There Are Many different styles, but none
work as well as the one between your ears.
Ever since the invention of mechanical firearm “locks,” now known as actions, inventors have been devising ways to keep rifles from going “bang” unintentionally. This wasn’t much problem when guns were fired by sticking a burning fuse through a touchhole to contact the powder (the origin of “fire in the hole!”), but eventually shooters depended on a hammer staying back even when they tripped.
So far no safety has proven totally foolproof, because part of the human condition is foolish behavior, which is the reason for the first rule of firearms safety: Don’t point the muzzle at something you can’t afford to shoot. (Often this is stated as “don’t ever point the muzzle at something you don’t intend to destroy,” but it’s impossible to carry a firearm without pointing it at something—and even if we point it at the sky, the bullet will land somewhere.)
The vast majority of so-called accidental shootings of humans are caused by violating this rule, including many ending up in lawsuits against firearms companies. One here in Montana involved somebody shooting through a trailer and killing somebody else, but apparently the majority of our accidental shootings occur inside or just outside a pickup’s cab, partly because it’s legal to have the chamber loaded, unlike some other states where even a loaded magazine is outlawed inside a vehicle.
I’m not lobbying for changing Montana’s firearms laws since they’re remarkably free of the big-brotherism of many states. As an example, we can use any darn cartridge we want on big game, because our legislators believe anybody out to kill a deer or elk knows what works. But we do have quite a few people die when their buddy pulls his “unloaded” rifle off the rack on the pickup’s window, and one fatality occurred when a road-hunter drove off the road and his rifle bounced out of the gun rack and shot him. This might seem to disprove the axiom “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” but the rifle didn’t drive the pickup off the road.
All of these instances prove another axiom, that a firearm’s real safety isn’t mechanical but between our ears. With that established, let’s look at hunting rifle safeties.
Probably the first was the half-cock position on the outside hammer of flintlocks, allowing the pan to be primed without the hammer back at full-cock, ready to fall. A half-cock notch became even more important after the invention of the percussion cap and, soon thereafter, the cartridge primer. It quickly became obvious that walking around with the hammer on a cap or primer was an invitation for an unintended boom!
The safety on the Lee-Enfield actually draws the cocking piece back.
Many hunters consider the Winchester Model 70’s safety the most
perfect on any bolt-action hunting rifle, but it has flaws.
The simplest safety for hammerless rifles is a button in the
triggerguard, preventing the trigger blade from being pulled back.
Half-cock positions require an extra, shallow notch on the hammer. If the notch becomes worn, or the hammer’s whacked hard, the hammer can still fall—the origin of the phrase “going off half-cocked.” This is half the reason many modern outside-hammer lever-action rifles have an additional safety. The other half’s because an outside hammer can slip from under the shooter’s thumb, especially when wet. Of course this would never happen to you or me, but apparently has occurred sometime in human history.
Other safety mechanisms became necessary after “hammerless” actions appeared, and it’s probably not coincidence that many early safeties were pulled back like a hammer to allow the rifle to fire. The ZKK rifles made by Brno in Czechoslovakia had these “backwards” safeties, and the smaller centerfires and rimfires made by CZ still do.
Most safeties for hammerless rifles (but not all) are either trigger blockers or firing-pin holders. Almost all non-bolt-action rifles have trigger block safeties, ranging from simple cross-bolts in the triggerguard to the sliding safety on the lever of older Savage 99’s, acting both as a trigger block and lever lock. (It’s also one of the “backward” safeties: Sliding it back means the rifle’s ready to fire.)
On bolt actions it’s relatively easy to arrange for the safety to hold the firing pin back. One of the clumsiest safeties in existence, in fact, is the cocking knob on the rear of the Mosin-Nagant’s firing pin. In use, the knob’s pulled back and given a little left-hand twist then let down in a detent that holds the firing pin back and locks the bolt, preventing it from opening. To make the rifle ready to fire again, the shooter must pull the knob back and twist it to the firing position. This not only requires some strength—many people can’t do it while holding the rifle at their shoulder—but is pretty slow, and wide-open to the possibility of the knob slipping from the shooter’s grasp.
In the old days, in order for the safety to work without modification,
scopes were often mounted above (left) as on this 98 Mauser or forward
of the safety (right) as this M1903 Springfield.
Many modern bolt rifles feature safeties on the trigger mechanism.
One of the handiest safeties on a bolt-action rifle was the tang
model on the original Ruger 77, which also locked the bolt down.
The safety on the M1903 Springfield was copied from the 98 Mauser,
but you can tell this is a Springfield sporter since the safety is
marked in English, and of course, the magazine cutoff.
Far easier and refined is the safety often identified with Mauser actions, a lever on the bolt shroud that both cams the firing pin back and locks the bolt down. Normally the Mauser lever has three positions: To the right is safe/bolt locked, standing up in the middle is safe/bolt unlocked and left is ready to fire.
The middle position also allows the bolt to be easily fieldstripped: Just pull the bolt out and put a little pressure on the bolt plunger and the entire shroud, safety and firing pin assembly can be unscrewed from the bolt body for cleaning, or even replacement of the firing pin or mainspring. However, the 3-position Mauser safety also tends to get in the way of a scope, the reason little aftermarket safety levers have been on the market for at least a century. These replace the standard safety lever, but eliminate the middle position.
Half-cock positions on outside hammers were among the first safeties.
Sauer’s 303 semi-auto
Merkel K-series single shot both feature tang safeties that also
cock—and uncock—the firing mechanism.
The Model 70 Winchester
The Mauser system was copied on many bolt actions over the years, including the 1903 Springfield and Model 54 Winchester. The Model 70 Winchester safety is a horizontal version, allowing a scope to be mounted low over the action while retaining the middle safety position. Some consider the Model 70 version of the Mauser safety absolutely perfect, but others aren’t quite so fond of it since pushing the lever from the rear position (safe/bolt locked) to fire requires considerable movement and can also make considerable noise. Consequently, the lever’s often pushed to the middle position when approaching game—or following wounded game.
But in the middle position the bolt handle can be lifted partway by accident, enough that the rifle won’t always go bang when the trigger’s pulled, since the firing pin’s fall loses some zip. And in some rifles, whether Winchesters or other fitted with M70-type safeties, lifting the bolt handle slightly blocks the safety from moving forward when needed. This has happened to a few people over the years when following angry bears and Cape buffalo and doesn’t help the situation.
Quite a few fans of the Model 70 safety point out the fieldstripping feature. I’ve had several of my 98 Mauser hunting rifles fitted with a Gentry Model 70-style safety for this very reason, carrying an extra firing pin and mainspring in remote areas provides cheap insurance against a mechanical problem. (A thick Ziploc bag holds not only those parts but a spare military 98 trigger and bolt-stop/ejector assembly.) Guess how many times I’ve used the spare parts in three decades of hunting with various 98 Mausers? Zero—but it would sure be easy to do.
The original Savage 99 features a sliding safety on the lever,
blocking the trigger and locking the lever.
The CZ Model 527 has one of the few “backward” safeties on bolt
actions today. This is the “fire” position.
The safety on the new Sauer 101 is a “tang” model on the bolt shroud
with an additional button that must be depressed for the safety to
move. It also locks the firing pin back.
This Nosler-Noveske AR-15 has a lever requiring less
movement than the standard 3-position safety on ARs.
Some rifles have firing-pin-blocking safeties located beside the bolt shroud. One early example is the Lee-Enfield, with its safety on the left side, while the Model 1917 Enfield has its safety on the right. The late Col. Jeff Cooper said he much preferred the 1917’s safety to the Mauser or Model 70 safety because it didn’t require nearly as much movement, or stick out very far, inviting something to catch on the lever. The 1917’s bolt could also be easily fieldstripped by leaving the safety on when closing the action, keeping the cocking piece far enough to the rear for a penny or other small object to be inserted in the gap. After the bolt was removed, the bolt shroud and firing pin could be unscrewed in the same way as with the Mauser or Winchester safety.
Today’s CZ 550 action has an unobtrusive safety much like the 1917 Enfield’s, but fieldstripping is easier: Push a little button on the left side of the bolt shroud and the assembly can be unscrewed. The latest Mauser bolt action, the Model 12 primarily designed for the American market, also has a quick system: Put the Model 70-style safety in the middle position, remove the bolt from the action, press the spring-loaded retaining pin on the front edge of the shroud then turn the shroud toward the bolt handle. The innards essentially spring into your hand. (On the other hand, the imitation Model 70-style safety on the present Ruger Hawkeye isn’t mounted on the bolt shroud, but the side of the action tang. It holds the firing pin back, and has a middle position for opening the bolt with the safety on, but doesn’t allow fieldstripping.)
The former GUNS staffer named Elmer Keith firmly believed the best safety for any long gun was the classic sliding tang-button found on most double-barreled shotguns because it could be easily pushed forward to “fire” while raising the gun to shoot. However, most tang safeties are trigger-block only, though on better double rifles (and shotguns) there’s often a secondary, intercepting sear preventing a discharge if the trigger gets jarred loose, sort of like an after-the-fact half-cock.
Quite a few bolt rifles have tang safeties these days, including inexpensive models like the Ruger American. This is interesting because the original Ruger 77 had a handy tang safety that also locked the bolt down, while the American’s does not. Few safeties on rifles made in the US lock the bolt anymore, apparently because too many people sue firearms companies when they run cartridges through the action to unload the rifle, in the process somehow tripping the trigger. (I don’t know why they feel compelled to shove each round all the way into the chamber and turn the bolt handle down when “unloading” a rifle, but I’ve seen it dozens of times.)
Many shooters prefer having the bolt locked down when the safety’s on, both to make sure the bolt handle doesn’t rise inadvertently and, if they’re carrying the rifle slung over their shoulder, to prevent the bolt from opening all the way, dropping the chambered round on the ground. Personally, I don’t usually sling chamber-loaded rifles over my shoulder much, preferring to have them in my hands where the muzzle’s direction can be controlled.
There have been exceptions, however, especially when packing out game in grizzly country. Once was in the Northwest Territories, when I packed out the antlers and boned meat of a caribou I’d just killed to an outboard boat while my guide and hunting partner boned out the bull my partner had just killed. The sun was sinking, more than one grizzly had been seen in the area, and my rifle was a single-shot Merkel K-1 in .308 Winchester—not the ideal grizzly-defense rifle, but far better than no rifle at all.
Unfortunately, to be reasonably quick to shoot, single-shots have to be carried with a round in the chamber, but I felt safe with the Merkel because, like a few other European rifles, the tang “safety” also cocks the action. The cocking safety takes slightly more effort to slide forward, but when on safe the rifle can’t fire. It’s easily decocked by pushing forward on the safety again.
European rifle designers, especially Germans, tend to be more imaginative about safeties than most Americans. The new Sauer 101 bolt-action has a “tang” safety on top of the bolt shroud, with an extra button on top, and can’t be moved unless the button is also pushed. Oh, and the safety also blocks the firing pin and locks the bolt down.
The tang safety on the Ruger No. 1 single-shot is a trigger-blocker, but the lever on a No. 1 remains locked unless the shooter also presses on the secondary panel on top of the lever handle, allowing the action to be opened with the safety still on. (The simple lever on the discontinued Ruger No. 3 didn’t have the secondary panel, so it could flop open.) One interesting aspect of the No. 1 is that due to the tang safety and lack of a cheekpiece, it’s one of the few perfectly ambidextrous rifles made—but then Bill Ruger was aware of the problems of left-handers, because he was one.
The most startling accidental discharges occur when the rifle goes bang as the safety is pushed off, but once in a great while this is a virtue. Jim Corbett, the famous British hunter who spent most of his career in India, describes in his great book Man-Eaters of Kumaon a stalk ending up only a few feet from a sleeping tiger. Corbett knew the click of the safety on his .450/.400 double rifle would awaken the tiger, perhaps preventing an accurate shot, so pressed the front trigger while aiming, then pushed the safety forward to fire the rifle, ending the life of yet another man-eater.
By John Barsness