What A Handgun Grip Safety Does And Why More Guns Don’t Have Them
On paper, it seems like more pistols should have a grip safety, since it makes a bit more sense than a manual safety. After all, a manual safety has to be manually deactivated whereas a grip safety is deactivated by merely grasping a pistol.
Makes sense, right? However, they just haven’t become too popular. There are some reasons for it, though. That said, the best safety is the one between the ears and by using it, along with having a pistol secured by a holster and good gun belt.
The Grip Safety And Similar Devices
The grip safety itself dates back to the 1880s, when the first pistol to employ one caught on commercially: the Smith and Wesson Safety Hammerless. The Safety Hammerless was a double-action only 5-shot compact offered in .32 S&W and .38 S&W – not .38 Special – which was a popular “belly gun” when released in 1887.
The Safety Hammerless was a very popular concealed carry revolver in its day, and like other pistols branded the Safety Hammerless (such as the Iver Johnson models of the same name and a similar design, as Iver Johnson largely copied the S&W gun) it incorporated a safety device that would guard against drop-fires – a common problem with single-action revolvers of that era.
The grip safety was on the backstrap of the grip, as it was part of the frame. To fire, the grip safety had to be depressed, which led to the pistol being nicknamed the “Lemon Squeezer.” Design elements from the Lemon Squeezer were carried over into S&W’s next compact revolver, the J-frame.
The other popular gun with a grip safety is naturally the 1911 pistol. The story goes that the US Calvary requested it (being conscious of drop-fires) and John Moses Browning built it into the pistol despite the thumb safety already being part of the design. However, he incorporated it into the pistol and the rest is history.
A similar device is the squeeze-cocker, mostly known for being deployed on the Heckler and Koch P7. The squeeze cocking lever, on the front of the grip, cocks the pistol once depressed. When not fully depressed, a P7 is decocked and thus put on safe.
Why The Grip Safety Is A Great Idea
The inherent genius of the grip safety is that it precludes an accidental discharge better than many other safety systems, such as the integrated trigger safety as the gun has to be in the hand. Not that inadvertent discharges while handling don’t occur; they do. It’s just that a greater degree of intention is required. The snag-fire common to trigger-safety-only pistols is not possible with a grip safety.
However, unlike the manual safety, a grip safety requires little or no training to master – you just have to hold the darn thing. As a result, deactivating the safety is accomplished very easily. One of the common complaints of manual safeties, of course, is that if one doesn’t train to deactivate it, the resulting hesitation can cost precious time that an integrated trigger safety or double-action pistol doesn’t require to get a gun into the fight.
As a result, the balance of safety feature plus ease of deployment makes it kind of a slam-dunk compared to other safety systems. Except it hasn’t actually worked out…
Why Other Gun Safety Systems Have Become More Prevalent
There are a few modern pistols out there with this type of gun safety system – Springfield Armory’s XD series of pistols come to mind, along with the Remington R51 – but few other adopters have emerged outside the 1911. Why is this? Well, there are some good reasons.
While depressing the grip safety is generally easy (you just grasp the pistol) the other side of the equation is that it may not deactivate if not gripped correctly – which some shooters, especially those with small hands occasionally have trouble with.
Also, with every mechanical complication comes a chance for something else to go wrong. As it turns out, “not all shooters” and the additional complication have actually been criticisms of the 1911 for decades.
However, with the promulgation of plastic striker guns, a renaissance of the grip safety isn’t likely going to happen.
About The Author
Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.