Alien Gear Guide To Handgun Features
As you are likely aware, there are a number of handgun features that all pistols have. Certain features, like control mechanisms, are found on basically all handguns today. Others are found on only a few.
We’ll go over the various handgun features you should know about.
Thing about handguns is that they are – like any firearm – merely a tool. The features of a tool determine how it works and therefore how it should be used. By knowing more about the various tools of self-defense, you can acquire knowledge that will help you gain competence. A competent gun owner is much more likely to be better at gun safety, which is absolutely vital if you mean to own and certainly to carry a firearm.
Handgun Safety Features
The various handgun safety features vary by pistol design. Some safety features are purpose-built, others act as a safety feature. Safety devices are either passive – meaning they are engaged by default – and active, meaning you have to activate and/or deactivate them yourself.
The most common safety feature found on revolvers is a transfer bar. A transfer bar is a sliding bar located between the hammer and the firing pin that strikes the round in the chamber sitting behind the forcing cone (the entrance to the barrel) and the barrel itself. If the gun is dropped, the bar intercepts the hammer and prevents a drop-fire.
The transfer bar ascends into place when the trigger is at rest. As the trigger is pulled, the trigger rotates forward, which lowers the bar out of the way and allows the round to be discharged.
Most semi-automatic pistols have a firing pin block. Firing pin blocks are usually a cylindrical-shaped block, about the size of a pencil eraser. When the trigger is at rest, the block prevents the firing pin from moving. As the trigger is pulled to the rear, the block drops out of the way and the firing pin or striker hits the primer of the chambered round, causing it to discharge.
As the sear, hammer and trigger reset, the firing pin block moves back into place.
Today, a firing pin block is installed on the vast majority of new semi-auto pistols. A few do not though these are almost all imported 1911-pattern pistols based on older designs. However, firing pin blocks weren’t common until the 1980s. To see if an older pistol has a firing pin block, field strip the pistol and inspect the slide. You’ll see something that looks kind of like a button somewhere between the rear of the slide and the ejection port. That’s a firing pin block. If there isn’t one, your gun doesn’t have one.
A grip safety is a lever located on the back of a pistol’s grip in most cases. When at rest, the sear is blocked, preventing hammer or firing pin from being released and discharging a round. When the lever is depressed, the sear is unblocked and gun can be fired.
Typically, these are only found on 1911 and Springfield XD pistols. However, the H&K P7 pistol featured a grip safety/squeeze cocker on the front of the grip, and a grip safety lever was also installed on the S&W Safety Hammerless revolver, known as the “Lemon Squeezer”. Copies of the Lemon Squeezer – notably the Iver Johnson Safety Hammerless and some Harrington and Richardson pistols – often had the same feature.
A manual safety is a device that locks the action. The exact nature differs by gun design; some lock the trigger and others – such as the 1911 thumb safety – totally lock the pistol including the trigger, sear and slide.
Some mechanical safeties, such as those found on certain models of double-action semi-automatic pistols, also function as a decocker. The safety mechanism lowers the hammer while the firing pin block remains in place. This feature is common on DA/SA pistols made by Heckler and Koch, Bersa, Beretta and others.
Integrated trigger safety systems, such as those found on Glock pistols and those of similar designs, use several concurrent passive safety systems acting simultaneously. Most feature a bifurcated trigger or a trigger lever, along with a disengaged sear lever and firing pin block. At rest, the pistol cannot be discharged, as the trigger mechanism is disconnected from the sear, which cannot release the firing pin. The firing pin, lastly, is also blocked.
These pistols work by the trigger lever being pressed, engaging the trigger group. The pull of the trigger aligns a trigger bar with the sear. As the trigger is pressed to the rear, the trigger bar releases the sear and moves the firing pin block out of the way, allowing the striker to hit the primer of the chambered round. Without the trigger being pulled, the gun is effectively seized.
Double-action triggers also function as a passive safety device. The long, heavy trigger pull ensures against negligent discharges via errant trigger pulls – as has been observed with certain pistols – by virtue of needing 8 to 10 pounds of pressure to pull the trigger.
Another common safety feature is a magazine safety. The trigger group is locked when a magazine is not inserted into the pistol. The intended effect is if the operator gets into a physical struggle with an attacker, they can drop the magazine free if they believe they are about to be disarmed and the gun will not operate. This is more common on guns made for the European market, where this is a required safety feature in some jurisdictions.
Semi-auto pistols, since clip-fed pistols such as the Mauser C96 went the way of the dodo a long time ago, all feature a magazine release of some sort. These pistol features disengage the magazine detent on the inside of the magazine well. The detents hold at notches in the magazine and lock it in place once fully inserted.
The magazine release is usually located just behind the trigger guard on the frame. Typically, one magazine release button will be present on the strong side (typically the right side) of the pistol, though some feature ambidextrous releases or magazine release buttons that are easily swapped from one side to the other.
The classic shape is a button, though square buttons are also common.
Some pistols have the magazine release on the trigger guard itself. Typically, these will have a paddle shape and are more likely to be ambidextrous. While available on many pistols, it is more common for pistols made for the European market.
Older pistol designs have the magazine release on the heel. It will be found either under the grip behind the magazine well, or on the grip itself just above the magazine well on the strong side. These are sliding buttons; instead of a press, you move the release lever rearward and drop the magazine free.
This feature is more common on older guns such as the Walther P38, various Soviet-era service pistols imported as surplus guns, WWII-era Browning Hi Power pistols and so on. However, if you were to buy a few vintage handguns, this is a feature you should be aware of.
Cylinder Release Latch On Revolvers
For those that carry revolvers, the feature similar to the magazine release is the cylinder release latch. Generally, these come in three flavors: Smith and Wesson, Colt and Ruger.
Bear in mind that other brands use similar cylinder releases to S&W and Colt, though few (or none) copy Ruger as their design is much newer and therefore has patent protections that S&W and Colt do not enjoy.
Smith and Wesson revolvers have a press latch. A metal tab is located on the frame behind the cylinder, usually with a knurled exterior for easy purchase. It is pushed down and forward, which releases the cylinder. Other pistols with this type of cylinder latch design include Taurus, Rossi and EAA Windicator revolvers.
Colt-style releases are pulled to the rear, with a knob located behind the cylinder, releasing the cylinder from lock-up. Colt revolvers used to be diverse, with a number of models of various sizes, chamberings and price points but have been discontinued until recently with the resurrection of the Cobra snubnose revolver. Armscor, the makers of the Rock Island Armory line of 1911 pistols, make a few revolvers with a Colt-style cylinder latch.
Ruger, however, has a press-button cylinder release. Instead of pressing a latch, the user presses a button that releases the cylinder.
The Chiappa Rhino, which firearms enthusiasts find somewhat divisive, has a thumb latch on the rear of the frame near the hammer. Push down, like the S&W design, to open.
Granted, these are for modern double-action revolvers. Older designs of revolver had different release mechanisms.
Break-action revolvers, such as the S&W Model 3 (aka Schofield) and the Webley revolver, had a latch usually located on the bottom or top strap of the frame. The Model 3, depending on the model year, either had rear sights that functioned as the latch or a release on the bottom of the frame. The Webley, however, had a release latch at the rear of the frame.
Most single-action revolvers used a pinned cylinder. Colt SAA revolvers had a literal pin under the ejection rod and rod shroud, with a button on the front of the cylinder wall. Press the button and pull out the cylinder, though the cylinder would only be taken out for cleaning.
Remington 1858 revolvers had a sliding pin handle – not dissimilar from the charging handle on an AR-15, just facing the opposite direction. The handle was pulled forward, the cylinder latch pulled downward and the cylinder removed. The 1858, aka the “New Model Army,” was novel at the time, as it was one of the first revolvers capable of swapping an empty cylinder for a full one.
Handgun grips come generally in two flavors: fixed or unfixed.
In the case of the former, which includes almost all of the striker-fired, polymer frame pistols so much in vogue these days, the grips are stipled (textured) at the factory. If you don’t like it, tough. You can ameliorate it with a grip sleeve or grip tape, or by attempting to alter the stipling.
Non-fixed grips are mounted to the frame by a screw or a pin. These can be changed, and pistols with changeable grips enjoy much more aftermarket support for these handgun features.
Grip materials are typically wood (cocobolo and walnut are popular) or synthetic, with rubber, Bakelite plastic and other polymers being most popular.
Various designs and textures are available, such as smooth wood, diamond checkering, and many, many more being available from aftermarket suppliers.
Slide Stops And Slide Releases
On semi-automatics, one of the nearly universal handgun features are slide stops and slide releases.
The function is self-explanatory; a slide stop holds the slide in place, a slide release lets it go. In some pistols, the slide stop also functions as a release. Press up to stop the slide, press down to release. In other pistols, it does one but not the other; it all depends on the gun you have.
Typically, the stop/release lever is located above the trigger guard, close to the top of the frame. Some pistols have it located above the trigger (1911, others) and other pistols have it above the grips, such as Sig Sauer’s double-action pistol family.
With some pistols, a slide stop/release lever is located on only the strong side. Some have ambidextrous stop/release levers depending, again, on who makes the gun.
The go pedal is the part of a gun that concerns many people more than any other handgun feature. After all, the trigger pull has more to do with accuracy than any other component on the gun.
As a general rule, handgun triggers come in two flavors: adjustable and not adjustable. The former allows you to adjust the pull weight by backing a screw in or out. The latter, of course, does not. Most stock handgun triggers are the latter.
This is another popular item to upgrade. In times gone by, all you could do is trim a turn of a trigger spring to get a better pull. Over the years, aftermarket triggers and springs have become available for a great many handguns.
Often enough, a trigger spring kit is sufficient to turn a mediocre factory trigger into a good trigger, as that makes far more difference than adding an aftermarket trigger will usually do. That said, some people opt for both if they are very particular about their trigger pull.
For disassembly, most semi-auto pistols have a takedown lever of some kind. Some do not, however, though almost all that do not are either made by Walther or are derived from Walther designs.
More on that in a moment.
Pistols designed by John Browning or that were based on Browning designs (such as the 1911, Hi Power, the CZ-75, certain H&K pistols) are taken down by removing the slide stop/release lever, which actually have a pin that extends through the frame. To take these pistols down, you lock the slide in the takedown position and ease the pin and lever out. This frees the slide for release.
Oddly enough, one of the other common takedown lever designs is also derived from a Walther design. The Walther P38 featured a takedown lever that is rotated down and forward, pointing straight down once moved to the takedown position. This is also found on Beretta, S&W M&P, Sig Sauer and other pistols being made today.
Another common takedown feature comes from the Walther PP, PPK and PPK/S family of pistols. These guns don’t have a takedown lever. Instead, takedown is achieved by unlatching the trigger guard. You grab the front of the trigger guard, push up and pull back, then pull down and push a bit forward.
The reason is that these pistols have fixed barrels; the barrel is part of the frame. The slide is taken back, lifted up and off the frame rails and slid forward. However, this is only found on clones of the PP family. Guns such as Bersa Thunder .380 pistols, Russian, Bulgarian and East German Makarov pistols, CZ-83 and CZ-82 pistols, Polish PA-63 and Hungarian FEG 63 pistols all take down in this fashion.
The Walther CCP also has a unique takedown procedure; you have to disengage the frame stop hook at the rear of the frame. Walther provides a takedown tool with purchase, but some people use a flathead screwdriver. The frame is pushed off the hook, then slid off the frame much like the PPK. The CCP also features a fixed barrel.
The other common takedown feature is found on Glocks, certain Taurus pistols (such as the PT709 Slim and PT111 Millennium G2 series) Beretta Storm series guns, the CZ P-10 C and other pistols. These guns have takedown tabs. After decocking the pistol (you do this with a dry fire – MAKE SURE THEY ARE CLEAR FIRST) the tabs are slid down, and the slide comes off. This is a cause of many negligent discharges, so, again, make sure the pistol is clear first.
Revolvers do not disassemble as easily, with the exception of those revolvers based on the Colt SAA design. Remove the cylinder pin and take out the cylinder.
Handgun sights are quite varied, mostly depending on the make and model. Among handgun features, these are the most commonly upgraded.
Sights are either fixed or adjustable. Sights can be adjusted for “windage” or “drift” (right/left) or elevation. Common arrangements are a fixed front sight and windage-adjustable rear sight, a windage-adjustable front and elevation and windage adjustable rear sight.
And some guns just have iron sights that are stuck that way.
Most common on semi-autos are “three dot sights” or “3 dot sights” or “white dot sights.” These are literally three white dots, two painted on the rear sight and one on the front.
Fiber optic sights use a small length of fiber optic cable, usually red, green, orange or yellow. These cables refract and relect light, picking up light and making the sights more visible in daylight but also in low-light conditions.
Night sights are radioluminescent, or “glow in the dark.” A phosphorescent paint is applied to small glass capsule containing tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Beta radiation (not enough to be harmful) is emitted from the tritium and reacts with the phosphorescent paint, creating a bit of light which you’ll see in the dark.
Iron sights are just that – bare metal. Sometimes ridges are cut into them (such as old revolvers) and sometimes not. In past decades, front sight posts would have a gold inlay as gold is an excellent reflector of light, even in low-light conditions.
However, some guns have even less in terms of sights.
Many snubnose and medium-frame revolvers (such as many S&W J-frame and K-frame Model 10 revolvers) have a front sight post and a notch cut in the top strap of the frame. Colt gave the New Agent pistol (an Officer-frame 1911) “trench” sights, literally a groove machined in the top of the slide.
“Target sights” are often an premium feature on factory guns, which are usually adjustable and higher-profile than other sight designs. Combat sights are usually lower-profile, though often adjustable as well; these are designed to keep from snagging and acquire a fast sight picture.
Which sights your gun wears…depends on who you buy it from (make and model) and then what you decide to do. Some pistols can’t have new sights installed without a trip to a machine shop and others have factory cuts that allow relatively easy installation of aftermarket sights.
Another common feature, related to sights, is adding a laser. Usually they clamp onto an accessory rail on the dustcover of the pistol, but laser grips are also popular.