Single-Action Autos and “Cocked and Locked” Carry

I have been carrying the Iver Johnson Hard Chrome .38 Super 1911A1 (that I reviewed a few weeks ago) as my uniform duty pistol at my police department for some four weeks now. Combined with the previously reviewed Hogue Laser Enhanced grips and a Blackhawk Serpa Level II duty holster — and stoked with SIG Sauer 125-grain +P V-Crown duty ammo — it makes a formidable package indeed.

There are two main types of single-action semi-automatic pistols. First there are the traditional 1911-type pistols, which have a manual thumb safety (to lock the hammer back) combined with a grip safety, which engages and disengages based on pressure coming from the web of the firing hand. The second type are 1911 variants, which use a manual thumb safety but have no grip safety, such as Browning’s later 1935 9mm Hi-Power.

I carry my Iver Johnson 1911A1 “cocked and locked,” just as John Moses Browning designed it to be carried. For those of you not familiar with the term “cocked and locked,” or Condition One, it means that there is a live round in the chamber, a fully loaded magazine and a cocked hammer, with the manual thumb safety “locked” into the “safe” (up) position.

A cocked and locked single-action pistol is preferred by many (defensive and recreational) shooters because once the thumb safety is disengaged, the shooter is generally treated to a crisp trigger pull in the 4.5- to 6-pound range that can’t be duplicated on pistols that use a trigger safety mechanism like the Glock. This system allows for some extremely precise shooting with practice and is the reason why many folks swear by the single-action 1911-type pistol.

While I have talked about single-action carry and what it means when reviewing handguns like the Iver Johnson, I was prompted to discuss it more in detail after an incident which involved an uninformed person’s questioning of cocked and locked carry at our police department just yesterday.

A citizen had stopped by at our department to get a copy of a report. He looked at my holstered Iver Johnson and said, “Is it safe to carry that gun cocked?” I chuckled quietly because it had finally happened! Someone had noticed I was carrying a pistol with the hammer cocked back! I explained without going into a lot of detail that yes, it was perfectly safe to carry it like that, and that the safety had been applied.

I asked the same question myself many years ago as a trainee at the Licking County Sheriff’s Office while I was going through law enforcement training academy. I had already been working there as a paramedic taking care of jail inmates. Licking County was VERY innovative at the time and allowed deputies to carry either a revolver capable of chambering .38 Special ammunition or a Colt (only game in town then) single-action 1911 .45 automatic cocked and locked. I had decided to carry a blued Smith & Wesson Model 19 .357 Magnum as my duty gun, as I didn’t have any experience with a 1911 Colt back then and felt more comfortable with the revolver.

The lead firearms instructor at the time — a highly respected sergeant — was a big proponent of the 1911, packing one himself. Let me make my first of two declarations concerning this story: Kids, don’t EVER try this at home. We were in the roll-call area one day talking. He asked me if I was going to carry a 1911 on duty when I completed training. I told him — out of ignorance — that I didn’t feel comfortable carrying a pistol cocked and locked. The sergeant told me that a cocked and locked Colt .45 was one of the safest handguns to carry and that they simply don’t go off by accident. Here is the second declaration concerning what was about to happen: I certify and swear this is absolutely true without embellishment! To demonstrate the veracity of this statement, the sergeant drew his fully loaded cocked and locked 1911 from the holster and tossed it underhand onto the top of a metal desk from a distance of around ten feet. “See, it didn’t go off.” Well, one thing for sure, I was convinced that a 1911 was a safe pistol, even if the method to demonstrate it would today get an officer fired.

The main point of the previous story is (disregarding the horrible demonstration method) that cocked and locked Condition One carry, with a mechanically sound pistol, is perfectly safe. Do not carry it in Condition Three (magazine inserted; no round chambered) for defensive use. Those few “experts” who advocate Condition Three carry presume that in a crisis situation, you will have the time and skill necessary to draw the pistol, rack the slide under stress without creating a jam, bring it to bear on the threat and fire it in time to save your life. This technique assumes that your support hand is not out of action and is available to charge the gun. Yeah, yeah, I know, the Israeli Military does it and they are very fast using the technique. But they are an elite unit engaged in military operations wherein the handgun is a secondary weapon. They are not deploying their handguns normally from concealment in a sudden life-or-death encounter. There is no reason to do this. In the world of U.S. law enforcement and citizens with concealed carry permits, it is a dangerous technique with no advantage to the user.

A true 1911 with grip safety is safe to carry in an open-top retention holster such as the Blackhawk Serpa. Even if the thumb safety is knocked off accidentally, the grip safety — combined with a covered trigger guard — ensures there will be no negligent discharges. If one is carrying a 1911 variant without the grip safety (such as the SIG P238 or 938 or the Colt Mustang .380), it is better to carry this type of single-action in a holster that has a retention strap that runs between the hammer and the slide that blocks the firing pin. The retention strap serves the additional safety function filled by a grip safety in a true 1911. In any event, never carry a 1911 — or any handgun for that matter — in a waistband (or anywhere else) without a holster. In Columbus, Ohio, a citizen was adjusting the position of a pistol worn without a holster in his waistband. He managed to pull the trigger as part of the process, striking his femoral artery. He bled out before he could get help.

With proper care and attention to detail, a single-action pistol carried cocked and locked is at no greater risk of a negligent discharge than any other semi-automatic pistol design. In fact, the risk is actually less — particularly with a 1911 equipped with a grip safety. Don’t be alarmed if you see one, and don’t take offense if someone else is alarmed by your pistol. Be a good ambassador and explain the safety features inherent in this timeless design.

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