JANUARY 26, 2016

Editor's Notebook: Condition Three a Bad Idea

"Your pistol is cocked!" I'm sure the officer pictured knows that, it's "Condition One" -- fully loaded, cocked, safety on. Can't tolerate that? Carry another type of gun.
Back in my day, the preeminent auto pistol for duty was the 1911 and variants of that system. While there were other pistols around, the single action hammer-fired pistol was the most commonly seen, followed by the 'traditional double action' Smith & Wesson 39/59 series. The single individual most associated with teaching the use of the modern self-loading pistol was Jeff Cooper and he identified a system of categories describing how the pistol was being carried – as well as specifying how it should be carried. With the 1911 – and variants – the pistol was to be carried chamber loaded, with a loaded magazine in place, the hammer cocked and the thumb safety on. This was Condition One – and the source of serious diaper rash for those who didn't understand the use of the defense handgun. People would tremble in fear at the sight of the cocked hammer – then gleefully go afield in search of winged and furry game with a shotgun that had concealed in its receiver a cocked hammer . . . Condition Two is fully loaded with the hammer down on a loaded chamber. Standard for pistols like the S&W M39/59 series, it was a foolish thing with the 1911 type pistol. The point of this missive is the old Army standard: hammer down on an "empty" chamber with a loaded (or partly) loaded magazine in place. Now more known as "Israeli carry," promulgated there because it was uncommon to find one or two of the same type of pistol in the typical line unit, it's a silly idea for a defense handgun. Over the year-end holiday, a noted industry figure posted a story about the silliness inherent in "chamber-empty" carry of modern semiauto pistols on the internet. The resulting comments were a fog of nonsense, half-truths, and outright falsehoods. An "instructor" posited that not all trainees were capable enough and that there were "no NDs from a gun with an empty chamber" or somesuch. That's not true. We'll explain why that's not true and examine other issues with carrying the half-loaded pistol. While we're about it, an alternative will be explained for those who can't tolerate the idea of a loaded pistol.
This is a 'traditional double action auto,' the S&W 4506, photographed at the factory. The hammer is down on a loaded chamber when being carried -- something impractical on the 1911-format single action pistol.
What's the idea behind the half-loaded gun? It originates before the creation of modern Israel and back into the early revolver days. The revolver, nearly all single-action back in the day, was known for not being 'drop safe.' The solution – don't drop it – isn't helpful because "stuff happens." And it did. It seems the revolvers of the era couldn't tumble from weak grasp or a bobbled draw without landing on the hammer. If the hammer was down on a loaded round, the muzzle would be "up" pointed in a less-than-safe direction. At that time, it was widely known to carry "five beans in the wheel," hammer down on an empty. It made sense. The technology hadn't evolved – and early semiautos were often likewise problematic. Dropping one of those with a loaded chamber could result in an uncontrolled and loud response. Even the "manual safety" of the time wasn't always proof against the gun firing. As we moved into the 1911 and beyond into the double action autos, the loaded chamber problem became a thing of the past. The US Army didn't like loaded firearms, not being cognizant of the fact that Rule 1 -- "all guns are always loaded" -- solves the problem. With long arms – military and sporting – "drop safe" isn't a thing either. Transporting long guns, in a vehicle or on foot, is best done with empty chambers. The passive safeties of the modern semi-auto pistol (and modern design revolvers) make them safer to carry – a good thing as handguns are designed to be carried – in a state of instant readiness. Big Green moved that along to the US Pistol, Caliber .45, Model 1911, et. seq. They liked to give us five rounds of ball and instructions not to let any of them migrate to the chamber. Seeing a cocked hammer would send them into fits of terror. I imagine "x-ray vision" when looking at the M1 Garand would likewise terrify them: you can't see the hammer but it's cocked unless you press the trigger over a dry chamber. Likewise for pump shotguns, the M14, the M16, etc.
Can't tolerate carrying a semi-auto pistol with a loaded chamber? A revolver, like this S&W Model 442, is a relevant option.
It's that cocked hammer that drives people crazy. The modern striker fired pistol is closer to that system than a true "double action" (i.e., trigger-cocking) hammer-fired system. Why is "chamber empty" not safer? (1) There have been few gun accidents where the first utterance wasn't "But . . . it was unloaded!" You operate on the assumption the gun is half-loaded, similar to the issue of a cased gun being unloaded: you tend to treat it differently, as if it was inert. It's not. It's a firearm. It's always loaded. (2) Situationally, getting the gun into action is slower. Don't bore me with Israeli military engagements – they have "acceptable losses," not a valid concept in non-military engagements in CONUS. Example: You roll up to your residence at night, the front door appears to be kicked in. Not being smart enough to leave, but being half-smart you get behind your car to call the police. It might be smart, here in the dark, to have the gun in hand. Cell in one hand, gun in the other. Do the math. Yes, there are ways to rack one-handed, usually trained by those folks who are farther along than the students our previously mentioned instructor trains. (3) A step further: you see headlights coming down the street, it could be the responding officer. Now you have to reholster . . . but the chamber is loaded! Now what? We fumble around in the dark with a loaded gun trying to make it half loaded while John Law is arriving. Now that's a good plan. You can't tolerate wearing a loaded sidearm? Buy and learn how to use a double-action revolver. There's not a thing wrong with them for defense and you don't have to worry about them. Opt for the concealed hammer guns, like S&W Centennials and the Ruger LCR. -- Rich Grassi