Texas Ranger Charlie Miller was minding his own business when a concerned citizen came up to him, noted the hammer cocked back on the big 1911 dangling from the Ranger’s belt, and asked, “Isn’t that dangerous?” Charlie replied, “I wouldn't carry the son-of-a-bitch if it wasn't dangerous.”
The sight of a cocked-and-locked single-action auto gives some people the willies. It just looks too ready for action, like a hungry lion lowered on its big paws in preparation for a lunge at Bambi’s throat. A hammerless Glock looks downright peaceful in comparison, as does a double-action auto with its hammer at rest, even though both can be fired just as quickly.
You need not concern yourself with what your gun might look like to other people since it’s concealed from their view. But you do need to be confident that the pistol in your holster is both safe and ready, going into action instantly and instinctively with no fumbling or uncertainties on your part, and safely returning to your holster when its job is done.
It is possible to carry a 1911-pattern single-action auto in three very different conditions. These conditions have parallels in safe-action Glocks, double-action/single-action autos and double-action-only pistols.
Chamber empty, hammer down. This requires you to manually cycle the slide before firing. To return the gun to its carry position after firing, you have to drop the magazine, empty the chamber, drop the hammer, reload and reinsert the magazine, all without shooting an innocent bystander.
Condition Three is a dangerous sop to the excessively squeamish who can’t stand the sight of a firearm that looks like it might be useable. Do not carry your pistol with an empty chamber. Because it is a giant step away from coming to your rescue, it poses a hazard to you and those around you, though not particularly to the criminal who might be attacking you. You would be better advised to carry a baseball bat, which you are more likely to be able to operate under stress than an unready gun.
Chamber loaded, hammer down. On a 1911, this requires you to cock the hammer with your thumb before firing. It also requires you to very carefully pull the trigger as you use your other hand to lower the hammer over a loaded chamber before returning the gun to its holster. The technique for manipulating a Condition Two carry is best practiced out in the country in a freshly plowed field, where the bullets will not ricochet off the pavement or the occasional rock every time you re-holster your weapon.
Carrying a 1911 in Condition Two is comparable to carrying a double-action auto with its counter-intuitive manual safety in the on position. Both place an awkward and unnecessary step between you and survival.
Cocked and locked. Chamber loaded, hammer cocked, thumb safety on. This requires you to snick the safety down before firing and snick it back up when you’re finished, a test of manual dexterity that can be learned by any creature equipped with opposing thumbs and probably by a few equipped with paws or hooves instead.
A 1911 in Condition One is comparable to a Glock, which is always in a semi-cocked condition when a round is in the chamber anyway, and the initial pull of the “small trigger” performs the same function as the thumb safety of a 1911. It’s also comparable to any variety of double-action auto with the safety off, as the trigger pull cocks the hammer and fires the gun in one single motion, though the long and cumbersome double-action trigger pull is designed neither for control nor accuracy.
The greatest benefit of cocked-and-locked carry in a 1911, besides instant readiness, is the excellent trigger control it makes possible since the only job the trigger must perform is to simply drop the hammer. No other type of semiautomatic can provide the precise and consistent trigger pull of a 1911, a trigger pull as fine as can be achieved with the best revolvers, readily available to the shooter with the thumbing down of the safety lever.
Condition One is obviously the fastest way to get your 1911 into action, the least prone to mistakes, the most direct path to precise trigger control, and by far the safest way to carry and operate the gun. It is, therefore, the only way.
That John Browning intended the 1911 to be carried in Condition One is evidenced by the fact that a major feature of the gun is the thumb safety. There is no earthly use for the thumb safety -– the part doesn’t even function -– unless the hammer is cocked.
It should also be noted that the up/safe, down/fire operation of the single-action 1911 thumb safety is natural, intuitive and proper. Just to be contrary about it, Walther, who invented the double-action/single-action mechanism with the little Polizei Pistole in 1929, and Smith & Wesson, who eventually copied the mechanism and has tried with some success to promote it to the American public and the law enforcement community ever since, went out of their ways to reverse the safety procedure. On a double action auto, the thumb lever up means ready to fire (requiring only a very long and awful trigger pull), thumb lever down drops the hammer on a firing pin block (or right through the block onto the firing pin, an explosive occurrence which is not unknown, especially with some earlier aluminum-frame Smiths). To be fair, it wasn’t Carl Walther who designed the double-action PP, it was his son Fritz. Some kids just never learn.
It’s popular for gunwriters to say that the proper operation of a 1911 pistol requires more training than other guns. As usual, the popular gunwriters have things the other way around. While the operation of anything at all requires some training to ingrain the proper muscle memory, the 1911’s single-action mechanism is easier to learn than the double-action/single-action system because it is less complex and more instinctive.
Bob Young, former Vice President of Operations at Arizona’s Gunsite Academy, recently told me that back in the days when he was a US Marine Corps colonel teaching recruits how to shoot 1911s, it took him 4½ days and 500 rounds of ammunition to train a 19-year-old Marine to draw his .45 from a tied-down GI flap holster and shoot an adversary twice at seven yards in two seconds flat, including the draw. When he taught Berettas -– whose double-action/single-action mechanism operates in two different modes requiring two different grips and two different trigger pulls – it took another entire day and an additional 300 rounds and Young never said whether that 19-year-old Marine could pull off the same two-second routine at the end of it.
Jeff Cooper, who revolutionized handgun shooting techniques four decades ago, dubbed double-action/single-action autos “crunchentickers” because the first double-action shot is a crunch and the follow-up single-action shots are ticks. Faced with this kind of mechanical schizophrenia, the shooter often tosses his first shot somewhere out in left field, notwithstanding the fact that “It’s the first shot that counts” -– a reminder often repeated by Max Joseph, founder and head instructor of Tactical Firearms Training Team in Southern California.
While there is no problem at all in applying 1911 training to pistols devoid of thumb safeties, such as the Glock and the new derivative generation of trigger-cocking double-action-only autos, there are severe and potentially deadly problems involved when you try to apply that training to double-action/single-action pistols with upside-down thumb safeties that operate backward. Is it any wonder that soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq have been known to hurl their Berettas at the enemy and trade cold hard cash and all the fruitcakes and love letters from home for 1911s at every opportunity?
Here’s one final bit of advice to those who believe the 1911 carried in Condition One is somehow out to get them. In addition to your normal carry pistol, shove a cocked and locked, and unloaded, 1911 in a holster or your underwear or wherever. Check it several times a day to see if it has surreptitiously disengaged its own safety and pulled its own trigger when you weren’t looking. After several weeks or months or years of this, draw your own conclusion.