Living With The Cocked and Locked Pistol

“Cocked and locked.” In firearms parlance, the term connotes a live round in the chamber of a fully loaded gun, the hammer (or striker) cocked, and a (normally thumb-operated) manual safety engaged in the “safe” position. In the parlance coined by the late Col. Jeff Cooper, USMC retired and an advocate of the practice, cocked and locked on a loaded chamber is Condition One, as opposed to Condition Two (hammer down on a live round) and Condition Three (full magazine, empty chamber).

Back in the 20th Century, the term “KISS Principle” came into vogue.  It stood for “Keep It Simple, Stupid!”  Law enforcement agencies from FBI to NYPD and beyond forbade their rank and file armed personnel to carry “on-safe” pistols, on the theory that they would fail to disengage the safety in an emergency and die holding a gun that wouldn’t shoot. The theory spread to the armed citizen sector and remains there to this day.

Over the decades, I’ve challenged readers in police magazines and gun magazines to show me a case where this actually happened to an officer who was qualified with a pistol carried on-safe. The closest I’ve come has been one questionable case in Texas where the officer was found dead with his on-safe Colt Government out of its holster, but there was only conjecture as to whether he had forgotten to off-safe, or was killed before he could do so and shoot back.

As time went on, I found a few cases of failures to off-safe that caused the good guys to fail to win their fights. The first was a jeweler who bought a Walther PPK .380 which he carried on-safe (not cocked, but locked). He drew it on an armed robber, forgot to off-safe, and his gun remained silent when he pulled the trigger. The robber shot him down with his revolver. The jeweler survived; bought a .38 revolver (which, for him, was probably the right thing to do); and admitted that he had never practiced drawing and off-safing his revolver. When questioned about this, he replied defensively, “I’m not Rambo.”

Sigh…

Later, I met a senior detective in a large Midwestern metropolis. A gun guy, the investigator kept tabs on armed citizens who fired in self-defense during armed robbery, rape, and murder attempts. He in fact found a few cases of armed citizens who lost fights because they forgot to off-safe. He also found cases of armed citizens who lost because they drew semi-automatic pistols they carried with empty chambers, and either (a) forgot to rack a round into the chamber when they drew; (b) took too long to do so; or (c) fumbled and jammed their pistols while trying to chamber a round.

What all of those people had in common, the empty chamber people and the forgot-to-off-safe people, was the same thing that got the jeweler I mentioned above shot by his antagonist: They had not practiced drawing, off-safing, and firing their pistols!

1911 pistol in hand, thumb on safety
Ready position suggested by instructor Winston Dill: thumb pushing up holding 1911’s safety “on” until the decision to fire is made.

In the Land of the Serious Shooters…

Right up there with “Don’t eat the yellow snow” should be “Don’t carry a gun you aren’t sufficiently familiar with to operate reflexively.” The first commitment one has to make to cocked and locked carry is to absolutely drill on the use of the thumb safety. It should be on-safe all the time, except when it’s time to shoot. Now, let’s be specific there. “Off-safe when you’re ready to shoot” may be too nebulous a piece of advice. In one sense, we should be “ready to shoot” from the moment we strap the darn thing on. A better rule would be, “Off-safe only when you intend to fire the pistol immediately!”

The handgun most commonly carried cocked and locked is the 1911 pattern, but we also see a resurgence in the Browning P-35 design, triggered by Springfield Armory’s introduction of their excellent copy, the SA-35. Many users of the CZ 75 design carry it cocked and locked because, unlike many double action pistols with manual safeties, its thumb lever is ergonomically placed, and because the CZ’s trigger is too far forward for many shooters in its double action position.

Once cocked, the pistol will have a short, easy trigger pull. Good news: that makes it easy to shoot. Bad news: that makes it easy to shoot. A nervous finger which migrates to such a trigger without the brain realizing it under stress can become a negligent discharge waiting to happen. The saying in the old days was “You have to be really, really careless to accidentally discharge on double action, and only a little bit careless for just one second to do so with a cocked, off-safe semiautomatic pistol.” True then, true now.

1911 pistol with firing hand thumb resting on lever.
Author’s preferred cocked and locked ready: safety “on,” firing hand thumb resting on lever.

There’s another double-edged sword element with cocked and locked. We’ve already mentioned that in untrained, unpracticed hands the less-dedicated user may forget to off-safe and fail to fire when they desperately need to. But the sharp edge of the on-safe sword that favors the user is this: history shows that if a bad guy gets the gun away from you, he’ll probably have to fumble for a while to find the safety and “turn on the killing machine.”

Back in 1981 or so, Police Chief magazine published a study done by a Florida department that was considering a change from the .38 Special service revolver to the Colt .45 auto. A test panel of non-sworn, unarmed employees was assembled, some of whom had firearms experience and some of whom didn’t.  A Model 64 S&W .38 revolver and a cocked and locked 1911 auto were placed in front of them, both loaded, along with a close-range silhouette target. They were told, “You are the would-be cop-killer. You have disarmed him. Pick up a gun and shoot the target.” They were able to do so in an average time of 1.2 seconds with the revolver, if memory serves…and averaged almost 18 full seconds to figure out which lever “turned on” the auto, and fire a shot. Similar testing by writer Duane Thomas and others in later years produced similar results.

Safely holstering cocked and locked SW1911
Safely holstering cocked-and-locked SW1911 .45 in Milt Sparks IWB. Finger straight, thumb restrains hammer, grip safety activated by this grasp.

Life-saving advantage? You bet.

Consider that when going into danger, the AR15 is cocked and locked, the thumb ready to perform the exact same movement as with an on-safe 1911 or P-35. Cocked and locked is how most hunters carry a rifle or shotgun when the gun is in hand in the field. What makes it scary with a pistol is that with its exposed hammer, people can see that the hammer is cocked.

a 1911 and an AR-15 with thumbs on safeties
Cocked and locked safety manipulation is essentially the same between the 1911-style pistol and AR15 rifle.

In concealed carry, of course, that’s not a problem. As a young patrolman with the first cocked and locked Colt .45 auto on the department, I heard more than one brother officer exclaim in shock, “Your gun is cocked!” I finally solved that by putting a Don Hume hammer protector on the safety strap, a piece of leather shaped like a tiny boomerang originally designed to keep service revolver hammer spurs from tearing up uniform jackets. It covered the hammer area nicely, didn’t slow the draw at all, and offered the extra bonus of keeping rain, snow, and dust off the firing pin area that of course was exposed in open carry with the hammer back.

Cocked and locked pistol carry isn’t for everyone, but those of us who swear by it have good reasons for doing so.

Four different 1911 pistols
Different cocked and locked 9mm platforms. From left: Wilson Combat SFT9, S&W CSX, Springfield SA-35, Springfield 1911-A1.
Massad "Mas" Ayoob is a well respected and widely regarded SME in the firearm world. He has been a writer, editor, and law enforcement columnist for decades, and has published thousands of articles and dozens of books on firearms, self-defense, use of force, and related topics. Mas, a veteran police officer, was the first to earn the title of Five Gun Master in the International Defensive Pistol Association. He served nearly 20 years as chair of the Firearms Committee of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers and is also a longtime veteran of the Advisory Bard of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. A court-recognized expert witness in shooting cases since 1979, Ayoob founded the Lethal Force Institute in 1981 and served as its director until 2009. He continues to instruct through Massad Ayoob Group, http://massadayoobgroup.com.

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