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Old 08-06-2011, 12:28 AM   #1
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Safety ON, Revisited.

I know all this has been posted before, but here it is, all in one post. These are just the facts, not opinions, or expressions of what one might "be comfortable" with.

Turning the manual safety ON on a Walther PP-series pistol does three things:

1) If the hammer is cocked, it drops the hammer to the decocked position which then requires a double-action pull, or manually re-cocking the hammer to fire;

2) The safety drum rotates around to positively lock the round knuckle on the firing pin, which prevents the firing pin from moving, and

3) Shoulders on the safety drum are rotated around to shield the rear tip of the firing pin from any contact from the hammer. This provides additional protection against a possible AD arising from a fracture of the locked firing pin or of the safety drum itself -- which occasionally happened with wartime P38s.

The last two are important for the purposes of this post. Unless you turn the manual safety ON, the firing pin is neither locked nor shielded. If the gun is dropped on its muzzle, the inertial firing pin may move forward to strike a chambered cartridge. If the gun is dropped on its tang and hammer, the slide may fly rearward, carrying the firing pin with it, to strike the hammer; the pin can then bounce forward to strike a chambered cartridge. This is not theoretical; it has happened.

In these scenarios, the automatic hammer block is not involved, and cannot prevent either kind of AD.

It should be remembered that the PP-series were state-of-the-art in 1929. However, it has no automatic passive firing pin lock; the device might not even have been invented then. But this is 80 years later, and gun designers have learned a thing or two since.

Many folks express great confidence in the quality of their holster to prevent an accident. While a few in-holster ADs do occur, most drop-fires occur after the gun has been removed from the holster, and the style and type of the holster is irrelevant.

Comparing the PP-series with the safety OFF to a P99 or similar pistols which have no manual safety is comparing watermelons to cucumbers. Most service autoloaders designed since about 1980 have internal passive firing pin blocks that immobilize the firing pin until the trigger is pulled. These are not foolproof either --as the parts are small and easily impaired, depend for reliable operation on a tiny spring, and their functional status is inconvenient to verify--but they are better than no firing pin lock. Today no responsible manufacturer would consider introducing a fresh design of autoloading pistol that did not incorporate an internal passive firing pin block. The Walther PP-series, like the M1911, are anomalies; they remain in production only because there is a demand for a few "classic" designs.

Comparing PP-series with the safety OFF to double-action revolvers that have no manual safety is similarly misguided. They are mechanically not comparable.

All double-action revolvers made by the major manufacturers (Colt, S&W, Ruger, etc) during the past 100 years have lockwork that physically interposes a block between the hammer and the frame to prevent firing until the trigger is pulled through. Inertial firing in a revolver is not a concern; most revolvers have the firing pin riveted to the hammer; if the hammer itself is blocked, so is the pin. Even when separately mounted in the frame, a revolver's firing pin is tiny, and by itself is too light to detonate a primer. Nor does a revolver have any reciprocating mass comparable to an autoloader's slide that might move hard enough or far enough, carrying the firing pin with it, to generate an AD. Basically, revolvers fire from dropping only if something breaks or, for a multitude of reasons including home gunsmithing, doesn't work as it should.

The case of the 1911 service pistol is perplexing. When dropped on its muzzle with the safety OFF, it will NOT fire as commonly supposed. The slide will break open and tilt down the barrel before the firing pin can hit a chambered cartridge in the center. That is obviously marvelous, but a different result is obtained if the safety is ON, which is anti-intuitive. Conversely, if the gun is dropped on its tang and/or hammer, the risks are reversed: Safety OFF is probably more dangerous as it allows the slide to move rearward; with the safety ON, the slide is locked. Bottom line: whether it's better to have the safety ON or OFF if the gun is dropped depends on how it lands.

All this, of course, is predicated on dropping the gun only once. Often guns survive one drop and fail after the second or third. The basic problem is that in any handgun small and light enough to be conveniently carried and used, it's very difficult to make the parts big and strong enough to withstand the enormous structural stresses imposed by dropping the gun onto hard surfaces like concrete or steel, and it becomes practically impossible when the stress is repeated. This can be documented: read the H.P. White Laboratory handgun torture tests done in the 1970s. (There was a REASON why SIG cut a slot in the hammers of later P6 police pistols. To put it politely, they concluded that German cops were clumsy.)

BTW, how many lives have you cats used up?

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Last edited by MGMike; 06-17-2016 at 09:24 AM. Reason: Additions, deletions, corrections, clarity, syntax and typos.
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Old 08-08-2011, 03:38 PM   #2
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Excellent post Mike, thanks for the explanation!
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Old 08-08-2011, 04:36 PM   #3
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Mike, good post and good explanation.
Now, all that considered, is it safe to handle a loaded PP on a firing range? The gun is loaded, safety off, and the holster doesn't matter...? All the ranges I use have a concrete firing line.

Really not trying to be a troll here; hell, I love Walthers and have a lot of respect for Mike's vast font of knowledge. But if they are that big a risk to handle loaded and unsafed, should we be decocking and applying the safety between shots at the range? Is it prudent to handle one that is loaded and ready to fire under any circumstance?

In a self defense situation, are we ethically obliged to keep the safety on until the instant we're about to pull the trigger?

Interesting thoughts about the 1911 pistol as well, tho' some of the issues have been addressed in more recent production.

In dealing with all things mechanical, there is a certain level of implied risk, whether driving a car or a nail, or carrying a gun. Where we step over the line from prudence to recklessness is a hard call. I think we need to be aware of a worst-case scenario, but we have to be careful that we don't immobilize ourselves with excess caution.

Just sayin'
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Old 08-08-2011, 06:03 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by halfmoonclip View Post
...
Now, all that considered, is it safe to handle a loaded PP on a firing range? The gun is loaded, safety off, and the holster doesn't matter...? All the ranges I use have a concrete firing line.

... But if they are that big a risk to handle loaded and unsafed, should we be decocking and applying the safety between shots at the range? Is it prudent to handle one that is loaded and ready to fire under any circumstance?

In a self defense situation, are we ethically obliged to keep the safety on until the instant we're about to pull the trigger?

...
Moon
Moon: You've asked a thoughtful question. I think all gun handling is ultimately reduced to a risk-benefit calculation, and since both risk and benefit are subjectively determined by the user, there is no objectively correct answer. Sometimes the answer changes with hindsight. In other scenarios practical observation and experience can provide some guidance. In each instance the user must balance the level of danger inherent in what he is doing against the benefit that the action provides. That benefit includes the enjoyment of a tool's utility. We do this every day in all aspects of life, not just with guns.

So is it "too risky" to handle a loaded PP with the safety off at a range? I've never thought so. Once I have the gun IN MY HAND, I am not particularly concerned about dropping it. And my finger is outside the trigger guard, so any danger of accidentally actuating the trigger is relatively remote. Obviously I don't put the safety after every shot (no reason to) but if I have to run with it to another position as part of a drill, I will (because there is some risk I may trip and fall).

It's when the gun is NOT in my hand that I start seriously recalculating the risks. Most drop-fires and other ADs occur when people are "carrying" the gun or "handling" it, or they are just "sharing space" with it --not actually using it to shoot. That's when you need to be realistic and recognize --and take sensible precautions against-- the multitude of things that can easily result in an AD. I don't want to be the guy whose moment of inexplicable carelessness turned some innocent bystander into a quadriplegic.

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Last edited by MGMike; 08-09-2011 at 12:34 AM.
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Old 08-08-2011, 09:52 PM   #5
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Quote:
All double-action revolvers made by the major manufacturers (Colt, S&W, Ruger, etc) during the past 100 years have lockwork that physically interposes a block between the hammer and the frame to prevent firing until the trigger is pulled through.
S&W didn't drop proof the pistols till 1945 . Till then was a chance. I learned this as I bought a old S&W . Its serial number was strange . When I checked with S&W they told me that showed first year of hammer block . Was made 1945 . My oldest S&W is 1880 I belive it will fire if hammer hit .
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Old 08-08-2011, 10:26 PM   #6
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One of the most clearly written physical descriptions of a system I've ever seen. Bravo, Mr. Mike. This forum has greatly benefited from your knowledge and experience. You're like The Professor here!

Class in session!

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Old 08-09-2011, 12:37 AM   #7
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I am curious. I have searched for documentation regarding dropped AD of the PP, PPK, and PPK/S pistols and can find none. I agree that whether or not the safety is on does not matter for a dropped PP variant unles the hammer is released (which would not be the case with the safety on).

If a pistol is dropped from the average belt height of a six foot man the pistol would travel three feet. In our atmosphere a normal solid object can travel that distance in about one second. Upon an absolutely perfect impact (firing pin channel perfectly perpendicular to the ground), the weight of the firing pin (I am guessing about 1/3 ounce, you do not calculate the weight of the pistol as that has no bearing on the outcome) traveling for one second at 32 ft/second squared would only have a force of .6 ft/lbs and that is at the forward portion of the firing pin, not at the primer. The firing pin spring would add resistance to that greatly reducing any impact to the primer, especially considering the distance the firing pin would travel on impact and that when a spring is compressed it exerts greater resistance directly proportional to the amount of compression.

On the other hand, a hammer exerts energy based upon the square of the hammer mass times its velocity divided by two. To keep things equal, if a one ounce hammer were travelling at the same velocity as the falling pistol (even though the hammer travels much faster) the energy released at the time of hammer/firing pin impact is four times that of the aforementioned falling firing pin. Because there is a direct transference of kinetic energy from the hammer to the firing pin (Newton's third law) the firing pin would move with four times the force thus easily overcoming the spring and striking the primer.

If we knew an overall average between blued and stainless firing pins and hammer weights plus the speed the hammer is actually moving when it impacts the firing pin I could provide exact figures. I would also need to know the average exponential spring compression force exerted by the firing pin spring.

I have a feeling that a pistol as successful as any PP variant has had the engineers examine it thoroughly to ensure these tolerances exceed safety requirements.

Regardless, I feel completely safe carrying any of my PP variants with a round in the chamber and the safety engaged.
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Old 08-09-2011, 12:48 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by michael t View Post
S&W didn't drop proof the pistols till 1945 . Till then was a chance. I learned this as I bought a old S&W . Its serial number was strange . When I checked with S&W they told me that showed first year of hammer block . Was made 1945 . My oldest S&W is 1880 I belive it will fire if hammer hit .
The lockwork I referred to was introduced in both S&W and Colt revolvers around 1905. It prevented firing in the vast majority of drops, but it certainly was not "drop-PROOF". During WWII, after a fatal accident aboard a ship in which an S&W revolver fell onto a steel deck and fired, a further improvement was introduced, which is still used in S&W revolvers today. But even that is not 100% "proof" against extreme stress or repeated drops, as the block can be mashed wafer-thin and ultimately firing can result. That is not a defect; it merely illustrates the near-impossibility, even with modern materials, of producing parts that are small enough for practical use, yet strong enough to withstand the extreme stresses of high drops on steel or concrete. It simply can't be done, at least not within the state of the art today.

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Last edited by MGMike; 08-09-2011 at 10:46 AM.
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Old 08-09-2011, 01:07 AM   #9
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Also, the HP White laboratory tests drop the pistols from a height of 42" in a controlled test so that the pistol will fall exactly on its barrel, right side, left side, bottom, top, and on the hammer.

The tests are also conducted repeatedly to include any variations of the pistol configuration (safety on, safety off uncocked, and safety off cocked).

I did a thorough search and could not find published test results online indicating any failures.

In reference to one of Mike's comments, dropping a small arm like the PP variant repeatedly will provide little other than cosmetic damage to the pistol. In order to damage internal components the pistol would need to be seriously abused way beyond what any normal person would do. These were in fact designed for police and military use. Explosions go off inside them repeatedly (which exerts much greater force on the internal components than dropping them) and after thousands of such explosions they still will function as designed.

Also, only older revolvers of the major manufactuerers have firing pins connected to the hammer. For the past thirty years there is a flat hammer with either a firing pin transfer plate or a hammer block that allows the energy from the hammer to transfer to a firing pin in the frame just like an autoloading pistol. Those are considered safe to carry a round under the hammer.
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Old 08-09-2011, 10:52 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by Iron Man View Post
Also, the HP White laboratory tests drop the pistols from a height of 42" in a controlled test so that the pistol will fall exactly on its barrel, right side, left side, bottom, top, and on the hammer.

The tests are also conducted repeatedly to include any variations of the pistol configuration (safety on, safety off uncocked, and safety off cocked).

I did a thorough search and could not find published test results online indicating any failures.

In reference to one of Mike's comments, dropping a small arm like the PP variant repeatedly will provide little other than cosmetic damage to the pistol. In order to damage internal components the pistol would need to be seriously abused way beyond what any normal person would do. These were in fact designed for police and military use. Explosions go off inside them repeatedly (which exerts much greater force on the internal components than dropping them) and after thousands of such explosions they still will function as designed.

Also, only older revolvers of the major manufactuerers have firing pins connected to the hammer. For the past thirty years there is a flat hammer with either a firing pin transfer plate or a hammer block that allows the energy from the hammer to transfer to a firing pin in the frame just like an autoloading pistol. Those are considered safe to carry a round under the hammer.
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