Should You Carry With a Round in the Chamber?

The short answer is “yes”, with any pistol designed after World War II.

Concealed-carry novices often ask this because it seems dangerous to carry a pistol with its firing pin aligned with a live cartridge. If the pin should accidentally slam forward, won’t it fire the cartridge with potentially horrible results? For example, if the back of the pistol (the exposed hammer, say) were hit hard (by being dropped muzzle-up, for instance), would that not drive the hammer into the firing pin and the pin into the cartridge? Even without an exposed hammer, would not dropping a pistol muzzle-down force the firing pin into the cartridge by inertia?

Although such fears were well-founded with pistols designed over a half-century ago, they are no longer valid. Modern pistols have mechanisms that stop the firing pin from touching a cartridge unless the trigger is pulled. Consider revolvers and semi-automatics separately.

Revolvers

 

Single-action revolvers of the type used in the late 19th century require you to manually cock the hammer before firing, The firing pin is affixed to the face of the hammer. Even if the hammer is not cocked, its firing pin can still contact the cartridge in the top-center cylinder chamber. Such revolvers would fire if dropped on the hammer with a loaded chamber under the hammer. Cowboys soon learned to load only five rounds into their six-shooter, leaving the top-center chamber empty. The above photo shows a single-action Colt revolver model 1873 (Peacemaker). Note the firing pin on the hammer.

For over a century, pistol instructors told their students to carry their revolvers with an empty chamber under the hammer. The effects of this now-obsolete training can still be seen. In this video clip¬†from the Big Fish Films movie “Five Minutes of Heaven”, a teenaged Northern-Irish Protestant terrorist loads a revolver before setting out to murder an Irish Catholic. Evidently, he was trained as described above.

In fact, the young man in the above video could safely have loaded all six chambers. He is using a double-action Smith and Wesson .38 special. As in all modern revolvers, the firing pin is separate from the hammer. The pistol has two mechanisms to prevent accidental discharge. First, the firing pin is blocked from protruding out of the frame by a piece that retracts out of the way when you pull the trigger. Second, another blocking part stops the hammer from falling until you pull the trigger.

Both Colt and S&W use this blocking system. Ruger’s approach is equally effective. In a Ruger, the hammer does not strike the pin directly, but instead hits a transfer bar, which then strikes the pin. In the normal condition, the transfer bar is out of position, so a hammer-fall would strike air. Pulling the trigger slides the transfer bar into position to be struck by the hammer and so to strike the pin.

Semiautomatic Pistols

Austrian engineer Gaston Glock created a semi-automatic pistol design that has been copied by many other manufacturers. It has two mechanisms to block the firing pin from moving forward unless the trigger is pulled.

First, a spring-loaded cylindrical piece slides vertically into position in front of the firing pin when the trigger is released. It blocks the firing pin from moving forward. Pulling the trigger moves the blockage out of the way.

Second, the trigger bar itself engages a stud on the rear of the “striker” (internal hammer), stopping it from moving forward to touch the firing pin. This bar also retracts out of the way when you pull the trigger. Smith & Wesson model M&P and Springfield model XD have similar mechanisms. In addition, the XD’s rear strap must also be squeezed in order for the gun to fire (you squeeze the grip automatically when you pull the trigger normally). Other semiautomatic pistols (Kahr, Kel Tec) have safety mechanisms similar to revolvers.

Condition One

The .45 ACP model 1911, designed by John Browning and marketed by Colt during the Philippine Insurrection, has many descendants and various models. It has more external controls and levers than modern semiautomatics. Because of its complexity, famed instructor Col. Jeff Cooper devised a numbering system defining its “condition”.

  • Condition 0: round in chamber, hammer cocked, safety off
  • Condition 1: round in chamber, hammer cocked, safety on
  • Condition 2: round in chamber, hammer uncocked
  • Condition 3: empty chamber, hammer uncocked
  • Condition 4: empty chamber, no magazine in weapon

Most of Cooper’s designations have been forgotten. But one of his “condition” numbers is still used in a nontraditional way. The practice of carrying a semiautomatic pistol with a cartridge in the chamber is often called “condition one” nowadays. Purists dislike this word usage because it differs from Cooper’s definition. They point out that three of Cooper’s original conditions (0, 1, 2) have a round in the chamber, although Cooper considered conditions 0 and 2 unsafe for routine carry of a 1911. Also, modern semiautomatics based on Glock’s design (including the Springfield XD) lack a manually operated safety lever. So in Cooper’s terms they are normally carried in condition zero. Nevertheless, language changes despite the purists, and “condition one” has come to mean “with a round in the chamber”.

Recommended Guns

I cannot advise whether to carry a modern 1911 descendant with a round in the chamber because there are many variants of the design (series 80 and later changed drop safety), and because I do not advise carrying a 1911 as a self-defense pistol. Under the law, you cannot use deadly force unless you have been attacked or are about to be attacked. And in my opinion, when you are under attack is not a suitable moment to be flipping levers or pulling slides.

For self-defense, I recommend your carrying a pistol that will fire when you simply pull the trigger, nothing more. My first choice would be a semiautomatic of Glock design, including the S&W M&P and Springfield XD as well as Glock itself. My second choice would be a double-action only semiautomatic like Kahr or Kel Tec. My third choice would be a modern double-action revolver comparable to a .38 special S&W J-frame.

Carry With a Round in the Chamber

Due to your loss of fine motor control when under stress, I urge you to carry your self-defense handgun with a round in the chamber (or in every revolver chamber), so that you must only pull the trigger to save your life. For example, the following security video shows a 71-year-old customer defending himself against two armed robbers with what appears to be a Kahr. Note that he simply draws, points, and shoots, with no extra manipulation.

Some believe that with practice, they can draw, rack the slide, and/or flip a safety lever almost as fast others can draw their pistol. The fallacy is that stress-free practice and being shot at are different situations. It is not unlikely that you would need one hand to fend off an attack by knife, club, or axe. It is also not unlikely that you will have already been injured, weakening one arm. Either way, you would have to draw and shoot with one hand. For example, the following video shows a shop owner being murdered by an armed robber while trying to rack the slide on his handgun.


For more examples of victims being injured while trying to flip a lever or rack a slide under stress, see this article by Masaad Ayoob.

The Israeli Military and Others

Some nations’ military organizations require soldiers to carry handguns with an empty chamber. This is because they must train tens of thousands of unskilled teenagers very quickly. Specifically, the Israeli Defense Force was originally formed as a guerilla organization supplied with a staggering array of different weapons of differing ages, in differing states of repair, and at differing stages of obsolescence. The only safety instruction that works for every weapon in every recruit’s hands is to carry with an empty chamber. Indeed, to this day IDF recruits carry their rifles without magazines inserted.

In short, military forces follow the NRA’s third rule of gun safety:

NRA Rule 3 — ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.

In the military, a gun is not readied for use until preparing for combat. But an armed citizens’ self-defense handgun should be ready for use instantly, all the time.

Negligent Discharge

As explained above, it is virtually impossible for any of the recommended guns (Glock design, modern double-action semiautomatic, or modern double-action revolver) to fire unless the trigger is pulled. This is because in modern handguns, the cartridge is shielded from firing-pin contact by a blocking piece of steel that retracts only when the trigger is pulled. Drop such a gun in any position, pound it to destruction, do what you will short of burning it in a fire; a round in the chamber will not fire unless the trigger is pulled.

This does not mean that modern guns cannot go off “accidentally”. They can and often do fire “accidentally”. In every case it is because someone “accidentally” pulled the trigger. This brings up the NRA’s second rule of gun safety:

NRA Rule 2 — ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.

The two most common negligent discharge scenarios are carrying the gun with its trigger exposed and trying to catch it when dropped.

The trigger is exposed if you carry a gun not in a trigger-covering holster, such as stuck in your waistband or in a pocket. In such cases, anything touching the gun risks pulling the trigger. This news article tells of man in the cashier line at Walmart who reached into his pocket for change and accidentally pulled the trigger of his gun, injuring himself, a woman bystander, and a child.¬†Fortunately, no one was killed. This is because the negligent gun owner pulled the trigger while it was pointing towards the floor. This brings up the NRA’s first rule of gun safety:

NRA Rule 1 — ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.

The second negligent discharge scenario is usually reported by the newsmedia with the quotation, “It went off when I dropped it!” Investigation into the details of such news reports reveals that the negligent gun owner tried to catch the falling gun, to avoid damaging either the gun or the expensive floor. In trying to catch it, the owner’s finger slipped into the trigger guard and pulled the trigger. The moral of the story? There are two. First, if you drop your gun, let it fall; any damage will cost less than a negligent discharge. Second. do not believe anything that the mainstream newsmedia reports about guns.

Conclusion

Dr. Sweet’s grandfatherly advice: Carry a modern gun (Glock design, modern double-action semiautomatic, or modern double-action revolver). Carry it with a round in the chamber, so that you can draw and pull the trigger with no added manipulation. Carry it in a holster that protects the trigger. Don’t touch the trigger for any reason other than to shoot.

Next Time: Why Do Blacks Advocate Gun Control?


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Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to fwsweet@ccwvslaw.org. The information above should not be construed as legal advice.


Other Backintyme sites: Essays on the U.S. Color Line Armed Citizens and the Law
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