The modern sporting rifle, most commonly in the form of the semi-automatic AR-15, has been in the arsenals of many law enforcement agencies since the late 1990s. These rifles were chosen to replace or complement shotguns in patrol vehicles after the Los Angeles Police Department's experience using pistols and shotguns against body armor-wearing suspects at the 1997 North Hollywood Bank Robbery. More agencies added rifles after 9/11.
Many of the agencies that have issued rifles to their officers or have allowed their officers to carry their personally owned rifles on duty have established patrol rifle training programs. Which means there are numerous experts in law enforcement who are teaching officers how to use rifles. And wherever you have firearms trainers you have debate on best practices.
One of the subjects of debate among some firearms trainers and their student officers who carry rifles is what to do with the rifle's mechanical safety. And while the topic of how to use the mechanical safety on a patrol rifle may seem to be a relatively minor issue, it's one that is worthy of some thought.
Most police agencies these days are on the same page when it comes to the use of the mechanical safety on the AR platform, but there are undoubtedly still holdouts. And even if agencies are in agreement, there are definitely those officers that for one reason or another do not adhere to proper safety protocols regarding the use of the selector lever on their patrol rifles.
AR-platform rifles have selector levers (mechanical safeties) with two positions: "safe" and "semi." Note: This article does not go into protocols for fully automatic rifles.
Now let me make the following definitive statement on the use of patrol rifles. Your selector lever should be in the safe position at all times, unless you are bringing the weapon up to fire. At that time, as your sights are coming onto your intended target and you've decided to shoot, the selector is moved from safe to semi and your finger moves to the trigger to fire. When your sights come off of your target, the selector should be moved back onto safe as your finger comes off the trigger.
When I train law enforcement officers to use the AR-type rifle or carbine, the safety-on concept is relentlessly reinforced, whether I am teaching a basic user course for new shooters or an advanced course for seasoned SWAT operators. And at every level, I have heard excuses or rationalizations for running the gun with the safety disengaged all the time. There are usually three or four arguments that safety-off advocates advance, and I'd like to address them individually.
Speed of Engagement
One of the most prevalent arguments for leaving the selector on semi from safety-off advocates is speed of engagement. Put simply, they say, "I want to be faster than my adversary if I need to shoot quickly."
My response to this argument is you need to achieve speed of engagement by spending more time on the range. Practice. And be sure you practice using the safety.
I don't teach my students to disengage the safety after the sights are on target, but rather as those sights are coming to bear. It is essentially two separate actions, executed simultaneously. If this method is learned and practiced properly, it takes no more time to correctly place an accurate shot after disengaging the safety than it does with the safety already disengaged. This is not a new concept, nor do I attempt to take credit for it. Trainers with far more time behind the gun than me also advocate for the use of the safety and using this method to disengage it as you bring the rifle to bear.
The operation is simple. If you're right-handed, your right thumb rests atop the selector lever while in the safe position. As the muzzle is raised in preparation for a shot, the thumb sweeps the safety off and moves to a natural grip position. When the muzzle comes down, the thumb moves forward and sweeps the selector to the rear, re-engaging the safety. If you're left-handed, well…Let's address that next.
Many ARs are built with the selector switch on one side of the rifle, the right side. That can make manipulation of the safety more difficult for left-handed shooters.
But selector manipulation by a lefty doesn't have to be awkward. The best solution to this problem is to have an ambidextrous safety installed on your rifle. If your agency will not allow this modification, learn to operate the safety with your left hand.
The most effective way that I know for a left-handed shooter to manipulate a right side selector is with the inside edge of the left hand where the index finger meets the palm. In this case, your shooting hand—the one pulling the trigger—remains relaxed and open, with this part of your hand resting atop the selector lever. When it's time to shoot, the muzzle comes up and your hand sweeps downward to disengage the safety and assumes a normal position on the grip, with your finger moving to the trigger. When finished, your fingers extend forward along the receiver, then sweep the selector rearward to re-engage the safety.
One of the more common questions I hear from my students is, "Do I have to use the safety when I'm reloading?" Yes, you do. Especially in training. Remember, if your sights come off of your target, the safety goes on. Train and practice this way and it will never be a concern, or a hindrance—see next paragraph.
A Vivid Reminder
Another concern that students express about keeping the selector on safe is they fear they will forget to take the safety off when it really counts and they need to shoot immediately.
This is one of my favorite arguments against safety-on to discuss as a trainer because it's the primary reason I teach the safety-on doctrine so emphatically. If you practice manipulating the safety every time you bring the weapon to bear and back down again, you will not forget to disengage it when the time comes. The problem comes when you do not practice manipulating the safety and just leave it off during training and practice.
Ask yourself this: In what condition is your carbine carried in the vehicle? "Patrol-ready?" Typically, patrol-ready means loaded magazine, empty chamber, and safety on.
Now, let's say you're deployed on a scene with your patrol rifle. You bring it out of your car in its patrol-ready condition. You load a round, and suddenly you face an armed threat. If you've not practiced manipulating the safety, will you remember now that your safety is on? Wouldn't you prefer to have it instilled in you as a conditioned reflex of sights up, safety off?
I have personally observed a deputy during force-on-force training literally try to squeeze the trigger out of the receiver, multiple times, before transitioning to a handgun. When debriefed, the deputy said he transitioned from the carbine because he thought it was broken when in fact the only reason it did not fire was because the safety was on.
There is another piece to this safety-on vs. safety-off argument. If you don't train and practice to manipulate the safety—both on and off—what happens when the threat has subsided and you have the weapon slung across your chest while everyone pats each other, including you, on the back? Do you carry keys, phones, radios, handgun magazines, or small flashlights on the front or sides of your duty belt? Can these find their way into your trigger guard and discharge a weapon that is not on safe? I can assure you they can. Best case is you're looking at a write-up in your file. Worst case, you will be standing over a proned-out subject when it happens. Don't be that guy in the headlines for shooting a surrendered suspect and sparking a multi-million-dollar lawsuit.
Stephen Clark is a sergeant with the Pinal County (AZ) Sheriff's Office. He has more than 17 years in law enforcement, including 13 years as an operator and team leader on his agency's SWAT team. He's currently assigned as the Pinal County SO's training unit supervisor and lead firearms trainer.