Handguns — Manual Thumb Safety, or No?

The SIG P365 and P320, Springfield Hellcat and Pro, S&W M&P and Shield Plus… Seems like every new pistol on the market comes in a version with a manual safety and one without it. People are divided, with groups firmly planted in each camp believing one is superior. Traditional shooters seem to embrace the thumb safety as an assisting tool, while more “tactical” shooters tend to shy away from them. I believe there are pros and cons to each option. 

The manual safety is meant to assist in the safe handling of the firearm, but it is still up to the individual to be responsible and act with care. Pulling the trigger equals fire, if you don’t want a Bang! Oopsie!, practice good trigger discipline. 

two 1911 pistols with slides back
Here are two 1911 pistols, you can see both a manual thumb safety and grip safety on each.

Internal Safeties

Before we get into discussing manual safeties and their merits, I want to first cover some internal, or passive, safeties that most modern pistols incorporate. One of the most common passive safeties, often found on striker-fired pistols, is the trigger safety. This is a secondary lever on the trigger that prevents it from traveling rearward without your finger on the trigger. As you naturally pull the trigger, you depress the lever and the gun can fire. 

Another common passive safety is the drop safety, or firing pin block. As you pull the trigger, a plunger in the slide is depressed, allowing the firing pin to travel forward. This, and lightweight titanium firing pins, make it nearly impossible for the firearm to go off without pulling the trigger. This is important for your safety and the safety of bystanders. 

Hammer-fired pistols tend to feature a secondary (half-cock) notch in decocked position to catch the hammer if it breaks the sear. This should relieve some of your tension when seeing that cocked-and-locked 1911 at the checkout. 

Additionally, a grip safety or magazine safety provides more layers of security to prevent unintentional firing. The loaded chamber indicator is a type of safety, as it helps you visually and sometimes tactilely determine whether there is a round in the chamber. Even the trigger disconnect, which limits the semi-auto pistol to one shot every trigger pull, is a safety, as it prevents the gun from firing when out of battery. 

What does a thumb safety do?

Manual safeties are designed to further prevent an accidental — or negligent — discharge. Most manual safeties do this by preventing the trigger from being pulled via a lever or catch. Disengaging the safety unlocks the firing mechanism, allowing the pistol to be fired. 

The most common type of manual safety is the 1911-style lever. It tends to be the most effective for most people. The longer lever is easy to manipulate and the sweeping motion is natural. Some pistols, such as the M&P and others, feature an amended version of this that is a bit sleeker, but can be harder to actuate. Some, such as the Mossberg MC2c, even feature a cross-bolt style safety, though this is more common on rifles and shotguns

S&W M&P Shield Plus in hand
The smaller thumb safety on the M&P Shield Plus sweeps off in the same motion as a 1911.


I will not fawn over the manual safety, in fact, I will admit I tend to prefer guns without one. But I recognize my opinions are not fact and others have different beliefs. I do see the value in a thumb safety — sometimes. 

The main advantage is emotional. Some shooters are just comforted by the additional security of a manual safety. And that’s alright. Not everyone lives a high-speed, low-drag lifestyle filled with tactical operations. Many simply need a pistol to toss in the pocket when going to the store. If you practice drawing and sweeping off the safety, you’ll likely make it home at night. I’m not saying tactical gear isn’t tactical for a reason, but I think some people place too much importance on the equipment. 

I remember speaking with a friend who had just purchased his first pistol. This was a newer friend who did not speak with me first. He decided on a SIG M18 because of its military ties. Well, a few weeks and several YouTube videos later, I saw him again, only to learn he has since sold off the M18 (at a loss) and acquired something new, a Glock I believe. His reason: “I heard having a manual safety will get you killed.” I just shook my head. I’ve been there, most of us have. We believed the false profits of the YouTube gods… I didn’t necessarily disagree with his decision, just his reasoning. 

The other advantage of a manual safety is you have a backup. Obviously, the real safety is between your ears, your brain. Use it, and a keen sense of attention, to keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire. Remember the rules of firearm safety. Unfortunately, people aren’t perfect and they make mistakes — frequently. You should not rely on the manual safety to keep you safe. You should build good habits. However, if you do make a mistake, the safety may catch it and prevent a discharge. 

S&W 5906 on table
The slide-mounted safety on the S&W 5906 can make racking the slide more difficult. However, some believe it helps them get a better grip.

Another factor to consider is the time your gun spends idle. Whether that’s in a holster, car, drawer, safe, whatever. Most of the time our firearms are at rest. Most people will go their entire lives without needing to deploy their firearm for defense. However, accidental firearm discharges happen. I’m aware this sort of counters the common logic of carrying a firearm. It spends most of its time sitting in a holster, why carry it at all? But I’m merely using it to highlight that some may not be so disadvantaged by a manual safety as others would have you believe… 


The major con to the manual safety is that it’s just another thing to do — or forget. Murphy’s Law is often cited. If something can go wrong, it will. You may forget to sweep the safety off, the safety may get stuck, or the mechanism may break and prevent you from firing when you need to most. This is enough reason for most to ditch the thumb safety altogether, and I wouldn’t necessarily blame them. More moving parts means there are more parts to fail, no doubt. But this occurrence is rare at best. It always happens to someone’s brother’s cousin’s waiter, never them directly. 

But what about speed? That extra step takes time. Sure. But competition shooters far better than you or me can attest to the validity of training. If you seriously train with your firearm and practice sweeping off the safety, you can be just as fast as you would be with a gun without a safety. 2011s and CZs are all over the competition scene for a reason, and both feature fantastic manual safeties.  


Another notable issue of the thumb safety is placement and design. This can be a big determining factor in a pistol’s success and, if it’s done incorrectly, will be a major con. Most safeties are frame mounted. This makes the most sense, as it has the least impact of the manipulation of the slide. Some are higher, lower, forward, rearward, and will work better or worse with your specific hands and grip. For me, a lefty, an ambidextrous safety is essential, as a right-side only version is useless. Even if you are a righty, an ambi safety is not obtrusive and will help you run the firearm if you injure your dominant hand. If you have a manual safety on the firearm, I see no reason not to have it be ambidextrous. 

Carry Guns/Options

I think most people who take issue with the manual safety, do so in regards to the carry gun. At the range, a thumb safety can be easily ignored. 

Staccato 2011 in holster
The 1911/2011 manual thumb safety design is the best of the bunch.

For nontraditional carry methods, such as a backpack, purse, or fanny pack, a manual thumb safety may actually be preferable. It is no supplement to a good holster that protects the trigger guard, but it is an additional layer of security. I frequently carry a Shield Plus with a manual safety in a Galco fanny pack holster when I am out walking the dog. The inner holster is a universal leather type. It features some adjustment options, but still must fit a wide range of handguns. I appreciate the reassurance the manual safety provides in this case. And when I carry in this fashion, I take special note to remember I am carrying a firearm with a manual safety that will need to be disengaged before firing. Perhaps this is not ideal, but I am comfortable with it. 

An important note for those that carry a firearm with a manual safety and choose to “just ignore it” and carry with the safety off: Practice sweeping the safety off during the draw, even if you don’t plan on using it, just in case it accidentally gets activated by brushing up against something. Even if you’re carrying a firearm without a manual safety later, this motion will not impede anything.

Ruger EC9s with magazine and baseplate
The manual safety on the Ruger EC9s is small and hard to use, but it works. This type of safety requires more practice to become proficient.

Final Thoughts

One of the main things I would consider when deciding whether or not to purchase a firearm with a manual safety, is how it relates to my other firearms. How many other guns do you have with a manual safety? Will it be different than all the rest? How trained are you with a manual safety and are you willing to put in the effort to become proficient with it? 

Do you prefer a pistol with or without a manual thumb safety? What’s your reasoning? Let us know in the comments.

Source link: https://blog.cheaperthandirt.com/handguns-manual-thumb-safety-or-no/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=handguns-manual-thumb-safety-or-no by Alex Cole at blog.cheaperthandirt.com