You can’t fix a software problem with hardware
By Mike Wood
In a recent LA Times op-ed piece (“Why The Police Shouldn’t Use Glocks,” May 7, 2015), a respected member of the gun community caused a firestorm when he argued that law enforcement officers shouldn’t carry modern, striker-fired pistols (such as the popular Glock) because they were “accident-prone,” especially under stress. The author, Bob Owens, argued that the short travel of these triggers, combined with the lack of a mechanical safety independent of the trigger, makes them unsuitable for general issue to officers who are likely to place their finger on the trigger during moments of peak stress, perhaps without even realizing it. As a substitute, Mr. Owens suggested issuing a traditional Double/Single Action (DA/SA) design, which would largely overcome these weaknesses in his view.
With all due respect to Mr. Owens and his opinion, I disagree with his argument. I understand his concerns about human performance and reactions under stress, and share many of those same concerns. In fact, I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort researching and writing about the effects of combat stress on physiology and performance, but I disagree with his conclusions on the best way to deal with these challenges.
In my opinion, Mr. Owens is trying to find a “hardware” solution to a “software” problem, and although he describes the focus on training as “utterly irrelevant” in his commentary about the original piece, I think he has it backward. I think his focus on technology is the truly irrelevant issue, and his suggested fix creates as many problems as it solves.
In his article, Mr. Owens made the claim that about 20 percent of police officers put their fingers on the triggers of their guns when they shouldn’t, and I believe that is a credible figure. In fact, it might even be too low of an estimate. My own study of the New York Police Department (NYPD) data from 1999-2011 indicates that the ratio of reported “Accidental” or “Unintentional Discharges” to “Intentional Discharges” occurring during “Adversarial Conflict” with a perpetrator varied from a low of 30.6 percent to a high of 63.6 percent, with the average at 44.9 percent for the entire period. Additionally, looking strictly at the Accidental/Unintentional Discharges, an average of 25.9 percent of the 13-year total occurred while the officer was struggling with the suspect.
While it would not be valid to extrapolate the NYPD experience to the nation as a whole, it’s instructive that the officers on this department fired their guns accidentally almost half as much as they fired them at suspects, and that at least a quarter of the accidental discharges occurred during enforcement actions, not administrative handling. These numbers indicate what we already know, namely that officers sometimes place their fingers on the triggers of their weapons during stressful and violent encounters when they feel threatened. They often do this subconsciously, without recognizing that they are doing it, and when they fall, get startled, get bumped, get struck, or grasp at something with the other hand, they frequently clench the weapon hand in response. If an errant finger is resting on the trigger, then it will likely be pulled and the weapon will discharge.
Hardware “Solution” #1: Increased Pull Weight
Mr. Owens has suggested a change in hardware to address the problem, but the track record on such efforts has been poor. Over the years, law enforcement agencies have experimented with various technological “fixes” to prevent these errors, but none have been very successful.
One of the most common “fixes” has involved increasing the weight of pull required to move the trigger, either by choosing a different design, or by modifying an existing design. Unfortunately, this only results in a pistol that is more difficult to deliberately fire with precision, particularly for officers with smaller or less powerful hands.
The increased presence of females in law enforcement has focused attention on this issue, and some of the best research indicates that females have a mean grip length that is 11 percent shorter than that of males, a hand width that is 14 percent shorter, and a maximal grip pressure that is roughly 40 percent less than that of males. This makes it very difficult for these officers to properly manage a trigger with a heavy pull weight, particularly if the increased weight is combined with a longer trigger reach, as it is on pistols with Double Action (DA) triggers—the very pistols that Mr. Owens suggested.
During the XM10 pistol trials, the US Army discovered that seven of 12 female soldiers in a test group could not fire the candidate pistols in the DA mode due to the combination of trigger reach and weight of pull. In a 1992 study conducted by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), 50 percent of the female test subjects could not reach the trigger on four of the 17 test weapons and the lower 25th percentile (in terms of hand dimensions and strength) of the test group couldn’t reach the trigger on nine of the 17 test weapons.
This phenomenon is not restricted to female shooters, either. An increasing number of smaller statured males have entered the law enforcement profession in the last 40 years as well, and many of these male officers have difficulties reaching the trigger on a DA weapon and getting the proper leverage on it. Whether it occurs to a male or female, this creates an increased hazard for the public, who could be hit by errant shots fired by an officer who is unable to properly control the trigger on his/her firearm.
Even the most robust trigger pull weights (upward of 12 pounds) cannot come close to matching the 25 pounds of clenched grip force, which FLETC research indicated could be generated by a startle reflex (or the 126 pounds of maximal grip strength of an average male—80 pounds for the average female), so they offer little protection against this circumstance. Indeed, the two unintentional shootings noted by Mr. Owens in his article involved NYPD officers firing Glocks with agency-modified triggers. The NYPD intentionally modifies all their guns to provide a pull weight in excess of 12 pounds, which is more than double the standard weight on the Glock pistol, but it’s still not enough to prevent an unintentional discharge caused by startle reflex or inter-limb response, as these two incidents demonstrated.
Hardware “Solution” #2: Mechanical Safeties
Another popular fix (and one promoted by Mr. Owens) involves adding a mechanical safety that operates independently of the trigger, usually via movement of the firing hand thumb. The theory is that these kinds of safeties will prevent an officer from unintentionally pulling the trigger by disabling it until the safety is released, but in practical application it doesn’t work this way. The history of these guns in law enforcement and military service indicates that when the user feels threatened enough to deploy the gun and point it at someone, then they are also likely to simultaneously disengage the safety in preparation to fire. This happens regardless of training protocols that may discourage releasing the safety until the actual decision to fire has been made. In fact, most law enforcement training protocols have traditionally encouraged the officer to disengage the safety as the weapon is brought to target, with the popular mantra of “On Target, Off Safe; Off Target, On Safe” being the rule.
Aggravating the situation, many of the guns equipped with these kinds of safeties have Single Action (SA) triggers with even lighter pull weights and shorter trigger travel than the striker-fired guns that Mr. Owens has declared as unsuitable for law enforcement use, making them even easier to fire inadvertently.
An important hazard of guns equipped with these types of mechanical safeties is that they require a large number of repetitions in training to instill the habit of properly releasing them, and they can be fumbled or forgotten under stress, such as when the user is suddenly threatened with close-range violence. As a firearms instructor and lifelong shooter, I’ve personally witnessed many examples of highly trained and proficient shooters (including competitive champions) fumbling or forgetting to disengage their safeties under the stress of competition, training or qualification—conditions that produce much less stress than a violent ambush, and much less of the physiological effects that can be so detrimental to motor skills performance. Given that the vast majority of law enforcement officers are neither as well trained nor as proficient as these skilled enthusiasts, it’s likely that they would be even more susceptible to making these kinds of life-endangering mistakes under the stress of a deadly attack. We’ve seen incidents like this in the past, both in the real world and in dynamic, Force on Force training, so the possibility cannot be ignored.
Lastly, an additional problem with these safeties is that the aforementioned officers with small hands may have difficulty even reaching the safety levers to disengage them. This is especially true for pistols equipped with slide-mounted safety levers, which require a long reach to throw them upward to the “OFF” position. Oftentimes, reaching these safeties requires a small-handed user to sacrifice a proper firing grip on the pistol, leading to dangerous delays in firing or control and accuracy difficulties when the pistol is fired. In the most extreme cases, a small-handed user may be completely incapable of operating these levers with the firing hand at all, and may be required to use the support side hand to disengage the lever (assuming it is available, and not wounded/damaged or otherwise occupied in fighting an opponent at close quarters).
Since some officers may fumble or forget the safety lever under duress, and others may not be able to properly reach it and deactivate it, many law enforcement agencies and some branches of the U.S. military have adopted protocols, which mandate that such pistols are to be carried “OFF SAFE” in the holster while on duty. Such a practice is an inadequate solution to the problem, and only creates an additional hazard when an officer who is not habituated to disengaging the safety as part of the draw retrieves a weapon whose lever has been accidentally bumped to the “ON SAFE” position at some point. In any event, carrying the pistol “OFF SAFE,” whether by personal choice or in accordance with agency policy, negates the perceived safety advantage of having a safety installed on the weapon in the first place.
Hardware “Solution” #3: Increased Trigger Travel
A final method of trying to fix the unintentional discharge problem through equipment selection (and Mr. Owens’ principal suggestion) is to increase the distance that the trigger must travel to discharge the firearm. It is hoped that an unintentional trigger pull could be recognized and arrested before it is completed, or that the unintentional force wouldn’t be strong enough to move the trigger the required distance to fire. However, like the other equipment-oriented fixes, it fails to prevent the error while introducing other problems.
The so-called Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA) and Double Action Only (DAO) triggers indicated by Mr. Owens travel about an inch (measured at the tip of the trigger, perhaps 5/8 inch measured in the center) before a round is fired in DA mode, as compared to the roughly ½ inch of travel (measured at the tip, perhaps ¼ inch at the center) on the striker-fired guns. This nominal half inch of additional travel is unlikely to be noticed during an involuntary clench response involving 25 or more pounds of force. We know this because law enforcement history is replete with examples of unintentional discharges with firearms equipped with similar triggers. Law enforcement officers managed to accidentally pull the long and heavy DA triggers of their revolvers with frequency for nearly a century before they switched to DA/SA and DAO pistols in the 1980s and 1990s, and they continued to do the same with the new guns. The long triggers on these guns couldn’t stop the problem then, and they won’t now.
As previously noted, the long and heavy triggers can make the gun more difficult to operate and control, however, especially for officers with smaller hands. In fact, it was this problem that largely encouraged the wide scale shift away from DA/SA and DAO designs in the 2000s, and toward the striker-fired guns with their shorter trigger reach. The latter guns were simply easier for officers with smaller and less powerful hands to operate, and we saw dramatic improvements, nationwide, in law enforcement agency shooting scores when the DA/SA and DAO autos were exchanged for striker-fired guns like the Glock.
Importantly, the striker-fired guns were also easier to operate than the more complex DA/SA designs with their more extensive manual of arms. During the peak of DA/SA auto preeminence in American law enforcement, it was not uncommon for an officer to unintentionally fire a shot when the pistol was in SA mode, with its much shorter and lighter trigger pull. It was also not uncommon for them to reholster a pistol that was still in SA mode, creating a significant safety issue, or even an unintended discharge in some cases.
I’m one of a legion of firearms instructors who were grateful to see the striker-fired designs gain popularity, because I didn’t have to yell myself hoarse on the range continuously reminding students to “decock” their pistols when they were off target. I also appreciated the fact that it took less training time for a novice student to achieve proficiency with the simpler, striker-fired design that only has one type of trigger pull to master and a minimum of controls to operate.
The Role of Negligence
To this point, I’ve been careful to focus on the unintended discharges that occur during enforcement actions, and not during administrative situations (such as loading or unloading the firearm for cleaning, inspection, etc.). This is not an attempt to ignore the sizable number of unintentional discharges that occur during administrative actions, which Mr. Owens is rightly concerned about, but to segregate these two very different situations.
The physiological and cognitive effects of stress that prompt unintentional discharges during a violent encounter are the result of involuntary reactions in our minds and bodies. These Sympathetic Nervous System responses are automatic processes that are largely beyond our control. We can mitigate the effects of these changes through various means (“tactical breathing,” exposure through realistic training, etc.) but we largely cannot prevent these reactions from occurring in the first place.
However, the unintentional discharges that occur during administrative handling are entirely preventable. These discharges are rooted in inattention and negligence, which are not involuntary reactions, but rather things that are firmly in our control. Sloppy and inattentive gun handling is preventable and controllable, and must never be permitted by an agency, agency leadership, or the individual officer. Individual officers must be shown that they have a critical stake in firearms safety, and must be encouraged to develop the proper safety habits. Officers must understand, at a very deep and personal level, that their inattention or negligence could directly result in injury or death, and that they will be held accountable for their actions.
A large number of unintentional discharges during administrative handling is indicative of a training, standards enforcement, or personal discipline problem. None of these issues can be adequately addressed through technology. Instead, they require “software” solutions, like improved training, leadership, and an acceptance of personal responsibility. If you hand a reckless and careless individual a loaded gun, he/she will find a way to discharge it unintentionally, no matter how many safety devices are installed on it, how long or heavy the trigger pull is, or how “idiot proof” the design is. The thing about idiots is that they can be very resourceful. We’ve got years of data to prove it.
So What is the Solution?
The critical point in all of this is that unintended discharges are more suitably dealt with as a training issue, not an equipment issue. There is no hardware solution for this software problem that has been proven to work, and many of the so-called hardware “fixes” actually introduce other unacceptable hazards or performance penalties.
Suitable, rigorous training is more likely to have an impact on reducing both administrative and stress-induced unintentional discharges than any technology solution. The historical record has shown that agencies that put a premium on training ensure their officers are trained to a high level of proficiency, and hold them accountable to standards, encounter fewer problems with unintentional discharges than those agencies that have weak training programs and lax enforcement, even when the equipment they carry is the same.
Sadly, even training cannot fix the problem entirely, as humans are prone to make errors under stress even if they have been trained. In this, Mr. Owens and I are in complete agreement. We simply differ in our opinions about the importance and impact of proper training. In Mr. Owens’ view, equipment solutions provide a greater potential for correcting the problem than training solutions, but I believe that our collective experience shows the opposite is true.
In my opinion, the time, effort and money that would be spent refitting a Glock-equipped police force with a different pistol would be more profitably spent on more rigorous and realistic training for officers. As Evan Marshall said, “It’s the Indian, not the Arrow,” that matters. PM
Mike Wood is the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis. Please visit the official website for this book at www.newhallshooting.com for more information. Wood is also an NRA – LE Division certified firearms instructor. He is also a USAF retired Lieutenant Colonel, 26 years of service. Photos by Linda Babcock
When the DA/SA pistols were King, we saw this a lot. The manual of arms is more complex on these guns, and shooters often forgot to “decock,” under stress, when they came off target. Unintended discharges sometimes followed, often while re-holstering.
Some of the most popular DA/SA autos place the safety lever on the slide, where it is harder to reach for all shooters, but especially for those with smaller hands. Throwing the lever upward to OFF SAFE is awkward, and weakens the firing grip.
The downward motion required to deactivate a frame-mounted safety is a natural and efficient movement that strengthens the firing grip. Most autos with this kind of safety have SA triggers though, which are short and light, and therefore easier to unintentionally discharge under stress.
The DA/SA autos typically have a long trigger reach in the DA mode, making it difficult for those with smaller hands to get the right purchase on them. In the worst cases, shooters with small hands may not be able to pull the heavy, 12- to 14-pound trigger in DA mode.
The transition from DA to SA trigger modes requires dedicated practice to master. This takes valuable training time, which is always in short supply. Striker-fired guns, with their single trigger mode, are easier and faster to learn.
This won’t intimidate any of the gun enthusiasts out there, but the large number of levers and buttons on some DA/SA designs can quickly cause confusion for novices and non-dedicated personnel.
Striker-fired guns might have lighter and shorter triggers than DA autos, but they’re not nearly as light and short as the triggers found on SA autos.
Safety is the result of good training, habits and discipline. There has never been a firearm made that is impervious to unintentional discharges in the hands of someone who is not paying attention and not following proper procedures.
The shorter trigger reach and lighter pull weight on striker-fired designs make them easier to shoot for all shooters, but especially those with smaller hands.
Many agencies, and some U.S. military branches, require their officers to carry their pistols OFF SAFE in the holster, due to difficulties with the slide-mounted safety lever and concerns about forgetting the safety under duress. This creates a new hazard of its own when the safety gets bumped to the ON SAFE position and the officer is unaware of it.