Carrying Conditions

Posted: July 10, 2012 in Handgun, How To, Information, Myths and Misunderstandings, Rifle, Shotgun

My friend Isaac sent me the link to this video, and it got me thinking. First off, it got me thinking about how nice it is to have some reasonable people out there making gun-related videos on the internet. Internet gun culture can have a tendency towards…rabid insanity, I guess you’d call it. After that though, it got me thinking about how many people have different opinions on proper carrying (or storage, for a home defense gun) conditions. I figured I’d run through them, and the justifications as best I understand them, and then give my view.

Okay, let’s define our terms, so we’re all on the same page. Some of the conditions I’ll discuss won’t actually fit into any of these, but they do fit into them philosophically. It’ll make sense when we get there, I swear. These are the terms as described by Col. Jeff Cooper, and they are generally used regarding the Colt 1911. I think they can translate to other systems though, and it’s basically the only easy nomenclature I’ve ever seen on the topic. It will at least give us a starting point.

  • Condition 0 – Round chambered, magazine inserted, hammer cocked, safety off
  • Condition 1 – Round chambered, magazine inserted, hammer cocked, safety on
  • Condition 2 – Round chambered, magazine inserted, hammer down
  • Condition 3 – Chamber empty, magazine inserted, hammer down
  • Condition 4 – Chamber empty, no magazine, hammer down

Okay, that pretty much runs the gamut, right? All the way from paperweight to ready to fire. Because firearms technology changes, not all guns are equipped with a hammer or a safety, and I’ll discuss those as well. Most of these terms will also work for a semi-automatic rifle or shotgun, and with a little tweaking can be made to represent most any modern long gun, but I’ll be using handguns as my primary examples. Fair? We’ll start from the bottom up.

Condition 4 is a gun that cannot fire until something pretty significant is done to it. You would have to insert a magazine, cycle the slide and then pull the trigger to fire it. This gun is about as safe as any 2-lb hunk of metal can ever be. It’s also almost completely useless in any capacity for which a firearm is designed. I don’t think people often carry pistols this way, but I know that a lot of people will store guns in this condition for home defense.

Condition 3 is popular for people new to carrying. In the video linked above, this is the condition being discussed. People like this idea, because it makes them feel safer. Initially, I think people like to carry like this because they worry that something is going to snag on the trigger and make the gun go off unintentionally. This is especially common for people carrying guns not equipped with an external lever safety. You’ll also hear people suggesting that they carry that way in case the gun is taken from them. The baddie who grabs it will pull the trigger, get a click, and will stare dumbfounded at the weapon while the owner is free to beat him about the head and shoulders.

Condition 2 works with the single action 1911, requiring the hammer to be cocked manually before the gun will fire. It also works with a double-action (DAO or DA/SA) firearm, though not quite the same way. In a single action pistol like the 1911, having the hammer down means the gun no worky. You can pull and pull, and nothing happens. With a double action gun, having the hammer down just means that your trigger will likely be heavy and will have a long travel. So pulling the trigger will indeed cause the gun to fire, you just have to press the trigger like you mean it. This longer, heavier pull acts as a sort of safety. If you need to exert 8-12 lbs of pressure on that trigger to fire the gun, chances are good incidental contact isn’t going to do it.

Condition 1 carry is what most proponents of the 1911 practice, including Col. Cooper. “Cocked, locked and ready to rock” is the phrase you hear. The gun is almost ready to fire, all that needs to be done is for the safety lever to be switched off, and for the trigger to be pressed. This can also work for most DA/SA guns with an external safety, as long as the safety isn’t also a decocker. As long as your DA/SA gun can have the hammer back and the safety on, this is an option for you.

Condition 0 carry sounds a little unsafe to a lot of people, until you realize that the vast majority of folks carrying polymer-framed guns, including law enforcement, are carrying in this condition. I’m carrying in this condition right now. My gun has no external lever safeties, no hammer to cock, there’s a round in the chamber and a magazine inserted. If I were to draw and press the trigger, it would fire without any more prodding on my part. Glocks, XDs, M&Ps (unless they have the special-order external lever safety option) and a number of others are all in this camp. This is an extremely common type of gun for concealed carry and for duty use. Is it unsafe? I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t be doing it, obviously.

Okay, what about carrying conditions that don’t fit into any of these? Well, these designations pretty clearly don’t take revolvers into account. Revolvers, generally, speaking, don’t have external lever safeties on them. The vast majority of modern revolvers are also double-action. With a modern revolver, I don’t know of anyone who advocates leaving an empty chamber under the hammer (something you would definitely want to do with an old style revolver without a transfer bar), so you’re pretty much left with a gun that’s being carried in Condition 0, almost by default. Yes, they’re likely to have a long, heavy trigger pull, but there are no slides to operate, no levers to flip, just pull the trigger and you get a bang. This is weird for a lot of people. They think of revolvers as being old-timey and therefore somehow inherently safer. Wacky, right?

Finally, I’m going to lump another one in here. People who load dummy rounds, snap caps, or light loads as their first one or two rounds are going to be categorized as Condition 3 in my book. Why? Because your gun isn’t loaded with your “real” rounds. If they’re dummies or snap caps, you have to operate the action to get your real rounds loaded. If they’re light loads (normally I hear about this with shotguns, having the first one or two rounds being birdshot followed by buckshot) you either have to rack them out or shoot them out. So yes, you may have a round in the chamber, but if it’s a round you put in the chamber specifically because it is going to be less effective at stopping a threat, then I’m not counting it.

Okay, so those are your options. There are probably more, but I haven’t heard of them. So which is best? Personally, I think condition 1 or 0 is really the only one that makes sense. Let me ‘splain. Condition 4 requires pretty significant manipulation of the weapon before it’s going to do you any good. You need to get the gun in one hand, get the magazine in your other hand, insert the magazine, and drop or rack or slide. This can be done very quickly by a lot of people…on a well-lit range with a holster and mag pouch. If both are in your nightstand drawer, it’s dark, and you hear glass break downstairs, how long do you think it’ll take? Longer, I’d say. Maybe too long. Might you be just fine with this setup? Certainly, you might. You might also be just fine with one of these instead of a gun, depending on your attacker. You need to be fast enough, skilled enough, and using enough force to stop the threat before it can seriously harm you or your loved ones. The actual value of each of those qualities depends on your situation and your attacker. I think it makes sense to give yourself the best chance possible. That means you should do whatever you can to make sure that you’ll have enough speed, enough skill and enough gun for the widest variety of situations.

I see the argument here, I really do. There has to be a balance between security and accessibility. Your gun can be sitting loaded and unashamed on your nightstand or in a safe inside another safe, or anywhere between. You have to decide where your balance is, based on your needs and your situation. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m suggesting they not store their firearms securely, but I think there’s a big difference between secure storage and keeping an unloaded gun in the open. Make sense? If you’re worried about unauthorized people getting to your gun and hurting people with it, then keeping the chamber unloaded and the gun unlocked isn’t a responsible solution. If the gun is in a quality safe, then you really have no reason to keep the chamber empty, because anyone getting in there will be authorized to use it. And if they’re planning to use it for home defense, they’ll likely be thankful for the extra few seconds they’re afforded by finding it loaded and ready to shoot.

If you’re keeping your chamber empty to keep your kids from shooting themselves, you’re relying on your kids to be too weak or too ignorant to rack the slide of a semi-auto. In the days when people on TV seem to want to rack their slide for every shot they fire, I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that your child won’t know to do it. And I wouldn’t bet my son’s safety on his inability to operate a slide. If he’s old enough to be moving around the house, he’s old enough for me to be keeping my guns locked up where he can’t get to them. Savvy? An empty chamber, or a snap cap loaded in the chamber, isn’t an effective means of preventing an accidental discharge by your family members. It simply isn’t.

What about the other reason for carrying in Condition 3? That a criminal might gain access to your gun, either from your hip or from your safe, and then try to shoot you with it, only to be foiled by the empty chamber, giving you time to counterattack. The people who propose this seem to have in mind a very specific kind of criminal: bumbling. The guy who doesn’t know anything at all about the tools of his own trade, and who will be so taken aback at the *click* that he’ll just stare, agape, at the pistol in his hand while you are free to perform some sort of fancy kung-fu disarm and then beat him down while his girlfriend watches and admires your big muscles. I really, really hope that’s the sort of baddie I encounter if I ever have to defend my life. I’m just not going to bank on it. I’m going to work to be ready to deal with a dedicated, skilled, and trained attacker. If I have to face that one, then I’ll be as prepared as I can be, and if I face a bumbling one, then it should be a cakewalk. Again, if you’re worried about someone getting to your guns and using them for purposes you don’t approve of, you should be keeping them in a safe or on your body. If the criminal has time to break into your safe, he has time to rack the slide, and probably enjoy a beer from your fridge. Your empty chamber isn’t stopping him. If you’re worried about someone grabbing the gun off your hip, you should be concealing your weapon better, using some kind of retention holster, or both. The criminal can’t grab your gun out of your holster if he doesn’t know it’s there, which is the method I prefer. If you’re still worried, get yourself a Safariland with level IV retention. It’s bulky as hell, but it would take two men and a boy to get the gun out of there for anyone but the person carrying it and skilled in its use.

Largely why I don’t like the empty-chamber (or worse yet, empty gun) methods is that they all rely on two hands, or on you being skilled enough and in a position to be able to operate the slide one-handed. I can rack a slide on my belt or on my holster, and I’ve seen people do it semi-effectively under stress, while wrestling with an attacker in a training scenario. It’s possible, but it’s rarely pretty and it’s not the sort of thing you want to include in your initial response to a real-world attack. You should know how, in case you need to rack the slide to get your gun operational again, but that doesn’t mean you want to plan on doing it before you can even get your gun functional. You’re really putting yourself at a disadvantage, and you may not realize how much of one unless you’ve been through some training that attempts to emulate an actual criminal attack.

I’ve taken Shivworks ECQC, and I’ve gotten as close to a real-world, fight for your life type scenario as I ever care to. It’s scary, it’s fast, and it’s nothing at all like you’re imagining it to be unless you’ve been in a real fight or have taken a similar class. There’s something about really trying these things against a dedicated opponent that brushes away a lot of nonsense. Prepare for whatever event you think is going to be most likely, but try your best to be informed about what a real criminal attack looks like. Take a Shivworks course, if at all possible, or something similar from another reputable training organization. Something real-time, full speed, and fighting against a skilled, dedicated opponent. If you complete that course and still think you’re going to have the time and freedom of movement to draw your gun and rack the slide before you fire, then more power to you.

Okay, there’s my piece. You can do what you want, but hopefully some of this made sense or helped you come to a decision. Thanks for reading, and please let me know if you have any questions or comments.

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