Q: The one and only problem I’ve ever had with the classic 1911 is having to carry “cocked & locked.” In your opinion, are the double action only models offered by Para-Ordnance the way to go when safety is concerned?
There are really two parts to your question so I’ll deal with them separately.
First, yes the P-O LDA is an excellent option when the cocked and locked 1911 is a problem. Charles Riggs wrote a nice article for me on the LDA which addresses this:
Second, I believe that the concern about the safety of the “cocked and locked” (condition 1) pistol is more a matter of perceptions than reality. It looks scary. When you’re new to the 1911, it feels scary. I started out with wheel guns and it took me some time to get used to cocked and locked. But, given the huge number of M1911 pistols which are out there in service, you would think that we would hear more about accidental discharges if this were a problem. The fact is that we don’t because they don’t go off by themselves. I have only heard one story from one police officer who claimed one went off in his holster when it bumped against a banister as he descended a set of stairs, but when I pushed him for details, he refused to say anything more. He wouldn’t tell me the kind of holster, if the gun had been modified, its state of repair or any other circumstances. This led me to believe that he was either blowing smoke or there was something about the gun he didn’t want to tell me.
What do we mean by “cocked and locked”? The M1911 pistol is loaded by inserting a charged magazine and racking the slide. This action chambers a cartridge and cocks the hammer of the pistol. The thumb safety is then pushed up toward the sight. This “locks” the pistol. The safety is on and the slide will not move. Inside the gun, a piece of the safety rotates (red area in diagram) and blocks the base of the sear which prevents the sear from releasing the hammer. If the sear hook on the hammer were to break, the sear would be captured by the half-cock notch preventing an accidental discharge. The stud that locks the sear will also not allow the hammer to fall if the safety is engaged.
But what about the cocked and locked pistol taking a hard hit on the hammer? Could it go off then? Listen to this report from Terry Erwin:
“About ten years ago, I was working as an armed-plain clothed-security officer. During a struggle with an arrested subject the Combat Commander I was carrying cocked and locked, holstered in a Bianchi “Pancake” on my strong side hip, struck the center door jam of a set of double doors. The center door jam was knocked loose, and two belt loops were torn off of my jeans. The hammer was bent inward and the safety would not move. A gunsmith had to press out the safety, hammer pin, and sear pin. The edge of the sear had cracked off, and a piece of one hammer hook also cracked off. The gun did not discharge upon that impact. I have carried several Colt’s, including that repaired Commander for most of my adult life, and have never once worried about the weapon (myself or someone else is a different story, but not the gun).”
The 1911 is a single action semi-automatic pistol so it has to be cocked in order to fire. People deal with this in one of three ways: cocked and locked (condition 1), or they chamber a round and carefully lower the hammer (condition 2) so they have to thumb cock the gun to fire it, or they carry it with an empty chamber and rack the slide when they bring it into action (condition 3). I would advise either condition 1 or 3 for home defense, but not condition 2. I don’t advise condition 2 under any circumstances. (For more discussion on the conditions see “The Conditions of Readiness”) If you are only using the gun for home defense, there is nothing wrong with leaving it in condition 3 with a loaded magazine but with an empty chamber – as long as you have the presence of mind to load the weapon under stress. (Don’t give me a “duh” on that one because weird things happen to one’s mind when someone is trying to get into your house at 3 AM).
When the gun is cocked and locked, the sear is blocked from releasing the hammer. Further, unless a firing grip is on the pistol, thumb safety swept off, and the trigger is pulled, the gun will not go off. For my money, this is much safer than a Glock or some of the other new pistol designs which have no external safety. The Glock, by the way, is also pre-cocked which is why it can have a much lighter trigger than a real double action gun. It could be said that the Glock is “cocked and unlocked” which is called “condition zero” with the M1911. Anecdotally, we hear of many more “accidental discharges” with Glocks than with M1911 pattern guns. The 1911 has two manual safeties. It may look scary, but it is really much safer than many current designs.
If an M1911 has been butchered internally, all bets are off, and I have seen a couple like that. But if the gun is in good repair, it is safe and will not go off unless the thumb safety is swept off, a firing grip is on the handle, and the trigger is pulled. If you buy a used M1911 pattern pistol, be sure to have it checked out by a competent gunsmith just to insure that the gun has not been modified or made dangerous by a tinkerer and that it is in good working order.
A sideline: of the pistols I have carried, the M1911 is the only one I carry with the safeties engaged. I carry S&W and Beretta DA/SA guns with the safety off. Glocks and wheel guns don’t have a safety at all (and no, I don’t consider the trigger flange on the Glock a real manual safety). In this respect, the cocked and locked M1911 is the safest pistol. It is unique in the fact that it has not one but two manual safeties which have to be acted upon to make the gun fire.
Now, to argue the other direction for just a second, do I feel safer with a true DA/SA with a firing pin block and a manual safety like a S&W or Beretta? Yes, in an absolute sense, I do when I’m in the world of theoretical possibilities, but again, I think this is more a matter of feeling than reality. Some weird combination of events could conspire to take the safety off, push down the grip safety and pull the trigger all at the same time, but I can’t visualize what that circumstance would be. Nevertheless, when I’m backpacking and I know the gun may have to ride in my backpack and flop around in a tent with me, I will often carry a S&W DA/SA just because some of these strange possibilities come to mind. For the purposes for which a gun is needed, I feel safer with the M1911 because I know I’m going to shoot it better and faster than these other options.
I have seen “accidental discharges” with M1911’s, but without exception they have been instances in which the finger was on the trigger or the fire control group had been modified by an incompetent. I have yet to document a single case in which an M1911 simply experienced a catastrophic failure and went off while cocked and locked. And I do hunt for such stories because this is a concern for a lot of people.
Another interesting “safety feature” of the M1911 was first observed by Massad Ayoob. In the event that a bad guy might get your gun away from you, confusion about the controls of the cocked and locked M1911 could cause him enough hesitation to give you a chance to either get the gun back or flee. The current generation of thugs have cut their teeth on double action semi-autos and revolvers and many do not know how the M1911 operates. Ayoob tested this with people who were unfamiliar with pistols by giving them unloaded pistols of various designs and measuring how long it took them to figure out the controls and make the hammer drop. The M1911 proved to be considerably slower to fire than double action guns in the hands of those who are unfamiliar with the gun.
Q: Is the cocked and locked M1911 a problem for people who are new to firearms and want to keep one for home defense?
In my opinion, cocked and locked does not present either a safety or handling problem. In fact, I would be inclined to argue the other way, that it is very intuitive and simple, and very quickly brought into action. 90 years of successful service tends to bear this out. All you have to do is to sweep the thumb safety down with your thumb and the gun is ready to fire. It is a natural motion and people learn it quickly.
Other issues come into play when you’re considering keeping an 1911 loaded for home defense, such as if you have small children in the home and how much access your friends have to your home, but there is nothing inherently dangerous with having a cocked an locked gun at the ready. If you have really small children who are too young to train on firearms safety, then condition 3 – empty chamber – is definitely the way to go because the child will not know to rack the slide to load it and they will lack the strength in their hands and arms to do it. If you are a very social person who has a lot of parties and people running through your house all the time, then you really should wear it, concealed of course, so that the pistol is under your immediate control and you don’t have to worry about someone finding it and doing something stupid. If that’s not possible, lock it up or find a smarter circle of friends who won’t go through your stuff when you’re not looking.
Finally, the real cure for cocked and locked anxiety is to get “un-new” to the gun. Shoot it, get used to it, learn it so that you don’t have to think about it. Familiarity will dispel that anxiety. Get some training if at all possible. Pistols really require some training and practice to use effectively. A good training session with a qualified professional trainer will help to separate the fact from the fantasy about what you can actually do with your pistol when the chips are down.
I feel that the 1911 is the fastest, best shooting pistol which has ever been built, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some other good designs out there. You should be comfortable with your gun, and if you just can’t get over that fear about the cocked hammer, find another gun that feels good to you. I love the 1911 because of the way it shoots, but I had some nervousness with them when I was new to them. Practice and familiarity made it go away.
“Due to misplaced concerns about safety and liability, the police have shunned the Condition One (Cocked and Locked) SA auto, mostly in favor of DA autos that aren’t any easier to use than a DA revolver. Claims that the SA auto is unsafe or requires special training are hogwash, something that too many people accept without challenge. And if you don’t believe it, come see me at any CTASAA course and I’ll prove it to you.” – Chuck Taylor