Mechanical Safeties Don’t Guarantee Safety

20121216-162659.jpgAs December mornings go here, it was a beautiful one to go to the range with friends. It was a bit damp and misty, but the air was fresh, crisp and cool, and after several days of rain it felt lovely to get outside. We did some pistol shooting – my friend got a Glock 27 she wanted to put through its paces. Afterward, we moved over to the long range steel targets (200-600 yards) and she uncased her AR rifle.

She shot a couple magazines of ammo, and I got a chance to try out the rifle, landing a few hits and a few more near misses on a 150-yard steel plate. I handed the rifle back to my friend when I was done, and she reloaded. She put six rounds downrange, then engaged the safety and set the rifle on the bench to talk to someone for a few moments. When she was done, she took my seat at the bench, lifted the rifle to her shoulder, re-adjusted the bipod and stock, and flipped off the safety lever.

Ka-BLAM! They say the loudest sounds a shooter hears are a CLICK when she’s expecting a BANG, and a BANG when she’s expecting a CLICK. Despite the presence of ear protection, the report of that shot seemed deafening, and I’m sure mine wasn’t the only heart that was racing.

My friend called over someone she knows who is mechanically inclined and well versed in the inner workings of rifles. In short order, the lower receiver of the AR sat in several pieces on the bench, and he was poking at the little metal bits inside. It didn’t take long to figure out what had happened.

My friend had taken her rifle in for servicing, and as I understand it, the gunsmith who’d done the work had removed too much metal from the mating surfaces in the trigger group. As a result, an accidental bump of the trigger while the safety was on could, and in this case did, cause the sear to partially disengage. When the safety was subsequently released, the movement of the safety would ease enough of the mechanical pressure on the pieces of the trigger system to allow the sear to slip the rest of the way, causing the hammer to fall and the rifle to fire. (I’m not knowledgeable about the inner workings of ARs, so if I’ve messed this explanation up, I welcome clarification.)

Needless to say, we reassembled and cased the rifle, and it’ll be making a trip to a different gunsmith in short order to replace the broken trigger pieces. But the incident offered a few good lessons for shooters:

  • Mechanical safeties aren’t infallible. Many guns come with one or more mechanical safeties. These can be useful adjuncts to the shooter’s real safety, which is inside our skulls. But mechanical devices can, and do, malfunction. For this reason, putting our trust in our gun’s mechanical safeties should always be in addition to exercising good judgment and safety habits, not instead of it.
  • This is why we don’t point the gun at things we aren’t willing to destroy. When the rifle discharged, the muzzle was pointed downrange and the round impacted harmlessly into the dirt berm. But what if the gun had been pointing at another person – because, after all, the safety’s was engaged? Worse, what if the internal components of the safety had failed, releasing a round with nobody even touching the rifle? Improbable, sure, but it could happen. That’s why we have the Four Safety Rules – each one adds a layer of safety so that, even if the gun malfunctions or the shooter has a “stuck on stupid” moment, nobody will get hurt. Even if we think the gun is unloaded and our finger is off the trigger, a round could discharge. But if the muzzle’s ALWAYS pointed in a safe direction, that discharge won’t lead to tragedy.
  • Choose your gunsmith carefully. Ask trusted friends for recommendations for a gunsmith, then ask that gunsmith for references. Ask about his or her experience. Then ask about his or her experience with the specific weapon platform you own. All guns are not created equally and, although there are many places of overlap between gun designs, each weapon system has its own nuances and gotchas. Shoddily done gunsmithing can produce tragically unsafe weapons, so choose wisely who you let work on your guns.

The truth is, today’s weapons are probably among some of the best in history in terms of quality, manufacturing processes, and safety. A 1911 or Glock or AR today can be built with metallurgy and machining tolerances John Browning and Eugene Stoner could never have dreamed of. Today’s service pistols can handle tens of thousands of rounds reliably and safely. But guns are mechanical objects built by humans, and that means they aren’t perfect. Things can and do break, and when they do, our safe gun handling habits may be all that stands in the way of tragedy.

Photo credit: stock.xchng (and yes, I know it’s not an AR, but I forgot to take a photo at the range.)


  1. Absolutely! Great reminders for all of us.

    I extend the “safe direction” discussion in my classes quite a bit because there are many, many times when that might be very difficult to decide. At a gun show, for instance, with people everywhere… what IS a “safe direction” for guns, even those all cabled together on the tables? Gun shows make me very nervous quite often because people pick up and point guns indiscriminately… and there IS no real “safe direction.”

    So, one must think through this each time and not assume that ANY direction is safe.

    • This is very true. At one local range, for example, they require that guns be pointed skyward when moving them from bench to bench. My normal conditioning says “up” is generally not a safe direction, but the floor of this range is concrete and they worry about ricochets.

      So, sometimes finding a safe direction can be challenging, but it’s always super-important.

  2. After seeing multiple slam fires on AR-15’s this year the safe direction thing is definitely cemented in my consciousness.

    This is also the reason we don’t (or shouldn’t) modify the milspec AR-15 trigger group. Want a better trigger? Install a drop in replacement from a respectable manufacturer. The AR-15 trigger g:roup was not made to be improved by a gunsmith.

    • I personally am of the opinion that modifying trigger components on just about any gun is probably a bad idea. If you can install a different trigger, fine. If the manufacturer can adjust it, great. Otherwise, leave it alone and learn to shoot it as is, or buy a different weapon.

      To me, too much rides on the proper engagement of those little bits of metal to feel comfortable messing with them.

      Thanks for your comment!

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