally, the cylinder will, as previously mentioned, rotate simultaneously as the hammer moves to the rear. Therefore, holding the trigger finger against the cylinder will allow you to monitor interference with the trigger.

Another possibility that can lead to an unintentional fire is if the hammer itself is accidentally moved rearward. This could happen should the hammer spur snag against a surface, such as the interior of a fanny pack or the zipper at the mouth of a concealment purse that is not completely open. Revolvers of modern design will not allow the firing pin to strike the primer unless the trigger is pressed.

Holding the thumb atop the hammer spur will eliminate this problem altogether. Single-action revolvers are rarely used for concealed carry anymore, but keeping the thumb atop the hammer in down position is critical for safe handling. If you should choose a revolver with a reduced hammer spur or a revolver that operates with a shrouded or an enclosed hammer such as the Smith & Wesson Centennial series “J-frame” revolvers, handling the gun with the trigger finger against the cylinder is mandatory.


Modern double-action revolvers are capable of firing with a very light trigger when the hammer is pulled back manually by the operator. That’s why it’s important to always handle (and carry) a “DA” revolver with the hammer down. Placing the thumb behind the hammer during administrative handling ensures safety.


Modern revolvers have been made safer to carry by the application of a transfer bar. The gun on the right has the firing pin mounted directly on the hammer. Though not as likely as in single action revolvers of traditional design, the possibility of the hammer spur being accidentally struck with sufficient force to strike the primer of the round positioned beneath it and set off a shot still nevertheless exists. The more recent model revolver on the left was constructed with a transfer bar that rises into position only when the trigger is pressed. It is the transfer bar that completes the connection between the face of the hammer and the firing pin by command of the trigger only.


The double-action-only revolver, like this Smith & Wesson 340 PD, is a great concealment weapon because it is ultra-lightweight and its profile is unspoiled by the jagged edge of an exposed hammer. But without a hammer spur beneath the operator’s thumb, how is the best way to ensure safe handling? The answer is to place the trigger finger in contact with the cylinder. Should anything snag the trigger, the operator will be alerted by rotation of the cylinder.

Safe Handling Practices for the Double-Action-Only Semiautomatic Pistol

Double-action semiautomatic pistols that use a falling hammer for ignition are also very safe handguns by design. The hammer moves rearward towards its release point in direct proportion to how far the trigger is pressed. As with a double-action revolver, handling a double-action semiauto with the thumb atop the hammer is a necessity. The gun is simply not going to go off unless the hammer is first moved to the rear.

Safe Handling Practices for the Traditional Double-Action Semiautomatic Pistol

A variation of the double-action semiautomatic pistol is often referred to as Traditional Double-Action or TDA. In this design, the gun can be handled safely with the hammer in the down position. A blocking device prevents the hammer face from being driven forward with enough force to strike the firing pin. A second block to prevent the firing pin from moving is also commonly found in this design. However, after the first shot rearward movement of the slide leaves the hammer back, just a small increment from the point at which it is set to release toward the firing pin. In this condition the only function of the trigger is to release the hammer. Therefore, it is referred to as being in single-action mode. In single-action mode, the amount of force it takes to press the trigger and the distance the trigger must travel before releasing a shot is greatly reduced.


Safe administrative handling of the double-action, or in this case double/single-action, semiautomatic pistol requires holding the thumb down against the hammer.

The intention of the TDA design is to provide two distinct advantages. The first shot does not require the operation of a secondary action such as deactivating a safety lever. The second shot and each one thereafter can then be released with a superior action that requires less motion, presents less resistance, and therefore offers greater precision. Holstering a TDA pistol in single-action mode, or for that matter simply moving it from a tabletop to a nightstand drawer with the hammer back, is unsafe. The recommended course of action is to return the pistol to double-action mode by pressing the mechanical decocker lever located either on the frame or on the slide itself, depending on the design. The CZ and Sig Sauer pistols offer frame-mounted decocking levers. Beretta M9 type pistols have their decocking levers mounted on the slide.

Be aware that TDA pistols will enter single-action mode not just after firing but also upon the act of loading the weapon. While most TDA pistols do indeed have a mechanical decocker that is very easy to use, there are still a few models that require the operator to lower the hammer manually.

Traditional double-action pistols without a mechanical decocker require more skill to handle safely or at least greater patience. Manually lowering the hammer means holding the hammer back while pressing the trigger until you hear it release. Certainly there are more than a few pitfalls here. Suppose your hands are wet or the hammer is slick with oil? Thankfully, guns that require the hammer to be reset manually to the double-action position also have thumb safeties that lock the hammer in place. Being patient enough to activate the safety and waiting until you have a safe backstop at which to point the muzzle while you decock manually is likely the better way to proceed.


The decocking lever of a double/single-action pistol such as the Sig Sauer P229 allows the gun to be transitioned from hammer back, single-action mode to a safe hammer down position without having to touch the trigger or the hammer.


Like many of the 92 series Beretta pistols, this older Smith & Wesson features a decocking and safety lever mounted on the slide. Depressing the decocker lever safely drops the hammer without additional manipulation and can also function as a safety. The lever is shown pointing at approximately 7 o’clock which deactivates the firing system completely. Moving the lever back to horizontal or the 9 o’clock position prepares the first shot to be fired using the double-action mode.

In the case of both the traditional double-action and the double-action-only pistols, it is necessary to cover the hammer with the strong hand thumb to not only monitor interference with the trigger but also to prevent the slide from moving. This is because there is no mechanism to lock the slide in place. It is not unusual for friction between the slide and the interior of a holster to cause the slide to shift rearward out of position. If the slide is then moved far enough to the point of being out of battery (with the mouth of the chamber no longer sealed against the breech), the round in the chamber may be left grossly out of position or ejected altogether.

Think of how dangerous this could be if this should occur while you were at home. In any event, the gun would have to be reloaded.


Any pistol that does not offer a safety that locks the slide in battery (the closed position) is in danger of being rendered useless. Reholstering in a tight space can present enough friction to move the slide rearward and dislodge a chambered round. That’s why holding the thumb behind the slide is a good idea.

Safe Handling Practices for the Browning 1911 Pistol

The Browning 1911 design is among the safest handgun actions of all to handle, both administratively and during an actual shooting sequence, because its design includes a user-operated mechanical safety. Once the slide of a 1911 has been moved rearward so that the chamber can be filled, the hammer remains in the rearward position ready to strike. It is the responsibility of the operator to then activate the frame-mounted thumb safety. The thumb safety rotates into position, not only seizing the hammer, but also locking the slide in the forward (closed) position. By activating the thumb safety it is not necessary to place the thumb atop the hammer spur to monitor unintended contact with the trigger or prevent the slide from moving out of battery. Instead, the operator places the strong hand thumb beneath the safety lever, applying upward pressure to make sure it remains activated in the “on-safe” position.

With the gun on “safe” there is no danger of the slide being forced out of battery due to friction against the mouth of a holster or other incidental contact.

Detractors of the 1911 system point to the trigger, which slides only a short distance to the break. In my view, this makes the trigger easier to manipulate without pushing the sights off center. Since hitting the intended target is the best insurance against collateral damage, one might consider this to be a safety feature in itself. However, the primary objection from those inexperienced with this design pertains to the appearance of the hammer jutting out from the rear of the weapon when the action is cocked. This seems to make some people uncomfortable, as if the hammer is likely to fall suddenly like a door slamming shut due to a sudden breeze. Perhaps the appearance of the hammer creates a subliminal effect expressed as fear that some process has been left incomplete or that the gun is broken and whatever is holding the hammer back will let go at any moment. But the 1911 design should not be confused with the single-action revolver of days gone by. Most of today’s guns include a firing pin block that makes it impossible for the gun to go off unless the finger is pressing the trigger. Albeit it is the responsibility of the operator to activate the safety, the important distinction between the single-action revolver or any other design is that the 1911’s thumb-operated safety provides a veritable on/off switch.


The thumb-operated safety of the Browning 1911 design functions as a veritable on/off switch. Holding the 1911 with the thumb pressing upwards from beneath to lock it into the safety-on position makes this pistol extremely safe to handle despite the appearance of the hammer in its rearward position.

Safe Handling Practices for the Striker-Fired Semiautomatic Pistol

With all the emphasis placed on controlling the hammer, the most popular semiautomatic pistols being sold today utilize a striker rather than a hammer and firing pin to ignite the ammunition. If the hammer and firing pin mechanism can be compared to a hammer and chisel, the striker could be illustrated by the mechanics of taking a shot in a game of pool. If the muscles and tendons within the arm are in a sense spring-loaded, the pool cue can be seen as the striker with the cue ball imagined as the surface of the primer. What this means in terms of safe handling is that there is no hammer or other mechanism of ignition visible to the operator. Should any foreign object make contact with the trigger strong enough to press it rearward, there will be no prior warning. There are other safeguards in play, however.

The face or contact surface of the trigger found on most striker-fired pistols are hinged or have a secondary lever that is centrally located away from the edges. This helps avoid foreign objects from being able to press the trigger fully to the rear. A few striker-fired semiautos also provide a thumb-operated safety that will in effect “turn off” the firing mechanism but does not prevent the slide from moving should it meet enough resistance while holstering. The Springfield Armory XD and XDM series pistols go one step further by adding a grip-pressure-operated safety. The trigger cannot be activated unless the web of the hand has fully compressed the grip safety located at the upper edge along the rear of the grip.

The primary rule of firearms safety is never place your finger on the trigger until the sights are on a target you are willing to destroy. In lieu of whatever other safety mechanisms are offered by a given firearm, keeping your finger outside the trigger guard will prevent an unintentional discharge. Safe handling of a striker-fired pistol requires a very specific hand position to ensure safety. Here is what it looks like:

Have you ever seen anyone replicate the form of a gun with his or her hands? When we were kids we stuck out our index finger as if it were the barrel, closed our remaining fingers to illustrate the body of the grip and extended our thumbs upwards as if it were the hammer, much like a single-action revolver or “cowboy” gun.

Applying this same position to the handgun can keep us safe. Holding the grip of our gun with the lower three fingers and keeping the index finger alongside of the frame keeps it outside the trigger guard. The thumb is placed directly upon the back of the slide to prevent it from coming out of battery. This somewhat-open grip is especially effective should the gun offer a grip safety. For example, holding a Springfield Armory XD or XDM pistol in this manner provides even greater security by not compressing the grip safety, creating a bridge over the upper portion of the grip preventing the action from moving to fire.


Children have been sent home from school for mimicking a handgun but it’s really the beginning of good safety habits. The finger is held straight and outside the trigger guard.


The Springfield Armory XD and XDM series pistols offer an added safety feature that comes into play when the thumb is held behind the slide. Borrowing from the 1911 design, the XD/XDM series grip safety must be compressed in order for the firing mechanism to work. Accessories such as the LaserMax Micro II pulsating laser attached to the rails of the Mod 2 can be invaluable in any confrontation.

Bullet Points

Handgun Ergonomics Review

In choosing a handgun for personal defense ask yourself, “How easily would it be to internalize each of the following techniques to the point at which I could perform them as automatically as I can button a shirt or tie my shoes?”

Hand Positions for Safe Handling as per Design

Single-Action Revolver

Index finger of strong hand outside the trigger guard.

Strong hand thumb resting atop the hammer spur with hammer down.

Note: hammer in down position over a loaded chamber ONLY if the revolver is equipped with a firing pin safety, or transfer bar safety.

Never holster or otherwise carry a single-action revolver with the hammer back.

Double-Action Revolver

Index finger of strong hand outside the trigger guard riding against the exterior of the cylinder.

Strong hand thumb resting atop the hammer spur with hammer down.

Note: older models of double-action revolver that feature a “nose pin” (firing pin mounted directly on the hammer) should not be carried with a loaded chamber beneath the hammer.

Never holster or otherwise carry a double-action revolver with the hammer back.

If the double-action revolver operates with its hammer not visible but enclosed by the frame (sometimes called “hammerless”), be sure to ride the index finger alongside the exterior of the cylinder.

If the hammer is shrouded, place the strong hand thumb on the small but exposed portion of the hammer spur.

If the hammer spur has been reduced or removed altogether, place the strong hand thumb on the outer contour of hammer or the remnant of the hammer spur.

Double-Action Only and Traditional
Double-Action (TDA) Semiautomatic Pistols

Index finger of strong hand outside the trigger guard, preferably above the trigger guard and alongside the frame.

Strong hand thumb resting atop the hammer spur with hammer down.

Monitor any movement of the hammer and slide.

Never holster or otherwise carry a TDA pistol with the hammer back unless a mechanical safety is applied.

If the gun is equipped with a mechanical decocker always use it to lower the hammer before holstering or whenever the sights of the gun are off target.

If a gun requires manual decocking from single-action mode and does not have a working mechanical safety, this is a poor choice of weaponry in my opinion and should be disposed of.

If a gun requires manual decocking from single-action mode and does have a working manual safety, put the gun on safe at the conclusion of fire. Move to a position where a fired round will be safely blocked and absorbed without ricochet before attempting to lower the hammer manually.

Browning 1911 Action Semiautomatic Pistol

Index finger of strong hand outside the trigger guard, preferably above the trigger guard and alongside the frame.

Strong hand thumb rides beneath the platform of the thumb safety.

Upward pressure is applied to the underside of the thumb safety to prevent it from rotating downward to “off-safe” ready to fire.

Striker-Fired Semiautomatic Pistol

Index finger of strong hand outside the trigger guard, preferably above the trigger guard and alongside the frame.

Strong hand thumb resting atop the back of the slide.

Monitor for movement of the slide.